Was This the First-Ever Sleep App?
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because self-improvers have always been fascinated by the power of sleep.
By Alex Furuya and Dan Peleschuk
Imagine fading into a deep sleep as the sound of a slow, mechanical whirl gives way to a scratchy recording of a calm, yet droning voice. “Money wants me and comes to me; business wants me and comes to me; opportunities want me and come to me. I have abundance, and use it wisely.”
Creepy? Perhaps. But long before excessively stressed and sleep-deprived millennials began relying on various apps to doze off peacefully or improve their day-to-day lives, there was only Alois Benjamin Saliger’s “Psycho-Phone.” Developed in the late 1920s, this phonographic device played encouraging messages while listeners slept to supposedly help them become, as the saying goes, “a better you.”
Among the invisible searchlights, airplane engines and rapid-fire guns that Saliger reportedly claimed to have invented, the Psycho-Phone was his most beloved creation. Based on Thomas Edison’s phonograph, it featured a clock mechanism that allowed the device to play a 78-rpm record with a prerecorded voice continually throughout the night. It could also play a cylinder on which users could record their own messages if they were so inclined.
Apparently designed to tackle the full spread of life’s pressing difficulties, the Psycho-Phone’s repertoire was thought to feature around a dozen theme-based recordings.
The Psycho-Phone was undoubtedly a device for, and of, its time. Tim Fabrizio, a Florida-based historian of recorded sound, points to the New Thought movement of the late 19th century, which promoted spirituality and self-healing, as a potential inspiration for Saliger’s invention. Focusing one’s mental energy to achieve success and prosperity — economic and otherwise — was the movement’s primary goal. “All of this stuff came before the Psycho-Phone and suggested that, if one could have access to the subconscious mind, the effects were limitless,” Fabrizio says.
Apparently designed to tackle the full spread of life’s pressing difficulties, the Psycho-Phone’s repertoire was thought to feature around a dozen theme-based recordings. Among them were “Prosperity,” “Normal Weight,” “Mating” and “Inspiration.” It gets weirder when Fabrizio reads from the “Rejuvenated” script: “Your digestion is perfect,” the recording says, “and you have a thorough bowel movement every day.”
Despite the Psycho-Phone’s exorbitant cost — it sold for between $75 and $235 at the time, or roughly $1,120 to $3,500 in today’s dollars — Saliger claimed in 1933 to have sold more than 2,500 units. Hollywood actors, according to the tall, thin-lipped inventor, were some of his best clients. “He won’t name them, though,” wrote The New Yorker in October 1933 about his device. “Some folks don’t want it known that they gained wealth or happiness through a machine.”
But celebrities weren’t the only benefactors of Saliger’s Psycho-Phone, according to letters he allegedly received from satisfied customers. “One man wrote that he had got over melancholy spells and cleared up a skin condition; another found a business partner with $3,000; a third overcame an inferiority complex and was healed of a baseball injury,” The New Yorker documented. “Another chap wrote that a girl to whom he could not talk to without being ‘slammed or repulsed’ now was glad to see him.”
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Psycho-Phone didn’t have much staying power, and there’s scant information available about it today. But that hasn’t stopped amateurs from speculating: So mysterious is the Psycho-Phone’s legacy to some that a quick Google search reveals it’s often suspected to actually be a version of an invention — allegedly developed by Thomas Edison — for communicating with the dead. After all, historians say a belief in spiritualism surged around the time of World War I, partly as a reaction to the detrimental effects of industrialization and urbanization, as well as the heavy loss of human life.
No way, Fabrizio asserts with absolute certainty, having seen about 50 authentic Psycho-Phone units. “It appeals to someone’s private little crusade,” he says of the popular conflation. The rest of the folks who had the elusive device — at least before Fabrizio published information on it a decade ago — didn’t really have much of a clue what to do with it. “You could buy one for next to nothing,” he adds, ”and they’d show up at antique shows, and people would disparage them.”
So, if you ever find yourself an authentic Psycho-Phone, give it a proverbial whirl. You might just discover “a better you.”