“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.”
When Thomas Edison uttered these words to the science correspondent of The American magazine in 1920, the journalist must have realised he’d hit on quite a big story.
At the time, Edison held an unprecedented 1093 US patents. His workshop were responsible for inventing so many modern conveniences, that they had fundamentally changed the way human beings lived their lives.
Now, so it appeared, his focus had shifted to improving the afterlife...
So what happened to Edison’s fabled ‘spirit phone’? How come no prototypes of schematics have ever been found? Did he actually build it at all?
Published the same month, Edison is recorded in Scientific American, saying:
“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.”
Considering his choice of words, it might be reasonable to assume that Edison’s research never have made it any further than simply meditating upon an idea. However, the article does end, rather tantalisingly, with the line:
"The apparatus which he is building is still in the experimental stage."
If Edison did actually begin work on the machine, it is unusual that it – and any documents that might have related to it – have now disappeared.
The lazy option would be to think in terms of a conspiracy theory, but it’s more probable that the research simply took Edison in a different direction – and, so, what started out, rather fantastically, as a ‘spirit phone’, might have become something more mundane.
Thanks to Scientific American, we do have a vague idea as to the nature of Edison’s experiments. In a follow-up interview, he explained:
“I do think 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, the 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.”
Some modern ‘ghost hunters’ still use hyper-sensitive recording equipment in their investigations.
To most of us, these recordings - of ‘Electric Voice Phenomena’ (EVP) – sound a lot like roaring static, but many modern psychic investigators actually believe these wailing noises are the voices of the dead...
To a modern reader, Edison’s ‘spirit phone’ idea seems fanciful, but it becomes more reasonable when one considers that radio waves had only recently been discovered.
The fact that something that was both weightless and formless could demonstrably be used to pass on information, had put pay to a number of the usual ‘common sense’ materialist arguments - and had re-opened the debate on whether Spiritualism might actually have a place in the sciences.
Edison’s approach was always scientific:
“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.”
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