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
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
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 540
B.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
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
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 planchette
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 planchette
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,
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,
Planchette Encyclopedia of Occultism & Parapsychology • 5th Ed.
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.