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18th century treatment for attention-deficit disorder

April 4, 2011

What do you get when you leave a bunch of cats with a Jesuit? If that scholar happened to be Athanasius Kircher, he devises a keyboard instrument that plays melodies by pulling cat tails. Behold, the Katzenklavier:

This is what happens when Roman Catholic priests and brothers are denied pussy–they overcompensate.

Wikipedia’s entry on the Katzenklavier points out a novel use for this instrument (as if making music from the pain and suffering of cats was not unique enough): it was used to treat attention-deficit disorder.

The instrument was described by German physician Johann Christian Reil (1759–1813) for the purpose of treating patients who had lost the ability to focus their attention. Reil believed that if they were forced to see and listen to this instrument, it would inevitably capture their attention and they would be cured.

Lest you think the Wikipedia article an internet prank, the summary quoted above is based on a 1998 paper published by University of Chicago professor Robert J. Richards in Critical Inquiry.  J.C. Reil came up with an “improvement” for the mechanism–instead of pulling the tails of the entrapped cats, a depressed note on the keyboard would stab a sharp nail into the tail of the cat with the correspondingly pitched scream.

You can read Richards’s article in Critical Inquiry here.

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