Psychological Machinery

Experimental Devices in Early Psychological Laboratories

by Dalibor Voboril (Author) Petr Kveton (Author) Martin Jelinek (Author)
©2014 Monographs X, 130 Pages


The book covers the topic of experimental instrumentation at the turn of the 20th century. The authors introduce the role of instruments in the process of establishing psychology as a science. They concentrate on identifying historical devices and problems with rediscovering their functionality. The core of the book consists of a categorized list of instruments with a description of their purpose and mechanical design. The categorization covers recording and time measuring devices, instruments designated for the research of human senses, memory and learning, and devices for physiological measurement. The publication also includes a companion website with short videos demonstrating selected instruments in action.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of Contents
  • Introduction
  • The Origins of Psychological Laboratories
  • Wundt’s Laboratory: A Closer Look
  • Psychological Laboratories around the World
  • Methodology of Working with Historical Sources - Putting Pieces Together
  • The Cost of Experimental Research
  • Experimental Equipment at the Turn of the 20th Century
  • Instruments with Time-Related Functions
  • Time Measuring and Recording Devices
  • Calibration Devices for Chronoscopes
  • Impulse Generating Devices
  • Reaction Keys
  • Tuning Forks
  • Recording Devices
  • Kymographs
  • Kymograph Accessories
  • Registration Devices
  • Devices for Research of Visual Perception
  • Color Mixing Devices
  • Episcotisters
  • Tachistoscopes
  • Perimeters
  • Other Equipment
  • Devices for Research of Tactual Perception
  • Instruments Used for Study of Hearing
  • Hammering Devices
  • Wind Instruments
  • Accessories for Auditory Perception Devices
  • Devices for Research of Olfaction and Taste
  • Devices for Research of Memory and Learning
  • Instruments for the Measurement of Physiological Variables
  • Cardiographs
  • Pneumographs
  • Plethysmographs
  • Manometers
  • Sphygmographs
  • Devices for Measurement of Muscle Characteristics
  • Tremometers
  • Ergographs
  • Dynamometers
  • Other Tools and Devices
  • Auxiliary Devices
  • Switches
  • Response Curve Measuring Devices
  • Batteries and Accumulators
  • Transmissions, Engines and Tachometers
  • Conclusion
  • Summary
  • Bibliography
  • Instrument Index

← x | 1 → Introduction

After centuries of polemic disputations about how body and mind are related, what the role human consciousness is, or how human soul can be healed, the acceptance of scientific methods moved psychology closer to evidence-based natural sciences. The inception of scientific psychology with its experimental devices and instruments at the end of the 19th century can be considered as the first step towards the establishment of a well-organized and critical research of human mind. Wilhelm Wundt himself noted that psychological introspection should come hand in hand with methods of experimental physiology. The application of these methods on psychological introspection would lead to the psychophysical method as an independent discipline in the field of experimental research.

At the end of the 19th century, the highly advanced discipline of physiology contributed to the birth of modern scientific psychology by providing elaborated experimental instruments and devices. First psychological laboratories were established, and the researchers gradually adapted the physiological instruments to their own needs, or started to design their own instruments according to specific research goals.

In this book we focus primarily on that part of psychological history, which is not – despite its considerable significance – completely covered in the relevant literature. More specifically, we will describe experimental instruments and devices used in psychological research at the turn of the 20th century. The book was inspired by the unique collections of historical apparatus kept on the premises of Masaryk University in Brno and Charles University in Prague, as well as the collection maintained by Technical Museum in Brno. These collections comprise a set of instruments which represent typical experimental equipment found in any respectable university laboratory in Europe of that time. Our efforts focused on identification, classification and description of mechanical design of most relevant instrumental equipment. Technical details are supplemented with the description of each instrument’s purpose and operation. In some cases we also tried to map the process in which experimental psychologists used their ingenuity in incorporating contemporary advances in technology into the construction of even more sophisticated devices. These advancements illustrate the progressivity of psychology as an independent scientific field which is able to absorb new pieces of information from different areas of science and engineering and integrate them into its own methodological base.

← 1 | 2 → The Origins of Psychological Laboratories

At the very beginning, psychology was driven by joint efforts of scientists from various fields, such as physiology, philosophy, or biology (Harper, 1950). These fields shared a common object of interest, but they examined it with different methods and from different perspectives. Continual cooperation between the researchers combined with ceaseless sharing of ideas eventually led to the establishment of experimental psychology as a separate scientific discipline. The viability of the new field was proven with the founding of the first psychological laboratories in the last quarter of the 19th century. The work environment and instrumental equipment of psychological laboratories predetermined research interests and opportunities in such a way, that the laboratory as a whole could be viewed as a universal research tool.

The laboratory of Prof. Wilhelm Maxmilian Wundt (16 August 1832–31 August 1920) is considered the first psychological experimental facility. The laboratory was established at the Leipzig University1, thus securing the university a prominent position in the history of psychology. It served as a gold standard for all latter laboratories spread around the world, as mentioned by McK. Cattell in 1888 (p. 39): “It is interesting to note that the example set by Wundt at Leipsic is being followed in other universities. Psychological laboratories have been established or are being planned at Berlin, Bonn, Göttingen; in America, at Johns Hopkins, Harvard, Pennsylvania and Princeton; in England at Cambridge; also at Copenhagen and elsewhere.” The Leipzig Institute – as Wundt used to refer to his own laboratory – was also an important centre of development of new instruments. Experimental work on verifying postulated theories often required construction of new prototypes able to measure the target characteristics or adaptation of instruments known from the field of experimental physiology. Wilhelm Wundt made good use of his university education in medicine and physiology, as well as of his internship with Hermann von Helmholtz and collaboration with physiologists Johannes Műller and Emil du Bois-Reymond.

Wundt’s interest in experimental work naturally anteceded the moment of founding his well-known laboratory, which is illustrated in the diary of Czech philosopher Josef Dastich. This scholar travelled across Europe and visited famous scientists, among others also Helmholtz and, in 1865, Wundt in Heidelberg (Lifka, 1923): “... Then I had been looking for Prof. Wundt for a long time, even though he lived on the main street across from the Institute; I did not ask, relying ← 2 | 3 → on ‘Personalstand’ – in fact he moved to a new apartment in the ‘zum Riesen’ house. He lives with his parents – judicial councilor – he has a very kind mother; he welcomed me very warmly. We discussed local conditions and I am grateful for many advices. The next week he will start a new, for me personally interesting, series of lectures ‘Anthrop’. He reads in his apartment and willingly offered me, almost before I asked him, to come and see, if I could make use of any of it. Also to visit his instrument collections and perform some experimental trials together. Naturally, I’ll be glad to do both…”


X, 130
ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2014 (May)
origins of experimental psychology historical scientific instruments experimental psychological laboratories
Frankfurt am Main, Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Wien, 2014. X, 130 pp., 156 b/w fig.

Biographical notes

Dalibor Voboril (Author) Petr Kveton (Author) Martin Jelinek (Author)

Dalibor Vobořil, Petr Květon, and Martin Jelínek obtained their PhDs in general psychology from Masaryk University, Brno (Czech Republic). They work as researchers at the Institute of Psychology at the Academy of Sciences of the Czech Republic.


Title: Psychological Machinery