Time Capsule

In the early 1900s, Wisconsin businessman Henry Lavery was enamored with phrenology, an attempt to assess the mind's faculties by mapping the skull's bumps and dips and linking them to functions outlined on a phrenology chart. But Lavery thought the method involved too much bias on the part of the phrenologist doing the reading. So he teamed up with a business partner, Frank White, to create The Psycograph Company and invent a better phrenologist: A mechanical one.

In 1929, Lavery unveiled his psycograph, an extremely intricate machine of nearly 2,000 parts, most of which made up a complex headpiece. To conduct a reading, this headpiece would be lowered onto a client's head to measure the phrenological layout of the skull at 32 different points. These points would then be transcribed to a printout explaining 32 different mental faculties, such as individuality, self-esteem, humor and combativeness. Each faculty was scored from 1 (very deficient) to 5 (very superior) depending on the psycograph's measurements.

These faculties could then be charted onto a vocational form so a client could determine what his or her occupation should be. The chart sorted the mental faculties into six main areas--artistic, commercial, literary, mechanical, scientific and humane--and broke them down into individual occupations, including psychologist.

Although at the time phrenology was already falling to the fringes in scientific circles, it still intrigued enough people to be good business. The Psycograph Company operated for eight years, building 33 machines. At the 1934 Chicago Exposition, a psycograph booth took in more than $200,000.

Although phrenology had been discarded by scientists before the psycograph's invention, its popularity reveals a lot about the public's attraction to pseudoscience. In much the same way people today consult palm or tarot card readers and astrological charts, the psycograph business captured people's imaginations. But unlike palm readers, the psycograph claimed to be based on science. When its scientific tenets filtered out of mainstream thinking, the company dissolved in the mid-1930s.

But if you're still interested in whether the bumps on your head reveal that you would make a good psychologist or pugilist, you can come consult the psycograph at the Archives of the History of American Psychology.

Nick Joyce is a psychology graduate student at the University of Akron in Ohio. Dr. David B. Baker directs the Archives of the History of American Psychology. For more information on the Archives collection, go to www3.uakron.edu/ahap/.