13 min read

Thomas Edison's Spirit Telegraph

Thomas Edison's Spirit Telegraph

A look at Thomas Edison’s Spirit Telegraph, an apparatus to contact the spirit world that he claimed to be working on, but which never surfaced.

In 1920, famed inventor Thomas Edison gave a series of interviews bragging about a device he was testing, a spirit telegraph, which spiritualists could use to give their seances a more scientific bent. Though he despised Ouija boards, table tipping, and other trappings of spiritualism, Edison believed that his new invention could determine whether the human personality persisted after death, once and for all. The only problem? The invention never materialized.

Highlights include:
• Creepy uses for the phonograph
• The “little people” or “life units” that make up our bodies
• Electrocuting an elephant in Coney Island
• The chapter of Edison’s diary that his family had removed
• Edison’s ghost

 

Episode Script for Thomas Edison’s Spirit Telegraph

DISCLAIMER: I’m providing this version of the script for accessibility purposes. It hasn’t been proofread, so please excuse typos. There are also some things that may differ between the final episode and this draft script. Please treat the episode audio as the final product. 

“Edison–the man who has given us the electric light, the phonograph, the motion picture, the nickel-iron storage battery, the perfected dynamo and a vast collection of other devices entering into our everyday life–is about to devote himself to something which is infinitely more interesting than any invention can ever be.”

-from an article in the Boston Globe, October 31, 1920

“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.” –Thomas Edison, in an interview in The American Magazine in 1920

  • A little detour in our Ouija board convo–let’s talk about the Edison Spirit telegraph, or spirit phone.
  • A bit of background on Thomas Edison: he was maybe the most famous American inventor.
    • He had over 1,000 patents to his name.
    • He invented the phonograph, motion picture camera, early versions of the electric lightbulb.
    • He also started the first film studio, called the Black Maria, in NJ.
  • He was born in Ohio in 1847, grew up in Michigan, and when he was a teenager, he worked as a telegraph operator on the railroad.
  • He had some hearing issues because of a childhood case of scarlet fever.
  • When he got older, he claimed that his hearing loss made him focus better and get distracted less often.
  • A lot of people these days think that he had ADHD, which makes sense to me, since it would have allowed him to really hyperfocus.
  • It’s really interesting to me that so many of his inventions had to do with communication, because of his hearing issues.
  • He also supposedly believed in nonviolence; for example, when he was asked to be a naval consultant during WWI, he said he’d only work on defensive weapons. He once said: “I am proud of the fact that I never invented weapons to kill.”
    • He was a vegetarian and didn’t believe in violence toward animals.
    • However, you should take all of his pacifism with a huge grain of salt. Because when the State of New York offered Edison the opportunity to design NY’s  first electric chair, he accepted. And on August 6, 1890, Edison and one of his assistants performed an execution via the electric chair. However, it was a disaster, and the person being executed was in pain for a long time before dying, and was subjected to increasingly intense shocks, until he finally died.
    • It sounds like part of his interest in this gruesome method of execution is because of his feud with Nicola Tesla, and their argument over whether direct current or alternating current is better.
    • So to try to prove his point, he had several public demonstrations where he executed animals using the electric chair
    • And in 1903, he filmed the public electrocution of a female elephant named Topsy. The elephant may have killed some members of a circus troupe, so that’s why they killed her. I watched it, and it’s upsetting. It’s also really weird because it was filmed at Coney Island, and behind the elephant, there’s what looks like Luna Park being built or rebuilt.
  • He also opposed debt based money, and once said:  “Gold is a relic of Julius Caesar, and interest is an invention of Satan.”
  • Edison was agnostic, and he joined the Theosophical Society in NJ in 1878, though he wasn’t a very active member.
  • He once said:  “I do not believe in the God of the theologians; but that there is a Supreme Intelligence I do not doubt.”
  • The story of the spirit telegraph begins in 1920, a time that we know was really hot when it comes to Ouija boards.
  • In October 1920, Edison told American Magazine that he was building an apparatus that could open up lines of communication with the spirit world.
    • He claimed that it would make the Ouija board seem old-fashioned.
    • After that article was published, the magazine received 600 letters to the editor, written by readers who were fascinated by the device.
  • It’s not so weird that an inventor like Edison would be interested in spiritualism, since Sir Oliver Lodge was into it and he was a physicist.
  • In 1920, Edison would have been in his 70s, so I’d imagine death was weighing on his mind.
    • Also, since Edison had invented the phonograph, he’d literally created a way for people to hear the voices of people who had died. We’re used to recordings, but that must have been mind-blowing at the time, and seemed just as outlandish as a machine that could talk to spirits.
      • Also, sidenote about the phonograph: sometimes, dying people used to record their memories and last words on the phonograph, so everyone who went to their “phonograph funeral” could hear them one last time.
      • And far from finding that weird, Edison had actually suggested that as a possible use for the phonograph. He was a morbid dude.
    • Supposedly Edison had many spiritualist leanings, and I read  that he was a fairly active spiritualist until he met his last wife, Mina, whose father was a Methodist minister. (They married in 1886.)
  • However, Edison didn’t seem to like being characterized in the press as a spiritualist.
  • Here’s what he had to say about spirits:
    • In the first place, I cannot concieve such a thing as a spirit. Imagine something which has no weight, no material form, no mass; in a word, imagine nothing! I cannot be a party to the belief that spirits exist and can been seen under certain circumstances and can be made to tilt tables and rap and do other things of a similar unimportant nature. The whole thing is so absurd.”
  • The author of the Boston Globe article this quote is from said that the only reason that Edison granted the interview was because he wanted to correct the idea that people had of him as a spiritualist.
  • But here’s what he did say:
    • 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. Now, follow me carefully: I don’t claim that our personalities pass on to another existence or sphere. I don’t claim anything because I don’t know anything about the subject. For that matter, no human being knows.
    • But I do claim that it is possible to construct an apparatus which will be so delicate that if there are personalities in another existence or sphere who wish to get in touch with us in this existence or sphere, this apparatus will at least give them a better opportunity to express themselves than the tilting tables and raps and ouija boards and mediums and the other crude methods now purported to be the only means of communication.
    • In truth, it is the crudeness of the present methods that makes me doubt the authenticity of purported communications with deceased persons. Why should personalities in another existence or sphere waste their time working a little triangular piece of wood over a board with certain lettering on it? Why should such personalities play pranks with a table?
    • The whole business seems so childish to me that I frankly cannot give it my serious consideration.
    • I believe that if we are to make any real progress in psychic investigation, we must do it with scientific apparatus and in a scientific manner, just as we do in medicine, electricity, chemistry, and other fields.
    • Now, what I propose to to is furnish psychic investigators with an apparatus which will give a scientific aspect to their work. This apparatus, let me explain, is in the nature of a valve, so to speak. That is to say, the slightest concievable effort is made to exert many times its initial power for indicative purposes.
    • . . . If this apparatus fails to reveal anything of exceptional interest, I am afraid that I shall have lost all faith in the survival of personality as we know it in this existence.
  • He compared his proposed invention to a power plant, where a person can create a huge amount of power through a steam turbine with very little effort. His idea was that the apparatus would turn a “slight effort” into something that was magnified enough for investigation.
  • He said that he’d been working out the details of the spirit telegraph for a while, and said that one of his collaborators died the other day. He said that he felt his deceased collaborator should be the first spirit to use it, since he’d be familiar with the basic concept of the machine.
    • I think this is a joke but I’m not 100% sure.
  • The article notes that Edison doesn’t really believe in widely accepted theories about life and death, though he said that he believes that “life, like matter, is indestructable”
  • He said:
    • There had always been a certain amount of life on this world and there will always be the same amount. You cannot create life; you cannot destroy life; you cannot multiply life.
  • He also described how he thought our bodies were made up of “myriads and myriads of infinitesimal entities, each in itself a unit of life”
  • He talks about how if you took  a print of your thumb, then burned off your thumbprint, when your thumb healed, your distinctive thumbprint would grow back. He said he thinks that the life entities that your body is made up of are what plan and supervise that new growth. Because it’s not your brain, since it’s not like you’ve memorized your thumbprint and can will it to grow back.
  • He also used the analogy of a Martian coming to Earth. This Martian might have less detailed eyesight than ours, so they might be able to see something large like the Brooklyn Bridge, but they couldn’t see us. They’d assume that the bridge was a natural growth like a plant or rock. Then the Martian might destroy the bridge, and be surprised to return a few years later and see that the bridge had been rebuilt in the same place? Then he asked whether it’d be logical for the Martian to assume that the bridge just regrew naturally, or if it’d be more logical for them to assume that something intelligent planned and rebuilt it?
  • He theorizes that “once conditions become unsatisfactory in the body, either through a fatal sickness, fatal accident, or old age, the entities simply depart from the body and leave little more than an empty structure behind.”
  • He says that the entities live forever and there are a fixed number of them, so they pass on to another person or start creating some other new life once they leave the dead person’s body.
  • I think that’s kinda an interesting theory to think about, because the obvious argument against it is that there’re more humans now than there have ever been, so how would that work? But then again, tons of animals have gone extinct, forests have been chopped down, etc, in the service of their being more humans. So maybe someone advocating for this theory could just say that the entities had left those animals and plants and gone into new human life.
  • So I think his machine was meant to measure the scattered entities that created life, though I read elsewhere that the machine would find a frequency that the dead could speak through. Which sounds an awful lot like a spirit box.

 

  • In 1926, he told the NYT that he never actually intended to create a spirit telegraph; he claimed that when a man interviewed him in 1920, “I really had nothing to tell him, but I hated to disappoint him so I thought up this story about communicating with spirits, but it was all a joke.”
    • However, I don’t believe him. There’s too much that he’s said about the invention, both in his own writing and in interviews.
  • Edison died in 1931, and no one ever found a machine in his things that could have been a spirit phone or telegraph.
  • Even though there wasn’t a machine or blueprints, Gerald Fabris, Museum Curator of Sound Recordings at the Thomas Edison National Historical Park, said that Edison may have really been working on it. Fabris said:
    • “Edison considered thinking about something to be serious work. He posted copies of the following quotation around his laboratory for his employees to see: ‘There is no expedient to which a man will not resort to avoid the true labor of thinking,’ by Sir Joshua Reynolds.”
  • Also, I read that Edison gave a demonstration of a device to contact the beyond to a group of scientists sometime in the 1920s. (It sounds like it was basically a motion sensor device.)
  • Supposedly during a séance in 1941, Edison’s ghost said that three of his assisstants had the plans to the spirit telegraph, but when the machine was built, it didn’t work.
  • At a later séance, Edison offered some advice to improve the machine, and an inventor named J. Gilbert Wright who was at the séance worked on thee machine until he died in 1959, but as far as we know, he wasn’t ever able to speak to spirits.
  • Several articles showed drawings of what was supposedy Edison’s invention, though they were published after his death, in 1933 and then in 1960.
  • In 1948, a book called The Diary and Sundry Observations of Thomas Alva Edison was published. It contained a chapter with Edison’s beliefs about the afterlife, and his surviving family was so mortified that they demanded that all unshipped copies of the book be destroyed, and that the shipped books be recalled. Later that year, the book was republished with 70 pages removed.
  • The two chapters that were taken out were Chapter 7, about Edison’s economic views, and Chapter 8, about spiritualism.
  • I did find a PDF of chapter 8, which is entitled The Realms Beyond, and I’ve linked that in the shownotes.
    • I read it, and much of it is very similar to the Boston Globe article I quoted earlier, and some of it is verbatim from that interview.
    • It does get a little sillier, calling the life entites “little people” and really personifying them a lot.
      • He said he thinks the “little people” didn’t come from earth, and that they came from “some other body elsewhere in the universe.”
      • He also said that these life units are sort of like swarms of bees that go elsewhere when someone dies, and that they’re so small that they could never be seen through any microscope, and that they could go through solid objects like stone or concrete walls almost as easily as through air.
    • He does mention spiritualism and he calls it a harmful superstition
    • He also says: 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. If this is ever accomplished, it will be accomplished, not by any occult, mysterious, or weird means, such as are employed by so-called mediums, but by scientific methods.
    • I liked the final lines of the book, talking about life after death:
      • I do hope that our personality survives. If it does, then my apparatus ought to be of some use. That is why I am now at work on the most sensitive apparatus I have ever undertaken to build, and I await the results with the keenest interest.

 

  • In 2015, the spirit telegraph made headlines again when a French journalist named Philippe Baudouin found a rare unexpurgated edition of the diary, which apparently detailed the plans for the spirit phone, and describes it as a high-powered phonograph that could pick up ghostly whispers.
    • I’m gonna be honest, in skimming the chapter, I didn’t spot much info about the device, it was mostly just weird stuff about little people, but I probably missed that.
    • The journalist wrote a book about the topic in french, and there’s also a 20-min documentary in French (with english subtitles) about it, which I’ve linked in the shownotes.
    • It’s an interesting documentary that draws a lot of parallels between the idea of the spirit telegraph and the phonograph, and the ghostly aspect of communication technology, etc.

 

Sources consulted RE: Thomas Edison’s Spirit Telegraph

Websites  RE: Thomas Edison’s Spirit Telegraph

  • Article in American Medicine

  • Scientific American article

  • Scientific Mythologies: How Science and Science Fiction Forge New Religious … By James A. Herrick

  • https://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/dial-a-ghost-on-thomas-edisons-least-successful-invention-the-spirit-phone

  • https://www.ozy.com/true-and-stories/the-greatest-turn-of-the-century-inventors-really-wanted-to-talk-to-ghosts/221925/

  • https://hauntedpalaceblog.wordpress.com/tag/edisons-diary/

  • https://hauntedpalaceblog.wordpress.com/tag/edisons-diary/

  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thomas_Edisonhttps://archive.is/7cmBb

  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Edison%27s_Black_Maria

  • https://science.howstuffworks.com/10-inventions-thomas-edison10.htm

  • https://www.reliableplant.com/Read/27212/Edison-invention-calls-dead

  • https://lisaandherworld-lisah.blogspot.com/2019/02/edisons-forgotten-invention-phone-that.html

  • https://www.nps.gov/edis/learn/historyculture/mina-miller-edison.htm

  • https://paleofuture.gizmodo.com/how-thomas-edison-used-a-fake-electric-chair-execution-1829652181

  • http://itcvoices.org/thomas-edison-the-lost-chapter/

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