History’s most gruesome inventions

From brutal torture devices to bizarre medical treatments, these terrifying contraptions reveal a darker side of innovation

From the wheel to the World Wide Web, we have invented some truly ground-breaking things during our time on Earth. Yet throughout history, inventors have also been known to put their skills to use in horrifying ways, creating contraptions that have caused unimaginable suffering. In the past, if you committed a terrible crime, a punishment much worse than a long prison sentence awaited you. From boiling people alive to sawing them in half, execution methods were often developed to be as cruel as possible. These gruesome events were usually carried out in public to deter others from following in the footsteps of the accused. Even if you weren’t sentenced to death, there were plenty of ghastly implements that could be used to torture you instead. Typically used to extract a confession or information about accomplices, torture was popular in medieval times, with the screams of victims echoing from castle dungeons across Europe. War has also inspired a wide selection of horrific innovations. While guns and bombs were designed to kill instantly, chemical weapons could draw out death for several agonising days – thankfully, this form of warfare is now prohibited. We are also lucky that some medical devices from history are no longer used. Despite being designed with good intentions, many medieval procedures were truly stomach-churning, making a trip to the doctor quite the ordeal. So as you drive around in your car and browse the web on your phone, be grateful that the inventions you use aren’t gruesome like these…

The brazen bull

One of the most brutal methods of execution ever created took the form of a hollow bull statue. Invented in ancient Greece by Perillus, a bronze worker in Athens, it was given as a gift to a cruel tyrant named Phalaris of Agrigentum. As well as roasting criminals alive, the device also doubled as a musical instrument, converting the victim’s desperate cries into what Perillus described as “the tenderest, most pathetic, most melodious of bellowings”. Distrustful of the inventor’s claims, Phalaris ordered Perillus to climb inside and prove the device’s musical capabilities himself. However, as soon as he was inside, Phalaris shut the door and lit a fire beneath, causing Perillus to scream for real. However, rather then letting him die at the hands of his own creation, Phalaris had him removed and thrown off a cliff instead.


Devised over 2,500 years ago as punishment for the most serious crimes, crucifixion would kill victims in a horribly drawn-out and painful way. With their wrists and feet nailed or tightly bound to a cross, and their legs broken by the executioners to speed up death, the victim’s weight would be transferred to their arms. This would gradually pull the shoulders and elbows out of their sockets, leaving the chest to bear the weight. Although inhaling would still be possible, exhaling would be difficult and the victim would eventually suffocate due to a lack of oxygen. This excruciating process could take 24 hours.


Although beheading methods had already been around for centuries, in 1789 French physician Dr Joseph Guillotin proposed a much more efficient and humane device for decapitation. When the executioner released the rope holding the guillotine’s weighted blade in place, it would drop onto the victim’s neck, killing them in a fraction of a second. This helped to eliminate the human error that was common with axe and sword beheadings, which sometimes required the executioner to deliver multiple swings to fully remove the head. Although quick, guillotine executions were popular spectator events during the French Revolution and the guillotine operators become national celebrities.

Electric chair

Electrocution was introduced as a quicker and supposedly less painful method of execution than hanging in the 1880s. When brought to the electric chair, a person has their head and one calf shaved to reduce resistance to electricity and is strapped in across their waist, arms and legs. A moistened sponge is then placed on their head and an electrode in the shape of a metal skullcap is secured on top. Another electrode is attached to their shaved leg and then the power is switched on. 2,000 volts pass through their body, paralysing the respiratory system and causing cardiac arrest.

This article was originally published in How It Works issue 81, written by Joanna Stass

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