Thomas Edison, perhaps the most well-known American inventor of all time, invented a device for talking to the dead. A device that was never actually created, that nobody can find any notes or blueprints for, or was ever referenced by Edison without the use of tongue-in-cheek humor. So, where is it? Is the device something to be taken seriously or an elaborate joke played on the media by the inventor?
At first glance, the latter would seem to be the case. Edison was known for his dry sense of humor, and playing a joke on a hapless reporter would be right up his alley. And though he would go on to talk about the mysterious device in several interviews, it does seem that Edison was simply taking advantage of the sudden publicity he was getting about the proposed machine. Keep in mind that Spiritualism was in full swing at the time and anything that would assist people with talking to the dead was, indeed, big news.
People who believe that Edison was simply joking about the invention usually point to an early quote from Edison in which he states, “I cannot conceive of such a thing as a spirit. Imagine something that has no weight, no material form, no mass. In a word, imagine nothing.”
Edison also famously berated Spiritualists of the day by saying, “I cannot be a party to the belief that spirits exist and can be seen under certain circumstances, and can be made to tilt tables and rap, and do other things of a similar unimportant nature. The whole thing is so absurd. In truth, it is the crudeness of the present methods which makes me doubt the authenticity of purported communications with deceased persons. Why should personalities in another existence or sphere waste their time with a little triangular piece of wood over a board with certain lettering on it? Why should such personalities play pranks with a table? The whole business seems so childish to me that I frankly cannot give it my serious consideration.”
On the surface, it would seem that Edison did not support the idea of ghosts or spirits, or of communicating with them. But this is clearly not the case, as Edison would later say, “I believe that if we are to make any real progress in psychic investigation, we must do it with scientific apparatus, in a scientific manner, just as we do in medicine, electricity, chemistry, and other fields…what I propose to do is to furnish psychic investigators with an apparatus that will give a scientific aspect to their work.”
In short, Edison was ridiculing Spiritualists and their methods—not the idea of an afterlife or communicating with the dead.
In an interview with Scientific American (Oct 30, 1920), Edison described the proposed machine as being a variant of the phonograph (which he also invented) that would have an extra sensitive diaphragm and would record on the phonograph’s cylindrical tubes. So, what happened to the invention? Clearly it has never been found and it does not exist in any of the present-day Edison collections.
My opinion: he never actually got around to making it, or designing it, or anything else for that matter. It’s just that simple.
Edison held over 1,000 patents—and, by best estimate, the inventor was known to have made notes on and considered the manufacture of more than double that amount of inventions. With a plate this full, it’s clear that MANY of Edison’s ideas fell through the cracks. But, whether you doubt the idea of the mysterious machine or not, one thing is clear: Edison had very definite ideas of what he believed the afterlife and God to be—ideas that may surprise you.
Edison told the Boston Globe in 1927, “The unit of life consists of swarms of billions of highly organized entities which live in the cells. I believe at times that when man dies, this swarm deserts the body, goes out into space, but keeps on and enters another and last cycles of life and is immortal.” Was he talking about DNA? Reincarnation? Midi-chlorians?
Edison also spoke on this subject with New York Times Magazine, saying, “Nature is what we know. We do not know the gods of religions. And nature is not kind, or merciful, or loving. If God made me—the fabled God of the three qualities of which I spoke: mercy, kindness, love—He also made the fish I catch and eat. And where do His mercy, kindness, and love for that fish come in? No, nature made us—nature did it all—not the gods of the religions.”
Basically, Thomas Edison was a Pagan/deist/agnostic (depending on your viewpoint) who believed that paranormal investigators need to rely on the scientific method to bolster their studies, rather than methods used by psychics, Spiritualists, or religious groups. And while we do not have anything from Edison concerning a device for speaking with the dead, we can all take heart at knowing that this intelligent individual with numerous inventions under his belt at least thought that such a device was possible.
And, hey, I’m okay with that!
Our thanks to Rich for his guest post! For more from Rich Newman, read his article “Exploring the Dark Side: Identifying 3 Types of Negative Paranormal Phenomenena.”