The Control HammerS

It's another installment of Entropist, a scifi culture column by futurist design maven Geoff Manaugh, editor of BLDG BLOG. Tucked away in a museum at the University of Toronto is a collection of small devices known as the Museum of Psychological Instruments. These contraptions were assembled and put to use during "an extraordinary period in the history of philosophy and psychology, when scientists started measuring, describing and investigating the contents of our sensations and thoughts." The mechanisms also look like alien probes.

Weird tools from the tail end of the 1800s - like Helmholtz Resonators (pictured above) and the Horizontal Kymograph - were considered by some to be a vital part of "experimental psychology," a new field whose central proposition was that psychology itself could be measured and mapped; even the most subtle reactions, on the level of conscious thought and unconscious reflex, could be predicted and repeated elsewhere, these experimentalists believed, under laboratory circumstances.

The Control HammerS

I'm reminded here of Dr. Channard, from the film Hellbound: Hellraiser II, whose mantra - "We have to see; we have to know" - became an oft-used sample in early 90s industrial music. Channard, that is, was not just a surgeon: he was an experimental psychologist.

In any case, not everyone was happy to measure the human mind - assuming such a thing exists - using instruments of brass and wood. "Many philosophers vehemently opposed the new experimental psychology," we read. "They adhered to Emmanuel [sic] Kant's view that mental events could never be captured or measured by experiment." Capturing mental events, like netting butterflies, was a task that required much more grace and skill, not brute machines - however carefully calibrated they may have been. Desktop resonators that looked like something out of a bad 19th-century stage version of Ghostbusters didn't, even then, inspire much confidence.

But let's put all these arguments aside and look at the actual objects.

The Control HammerS

The Hipp Chronoscope, for instance - a glass domed pedestal full of clockwork, gears, and dials - was adapted by legendary German physiologist Wilhelm Wundt from its original use as an astronomical instrument. After some fine-tuned tinkering, Wundt transformed it into something that could help "quantify nervous reaction times." In other words, a mechanism once meant for timing "stellar events" was retrofitted to measure the human nervous system - perhaps implying an unexpected astral cousinry between nerve endings and stars.

Then check out this auditory instrument (pictured below, left), made of "delay lines" that measure the speed and sensitivity of human hearing.

There's also the Ranschburg Memory Device and the Förster perimeter. There are aesthesiometric compasses, and there's the Einthoven String Galvanometer (pictured below, right). This latter device looks rather like a carburetor - only one you hook up to your own chest "to provide highly accurate records of heart currents."

The Control HammerS

Of course, there's also the Control Hammer apparatus, which served as "the fundamental timing device of the laboratory upon which all timing calibrations relied." Something like a musical metronome, then, ticking away in the background of the laboratory while scientists focused strange brass instruments covered in levers upon their fellow humans, the Control Hammer literally set the time and pace of these psychological experiments.

The museum's description is extraordinary: the Control Hammer was used "to generate a known and constant period of time."

However, all of these now somewhat eccentric little pieces of psychological enginery - like prosthetic testing devices for the mind - also make me think of something from David Cronenberg's old film Dead Ringers. There, amidst a variety of other things, we encounter "gynecological instruments for operating on mutant women."

These devices, specially made by a Toronto-based sculptor for a deranged and drug-addicted gynecologist, are exactly what they sound like: surgical instruments for operating on women whose bodies are somehow not right - nevermind that this "not right" status is entirely in the prescription-addled brain of our vertigo-stricken gynecologist.

The Control HammerS

The medical devices he has built, in other words, are projections of his own anatomical fears and fantasies.

What about psychological instruments, then, for treating people whose minds are somehow not right - nevermind that such a status entirely depends on whatever standards of normalcy exist at the time? After all, the very instruments pictured here, now gathering dust at a museum in Toronto, are glimpses of just such devices.

The question, then, is: What do these little wooden cases full of tuning forks and color wheels, sound pipes and timers, themselves assume about the human psychology they're meant to measure? I'm tempted to say that these were like reverse Turing machines before their time, or even early Voight-Kampff tests: mechanical devices meant to show who was human - one of us - and who was not. Call them Othering Machines, bringing down their judgments like a hammer.

When we build tools with which to test ourselves, what do the tools themselves imply?

(Elsewhere: Don't miss the Museum of the History of Reaction Time Research, a subset of the Museum of the History of Psychological Instrumentation in Montclair, New Jersey.)