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Marie Antoinette's execution on 16 October 1793

The guillotine is a machine used to execute people by decapitation (chopping off their heads).

A guillotine is made of a heavy blade attached to a rack, which moves up and down on a vertical frame. When the rack is let go, it will fall down and the blade will cut the convict's head off.


Machines like the guillotine were first invented in the Middle Ages, and were used throughout Europe. For example, Scotland used a machine called the "Scottish Maiden".

The first time the guillotine was commonly used was in France, in the French Revolution of 1789. The guillotine became the only legal way to execute someone in France. The guillotine was used because it caused a quick death. Everyone died the same way, no matter what social class you were in, whether you were wealthy or poor.

The guillotine was commonly used in France (including France's colonies), Switzerland, Italy, Belgium, Germany, and Austria. It was also used in Sweden. Today, all of these countries have abolished (legally stopped) the death penalty. The guillotine is no longer used.

The invention of the guillotine

Joseph Guillotin

Joseph-Ignace Guillotin (1738-1814)

The guillotine is named after a French medical doctor, Joseph-Ignace Guillotin. Guillotin was against the death penalty. Realising he could not stop the death penalty, Guillotin instead tried to think of a quicker, less painful way of executing people. On October 10, 1789, he suggested using a machine to do all the executions.

The actual guillotine was designed by another doctor, Antoine Louis. Guillotin did not help much with the design, but his name went down in history. Against Guillotin's wishes, the new machine quickly became known as the Guillotine. Guillotin regretted this until death in 1814.


The design for a quick, painless, decapitation machine was given to Tobias Schmidt, a German engineer. Schmidt built the first guillotine and tested it, on animals at first, but later on dead humans. It was made of two fourteen-foot uprights joined by a crossbar, whose inside edges were grooved and greased with tallow; the weighted blade was either straight, or curved like an axe. The system was started by a rope and pulley, while the whole construction was set up on a platform. The first execution was in 1792.

Later use

The guillotine was still the only legal way to execute a person in France until 1979, when France stopped using the death penalty. In Nazi Germany, the guillotine was used to kill prisoners sentenced for serious crimes like murder, treason, or conspiracy against the government.

A guillotine was last used in West Germany in 1949 and East Germany in 1961. The last person guillotined was the Tunisian murderer Hamida Djandoubi in 1977.

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