A fresh impression of Freud’s ‘mystic writing-pad’

They’ve been used as toys, for military planning, and cited as a metaphor for the unconscious mind. A Yale scholar explores the history of erasable wax tablets.
Illustration: Aeschylus, mystic writing pad, and Sigmund Freud

(Illustration by Michael S. Helfenbein)

In 1925, Sigmund Freud wrote what is now a fairly well-known essay, “A Note on the ‘Mystic Writing-Pad.’” The Mystic Writing-Pad was a relatively simple device that enabled the instant erasure of any markings on its surface. The pad’s foundation layer was a soft, waxy substrate, on top of which lay a thin layer of celluloid or plastic. Writing with a stylus on the celluloid made impressions in the wax, which showed up as dark markings on the celluloid. Lifting that top layer, however, caused the markings to vanish. The pad, a predecessor to the children’s Magic Slate pads popularized in later decades, could be used over and over.

For Freud, these two layers offered an interesting analogy for the unconscious and conscious mind,” said R. John Williams, an associate professor of English in Yale’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences. “The unconscious mind, like the wax layer, receives impressions and retains them. And the celluloid, like the conscious mind, can be refreshed so that new perceptions can emerge.”

In an article published this month in the journal Representations, Williams reveals the fascinating history of the Mystic Writing-Pad, which, as it turns out, didn’t begin as the Mystic Writing-Pad at all. Perhaps Williams’ most startling discovery was that the device Freud used to develop his theory of mind would go on to be used by the German air force, the Luftwaffe, to make the calculations for their flight paths during World War II.

Printator from World War II
Printator from World War II (Image courtesy of R. John Williams)

Williams sat down with Yale News to talk about the pad’s origins in Berlin, writing as a form of thinking, and the ancient history of erasable wax tablets.

The 150 or so scholarly articles and books that reference Freud’s 1925 essay assume the pad was just a toy. But you argue that dismissing it as such was a mistake.

R. John Williams: In making that assumption, they miss something not so much about Freud as about thinking. Something that Freud himself missed is that the pad can be thought of as more than a mere analogy for thinking. It can be considered a part of thinking. The idea is that what we're doing with our writing tools, whether it's a wax tablet or a smartphone, is itself a form of thinking, not just a representation of thinking that one’s already done in the mind. As a writer, I’ve come to realize this is very important. And I mean this in a very literal sense, that to write is to think, in both the conscious and unconscious sense. Writing is itself a part of thinking, and often you don't even know what you're thinking until you've written it down.

The pad offers an opportunity to think about the objects that we think with. In fact, this is the one thing that I worry most about as a professor in the time of artificial intelligence: that the process is going to be taken over more and more for beginning writers. That the initial thinking will be simply done for them.

The original writing pad wasn’t marketed as a toy, right?

Williams: Yes, the original pad that Freud would have encountered — the Wunderblock — was marketed to business professionals and large companies hoping to advertise their products. That’s partly because they were easy to mass produce, and they offered this space where one could think and then erase. Advertisers saw it as a space where you could be reminded of whatever product they wanted to promote at the time. It was definitely not a children’s toy at that time.

Freud encountered the Wunderblock in Vienna, which the translators of his essay rendered as the “Mystic Writing-Pad.” But you found it was preceded by another erasable pad, the Printator, made in Berlin.

Williams: One of the most surprising things I discovered in researching this device was that the most successful and ambitious company that produced the pads at the time when Freud was writing seems to have been erased from historical memory. The Wunderblock, it turns out, was a knockoff of an earlier model, and no one in the scholarship on the device seemed to have noticed this.

Strathmore Magic Slate marketing ad from 1939
Strathmore Magic Slate marketing ad from 1939 (Image courtesy of Williams)

This was because of a combination of things. First, there’s a company in Illinois in the 1920s known as Strathmore Printing that gets tricked by this local con man into producing a false patent for the device. It’s only after they’ve been mass producing the pad by the millions that they suddenly realize they’ve been duped and Printator is threatening legal action. In order to secure some intellectual property for the device, they begin marketing it as an educational tool or a toy for children, and they start calling it the Magic Slate. This turned out to be a very successful strategy.

The second reason Printator gets erased from memory has to do with the history of the company. By the 1920s, they had come to completely monopolize the market. But with its headquarters in Berlin in 1938, the company gets Aryanized by the Nazi regime, meaning the property is seized from its Jewish owners. Its new owners sign a contract with the Luftwaffe to make the pad a key piece of every navigational kit. They could work out their calculations and erase as needed.

But by 1945, with Berlin in ruins, the company is effectively destroyed by the war. And so by the mid-1950s, the global market for the device is dominated almost entirely by Strathmore from Illinois. That’s the point at which they get purchased by Western Publishing, and they were the ones that really took it as a children’s toy and turned it into this global phenomenon that everybody remembers, and then retroactively assumes that that’s what Freud would have encountered.

You also discovered that the U.S. government promoted the use of these devices for a while.

Williams: It’s one of the many interesting side stories that I discovered. In the 1980s, the State Department sent hundreds of the Magic Slate pads to U.S. embassies around the world and told them to communicate sensitive information on the pads, rather than conveying it out loud or writing it down on a more durable medium. The assumption was that the embassies were probably bugged and it was better to have a device that could convey the information and then erase it.

What are your overall thoughts about the significance of the history of this device?

Williams: I think the idea that the Mystic Writing-Pad was merely a children’s toy or a passing analogy for the Freudian theory of the mind overlooks a lot. It’s surprising to me that no one’s written a comprehensive history of erasable wax tablets. They’ve existed in some form for over 3,000 years.

The Greek tragedy writer Aeschylus famously used one. Socrates refers to them a couple of times. In one of the apocryphal books of the Bible, God tells the prophet Ezra to gather a bunch of scribes together and write down his revelations on these wax tablets. They show up in Ovid's “Metamorphoses,” in which men are writing notes to their lovers. This thing that is now remembered as merely a children’s toy is actually a really important part of the history of writing and thinking in the West.

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