Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 1448:
GUILLOTIN/GUILLOTINE

by John H. Lienhard

Click here for audio of Episode 1448.

Today, heads will roll. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

We've praised technology enough in this series. The time has come to speak of darker things. So let's look at the guillotine. The story of beheading is all mixed up in class distinctions. In ancient Greece, Xenophon singled it out as a noble punishment. The Romans, who did horrible things to common criminals, also saved decapitation for nobler folk. They called it capitis amputatio.

William the Conqueror brought beheading to England, where it was, again, set aside for nobility -- for people like Lady Jane Grey and Anne Boleyn. When the English beheaded the lower classes, it was only to finish off a victim who'd first been tormented in ways too nasty to talk about here.

The reason for mechanizing such a seldom-used punishment was that axemen could be horribly inaccurate. Victims, after all, paid executioners a gold coin so they'd cut cleanly. Inventors were devising beheading machines at least as early as 1300. Sixteenth-century Scots used a device they coyly named the Maiden, and England's old Halifax Gibbet greatly resembled the French guillotine.

But it took the egalitarian French Revolution to bring beheading to commoners. Joseph Guillotin was a physician and a member of the Constituent Assembly in the early days of the French Revolution. In 1789 he got a law passed requiring that beheading machines be made so that, and I quote,

the privilege of decapitation would no longer be confined to nobles, and the process of execution would be as painless as possible.

The story has it that, in 1738, shortly before his birth, Guillotin's mother witnessed a poor wretch being publicly tortured to death on the wheel. She was so stricken by the horror of it that she went into immediate labor. Guillotin's mother may've been an early influence on his later advocacy of the beheading machine. In any case, one was built, tested on dead bodies, and turned loose on common criminals in 1792.

Of course, once this was done, it became all too easy to dispose of counter-revolutionaries, and the slaughter called the Reign of Terror followed. Since Guillotin himself was an aristocrat, he narrowly escaped perishing on a guillotine.

The American adventurer and inventor Count Rumford gave a macabre footnote to Guillotin's work. Rumford married the widow of the famous chemist Antoine Lavoisier, who'd been among the thousands who died on guilliotines. But a few years before his marriage, Rumford wrote,

I made the acquaintance of Monsieur Guillotin, the contriver of the two famous Guillotines. He is a physician, and a very mild, polite humane man.

This may all seem quite ghoulish, but the point is clear enough. We technologists need to think twice when we're given the chance to sanitize death. Any machine that makes it easy to end life will go wrong. Our work is about sustaining and improving life. It is not about bringing it to a close.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)


Kershaw, A., A history of the Guillotine. New York: Barnes & Noble Books, 1993.

This is a greatly revised version of Episode 71.




The first known representation of a Guillotine (1792)


The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-1999 by John H. Lienhard.