Early devices for "rhythm method"

John C. Rock, a Harvard professor of gynecology, was the co-inventor of the birth control pill and a pioneer of in-vitro fertilization. Harvard's Center for the History of Medicine is holding an exhibition of his papers and artifacts, including two devices to help with "family planning" during a time when the only legal form of birth control in Massachusetts was the rhythm method. Above is "The Rythmeter," circa 1944. "A Pioneer in Family Planning" (via Mother Jones)


  1. The term “Birth control pill” irks my pedantry.

    The aim of the contraceptive pill is to prevent pregnancy, not birth. You might as well call it a “Diaper-change control pill”

  2. I can’t imagine how people actually used this! Not when they were drunk, in the mood, or whatev. Seriously, the woman had to keep careful notes re her period. Then somehow she or her partner or both had to line everything up.

    Were they more educated then? Paid closer attention to little details? If it doesn’t have buttons and a return key, how did people use this? AND worst of all, many women do not have regular periods. No wonder this method failed.

    Fascinating, what people used before computers and birth control pills.

  3. To all the people who will surely be posting things like “ZOMG what idiots,” there have been some big advances in this sort of thing since the ’40s. My wife and I use the Sympto-thermal method, and we’ve had two years of success (in NOT having children, that is).


    Please note: I do not recommend this as a way of preventing disease, nor do I recommend it for people who aren’t married/not ok with the idea of having kids. When we were dating, we used condoms every time. She also she stopped using birth control pills shortly after we started dating, and while a comment thread isn’t a very good way of listing out the reasons why, suffice it to say that she thinks it’s healthier to go without it.

    Also please note: Again I’m not saying 16-year-olds should try this. Use condoms, dumbasses.

  4. Ah yes, this is the Catholic method my mother-in-law used to bear seven children.

  5. I have found that the rhythm method, when combined with tubal ligation, is 100% effective.

  6. that is hilarious….by the time I figured this thing out the mood would be gone for sure! also, reminds me of the old ‘proportional scale’ days. In fact it might have been easy to confuse the two. “honey, I’m at 75% of the mid cycle and so can only do it while lying on foam core board!” I know people who tried to rely on some sort of timing method that are now trying to figure out how to put 5 kids through college!

  7. After seeing #5’s comment about putting kids through college I figured I’d follow-up. If we have 5 kids, college isn’t going to be something we’re worried about.

    I had to pay for my own college (my father couldn’t afford to pay for books for me, let along a private school tuition). Our kids will have the benefit of the French educational system, meaning Sorbonne for free, but should they decide to come to the US, they’re going to know they’re going to be paying their own way.

    For those of you who may say, “why would you be so harsh? College is SOOO expensive!” – Earlier today there was a post about free-range kids. You know, if you’re going to be all for letting your kids experience the world on their own terms when they’re 10, you should be willing to do it when they’re 20, as well. I learned a lot of valuable financial lessons by paying my own way.

  8. If somebody physically has one of these old Rythmeter cards an excellent project would be to turn it into a paper-craft cut-out model.

  9. I know this is getting bashed as a birth control method that won’t work well (or at all), but these types of wheels can be very useful for a couple who is actually trying to get pregnant.

    There are many better methods of contraception, but it is by far the cheapest and simplest way to increase the odds of conception.

  10. Remember people, this is the time of slide rules (which this is a purpose-built variant of) so in theory it wouldn’t be as intimidating to anyone with at least an eighth-grade education.

  11. Ha, I remember being shown these in the 1980s at the Jesuit high school I went to. Too bad they didn’t give them out, I’d love to have one. Maybe I’ll check ebay and save a search.

  12. This would be my brother.
    I would be a failed IUD.
    And our oldest sibling would be the back seat of a 1960 convertible and a “broken condom”.

    Good times! :)

  13. My wife and I spent about five years trying out various kinds of birth control while we were dating only to have fertility problems now. Life has a way of kicking you in the balls sometimes.

  14. #3 — a second on symptothermal working.

    For the uninitiated: periods aren’t the only physical ‘symptom’ of a woman’s cycle. Her resting temperature (measured when waking from a full night’s sleep) and several other things less easily described but easily checked vary through the month. A minute or two of checking and charting every morning, will tell you when she is fertile.

    For regular women who never travel or get sick, the old-fashioned “counting/rhythm” method works. But for everybody else, charting symptoms warns you when ovulation has been delayed or has decided to come early (very common when traveling or stressed or harboring a cold). In the old days of simple rhythm, that was usually detected on a 9-month lag.

  15. @#5 Actually, tubal ligation isn’t definitely-for-sure-you’ll-never-get-pregnant. Pregnancy is still possible (ectopic, most likely). But, the chances are less than 1%.

    Life! It just doesn’t give up! ;)

  16. I like how it says “Planned Parenthood” on it. I assume that’s not at all related to today’s organization of that name?

  17. Ummmm, I have no idea how to work that thing. Can I not just put a rubber on my dick, instead?

  18. Reminds me of that old joke:

    Q: What do you call people who use the rhythm method?

    A: Parents

  19. Birth control pills are powerful, powerful drugs that can seriously compromise a woman’s hormonal system, and lead to a number of complications. When I was married, my wife at the time experienced strange symptoms from Depo-Provera and other birth control pills, so she went off them. She was allergic to latex, so condoms were out.

    She found out about natural family planning, and bought a simple device that measured levels of hormones in her saliva. She used this to track her cycle and mapped it to a calendar to track when she ovulated, and we had a very active sex life for 10 years without any “surprises”. We just didn’t have sex around the time she ovulated. When we wanted to have a child (we have 2), we waited till she ovulated, had sex during that time, and both times she was pregnant more or less immediately.

    It works.

    1. There’s a world of difference between the rhythm method using guesswork and the rhythm method using a thermometer.

  20. DDK, it’s not even just traveling and illness — some women just have a cycle longer or shorter than 28 days, or an irregular cycle.

    Antinous, that’s because when you use a thermometer and look at other signs (such as cervical mucus), it’s not really rhythm at all.

    For any interested parties, I recommend Taking Charge of Your Fertility. I have a copy even though I don’t use the method myself. It’s just darned cool how the human body works.

  21. To all the “I’m allergic to latex” boys out there…they actually make polyurethane condoms.

    Grow up and cover up guys. Any “inconvenience” that you may experience ain’t nothing to what an unintended pregnancy will cause your partner, if you give a crap. Of course, googling “non-latex condoms” is just sooooo much of a burden compared to taking your temperature, saliva swabs, watching the calendar, and so on…

  22. Marquette University has outlined a method that uses a fertility monitor (that measures hormones in urine) to predict ovulation. They did a study and found that the failure rates were 0.6% for “correct use” and 10.8% for “typical use”. For reference, that’s more effective than condoms. Worth looking into, in my opinion.

  23. I like how it’s numbered. The limited edition ways to get pregnant are always worth more on Ebay.

    Antinous / Moderator “There’s a world of difference between the rhythm method using guesswork and the rhythm method using a thermometer.”
    Obviously. One results in an unplanned pregnancy while the other in an unexpected one.

    It should just have a spinner with two spots: “You got lucky this time” and “Wups”

  24. Late to the party. @23, you assume incorrectly. This is indeed that same Planned Parenthood, founded in 1916.

    Since it’s Teen Pregnancy Awareness Month, I’ll do the whole spiel. If there’s a teen in your life, now is a great time to check in with them and make sure they have good, science-based information on reproductive and sexual health, even if they’re not sexually active yet.

    ANY birth control method can fail, even, as MrsBug sys, surgical sterilization. Failure rates get higher if methods are not being done consistently (condoms on before penetration, pills taken every day–we’re all human). Backup methods are always advisable. And if you’re a woman who is sexually active with men/a man, it’s a good idea to have Plan B on hand, just in case.

    Done right, fertility monitoring has a similar effectiveness rate to a diaphragm. Combined with a backup method such as withdrawl, effectiveness increases. Fertility monitoring can be a good choice for people who are a) not worried about disease and b) unable/prefer not to use hormonal BC.

    Bristol Palin *almost* had it right when she recently said that abstinence is the only 100% effective birth control. I will make it a little more accurate and say *abstinence from PVI* is the most effective birth control. (This is why gay folks so rarely get accidentally pregnant. :) Just think of all the different kinds of fun you can have with a person! Sex is huge; it’s not just about Tab A and Slot B. Getting creative is a wonderful way to avoid pregnancy.

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