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The guillotine: from1792

The French choice of the guillotine as the method of capital punishment derives from the revolutionary desire to sweep away all feudal privilege. Until this time beheading has been a form of execution reserved for noble offenders.

A deputy in the 1789 Constituent Assembly, Joseph-Ignace Guillotin, proposes that this grievous injustice should be removed. Every citizen should have the right to this more privileged form of death. And if possible a machine should do the work rather than a human executioner.

During the next two years a machine is accordingly built to meet the specifications laid down by Dr Louis, a member of the French College of Surgeons. Ready for its first public use on 25 April 1792, it is initially known from the surgeon's name as the Louisette - only later becoming the guillotine, to commemorate its proposer in the Assembly.

The guillotine is not the first machine of its kind. More crude versions were in use in the Middle Ages in Germany, Italy and Scotland (where the instrument was known as the 'maiden'). But the extravagant use of the French machine in the two years from 1792 ensures its prominence among these various instruments.

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