A telephone line to the dead?
“…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.”
Many people believe that Edison was working on a device to contact the spirit world up until his own death in 1931. As to what the device was opinions differ. Edison never mentioned in any articles or in interviews that he was trying to create a ‘spirit phone’. The term ‘spirit phone’ was first devised in the 1940s and the term seems to have been applied to Edison’s experiment retrospectively. It may have been because for many people Edison’s name is intrinsically linked with the development and refinement of the telephone.
Whenever Edison does refer to a device, which would have the potential to contact the dead, in either an interview of in an essay he invariably described it as a valve and not a telephone. This valve he claimed would have to be so sensitive that it would respond to the very slightest movement and record and amplify the barest whisper of the life units.
A practical application
Some people claimed that Edison had said that he had made a pact with his engineer William Walter Dinwiddie that whoever died first would contact the other through the machine. Another story exists that Edison had stated that one of his employees who had been working on the device had died and that “he ought to be the first to use it if he is able to do so”. For some these stories are all the proof they need for others it is an essay which appeared in 1933 in Modern Mechaix.The essay claims to depict an experiment which Edison undertook to try to contact the spirit world. This secret experiment was purported to have taken place in 1920 in Edison’s lab. The author also goes on to describe how Edison set up a beam projector and photoelectric receiver which were sensitive enough to register any movement across the beam. According to the paper, the experiment was a complete failure with the scientists sitting for hours waiting for something to happen.
It seems doubtful that the experiment ever took place as why did it take thirteen years for the article to be published and why was it only ever mentioned in one publication? Also the one man that could refute or confirm the article’s authenticity was no longer around.
A hoax on the world?1920 Edison caused a media sensation when he told B.C. Forbes of American Magazine that he was working on a spiritual communication device. Other newspapers immediately jumped on the bandwagon and the story spread. The reaction to Edison’s statement was unprecedented. The editor of American Magazine received around 600 letters from members of the public. Gerald Falons, Museum Curator of Sound Recording at the Thomas Edison National Historical Park has grouped the letters under headings and summarised the content. The letters include offers of help with the design; people claiming that such a machine already existed; one man asking how to place a call once he had reached the afterlife (he apparently had not long to live); and people wondering whether they could purchase the machine early or would have to wait until it was in the shops. Some of the contents of the letters reveal panic among the newspaper’s readers such as those that thought that contacting the dead was going against religion whilst others were convinced that only evil spirits would answer. What is really interesting is that the most popular response was whole-hearted support for the machine’s creation and that three of these letters were from people from a science background who had been formally educated in the field. The furore that was caused is not surprising. Edison was a national hero, a man hailed as one of the most brilliant men to ever live and someone whom people trusted. It would never have occurred to the majority of people that Edison would have been teasing them or even worse deceiving them. A year later in an article in ‘The Scientific American’ Edison again referred to the subject stating that if personality survives death then it makes sense that those “… who leave the Earth would like to communicate with those they have left here…then, if we can evolve an instrument so delicate as to be affected by our personality as it survives in the next life, such an instrument, when made available, ought to record something.” The article then went on to report that Edison had said that his apparatus was still in its experimental stage suggesting that he had already developed a prototype. The lack of details except for the fact that it was a valve does raise doubts about Edison’s research. Was it because Edison did not have a concrete idea on how to devise his instrument or did he simply want to keep his plans close to his chest or was it because he never had any intention of creating an instrument to communicate with ‘spirits’. The latter argument could be used to support Edison’s admission in an interview with the New York Times in 1926 that he had only said what he said to Forbes because “I really had nothing to tell him [Forbes], but I hated to disappoint him so I thought up this story about communicating with spirit is, but it was all a joke”.
It seems strange that Edison would have made such a statement as a joke and let it fester for six years. If it was a prank was Edison really that bored or was it simply that he had been developing such a device but that it hadn’t worked. Is that why there are no pictures, plans or models or even a reference to the contraption in his diary? Or was it that Edison did invent a machine but could not get it to work and therefore embarrassed by his lack of success erased all evidence of his research, preferring instead to pretend it was said in jest rather than admit failure.
The missing evidence rediscovered?
For those who believe Edison did create or at least research the possibility of a ‘spirit communication device’ it is vital therefore to find some tangible evidence. In 1948 Edison’s book Diary and Sundry Observations detailing his research was published by the Edison Estate. It has often been cited that the last chapter comprising 80 or so pages detailing his spiritual investigation research were removed from the English version of the diary. In March 2015 an article published on the internet claimed that the French edition had been discovered with the missing pages intact. These pages were reprinted by Philippe Baudouin, a French radio presenter and philosopher in his book “Le Royaume de l’Au-dela” (The Kingdom of the Afterlife). Could these pages be authentic? I am not sure and I haven’t found any reviews yet on the book. I hope to read it soon but will have to wait until an English translation is available.
From beyond the grave: The last words
Years after Edison’s death, his ‘spirit phone’ was not forgotten. Despite the fact that Edison had little time for the work of mediums he seems to have on two separate occasions used their services. Participants at a séance in 1941 claimed that Edison had contacted them and told them that three of his assistants had the plans for his ‘spirit phone’. At another séance the participants reported that Edison had given instructions on how to improve the phone. The thing which is strange is that if Edison was so successful at communicating through the mediums why was the ‘spirit phone’ even needed!
A deathbed confession?
Edison died at 9pm on the 18th October 1931 at his home in New Jersey at the age of 84. He had been suffering from complications as a result of diabetes which had left him in a coma. Just before he passed away he awoke and said quietly to his wife, Mina “It is very beautiful over there”. Was Edison dreaming or did he really see something? We will never know but it would be an ironic twist if this brilliant and unique man who had spent his life promoting science over the spiritual had at the very end changed his mind.
So was Edison interested in creating a device to which would record the voices of the dead? In my opinion, yes it is more than likely he was. Did he build an instrument? He was an inventor, so again I think he probably did try. Did the device work? No, I am pretty sure it didn’t. Did Edison destroy his plans? Yes more than likely. Edison once said “A good idea is never lost. Even though its originator or possessor may die without publicizing it, it will someday be reborn in the mind of another”. Edison was right! Ever since he made his announcement which astonished and frightened the world, people have been trying to create devices which can prove beyond a shadow of a doubt the existence of the spirit world. Will anyone ever succeed? Maybe. Possibly a more pertinent question is, if they do succeed will they ever be believed?
The Biography of Thomas Edison, http://www.thomasedison.com/biography.html
Thomas Edison, http://www.history.com/topics/inventions/thomas-edison
Thomas Edison, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thomas_Edison
The religious and political views of Thomas Edison http://hollowverse.com/thomas-edison/
Thomas Edison, http://www.history.co.uk/biographies/thomas-edison
Thomas Edison’s Telephone to the Afterlife http://institute4learning.com/blog/2012/08/21/thomas-edisons-telephone-to-the-afterlife/
Thomas Edison and His Mysterious Telephone to the Dead, http://itcvoices.org/thomas-edisons-telephone-to-the-dead-myth-or-fact/
Edison and the Ghost Machine, http://paranormal.about.com/od/ghostaudiovideo/a/edison-ghost-machine.htm
Thomas Edison and the Ghost in the Machine, ww.paranormal-encyclopedia.com/e/thomas-edison/
How Thomas Edison Pranked the 1920s With His “Dead People” Phone http://gizmodo.com/5676604/how-thomas-edison-pranked-the-1920s-with-his-dead-people-phone
Inventions by Thomas Edison (That You’ve Never Heard Of), http://science.howstuffworks.com/10-inventions-thomas-edison10.htm
Edison’s ‘Lost’ Idea: A Device to Hear the Dead, http://www.seeker.com/edisons-lost-idea-a-device-to-hear-the-dead-1769577566.html
Edison’s Lost Plan To Record Voices Of Dead, http://news.sky.com/story/edisons-lost-plan-to-record-voices-of-dead-10368974
Edison’s forgotten ‘invention’: A phone that calls the dead http://www.reliableplant.com/Read/27212/Edison-invention-calls-dead
 Edison and the Ghost Machine, http://paranormal.about.com/od/ghostaudiovideo/a/edison-ghost-machine.htm
 Edison and the Ghost Machine, http://paranormal.about.com/od/ghostaudiovideo/a/edison-ghost-machine.htm
 Thomas Edison and His Mysterious Telephone to the Dead, http://itcvoices.org/thomas-edisons-telephone-to-the-dead-myth-or-fact/
 Thomas Edison’s Telephone to the Afterlife http://institute4learning.com/blog/2012/08/21/thomas-edisons-telephone-to-the-afterlife/
 Edison’s Lost Plan To Record Voices Of Dead, http://news.sky.com/story/edisons-lost-plan-to-record-voices-of-dead-10368974
 Inventions by Thomas Edison (That You’ve Never Heard Of), http://science.howstuffworks.com/10-inventions-thomas-edison10.htm