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The Alpha Mystery

This article was written by José Feola, Ph.D.
posted under

In late 1982, an serendipitous combination of events involving an amateur inventor, a radio alarm clock, and a timely coffee break led to the development of a powerful new tool for study of the Electronic Voice Phenomenon-which some believe allows communication with the deceased.

The Hand of Fate

Alexander MacRae, a college lecturer in microelectronics from the Highland region of Scotland, was carrying out some private experiments. MacRae had invented a system he called the “Alpha.” The Alpha consisted of a biofeedback unit connected to a crude speech synthesizer. On the night of December 17th, 1982, MacRae was trying to increase the sensitivity of the device. It was proving to be a difficult task.

Just after seven o’clock, he decided to break for a cup of coffee. To clear some space in his work area, he placed the Alpha on top of a clock radio sitting on a side table. The alarm was set to go off at seven o’clock-it was one of those alarms that does not distinguish between seven in the morning and seven in the evening. Thus, at seven that evening, the radio automatically switched on. The radio was not tuned to a station, and nothing was heard until the Alpha was placed on top of it.

As soon as the Alpha came close to the radio, strange sounds could be heard-growls, squeals, and groans. The sounds changed with every slight movement; the system was so sensitive that MacRae could hear his heartbeat coming through on the radio! In fact, it was impossible for MacRae to write down experimental notes without upsetting the system by his movements.

To solve this problem, MacRae decided to speak his notes into a tape recorder. And with this, the third step in the fateful chain of events was in place.

When he reviewed the tape two days later, MacRae thought that he heard a voice among the strange sounds coming from the Alpha. Quickly, he rewound that part of the tape and played it back. To his great surprise, he found that there was indeed a voice recorded on the tape at that point. In a weird, drawn-out voice it spoke a name: “Carl Johnson.”

MacRae then rewound the tape to the beginning, in order to see if there were any other voices that he had missed. There were-and the first voice was that of his father, who had died 11 months before!

The Voices

There followed a long period of research, privately undertaken by MacRae, to try to improve the Alpha and to collect results. It was found that all the utterances were short, around two seconds, and that names were frequently mentioned.

The phenomenon of phantom voices on tape-now known as the Electronic Voice Phenomenon, or “EVP”-was not new. The first person known to have studied it was Friedrich Jurgenson, a film producer from Sweden. In 1958, Jurgenson had picked up the voice of his deceased mother while recording birdsongs in a Norwegian forest. MacRae’s discovery, however, was the first time that a machine like the Alpha produced EVP, and soon it was producing utterances in a quantity that no other system could even approach. Aiding his research was the fact that MacRae was an expert in speech recognition problems, having done research for NASA on this subject in the late 1960s.

In the small world of EVP, petty jealousies soon arose, and MacRae came under attack from all sides. Additionally, it was hard to prove to the non-technical person that the voices were not stray radio broadcasts or sounds picked up at random from the environment.

Fighting Back

MacRae developed an argument from probability. “All the utterances are short; and each one begins at its beginning and ends at its end; each utterance is complete. Now that cannot be random-if it was random, then you would get short utterances, very short utterances, long utterances, very long utterances, you would get phrases that started in their middle and ended in the middle of another sentence, and so on. I have worked out that the odds against all the phrases being short and the right length happening by chance are of the order of a trillion to one.”

To many people, verbal and mathematical arguments were not convincing. The question remained: How could this unbelievable phenomenon be proven to be real, and not random?

In 1971, an Englishman named David Ellis had investigated EVP as the subject for his degree project at Cambridge University. The question of whether EVP was due to random radio pickup was considered. Ellis attempted to answer this by using a Faraday cage-a room formed from sheets of copper which prevent radio waves from entering. If any voices were picked up inside the Faraday cage during the experiment, radio transmissions could be ruled out as the source.

To the skeptics’ chagrin, a voice was picked up inside the Faraday cage. However, no one wants to look like a fool by believing in the paranormal, so it was proposed that the voice must have come from outside-a Faraday cage won’t stop sound waves. It was decided that making a cage to stop both radio and sound waves was not feasible, and the research was abandoned with the conclusion that there was no such thing as EVP-and to get involved with it was to waste a lot of money for nothing. That was, politically, a very safe decision.

Why did no one think of putting another tape recorder outside the Faraday cage? If the recorder outside and the recorder inside both recorded a voice, then it was due to a voice in the environment. If the recorder outside recorded a voice, but the recorder inside did not, then it was due to radio waves. If the recorder outside did not record a voice, but the recorder inside did, then it was due to EVP.

By the time that MacRae was getting his results, it was more than ten years too late to do anything about the Cambridge research. MacRae had worked out his argument on the basis of probability, as indicated previously, but that did not mean much to most people. What could be done? Faraday cages are expensive, and MacRae did not have the funds for this option.

In 1985, MacRae decided to take a long break-a winter holiday in the sun. He visited Calpe, a small resort on the east coast of Spain, south of Denia. Many northern Europeans came to vacation in Calpe for its perfect climate, unpolluted waters, and warm sand. One of these visitors was an English engineer named David Jones. Jones was a radio enthusiast, and he asked MacRae if there was some way to improve the reception of radio broadcasts from England. Jones liked to listen to the BBC broadcast of the weather forecast for shipping on the long wave-about 200 khz. To do this he had to drive down to the harbor and attach a long wire from his car radio to the immensely long iron railing that ran around the harbor. With that railing as an antenna, he was able to pick up the BBC shipping forecast.

MacRae was not able to improve upon such an ingenious solution, but as Jones was talking, a sudden thought came to MacRae. Was this the answer?

The Calpe Experiments

One year later MacRae returned to Calpe with an Alpha unit and recording equipment. The reasoning behind the Calpe Experiments, as they came to be called, was as follows: If the EVP was due to random radio broadcasts, or voices in the environment, then most of what was picked up in in Calpe should be in Spanish. The only variable that changed from MacRae’s previous experiments was the location. It was the same equipment, the same procedure, the same operator as before-only the environment was different.

The experiments began. The first thing that was observed was that the Alpha didn’t work in Calpe. This strange situation was investigated, and the cause was found to be the much drier air in Calpe as compared with Scotland. This situation was rectified and results started to come in.

The experiments continued for a week with almost 100 utterances being obtained. At the end, an analysis was done. It was found that all the EVP utterances picked up were in English; none were in Spanish!

If the EVP voices had come from the environment, as either radio broadcasts or sound waves, then the utterances ought to be in Spanish. Since they were in English, the phenomenon could not be natural. The Calpe experiments proved, beyond any reasonable doubt, that EVP was a paranormal effect. People had supposed this for years, but no one had actually proven it.

Is Alec MacRae a Medium?

There was the possibility that MacRae himself was a medium of sorts-that he produced the voices by a form of mediumship without trance, or that he influenced the tapes by psychokinesis (PK). This hypothesis had been mentioned by some parapsychologists, including Dr. Gertrude Schmeidler, a past president of the Parapsychological Association, a professor at the City University of New York, and a well-known researcher of PK. In an article published by the ASPR Newsletter (July 1979), she asserted: “Electronic voice phenomena are taken as PK from the living.”

This explanation had been considered and discarded by MacRae early in his experiments. He never shown any of the signs of a PK subject, such as raps or spontaneous movements of objects around his bed or house. More conclusively, he had lent his Alpha machines to a dozen different people throughout England-all of whom had recorded voices just as he had. It was clear that those results could not be a consequence of Alec’s PK. He did not know the time or location of the others’ experiments.

“One of the most reliable researchers was Professor Charl Vorster, then professor of psychology at the Rand University in South Africa,” stated MacRae in a recent interview. “He used a listening panel to get an objective assessment of what was said, and wrote a glowing testimonial regarding the performance of the equipment, with the qualification that he would have liked the system to have more volume. My conclusion was that no special mediumship was involved. I have recently amended that to the belief that everyone has mediumship ability, its effectiveness depending on what I call the size of the Portal-a mutual region that has physical universe properties and informational or spiritual properties.” (For more information, see Chapter 15 of MacRae’s The Leading Edge, to appear soon as a download book.)

Professor Vorster obtained utterances in English and Afrikaans. (He mentioned that the voices had advised him to give up the research and return to Scripture.) Another Alpha user, David Mackenzie Thornton of Paris, France, was contacted about the language of his results. Out of around 300 utterances, he reported, only three were (possibly) in French. Mackenzie Thornton’s mother tongue was English, though he was fluent in French and married to a French woman. Professor Vorster in South Africa reported that there was a fifty-fifty split between English and Afrikaans in his results. Dr. Konstantin Raudive, one of the early experimenters in the subject and a polyglot, obtained polyglot results. It would seem that the language of the results tends to follow the language of the user. No doubt this will be a topic for research in years to come.

The Identity of the Voices

Are the voices of the EVP “visitors” indicators of their identity? Are the messages they leave meaningful communications? Many of the voices were, in fact, recognized by Alexander MacRae and other researchers, and some of the messages have carried unique significance to their intended recipients.

My own experiments with the Alpha were positive in the sense that I obtained voices-loudly screaming, more bird-like than human, and sometimes quite frightening. I never went beyond that stage.

One of the first visitors to be recorded by the Alpha system was MacRae’s father, whose voice was, of course, well known to him. On some occasions, the results were equally or even more extraordinary. One such example occurred during a demonstration to a small group at the Palace Hotel in Inverness, the capital of the Highland region not far from the famous Loch Ness.

The individuals present were mostly middle-aged, middle class, relatively prosperous Americans. After MacRae showed the visitors how the Alpha unit worked, they each tried to obtain results. One by one, they each placed one hand on a plate connected to the circuitry, and waited for noises or voices to come through the speaker. All but two of them achieved the desired effect.

The group was quite happy with the results and made a generous donation to MacRae, who promised to send copies of the tape to those who left their addresses. One of these was Professor Leslie Williams from New York. When she tried the Alpha, she reported with excitement that she heard the voice of her late brother. MacRae was especially alert when analyzing that portion of the tape with both his expert ear and an oscilloscope. As usual, there was a certain level of background noise. This shows up on the scope as an untidy green horizontal line, called “grass,” because it looks like a lawn that needs cutting. Suddenly, the noise died. The grass had disappeared and instead a neat, pencil-thin green line was on the screen.

“This is it”

For background noise to disappear like that was quite exceptional, and MacRae knew from previous experience that this could mean something special. About three or four seconds after the “grass” disappeared, a woman’s voice could be heard, announcing: “NOW!”

Alec recognized that this was a cue- something one gets now and then when a message is about to follow. Sure enough, about two seconds later, a male voice declared-quickly, as though it was a verbal telegram-“Leslie. This is it. David.”

After two or three seconds of silence, a female voice said: “Finish.”

And, incredibly, the grass came back onto the scope, and the background noise could be heard again.

As MacRae was about to make a copy of this amazing sequence and send it to Prof. Williams, he noticed that there was something odd about the first word. The many years he spent listening to faint voices for NASA paid off. The difference was so fine, and the voice so faint, that it took a long time to determine exactly what was unusual about it. This first word was not “Leslie,” after all. It sounded more like “Lessillee,” a three-syllable word. MacRae mentioned this to Williams in the letter accompanying the cassette tape.

About a week later, MacRae talked to Williams on the phone. “God bless your good ears, Alec,” she said. “‘Lessillee’ was my family name when I was a little girl!”

Let the skeptics note: This message was recorded at a live demo in front of 20 people. MacRae was not operating the equipment at the time. A message came from David to Leslie, and a family name was used that was unknown to anyone else involved. This kind of message, meaningless to anyone but the person for whom it was intended, makes the “super-ESP” hypothesis very weak.

One thing that puzzled MacRae was the fact that, on several occasions, the voice that came through was that of a living person. Although this phenomenon is well-known in the history of psychical research, it is still very puzzling in the case of the Alpha. One of the voices was that of a well-known writer, a voice familiar to MacRae, with a distinctive accent that made it impossible to confuse with any other. “This is L. Ron Hubbard; I’m gone,” declared the voice-but the writer was still alive at the time. He died a few months later.

This is an area for future research. It leads to the possibility of communication with other personalities, and perhaps, with our own subconscious minds. Two-way communication with ourselves? Why not? We have an internal dialogue all the time, why not give the “other” an opportunity to express itself more freely?

An Unbelievable Conversation and a Challenge
The subject of two-way communication came up early in Alexander MacRae’s EVP research.
In his book, The Leading Edge, MacRae describes what happened one Saturday night early in 1983, when he switched the system on and it spoke to him:

“This is the voice of Cass Evitt.” [Elliot?]
Alec [shocked]: “Say again…”
Voice: “This is Sugar Roll’s voice.”
Alec: “Who?”
Voice: “Sugar Roll’s…voice.”
[Later]: “What is that?”
Alec: “It is a…Voice-Radio” [a term he had once heard used by an EVP voice].
Alec [Long pause]: “How can I communicate to you better?”|
Voice: “Jes’ talk…”


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