Thomas Alva Edison is a man who requires little or no introduction. In his 84 years of life Edison came up with many, many innovations including the phonograph, the motion picture camera, the stock ticker, the power station, and of course, the light bulb. In fact, Edison is still the fourth most prolific inventor in history, holding 1,093 patents in the USA alone. He also routinely electrocuted numerous animals including an elephant, but that’s another story.
All this, as I say, you probably already know. You may even have heard, or read, that Edison’s last breath is preserved at the Henry Ford Museum (AKA the Edison Institute) in Dearborn, Michigan. Ford having convinced Edison’s son Charles to seal a glass vacuum tube of air from the inventor’s room shortly after his death in October 1931. Granted, that seems a bit odd, but memento mori were not so uncommon then, and Ford was a great friend of Edison’s after all. Even so, some might wonder whether it’s something Edison senior would have consented to himself. It does seem rather morbid – superstitious even – and surely at odds with the hard scientific logic of a man who was quoted by the New York Times in 1910 as saying he had come to the conclusion that “there is no ‘supernatural,’ or ‘supernormal,’ that all there is can be explained along material lines”. But then again, perhaps not.
The October 1920 issue of American Magazine contained an article with the rather attention grabbing title of “Edison Working on How to Communicate with the Next World” written by one Bertie Charles Forbes (founder of Forbes Magazine). In an interview conducted by Forbes and published in Scientific American soon after, Edison expressed some rather interesting – some might say surprising – opinions concerning no less a subject than life after death:
If our personality survives, then it is strictly logical and scientific to assume that it retains memory, intellect, and other faculties and knowledge that we acquire on Earth […] I am inclined to believe that our personality hereafter will be able to affect matter. If this reasoning be correct, then, if we can evolve an instrument so delicate as to be affected, moved, or manipulated […] by our personality as it survives in the next life, such an instrument, when made available, ought to record something.
Indeed, it would seem that these were not just idle musings, because in a private journal entry, again dating from 1920, Edison wrote:
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 […] I am engaged in the construction of one such apparatus now, and I hope to be able to finish it before very many months pass.
A second Scientific American piece ran in 1921 in which Edison was quoted as saying:
I don’t claim anything, because I don’t know anything […] for that matter, no human being knows […] but I do claim that it is possible to construct an apparatus which will be so delicate that if there are personalities in another existence who wish to get in touch with us […] this apparatus will at least give them a better opportunity.
By this time it seems it must have been pretty widely known that Thomas Alva Edison, one of the greatest inventors of all time, was working on a machine which might prove the existence of spirits or ghosts. The editor of Scientific American reportedly received more than 600 letters from readers enquiring about the device. This was big. So, what happened next? The answer is nothing. Absolutely nothing. The machine was never mentioned again during Edison’s lifetime and the whole matter seems to have been all but forgotten. Forgotten that is, until old Edison had been in his grave for two years.
Page 34 of the 1933 October edition of Modern Mechanix (motto: “Yesterday’s Tomorrow Today”) bore the intriguing headline “Edison’s Own Secret Spirit Experiments”. “For thirteen years results of Edison’s astounding attempt to penetrate that wall that lies beyond mortality have been withheld from the world, but now the amazing story can be told.” The prodigiously illustrated three page piece tells a tale of the “black, howling wintry night in 1920 – just such a night when superstitious people would bar their doors and windows against marauding ghosts—”when Edison and a group of scientists and spiritualists “assembled like members of a mystic clan” to test his theories concerning life after death. Edison was, we are told, armed with a powerful lamp whose light was concentrated into a beam and directed at photo-electric cell which in turn transformed that light into an electric current. Any object passing through that beam of light, no matter how miniscule or insubstantial, would disrupt the electrical current and that fluctuation would be displayed on the dial of a meter connected to the photo-electric cell. This rather disappointingly simple set up was, we are informed, the machine with which Edison sought to prove or disprove the existence of ghosts or spirits once and for all. “When the experiment was ready to begin the spiritualists in the group of witnesses were called upon to summon from eternity the ethereal form of one or two of its inhabitants, and command the spirit to walk across the beam”. And the result of this groundbreaking experiment? Well, in the long hours that followed, during which the “wind howled around the corners of the laboratory”, the needle, we are told, never so much as wavered. “It was because of these negative results that the news of the amazing experiments was never given out to the world. Edison would not reveal his belief-shattering discoveries to a believing world”.
The Modern Mechanix piece is written (as you can no doubt tell from the portions quoted above) rather more like a story than a factual article and no author credit is given in the magazine’s table of contents. This, coupled with the fact that no members of Edison’s “mystic clan” are named, and no sources or references are given, has led some researchers to conclude that the article is, in fact, a piece of fiction (albeit one with a rather anticlimactic ending) woven out of the fragments of information given in interviews and articles published during Edison’s lifetime. There is, however, another reason why some who are interested in Edison’s paranormal experiments might instantly take the Modern Mechanix piece for a fiction: the apparatus described is all wrong.
In a 1921 New York Times article Edison was said to be developing a machine that would measure “one hundred trillion life units” in the human body that “may scatter after death.” The Modern Mechanix article reused much of the material from that earlier piece in explaining what it referred to as Edison’s hypothesis of “immortal units”. Edison is said to have taken a print from one of his fingers and then to deliberately burn that fingertip so as to remove or alter its print. Later, when the finger had healed, he took a second print which proved to be identical to the original. “From this experiment, Edison got confirmation of his hypothesis that it is these aforementioned “immortal units” which supervised the re-growth of his finger skin, following out the original design. Man, he believed, is a mosaic of such life units, and it is these entities which determine what we shall be.” These “immortal units” then are supposedly what Edison was expecting to break his beam of light (though exactly why Spiritualists would be required to summon them is anyone’s guess).
I first began researching Edison’s alleged supernatural experiments several years ago. At the time I did quite a bit of Googling round and bookmarked about twenty or so webpages containing relevant information. It was always a subject I meant to come back to but, for one reason or another, I just didn’t find the time. A couple of weeks ago I spotted the folder marked EDISON is my bookmarks and clicked to Open All in Tabs. More than half the links were dead. Of those that remained, most focussed on the idea that Edison could have been working on an apparatus or experiment very much like the one described in the Modern Mechanix article – a way of seeing or measuring the hypothesised “life units” or “immortal units”. Such an experiment would, naturally, have been doomed to fail. Many of those websites since deleted, and a handful of the links remaining however, focussed on Edison’s own journal entry of 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”. Communication with – rather than mere detection of – ghosts or spirits is still believed by some to have been Edison’s true goal. Edison’s Spirit Telegraph, or Spirit Telephone are wonderfully evocative terms which still turn up a few interesting search results. “Thomas Edison was trying to build a machine to talk to the dead,” writes one blogger, “I can recall first coming across those very words in an old, dusty book back in the 1970s”. “After his death, the plans for the apparatus could not be located. Many have searched extensively for the components, the prototype or even the plans to the machine but have never found them,” concludes another.
Some, however, have expressed doubts as to the authenticity of the 1920 diary entry, much of which seems like a mere reproduction of portions of the original Scientific American interview with the “I have been at work for some time building an apparatus […]” paragraph tacked on at the end.xiv Furthermore, there is one very important piece of evidence which many seem to have overlooked, whether accidentally or wilfully. In an interview published in the New York Times in 1926 Edison was asked about the comments he’d made six years earlier concerning the prospect of investigating the survival of spirits after death, to which he replied “I really had nothing to tell him [Forbes], but I hated to disappoint him so I thought up this story about communicating with spirits, but it was all a joke.” And so, like the Modern Mechanix piece before it, our own tale of Edison’s Secret Experiments ends with something of anticlimax – the whole thing was merely a hoax. But then again, perhaps not.
In 1941, a séance was supposedly conducted in New York in which a spirit claiming to be that of Thomas Alva Edison made itself known. This spirit, it is alleged, named certain associates (members of the “mystic clan”, if you will) who apparently still had in their possession the missing plans for, and elements of, his machine. These people were located. A prototype was built. It did not work. This prototype somehow passed into the possession of one J. Gilbert Wright – a General Electric researcher whose claim to fame was the discovery/ invention of a special kind of silicone putty. Wright, it is said, spent the rest of his life trying to perfect the machine. In some versions of the tale, Wright frequently consults Edison’s ghost, via regular séances to get his advice on how the machine might be improved. When Wright finally passed on in 1959 all trace of the machine is said to have vanished. A more fittingly farfetched end to a tall tale? Perhaps. Even so, surely I’m not the only one left wondering; what if there was just one component needed to complete the machine that Wright could never lay his hands on? Something another member of Edison’s “mystic clan” wasn’t willing to part with. Something, perhaps, as small and innocuous seeming as one very specific glass vacuum tube.
Dagobert D. Runes (editor): The Diary and Sundry Observations of Thomas A. Edison (New York Philosophical Library, 1948)