Instrument for Criminology

Date: 1900
Owner: Unknown Owner
Source Type: Images


The algometer was among the many tools employed by Cesare Lombroso and other practitioners of the Italian School of criminology, the group that had the greatest influence on Latin American criminologists in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Instruments that could quantify physiological attributes were essential to legitimizing the Italian School's theory that observable traits could distinguish born criminals and barbarians from civilized humans. Lombroso's criminological handbook suggested the use of tachianthropometers, esthesiometers, olfactometers, goniometers, and several other devices that measured everything from skull shape to one's tolerance for pain, the purpose of the algometer shown here. This practice of quantifying pain, known as algometry, was believed to prove that if one had a high threshold for pain, he or she was probably a degenerate or a descendent of barbaric stock.

The plethysmograph, another crinological instrument, was designed to record blood activities. The study of blood derived from the idea that criminals, unlike upstanding citizens, did not blush when encountering unpleasantness. Lombroso's early studies of this phenomenon were simple interviews in which female criminals were asked about their crimes and their menstrual cycles to determine their capacity to blush in response to their deeds versus simple embarrassment. More quantifiable methods were necessary, however, thus Angelo Mosso invented the plethysmograph, a sealed tube filled with tepid water that, by measuring the displacement caused by the arm within it, supposedly indicated blood activity. Like many other techniques of the Italian School, this device was supposed to make otherwise hidden criminal traits observable.

Although Latin American criminologists co-opted many of these techniques, they usually sought to adopt them to local needs. Thus the racially stratified societies of Latin America and the Caribbean emphasized hair type and skin color in determining criminality, a technique that served only to legitimize and reinforce existing racist norms.


Horn, David G. The Criminal Body: Lombroso and the Anatomy of Deviance. New York: Routledge, 2003.

CITATION: Algometer. From Lombroso, Cesare. Criminal Man. New York and London: G.P. Putnam's sons, 1911. Credit: Wellcome Library, London. L0022896.