News Briefs 29-03-2017

Spiral out...

Quote of the Day:

Don't cling to a mistake just because you spent a lot of time making it.


Seance Through Science: Edison's Ghost Machine

Thomas Alva Edison is a man who requires little or no introduction. In his 84 years of life Edison came up with many, many innovations including the phonograph, the motion picture camera, the stock ticker, the power station, and of course, the light bulb. In fact, Edison is still the fourth most prolific inventor in history, holding 1,093 patents in the USA alone. He also routinely electrocuted numerous animals including an elephant, but that’s another story. All this, as I say, you probably already know. You may even have heard, or read, that Edison's last breath is preserved at the Henry Ford Museum (AKA the Edison Institute) in Dearborn, Michigan. Ford having convinced Edison’s son Charles to seal a glass vacuum tube of air from the inventor's room shortly after his death in October 1931. Granted, that seems a bit odd, but memento mori were not so uncommon then, and Ford was a great friend of Edison’s after all. Even so, some might wonder whether it’s something Edison senior would have consented to himself. It does seem rather morbid – superstitious even – and surely at odds with the hard scientific logic of a man who was quoted by the New York Times in 1910 as saying he had come to the conclusion that “there is no ‘supernatural,’ or ‘supernormal,’ that all there is can be explained along material lines”. But then again, perhaps not.

The October 1920 issue of American Magazine contained an article with the rather attention grabbing title of “Edison Working on How to Communicate with the Next World” written by one Bertie Charles Forbes (founder of Forbes Magazine). In an interview conducted by Forbes and published in Scientific American soon after, Edison expressed some rather interesting – some might say surprising – opinions concerning no less a subject than life after death:

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

Indeed, it would seem that these were not just idle musings, because in a private journal entry, again dating from 1920, Edison wrote:

I have been at work for some time building an apparatus to see if it is possible for personalities which have left this earth to communicate with us […] I am engaged in the construction of one such apparatus now, and I hope to be able to finish it before very many months pass.

A second Scientific American piece ran in 1921 in which Edison was quoted as saying:

I don't claim anything, because I don't know anything [...] for that matter, no human being knows […] but I do claim that it is possible to construct an apparatus which will be so delicate that if there are personalities in another existence who wish to get in touch with us [...] this apparatus will at least give them a better opportunity.

By this time it seems it must have been pretty widely known that Thomas Alva Edison, one of the greatest inventors of all time, was working on a machine which might prove the existence of spirits or ghosts. The editor of Scientific American reportedly received more than 600 letters from readers enquiring about the device. This was big. So, what happened next? The answer is nothing. Absolutely nothing. The machine was never mentioned again during Edison’s lifetime and the whole matter seems to have been all but forgotten. Forgotten that is, until old Edison had been in his grave for two years.

Page 34 of the 1933 October edition of Modern Mechanix (motto: “Yesterday’s Tomorrow Today”) bore the intriguing headline “Edison’s Own Secret Spirit Experiments”. “For thirteen years results of Edison’s astounding attempt to penetrate that wall that lies beyond mortality have been withheld from the world, but now the amazing story can be told.” The prodigiously illustrated three page piece tells a tale of the “black, howling wintry night in 1920 – just such a night when superstitious people would bar their doors and windows against marauding ghosts—”when Edison and a group of scientists and spiritualists “assembled like members of a mystic clan” to test his theories concerning life after death. Edison was, we are told, armed with a powerful lamp whose light was concentrated into a beam and directed at photo-electric cell which in turn transformed that light into an electric current. Any object passing through that beam of light, no matter how miniscule or insubstantial, would disrupt the electrical current and that fluctuation would be displayed on the dial of a meter connected to the photo-electric cell. This rather disappointingly simple set up was, we are informed, the machine with which Edison sought to prove or disprove the existence of ghosts or spirits once and for all. “When the experiment was ready to begin the spiritualists in the group of witnesses were called upon to summon from eternity the ethereal form of one or two of its inhabitants, and command the spirit to walk across the beam”. And the result of this groundbreaking experiment? Well, in the long hours that followed, during which the “wind howled around the corners of the laboratory”, the needle, we are told, never so much as wavered. “It was because of these negative results that the news of the amazing experiments was never given out to the world. Edison would not reveal his belief-shattering discoveries to a believing world”.

The Modern Mechanix piece is written (as you can no doubt tell from the portions quoted above) rather more like a story than a factual article and no author credit is given in the magazine’s table of contents. This, coupled with the fact that no members of Edison’s “mystic clan” are named, and no sources or references are given, has led some researchers to conclude that the article is, in fact, a piece of fiction (albeit one with a rather anticlimactic ending) woven out of the fragments of information given in interviews and articles published during Edison’s lifetime. There is, however, another reason why some who are interested in Edison’s paranormal experiments might instantly take the Modern Mechanix piece for a fiction: the apparatus described is all wrong.

In a 1921 New York Times article Edison was said to be developing a machine that would measure “one hundred trillion life units” in the human body that “may scatter after death.” The Modern Mechanix article reused much of the material from that earlier piece in explaining what it referred to as Edison’s hypothesis of “immortal units”. Edison is said to have taken a print from one of his fingers and then to deliberately burn that fingertip so as to remove or alter its print. Later, when the finger had healed, he took a second print which proved to be identical to the original. “From this experiment, Edison got confirmation of his hypothesis that it is these aforementioned “immortal units” which supervised the re-growth of his finger skin, following out the original design. Man, he believed, is a mosaic of such life units, and it is these entities which determine what we shall be.” These “immortal units” then are supposedly what Edison was expecting to break his beam of light (though exactly why Spiritualists would be required to summon them is anyone’s guess).

I first began researching Edison’s alleged supernatural experiments several years ago. At the time I did quite a bit of Googling round and bookmarked about twenty or so webpages containing relevant information. It was always a subject I meant to come back to but, for one reason or another, I just didn’t find the time. A couple of weeks ago I spotted the folder marked EDISON is my bookmarks and clicked to Open All in Tabs. More than half the links were dead. Of those that remained, most focussed on the idea that Edison could have been working on an apparatus or experiment very much like the one described in the Modern Mechanix article – a way of seeing or measuring the hypothesised “life units” or “immortal units”. Such an experiment would, naturally, have been doomed to fail. Many of those websites since deleted, and a handful of the links remaining however, focussed on Edison’s own journal entry of 1920 “I have been at work for some time building an apparatus to see if it is possible for personalities which have left this earth to communicate with us”. Communication with – rather than mere detection of – ghosts or spirits is still believed by some to have been Edison’s true goal. Edison’s Spirit Telegraph, or Spirit Telephone are wonderfully evocative terms which still turn up a few interesting search results. “Thomas Edison was trying to build a machine to talk to the dead,” writes one blogger, “I can recall first coming across those very words in an old, dusty book back in the 1970s”. “After his death, the plans for the apparatus could not be located. Many have searched extensively for the components, the prototype or even the plans to the machine but have never found them,” concludes another.

Some, however, have expressed doubts as to the authenticity of the 1920 diary entry, much of which seems like a mere reproduction of portions of the original Scientific American interview with the “I have been at work for some time building an apparatus […]” paragraph tacked on at the end.xiv Furthermore, there is one very important piece of evidence which many seem to have overlooked, whether accidentally or wilfully. In an interview published in the New York Times in 1926 Edison was asked about the comments he’d made six years earlier concerning the prospect of investigating the survival of spirits after death, to which he replied “I really had nothing to tell him [Forbes], but I hated to disappoint him so I thought up this story about communicating with spirits, but it was all a joke.” And so, like the Modern Mechanix piece before it, our own tale of Edison’s Secret Experiments ends with something of anticlimax – the whole thing was merely a hoax. But then again, perhaps not.

In 1941, a séance was supposedly conducted in New York in which a spirit claiming to be that of Thomas Alva Edison made itself known. This spirit, it is alleged, named certain associates (members of the “mystic clan”, if you will) who apparently still had in their possession the missing plans for, and elements of, his machine. These people were located. A prototype was built. It did not work. This prototype somehow passed into the possession of one J. Gilbert Wright - a General Electric researcher whose claim to fame was the discovery/ invention of a special kind of silicone putty. Wright, it is said, spent the rest of his life trying to perfect the machine. In some versions of the tale, Wright frequently consults Edison’s ghost, via regular séances to get his advice on how the machine might be improved. When Wright finally passed on in 1959 all trace of the machine is said to have vanished. A more fittingly farfetched end to a tall tale? Perhaps. Even so, surely I’m not the only one left wondering; what if there was just one component needed to complete the machine that Wright could never lay his hands on? Something another member of Edison’s “mystic clan” wasn’t willing to part with. Something, perhaps, as small and innocuous seeming as one very specific glass vacuum tube.

Dagobert D. Runes (editor): The Diary and Sundry Observations of Thomas A. Edison (New York Philosophical Library, 1948)


This article is taken from John Reppion's collection STEAMPUNK SALMAGUNDI and was originally published in SteamPunk Magazine #9, 2013.

News Briefs 28-03-2017

The living tarot...

Thanks @MattStaggs.

Quote of the Day:

A tiger? In Africa?!

Monty Python's 'The Meaning of Life'

Where Do Superstitions Come From?

Ever wonder why you knock on wood or feel nervous when the number 13 turns up in your life? In this lovely little animated short you'll find some answers, as well as advice on whether you should start being more rational and ignoring superstitions:

So why do people cling to these bits of forgotten religions, coincidences, and outdated advice? Aren’t they being totally irrational? Well, yes, but for many people, superstitions are based more on cultural habit than conscious belief. After all, no one is born knowing to avoid walking under ladders or whistling indoors, but if you grow up being told by your family to avoid these things, chances are they’ll make you uncomfortable, even after you logically understand that nothing bad will happen...And since doing something like knocking on wood doesn't require much effort, following the superstition is often easier than consciously resisting it.

Besides, superstitions often do seem to work. Maybe you remember hitting a home run while wearing your lucky socks. This is just our psychological bias at work - you're far less likely to remember all the times you struck out while wearing the same socks. But believing that they work could actually make you play better, by giving you the illusion of having greater control over events. So in situations where that confidence can make a difference, like sports, those crazy superstitions might not be so crazy after all.

News Briefs 27-03-2017

Look up here man, I'm in danger...

Quote of the Day:

There is a crack in everything, that's how the light gets in.

Leonard Cohen

News Briefs 24-03-2017

“One flew east, One flew west, One flew over the cuckoo's nest.”

Quote of the Day:

“I'd rather be a lightning rod than a seismograph.”

Ken Kesey

Satan Oscillate My Metallic Sonatas: The Backmasking Panic of the 1980s

Satanic music

Looking at music videos of the past few years, it's difficult to believe that just a few decades ago, Olivia Newton-John's "Let's Get Physical" single and music video were banned for 'sexual content' (ie. people in gym gear). The song was just one of many that, in the early to mid-1980s, were the focus of a strong backlash from Christian fundamentalists against what they saw as the pernicious influence of music on the morality of the nation.

Given the outrage over "Let's Get Physical", you can only imagine how Prince's "Darling Nikki", off the Purple Rain album, went down (pun not intended). The song's lyrics spoke of Nikki, "a sex fiend", who Prince met "in a hotel lobby masturbating in a magazine". (It has been said that Tipper Gore - wife of former vice-president Al Gore - co-founded the Parents Music Resource Center (PMRC) in 1985 to censor offensive music because she witnessed her then 11-year-old daughter listening to and singing along to the song.)

If that wasn't enough, the outro of the song was a curious a capella of unintelligible lyrics - which when played in reverse revealed the following words:

Hello, how are you?
I'm fine 'cause I know that the Lord is coming soon
Coming, coming soon
Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha.

Being in reverse, Fundamentalist preachers were quick to condemn it as 'Satanic' - Prince was obviously referring to the *Dark* Lord, not Christ - based on the 'backmasking' panic that had also arisen around this time. Backmasking began... many things do, with Thomas Edison. After inventing the phonograph in 1877, old Tom noticed that music in reverse sounded “novel and sweet but altogether different.” In the early 1950s, avant-garde musicians began incorporating that difference into their compositions. They ran reel-to-reel tape recorders backwards, and presto - the unsettling sound of a hundred little Hoovers sucking up a melody and lyric.

A decade later, The Beatles pushed backward sounds into the mainstream with such songs as “Rain” and “Tomorrow Never Knows.” Later, their audio reversals came back to haunt them with the Paul Is Dead rumors. But that’s a topic for another day.

The backmasking-Satanism connection can be traced to a 1913 book by mystic Aleister Crowley, who recommended that those interested in black magic would do well to “learn how to think and speak backwards.

It's worth noting that Christian preachers saw two different types of 'backmasking': intentional, and unintentional. Prince's "Darling Nikki" outro was an example of intentional backmasking: he sang it forwards, then put it down on tape backwards, meaning listeners just heard gibberish, unless they played it in reverse to hear the 'secret message'.

But the other type was unintentional backmasking, where the lyrics were recorded forwards, but when played in reverse they also appeared to be intelligible (at least, to Christian preachers desperately searching for occult messages). In this case, it would seem to be far too difficult for anybody to write a song that was intelligible, with different lyrics, when played both forward and reverse. The conclusion many took - such as in the video below - was that demons, or the devil himself, were using rock musicians to communicate with this realm

The only workable explanation is that...outside intelligent forces with supernatural power are occasionally able to 'play' an artist, much like we would play a musical instrument.

Artists from Led Zeppelin to The Eagles, ELO and pretty much every metal band of the 1980s were accused of hiding paeans to Satan on their albums. The panic climaxed in a lawsuit filed against Judas Priest, which accused them of inciting two young men to commit suicide with alleged backmasked lyrics including "Let's be dead" and "Do it". (Amazingly, the case proceeded to trial because, according to a judge, "so-called 'subliminals' don’t constitute actual speech — and are therefore not protected by the First Amendment.")

The case was eventually dismissed, with band manager Bill Curbishley famously noting that if he and the band actually knew how to influence people with subliminals, "I’d be saying, ‘Buy seven copies,’ not telling a couple of screwed-up kids to kill themselves.”

Interestingly, in Prince's case, his studio engineer/technician for much of the 1980s Susan Rogers has noted that the intentional backmasking on "Darling Nikki" - rather than being Satanic - may actually have been an exorcism of a kind:

[Prince] had a complex relationship with sex. He had a father who was a jazz musician, very religious, and his father had very strong anti-sex views. So when Prince would have a strong statement of lust, like the song "Darling Nikki," it's usually followed by some sort of exorcism, like, "Forgive me, get this out of me."...

This is his way of asking for forgiveness for having lust in his heart, and doing it in a way that was artistic. Great art comes from conflict, and he was conflicted, for sure.


News Briefs 23-03-2017

Come out of the cupboard, you boys and girls…

Quote of the Day:

"Life is a festival of disruption."

˜Maharishi Mahesh Yogi

Paranthropology 8:1


The latest issue (Vol 8, Number 1) of the free PDF journal Paranthropology ("anthropological approaches to the paranormal") is now available to download - here's the complete rundown of features in the latest issue, which was guest-edited by Mark A. Schroll:

  • Editor’s Introduction: Revisiting Cultural Evolution and Technological Evolution in Consciousness Studies - Mark A. Schroll
  • A Quest for a Temple to Sleep In - Sarah Janes
  • The Big Dream and Archaeo-Geo-Neuro-Pharmaco-Parapsychological Theories - David Luke
  • Odin: Wandering Shaman Seeking Truth - Mark A. Schroll
  • Commentary: Dreams, Drugs and the Engines of Creativity - Ryan Hurd
  • Nature Awareness and Psychedelics: Report and Commentary on a Presentation by Ralph Metzner and Kathleen Harrison - Heather Walker
  • REVIEW: Dr. Strange: A Cinematic Journey into the Multiverse and Otherworldly Realities - Mark A. Schroll
  • REVIEW: Cultural Perspectives on Mental Wellbeing: Spiritual Interpretations of Symptoms in Medical Practices by Natalie Tobert - Teresa McLaren
  • Revisiting the Meaning of Chief Seattle’s Speech - Mark A. Schroll
  • The Meaning of the Cover Design: Envisioning a Cosmic Archetypal Model of Personality - Mark A. Schroll
  • The Meaning of the Hourglass Symbol - Regina U. Hess
  • The Archetypal Cauldron: A Clinical Application of the Anti-Hero in Transpersonal Art Therapy and the Hebraic Lore of the Golem - Claire Polansky
  • Catalysts that Initiate Embodied Knowing: Reflection on Individuation, Synchronicity and Ritual Space - Tanya Hurst
  • Reply to Tanya Hurst & Wendy E. Cousins - Claire Polansky
  • Commentary: Reflections on the Supernatural and its Relation to Spiritual Emergency/Emergence - Claire Polansky
  • Escaping the Night of the Living Dead: Toward a Transpersonal Ecosophy - Mark A. Schroll

In case you haven't read this great resource before, all of the previous issues remain available to download from the site as well. I know from experience the work that goes into doing something like this, so if you get something out of the journal make it your mission to throw some money their way with a PayPal donation. Even small amounts help!

Link: Download the latest issue of Paranthropology