A LITTLE HISTORY OF SPIRIT TECHNOLOGY
Is it possible to bring scientific innovations to bear on the intangible world of the spirit, or even to talk to the dead through emerging technologies? CHRIS JOSIFFE traces the history of Spiritualist kit explicitly designed to communicate with the Other
Is it possible to bring scientific innovations to bear on the intangible world of the spirit, or even to talk to the dead through emerging technologies? CHRIS JOSIFFE traces the history of Spiritualist kit designed to communicate with the Other Side.
The inspiration for his wireless telegraph came to him in a dream
The so-called God Helmet, developed by inventor Stanley Koren and neuroscientist Michael Persinger in 1990, was claimed to have the ability of inducing mystical and religious experiences by stimulation of the temporal lobes with low-intensity magnetic fields (see FT42:5054, 201:39, 205:4-5, 270:40-43).
Another recent attempt to bring technology to bear upon the world of the spirit is the Spiricom, which supposedly allows for two-way communication between its users and spirits of the dead. It was constructed in 1980 by William O’Neil, apparently on the instructions given to him by the spirit of a dead scientist. O’Neil made its specifications available free of charge, but no one appears to have replicated his results, suggesting that any spirit communication may have occurred as the result of O’Neil’s own mediumistic ability rather than the technology itself.
More recently still, we have the Ghost Box, or Frank’s Box, built in 2002 by Frank Sumption, again, following instructions from the spirit world. It generates sound by using white noise and random sounds captured across AM radio bands; it has been subject to the same criticism aimed at similar electronic voice phenomena (EVP) findings – that any data is merely the result of pareidolia, and thus non-replicable.
But these contemporary pieces of kit may be seen as continuing a long tradition, arguably stretching back to the 19th-century séance room, with its Ouija boards, planchettes, and spirit trumpets. The first two decades of the 20th century saw the appearance of somewhat more sophisticated devices, usually in the service of Spiritualism. There was the Psychomotor, the New Wave Detector, and FR Melton’s ‘psychic telephone’. But prior to this we have Captain Quentin Craufurd’s ‘ether box’ (essentially a modified radio).
CAPTAIN CRAUFURD: WIRELESS MAN
Captain Quentin Charles Alexander Craufurd (1875-1957) was a decorated officer of the Royal Navy whose innovations in wireless technology – notably, his invention of the ship-to-ship radio system – constituted a significant advance in military (and later civilian) communications. His distinguished career was acknowledged by the award of an MBE in 1953. He was also the founder of the Fairy Investigation Society in 1927 (see ‘The Fairy Investigation Society’ by Simon Young, FT321:30-37), and, as a companion to various birds and animals, experimented with human-animal communication.
Craufurd claimed that the inspiration for his wireless telephone came to him in a dream in 1907 (much like August Kekulé’s discovery of the atomic structure of benzene, or Dmitri Mendelev and the Periodic Table). He later explained that this experience had led him to become involved with psychical research. In this field, he applied his scientific mind to the development of devices that might facilitate communication between human and non-human minds. He claimed to be able to receive messages from the dead via an ‘ether box’, and soon became known in Spiritualist circles as ‘the wireless man’. 1
He might sound like a crank, but was in fact an inventor of some talent. This is attested by the existence of several patents in his name having been lodged at the Patents Office; for example: UK Patent 154347 (1920): Method and apparatus for detecting distant ships whereon dynamo electric machinery or the like is running and UK Patent 391491-A (1933): Improvements in or Relating to Wireless Signalling Systems.
Combining his two research areas, Craufurd experimented with technology as a means with which to establish communication with other realms. In 1927, whilst playing around with a device of his own invention, he claimed to have “tuned in” to the music and voices of fairies: “In my case I began with an electrical apparatus of my own design and a nearly worn-out torch battery, and one day I heard fairy music, the sound of harps and bells. ‘Something’ knew I was incredulous and yet delighted. It
answered to my voice.”
Craufurd then proceeded to ask questions, and entered into a dialogue with these fairies (for so he believed them to be), in much the same way as Spiritualists would typically do when conversing with spirits of the departed:
One of my early questions was: “Are there, then, such creatures as fairies?” The reply came: “They are all around you.” “Then why cannot we see them?” “Your minds are not tuned!” “How do you mean ‘tuned’?” “Your ether machine is tuned and you are not.”
“Ether machine’? Do you mean that box over there?” I pointed to the wireless. “Of course,” came the prompt reply. So that was that! We had to tune in to what was about us or remain ignorant. 2
TWO LADIES AND JOCK
Some 14 years later, Craufurd was experimenting with another psychical device, a ‘condenser’ – “the result of trial and error over a long period”. He describes a séance at which he believed the spirit of celebrated Boston medium Mina Crandon (aka ‘Margery’; see ‘Dr Dingwall’s Casebook, Part Two’ by Christopher Josiffe, FT300:50
54) had manifested. The sitters consisted of two ladies, “D.D., a positive medium, N.C., a negative medium,” and Craufurd himself.
“The two ladies receive the communications by placing their hands on a Planchette, sitting facing each other, while I place my finger-tips on the box I have constructed, which I call a condenser, at a third side of the same table.” Craufurd’s deceased nephew Jock (a sailor, lost in action when the aircraft carrier HMS
Courageous was sunk by a U-boat at the very start of WWII) also came through. Jock was apparently working on a similar condenser on the Other Side, “which is to work in unison with mine, and it has been proved that with the aid of these instruments I (who have, to my knowledge, no psychic gifts) am able to contribute psychic force to the circle”.
13 December 1941 was a stormy evening. The séance met as usual. Craufurd noticed “a strong reaction in the condenser by tingling in my finger-tips. D.D. murmured, ‘They seem to be far away.’ I, too, had a sensation of distance hard to describe. Suddenly Planchette began.
“America calling, calling. America holds the key.”… Then a large, strong writing began, performed with immense vigour. ‘WALTER’.”
Walter had been Margery’s own spirit control when she was alive, supposedly the spirit of her dead brother Walter Stinson. “Then the soft round hand began again. ‘Margery. Yes, friends, now we can be an American voice for you’.” 3
Although some details of Craufurd’s condenser are given, its exact mechanism is not entirely clear; the construction and operation of his earlier ether box were equally opaque. For another sitting, on 28 February 1942, Craufurd had “prepared a new condenser, with various changes in design. It was not quite finished, but I was anxious to test it and to see if my collaborators on the Other Side approved of it”.
‘Walter’ made an appearance, being very interested in the condenser. He cautioned that the radio waves utilised by both Allied and Axis forces were interfering with effective communication between his world and ours: “The rays of the devices you are using for war purposes are making a network all about your surrounding etheric envelope. Guess it makes things a jam, and psychic communication is being hindered everywhere.”
He therefore proceeded to offer advice on how the device might be improved, telling Craufurd that it needed handles. “You have made a good beginning with your red light and box-condenser, but you have not gone far enough for real results.” The condenser is described as producing “gusts of force” which need to be “regulated and reduced to manageable proportions.”
“Right, Walter,” answered Craufurd, “I can easily fit handles, of course, but I want to know how to connect them. I fancy one might be to the inner coating, and the other to the outer…”
‘Walter’ then began to draw a rough diagram or plan. “Condense your scanty force,” he counselled, “and supply your medium.”
The psychic telephone was not that different from the spirit trumpet
“As he wrote the last words,” reported Craufurd, “I had the impression of the condenser becoming radio-active on the inside and filling the atmosphere within with a sort of incense, as if it contained an incense-burner. I had not looked at it in that way before, but the idea of creating a smoke atmosphere of, possibly, radio-active particles issuing from the inside of the condenser, is very reasonable, and might render visible, by the behaviour of the smoke from incense, my theory of polarisation and an ectoplasmic cloud issuing from the orifice. Walter’s ‘condense your scanty force’ seemed appropriate to this thought.”
The reference to incense suggests a religious ceremony. Elsewhere, there is an indication that jos sticks were being used during the sittings: “The smoke from the stick you are burning is a good conductor of force”. Craufurd conceived of his box condenser as an “Ark”, evidently thinking of the Ark of the Covenant described in the Book of Exodus. Indeed, later, he explicitly described it as such. ‘Walter’ instructs him to fit handles to the outside of the “ark condenser,” Craufurd speculating that Moses may have used the Biblical Ark for communicating with spirits: “A reference to the Bible record had shown that such handles were permanently attached to the Ark for carrying it… I came to the conclusion that the golden staves fitted to the Ark might have been the means of providing a chain or circle of hands for those assisting Moses by taking part in a séance.”
He reflected on the Boston séances during Margery’s lifetime; the sitters had placed their hands on the table following the traditional ‘table-turning’ method, but had later come to find joining hands to be more effective. “The reason,” Craufurd writes, “would appear to be that direct contact by means of joining hands was better than contact only over the surface of the table. An improvement to the wooden table-top was, as experiments have shown, to coat the surface with metal. Now if the circle of priests (mediums) grasped the staves of the Ark, they could form a circle round it in metallic contact, so that electricity was freely conducted, and at the same time the main surface of the Ark itself would not be interfered with. Thus as large a part as possible of the Ark’s surface would be free to radiate. This appeared to me to be the use of the handles proposed by Walter; they prevented a large part of the model Ark from being screened by hands covering the surface.” 4
This combination of spirit communication with (pseudo?)-scientific language – in this case, the religious practices of the ancient Israelites being linked with 20th-century technological modernity – is typical not only of Craufurd but of others in this field.
One of Craufurd’s stated aims was to prove “that those of us with very weak psychic powers may hope to enhance them by the use of suitable instruments”. 5 He was not embarrassed to admit that he himself was lacking in natural psychical ability, and so was more than willing to boost his own chances of making contact with discarnate spirits and non-human entities by means of technology.
Quentin Craufurd was a fascinating character who warrants an article all of his own. But for now, I should like to argue that, far from being a lone maverick or eccentric, he was actually in step with many of his scientific peers.
MELTON’S PSYCHIC TELEPHONE
Detailed plans for the construction of FR Melton’s psychic telephone were published in his pamphlet A Psychic Telephone: its Construction, the Laws and Conditions that
Govern its Use (Nottingham: E Brown & Co., 1921). The device consisted of a box with an inflatable rubber bag inside it; this was connected to a pair of earphones. The theory behind it was that the medium would inflate the bag with their breath. When sealed, spirits’ voices would be heard through the earphones without a need for the medium to be present, her or his breath being sufficient for spirit manifestation. In fact, the psychic telephone – with its earphones or ‘receivers’ to amplify spirit voices – was not all that different from the classic spirit trumpet.
However, a replica of the ‘psychic telephone’ was built by veteran psychical researcher Hereward Carrington, who failed to reproduce the results claimed for it by Melton. It was also subjected to a rigorous series of tests by Harry Price, who also concluded that it did not work. 6
Having said that, researchers Raymond Bayless and D Scott Rogo, in their Phone
Calls from The Dead (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1979), took a more balanced view regarding Melton’s supposed spirit messages, noting that the content of several of these seemed to match those of more recent communications, giving the ‘psychic telephone’ some degree of credibility.
This problem of non-replicable results is a perennial one throughout the history of spirit-contact devices. Aside from the sceptics’ view that fraud is at work, it leads one to wonder whether any meaningful data were arrived at by means of the inventor’s or user’s own psychic ability to contact the spirit world; or at least to generate what
appear to be messages from the spirits.
Ever since Melton’s invention, various devices have been proposed as technological
aids to psychical research. In 1948, a Dutchman, Mr N Zwaan (or Zwann) caused a flurry of excitement at the International Spiritualist Conference in London when he demonstrated his apparatus, which, he claimed, produced ‘Super-rays’. These were evidently a variant of the now-discredited ‘N-ray’ theory proposed by physicist Prosper-René Blondlot in 1903. ‘N-rays’ were supposedly a form of emanation or radiation emitted by most substances, which served to increased their luminosity. The theory was seized upon by several psychical researchers as providing a scientific basis for certain allegedly paranormal phenomena.
Zwaan’s Super-rays, it was claimed, were able to induce trance states and also to cure disease. In effect, his device did away with the need for the presence of a physical medium. In collaboration with one Mr Ernest Thompson, Zwaan founded the Spirit Electronic Communication Society, based in Manchester, to promote interest in and investigation of his device. Much debate and controversy followed, culminating in the pages of the British Spiritualist newspaper
The Two Worlds in 1952, when JB McIndoe, a fellow Spiritualist, but one with professional knowledge of electronics, queried the Zwaan apparatus’s scientific credentials, arguing that since no electrical current passed through it, any effects must be the result of suggestion or the placebo effect.
DR KILNER’S AURA
Discoveries in theoretical physics in the 19th and 20th centuries had brought an understanding that we are constantly surrounded and penetrated by invisible forces: electromagnetic radiation in the form of light waves, radio waves, X-rays. Modern medical breakthroughs in epidemiology and genetics had (in the Western world at least) also consigned to history the notion that sickness and disease were the result of witchcraft.
Nevertheless, belief in the paranormal was regarded as not entirely incompatible with modern physics, and scientific terminology was quite often employed in esoteric literature. For example, Dr Walter J Kilner, a medical electrotherapist and author of The Human Atmosphere, or, The Aura Made Visible
by Chemical Screens (New York: Rebman, 1911), sought to prove that the human body was surrounded by an aura composed of electromagnetic waves, and that these waves were detectable and measurable with the correct equipment. This aura could then be used for medical diagnosis. Whilst not a Spiritualist himself, Kilner’s theories were enthusiastically taken up by those who were. This can be seen in Spiritualistic
Experiences of a Lawyer (London: Psychic Book Club, 1937), whose anonymous author claims that “the existence of this ‘aura’ has caused many scientific men to take up research work on the subject. The exhalation of electrical vibrations from the body raises a presumption that the human body is an electrical battery”.
Further, the unknown lawyer cites an article published in the Times the previous year (14 April 1936) which described the research of Professor Edwin I Cohn of Harvard Medical School, who had apparently confirmed 17th-century theories that the human body was both galvanic and electric. Accordingly, and as also suggested by Craufurd, the Spiritualist medium has the ability to temporarily withdraw their personality and spirit from their body, and to allow a spirit to enter it and to take control. When this withdrawal is complete, the medium falls into a trance. In a not-entirely-clear analogy, Craufurd offers the wireless receiver as an example of such a withdrawal: “it can be put out of tune with certain vibrations, and it can be tuned in again.”
Another type of spirit communication gadget was the ‘reflectograph’, described in the Spiritualistic Experiences of a Lawyer as a form of typewriter. Its method of operation was as follows: a ‘spirit hand’ would make contact with the device’s keys, and the ensuing letters were spelled out on a recording board, appearing in coloured light. Craufurd claimed to have shaken hands with a spirit in the course of one such ‘reflectograph’ session. He had also admired an antique ring worn on one of its fingers, and had been allowed to kiss the spirit hand itself. He described it as being much the same as a human hand in terms of its texture, pliability and temperature, but that when he and the supposed spirit said their goodbyes, the hand melted in his, much as snow would do.
It is, of course, not a new suggestion that during the 19th and early 20th centuries the discourses of modern science and technology had some degree of affinity with those of psychical research and Spiritualism. The raps and knocks that manifested in the Fox household at Hydesville, NY, in 1848 – allegedly the work of spirits attempting to communicate with the living – are widely seen as the beginnings of the Spiritualist movement (despite Maggie and Kate, the two younger sisters, eventually admitting they had faked the phenomena, some 40 years later). A form of code had been developed by visitors to the Fox house, and by Maggie and Kate, whereby combinations of raps could indicate ‘yes’ or ‘no,’ or could spell individual letters of the alphabet.
The previous decade had seen the invention of the electrical telegraph. Morse code was developed as a language, a means with which to interpret the telegraph’s dot-dash clicks and electrical pulses. The ability of the wireless telegraph to communicate
instantaneously from a distance, without physical co-proximity of sender and receiver, was regarded as a mysterious and near-magical technology. Early experiments in ‘tele’ (distant) communication were swathed in an aura of the religious or supernatural. “WHAT HATH GOD WROUGHT” (Numbers 23:23) was the message relayed by Morse in 1844, one of the very earliest transmissions, which openly referenced the sense of numinous awe with which the new technology was regarded.
In consequence, it may not be such a surprise to learn that, around the start of World War I, a solicitor and amateur wireless telegraph operator called David Wilson had developed a modified telegraph device for the explicit purpose of receiving and recording anomalous messages. His findings were published in an article in the 13 March 1915 issue of Light: A Journal of Spiritualism,
Psychical, Occult and Mystical Research, titled ‘The Ethereal Transmission of Thought: A New Field of Experimentation’.
Wilson explains that, between July and September of the previous year, he had “collected… from various automatic writers the ‘Message of Amen Rá-Mes,’ in which certain passages occurred which seemed to me to contain what might prove to be very valuable hints… it seemed clear to me that the association of telepathy with ethereal vibration was unmistakably inferred. In other words, that the ether is the medium for the transmission of thought”.
Accordingly, Wilson “could hardly think of these matters without calling to mind the ether waves used in wireless telegraphy”. He explained to his readers that just as Hertzian and other light waves utilised the same medium, the ether through which they travelled, so too might other waves, those that provided the “motion-mechanism” of thought transference. (A wave theory of light implied that, like sound waves, light waves must, of necessity, have a medium of transmission – regarded as being the ether). Wilson began to experiment with his wireless telegraphy equipment. He noticed that the galvanometer needle appeared to be registering Morse signals. A second observer was present to bear witness to the fact of the needle’s independent action. Curiously, it seemed to work even when disconnected from its receiving aerial wire. A preliminary message, received on 10 January 1915, read: “Great difficulty, await message, five days, six evening.” On the appointed date, 15 January at 6pm, the following message was transmitted. Wilson read it as ‘RYELIMINA-E-BRA-IONS---ARTK’ whilst his witness read ‘TRZELIOININA MEVIVRATIMNS.’ According to Wilson, “wherever the message came from, it could only mean one thing, namely: ‘Try eliminate vibrations. ARTK.” Who ‘ARTK’ might be wasn’t clear; perhaps the wise Amen Rá-Mes, although Wilson later writes of “those personalities who have elected to designate themselves Tehuti and Kha-em-Uast.” 7
At any rate, it seemed that until the equipment was adjusted, it would prove unreliable. Wilson’s modified device, the New Wave Detector, was more efficacious, capable of receiving coherent, if gnomic, messages like: “All personalities are differentiated in consciousness, but are united in subconsciousness into one absolute, complete and indivisible unity”, or “Now from him… coming into Amenti is not sought a count of worldly triumphs and successes, but rather of those lessons which life has brought him, for verily this is the first great law: Life is for introspection.”
Whilst the second observer seemed to rule out fraud, and no conventional source for the Morse signals was found, it is surprising that merely by finetuning the New Wave Detector, the clarity of the communications had improved from ‘RYELIMINA-E-BRAIONS----ARTK’ to sentences and paragraphs written in perfect English.
“HERE THE BIRDS BURN”
Perhaps these early New Age homilies are rather too coherent to be credible, more closely resembling the speech patterns and register of an early 20th-century British Spiritualist gent than an ancient Egyptian of Giza. The brief, disjointed, elliptic non
sequiturs recorded by the most famous EVP researcher, Latvian psychologist Konstanin Raudive, are very different in both content and tone. Raudive used tape recorders, microphones, diodes and radio receivers to receive hundreds of unsettling, opaque messages which were delivered in a variety of languages – English, German, Swedish, Latvian, Spanish.
Raudive’s ‘spirits’ made curious, enigmatic and brief declarations: “The girl grew up outside,” “For mother, the Moon is important,” and “Where are the bangles?” More disturbingly, the voices seemed to speak of their current state: “I have been condemned”; “Ah! there are penalties here”; “Here the birds burn”; and simply, “We suffer”. 8
At times, the voices would comment and advise on technical matters, telling Raudive to tune in or to stay on a certain frequency, and explaining that they preferred the radio to the microphone method.
EVP is most often associated with Raudive, whose Breakthrough had first been published in 1968, and first translated into English in 1971; but earlier research had taken place in the 1950s, when Swedish filmmaker Friedrich Jürgenson (with whom Raudive had collaborated) claimed that the voices appearing on bird song recordings he’d made were those of his deceased parents and wife. Also in the 1950s, researchers Raymond Bayless and Attila von Szalay built a device consisting of an insulated cabinet connected to a speaker. This, they claimed, permitted the voices of disembodied spirits to manifest.
A similar device to this had been built a decade before, when J Gilbert Wright, a researcher at General Electric, collaborated with Harry Gardner in the construction of an insulated box, 24in by 7in (61x18cm) with a small microphone connected to a speaker. They had been assisted, they claimed, by the spirit of Thomas Alva Edison, who had, during his lifetime, hinted that he was himself working on a device that would allow communication between this world and the next.
LOGIE BAIRD: BLACK MAGIC MAN
John Logie Baird, one of the pioneers of television, was another scientist who claimed to have communicated with the spirit of Edison. Claims of assistance by fellow researchers from beyond theVeil were not uncommon (as we have seen, Craufurd believed that his own work in developing the box condenser was being assisted from the Other Side by his dead cousin Jock). After his death, Edison was said to have made contact
“Edison had been experimenting from his home in the astral plane”
at séances on several occasions; his supposed spirit claiming to be continuing the work he had begun whilst on Earth.
Baird was an habitué of Spiritualist meetings, of which he wrote: “I have witnessed some very startling phenomena under circumstances which make trickery out of the question – and also unfortunately publication. I am convinced that discoveries of far-reaching importance remain waiting along these shadowy and discredited paths.”
Here he describes a visit to a séance in west Wimbledon:
We waited and waited, the darkness and silence had a most eerie effect; then the old lady next to me squeezed my hand and whispered in an awestruck whisper, “Look, it’s coming.” Sure enough, in front of the booth, faint and almost invisible, a wavering purple-coloured cloud was forming. It grew denser, and then the silence was broken by the irregular tapping of a Morse key; the spirit was signalling… The message was directed to me and it came from no less a personage than Thomas Alva Edison. Edison had, it appeared, been experimenting with Noctovision in his home in the astral plane, and he was convinced that it would in time prove of great use in assisting communication between the living and those who had passed over… 9 Noctovision, one of Baird’s inventions, enabled an image to be transmitted from one room to another, even when the first room was in complete darkness. Oddly enough, the first witnesses of this ‘Noctivising’ (as he called it) were Sir William Crookes, in 1926, and Sir Oliver Lodge the following year, both physicists being well-known advocates of Spiritualism.
There have been suggestions that Baird thought of his Noctovision as the first step in the development of teleportation. It is certainly the case that the British military took a great interest in Baird’s work during the 1920s and 1930s, especially in its application to aircraft and ship detection, guidance and navigation, and coded signals transmission. It is still not entirely clear what other technology he might have been working on. When a journalist put enquiries to the Ministry of Defence in 1984, he was met with the response: “No comment. Much of his work is still classified.”
Incidentally, when living in Trinidad just after the Great War, Baird’s mysterious experiments in a wooden house belonging to a local plantation owner had earned him the nicknames ‘Obeah’ and ‘Black Magic Man’. These were given him by suspicious locals on account of the strange flashing lights they had seen coming from the house at night. 10
EDISON’S ‘SPIRIT PHONE’
Edison himself was sceptical about Spiritualism’s claims for the existence of the spirit world. In 1910, he was quoted in the
New York Times as saying: “All there has been, all there ever will be, can or will, soon or late, be explained along material lines.” 11 Ten years later, he told a Scientific
American journalist: “I cannot conceive such a thing as a spirit. I cannot be party to the belief that spirits exist and can be 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.” 12
Nevertheless, in the same month, Edison made a startling announcement: “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…”
He added that this apparatus, if he succeeded in its development, would not function by “any occult, mystifying,
mysterious, or weird means, employed by so– called ‘mediums,’ but by scientific methods. 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”. 13
But no such apparatus ever appeared during Edison’s lifetime, and no prototypes, plans or other documentation concerning its development have been found among his papers; it has been suggested that he was simply playing a joke upon the American
Magazine journalist. But given that his diaries contain numerous pages of essays on Spiritualism, the afterlife, and related topics, it seems evident that these subjects were, to him, ones of genuine and sincere interest.
Edison was in good company. When Marconi first began experimenting with radio signals at the end of the 19th century, he interpreted those he was receiving as being messages from the dead, and spent much of his later years trying to develop a device that would facilitate communication between our world and that of the spirits. In 1921, he also claimed that certain signals he’d picked up at the low end of the long wave spectrum were messages from alien civilisations.
Similarly, Alexander Graham Bell’s assistant Thomas Watson theorised that the strange noises on their telephone circuit (most probably static, or VLF signals emanating from lightning storms or from the Earth’s magnetic field) were of extraterrestrial origin: “I used to spend hours at night in the laboratory listening to the many strange noises in the telephone and speculating as to their cause. One of the most common sounds was a snap, followed by a grating sound that lasted two or three seconds before it faded into silence, and another was like the chirping of a bird. My theory at this time  was that the currents causing these sounds came from explosions on the Sun or that they were signals from another planet. They were mystic enough to suggest the latter explanation…” 14
Nikola Tesla had also made similar claims of having eavesdropped on interplanetary communication. Interpreting the apparently rhythmic transmissions picked up via his Colorado radio tower in 1899, he stated that he was “the first to hear the greeting of one planet to another”. 15
DESIRE AND DREAD
It’s evident that many scientists of the 19th and early 20th centuries saw no contradiction between their involvement in psychical research on the one hand and in what we might now regard as orthodox scientific research on the other. Specifically, with the example of communication at a distance between two minds, the concept of telepathy was at the time closely linked to the latest developments in communications technology such as the wireless telegraph or the telephone. Indeed, the term ‘telepathy’ began to be used only after the popularisation of these inventions. 16
When wireless communication first began
“Edison had been experimenting from his home in the astral plane”
to be used, it was often regarded as having supernatural qualities. Analogous in effect to telepathy, the new technology seemed to provide a scientific, materialist basis for paranormal phenomena. It was but a short step further, then, to believe it only a matter of time before human scientific endeavour and ingenuity would develop a device enabling communication between this world and the next.
The development of wireless telegraphy had a couple of unexpected side-effects. 17 Not only did it stimulate interest and belief in certain psychic phenomena, it also generated new theories through which such phenomena might be understood – disembodied communication at a distance being analogous to, and maybe even providing an explanation for, telepathy, for example. Wireless telephony took matters one stage further, in that the disembodied voices of the radio and telephone were comparable to the disembodied spirit voices manifesting in the séance room. Telephony strengthened arguments for the existence of discarnate human intelligences, for the separation of mind from body, even for the existence of the soul. In seeking explanations, some commentators proposed that thoughts transmitted from one mind to another via telepathy journeyed through the same ether of space in which wireless waves travelled.
Rather than putting an end to speculations about the paranormal, innovations in the telecommunications industry have, ever since the advent of the wireless telegraph, fostered and encouraged a belief that contact with the world of spirit may one day be a scientific reality: “Each new communications technology seems to evoke as well as the nervous ambivalence of wireless, a simultaneous desire and dread of actually making such extraordinary forms of contact.” 18
Do we still believe that the latest developments in communications technology, made available to all by a mass consumer market, bring us one step closer to spirit communication? Surely not – at least not on a conscious level. Yet information technology and mobile communications are sometimes associated with the world of spirits; this may be observed in accounts of contemporary paranormal cases that feature 21st century technology. Mobile phones behave oddly, sending and receiving text (SMS) messages from the dead, 19 while computer screens display anomalous messages from entities sometimes claiming to be from the past, sometimes from the future. 20
There seems no reason to suppose that future telecommunication developments will put an end to speculations about the paranormal. And we may expect the twin sensations of attraction and unease induced by technology to persist, and to continue generating further ‘ghosts in the machine.’ One dreads to think what a ‘possessed’ networked 3D printer might produce at night, when no one is looking…
CHRISTOPHER JOSIFFE is a regular contributor to FT and the author of Gef! The Strange Tale of an Extra-Special Talking Mongoose, which is now available from Strange Attractor Press: https://strangeattractor.greedbag.com/buy/gef/