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Monday, February 29, 2016

An Explosion of Discoveries: Psychographs Here, There, and Everywhere!

I know the blog's been an on-again, off-again affair this year. Since I became a regular columnist for the Society for Psychical Research's publication, Paranormal Review, I have to spent a lot of time I previously spent writing here, there. And since the SPR prefers first-run materials, a lot of my backlog posts here (I have several dozen) that I had not yet published have been reserved for future use there. And that's OK, as long as word gets out of new discoveries and research in one format or another!

That, and I can't seem to just write a short, casual blog post. This is no exception.

For example, we haven't even chatted about last year's OuijaCon, which was hosted by the Talking Board Historical Society (where I now serve as official Historian!) in Baltimore. It was a pretty amazing, first-of-its-kind event, with the world's top collectors and talking board enthusiasts of every conceivable stripe in attendance. I finally had the pleasure of meeting not one, but TWO descendants of T.H. White, and my lecture on his life and work seemed well-received, along with the usual lectures and discussions on séance apparatus history.

Another curious event at OuijaCon was the research project of Danish experimental psychology researcher Marc Andersen. Marc's research focuses on religious and spiritual studies and associated phenomena and spirit communication devices, and he brought his team to OuijaCon to conduct experiments utilizing eye-tracking goggles in an effort to document behavioral patterns and responses when using talking boards. It was a fascinating experiment, and I know we all look forward to seeing the results!
The test board for Marc Andersen's team, with goggles to track eye movements of participants. Enjoyed toying around on the Ouija with my friend Gene Orlando of the Museum of Talking Boards!
Since OuijaCon, Marc and I have kept up a friendly correspondence, bonding over our interest in historical seance apparatus. And in an illustration of perhaps why we go through all of this trouble to begin with, my slide of Wagner's Psychograph in my own presentation struck a chord of recognition with Marc, who had also investigated the writings of Danish researcher Alfred Lehman, who described experiments in spirit communication, including the use of psychographs. And those discussions with Marc turned up some!

I went one direction, and some deep research uncovered a brand new illustration of...well...a very early talking board. Depictions of talking boards before the advent of the Ouija are rare enough. We have some sporadic developments in the talking board, some of which I've written about before. Hell, we're incredibly lucky to have the contemporary illustration of Wagner's Psychograph. But the modern conception of a talking board: an alphabet board with an independent index--is tough to find before the advent of the Ouija. And at first that's exactly what I thought this illustration depicted: there's a rounded-top tray with the classic arch of characters on it, and the medium's hand is resting on what appears to be a small, flat planchette. 
The mysterious illustration, from the 1 December 1877 Illustre Zeitung in Leipzig.
But the small round pieces that terminate each corner of the planchette caused me to wonder if the illustrator got it right or not. Were those round points the illustrator's attempt at depicting the connecting knobs of a psychograph? I was lucky enough to acquire the original article along with the ilustration, so, I turned to my old friend and fellow freelance writer Tom Ganz for a bit of translation from the original German. It turns out my suspicions were on to something:
German Spiritualists normally use the "Psychograph" to communicate with the Ghostworld. A Psychograph is a finely polished wood board, which shows on top two rows of letters, depicting the alphabet together with the two words 'yes' and 'no'; an instrument resembling a scissor is fixed to the lower part of the wooden board, on which children can let wooden soldiers exercise. Our picture is leading our reader into a gathering of spiritualists. The session is opened with a prayer. From here on, one of the attendant ladies takes over the role of the medium. As soon as she lays here fingers on the scissors that instrument starts moving, making the pin wander from letter to letter. The medium spells out word after word to the assembled audience. First, the guardian spirit shows itself to the circle, than other ghosts show up, sometimes pretty frivolous ones. Nobody is allowed to interrupt what’s happening with speaking out loud, and also nobody thinks he is getting deceived, although a brilliant self-deceit can't be ruled out.
I'd seen the German term for scissor, "schere," before. It, along with "storchschnabel" (literally "cranesbill," referring to a pantograph writing device--see below) is commonly used in reference to the distinctive scissoring action of the psychograph's framework. Rather than using now-familiar planchettes to indicate letters, users (singly, as show in the above illustration, or, more commonly, in small groups) would place their hands on the terminal ends of the criss-crossed framework, which would then mysteriously move and pivot in the distinctive "scissoring" action familiar to user of the era as being inspired by the movement of writing pantographs, used then to replicate or enlarge drawings, as seen in this period engraving:
The distinctive "scissoring" mechanic of psychographs was inspired
by pantographs--early drawing replication devices.
So, while the article's descriptions distinctly rule out the illustration depicting a flat planchette board, and therefore a true talking board 9 years previous to its advent in 1886 in America, it's even better, for me, in that it is a brand new illustration of a psychograph! I was lucky enough to acquire two of these original illustrations, and recently had the pleasure of surprising my friend and collaborator Robert Murch with his own copy for his birthday!

Meanwhile, Marc found some more evidence in his native tongue, and it opened the floodgates of discovery into some previously-unseen devices. To see what I mean, let's look at this little slice of utter amazement. I think my peers will vouch for me to say that a data dump of new devices on this scale is fairly unprecedented. It's more than a slice--its a whole damned breadbasket!

Photo produced in collaboration with Nordiska Museet and
The collection of the Nordiska Museet in Stockholm, Sweden contains two psychographs. The first was donated to the museum on my birthday, May 12, 1939, by Lotten Falkenberg. This one is interesting because it relies on a stand that goes on top of an alphabet board, rather than attaching to the table as Wagner's original design. The museum's original collection pictures displayed an unfortunate tangle of half-assembled and incomplete devices, so I contacted them and offered a partnership to instruct them in the proper assembly of the devices, share my knowledge of these apparatus, and sponsor a new photoshoot to capture these items in all of their glory. It took us a while to get it all organized, but now we can finally see that unique "Storchschnabel" or "cranesbill" design of a true criss-crossed psychograph in the historical flesh!
Photo produced in collaboration with Nordiska Museet and
Photo produced in collaboration with Nordiska Museet and
There is another very similar psychograph in the Nordiska Museet. This one was in a few pieces, and when originally photographed the right arm was spun around the wrong way and the base disconnected, but all but one of the main components are there, minus the missing alphabet board. Like the other specimen, it has the turned-wood leg supports, but includes a screw to attach it to the table, just as Wagner's device is known to have had. It's just beautiful, with the turned knobs and the lathed legs that display lots of care and workmanship. Look at those tiny little ivory or bone wheels inset in each leg! 
Photo produced in collaboration with Nordiska Museet and
Photo produced in collaboration with Nordiska Museet and
Are either of these devices an original Wagner?

Not likely. The primary point of contradiction is that in contemporary descriptions of Wagner's device, which are quite detailed. We know that Wagner's alphabet was printed in 5 rows, and the digits in two rows. And there is no mention of Wagner's original device having the legs that support the arms of the device. In fact, the presence of such support is directly contradicted in those descriptions: a prominent complaint was that Wagner's device was prone to sagging, and the inventor often relied on an optional upright arm strung with catgut to shore up the arms and counteract the pressure of sitter's hands, which was described contemporaneously but not illustrated until the 1920s. Adolf Diesterwegstraße's 1899 treatise, Presentation of his life and his teaching and selection of science writings, Volume 2, specifically states that "two points [BH: The table clamp, and the index] support the whole thing on the table." Are the support legs a later refinement? Perhaps, but even by 1854, as we're hearing the last of Wagner in London (or anywhere for that matter), the Morgenblatt fur gebildete Leser depicted the device, as you can see below, and there are no supporting legs beneath the arms, and the index is located on the inside, not the outside, of the device. There's also the fact that there are significant structural differences, primarily in the locations of the joints and the arm length and design that leads to the table clamp.

But this illustration leaves out another key element calling its accuracy into question: the pane of glass covering the alphabet sheet that facilitated the smooth movement of Wagner's device, which was described in contemporary accounts, as well as the London patent (a "glass slab or other non-conductor").

There's another key difference: the paddles that terminate the arms where the users placed their hands. The Morgenblatt illustration shows paddles cut-out from the same piece of wood as the arms, which conforms to the contemporary descriptions that the arms ended with "wooden disks 4 to 5 inches in diameter on their ends, used to receive the hands in order to charge the instrument with vital energy." These devices, however, have small lathed knobs of ebony, in a departure from the descriptions of the 1850s. While it could be a refinement by Wagner, there are just a few too many points of departure.

The discovery of these specimens is cause enough for excitement, but they are only the start! In the collection of the Kulturmagasinet Museisamling in Helsingborgs, Sweden, there is a possibly complete specimen whose armature closely matches the second Nordiska Museet example, but with a near-identical board to the first example. Here, we can see the paper-covered alphabet board component of the device, only a little worse for wear. Note the similarities of the indented/dimpled knobs and the protruding tab from the swivel base. All three specimens, in fact, seem closely related in manufacture, though no specimens carry any signifying manufacturer's mark. While their are significant differences in the style of the legs, all 3 artifacts have rounded knobs on the underside of the innermost joints, rather than full legs. There are the indented knobs, and overall the thickness of the arms and overall construction is very similar when we compared them forensically.

Photo produced in collaboration with Kulturmagasinet Museisamling and
Photo produced in collaboration with Kulturmagasinet Museisamling and
Here, the presence of the board gives us other clues that point to this not being an original Wagner: the alphabet is Swedish, with the additional vowels of Å, Ä, and Ö. Of course, that makes sense given the current whereabouts of these artifacts, but Wagner originally pitched his device in Berlin, and latter advertised his psychographs to an English market in London. That the alphabet boards are in the Swedish alphabet, not German or English (Wagner's two known markets), and that ultimately makes their most probable origin the country where they now reside. Also, given that their donators of the Nordiska Museet specimens were prominent and enthusiastic Spiritualists who are known to have used the devices before their donation (as well as a fantastic writing planchette they also donated!), it puts their more likely production in the 1910s-1930s range, rather than the 1850s.

Overall, these are amazing discoveries in the world of talking boards, and I'm so excited to share them with you. For those able to attend my Lily Dale lecture late last year, I actually debuted to that audience the psychograph I produced as a mockup in preparation for the museum photoshoots, which I modeled to properly convey photo angles to my distant photographers. The night before the lecture, myself, my friend Chloe Heydt (of Haunted Hauswife fame), and my partners-in-crime Mandi Shepp, librarian of the incredible Marion Skidmore Library and her awesome husband Chris, gave my model psychograph a spin, and I capture it on film--perhaps the first use of a psychograph device of this style since the museums' specimens above were donated and locked away! Enjoy the psychograph in action!


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