Why you should care
Thomas Edison and Alexander Graham Bell hoped to link up with the great beyond.
Spiritualism, or the practice of speaking with the dead, came into existence as we know it in 1848, just four years after the first telegraph message. Two sisters, Margaret and Kate Fox, proclaimed to the world that they had made contact with the spirit of a dead drifter named Mr. Splitfoot in their home in Hydesville, New York … and the world believed them.
In fact, one of their most fervent believers was Sherlock Holmes creator Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who chronicled the family’s story: They’d been tormented for months by phenomena ranging from “mere knocking” to sounds “so vibrant … that the beds thrilled and shook.” Finally, on March 31, 1848, after a particularly violent outbreak of noise, little Kate bravely beseeched the entity to repeat the snaps of her fingers (or so the story goes). As Doyle tells it: “Every snap was echoed by a knock. However humble the operator at either end, the spiritual telegraph was at last working.” Doyle’s use of the term “spiritual telegraph” wasn’t an accident: The Fox sisters’ method of communication with Mr. Splitfoot was directly modeled after Morse code — one knock for yes, two for no and so on. For spiritualists, Mr. Splitfoot’s modus operandi was a sign that the spirit world had mirrored man’s invention, creating their own spiritual telegraph between worlds.
But it wasn’t just spiritualists who believed that new electric forms of communication could speak with the dead — a lot of prominent scientists did too. In fact, virtually every new communication technology invented between 1860 and 1930 was promoted as a means of reaching the spirit realm, and not just by charlatans — by the inventors themselves.
In just a few short decades, new concepts like electromagnetism and germ theory had shown that the universe is filled with unseen forces. Suddenly, many of the era’s greatest scientific minds saw reaching the realm of the dead as a scientific possibility.
“We usually consider science as markedly distinct from beliefs in spirits, telepathy and similar phenomena,” explains Simone Natale, author of Supernatural Entertainments: Victorian Spiritualism and the Rise of Modern Media Culture. “Yet people who believed in such things often framed their ideas within scientific framework and even employed experimental methods to investigate the so-called occult.”
A prime example: the telephone. After its invention in 1876, a class of mediums emerged called “phone voyants” who claimed they could hear the voices of the dead crackling through telephone wires. And they had some substantial backing in that belief from none other than telephone inventor Alexander Graham Bell. Bell, like so many other great minds of the era, was fascinated by Spiritualism and was known to attend séances. He even made a pact with his younger brother, Edward, that the first to die would attempt to contact the other. Tragically, Edward died in 1867 at the age of 19. But instead of passively waiting around for his brother’s signal, Bell set out to create an electronic form of spirit communication so that even those without the inborn gift of mediumship could reach loved ones in the world beyond. Bell’s assistant, Thomas Watson, was completely on board with this project, being a practicing medium who approached electricity as an occult force.
Though what Bell ended up patenting nine years after his brother’s death could not speak to the dead, it did forever change both communication and the way human beings saw themselves. The telephone, like the telegraph, suddenly allowed for instant disembodied communication. Now citizens of the 19th century, like the spirits that so fascinated them, could communicate unencumbered by space and time, whispering into the ears of far-off loved ones like ghosts speaking to mediums from beyond the veil.
The development of wireless telegraphy and radio advanced this flight from embodiment while seeming to validate certain spiritualist claims. Specifically, telepathy. Coined in 1882, the term telepathy was actually directly inspired by telegraphy.
Some of the most prolific experiments in telepathy were carried out by one of the fathers of wireless, Sir Oliver Lodge. In 1894, Lodge invented a device, called the coherer, capable of intercepting remote wireless signals; it was used in some of the earliest radio receivers. Lodge also researched and wrote about telepathy and the spirit world up until his death in 1940. Lodge hypothesized that thoughts could exit the body and move like radio waves between the sender and receiver. By his logic, respected mediums were simply fleshy coherers, more attuned to capturing thought waves than other human beings.
When Guglielmo Marconi, drawing heavily from Lodge’s work, conducted the first successful wireless telegraphy experiments, many spiritualists saw it as proof of telepathy and mediumship. One spiritualist researcher even stated that “since Marconi invented telegraphy without wires, even the most determined opponents of telepathy must allow for its possibility.”
Marconi himself shied away from these claims, maintaining that his device worked by purely scientific means. But toward the end of his life, he, like Alexander Graham Bell, pursued the possibility of electronic contact with the dead. Instead of establishing a direct line between this world and that of the spirits, Marconi sketched out plans for a “spirit phone,” a device that would capture every word ever spoken throughout human history, even stating that he hoped someday to hear the last words of Jesus on the cross. For Marconi, these voices were not lost but still undulated throughout the universe on sound waves.
And he wasn’t alone. Lightbulb inventor Thomas Alva Edison theorized that our personalities were made of “tiny entities” that could never be increased, decreased or destroyed. These thought particles exited our bodies after death and swirled about the ether, at times coming in contact with the living. Edison believed he could potentially reach these entities, telling The American Magazine in 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.”
During his lifetime, Edison never exhibited what the press called his spirit phone, and historians began dismissing it as a fiction woven by story-hungry journalists. But nearly a century later, Edison’s mythical invention once again made headlines.
Browsing a Parisian thrift store in 2015, French journalist Philippe Baudouin found an extremely rare version of Edison’s published diary. Within the book’s musty pages was an entire chapter on Edison’s theory of the afterlife, including plans for his elusive spirit phone. Here, the Wizard of Menlo Park described a hypersensitive phonograph capable of picking up ghostly whispers from the other side. Whispers that, he surmised, surrounded the living at all times.