Improving On the Occult

ouija board first patent

Patents can be seen as a sign of progress, as every new invention must improve over an old one in a way that’s truly new and not obvious. Devices for communicating with the spirit world are no exception.

Movies featuring a “spirit board”—more commonly known by the registered trademark Ouija—haven’t, though, been on as clear an improvement trajectory.

As far as intellectual property goes, the first patent on the Ouija parlor game—or tool, depending on your inclination—dates back to the late 19th century. The inventors received U.S. Patent No. 446,054 in 1891 only after using the board to guess the name of the patent examiner, in order to demonstrate its usefulness, according to an account by historian Robert Murch.

Since then, there have been many patents claiming improvements on the original. U.S. Patent No. 1,400,791, granted in 1921, describes a board with an improved layout and design that allows the pointer to travel along a rail.

Another patent, granted in 1940, describes a two-sided game with letters that light up on a vertical side while the pointer moves along a horizontal surface.

And the march of progress continues. Another patent was just granted in October 2015 for a system that senses “localized changes in an electromagnetic field” to propel the pointer.

But unlike Ouija inventions, movies featuring Ouija boards, either prominently or in just a scene or two, don't seem to have improved over time, if viewer ratings are to be trusted.

Classics like 1944’s “The Uninvited” and 1973’s The Exorcist,” for instance, score well on the Internet Movie Database (IMDb), with weighted average ratings of 7.4 and 8 out of 10, respectively. Compare those to the “Witchboard” movie series, where the first installment (1986) earned a score of 5.7, the second (1993), 4.9 and the third (1995), 4.1.

Some more recent Ouija-related movies have done even worse. 2011’s “The Ouija Experiment” scored a 3.4, and 2015’s The Ouija Exorcism came in at just 2.1.

But there is hope for fans of the “communing with spirits through a board is a really bad idea” movie genre. This year's “Ouija: Origin of Evil” earned a respectable 6.9/10. Ouija improvements may not be for patents alone.