Today, heads will roll on the Engines of our
Ingenuity. 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 on this program. The time has come to speak
of darker things. Today let's look at the
guillotine. Beheading has an odd history. It's all
mixed up in class distinctions. In ancient Greece,
Xenophon singled it out as a noble punishment. The
Romans, who did pretty 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 also 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 only reason for mechanizing such a seldom-used
punishment was that axemen were sometimes
inaccurate. Victims, after all, paid executioners a
gold coin so they'd cut cleanly. A few early
beheading machines were tried out. The
sixteenth-century Scots used a device coyly named
the Maiden, and an English machine called the
Halifax Gibbet saw some use.
But it took the egalitarian French Revolution to
bring beheading to the common man. 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
... the privilege of decapitation would no
longerThe machine was built, tested
extensively 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
counterrevolutionaries, and the slaughter called the
Reign of Terror followed.
be confined to nobles, and the process of
would be as painless as possible.
The American adventurer and inventor Count Rumford gave an interesting
footnote to Guillotin's invention. 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 acquaintence 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. It is that we technologists are
obliged to think twice when we're given the chance
to sanitize death. When all is said and done,
little separates gentle Dr. Guillotin's beheading
machine from -- say -- the development of the
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds