In 1957 a Swedish painter by the name of Friedrich Jürgenson – a man so famed for his artistic ability that Pope Pius XII had a total of four portraits painted by him at his personal request – purchased a reel to reel tape recorder. Jürgenson only wished to record his own voice singing but, listening back to the tapes, he began to notice strange fadings in and out. In 1959 he and his wife went to spend the summer at a cottage they owned in the countryside, and Jürgenson took his tape recorder along. The machine had been left running outdoors to record the bird song, but on listening back hardly any birds could be heard. What sounded like a thunderstorm of static was, shockingly, interrupted by a loud trumpet and then a voice speaking in Norwegian. Friedrich was amazed to realise that it was the voice of his own long-dead father, seemingly speaking directly to him through the machine. Soon after his deceased mother’s voice also appeared on tape, and this was enough to convince Jürgenson to give up painting and devote the rest of his life to spirit recordings. Electronic Voice Phenomenon (EVP) is the name now commonly given to recordings which are believed to contain communications from ghosts, extraterrestrials, or other entities. Not content with using mere tape or digital recorders though, many 21st century psychical investigators utilise specially designed devices to aid the dead to speak to them.
In the early 1980s, a device called The Spiricom was designed and utilised by a man by the name of William O’Neil. O’Neil claimed to be able to hold two-way conversations with spirits using the device, but he also claimed to be psychic and that his own abilities contributed to the workings of the machine. Plans and instructions for creating The Spiricom were made freely and widely available by O’Neil, but no-one seemed to be able to replicate his results. The 1995 October edition of Popular Electronics Magazine featured a seasonal article entitled “Ghost Voices: Exploring the Mysteries of Electronic Voice Phenomena – are the dead communicating with us via electronic means?” (read in full online at http://www.keyportparanormal.com/images/Popular_Electronics_EVP_2.pdf). The piece listed four basic ways in which technology could be used “to record and hear the voices” – the Microphone Method, Radio Method, White Noise Method, and the Diode Method. The author, Konstantinos, presented all his information in the typical Popular Electronics style, with little or no mysticism: this was a simple How-To, guaranteed to yield results provided the instructions were followed correctly. Inspired by the article, and also apparently by information received directly from the Spirit World, Frank Sumption created his own device in 2002, which became known as Frank’s Box. The device combined a white noise generator and an AM radio receiver specially modified to sweep back and forth through the AM band, selecting split-second snippets of sound. The modern Ghost Box, or Spirit Box, used by so many psychical investigators works on the same principles as Frank’s original design. Believers arguing that those intelligences they wish to communicate with can manipulate the randomised audio into (semi)coherence, while sceptics argue that scanning through actual talk radio to “hear voices” is pretty much cheating.
Ghost Boxes/Spirit Boxes are now mass-manufactured and widely available – you can buy a dozen different models along with your EMF meters, non-contact digital thermometers, and other Ghost Hunting equipment via Amazon or eBay. Some still favour a less mass-produced approach, however, and this has led to a kind of cottage industry of boutique, handmade devices. Steve Huff, who runs huffparanormal.com, manufactures apparatus he calls Wonder Boxes, which he sells for near enough two-thousand US dollars apiece. Unlike the palm-sized transistor radio type, mass-manufactured devices, Wonder Boxes look like something from a 1950s sci-fi film; all flashing lights and retro stylings. They also incorporate guitar FX pedals (which Huff purchases and sticks onto his device) including reverbs, noise gates, and pitch shifters, just to make sure those spirits sound extra spacey.
The Ghost Box industry has never been more healthy, apps are now available for your phone or tablet and you can start eavesdropping on the other-world with just a few swipes of your finger. The predecessors of the 20th and 21st century Ghost Boxes, or at least rumours of them, go back much further even than Friedrich Jürgenson’s garden experiments however.
VOICES FROM THE PAST
The word “psycho-phone” was first suggested and used by Mr. Francis Grierson in a lecture I heard him deliver before the Toronto Theosophical Society, August 31st, 1919, a year before Thomas Edison announced his intention of devising an instrument which he hopes will serve to establish intercourse between our world and the world of spirit.
So reads the opening paragraph of Lawrence Waldemar Tonner’s introduction to the 1921 work Psycho-PhoneMessages Recorded by Francis Grierson. The volume is a collection of discourses purportedly dictated by such notable (deceased) figures as General U. S. Grant, Thomas Jefferson, and Benjamin Disraeli, to name but a few. Tonner’s claim that Thomas Alva Edison, the fourth most prolific inventor in history, was working on a machine to communicate with the dead was, perhaps surprisingly enough based on fact.
The October 1920 issue of American Magazine contained an article entitled “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 was quoted as having said:
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.
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.
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.
So, while seemingly factual in 1921, it turns out that when Edison mentioned his machine to communicate with ghosts he was actually just having a bit of a laugh at Forbes’ (and his readers’) expense. [see Seance Through Science – Edison’s Ghost Machine] Nevertheless, the name Psycho-Phone/Psychophone has come to be associated by many with that (fictional) project Edison was working on, people even claiming to have come across the devices.
What of these Psycho-Phone Messages recorded by Francis Grierson then? Francis Grierson was in fact a pseudonym of composer and pianist Benjamin Henry Jesse Francis Shepard. Born in Birkenhead, England (across the River Mersey, or “over the water”, from Liverpool) Shepard’s family emigrated to Illinois, USA in 1849 while he was still an infant. Shepard was a naturally gifted musician and at the age of twenty he toured the East Coast of America playing piano and singing. A few short years later he found himself performing in the salons of the rich and famous across Europe. In 1871 Shepard played for Czar Alexander II in St. Petersburg. Already fascinated by Spiritualism he received instruction in the art of conducting séances while in Russia and, upon returning to the United States, became friends with Theosophical Society founder Madame Blavatsky. Relocating to San Diego in 1887, Shepard had the impressive turreted mansion, Villa Montezuma, built under the guidance of master architects Comstock and Trotsche. At Villa Montezuma (named after the ship which brought the Shepards to America) Shepard held regular séances and gave bizarre musical performances in which the spirits of long dead composers were purportedly summoned and permitted the use of Sherpard’s body so that they may play again via his living hands.  It was here that Shepard’s alter ego of Francis Grierson was born. Works published under the name included Modern Mysticism (1899), The Invincible Alliance and Other Essays (1913), Lincoln, the Practical Mystic (1919), and of course Psycho-PhoneMessages (1921).
Besides a reference to “[t]he psycho-phonic waves, by which the messages are imparted” in the author’s foreword for Psycho-Phone Messages, there is no further mention of (let alone any indication as to the nature of) the titular psycho-phone. Lawrence Waldemar Tonner (Shepard’s lover and constant companion from their meeting in 1886 until his death) mentioning Edison may offer a clue, however. In the book itself each message from the other side is said to have been “recorded”. This could simply mean that it was written down, of course, but it might easily be a reference to phonographic recordings made at the time for later reference and transcription.
THE DEAD SPELL IT OUT
The use of technology, rather than magic or mysticism, to communicate with otherworldly spirits began in the mid 19th century, going hand in hand with the rise of Spiritualism in the USA.
With the establishment of the belief in spirits willing and able to communicate with the living through special gifted mediums, it was only a matter of time before improvements were made to the manner of communication. Simple knocked affirmations to often leading questions quickly gave way to ponderous alphabet-calling, wherein the raps would select letters from a called-out alphabet in order to spell out messages one letter at a time. But accounts from even the earliest days of rapping mediums tell of alphabet cards and tiles used to facilitate faster communication.
June 10, 1853 marks the first known use of an impromptu automatic writer in the West, as witnessed by the Spiritist Allan Kardec, who attended the Paris table-tipping seance at which its invention occurred. According to Kardec, a “fervent partisan of the new phenomena” present at the seance made the suggestion as an alternative to the laborious process of alphabet-calling and tiresome rapped responses, and manufactured a small upturned basket, to which he secured a pencil, in order for several participants to participate in writing out messages from their spiritual controls. The device’s first message said sternly “I expressly forbid your repeating to anyone what I have just told you. The next time I write, I shall do it better.” No one now knows exactly who coined the phrase, but the name “little plank” was given to the device, or, in the original French, “planchette.”
The above information comes from www.mysteriousplanchette.com, a site dedicated to the history of “curious devices used for speaking to the dead”. The planchette soon became a commercially available item. Some were used as a means of allowing the spirits to guide the hands of the living and write out messages (as mentioned above). Others were used as pointers so that the spirits could spell out their messages a letter at a time on “alphabet boards” or “talking boards” (predecessors of the Ouija Board, which is actually a trademark of US toy company Hasbro Inc.). The Mysterious Planchette that the website takes its name from was a British made device which came with an interestingly named accessory:
Perhaps most importantly, all of the specimens were packaged with the mind-numbingly named “Physio-Psychophone,” a 4-panel, fold out sheet ostensibly used in place of prophetic spirit scribblings to point users toward their fates with colorful snippets of fortunes such as the promising “You Will Be More Fortunate in Old Age,” the bachelor’s dream “Delay Marriage,” the heartfelt “Love and You Will Be Beloved,” and the Yoda-esque “Be Not Suspicious.”
Spirit communication technology did advance beyond mere paper, cardboard or wooden boards, and wheeled planchettes however. In 1853, a Connecticut spiritualist by the name of Isaac T. Pease, came up with what he called the Spiritual Telegraph Dial: a dial with letters arranged around its circumference, and a central needle to point to them. Isaac T. Pease’s device remains remains the earliest recorded Dial Plate Talking Board – a more technologically advanced sub-genre of the wooden Ouijas we are much more familiar with today. Some Dial Plates used needles that moved, some plates themselves rotated, some used peep-holes to single out the letters, and so on. Although the craze for spiritual communication devices began in the mid 1800s it was on the wane by the 1920s and it is easy to see how Edison’s jokes with Forbes made much more sense at the time he made them than they do to us now. Spirit communication devices (treated with extreme scepticism by many in the first instance, it has to be said) had become mere novelties, trademarked by toy companies and sold along-side boardgames like Snakes & Ladders.
THE PSYCHO-PHONE CO. INC.
“Our first story takes us to the edges of scientific discovery at the turn of the 20th century. Thomas Edison was the most prolific inventor in American history – making breakthroughs in telephone technology, motion pictures, electric lighting, and of course, the phonograph, or sound recording machine.
He changed the way we live but was Edison also investigating what happened after death? Vicki and Dallas Childress of Cincinnati, Ohio, believe they have a device that may reveal a different side of Thomas Edison. The theory of it is that it was invented to communicate with the other side, or the dead.”
So began episode 701 of US TV channel PBS’ popular History Detectives series. The device, which guest Vicki had purchased at auction, was a branded Psycho-phone, manufactured in the 1920s. Upon examining the device one of the show’s experts commented:
“The thing that jumps right out is this clock. That’s a big question mark. It’s unusual. I’ve never seen a clock mounted like that on an Edison phonograph. Another thing, this is a really unusual part here. I wonder if it’s a repeater device for rewinding and replaying repeatedly the record.”
And that is exactly what it was. The Psycho-phone Co., Inc. was located at 151 Lafayette Street New York, NY in 1928, moving to 103 Lafayette Street in 1930. A patent for the device was issued in 1927 in the name of Alois Benjamin Saliger, the founder of the company. Alois was the owner of the Saliger Ship Salvage Company in New York but was charged with stock fraud in 1919 and turned his hand to inventing. Despite eventually sharing nomenclature with certain spiritualist mechanisms and devices however, Saliger’s invention was patented under the more prosaic title of Automatic Time-Controlled Suggestion Machine. Spiritualism may have been on the wane somewhat at the time but interest in psychology, and Self-Help in particular, was growing and it was this what Saliger aimed to capitalise on. His device came with four wax cylinders (later discs) on which positive messages were recorded by Saliger himself, messages such as:
“This is the great Psycho-phone talking to you. It will not disturb your sleep… on the other hand, it will induce restful slumber.”
“You are being rejuvenated in perfect health. Your weight is normal. Your hair is growing in luxurious abundance. I am now having a wonderful rest.”
The clock mentioned in the History Detectives transcript above was timer, which could be set by the user to trigger the Psycho-phone to begin playing whilst they slept. The idea was that the messages, played on a loop by the device during the wee small hours, would enter the users subconscious and have a positive impact upon their mental and physical well-being as a result. According to an article published in Antique Phonograph News – the newsletter of the
Canadian Antique Phonograph Society – in their July-August 2009 edition:
Saliger’s advertisements acknowledged the scepticism that readers might have, although if they had willingly forked out 25c for Psychology magazine, one might wonder about their capacity for scepticism. Some headline examples were:-
Laugh at this “Crazy” Invention, but Read the PROOF of What it Has Done for Others. It develops Your Powers for Success…Health…Personality… While You Sleep
A Triumph of Science
You Can Get More Money
The “PROOF” was in testimonials such as:-
“I have overcome a great fear and inferiority complex I now take great pleasure in work. I am quite successful.”
“I was troubled with constipation all my life and at the present time my bowel movement is normal I was continually worrying and I have not indulged in worry for some time past my practice has more than doubled. (Physician)”
Because stories of Edison’s attempts to create a machine to communicate with the dead still circulate (almost always minus his 1926 admission that it was all a hoax), and because the name psycho-phone has become erroneously connected to that fabled device, people now often believe Saliger’s apparatus to be a kind of rare early 20th century Ghost Box. Indeed adding to the confusion is the fact that some Ghost Box users and creators refer to their own 21st century machines as psycho-phones.
Of course the truth is that Edison did invent – or at least perfect and popularise – technology which provided a more effective means of communication between the dead and the living than anyone had ever done before. To be able to hear the voice of a deceased loved one years after their demise was impossible before the phonograph brought wax cylinder recording and playback to the fingertips, and eardrums, of a new generation of tech enthusiasts. His own voice, his messages to us from beyond the grave, are still engraved in those fragile cylinders and, thanks to more modern descendants of that technology, can still be heard today. As indeed can the voice of Alois Benjamin Saliger, telling us all from ninety years in the past that tonight is the night we’re going to get that perfect, restful, rejuvenating sleep we’ve been so looking forward to. And, if your nights are anything like mine, that really would be something paranormal.
- The Double-Blind Ghost Box: Scientific Methods, Examples, and Transcripts by Shawn Taylor and Daniel Morgan (iUniverse Inc, Bloomsbury, 2013)
- “Ghost Voices: Exploring the Mysteries of Electronic Voice Phenomena – are the dead communicating with us via electronic means by Konstantinos (Popular Electronics, 1995) http://www.keyportparanormal.com/images/Popular_Electronics_EVP_2.pdf
- Psycho-Phone Messages Recorded by Francis Grierson, 1921 http://www.gutenberg.org/files/35681/35681-h/35681-h.htm
- Keith Stern: Queers in History: The Comprehensive Encyclopaedia of Historical Gays, Lesbians and Bisexuals (Benbella Books, 2009)