From early times, various objects or devices have been used for divination, or for communication with spirits and ancestors.
One common method, known as scrying, uses reflective or translucent objects such as bowls of water, metal or glass mirrors, or crystals. Staring at, or into, these objects can induce images and visions which many believe may be communications from the 'spirit world'.
Another traditional method uses objects that can write, or point (e.g., sticks, pencils, chalks, or pens). These are usually held by the shaman, medium, or other practitioner. Messages are indicated or dictated using largely unconscious movements of the arm and hand - a phenomenon known as motor automatism.
The most sophisticated form of such 'automatist' divination or spirit communication is automatic writing. Other forms include dowsing (e.g., using a divining rod, or pendulum), and boards on which alphabetic, numeric, or other symbols are drawn. Such boards are often called 'Spirit Boards', 'Talking Boards', or 'Ouija Boards'.
Divination and spirit communication involving various forms of motor automatism have been used for millennia in many cultures and have their origins in ancient shamanic and magical practices.
A Roman augur divining letters using a chicken and corn, c.100 BCE
When Spiritualism became popular in America and Europe during the 1850s and 1860s, the 'planchette' was invented to facilitate the writing of messages purportedly from the spirit world.
The planchette consisted of a pencil secured to a movable device on which participants placed their hands. This allowed several persons to cooperate in producing 'spirit writing' through the seemingly 'automatic' movements of the planchette.
Spiritualist planchette, c.1885
The modern Spirit Board was invented as a toy or game, and patented in 1891 as a 'Ouija or Egyptian luck-board' by Elijah J. Bond of Baltimore, Maryland. At the same time, 'Ouija' was registered as a trademark by the Kennard Novelty Company who put the board into production.
Bond's Ouija consisted of a board inscribed with the letters of the alphabet, the numbers 0-9, and the words 'Yes', 'No', and 'Good bye'. There was also a small 'table' or plinth with pointer, similar to the Spiritualists' planchette, which could be moved over the board to spell out words.
The original Ouija Board (1891)
In 1901, production of the Ouija was taken over by William Fuld, an employee of Kennard's company.
Ouija became a very popular parlour game in the 1920s and 1930s. It was also put to more serious purpose by several psychics and mediums, who used the Ouija to channel spiritual and literary works, including poems and full-length novels. Notable among these was American medium Mrs Pearl Curran (1883-1937), who channeled the remarkable spirit writings of Patience Worth.
In 1966, Fuld's business was sold to American toy and games manufacturer Parker Brothers. In 1991, Parker Brothers was bought by Hasbro who now own the Ouija trademarks and patents.
English Ouija Board
With the advent of computer technology, enterprising programmers have attempted various software implementations of the Spirit Board.
The most useful of these allow participants to select from different computerised 'spirit controls' or personalities, as well as permitting direct user control of the mouse and pointer.
Why not try this yourself with our own free online Spirit Board Ouija Game (watch the demonstration below).
The Strange and Mysterious History of the Ouija Board [Smithsonian]