Ometers and Scopes: Serious Lab Device Names in Psychic Research

By Laurel Sutton

December 2, 2010

Mary Roach, SpookI’ve been reading Mary Roach’s Spook – great book, highly recommend, would do business again A++! – and I just came across this wonderful section on the names of devices that were supposed to detect, measure, amplify, or otherwise manifest the presence of entities from beyond the grave.

I’ve always loved Victorian scientific naming conventions; they show the desperate desire to apply a shiny layer of sciencey-sounding terms to everything that can and could exist, and thereby to make sense of it. Just the way everything biological in the 21st century is framed in terms of computing, wiring, and software, late 19th/early 20th century science quantified everything immaterial in terms of the mechanical. And now we have steampunk.

To wit (I turn it over to Mary Roach now):

It was not only the mediums who were fond of gadgetry, but the paranormal researchers who put them through their paces. Initially, technology was recruited to prevent fraud or, more often, to document or quantify the mediums’ powers. With few exceptions, the devices were christened in the syllabically overwrought vernacular of the Serious Laboratory Device. Microscopes now had to share the lab bench with Dynamoscopes and Telekinetoscopes. The staid and stately Ometer family, heretofore limited to Thermo, Baro, Speedo, and Sphygno, was asked to take in the Sthenometer, the Biometer, the Suggestometer, the Magnetometer, and the Galvanometer. I tried to track down even one of these machines, but oddly and disappointingly, no museum or private collection seems to exist. “The psychical organizations didn’t approach these things from a historian’s perspective,” says Grady Hendrix, former office manager of he American Society for Psychical Research in New York City. “These gadgets weren’t something that more modern parapsychologist would have deemed worthy of saving. It’s not an era they’re proud of.”

A, glass shade covering; B, brass cup sealed by means of soap film; C, stand, with levelling screws; D, red light indicator, hermetically sealed by glass shade; F, wooden base of indicator; E, heavily-insulated rubber cable connecting transmitter and indicator

Personally, I would LOVE to own something called a Suggestometer! It was apparently something like a dynamometer, measuring pressure, but I would disregard that and bring it to naming meetings to measure the quality of client suggestions for names. Of course, like carnival games, it would be controlled under the table by my foot, so that the next time a client suggests the name “Visa” for a piece of software, and I can say “Suggestometer says no.”

Just a little more from Roach – she’s such a good writer:

The Ometer decline has continued, largely at the hands of the textile industry, who have given us the FadeOmeter, the Crackometer, and the LaunderOmeter (not to mention the Atlas Perspiration Tester, the Shirley Stiffness Tester, and the Evenness Tester 2 With Hairiness Module). Further Ometer abuse comes from the Centers for Disease Control (the Flu-O-Meter), the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds – their Splatometer tracks the abundance of flying insects, whose decline spells trouble for birds – and Gary Ometer, former Director of Debt Management for the U.S. Department of the Treasury. I was hesitant to phone Gary, for his title led me to expect a man of, shall we say, high scores on the Shirley Stiffness Tester, but he was a good sport about it. Gary blames shabby Ellis Island bookkeeping for his family’s contribution to the Ometer situation.

What kind of Ometer would you like to have?

Image of the Telekinetoscope from Harry Price’s website.

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