History of Phrenology and the Psycograph

In 1901, Henry C. Lavery, a self-described "profound thinker" of  Superior, Wisconsin became certain that phrenology was true and spent his next 26 years endeavoring to put this science into a machine.  On January 29, 1931, he and his partner, Frank P. White, a businessman who had taken his life savings of $39,000 out of stock in a local sandpaper manufacturer - the 3M company - to finance the venture, announced the invention of such a machine - the "Psycograph."

Illustration: Phrenology Map

The machine consisted of 1,954 parts in a metal carrier with a continuous motor-driven belt inside a walnut cabinet containing statements about 32 mental faculties. These faculties were each rated 1 through 5, "deficient" to "very superior," so that there were 160 possible statements but an Psychograph illustration (4K)almost unlimited number of possible combinations.  The "score" was determined by the way the 32 probes, each with five contact points in the headpiece, made contact with the head.  The subject sat in a chair connected to the machine and the headpiece was lowered and adjusted.  The operator then pulled back a lever that activated the belt-driven motor, which then received low-voltage signals from the headpiece and stamped out the appropriate statement for each faculty consecutively. [large image 12K]

Thirty three machines were built, and a local office in Minneapolis flourished.  The machines were leased to entrepreneurs throughout the country for $2,000 down plus $35 a month. They were popular attractions for theater, lobbies and department stores, which found them good traffic builders during the depression.  Two enterprising promoters set up shop in the Black Forest Village at the 1934 Century of Progress Exposition in Chicago and netted $200,000 at their standing-room-only booth!

Phrenology in Europe had been abandoned as nonsense long before this time.  The brief success of the Psycograph lasted until the mid-thirties when the company closed because of increasing skepticism and declining income.  The machines were returned and packed away in storage until the mid-sixties, when John White, the founder's son, and I put several back into working order.

From A Brief History of Phrenology & The Psycograph by Curator Bob McCoy, Museum of Questionable Medical Devices.


Phrenology segment from "Quackery Gallery":

Brain in the Skull

Phrenology Links



Graphics:  Phrenology Bust and Brain of the Skull are from the Psycograph poster, The Museum of Questionable Medical Devices.  Phrenology machine illustration:  US Patent 1897941, Henry C. Lavery, Anatomical Measuring and Recording Machines, Feb. 14, 1993, Fig. 1.

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