Machines to Talk to the Dead

Thomas A. Edison, W. B. Yeats, and Instrumental Transcommunication

Emerging from a coma a few days before he died, the great American inventor Thomas Alva Edison (1847-1931) suddenly opened his eyes and gazed “upward into space, his face illuminated with a smile as he said, ‘It is very beautiful over there.’” When he died his clock stopped, as did those of all his top executives. Experiences of telepathy or telekinesis, either occurring spontaneously or evoked by his experiments, hounded the inventor all his life. The rumor mill has speculated for 80 years that he spent thousands of hours working on a machine to communicate with the dead. Did he? And did he succeed? The evidence is piecemeal but tantalizing.

The prodigious inventiveness of Thomas Edison brought into the world more than 1,000 patented inventions and improvements. His most famous inventions included the phonograph, the electric light bulb, the alkaline battery, improvements in motion pictures, and a myriad of electronic devices.

Certainly, if anyone could have at least laid down a theoretical basis for a machine to talk to the dead, it was Thomas Edison. Did he have the interest? The passion? In They Knew the Unknown (1970), Martin Ebon suggests he did: “Not until 1920, at the age of 73, did Edison reveal his secret work in psychic research. He told his friend B.C. Forbes, later founder of Forbes Magazine, the story that became a sensation: ‘Edison Working to Communicate with the Next World (American Magazine, October 1920).’ The world press offered largely fanciful details of Edison’s apparatus to communicate with the dead. A French newspaper even provided a diagram, which, of course, only Edison knew to be a fraud.”

In an interview with The Scientific American in its October 30, 1920, issue, Edison substantiated the basic details of Forbes’s article and provided a summary of his views on the possibility of life after death. He would use the same words in his diary:

“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 this earth. Therefore, if personality lasts after what we call death, it’s reasonable to conclude that those who leave this earth would like to communicate with those they have left here.

“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, or moved, or manipulated by our personality as it survives in the next life, such an instrument, when made available, ought to record something.”

Edison didn’t think much of nineteenth-century “table-tapping” and twentieth-century Ouija Board methods for contacting the dead:

“Certain of the methods now in use are so crude, so childish, so unscientific, that it is amazing how so many rational human beings can take any stock in them. If we ever do succeed in establishing communication [with those] which have left this present life, it certainly won’t be through any of the childish contraptions which seem so silly to the scientist.”

Ebon records that, in a biographical article in Liberty Magazine published some years after the inventor died, Allen L. Benson, for many years an acquaintance of Edison’s, writes that 15 years before the inventor died his “mind turned toward the hereafter.” Benson believed Edison’s attempt to build a machine to contact the dead stemmed purely from scientific interest. He recalled that Edison had “wondered whether it might not be possible to make a machine that would enable the hereafter to prove itself without the aid of mediums or other living human agencies. If spirits could communicate directly with the earth, doubting would soon have to stop. Edison was a scientist and, as such, had a profound respect for facts. He might be wrong about the soul, a hereafter, and the possibility of conducting conversation between the two worlds. If so, he wanted to shift his course to fit the facts.”

Ebon thinks Edison’s interest in the survival of the human personality after death may have developed early in his life. He quotes a friend of Edison’s family, John Eggleston: “Thomas Edison’s parents were Spiritualists. I have many time sat in circles in their home when this great inventor was a mere child.” Edison’s Diary and Sundry Observations makes it clear that— whether its origins were in childhood or not—the inventor’s theoretical concept of life regarded it in terms of infinitely small particles of matter combined in “swarms” much like bees in a hive to constitute living creatures. He considered these submicroscopic units indestructible. “Life, like matter, is indestructible,” he wrote. “There has always been a certain amount of life on this world and there will always be the same amount. You cannot create life; you cannot destroy life; you cannot multiply life.”

It’s well known that Edison believed in the reality of telepathy, both in light of the experiments he carried out and because of what he experienced within himself. He put the famous clairvoyant Bert Reese—known to sometimes mix sleight-of-hand in with his performances—through a rigorous series of tests. Reese passed them all with flying colors and especially impressed Edison when, as Martin Ebon writes, the inventor “went into the next building and wrote down this question: ‘Is there anything better than hydroxide of nickel for an alkaline battery?’ ” Edison later wrote, “After having written this sentence, I took up another problem in my mind and gave all my attention to solving it, so as to throw Reese off the scent, if he was trying to read in my mind what I had written. I then came back into the room where I had left him with my men. The moment I entered the room, Reese turned to me and said, ‘No, there is nothing better than hydroxide of nickel for an alkaline battery.’ Reese was right, by the way.”

Edison seemed to possess telepathic powers himself. Joseph Dunninger, the famous mentalist with whom Edison frequently corresponded, noted that Edison had experiences “where he could concentrate on someone and they would come and see him—or concentrate on doing a thing and it would pass on to the person it was intended for without any verbal communication.”

Edison’s belief that, as illustrated by telepathy, knowledge could be communicated without the use of any conventional media, would have left him open to the notion that the dead can communicate their thoughts. According to Ebon, Dunninger claimed Edison had actually shown him the mysterious apparatus for contacting the dead. There is no other record of anyone else ever seeing it, or even any records of its construction during Edison’s lifetime. By 1935, when Norman R. Speiden—later to become supervisory museum curator at the Edison National Historic Site—searched for clues to this work, he found nothing. “We have never been able to find anything in Mr. Edison’s notebooks concerning this research and have never found any apparatus that seemed to be constructed for this purpose,” declared Speiden, who speculated that Edison might have had in mind using a sensitive electrical valve or vacuum tube as the essential element for amplifying very delicate vibrations.

Speiden’s researches were not in vain, concludes Ebon: “For he validated Edison’s own attempt to communicate at the time of his death—3:24 a.m., Sunday, October 18, 1931. Three of Edison’s associates noted that their clocks had each stopped simultaneously—at 3:24 a.m. The larger grandfather clock in Edison’s own laboratory stopped three minutes later. Edison, who was called ‘the Old Man’ by his men, had once recorded the popular song, Grandfather’s Clock, with the words: “…But it stopped, short, never to go again, when the old man died.”

An important influence on Edison, in the spheres of science and spirituality both, was the British scientist Sir William Crookes (1832-1919), with whom the inventor corresponded much of his life. Crookes won the Nobel Prize for discovering thallium; he was the developer of the vacuum tube, from which Edison derived his light bulb. President of the Society for Psychical Research from 1896 to 1899, Crookes was deeply involved in paranormal research, especially spirit photography; his collection of photographs that allegedly showed spirits of the dead may have prompted Edison to surmise that if ghosts could be shown on film, then a device to record their words might actually work.

It’s possible that Edison heard from Crookes in 1917 about a strange device called the “Metallic Homunculus.” Dubbed with this poetic name by the Nobel Prize-winning Irish poet W.B. Yeats (1865-1939), who vociferously championed its cause for several months of that year, the Metallic Homunculus was, among other things, a machine for talking to the dead. It was developed by David Wilson, an eccentric chemist, inventor, and investigator of psychic phenomena who had been an assistant to Sir William Crookes. Crookes was well aware of this experiment being carried out by his one-time assistant. W.B. Yeats was fascinated by Crookes, declaring in the Introduction to his The Resurrection (Ex 398) that the eminent scientist claimed to have literally touched the beating heart of a materialized spirit. No doubt the presence of Crookes in the background did much to spark Yeats’s interest in Wilson’s project.

A “homunculus” (Latin for “little man”) is a miniature human body once believed to be contained in the spermatozoon, and which, when nurtured in a flask by an alchemist, was believed to be able to carry out certain tasks. Wilson’s Metallic Homunculus was based on the nineteenth century German occultist and chemist Baron Karl von Reichenbach’s (1788-1869) theory of the “Od,” or the “Odyllic Force,” a cosmic energy thought to suffuse all earthly and some heavenly things and to underlie such phenomena as magnetism, electricity, and the psychic feats of clairvoyance and telepathy. Reichenbach claimed his subjects had perceived the presence of Od in sunlight, living bodies, and numerous other forms such as mineral ones, including crystals and magnets.

Radioactive metals were the main components of Wilson’s device; he claimed their aurae could be observed through the machine’s lens and described his device as a “kind of syntonizer between and [sic] incarnate and discarnate intelligences,” operating through the medium of electricity and a “discarnate medium.” In Yeats Annual No. 15, Christopher Blake summarizes Yeats’s description of the machine: “Its main components were a brass drum topped with glass (denoted by Wilson as ‘feminine’) and a small brass rod with a brass box on one end fitted with a quartz amethyst (the ‘masculine’). Both parts contained the ‘metallic medium’—the seven metals [other reports say 40, including chemicals] which, according to Wilson, made psychic manifestations possible.” Blake says, “Wilson claimed an impressive variety of functions for his device: not only could it identity playing cards secretly marked by human querents, it could also communicate by coded sounds, by making pictures, or by the motions of a pendulum. Finally, and this was its obvious appeal for Yeats, it could relay messages to and from the spirit realm.”

Did the Metallic Homunculus work? Yeats endeavored to find this out, visiting the inventor’s home in the English town of St. Leonards-on-Sea twice, first alone on January 30, 1917, and then on March 22, with Sir Edward Denison Ross, a scholar of Persian and founder and director of the School of Oriental Languages, and Edmund Dulac, an artist and theatrical set designer and close friend of Yeats’.

In a talk in 1948, Dulac would add important details to the description of the Metallic Homunculus: “Mr. Wilson’s idea was that, through a combination of chemical [and mineral?] substances, the machine acted as a link between himself and the minds of living or disembodied entities. It was operated through earphones and an eye-piece, both conveying messages in code to Mr. Wilson.”

W.B. Yeats was interested in magic and the occult all his life, conducting group experiments in telepathy, trying to photograph the souls of flowers, using Tattwa cards for clairvoyant activity, collecting and publishing the occult folk tales of Irish peasants, and much more. For four years, almost from the day of his marriage, he was involved in automatic writing with his wife Georgie; the transcripts of these seances became the substance of his book A Vision. Yeats’s investigation of Wilson’s machine was conducted under the auspices of the British Society for Psychical Research.

First, he had the machine identify certain playing cards; he wanted to make sure its effects weren’t achieved through Wilson’s telepathic power. The results were satisfactory. A second set of experiments involving spirit messages were less so. The spirits were often merely mischievous (Wilson called them “little beasts”); at best they were, as Christopher Blake writes, a “disorderly throng.” The spirits communicated by means of coded flashes, clicks, or pendulum strokes interpreted by Wilson. Many “gave their names and brief, disjointed messages;” these included John Dee, Paracelsus, and Oscar Wilde. Yeats was pleased that these three at least “seemed anxious for us to know that there was a universal mind [the central tenet of Yeats’s philosophy], and, if we spoke to them [the spirits], it was but as links with this mind.” Blake writes that, “Swamped by the flood of messages, Yeats [in his subsequent report] registers acute exasperation.” The messages were often disjointed and sometimes incomprehensible, and it was hard to tell if they weren’t just coming via telepathy from the mind of David Wilson. (Yeats believed absolutely in the reality of telepathy.) On the second visit to Wilson’s house, Edward Ross was apparently able to make the machine communicate in Arabic, Persian, and Turkish; but much of what emerged was incoherent, and Ross thought much of this might be coming from Wilson.

The reports of Yeats, Dulac, and Ross record that the workings of the Metallic Homunculus were fascinating but that it was impossible to reach any definitive conclusion as to the veracity of the communications. In Yeats’s words: “[The machine] did wonderful things, but . . . did personal mediumship act through it . . . or was the machine, as David Wilson believes, itself the medium? I do not know.”

By this time World War One was intervening. The police, hearing the machine had communicated in German and suspecting Wilson might be a spy, impounded the Metallic Homunculus as an illegal wireless; Yeats was forced to intercede with his friends at the War Office. Then Wilson was conscripted. He went off to War and was never heard from again. The machine vanished with him.

It’s a pity that Wilson’s Metallic Homunculus and Edison’s notes (and models?) towards a machine to talk to the dead are apparently gone forever. In light of the positive aspects of Wilson’s device, as expressed by Yeats, and the genius of Thomas Edison, it’s possible that in the practice of the former and the theories of the latter lay the seeds of a mechanical device that could actually begin to talk to the dead.

By John Chambers

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