On this day in 1792, the infamous guillotine claimed its first victim - a robber named Jacques Nicolas Pelletier. The guillotine remained France's number one method of execution for the next 189 years. To commemorate the role Pelletier played in history, let's take a look at the invention of the guillotine.
A public guillotining in 1897
Though not the first device in history to execute people by decapitation, the guillotine is certainly the most memorable. France worked to improve it and it was the first country to adopt it as a main method of execution. In 1791, during the French Revolution, France's National Assembly worked to find a new execution method. The old way was the breaking wheel, also known as the Catherine wheel, where the condemned would be strapped to a wheel to be clubbed to death. The problem with this, however, was that the prisoner could be freed. This is precisely what happened in 1788, when a mob released the prisoner and broke the wheel.
Dr. Joseph-Ignace Guillotin, a member of the National Assembly, was also a professor of anatomy in Paris. It was his idea to come up with a new execution method. He was a member of the committee charged with inventing this new method that would quickly end the condemn's life rather than cause pain. Earlier types of guillotine used blunt force to remove the head, used an axe-shaped blade. This was the problem presented to Guillotin's committee.
An officer of the Strasbourg criminal court can be said to have invented the guillotine - he developed the initial design. However, it was a German harpsichord maker named Tobias Schmidt that invented the horizontally-slanting blade that is characteristic of the guillotine. It was this signature blade that contributed to its reputation as a humane form of execution, as it worked quickly and accurately. It was also the great equalizer, as executions before its invention varied based on social class.
In the throes of the French Revolution, the country erupted into chaos and guillotine beheadings happened frequently. Political prisoners and collaborators were executed using this invention. Even King Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette went down in history as people sentenced to death by the guillotine. During this time, guillotinings were crowd-pleasing events, drawing regular spectators and even children.
In 1939, the last public beheading by guillotine occurred, but it was France's official execution method until 1981.
Strangely enough, the machine is named after Dr. Guillotin even though he didn't design it. The guillotine was originally named after Antone Louis, who developed the prototype. It was a comedic song about Dr. Guillotin that made the name stick - proof that a catchy name for an invention is important!