In 1920, esteemed invention powerhouse Thomas Edison shocked and titillated the public by announcing to American Magazine that for some time he’d been working with his team on a very special invention: a machine that could contact the dead. This was quite a surprise for a man of science, and some believe he was trolling everyone, but Edison claimed that searching for communication with spirits might not be in opposition of science at all.
“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 told the magazine. He wasn’t looking for “supernatural” answers, but wanted to more deeply explore the natural world, which according to him, may contain traces of the personalities of the departed. Still, using the phrase “left this earth,” seems to suggest that he was coming at this from theories of American spiritualism, or at least trying to bait and excite people who come from that perspective.
“I don’t claim that our personalities pass on to another existence or sphere,” he told Scientific American, covering all his bases. “I don’t claim anything because I don’t know anything about the subject.” But not knowing is the drive behind experimentation and invention. Many seemingly impossible inventions have been born of reaching into the darkness of unknowing.
In the October issue for 1933, Modern Mechanix offered a detailed description of Edison’s experiments trying to interact with a spirit world. He and his group of scientists used “speakers, generators, and other experimental equipment.”
This search for bits of “self” left behind by deceased humans in born of an urge we have to deal with the idea of death and feel more connected to the world. We’re now tinkering around with the idea of extending the self by considering if we could somehow upload our consciousness to a machine and thus create the illusion of extended life. These little bits of who we are is exactly what we’re trying to upload and doesn’t seem that different from Edison’s “particles of personality.”
The Modern Mechanix article describes Edison’s machine, in which a “tiny pencil of light, coming from a powerful lamp, bored through the darkness and struck the active surface,” which could detect the smallest particle. These particles would be proof of the afterlife, physical bits of human personality left in the atmosphere, waiting to be discovered. Unfortunately, after “tense hours” spent watching the delicate instruments, nothing happened; which was, the magazine adds, why no one had heard of this experiment before.
In 2015 another juicy tidbit about Edison’s “ghost phone” was discovered by French journalist Philippe Baudouin while looking through a rare edition of Edison’s diary in a thrift store. This version of Diary and Sundry Observations of Thomas Alva Edison included a chapter all about his thoughts about a “spirit world” that the living may be able to communicate with.
His theory was that everything that exists cannot cease to exist, and he thought that whatever it is that contains our personalities, or our “selves,” always existed in the physical form of tiny particles, or entities.
“Our bodies are composed of myriads and myriads of infinitesimal entities, each in itself a unit of life,” Edison believed. “There are many indications that we human beings act as a community or ensemble rather than as units. That is why I believe that each of us comprises millions upon millions of entities, and that our body and our mind represent the vote or voice, whichever you wish to call it, of our entities…. The entities live forever…. Death is simply the departure of the entities from our body.”
These floating entities, or particles, he believed, contained our memories and thoughts – whatever it is that makes us US. These “entities” might not only contain these unseeable parts of our self, but might be able to communicate through sound, he thought. Edison made a pact with William Walter Dinwiddie, an engineer who worked with him on this project, that whoever died first would try to contact the other.
Although Edison did not succeed with his invention before he died in 1931, his pursuit ignited the imaginations and hopes of spiritualists, mediums, and everyone who longs to talk to the consciousness of people who have lived before.
“I do hope that our personality survives,” Edison said. “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.”
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