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The doctor regretted having his invention named after him

By Paul Niemann

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[April 24, 2008]  When I first heard the story about this invention, I thought that it was named after its inventor. I knew that it was the kind of story that would someday make its way into the column and, as I researched it further, I learned that the device is not named after its inventor after all.

Actually, the invention was originally named after its inventor, a Frenchman named Antoine Louis. It was later renamed -- forever -- after the person who advocated its use, a French doctor named Joseph. We'll save his last name for later, since it wouldn't be much of a story if you knew his name at this point.

To really understand the implications of this invention, you need a good understanding of French history. Since I have neither a good understanding of French history nor the desire to learn it, we'll just skip that part.

In 18th-century France, criminals were executed in long, drawn-out affairs that usually involved torture. Joseph tried to ban the death penalty altogether, and in the process he proposed the use of this killing machine as a more humane method of execution. He thought this would be the first step toward ending the death penalty. The machine that bore his name was first used in 1791 and resulted in more than 40,000 deaths during the French Revolution. It made the death penalty happen so quickly that it desensitized people to the point that it probably resulted in an increased number of executions -- which was just the opposite of what Joseph wanted. It was used only sparingly by the time it was finally put to rest in 1977, more than 200 years after it was first used.

The French Revolution lasted from 1789 to 1799 and included a period known as the Reign of Terror. During this time, there was a group known by the misnomer of the "Committee of Public Safety." This committee could try anyone for offenses as simple as food hoarding all the way up to murder. Victims would be executed with the machine that was named after Joseph.

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His children tried to get the government to rename the machine after he died in 1814, but the government refused. His children did manage to get their last name changed, though. Two centuries later, Joseph's name is still linked with this evil device.

Joseph's name is forever linked in the history books with another Frenchman, a Louis Capet. You've heard of both of these men, even if you don't recognize them just yet.

At first, Joseph's machine did not have an official name, although it was originally referred to as a "luissette" or a "louisson" (named for its original inventor, Antoine Louis). Once the device was mass-produced, it became known by many unofficial names, such as the "bastard daughter" (because no one would take credit for inventing it) and the "national razor."

Eventually, it was given Joseph's last name because he was the one who proposed its use. Its first, um, "customer" was a robber named Nicolas Pelletier in 1792. Its most notable victims were King Louis XVI and his wife, Queen Marie Antoinette, which can only mean one thing. The person for whom the death machine was named was Dr. Joseph Guillotin. I think you know the name of the invention by now. France, by the way, finally outlawed the death penalty in 1981.

Who was the Frenchman mentioned earlier, Louis Capet? That was the given name of King Louis XVI.

For all you wannabe inventors out there, there's a lesson to be learned here: Think twice before naming your invention after yourself.


Paul Niemann may be reached at

Copyright Paul Niemann 2008

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