Nyctographs and Geniuses

From the Oxford English Dictionary:

Your word for today is: nyctograph, n.

nyctograph, n.
Pronunciation: Brit. /ˈnɪktə(ʊ)grɑːf/, /ˈnɪktə(ʊ)graf/,  U.S. /ˈnɪktoʊˌgræf/, /ˈnɪkdoʊˌgræf/
Etymology: <  nycto- comb. form + -graph comb. form. Compare French nyctographe machine enabling the blind to write or the sighted to write in the dark (1818–19 or earlier), and Hellenistic Greek νυκτογραϕία writing by night. Compare also earlier noctograph n.

A device invented by Charles Dodgson (‘Lewis Carroll’) with which a person can record ideas (esp. those remaining after sleep) at night in bed without fully waking up.

1891  ‘L. Carroll’ Diary 24 Oct. (1953) II. xiv. 486 Today [sc. 24 Sept.] I conceived the idea of having a series of squares, cut out in card, and devising an alphabet, of which each letter could be made of lines along the edges of the squares, and dots at the corners.‥ I shall call it ‘The Typhlograph’. (24/10/91. Instead of ‘typhlograph’ I have adopted ‘Nyctograph’ at the suggestion of Warner).

The rather general description of Lewis Carroll’s nyctograph provided by the OED cannot, of course, even begin to do it justice. Here’s a reconstruction of the device itself:

The device itself is not the real magic here, of course. Carroll invented a new alphabet consisting of lines and dots placed within the boxes. The device above would be placed on a sheet of paper, and Carroll would draw his letters along the inside edges of each box. When two lines of text were completed, he’d move the device down the paper and start over again.

Carroll was concerned about being able to record easily his memories of his dreams, or any other ideas that happened to pop into his head at night. Living in the nineteenth century before the widespread use of electricity, wanting to write at night meant having to get out of bed, light a candle, and then sit down to write. He invented the nyctograph and its alphabet to save himself the trouble of doing so. The text itself looks like this:

Now I’d like you to wrap your head around what’s going on here. Fully. Carroll invented a new alphabet and a device to write it with so that he didn’t need to get out of bed to write something down. Okay, I understand that. But… why not just write freehand on a sheet of paper lying next to the bed?

Anyone who could invent a new alphabet and learn it quickly and well enough to be able to use it in the dark — and let me add, to be able to use it in the dark while half asleep — should be able to write fairly legibly in the dark — at least legibly enough for personal notes. Carroll didn’t need this device to record his thoughts.

He needed this device to write neatly in the dark.

He cared about writing neatly in the dark.


He prefers complex solutions to simple problems. It’s like the (very likely) urban legend about the Space Pen. The story goes that Nasa wanted a pen that could write reliably in zero-gravity environments, underwater, and in any position — upside-down, sideways, etc. — so spent $1,000,000 on research to produce this pen. I own one. Works pretty well. Bought them for my kids for Christmas one year (gratuitous fatherhood reference).

The Russians had the same problem so decided to use pencils.

Lewis Carroll was a space-pen kind of guy. I also think he was too often bored, so invented problems to amuse himself.


Published by James Rovira

Dr. James Rovira is higher education professional with twenty years experience in the field in teaching, administration, and advising roles. He is also an interdisciplinary scholar and writer whose works include fiction, poetry, and scholarship exploring the intersections of literature and philosophy, literature and psychology, literary theory, and music and literature.. His books include Women in Rock, Women in Romanticism (Routledge, 2023); David Bowie and Romanticism (Palgrave Macmillan, 2022); Writing for College and Beyond (a first-year composition textbook (Lulu 2019)); Reading as Democracy in Crisis: Interpretation, Theory, History (Lexington Books 2019); Rock and Romanticism: Blake, Wordsworth, and Rock from Dylan to U2 (Lexington Books, 2018); Rock and Romanticism: Post-Punk, Goth, and Metal as Dark Romanticisms (Palgrave Macmillan, 2018); and Blake and Kierkegaard: Creation and Anxiety (Continuum/Bloomsbury, 2010). See his website at for details.

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