Who You Gonna Call?: Edison’s Science of Talking to Ghosts

In 1920, the famed inventor gathered a group of scientist friends to witness his new experiment: the spirit phone

On a chill winter night in 1920, according to an account in the October 1933 issue of Modern Mechanix magazine, with the wind whistling through the darkness outside of his Menlo Park, New Jersey, laboratory, the great inventor, industrialist, and founder of General Electric, Thomas Edison, gathered a group of his scientist friends to bear witness to his latest experiment. It was a creation his guests believed uncharacteristic of him, yet in reality was completely in keeping with his scientific beliefs.

He had been working on it in secret, a project that seemed contrary to the technology-driven science Edison had embraced since his childhood in Port Huron, Michigan.

But this demonstration was no attempt at mediumship or channeling, though mediums were in attendance. As the gathered scientists watched, they first heard the soft hum of an electric current, then saw a glow of light from an apparatus on the workbench that looked like a motion picture projector shoot a narrow beam of light into a photoelectric cell.

Edison explained that the light on the cell, like the fog in a vacuum bell jar, would register any disturbance to the continuity of the beam when any object, no matter how evanescent or ephemeral, crossed through it. The resulting registration of an object’s presence would be displayed on a meter wired to the photoelectric cell, a telltale sign to the machine’s operator that something was there even if invisible to the naked eye. What was the great Edison looking for, the scientists might have asked themselves? What could be crossing the beam?

Edison Vs. Tesla

Although the arrangement was different from what they’d seen before at the laboratory, the invention was made of familiar component parts. Edison’s motion picture projector box had been in operation for over a decade and by 1920 was already the basis of an entirely new industry. And a photoelectric cell was a standard piece of equipment to register a beam of photons. But why would the old man project a beam of light onto a cell instead of a screen? What was this device supposed to do? Edison was cryptic toward his guests at first. But there were others present in the laboratory that night, people who were as much an anathema to the scientists as heretics were to clerics. They were the very folks Edison had dismissed as charlatans.

Along with the scientists in the room that night, participating in the demonstration of Edison’s machine, were spiritualists, mediums, and channelers who used objects like Ouija boards and tea leaves to divine what they said the souls of the departed communicated to them. Edison argued that most spiritualists were fakes and didn’t believe in their talismans of foretelling the future, but tonight he was making an exception. Tonight he needed them for the very thing they asserted they could do: connect with the spirits of the departed. He needed them to endorse the concept of his device.

Although Edison publicly and in his private writings had professed himself to be the consummate materialist, who marshaled the flow of electrons through circuits to provide light, record sound, and make photographic images dance across a screen, on this night he hoped to show that materialism could also explain spiritualism. He sought to combine technology with spiritualism to see if individuals who claimed to have the power to summon the departed could actually do so, and in so doing, lure the spirits they invoked across the beam of photons so as to register on an electric meter. For those in the room watching the experiment, how many of them would realize that this was a once-in-a-lifetime event, the industrialist of his age relying on the efforts of those he had once called frauds?

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