Back in October 2014 I wrote a blog, "Even the Dead Can’t Escape Technology," which briefly mentioned Thomas Edison’s attempt to build a "spirit communicator" in the 1920s.
Recently, more information has surfaced on Edison’s strange research into the hereafter.
Indeed, I discussed it at length on a Nov. 29, 2016 Internet/radio broadcast of the Barry Farber Show.
In 1920, Thomas Edison (1847–1931) the prolific inventor who had developed the first commercial electric light and the phonograph, astounded the world when he told B.C. Forbes writing in the October issue of The American Magazine, "I have been at work for some time, building an apparatus to see if it is possible for personalities which have left this earth to communicate with us."
As absurd as Edison’s statement sounds to us today, the idea was not so ridiculous at the time because the spiritualist movement was then going strong in America.
Spiritualists believe that the afterlife, or the "spirit world," is a place where spirits not only exist but continue to evolve. Moreover, they feel that contact with spirits is possible and they can give us valuable insights regarding God, ethics, and the nature of reality.
Some of the era’s mediums and clairvoyants who held séances and allegedly communicated with the spirit world went so far as to call themselves "phone-voyants" since they fancied themselves as the human equivalent of one of Alexander Graham Bell’s telephones.
Edison, being a nuts-and-bolts technologist, would have none of the unscientific and often fraudulent practices of the psychic mediums, which he called crude and childish. Yet the mediums managed to captivate the belief of their clients, who, Edison said, "permit themselves to become, in a sense, hypnotized into thinking that their imaginings are actualities."
Edison told The American Magazine that his spirit-communicating device would not be based on any occult or weird concept, but purely on science. Edison said, "I would like to provide the spiritualists with a device that would give them the opportunity to work strictly within the boundaries of science . . . I am engaged in the construction of one such apparatus now, and I hope to be able to finish it before very many months pass."
It was also in 1920 that Edison wrote an essay on spiritualism for the esteemed journal Scientific American. Just a year later, in 1921, he gave an interview to The New York Times where he mused a bit about life after death.
Immediately after his 1920 proclamation, the device, although unseen, became a sort of three-day wonder, causing a media frenzy. Most newspaper and magazine editors thought the idea was ridiculous. But many others took the idea seriously. After all, the great Edison had many impressive inventions to his credit.
If he said he could build a spirit communicator, then surely it was just a matter of time before it would be unveiled to the public. After Edison’s comment was published, a French cartoon appeared depicting a dejected husband harangued by his deceased mother-in-law via Edison’s spirit phone.
Edison did not initially give the device a name, though interested parties referred to it using the terms "spirit phone," "spiricom" and "necrophone."
After the initial media mania, however, news about Edison’s spirit communicator vanished. Many historians later speculated that Edison must have been joking, or perhaps sprang a harmless April Fools’ prank on the public.
Major biographies of Edison are silent on the subject, as are most English language versions of the speeches and fragments of Edison’s diary that appeared in the "Diary and Sundry Observations of Thomas Alva Edison," a book published in 1948 — about 17 years after his death.
I say most versions because after the first printing of his diary, Edison’s family decided to excise some potentially eyebrow-raising material, presumably to protect his reputation.
Indeed, the Edison Estate both redacted the 80 plus pages of spiritualism-related material from his diary and held onto his documents for over 50 years until they were finally donated to Rutgers University.
Fast forward to 2015, when the French journalist, philosopher and radio presenter Philippe Baudouin was browsing in a second-hand bookshop in France. He came across a rare version of Edison’s diary translated into French and published in 1949.
Interestingly, this complete version preserved a missing final chapter devoted to Edison’s theory of the spirit world, and how it might be possible to contact its denizens.
In March of 2015 Baudouin republished the missing chapter along with commentary as "Le Royaume de l’au-delà." ("The Kingdom of the Afterlife").
So, what did Edison believe about the spirt world?
It was Edison’s belief that that, just as the physical bodies of people and animals are composed of atoms, so too a parallel spiritual body exists composed of analogous tiny "entities" or particles of the "lifeforce."
Edison thought that life and something popularly conceived as the soul in men and animals results from the activity of "swarms" of millions of what he called "immortal units," each infused with an iota of life and its processes.
Edison believed that just as there is a conservation of matter and energy, so too is life indestructible, so that the many tiny life entities would continue to exist after a person dies— a personality-based residue of memories and thoughts comprising what a person was when alive.
If these particles existed, he reasoned, they could collect together around us in the space-time continuum — or "ether" to use a quaint, obsolete term. Possibly they could be amplified by his device like a human voice can be amplified and recorded by a phonograph.
To try to prove this, Edison took one of his fingers, made a fingerprint, then deliberately burned his finger to the point where the loops, whorls and arches of skin ridges on the pads of his finger (called a dermatoglyph) were obliterated.
It was an obviously painful experience in the name of science!
After the finger had healed, Edison had another fingerprint taken. It showed that the original pattern of lines had returned.
Edison thought that this experiment confirmed his hypothesis that a mosaic of such invisible "immortal units" not only directed the regrowth of his finger’s original design, but one’s entire body.
Unfortunately for Edison, the DNA molecule and modern genetic theory had not yet been formulated in his time, and he was doubtless unaware of genetic diseases characterized by abnormal or absent dermatoglyphs such as adermatoglyphia, which today is known to be caused by mutations in a gene called SMARCAD1.
In the expunged chapter of his diary, Edison mentioned that his first efforts to research the underlying technology for a "spirit phone" occurred way back in late 1870, when he amplified the sounds from his phonographs in an attempt to hear possible spirit voices lurking in the background of the recordings.
Doing this was almost a fool’s errand for Edison, as he was nearly deaf. Amusingly, when he built his version of a telephone in the late 1870s, Edison devised a way to amplify the sound to a tremendous extent so he could use it himself. The so-called Edison Loud-Speaking Telephone was so loud it could broadcast music throughout a large auditorium. One observer noted that sound from its receiver could be heard a quarter of a mile away!
Moreover, Edison had made a strange pact with one of his employees, William Walter Dinwiddie (1876–1920), who worked at Edison’s Orange, New Jersey lab for eight years, first as manager of the disk record division and later as a research and experimental engineer. Edison’s pact with Dinwiddie was that whoever died first "would try to send a message to the survivor from beyond."
Unfortunately, although Dinwiddie died on Oct. 6, 1920 he never communicated with Edison from beyond the grave.
According to Baudouin, Thomas Edison drew up plans and theories for at least one such device, though whether he actually built and tested one is still unknown. He never named the machine, and apparently referred to it at one point as a "valve," which was made highly sensitive to any subtle vibrations caused by spirits.
There were later, almost certainly more fanciful depictions of Edison’s spirit phone by magazines that showed assemblages of phonograph-like parts, including a fluted horn containing an electrode, thought to have been dipped in potassium permanganate, which conducts electricity when in a water solution. This horn was allegedly attached to a wooden box having a highly sensitive microphone capable of picking up the vibrations of spirit entities.
So what did Thomas Edison really do in terms of spirit communicator experiments back in the 1920s, not long before his death?
According to an October 1933 issue of Modern Mechanix magazine, long after the alleged event, Edison reportedly brought together a group of scientists to a secret laboratory to participate in attempts to record voices of the dead. They used "speakers, generators, and other experimental equipment," the magazine reported.
The magazine article also describes a sort of "proof-of-concept" device by Edison wherein a "tiny pencil of light, coming from a powerful lamp, bored through the darkness and struck the active surface," which could detect even a tiny particle. Any variations spotted in the beam’s intensity would mean that one or more particles had passed through it and this would be "proof" of the existence of the "units" of the human personality left in the atmosphere. (Of course, it could also mean that there was just some dust in the air, but Edison may have taken care of that by filtering the air in the lab.)
After "tense hours" spent watching instruments, however, nothing was detected. The magazine declared that the experiment’s failure was the reason why no one had heard of it before.
Since Edison’s death in 1931, a parade of inventors have sought Edison’s blueprints for the spirit phone, to no avail. Failing that, these hopefuls have built gizmos that they thought would imitate its workings.
In perhaps the most bizarre example described in Stephan Palmié’s book, "Spirited Things," in 1941 some researchers went so far as to use a medium to contact Edison himself on "the other side," who related instructions for building a device. Palmié described the result: "Alas, the contraption did not seem to successfully transmit any life units."
In recent decades the preferred technology for detecting and communicating with ghosts, has been though so-called Electronic Voice Phenomena (EVP), which are faint ghostly voices or sounds detected on recordings with static or other background noise.
This technique originated with the Americans Attila von Szalay and Raymond Bayless using a reel-to-reel tape recorder in 1956, followed in 1959 by Swedish painter and film producer Friedrich Jurgenson, who was recording bird songs but when he played the tape back was surprised to hear the voices of his dead father and deceased wife calling his name.
The most famous EVP researcher was a Latvian psychologist named Konstantin Raudive, who made over 100,000 recordings during the 1960s.
Skeptics say that hearing voices emanating from these devices is simply an example of a psychological phenomenon called "pareidolia," wherein the mind of a person experiencing a stimulus perceives a familiar pattern of something where none exists — such as hearing a ghostly voice in the random background noise of a sound recording.
Thomas Edison — wherever he is — might disagree.
Richard Grigonis is an internationally known technology editor and writer. He was executive editor of Technology Management Corporation’s IP Communications Group of magazines from 2006 to 2009. The author of five books on computers and telecom, including the highly influential "Computer Telephony Encyclopedia" (2000), he was founding editor-in-chief of Jeff Pulver’s Voice on the Net (VON) magazine from 2003 to 2006, and the chief technical editor of Harry Newton’s Computer Telephony magazine from its first year of operation in 1994 until 2003. Read more reports from Richard Grigonis — Click Here Now.
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