Communicating with the Dead

Among Edison’s most controversial interviews were those related to his belief that that consciousness existed in fundamental units that combined to make up each human being and that these existed prior to and after death.  He first discussed this idea in his interviews with Lathrop and was doubtless among the imaginative ideas that led Lathrop to collaborate with Edison on their novel of the future.

Edison elaborated on this idea in a 1910 New York Times interview with Edward Marshall. This interview and its headline with headline“’No Immortality of the Soul’ Says Thomas A. Edison” stirred up an enormous controversy.  This is also the first time Edison proposed that it might be possible to scientifically prove (or disprove) spiritualist beliefs in the existence of consciousness beyond death.

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A decade later, in interviews that appeared in Scientific American  and The American Magazine, he claimed to be working on an apparatus that could be used by psychic investigators to try to communicate with the dead.

“I am not promising communication with those who have passed out of this life. I merely state that I am giving the psychic investigators an apparatus which may help them ln their work, just as optical experts have given the microscope to the medical world. And if this apparatus falls to reveal anything of exceptional interest, I am afraid that I shall have lost all faith in the survival of personality as we know it in this existence.”

If Edison did attempt to make such a device, it is clear that by time Marshall again interviewed him on the topic he thought the difficulties of such an investigation would be too difficult to overcome. This interview appeared under the headline “Has Man an Immortal Soul” in the November 1926 issue of The Forum. It included the following discussion by Edison of the difficulties that confronted scientific research on the subject.

“There are two reasons why we do not possess positive knowledge on the difficult subject of the soul and immortality. Principal of these is the fact that we do not at present know how even to begin investigation of them. Thought m this line has been nebulous and loose. Mathematics, which is the only exact science we possess, cannot be applied to it in any way as yet discovered. The Soul apparently is not something to be analyzed by chemists or weighed in scales, or photographed, or recorded by any instruments whatever.”

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No verifiable evidence has ever been found regarding Edison’s work on a device to communicate with the dead.  Nonetheless, the belief has persisted that Edison built such a device and some have even claimed to have knowledge of what the device looked like. The first description of such a device appeared in the October 1933 issue of Modern Mechanix:

In a darkened room in his great laboratory, surrounded with beakers, generators, and other experimental equipment, Edison set up a photo-electric cell. A tiny pencil of light, coming from a powerful lamp, bored through the darkness and struck the active surface of this cell, where it was transformed instantly into a feeble electric current. Any object, no matter how thin, transparent or small, would cause a registration on the cell if it cut through the beam. This experiment, which the article describes as a failure, is likely related to Edison's experiments to find an unknown force he called "XYX." These experiments began in December 1885 and continued periodically into the 1920s.

An even more dubious device was described in the April 1963 issue of Fate. The author claimed that with the help of a medium tracings of the lost blueprints of Edison’s device had been found.  Although a machine was made based on these tracings it did not work.

A third device known as the psychophone was also attributed to Edison.  However, this was debunked on an episode of the PBS show History Detectives, which drew on research by the staff of the Edison Papers.