*WARNING* The video below contains vintage graphic photos of executions by Guillotine, viewer discretion is advised.
The name “guillotine” dates to the 1790’s and the French Revolution, but similar execution machines had already been in existence for centuries. A beheading device called the “planke” was used in Germany and Flanders during the Middle Ages, and the English had a sliding axe known as the Halifax Gibbet, which may have been lopping off heads all the way back to antiquity.
The French guillotine was likely inspired by two earlier machines: the Renaissance-era “mannaia” from Italy, and the notorious “Scottish Maiden,” which claimed the lives of some 120 people between the 16th and 18th centuries. Evidence also shows that primitive guillotines may have been in use in France long before the days of the French Revolution.
The origins of the French guillotine date back to late-1789, when Dr. Joseph-Ignace Guillotin proposed that the French government adopt a gentler method of execution. Although he was personally opposed to capital punishment, Guillotin argued that decapitation by a lightning-quick machine would be more humane and egalitarian than sword and axe beheadings, which were often botched.
He later helped oversee the development of the first prototype, an imposing machine designed by French doctor Antoine Louis and built by a German harpsichord maker named Tobias Schmidt. The device claimed its first official victim in April 1792, and quickly became known as the “guillotine”—much to the horror of its supposed inventor. Guillotin tried to distance himself from the machine during the guillotine hysteria of the 1790s, and his family later unsuccessfully petitioned the French government to change its name in the early 19th century.