The history of talking boards is often fraught with unsubstantiated references, etymological speculation and hyperbole; though perhaps we should expect such from a subject that carries with it often frightening and fantastical tales of mysterious powers. The reputation of the talking board is grandiose, and so therefore also is its legendary past.
To determine how far back talking boards go, we must first define what they are, so let us declare that a talking board consists of alphanumeric symbols on a surface. Although some ‘historians’ have claimed that the talkingboard is an occult apparatus passed down through the eons, our modern talking board does not resemble any divination tool known to have existed in an ancient culture. Although forms of divination often involve symbols and some means by which to point to them, such practices did not evolve into the talking board as we know it. Therefore, the activities that the Pythagoreans, Mongols and Greeks at Delphi got down with are not part of the talking board’s domain.
It was in the 1840’s, when the activities of the Fox sisters gave rise to the world-wide phenomena of Spiritualism, that the foundation for talking boards was formed. With the belief that spirits could communicate with us came the need to have them do so through language. Table tapping worked well enough for ‘yes’ and ‘no’ answers, but beyond that were tedious for counting through the letters of the alphabet. This era brought us all manner of dial plates and psychographs, which cycled through letters more quickly, yet were themselves often elaborate and cumbersome.
Soon the process of automatic writing developed. A pencil was attached to a small, overturned basket, and in that was the making for the planchette. The name ‘planchette’ is French for ‘little plank,’ though some writers have claimed that a man named M. Planchette was its creator. This heart-shaped plank of wood was quite easy to use and to manufacture, putting it within literal reach of most interested parties. Even so, the scribbles it produced were often difficult to read, as there was no means differentiate between letters and words, and the spirits were often reticent to write in straight lines.
Thankfully, sometime in the 1880’s the talkingboard appears on the scene. This was a plank of wood bearing letters and numbers, and it utilized a planchette sans the writing device. It was an instant hit.
In 1890 the first board to be patented attributes Elijah J. Bond as its creator, although it is not known if he was the first to design such a board or merely the first to run with it to the patent office. This board was given the name ‘Ouija.’ Much is conjecture goes on concerning the etymology of this name. One story claims that a session with the board presented the name ‘Ouija’ to its creator, who took it to mean ‘Good luck.’ After William Fuld took control of the Ouija Novelty Company in 1901, he proposed another legend for the boards naming. Not only did he claim to be the inventor of the board, but to have named it as well. He put forth the idea that Ouija took its name from a joining of the French word ‘oui’ for yes, and the German word ‘ja’ for yes.
Talking boards continued as an occasional fad throughout the twentieth century. As the following little ditty suggests.
To see actual sheet music for this song, just click on the image above.
After Fuld fell off the roof of his Ouija factory in 1927, his children continued the business, until in 1966 they sold the business to Parker Brothers, which was later usurped by Hasbro, who continue to hold all trademarks and patens for the Ouija.