Who you gonna call?: Edison's science of talking to ghosts

In 1920, the famed inventor gathered a group of scientist friends to witness his new experiment: the spirit phone

By Joel Martin - William J. Birnes

Published October 8, 2017 8:00AM (EDT)

Thomas A. Edison (AP)
Thomas A. Edison (AP)

Excerpted with permission from "Edison vs. Tesla: The Battle Over Their Last Invention" by Joel Martin and William J. Birnes. Copyright 2017, Skyhorse Publishing. Available for purchase on Amazon, Barnes & Noble and IndieBound.

On a chill winter night in 1920, according to an account in the October 1933 issue of Modern Mechanix magazine, with the wind whistling through the darkness outside of his Menlo Park, New Jersey, laboratory, the great inventor, industrialist, and founder of General Electric, Thomas Edison, gathered a group of his scientist friends to bear witness to his latest experiment. It was a creation his guests believed uncharacteristic of him, yet in reality was completely in keeping with his scientific beliefs. He had been working on it in secret, a project that seemed contrary to the technology-driven science Edison had embraced since his childhood in Port Huron, Michigan. But this demonstration was no attempt at mediumship or channeling, though mediums were in attendance. As the gathered scientists watched, they first heard the soft hum of an electric current, then saw a glow of light from an apparatus on the workbench that looked like a motion picture projector shoot a narrow beam of light into a photoelectric cell. Edison explained that the light on the cell, like the fog in a vacuum bell jar, would register any disturbance to the continuity of the beam when any object, no matter how evanescent or ephemeral, crossed through it. The resulting registration of an object’s presence would be displayed on a meter wired to the photoelectric cell, a telltale sign to the machine’s operator that something was there even if invisible to the naked eye. What was the great Edison looking for, the scientists might have asked themselves? What could be crossing the beam?

Edison Vs. Tesla

Although the arrangement was different from what they’d seen before at the laboratory, the invention was made of familiar component parts. Edison’s motion picture projector box had been in operation for over a decade and by 1920 was already the basis of an entirely new industry. And a photoelectric cell was a standard piece of equipment to register a beam of photons. But why would the old man project a beam of light onto a cell instead of a screen? What was this device supposed to do? Edison was cryptic toward his guests at first. But there were others present in the laboratory that night, people who were as much an anathema to the scientists as heretics were to clerics. They were the very folks Edison had dismissed as charlatans.

Along with the scientists in the room that night, participating in the demonstration of Edison’s machine, were spiritualists, mediums, and channelers who used objects like Ouija boards and tea leaves to divine what they said the souls of the departed communicated to them. Edison argued that most spiritualists were fakes and didn’t believe in their talismans of foretelling the future, but tonight he was making an exception. Tonight he needed them for the very thing they asserted they could do: connect with the spirits of the departed. He needed them to endorse the concept of his device.

Although Edison publicly and in his private writings had professed himself to be the consummate materialist, who marshaled the flow of electrons through circuits to provide light, record sound, and make photographic images dance across a screen, on this night he hoped to show that materialism could also explain spiritualism. He sought to combine technology with spiritualism to see if individuals who claimed to have the power to summon the departed could actually do so, and in so doing, lure the spirits they invoked across the beam of photons so as to register on an electric meter. For those in the room watching the experiment, how many of them would realize that this was a once-in-a-lifetime event, the industrialist of his age relying on the efforts of those he had once called frauds?

Thus, the pseudo-séance began, the ceremonial invocation of the spirits of the departed. Each spiritualist performed his or her own ritual to reach what he or she thought was the other side, but what Edison believed was simply still the here and now, a collection of entangled submicroscopic particles of life, units that made up the spirit, but not the flesh, of departed human beings that floated through the aether.

As the séance wore on, the scientists kept their stare fixed upon the needle on the meter, ostensibly to note the passage of an entity across the beam, waiting to see if something would register, waiting to see if there were spirits present. Were the powers of the spiritua­lists performing their rituals strong enough to lure discarnate units of life across the beam? Was Edison’s device sensitive enough to register any interruption of the beam? Were spirits even present? They would all soon see.

Whatever the outcome of the experiment that night, Edison himself would not be deterred from his belief that some form of a spirit existed after the death of the body. Accustomed to failures of his other inventions during theory-development stages, Edison believed that each failure was actually a form of success because it eliminated a possibility. And whatever was left after he had eliminated his failed attempts would be bound to succeed. Insofar as this projection apparatus was concerned, Edison had faith that he would ultimately succeed because he believed in the current theories of physics and the presence of unseen particles imparting life to all creatures on Earth. As it turns out, he did not have enough time, as he passed away on October 18, 1931. Even on his deathbed, he was able to arouse from a coma and tell those at his side that he had indeed found there is life after death, because he had seen the other side with his own eyes. And he knew, even as he lapsed back into a coma and breathed his last, that he had been correct all along.

Thomas Edison was a scientific skeptic. Coming of age during the Great Age of Spiritualism and thence into the Age of Science and Industrialism, Edison dismissed what he called “mediumship” as a form of charlatanism. He mocked attempts to communicate with the spirit world through Ouija boards, commenting on the ridiculousness of thinking that a disembodied spirit could manifest its thoughts through a piece of wood. In his diary, he wrote: “The thing which first struck me was the absurdity of expecting ‘spirits’ to waste their time operating such cumbersome unscientific media as tables, chairs, and the Ouija board with its letters.”

Yet, being a scientist, Edison was working in an age when huge discoveries were being made in the sciences of physics, chemistry, spectrographic analysis, his own electricity, and the new disciplines of genetics, epigenetics, and biology. It was an age when Darwin had figured out how biological species evolved, when Einstein hypothesized about the nature of matter and its relationship to energy, when Max Planck was theorizing about the mysteries of quantum physics, when geneticists were formulating the theory that genes or life units imparted traits to the human embryo at fertilization that would define it in life, and when medical doctors like Freud and Jung were explaining how unseen forces operate on the human mind. What an exciting time to be alive. What an exciting time to be a part of the very community that was making these discoveries. Yet Edison felt there was more to be discovered. There was much more to understand not so much about life, but about the essence of reality that comprised life and what happened when life itself seemed to stop after a person passed away. Did that person really pass away, Edison asked, or did that person simply become translated into another form that we couldn’t perceive through our usual five senses? If so, could the great inventor and scientist of his age find a way to enable that form of perception?

In an interview in the October 1920 issue of The American Magazine, Edison confirmed that his scientific curiosity was intrigued by the nature of what happens to us after death. In his interview he posed the question, does our consciousness simply disappear as our bodies decompose or does some essence of our personality still linger in some form in this dimension of reality? Edison admitted that he didn’t know, but the scientist in him wanted to find out whether that question could be answered. He told his interviewer that he was actively pursuing a device that would help him find that answer, saying, “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.” For Edison, who took his inventions very seriously, this was not a simple throwaway remark, it was an announcement.

It was, nevertheless, a cryptic statement. What did Edison mean when he said he was “at work building”? Clearly he was in a construction phase because he had demonstrated a prototype of the device. Surely, according to the details of his demonstration reported in Modern Mechanix, he had worked out the design of the electronics. Yet, in another interview, this time in the far more skeptical Scientific American, Edison qualified his remarks by telling his interviewer that, “I have been thinking for some time of a machine or apparatus which could be operated by personalities which have passed on to another existence or sphere.” He seemed to be saying that the control of the device would be by those who had departed. They could choose to register across the beam or not, which would have been revolutionary. And was “thinking” what Edison meant when he said he was at work “building”? Seemingly contradictory remarks like these sparked interest among the public in the 1920s because Edison, his inventions, and his pronouncements were of great import to Americans then enjoying the booming stock market and the unbridled financial optimism of the period, set against a general sense of disillusionment in the wake of the Great War.

At his core, Edison was a pragmatic inventor, creating apparatuses that he saw as satisfying consumer needs. Sometimes, the machines he invented created their own consumer markets. Wax recording cylinders, for example, fascinated the public because for the first time the human voice could be preserved; hence, the recording industry was born. When Edison perfected a camera that could capture still photographs in succession and play them back so that they displayed movement from a sequence of frames, the motion picture industry was born. By 1920, both industries were flourishing and Edison, although a national hero, was looking for a renewed burst of relevance. And he found it amidst the merging of the Great Age of Spiritualism and Age of Science and Industria­lism. In a career that boasted “firsts”—first motion pictures, first electric light bulbs, first portable recording devices, first industrial power grid—Edison now sought another first: the first scientific approach to communication with discarnate entities. What had origi­nally been the province of faith-based religions, with pre-Christian rituals, and then the practices of trance mediums and channelers, in Edison’s vision would soon be subject to scientific scrutiny, ultimately allowing for a kind of dialogue of yes and no in response to questions from the those in attendance, a form of binary code that would allow, for the first time, for electronic communication with the dead. That was the premise of the spirit phone or what popular news articles called the “Ghost Machine.”

We know this device existed and that Edison was working on it because he described it and the science behind it in his diary, even though later editors of that diary excised or redacted that particular chapter. Why? We will answer that question later, but suffice it to say that in Edison’s original thinking, he had set forth not only his intention to create a spirit phone or ghost machine, but provided the scientific theory behind it. This was an early twentieth-century theory that has since been borne out by the modern theoretical physics of quantum entanglement, spooky action at a distance, and, of course, Einstein’s special theory of relativity.

The important thing to remember about Edison and his approach to the unconventional was that he relied on the underlying science of that approach. He wrote that although he could not be sure whether human consciousness existed on another plane after the death of the body, he believed that if Einstein’s theory of special relativity were correct, then nothing really faded out of existence. Mass became energy and that energy, if coalesced into a bundle or packet, might be reachable by another packet, this one a stream of photons. Hence, the idea for a spirit phone had taken shape in his mind: photons to electrons, waves of energy converted into patterns of electric charges. And streams of electrons were the very things that Edison had been experimenting with for the previous thirty years, ever since Alexander Graham Bell perfected a telephone.

Because he believed that, on the other side of life, the energy amassed by the departed exerted a pressure upon our reality, Edison’s device would act as a “valve,” which is what he called it, that would not only open to allow waves of energy through it, but, he wrote in his diary, would augment that energy “in exactly the same way that a megaphone increases many times the volume and carrying power of the human voice.” If we can envision the early phonograph, Edison used that same principle of a huge megaphone to increase the volume and projection of the human voice. In this way, he believed, even the minutest amount of energy, if it existed on the other side, would be amplified to a sound that human beings on this side could hear.

Edison’s belief that there was a universe of eternal matter, neither created or destroyed, from which life on Earth was purely a manifestation, also had its roots in the Platonic theory of noumena, a world of forms, and a Jungian theory of a collective unconscious, a shared reality in which all life participates. Hence, a device that can so communicate with that collective unconscious reservoir might be able to carry signals—a flow of electrons—from that side to ours.

In addition to Edison’s theory of the transportation of electrons from one side of reality to another, there was also a biological component of his theory that it might be possible to communicate with the departed. In his diary, Edison wrote of the memory storage function of an area of the brain, which we now know is situated on the left hemisphere, called “Broca’s area.” Edison believed this was the seat of memory, whether conscious or unconscious, that could play back images from an individual’s life. We know now, however, that the seat of long-term memory is situated in the amygdala, the portion of the brain that is also responsible for the autonomic fight or flight response and, when damaged by repeated trauma, is also the biological trigger for post-traumatic stress reactions. Broca’s Area, we also now know from the work of scholars like Noam Chomsky and Carl Sagan, is the seat of human language development—not vocabulary, but the structure of language itself. Thus, Edison was partly correct in his assessment of the importance of Broca’s Area for cognition.

If, as Edison has written, memories, which are actually groupings of electrons he called “life clusters,” have an existence independent of incarnate physicality, then they might survive after the death of the individual in a state not unlike a Nirvana and be able to be tapped. The science, therefore, would be to fabricate a machine delicate enough to identify the presence of those life clusters, then to discriminate among the groupings of those clusters to define an individuality. The next step would be to create a channel of communication wherein the living person sitting at the spirit phone can recognize the presence of those clusters through the photo cell meter. Would the life clusters understand English or another language? Edison wrote that he did not know this, but if the spirit phone worked, he would at least find out whether his theory of consciousness after death was verifiable.

Thus, the spirit phone became Edison’s last great project, his magnum opus, to prove that even as he was entering his eighties and had become the founder of General Electric, he was still capable of coming up with an invention, a machine that could answer the age-old question about what happens when we die. Whether it succeeded and what became of it is a mystery. But the bigger mystery about the man who invented the twentieth century, who claimed to have shunned mystics and mediums as charlatans, who seemed to understand the consumer marketplace, and who translated everything he perceived into things palpably material, is why was it his quest to prove that his machine could contact the dead? This is the question we answer in this book. And so we begin with the forces that shaped young Tom Edison as he first learned to read, to reason, and to experiment with chemicals in his parents’ basement.

Joel Martin

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William J. Birnes

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