Thomas Edison and the Ghost in the Machine

Thomas Edison
Thomas Edison

Thomas Edison: Skeptic or Paranormal Enthusiast?

Depending on who writes about Thomas Alva Edison (1847-1941), he was either a skeptic or a man who had lifelong interest in the paranormal (Gardener 211). His quotes on the paranormal and the after life have been paraphrased and repositioned so many times it’s difficult to determine exactly what he said, the context of his remarks, and when he made them.

One interview, by friend Edward Marshall, seems to go undisputed. Published by the New York Times in 1910, the illustrious inventor articulately converses about his beliefs. Marshall writes, “Edison told me he had come to the conclusion that here is no ‘supernatural,’ or ‘supernormal,’... that all there is ...can be explained along material lines.”

There are only two incidents of record wherein Edison admitted he had encountered the unexplainable. The first, Edison discussed in his 1910 interview with Edward Marshall.

Pellet Readings, True Clairvoyance, or New Sensory Development?

A stranger came to Edison’s laboratory and told him, “I have come to show you something wonderful. I am going to astound you.”

Curious, yet concerned that the man might be dangerous, Edison invited the stranger in, but summoned an assistant from another room. The stranger told Edison’s assistant to write some names on a slip of paper. Then without ever looking at the paper, the stranger put his hand on Edison’s assistant and read off the names correctly. Believing it was a trick, Edison asked if he could try it. Instead of names, Edison wrote down a question.

Edison related, “I was at that time experimenting with my storage battery and was in doubt about it. I did not feel quite sure I was on exactly the right track.”

Edison’s question was whether there was anything better for a storage battery than nickel-hydroxide. Without opening the paper, the stranger answered, “No. There is nothing better.” Then he left Edison’s laboratory. It was the first and last time Edison ever encountered this individual.

At the time, it was Edison’s belief that man developed new senses as necessary. He remarked about the incident, “That man did do this strange thing. That is the reason why I say we may develop a new sense, or more than one new sense in the course of time, but it will be material.”

Later, Edison met the famed medium “Dr. Bert Reese”. Reese did the same type of readings, asking his subjects to write their thoughts on pieces of paper while he was out of the room. When he returned, he would press the balled up pellets of paper on his forehead and “read” the contents.

Harry Houdini, sure that Reese used slight of hand in his “readings” unveiled the Doctor’s deception in a séance.

Yet Edison maintained that Reese was genuine. “I am certain that Reese was neither a medium nor a fake. I saw him several times and on each occasion I wrote something on a piece of paper when Reese was not near...In no single case was one of these papers handled by Reese... yet he recited correctly the contents of each paper.”

Edison was convinced that Reese was a prodigy; that Reese had developed a new sense that all humans are capable of developing.

“All There Is ...Can Be Explained Along Material Lines”

When his later interviews are read in context, it appears that Edison maintained this opinion throughout his life. Yet, taken out of context, some of Edison’s quotes take on an entirely different meaning. For instance, the Universal movie, “White Noise” begins with an abridged version of an Edison quote that is erroneous even in its date3:

"Nobody knows whether our personalities pass on to another existence or sphere, but if we can evolve an instrument so delicate to be manipulated by our personality as it survives in the next life such an instrument ought to record something..."
Thomas Edison 1928

The quote actually comes from a 1920 interview Edison gave to B.C. Forbes (founder of Forbes magazine), published in the Scientific American (Gardner 213). In context, the quote reads:

“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.”

Edison concludes that if we ever succeed in establishing communication, it will be by scientific means.

Later, in a 1926 New York Times interview, Edison claimed that his interview with Forbes was just a prank. “...I really had nothing to tell him, but I hated to disappoint him so I thought up this story about communicating with spirits, but it was all a joke.”

Yet, in a 1921 New York Times article, A.D. Rothman wrote that Edison was developing a machine that would measure “one hundred trillion life units” in the human body that “may scatter after death.” However, the article also reported that Edison emphatically denied any link between his experiment and the “spiritual”4.

Then, in 1933, “Modern Mechanix Magazine” went back into history to tell of a secret 1920 gathering of Edison and associates where the inventor demonstrated a “photo-electric cell” that revealed spirits in a beam of light4. However, the article is the only document that contains this tale and is contrary to a supposed 1920 “diary” record where Edison discussed his “spirit communication device”. (Bear in mind though, that this “diary” record is found only in Dagobert Rune’s Philosophical Library publication, “The Diary and Sundry Observations of Thomas A. Edison.”)

“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.”

The remainder of the “diary entry” is almost a verbatim account of the Scientific American Interview, except for the statement, “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.”

In the entry, Edison concludes that if the apparatus was unsuccessful, the chance of there being a hereafter “of the kind we think about and imagine goes down. On the other hand, it will, of course cause a tremendous sensation if it is successful.”

Either one or, quite possibly, both of the above accounts are invalid. If Edison successfully demonstrated such a machine in 1920, why would he write in his diary that he was “building an apparatus”?

If he were still working on developing a “spirit communication device,” this inventor, who held over 1000 patents, would not have demonstrated his machine until it was perfected and patented. Once successful, he certainly would have publicized this “tremendous sensation”. Yet no record of the parts of the device or the plans for it exists.

When reading reliable reports in context, it quickly becomes apparent that Edison was a consummate scientist who accepted very little on belief alone, except for the belief that any genuine truth can be proven through scientific means. If Edison had invented a “spirit communication device”, he would have left nothing to belief or speculation, explaining his invention in detail, “along material lines”.

1. Martin Gardner. “Did Adam and Eve Have Navels?”. W. W. Norton & Company. 2001. 1 May 2009. <http://books.google.com/books?id=leIjcCSB_MoC>
2. Edward Marshall “’No Immortality of the Soul’ says Thomas A. Edison” The New York Times. 2 Oct. 1910. 30 Apr. 2009.<http://query.nytimes.com/mem/archive-free/pdf?res=9903EEDC1F39E333A25751C0A9669D946196D6CF>
3. White Noise. Universal Pictures et. al. 7 Jan 2005. 27 April 2009. <http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0375210/crazycredits>
4. Elliot Feldman "Thomas Edison and his Spirit Phone". Museum of Hoaxes. 27, 2009. <http://www.museumofhoaxes.com/hoax/Hoaxipedia/Thomas_Edison_and_his_Spirit_Phone/>