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Anecdotes from the Archive

Anecdotes from the Archive


Intriguing finds from Scientific American's past
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How to Find the True Shape of a Soldier

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In 1915, it was imperative for France to keep its soldiers in good physical condition. The French War Ministry’s physical education school in Joinville looked for ways to improve soldiers’ performances and spot any problems with their health before they were sent to the Front. According to the cover story from the May 8, 1915 Scientific American Supplement, the school studied respiration, circulation, and muscular contraction with the aid of novel scientific research tools in their physiology lab. Professor G. Demeny invented several devices that helped determine the form and dimensions of the body while in motion and at rest. One of his most important contributions was an instrument called the “double universal conformator.”

Conformator on cover


The conformator may look a bit like a torture trap, but it was designed to measure the vertical and horizontal shape of the torso. The instrument consisted of metal rods with numerous thin strips of wood attached, each able to move on its own at a right angle to the rod. The wood strips moved to fit against the contours of the body, much like one of those pin impression toys that encourage one to stick a hand or face into a bed of pins in order to make a relief. The shape made by the body’s contour could be held in place by tightening a nut at the end of the rod, allowing an outline to be traced.

To measure a horizontal plane of the torso, a rectangular frame of the same design was placed around the soldier. Inside the frame, the soldier could be moved up or down on a platform to measure the chest at different heights. Demeny’s conformator was ideal for trainers and physiologists at Joinville looking for defects in symmetry, such as uneven shoulders and hips or abnormal curvature of the spine.


double conformator


Demeny’s instruments were a true testament to the intersection of science and athletics, and helped to show the importance of treating each soldier as an individual in order to improve his condition and strengthen the military as a whole.

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