A Talking Board

1869 Two Girls and a Spirit-Girl Operating a Planchette, Stereoview by H. P. Moore, New Hampshire

When the version of the talking board described below suddenly became popular, two other variations were being heavily marketed in the spiritualist press—one was the traditional planchette and the other was an instrument known as the “Dial Psychograph.”  This was mounted on a board that was balanced on the knees of two people facing each other.  On the board was engraved the letters of the alphabet in a circle.  Attached to the board, so that it would rotate on an axis, was a circular dial to which was affixed a pointer.  The two operators placed their fingers gently on the opposite sides of the dial and waited for it to turn and stop briefly, pointing to various letters in turn, spelling out messages.  I have also included a notice describing a much-earlier device, from 1854, the “Dial Alphabet.”—JB


A Mysterious Talking Board and Table.

     “Planchette is simply nowhere,” said a Western man at the Fifth Avenue Hotel, “compared with the new scheme for mysterious communication that is being used out in Ohio.  I know of whole communities that are wild over the ‘talking board,’ as some of them call it.  I have never heard any name for it.  But I have seen and heard some of the most remarkable things about its operations—things that seem to pass all human comprehension or explanation.”

     “What is the board like?”

     “Give me a pencil and I will show you.  The first requisite is the operating board.  It may be rectangular, about 18 x 20 inches.  It is inscribed like this:

“The ‘yes’ and the ‘no’ are to start and stop the conversation.  The ‘good-evening’ and ‘good-night’ are for courtesy.  Now a little table three or four inches high is prepared with four legs.  Any one can make the whole apparatus in fifteen minutes with a jack-knife and a marking brush.  You take the board in your lap, another person sitting down with you.  You each grasp the little table with the thumb and forefinger at each corner next to you.  Then the question is asked, ‘Are there any communications?’  Pretty soon you think the other person is pushing the table.  He thinks you are doing the same.  But the table moves around to ‘yes’ or ‘no.’  Then you go on asking questions and the answers are spelled out by the legs of the table resting on the letters one after the other.  Sometimes the table will cover two letters with its feet, and then you hang on and ask that the table will be moved from the wrong letter, which is done.  Some remarkable conversations have been carried on until men have become in a measure superstitious about it.  I know of a gentleman whose family became so interested in playing with the witching thing that he burned it up.  The same night he started out of town on a business trip.  The members of his family looked for the board and could not find it.  They got a servant to make them a new one.  Then two of them sat down and asked what had become of the other table.  The answer was spelled out, giving a name, ‘Jack burned it.’  There are, of course, any number of nonsensical and irrelevant answers spelled out, but the workers pay little heed to them.  If the answers are relevant they talk them over with a superstitious awe.  One gentleman of my acquaintance told me that he got a communication about a title to some property from his dead brother, which was of great value to him.  It is curious, according to those who have worked most with the new mystery, that while two persons are holding the table a third person, sitting in the same room some distance away, may ask the questions without even speaking them aloud, and the answers will show they are intended for him.  Again, answers will be returned to the inquiries of one of the persons operating when the other can get no answers at all.  In Youngstown, Canton, Warren, Tiffin, Mansfield, Akron, Elyria, and a number of other places in Ohio I heard that there was a perfect craze over the new planchette.  Its use and operation have taken the place of card parties.  Attempts are made to verify statements that are made about living persons, and in some instances they have succeeded so well as to make the inquirers still more awe-stricken.”—New York Tribune.

Carrier Dove (Oakland) July, 1886: 171. Reprinted from the New-York Daily Tribune, March 28, 1886: page 9, column 6. “The New ‘Planchette.’ A Mysterious Talking Board and Table Over Which Northern Ohio Is Agitated.”

Mysterious Piece of Mechanism

It appears from the New York Tribune that J. A. Long, of Akron, Ohio, has been experimenting with a peculiar instrument similar in character to Planchette, and with which the little manufacturing city in which he lives is bewildered.  Its introduction there is something he does not know about, but he has a large family of children, and as the mysterious pieces of mechanism made them all so nervous that they could hardly sleep at night he does know where one particular machine went to.  He smashed it up for kindling wood.  “The affair,” said Mr. Long, “consists of a rectangular board, which may be of any size, but was usually about two feet by eighteen inches, on which were placed all the letters of the alphabet.  A little table with three legs on small rollers goes on top of this board.  Two persons sit down with their finger tips on this table.  One of them asks a question to which an answer is desired.  Then they wait the action of the little table, to which their fingers are glued, as it were.  It is certainly curious how that table will fly around at times.  As the legs point out different letters on the board sentences are formed, which constitute the answer of the question propounded.  You would not believe it, unless you should operate it yourself, what wonderful and strikingly pertinent answers are made.  The whole town has been filled with the machines, but I smashed the one at my house.”

Religio-Philosophical Journal (Chicago), March 13, 1886

“The Talking Board,” Religio-Philosophical Journal, April 23, 1887

A year ago, possibly longer, I. T. Damon, of Millington, Mich., kindly sent me explicit instructions for making a so-called “talking board,” and I accordingly had one made, and have occasionally used it since, always with apparent gratification to all parties concerned.  For the benefit of many readers who never saw one, allow me to describe it: An unpainted board 18 x 24 inches, with the alphabet stencilled upon it in three horizontal lines, the words “Yes” and “No,” “I don’t know,” and the numerals, beneath it.  Next, small board, 6 x 8, with a pointer attached.  To use the apparatus, hold the large board on your laps, place the little one on it, rest your hands lightly thereon, and patiently await results.

Under the hands of some the small board will move quickly, readily answering questions and spelling names and messages.  A young lady living with us the past winter, totally ignorant of such things, was not a little surprised by having the name of her deceased father, together with a message spelled when no hands but her own touched the board.  At the time of her father’s death her mother was an inmate of an asylum for insane, and the message alluded to was the inquiry, “How is mother, is she rational now?”  We asked whether he could not see his family, and the reply was, “sometimes,” implying that they on their side of the river as well as we on ours, are hampered by “conditions.”

[Isaac Taylor Damon was born in July 1843 in Lake County, Ohio.  In September 1861, living in Madison, Wisconsin, he enlisted as a Private in the 11th Wisconsin Infantry, Company B.  He was wounded at Vicksburg and was mustered out in November 1864.  He married Mary Reed from Millington, Michigan, where he settled after the War.  He died in October 1926, and was buried in the Millington Cemetery, next to his wife, who had died in 1920, and their son “Little George.”]

The further career of this board is presented at The Museum of Talking Boards.  Charles Kennard first marketed the board, as the “Ouija,” in 1890.

“The Planchette.”  Religio-Philosophical Journal, July 2, 1887:7  [reprinted from the New York Express]

This French word means “little board.”  It is said to have been first used by a party of French monks, 40 years ago, in one of their monasteries.  The use of this strange three-legged tablet spread widely among the convents and among the higher circles until the Bishop of Paris issued an edict forbidding the use of this pretended vehicle of communication with the dead.  Dr. H[enry] F[rancis] Gardner in 1859 brought one home from Paris to Boston, “the city of notions,” where it soon became all the craze.  Thousands looked at it as a toy, but multitudes as a revelation.  Some called it a mere thing, a bit of thin ash or walnut, heart-shaped, mounted on wheels and armed with a pencil, while others denied that it was a plaything and declared it to be something possessed by magnetism, odic force or Satan himself.  One Planchette wrote, for example, that on Kelley’s Island [in Lake Erie] an Indian Chief was buried with $18,000 worth of jewels, and two men went to work.  The little wooden oracle allowed them to scratch out only a few inches a day.  A neighboring Planchette was consulted and pronounced—with more force than elegance—both men “— fools,” putting the d—d before instead of behind.  An Albany paper told of an inquisitive young lady who used one, in company with her lover.  “Shall we marry?”  “Yes.”  “When?”  “In two years.”  “Be happy?”  “Perfectly.”  “Children?”  “Boys and Girls.”  “How many?”  The girl was thunderstruck when her Planchette spelt out, letter by letter, under her fair fingers, S,E,V,E,N,T— and she dashed the audacious imp to the floor, splitting his backbone through and through.  Seventy or seventeen?  Which.

“Planchette,” Religio-Philosophical Journal, July 11, 1891

No other mechanical accessory of psychical phenomena has been so widely used or has produced such sensational results as the little instrument known as planchette.  Originally of French origin, as the name indicates, it has been utilized in all parts of the world and unnumbered instances of its effectiveness are on record.  It first attracted attention in France about 1857, as near as we can state without authentic data for reference.  Many suppose that the instrument had its origin in this country: while this is not correct, it is probably true that it was first made an article of merchandise in the United States.  On this point we have before us an interesting letter, dated May 29, 1891, addressed to Mrs. J. M. Staats, who had supposed the writer to have been the inventor.  He writes:

“I regret that I cannot throw any light upon the origin of planchette.  I was first induced to make it and offer it for sale through an article in the London Once a Week, describing it and its antics.  This was some thirty-two years ago.  I was the first one to manufacture and offer it for sale, and for this reason I was looked upon as its inventor; I see that such an idea prompted your letter.  I also tried to patent it, solely to make money out of it; but the Patent Office declined to give me a patent, alleging as a reason that it was immoral in its tendency; and I must confess that at times its answers were startling, even shocking, to orthodox minds.  I learned afterward that the patent office official who passed upon its merits was a staunch believer in the Westminster Confession, and I was powerless against such narrow-mindedness, and so my patent was denied.  Many went to making it; profits were reduced, and seeing no money in it I gave it up.  There are some manufacturers still making it, and it has a sale of at least 2,000 to 3,000 a year.”

The demand is much larger than Mrs. Staats’s correspondent estimates and is just now having one of its irregular periods of activity.  A series of extended and exhaustive experiments would undoubtedly be productive of data for valuable generalizations.  That many messages written with the aid of the planchette are from spirits seems conclusive; but that more of them must be accounted for in other ways is equally as conclusive.  Sometimes facts have been given unknown to any one present, at other times predictions made that have come to pass.  Under some hands, there has come at one time messages of the purest and most exalted nature, and at another abominable falsehoods and unutterable profanity.  On this point, and in reply to a complaint that spirit communications are not to be trusted, Mr. Thomas Shorter, of England, once wisely remarked: “Well, perhaps that is the very lesson they were chiefly designed to teach you.”  An intelligence claiming to be a spirit gave the following through a planchette:

“It is one of the important providential designs of these manifestations to teach mankind that spirits in general maintain the characters that they formed in themselves during their earthly life—that, indeed, they are the identical persons they were while dwelling in the flesh—hence, that while there are just, truthful, wise, and Christian spirits, there are also spirits addicted to lying, profanity, obscenity, mischief and violence, and spirits who deny God and religion, just as they did while in your world.  It has become very necessary for mankind to know all this; it certainly could in no other way be so effectually made known as by an actual manifestation of it; and it is just as necessary that you should see the dark side as the bright side of the picture.”

“A Machine for the Spirits,” Boston Investigator, January 18, 1854

I. T. Pease of Thompsonville (Conn.) has succeeded in inventing a machine which he denominates the Spiritual Telegraph Dial.  This apparatus is contrived with a dial face on which are marked the letters of the alphabet, the Arabic numerals, the words Yes and No, and some other convenient signs.  A moveable hand, or pointer, is fixed in the center, and when a ghost wants to communicate with its pupils and friends in the body, all that is requisite is for it to give a gentle twitch to the pointer, and the revelation is accomplished.  Some Yankee ought next to invent a visible ghost and take out a patent.

“The Dial Alphabet,” Spiritual Telegraph (New York), June 3, 1854:20

In answer to frequent inquires about the principle on which this instrument operates, its size, mode of its transportation, if used only by tipping mediums, etc., I would say, this is not a magnetic machine, as supposed by many, nor has it any power of action in itself any more than there was in the pen held by the hand of the prophets of old as they were moved to write by an invisible agency, or the pen in the hand of mediums at this day when moved to write in the same way, or in the piano, guitar, and other instruments of music, which are now frequently played upon by Spirits without any visible mortal agency.  The dimension of the instrument are only eight inches square, average thickness two inches, which makes only a small package, and can be sent by express to any part of the United States for a small sum.  The face of the instrument is similar to a clock dial; a pointer is attached to the center wheel pivot, on this dial is printed, with a beautiful copper-plate engraving, the twenty-six letters of the alphabet, all the notes and characters in music, the Arabic numerals, and a number of short communications, such as “yes,” “no,” “don’t know,” “I think so,” “a mistake,” “I’ll spell it over,” “a message,” “done,” “I’ll come again,” “I must leave,” “good-bye,” etc. which may thus be given without repeating the whole alphabet to get one letter.  When a more complicated message is to be given, the Spirits point directly to the letters in rapid succession, and in this way the process of communication is greatly facilitated.  In like manner, also, notes in music are indicated and pieces composed.  This instrument was designed for tipping mediums, but is now used by rapping mediums, who hold it in their hands; the pointer being passed over the letters they wish to use, the Spirits rap instead of holding it over the letter, as is the case when the instrument is used by tipping mediums.  Printed instructions always accompany the instrument, which are so full and explicit that no one need have any difficulty in using it.  For terms see advertisement in another column of this paper.

Isaac T. Pease
[Thompsonville, Ct.]

“How to Use the Psychograph,” Religo-Philosophical Journal, December 4, 1886:5

It seems that some have misunderstood the printed directions accompanying each psychograph.  They have placed their fingers upon the strawboard base instead of on the wooden tablet.  Place the tips of the fingers of one hand—two persons may do this simultaneously—upon the revolving, wooden disk and patiently await results.  Keep trying at intervals until successful.  Some may never succeed, very many will.  Should the attitude tire the sitter, extemporize a rest for the forearm.  Indeed it will in many cases be best to rest the arm, forward of the elbow, upon a book, or board prepared for the purpose, as this will largely overcome involuntary motion of the fingers.  We shall be glad to hear from those who patiently test the instrument as to their experience.

Hudson Tuttle, “The Psychograph—An Explanation,” Religio-Philosophical Journal, December 3, 1887:5

The new attachment to the Psychograph may not be understood by the many who are experimenting with it.  It was at first made with an index running over a large circle, the letters on which were wide apart, so that there could be no doubt or uncertainty as to the ones indicated.  Many found fault with this arrangement, which sacrificed ease for perspicuity.  When the inventor interrogated the instrument as to a remedy, it suggested that an extra alphabet be placed on one half of the revolving table, and a stationary index placed so as to mark the letters passing under it.  This has been done, and now either index may be used.  In the beginning the larger, or when great certainty is desired, and after there has been an advance in mediumship, the alphabet on the revolving table, by which the spelling of messages is much more quickly performed.  If the stationary index should become bent in the mail, it can be readily brought in proper place, which should be with the point over the edge of the table, but not touching it.  The fingers should rest lightly on this revolving table and be allowed to move with it.

Recommendations are being constantly received.  A well-known lady in San Francisco writes that she had communications of a wonderful character spelled at her first trial, and by sitting has now become a writing medium.  Others are not as fortunate, and are discouraged.  We say to such, that the fault possibly may rest with themselves.  The instrument is not a mere machine that will grind out communications; it is only a delicate means.  It must be used intelligently.  The sitter should sit with reverent seriousness, and undivided desire, and at fixed times, and not become discouraged if many sittings pass without results.  There is scarcely a family in which at least one sensitive or mediumistic person may not be found, and the discovery of such sensitive members and their development, is the desirable office of the Psychograph.  Any one desiring further information, may address the manufacturers in care of the RELIGIO-PHILOSOPHICAL JOURNAL.


W. O. Pierce, D. D., “The Lap Planchette,” Religio-Philosophical Journal: December 12, 1888 p. 2

This is a favorite instrument with certain members of the Psychic Research Society of Eastern Indiana for studying the freaks of animal magnetism.  We name it Instrument, too mysterious for a toy and too simple in construction to be called a machine.  It consists of a single board 24 x 16 inches, with side pieces attached two inches in width sufficient to exclude light from underneath.  Over this is stretched two layers of heavy manilla paper, on which is placed the alphabet in capitals; below it the numerals from one to ten, and on either side the words “yes” and “no,” under which is written “Good Night,” the whole forming a miniature table suitable for the lap, at which four persons may be comfortably seated.  The hands are joined, one holding a pencil or indicator to trace the letters.

The writer has had some strange experiences with this instrument, employed not so much for testing its virtue to produce spirits at call, as to investigate the phenomena of nerve dynamics in connection with what seems to be the involuntary action of the muscles.  The time required for “manifestations” varies with the “conditions,” of which more hereafter.  The presence of the magnetic current is indicated by an aching in the muscles of the arms, often at the joints, with tingling sensations at the fingertips, attended not infrequently by twitching.  As the “flow” increases the hand is “levitated,” then swayed up and down, or to right and left, certainly nonvolitionally, yet under the control of the will, an effort of which will arrest the movements, inducing return to the board.

The motions are varied, at times getting down to penmanship; at others, hovering in circles over the alphabet; now darting bird-like to right or left, then returning to peck away at the alphabet like an English sparrow hungry for corn.  At this stage at one time a lady friend, true to woman’s instincts, put in a question:

“If this is spirit, spell out a message.”

To this came the answer:

“Your mother is present and wishes you good evening.”

Then came a series of questions and replies common to novices at séances, but of little interest to the initiated.  However, two or three things may be noted as exceptional.

An uncle of one of the parties present, purported to be in control.  In this life he was a stern man, plain-spoken, in politics an intense Republican, and an uncompromising foe to the saloon.  He was questioned as follows:

“Will Harrison be elected?”


“This crowd is emphatically temperance.  The Prohibs are bound to ruin our cause in Indiana.  Are there any such cranks over there?”


“Will their vote at the November election defeat the Republican candidate in his own State?”

“No! damn ‘em.”

This blunt profanity was for all the world like “Uncle Harry,” and that temperance crowd are since doubly glad that the predictions have been verified.

The anarchist A. Spies, late of Chicago, put in his presence next with the stilted and sepulchral sentence: “Let a man who is a man now speak.”

“Well, say on,” was the reply, “but first permit a question: Are you the Spies that was hung at Chicago?”


“Do you now see you were right?”

“No; not that I was wholly wrong, but mistaken.”

“Do you cherish hatred towards the persons instrumental in your conviction and execution?”

“No, I forgive them.”

“Do you yet believe in anarchism.”

“The world will see things in a better light that is ahead.”

“But is anarchism good in a Republican form of government?”

“It is not good in any form of government.”

“You acknowledge, then, you were mistaken?”

“I have so said.  What more do you want?”

And with that, apparently displeased, Mr. S. took his departure.

The writer does not claim these as veritable spiritual communications, but as evidence of the “capabilities” of the simple contrivance, known as the lap planchette, with its phenomena within the reach of any who will conform to the conditions.  These are, so far as I can determine, as follows:

1. A clear understanding of the science of psychology, to the degree, at least, that it reveals the law of nerve forces, usually designated “animal magnetism.”

2. A magnetic balancing of temperaments; that is to say, the presence of the positive and negative in measurably equal degrees.  This is amply illustrated in the north and south poles of electrical currents.

3. The magnetic “flow is developed in point of strength and manifestation by “practice”; another word for it is development.

4. Patient and continued sittings for development are essential.  It is needless to add that the nerve force must be normally healthy to secure adequate results.  The sitters should go to their task bright as sunbeams and cheery as roses.

I am proud of your efforts to life up your “faith” to the clear sunlight.  God bless you in the enterprise.

Winchester, Ind.


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