The Truth About Who Actually Created The Guillotine

One of the most iconic execution methods in history would have to be the guillotine. It's a simple device with a devastating effect: living person goes in, blade comes down, and decapitated head goes out. The guillotine was famously used in France during the Revolutionary period, and continued to be used to execute criminals in that country until 1977.

Despite its French origins, use of the guillotine spread to other countries as well, and the device continues to be employed as a symbol of revolutionary politics. For example, Puerto Ricans marched a full-scale guillotine to their governor's mansion as part of an anti-corruption protest in early 2020, as explained by Vice.

The guillotine is a fascinating object, and it has equally fascinating origins. According to History Today, the idea for the guillotine was conceived by Joseph-Ignace Guillotin, a French doctor born in 1738. Interestingly, Guillotin was actually opposed to the death penalty, but he was particularly appalled by the brutal execution methods in France at the time — from burning alive to drowning. So, Guillotin proposed that France develop a "simple mechanism" that could kill criminals as painlessly as possible.

Joseph-Ignace Guillotin hated having his name associated with the guillotine

While Guillotin proposed the idea that eventually led to the guillotine, he's not the one who invented the device. According to Snopes, that honor belongs to Dr. Antoine Louis. Louis was responsible for designing the now-iconic machine that swiftly executes its victims with a falling blade to the neck, and the first model was built by a German man named Tobias Schmidt. The French government was impressed with Louis' design, and accepted it as a new, efficient execution method.

Since Antoine Louis designed the device, the first guillotines were actually referred to as "louisettes" or "louisons," according to the Encyclopedia Britannica. But Snopes explains that the French public remembered Joseph-Ignace Guillotin for his speech proposing that a painless execution method be developed, and a popular song from the era suggested that Guillotin personally invented the device for the job. And so, within a matter of years, the device was popularly referred to as "La machine Guillotine," and ultimately just the guillotine.

There's a rumor that Joseph-Ignace Guillotin was himself killed by the guillotine, but this is a fabrication. The truth, as per History Today, is that Guillotin's family was so embarrassed with having their name associated with the guillotine that they asked the French government to rename the device. When their petition failed, the Guillotin family changed their own name instead.