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Dr Joseph Ignace Guillotin had spent most of his fifty years healing people when he came up with the idea that made him famous.

In 1789, at the height of the French Revolution, Guillotin suggested using a machine to behead criminals. His idea was based on the idea that now that privilege had been abandoned, even poor people should have the opportunity to die by beheading. Until the Revolution such a fate had been reserved to the nobility. Guillotin also felt death should be as swift and painless as possible.

His idea was taken up with alacrity by the Revolution. The first execution using a guillotine, as the machine was called, was carried out on 25 April, 1792. As the Revolution gained momentum, thousands were sent to their deaths on the guillotine. Though undoubtedly efficient as a killing machine, the guillotine never found much favour outside France (except, apparently, in Belgium, where it was the form of execution until mid-World War I -- Thanks NotBridgetJones).