Back in 2020, my then-cohost and I did a series about the history of Ouija boards on Buried Secrets Podcast, starting with the automatic writing planchette. This week, I wanted to write about planchettes, so I decided to start with an essay-formatted, cleaned up version of the original episode script.
Before spirit boards, there was the planchette. Invented in Paris in the 1850s, the planchette was a tool for automatic writing. Much like the planchette we recognize from today’s Ouija boards, it was a heart-shaped plank of wood. But it was much larger than today’s planchettes, rested on wheels or casters, and had a slot to put a pencil through. One or several people would rest their hands on the planchette, and see what messages come through.
Planchette is the name of a curious machine, whose ability, without any voluntary action on one’s part, to write down on paper an answer, not necessarily the proper answer, to any question, has during the past week excited the amusement and astonishment of those who have witnessed its performance.
—an article in the Burlington Times (Burlington, Vermont), Apr 4, 1868
In 1848, the Fox Sisters, three sisters in Upstate New York, kicked off the spiritualism movement. The two younger sisters claimed that they could communicate with the dead and interpret knocks as messages from the spirit world—and they became wildly popular.
In a nutshell, spiritualism is the idea that the living can communicate with the dead, an idea that was especially attractive in the years after the American Civil War. People wanted to talk to their deceased loved ones and to feel like life had meaning.
Automatic writing, also known as psychography, has been around a long time. It's when someone writes something without consciously writing.
There was a Daoist method of spirit writing called Fuji (pronounced fu-chi), which was used during the Ming Dynasty in China (1368-1644 CE). It involved suspending a sieve or tray to guide a stick writing in sand or incense ashes. But even before that, spirit writing was popular in China, as long ago as the 400s CE.
I don’t think automatic writing became a thing in Europe until the 1600s, when it was used by practitioners of Enochian magic.
Sceptics have written automatic writing off as being an example of the ideomotor phenomenon, which is basically involuntary muscle movements, kind of like a reflex, which can move whatever object you’re touching.
Before Ouija, there was Planchette
The planchette was a type of automatic writing device.
It was shaped like a rounded triangle or heart, with two wheels on the broad side and a hole on the pointy side. You put a pencil through the hole. Then you put the device on a piece of paper, everyone put their hands on it like they would the planchette of a Ouija board today, and then they asked a question and saw what the planchette wrote.
The planchette used here was much larger than the planchette of a modern Ouija board: it was about 7-1/2 inches long and 5-1/2 inches wide on the broad side and 2 inches wide on the pointy side.
According to a 1906 pamphlet I read called Crystal Gazing, Astrology, Palmistry, Planchette & Spiritualism, it could be used by 1-3 people. The pamphlet recommended that you start off asking yes or no questions, and then after you’ve gained some experience, you can ask questions that would have longer answers.
The pamphlet described using the planchette like this:
Very soon it will be found that by some mysterious power, which the operators are quite sure they do not themselves exert, the Planchette will begin to move about, up and down the paper for some little time, and then, generally, an answer will be found written to the question asked. The most mysterious part is, while the operators are lightly touching the Planchette with the ends of their fingers, and are quite unconscious of in any way influencing its movement, it will move about with more or less rapidity, and will write words and sentences with more or less distinctness.
The invention of planchette
It’s a little unclear to me who originally invented the planchette–several people claim credit, and it sounds like it was invented in France during a séance on June 10, 1853. Someone tied a pencil to an upside down basket, which seemed to work really well, and which was less exhausting than calling out all the letters of the alphabet and waiting for rappings in response. (Planchette is French for little plank.)
Planchettes became so popular in Europe that in 1853, that same year, the Bishop of Viviers wrote a pastoral letter against them.
Also, apparently mediums started saying that people shouldn’t use planchettes and similar devices. They had an obvious ulterior motive: it threatened their monopoly on spirit communication and seances.
In 1858 or 1859, two spiritualists, Robert Dale Owen and Dr. H.F. Gardner, saw planchettes while overseas and brought some home to the United States with them. Robert Dale Owen supposedly communicated with his father using the device. His father gave him advice on a book he was writing. One of Robert Dale Owen and Dr. H.F. Gardner’s acquaintances, a bookseller in Boston named G.W. Cottrell, started manufacturing them by around 1859.
By 1868, planchettes had became extremely popular; Cottrell said he was shipping thousands of planchettes to all parts of the country.
At the time, Cottrell was selling planchettes for between $1-$3, depending on what sort of wood it was made of. (You could get a plain black walnut one for $1, or a “beautifully painted” hollywood one for $3. As far as we know, none of the hollywood ones have survived to the present day, though there are surviving examples of his cheaper models.)
However, in several sources, the New York bookseller and toy manufacturer Kirby and Company are called the first American planchette manufacturer. It sounds like they started selling them around 1868.
The company catered to the wealthy—particularly wealthy women—and sold things like expensive soaps, custom embroidered pocketbooks (which they called port-monnaies to be fancy), and other trinkets and games for the wealthy. Their wealthy, influential clientele could be why planchette became so trendy.
By December 1868, Kirby claimed that he’d already sold 200,000 planchettes. They sold numbered models:
- Number 0 was made of mahogany. (It was the cheapest model.)
- Number 1 was made of ash wood.
- Number 2 was made of highly polished wood.
- Their “Number 3 India Rubber Planchette” is basically made of plastic, which was pretty ahead of its time, and it looks super cool and goth. It’s shaped like a heart and is jet black.
- Number 4 was made of plate glass; the idea was that the glass would allow the user to see what they were writing.
Their prices ranged from $1-$15. $1 in 1868 is about $15 today, and $8 is about $144.
Contemporary theories about the planchette
An 1886 book called The Salem Witchcraft The Planchette Mystery and Modern Spiritualism, which sets forth some theories about what could be causing the planchette phenomena:
First theory: The people who’re touching the planchette are moving it and writing the words
He tries to refute this, saying:
How is it, for example, that Planchette, under the hands of my own daughter, has, in numerous cases, given correctly the names of persons whom she had never seen or heard of before, giving also the names of their absent relatives, the places of their residence, etc., all of which were absolutely unknown by every person present except the questioner?
Second theory: It’s electricity or magnetism
Apparently this was a pretty popular theory. People argued that since magnets were used to fake some phenomena in seances, then they could be used to fake planchette stuff too. Which of course is true, but most operators using the planchette as a parlor game wouldn't have set up a complex system of magnets under their tables just to impress their friends.
Third theory: It’s the devil.
This one's both predictable and self explanatory. A lot of religious figures condemned planchettes as being the devil’s work.
Fourth theory: a floating, ambient mentality.
This is basically the idea that the planchette is moved by the consciousness of the people in the room:
It is supposed by those who hold this theory . . . that the assumed floating, ambient mentality is an aggregate emanation from the minds of those present in the circle; that this mentality is clothed, by some mysterious process, with a force analogous to what it possesses in the living organism, by which force it is enabled, under certain conditions, to move physical bodies and write or otherwise express its thoughts; and that in its expression of the combined intelligence of the circle, it generally follows the strongest mind, or the mind, that is otherwise best qualified or conditioned to give current to the thought.
Fifth theory: “to datmonion” (the demon).
This is the idea that the spiritus mundi moves the planchette. (Surely, why not?)
The next two need no explanation:
Sixth theory: “some principle of nature as yet unknown.”
Seventh theory: spirits of the dead. (I love that this is so late in the list.)
Eighth theory: “Planchette’s Own Theory”
A lot of media from the time personified the planchette, and this book is no exception. It reminds me a lot of how people have recently taken to projecting humanity onto large language models (LLMs, also called "AI").
From the 1886 book:
Planchette is intelligent ; she can answer questions, and often answer them correctly, too. On what class of subjects, then, might she be expected to give answers more generally correct than those which relate to herself, especially if the questions be asked in a proper spirit, and under such conditions as are claimed to be requisite for correct responses?
So then he asks Planchette if he can ask how "she" works. Again, this is so similar to the many journalists who have "interviewed" LLMs for their articles:
That will depend much upon the spirit in which you may interrogate me, the pertinence of your questions, and your capacity to interpret the answers. If you propose a serious and careful consultation for really useful purposes, there is another thing which you should understand in the commencement. It is that, owing to conditions and laws which may yet be explained to you, I shall be compelled to use your own mind as a scaffolding, so to speak, on which to stand to pass you down the truths you may seek, and which are above the reach of your own mind alone. Keep your mind unperturbed, then, as well as intent upon your object, or I can do but little for you.
There’s then an extremely long (maybe 10-15 page?) interview where they talk about philosophy and the Bible. It was mostly uninteresting BS. (Again, reminiscent of the replies of LLMs like ChatGPT, though I'm sure that the planchette answers were made up by humans trying to sound smart. I just struggle to believe that automatic writing can churn out pages of clear prose.)
Moral panic about the planchette
There was definitely a moral panic about planchettes, particularly regarding how women used them and how they supposedly worked better for women than men.
An 1868 article in New Orleans Republican tells the story of someone dying from planchette:
In the street in which I live a young lady who was unduly attached to this “uncannie” game came to her death in consequence. She had shut herself up with it, and regardless of the directions on the downwards side of the board that two persons are to operate simultaneously in placing their finger-tips upon the upper surface, had endeavored for hours at a time to get a response to certain questions she asked respecting a far-absent lover. Midnight came, and she still remained seated in company with Planchette, impatient and despairing, and ready to dash the mocking toy to pieces. At length she felt a slight thrill along her arms, and a movement on the paper beneath the pencil at this crisis her mother entered but she heeded her not. Bending low, she asked, “Where is Richard?” “In heaven” was the instant response, written out in characters as copper-plate-like as a writing master’s and the girl fell lifeless from the chair. Medical remedies, including shocks of electricity, were applied, but in vain.
I found an article in an volume 38 of Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, from 1896, called “The Confessions of a Reformed Planchettist.” It begins in an incredibly melodramatic, 19th century way:
I am not wicked; at the worst, I am but weak.
The article has the vibe of a 19th century account of becoming an opium addict:
How did I become a Planchettist? How does a man become committed to any evil career? Insensibly and by degrees, of course. No man clothes himself at once with the full measure of guilt, as he would put on a ready-made garment. There are gentle gradations in all iniquity.
He then goes on to compare himself with Nero starting to learn the fiddle, and continues ominously.
Certainly when I first laid confiding and caressing hands on the smooth and shining back of Planchette, I had no idea of the dark path of deception on which that three-legged monster would drag me, of the depths of turpitude into which I thereby pledged myself to plunge.
You know, the more things change, the more they stay the same. People will always find paranormal gimmicks to freak out about for fun and profit. (Was Harper’s New Monthly Magazine the TikTok of the 1890s?)
All that being said, I find automatic writing and planchettes both fascinating and delightful, and I kinda wish planchettes were still a thing. Spirit boards are great, but planchettes seem weirder. There's more room for weirdness. Rather than being confined to the alphabet, numbers, and a few words, automatic writing can yield all sorts of strangeness, including drawings, sigils, maps, and other visual information.
Stay tuned for more blog posts about planchettes later this week. And if you want to listen to the episode that this essay is based on, check it out wherever you listen to podcasts; it dropped on May 29, 2020. Check out the original shownotes for the sources I used in this post. A lot of the info comes from MysteriousPlanchette.com.
 I don’t see the ideomotor phenomenon as something that proves that all automatic writing—or spirit board communication—is fake. Who’s to say that whatever entity you’re communicating with isn’t causing those involuntary movements?
 Planchette personifiers tended to capitalize Planchette.