Amherst MagazineSkip repeated navigation.
Amherst College  
Site Map
Amherst College > News & Events > Amherst Magazine > Archives > Summer 2004 > College Row
College Row

Enigma deciphered

It seems that people love a good mystery, as we received a flood of responses to the question in the winter issue about the unidentified device in President Anthony W. Marx’s office. The guesses came not only from alumni, but also from the general public, who heard about the question through friends and Internet news groups. Responses came from Finland, England and Australia, as well as the United States and Canada. The suggestions were notable not only for their quantity and origin, but for their inventiveness.

Several people suggested that the device was a percussion instrument of some kind, and two people decided independently that the device was used to register earthquakes. John Lacey ’74 thought it must be a machine for creating oval veneer inlays used in marquetry, saying, “I was just so damn intrigued by this device, I can barely describe it.” Others suggested a water­phone (a musical instrument), a sock maker, a voltage regulator, a lace maker, a potato peeler, a medallion-scaling machine, a phrenology device, an astrolabe, a silhouette modeler, an early version of the George Foreman Grill and a ship’s compass. Lindsay Cooper ’93 showed the picture to her colleague Seth Lerer at Stanford University, and he is convinced that the device is an orgone sphere energy collector, a device developed, he said,“by the Austrian psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich in the 1920s and ’30s as a machine for collecting the sexual energy of biological organisms.”

John Willis ’61 had not one, but three, suggestions about the machine’s use:

As I viewed page 5 in its totality, I thought I recognized the device for what it was: an early attempt at the creation of a Bose-Einstein condensate. (Note the similarity in shapes.) No doubt the unit was placed outside in a New England winter, and the brass-monkey qualities of the spring-loaded arms would draw all possible heat from the subject material in the center.

Then my thoughts turned to Amherst’s origins as a counterpoise to Harvard’s Unitarian turn. Perhaps, I thought, a device of exquisite torture designed to straighten the feet of those tempted to turn from the chosen path….

Yet, I reasoned, such a device most likely would have been found in South Hadley. This suggested another possibility: a heuristic device for the teaching of Emily Dickinson and the perfect control of passions. Professor Pritchard should be able to find references to this in the English Department archives….

For some respondents, the device awakened a dark impulse. Larry Griesemer ’40 showed the picture to a friend, who suggested that it was “An iron maiden rat killer….It’s hard, however,” he wrote, “to keep the rats in the inner ring until you can close the ‘impaling’ ring, then crank the handles shown on the lower part of the main body, causing the impaling rods to advance toward the entrapped rat or rats.” Two people suggested that the machine’s upward-facing spikes would have been used to hold frogs while the
operator conducted electrical-stimulation tests. One of these people suggested that a chemical test of the spikes would show a trace of frog tissue.

John Grant Jr. ’54 felt sure he had the explanation for the device’s obscurity:

Few, if any, Amherst graduates or undergraduates know anything about the ancient art of baking in the Byzantine period. During the Constantine and Diocletian period, the split between the Roman Empire occurred,]resulting in highly competitive culinary artistry. This is a marvelous example of Eastern Roman one-upmanship. The Turkish renowned expertise in the use of brass was plagiarized by the Constantinople Romans and is displayed magnificently in the magazine’s photograph. Breakfast was the main meal in this Eastern culture; the emperor would invite 32 of his favorite guests for a power breakfast. The servants would—after the charcoal stove underneath warmed the brass—pour in the batter and close the lid. Minutes later a waffle was served, to the applause of the invitees. This, to my knowledge, is the first example of creative waffling in high places.

The device’s actual purpose is somewhat more prosaic than our readers imagined. Neither batter nor blood would be found on its tines; no salt spray or doily shreds trapped in its cracks. A number of experts, including one at the Smithsonian Institution, have confirmed what several alumni guessed: that the machine in the president’s office is a comformeur, used to produce custom-made hats. The device would be placed over a customer’s head, and the dangling rods beneath would spread and conform to the person’s head shape. The spikes on the upper surface would move in conjunction with the rods and produce a corresponding oval, slightly reduced. A piece of cardboard would be placed over the spikes, and the spring-loaded brass ring would be released to push the cardboard down onto the spikes. The shape produced by the pinholes would be transferred from the cardboard to a second machine, which would essentially reverse the process, restoring the scale of the pinhole oval. In so doing, it moved padded arms outward to push the steamed felt of a hat into a perfect mirror of the customer’s head shape.

The responses we received, as well as links to pictures of similar devices and reference materials, are online in the Winter 2004 issue.

Next: New program connects alumni and students >>

  E-mail the Editor  
Search Amherst magazine