A simple instrument designed for the purpose of communication with spirits. It consists of a thin heart-shaped piece of wood mounted on two small wheels that carries a pencil, point downward, for the third support. The hand is placed on the wood and the pencil writes automatically, or presumably by spirit control operating through the psychic force of the medium.
In 1853, a Mr. Planchette, a well-known French Spiritualist, invented this instrument, to which he gave his name. For some fifteen years it was utilized exclusively by French Spiritualists, but then in the year 1868, a firm of American toy makers took up the idea and flooded the shops of booksellers with great numbers of planchettes. They became a popular item and the instrument sold in the thousands in the United States and Great Britain. It was used largely as a toy and any results obtained that were arresting or seemingly inexplicable were explained by animal magnetism or ascribed to the power of subconscious thought.
Amongst Spiritualists the planchette has been used for spirit communication, and automatic writing has often resulted from its use. Some mediums published books that, they claimed, were written wholly by their spirit-controls through the use of planchettes.
An early attempt to explain the phenomenon was put forward by Samuel Guppy in his book Mary Jane: or Spiritualism Chemically Explained published under the modest pseudonym "A Child at School" in 1863. He stated that the human body is a condensation of gases, which constantly exude from the skin in an invisible electrical vapor and that the fingers coming in contact with the planchette transmit to it an "odic force," and thus set it in motion. He went on to say that some people have excess phosphorous in their systems and the vapor "thus exuded forms a positively living, thinking, acting body, capable of directing a pencil."
There are variations on the planchette form, such as the dial-planchette, which consists of a foundation of thick cardboard nine inches square on the face of which the alphabet and the numerals one to ten are printed. Also printed are the words "Yes," "No," "Goodbye" and "Don't know." These letters, words, and numerals are printed on the outer edge of a circle, the diameter of which is about seven inches. In the center of this circle, firmly affixed to the cardboard, is a block of wood three inches square.
The upper surface of this block has a circular channel in which balls run. Over the balls a circular piece of hard wood, five inches in diameter, is placed and attached to the outer edge of this a pointer. The upper piece of wood is attached to the lower by an ordinary screw, upon which the upper plate revolves when used for communication.
Another form is the ouija board, on which, in a convenient order, the letters of the alphabet are printed and over which a pointer easily moves under the direction of the hand of the person or persons acting as medium. It is stated that a form of this "mystic toy" was in use in the days of Pythagoras, about 540B.C.E. One French author described his celebrated school of philosophy, asserted that the brotherhood held frequent séances or circles at which a mystic table, moving on wheels, moved towards signs inscribed on the surface of a stone slab. The author stated that probably Pythagoras, in his travels among the Eastern nations, observed some such apparatus in use amongst them and adapted his idea from them.
Another trace of some such communicating mechanism is found in the legend told by the Scandinavian Blomsturvalla of how the people of Jomsvikingia in the twelfth century had a high priest, one Völsunga, whose predictions were renowned for their accuracy throughout the land. He had in his possession a little ivory doll that drew with "a pointed instrument" on parchment or "other substance," certain signs to which the priest had the key. The communications were prophetic utterances, and it is said in every case they came true.
The writer who recounted this legend thought it probable that the priest had procured the doll in China. In the National Museum at Stockholm there is a doll of this description that is worked by mechanism, and when wound up it walks around in circles and occasionally uses its right arm to make curious signs with a pointed instrument like a pen that is held in the hand. Its origin and use have been connected with the legend recounted above.
The planchette and ouija board are devices to assist automatic writing. Such instruments allow use by more than one individual during a sitting, as distinct from other forms of automatic writing when only the operator handles the pen or pencil.
How It Works
The content of such messages may suggest either communications from spirit entities or unconscious mental processes on the part of the individuals concerned. Sometimes artificial entities appear to be created from the combined energies and the messages, although often startling and apparently authentic, may be deceptive. It is generally assumed that the actual movement of the planchette is due to unconscious muscular effort on the part of the operator or operators using the instrument, but as in table-turning and the divining-rods used in dowsing, it is by no means certain that this explanation covers all the facts.
Clearly the actual contact between fingers and instrument can communicate subtle muscular exertion, but the conversion of this exertion to the complex movements involved in writing intelligible messages is difficult to explain. Even granting the operation of unconscious muscular effort, it is not clear how this is adapted to constructing messages which are often not visible to the operator. Again, the planchette may sometimes move at remarkable speeds, far in advance of the normal intellectual mode or reflex muscular actions of the operator. The same phenomenon also occurs in automatic writing.
There are also some cases reported of direct writing, in which there was no contact between the operator and the writing.
It should be noted that the results of the use of the plan-chette and similar devices often reflect the intellectual and emotional status of the operator or operators involved, and most knowledgeable people advise against use of the plan-chette or ouija board in the frivolous atmosphere of party games. Suggestible individuals may become obsessive about the messages obtained.
A Child at School [Samuel Guppy]. Mary Jane: or Spiritualism Chemically Explained. London: John King, 1863.
Ellis, Ida. Planchette and Automatic Writing. Blackpool, UK, 1904.
Hyslop, James H. Contact With the Other World. New York: Century, 1919.
Mühl, Anita M. Automatic Writing: An Approach to the Unconscious. Steinkopff, 1930. Reprint, New York: Helix Press, 1964.
Sargent, Epes. Planchette, or the Despair of Science. Boston, 1869.
Truthseeker, A. The Planchette Mystery: Being a Candid Inquiry Into the Nature, Origin, Import, and Tendencies of Modern Signs and Wonders. New York: Samuel R. Wells, 1870.
plan·chette / planˈshet/ • n. a small board supported on casters, typically heart-shaped and fitted with a vertical pencil, used for automatic writing and in seances.