Thomas Edison, the iconic inventor and entrepreneur best known for developing the motion picture camera, the phonograph, and of course, the practical light bulb, dabbled with some strange, relatively esoteric scientific experiments in his time. One of the most seemingly bizarre was the attempted creation of an instrument now known as a “spirit box” or “spirit phone,” which could’ve theoretically allowed the living to communicate with the “personalities” of the dead. But the legendary innovator had much loftier goals than simply trying to “Yo” the deceased and strike up a conversation. He was trying to pinpoint the essence of life itself, and determine if some fundamental part of who we are carries on in some form after we die.
In other words, the spirit box wasn’t only designed to be a souped-up scientific seance machine, it was also supposed to be a means of verifying Edison’s larger theory about the physical nature of life, and dare it be said, the “soul.”
The story of the spirit box, which comes via Atlas Obscura, is often told around this time of year, with some spooky flare, and hints that Edison may have had some kind of morbid desire to communicate with the dead. (Or at least incentive due to the many families who lost loved ones in WWI.) But the innovator and magnate often took great pains to point out to reporters that he was completely opposed to any kind of “spirit” that existed after a person died, and that he was simply trying to offer a means for communicating if there was anything with which to communicate.
“I cannot be a party to the belief that spirits exist and can be seen under certain circumstances…” Edison told Scientific American in an interview from 1920, “The whole thing is so absurd.” But he added that he had been working on “a machine or apparatus which could be operated by personalities which have passed onto another existence…” In the same interview, Edison notes that the idea of a “spirit” is useless because it has no physical manifestation. And if it has no physical manifestation, then why even bother thinking about it, as it can’t be observed. But “personalities” on the other hand, those Edison gave a particular physical definition, which was based on his encompassing theory of life.
Essentially, Edison believed that there was a kind of conservation of life law (our term, not his), which states that there is a set amount of life in the universe, and it cannot be either created nor destroyed — just like the conservation of energy or mass laws in thermodynamics. He also believed that this set amount of life was broken down into “myriads and myriads of infinitesimal entities”, much in the same way matter can be broken down into atoms. From there, Edison reasoned that these “entities” gather in “swarms” and become either a human or a plant or an animal or anything we define as being alive.
Edison proposed that the entities were too small to see, but his analogy for how to think about them was clever. He said that if you imagined a man from Mars with “courser” eyes than our ours, he may only be able to see say, the Golden Gate Bridge, but he wouldn’t be able to see the people who built it. If he destroyed the bridge, and it was rebuilt, from his point of view it would look like it had magically reassembled itself. In the same way, Edison believed that the entities that make up life cannot be seen, but are still responsible for building everything that is alive. And no, sadly, Edison didn’t give his thoughts as to what imbues these entities with their intrinsic life-building property.
As far as our “personalities,” those Edison reasoned were particular indivisible sets of entities (groupings of life blocks) that differentiated one organism from another, and were likely to be found in the Broca area of the brain. But again, Edison made no claim that he believed there were spirits. Only that people’s distinguishing indivisible life-entity groups may exist, even after death. See, that doesn’t sound so crazy, right?
With that possibility in mind, Edison conceptualized a “valve” of light that would be so hypersensitive it could be adjusted by one of these indivisible personality life-entity groups in order to reveal their existence. Somehow. Edison doesn’t really get into the details in the interview, and no iterations of any type of spirit box were ever found.
An extremely rare recorded moment with Edison.
The spirit box was also intended to combat what Edison saw as a plague of moronic, unscientific attempts at communicating with the dead. “In truth, it is the crudeness of the present methods that makes me doubt the authenticity of purported communications with deceased persons,” Edison said. “Why should personalities in another existence or sphere waste their time working a little triangular piece of wood over a board with certain lettering on it? Why should such personalities play pranks with a table?”
And there you have it. Edison didn’t brew up the idea of the so-called spirit box to communicate with the dead. He did it to verify possible personality clumps floating through the ether, and to get everybody to stop acting like a Ouija board does anything but provide an opportunity for people to gather together, move a piece of wood around, maybe get a little tipsy, and pretend like there are ghosts in the room. Speaking of which, happy Nerdoween!
What do you think about Edison’s spirit box? Do you think his theories of life and personality could ever be scientifically verified? Give us your thoughts in the comments below!
Images: Wikimedia / American Telephone and Telegraph Co.
A Spirit Box comes to life in in Nerdist Presents: The Mystic Museum:
[brightcove video_id=”5615158804001″ brightcove_account_id=”3653334524001″ brightcove_player_id=”rJs2ZD8x”]
More Spooky Science:
- The science of “light as a feather, stiff as a board.”
- What happens if the Earth stops orbiting the sun?
- How do Ouija Boards actually work?
Welcome to Nerdoween! Throughout the month of October, we’ll be celebrating everything spooky, macabre, and just plain weird. Nerdoween 2017 is presented by Alpha, our interactive membership service, which offers you exclusive content from Nerdist and Geek & Sundry, as well as a 10% discount on all of our merch.