Holmes Alphabetic Planchette Illustration, 1868

Holmes' Alphabetic Planchette Illustration, 1868

Sometimes, we don't know much about a specimen beyond what's on paper. Such is the regrettable fact of the Holmes' Alphabetic Planchette. Luckily, we know we aren't chasing an enigma. While we have long been aware of the possibility of the item due to a bright-yellow trade circular, the 2011 resurfacing of a customer letter and company response confirms that the items were available on the market. The letter is a complaint of non-receipt of the device from a New York pharmacist named Henry Barden, and a follow-up letter from the company promising an immediate replacement. If only we could get a letter to the past and have them drop-ship it to the future!

1868 Letter from Dr. Henry Barden to Holmes and Co

1868 Letter from Dr. Henry Barden to Holmes & Co, reporting loss of Holmes board, and verifying their existence. Our postal service has hardly improved since.

What we can confirm of the the company is that they were based out of New York, operating out of a storefront at 146 Fulton Street. City directories haven't given us any more clues that that, though it is likely that the company followed the same patterns as others of its era, serving as a general bookseller and stationer, likely with the publishing and manufacturing contacts to produce some limited products of their own for distribution.

1868 Trade Circular

1868 Trade Circular

The Holmes' Alphabetic Planchette falls firmly in the "dial plate" category, and appears very similar to Hudson Tuttle's Psychograph, if we assume the lithograph picturing it is somewhat accurate. According to the trade circular, it is made of materials "peculiarly adapted to the magnetic currents of the human system, being made of Electrical and Magnetic substances." We're not sure what that means, but we have a feeling it is cardboard and wood. Like other dial plates, users would place their hands on the top table, which lies over a bed of ball bearings and turns freely, and allow their "magnetic currents" to take over to spell out messages. The instruction also contain an almost erotic suggestion to try the device blindfolded, no doubt increasing the sexually-repressed Victorians' "animal magnetism" for all involved.

The trade circular also contains an intriguing mention of a device called "Holmes' Writing Planchette," which is no doubt a more traditional wheeled pencil board. The circular claims that the device is prepared from the same materials as the Alphabetic Planchette, and available at the same $1.50 price. As Mr. Holmes was so kind as to blatantly brand his main product offering, one can only hope that he was a diligent with his marketing on his secondary product. We do hope that any existing examples that show up will have his mark emblazoned boldly on them, finally giving us a look at this presently-lost device.