Being a die-hard fan of Star Trek, I basically grew up accepting the idea that people could be beamed from one location to the next. They made it look so easy; you just stepped onto the lighted pad while some guy in a red (or yellow) shirt hit a few icons on his control board and after a few wibbly lines and sparkles, away you went. They were never really clear on exactly how it worked or how far they could send you, but it must have been anywhere from a few hundred thousand miles to a million. What a way to travel!
Of course, that’s a TV show. A particularly good TV show in my opinion, but a fictional construct nonetheless. Mr. Roddenberry was faced with a conundrum when he created a show based on interstellar travel, including visits to all manner of alien worlds. How do we get our characters from the ship to the surface without endless voyages in shuttlecraft or what have you? Easy, we invent a machine that magically transports them in an instant! But did Roddenberry really invent the idea?
Well, no, he didn’t.
The idea that a person or thing can be magically transported from one location to another is actually quite an old one. It has shamanistic origins, and there are accounts, arguably, in the Bible, but it likely predates the Biblical period. Those Biblical accounts, Ezekiel 11:1, and in the story of Daniel and the Lion’s Den from the Hebrew Bible, tell of the mystical phenomenon of bilocation, where a person is observed in two places at once, often impossibly far apart. This idea is also found in Vedic traditions, Buddhism and many other spiritual customs. The story from the Holy Quran, of the Prophet Muhammad’s Night Journey from Mecca to Jerusalem, is sometimes thought of as another example.
The idea has a few names too: bilocation (also given as bi-location), apportation (or to apport), teletransportation, or more commonly, teleportation. These terms all have slightly different meanings, but all refer to the same phenomenon. The term teleportation was first coined by the inimitable father of paranormal research, Mr. Charles Fort in 1931, in his second non-fiction book titled Lo!. In it he described various events and happenings revolving around the idea and presented his thesis that, by way of a “cosmic joker”, certain objects and people could be transported over great distances by unknown means. Fort connected many disparate phenomenon with teleportation, from telekinetic apportation, which is associated with spiritualistic séances and mediums, to missing persons cases and even weird rain (strange items and/or animals falling like rain, often from clear skies).
"Mostly in this book I shall specialize upon indications that there exists a transportory force that I shall call Teleportation."
But as mentioned, the idea long predates Fort and the spiritualism movement of the late 19th century. The problem, as with any Fortean subject, is that the older the account, the less credible the source. There are many stories from almost every culture that feature an event resembling Fort’s idea of teleportation, but it’s exceedingly difficult to pin down details, and thus we are forced to look at them as apocryphal myths. Of course, the more modern accounts don’t really offer that much reliable information either.
Apportation gets a bad rap, resulting from the questionable methods of mid to late 19th century and early 20th century mediums and spiritualists, who used sleight of hand and outright trickery to dupe sitters into believing objects, such as flowers, stones, perfumes, and small animals, were either spontaneously disappearing or appearing (or both) during a séance. Almost every account from this period has either been debunked or is considered to have been hoaxed, but there are a few worth mentioning.
The amazing story of the Pansini Brothers is one such account.
The Pansini Brothers, the sons of Signor Mauro Pansini, an Italian building contractor, were considered to be “mediumistic children”. Following what was said to have been poltergeist activity in the family’s older home in 1904 and ongoing accounts of the older son speaking in tongues, the boys, Alfredo (10) and Paulo (8), we mysteriously transported a distance of ten to fifteen miles from the home in mere minutes. Apparently there were multiple teleport events involving both boys, and on one occasion, in the presence of a bishop Bitonto, the boys vanished from the room as their mother and the bishop discussed means for ending this “obsession”.
Despite fairly close scrutiny by Italian scientists at the time, no explanation was ever found for the events.
Another notable account of teleportation is that of Damodar Ketkar of Poona, India. Ketkar, described as a young child in the grips of a “poltergeist persecution”, suffered a teleportation event on April 23, 1928. According to a letter written by the boy’s British Governess, Miss H. Kohn, Damodar materialised in front of her and said to her “I have just come from Karjat!” (Which is approximately 63 miles from Poona)
Kohn noted, with some enthusiasm, that the boy’s posture upon materialising was “…of a person who has been gripped round the waist and carried, and therefore makes no effort but is gently dropped at his destination.” He apparently suffered no ill effects from the experience.
This case is unique and particularly interesting, as it’s the only known case of a person’s teleportation arrival being witnessed independently. As with the others though, this tale stands, and will remain, uncorroborated.
Of course, anyone who stays abreast of modern technological advancements, is aware that scientists are working on making the Star Trek transporter a reality. This research is in the realm of quantum physics, and it involves what Einstein called “spooky action at a distance”, otherwise known as quantum entanglement. A certain level of success has been achieved in the field of quantum teleportation, but we’re still far from zipping through space, from planet to planet, for various complicated reasons.
It is reasonable to think, though, that in time our greatest scientific minds will master the science and bring us something like a sci-fi transporter, but as Eric W. Davis concluded in his 2004 special report to the US Air Force Research Laboratory on teleportation physics:
“At present, none of the theoretical concepts explored…have been brought to a level of technical maturity, where it becomes meaningful…”