Thomas Edison, paranormalist

Martin Gardner

This also is not the place to discuss Edison’s foibles: his temper tantrums, his lust for money, his efforts to purloin ideas, his boasts about war weapons that never existed, or his disastrous relations with his two wives and his children. These are aspects of Edison’s character I did not know about when forty years ago I wrote an adulatory article about him for Children’s Digest (November 1954).

My intent here is to focus on Edison’s changing religious opinions, his lifelong interest in psychic phenomena, and his gullibility. My main sources are two biographies – Robert Conot’s Thomas A. Edison: A Streak of Luck (1979) and Wyn Wachorst’s Thomas Alva Edison: An American Myth (1981) – and the chapter on Edison in Martin Ebon’s They Knew the Unknown (1981).

In his youth Edison was an outspoken freethinker. He greatly admired Thomas Paine’s Age of Reason, but unlike deist Paine, Edison did not believe in God, the soul, or an afterlife. At that time Edison was a pantheist who liked to call nature the “Supreme Intelligence,” indifferent and merciless toward humanity. His friend Edward Marshall interviewed him for the New York Times (October 2, 1910). “There is no more reason to believe that any human brain will be immortal,” Edison declared, “than there is to think that one of my phonograph cylinders will be immortal. . . . No, the brain is a piece of meat mechanism – nothing more than a wonderful meat mechanism.”

Edison’s words, occasioned by the death of William James, generated an uproar of opposition from Christians of all stripes. He was soundly trounced by Cardinal Gibbons. Columbian Magazine, a Catholic periodical, devoted an entire issue to attacking what it called “Edison’s materialism.”

Then something happened to Edison on the way to his laboratory. In an interview titled “Edison Working on How to Communicate with the Next World,” in American Magazine (October 1920), B. C. Forbes – he later founded Forbes magazine – revealed that Edison not only had come to believe in an afterlife, but was actually working on an electrical device for communicating with the dead! (See also Austin Lescarboura’s “Edison’s Views on Life after Death,” in Scientific American, October 30, 1920.)

Nothing is known about the kind of machine Edison had in mind, although it is known that he conducted experiments with it. It was probably some sort of telephone using greatly amplified electromagnetic waves.

Martin Ebon quotes the following remarks made by Edison to the Scientific American interviewer:

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 exists 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.

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 personalities which have left this present life, it certainly won’t be through any of the childish contraptions which seem so silly to the scientist.

Christian leaders here and abroad welcomed Edison into their ranks as a theist who now believed in immortality. Scientific American, in the article cited earlier, ran a photograph of Edison pouring liquid from a flask into a beaker. The caption read: “Thomas A. Edison – the world’s foremost inventor who is now at work on an apparatus designed to place psychical research on a scientific basis.”

Although Edison never became a Christian, Mina Miller, his young and pretty second wife (she was eighteen years his junior), never wavered from her devout Methodist upbringing. Conot (page 427) calls her “an unreconstructed fundamentalist who . . . thought evolution a plot of Satan.” I had the pleasure of meeting her when I was a small boy. My parents had taken me to Chautauqua, New York, where the Edisons maintained a summer cottage. I rang their doorbell to ask for the great man’s autograph. He was not at home, but Mrs. Edison graciously promised to have him send it to me, which he did.

“Has Man an Immortal Soul?,” another interview by Marshall, appeared in the Forum’s November 1926 issue. Edison now speaks of the “soul,” and refers to God as both a “Great Power” and a “Creator.” “Today the preponderance of probability greatly favors belief in the immortality of the intelligence, or soul, of man,” Edison said. He praises Christianity as the wisest and most beautiful of world religions, seeing it as evolving toward a faith with less emphasis on doctrines and more on the moral code of Jesus. Theologians should stop debating creeds, Edison emphasized, and devote more time to “pile up the evidence . . . which no fool skeptic can demolish.”

In later interviews that produced newspaper headlines around the world, Edison conjectured that the human mind was composed of billions of infinitesimal particles that are responsible for intelligence and memory. He thought they came from outer space, bringing wisdom from other inhabited planets. After we die, they may disperse, or they may swarm like bees and enter other human skulls, he said. Edison liked to call his particles “little people.” Occasionally, he said, they get into conflict with one another. Here is how he put it in his diary:

They fight out their differences, and then the stronger group takes charge. If the minority is willing to be disciplined and to conform there is harmony. But minorities sometimes say: “To hell with this place; let’s get out of it.” They refuse to do their appointed work in the man’s body, he sickens and dies, and the minority gets out, as does too, of course, the majority. They are all set free to seek new experience somewhere else.

Edison was fascinated throughout his long life with the occult. In his thirties he became intrigued by the writings of that amusing mountebank Madame Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, the great guru of theosophy. Edison attended meetings in New York of the theosophical society and was awarded some sort of diploma. A firm believer in PK (psychokinesis), he tried to start pendulums swinging by mind control, but the results were negative. He also attempted to confirm telepathy by experiments with electric coils around the heads of human receivers and transmitters. Ebon quotes from Edison’s diary: “Four among us first stayed in different rooms, joined by the electric system. . . . Afterwards we sat in the four corners of the same room, gradually bringing our chairs closer together toward the center of the room, until our knees touched, and for all of that, we observed no results.”

It was Edison’s good friend Henry Ford who introduced Edison to the magician Berthold Reese (1841-1926), better known as Bert Reese. He was a fat, bald-headed little man with pop eyes and a round face like a cherub. Born in what is now Poland, “Dr.” Reese, as he liked to call himself, traveled widely around Europe performing what magicians call “mental magic” for celebrities and royalty. He liked to wear on his tie a huge diamond pin given to him by the King of Spain, and an even larger diamond on a finger ring. Many leading parapsychologists believed he had extraordinary psi powers.

Reese specialized in what is called “billet reading.” He would ask someone to write something on a piece of paper, which he would fold and either hide or destroy. Reese would then pretend to read the message by ESP. His methods were well known to honest magicians of the time. There are scores of ways to accomplish billet reading.

Houdini was so impressed by Reese’s skill that in a letter to Conan Doyle (April 3, 1920) he said that Reese “is without doubt the cleverest reader of messages that ever lived.” Houdini urged Doyle to have a “seance” with Reese if he ever visited New York City where Reese was then living, to see if “you can fathom his work.”

In his book Paper Magic (page 91) Houdini refers to Reese in a footnote as “in my estimation, the greatest pellet reader that ever lived. (A pellet is a billet rolled into a ball.) I had a seance with Dr. Reese, and if it had not been for my many years of experience as an expert, I might have been mystified by his adroit manipulations and uncanny deductions.”

Edison was the most famous person to be totally bamboozled by Reese. Like so many scientists who tumble for psychic charlatans, Edison considered himself far too intelligent to be fooled, and of course it never occurred to him to seek explanation from a magician. When an article in the New York Graphic unveiled some of Reese’s techniques, Edison was furious. He sent the newspaper a letter in which he said:

I am certain that Reese was neither a medium nor a fake. I saw him several times and on each occasion I wrote something on a piece of paper when Reese was not near or when he was in another room. In no single case was one of these papers handled by Reese, and some of them he never saw, yet he recited correctly the contents of each paper.

Several people in my laboratory had the same kind of experience, and there are hundreds of prominent people in New York who can testify to the same thing.

Houdini wrote to Doyle on August 8, 1920:

You may have heard a lot of stories about Dr. Bert Reese, but I spoke to Judge Rosalsky and he personally informed me that, although he did not detect Reese, he certainly did not think it was telepathy. I am positive that Reese resorts to legerdemain, makes use of a wonderful memory, and is a great character reader. He is incidentally a wonderful judge of human beings.

That he fooled Edison does not surprise me. He would have surprised me if he did not fool Edison. Edison is certainly not a criterion, when it comes to judging a shrewd adept in the art of pellet-reading.

The greatest thing Reese did, and which he openly acknowledged to me, was his test-case in Germany when he admitted they could not solve him.

I have no hesitancy in telling you that I set a snare at the seance I had with Reese, and caught him cold-blooded. He was startled when it was over, as he knew that I had bowled him over. So much so that he claimed I was the only one that had ever detected him, and in our conversation after that we spoke about other workers of what we call the pellet test – Foster, Worthington, Baldwin et al. After my seance with him, I went home and wrote down all the details.

The letters are quoted from Houdini and Conan Doyle: The Story of a Strange Friendship (1932), by Bernard Ernst and Hereward Carrington. Joseph Rinn, in Sixty Years of Psychical Research (1950), has a good description of one of Reese’s billet reading performances, with an explanation of how he did it.

The best account of Reese’s methods is “Bert Reese Secrets,” by magician Ted Annemann, in the 1936 Summer Extra issue of his periodical, The Jinx. It includes a photograph of Reese, his hand holding a cigar that he habitually smoked during his performances because it made it easier to palm a folded billet. Annemann writes that Harvard’s distinguished German-born philosopher and psychologist Hugo Munsterberg (1863-1916) “became such a believer in Reese’s powers that he was preparing a book on him when death prevented its finish.” I was unable to verify this. Like his friend William James, Munsterberg believed in both God and immortality, but unlike James he was a well-known skeptic of the paranormal who had a great record of exposing mediums and other psychic charlatans by carefully contrived traps. Can any reader shed light on Annemann’s startling claim?

There is evidence that Edison thought he himself had ESP. At any rate, there is no question that his powers of precognition were poor. Here are some of his failed predictions that I found in The Experts Speak (1984), an amusing anthology by Christopher Cerf and Victor Navasky, and elsewhere:

“The talking motion picture will not supplant the regular silent motion picture. . . . There is such a tremendous investment in pantomime pictures that it would be absurd to disturb it.” (Munsey’s Magazine, March 1913.)

“It is apparent to me that the possibilities of the aeroplane, which two or three years ago was thought to hold the solution to the [flying machine] problem, have been exhausted, and that we must turn elsewhere.” (New York World, November 17, 1895.)

“The radio craze . . . will die out in time so far as music is concerned. But it may continue for business purposes.” (Quoted by Conot in his biography of Edison, page 424.)

“Sammy, they will never try to steal the phonograph. It is not of any commercial value.” (Edison to Sam Insull, an assistant, as quoted by Conot, page 245.)

“In fifteen years, more electricity will be sold for electric vehicles than for light.” (Quoted in Science Digest, February 1982.)

Edison’s worst prediction had to do with what was called the “war of the currents.” Nikola Tesla and others believed that alternating currents were the best way to transmit high voltage electricity over long distances. Edison stubbornly insisted that only direct current should be used. “There is no plea which will justify the use of high-tension alternating currents, either in a scientific or a commercial sense. They are employed solely to reduce investment in copper wire and real estate. . . . My personal desire would be to prohibit entirely the use of alternating currents. They are as unnecessary as they are dangerous. . . . (I quote from David Milsted’s article “Even Geniuses Make Mistakes,” in The New Scientist, August 19, 1995.)

Edison’s influence on science fiction is covered in the entry “Edisonade,” in the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction (revised edition, 1995), edited by John Clute and Peter Nichols. The literature starts with the Tom Edison, Jr., sequence of dime novels, by Edward Ellis. Edison is also portrayed as a character in a French novel, Tomorrow’s Eve (1886), by Villiers de L’isle Adams, and in Garrett P. Serviss’s Edison’s Conquest of Mars (1898). For more recent references consult the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction.

In the introduction to his book, Conot sums up his opinion of Edison this way:

The Edison that I discovered was a lusty, crusty, hard-driving, opportunistic, and occasionally ruthless Midwesterner, whose Bunyanesque ambition for wealth was repeatedly subverted by his passion for invention. He was complex and contradictory, an ingenious electrician, chemist, and promoter, but a bumbling engineer and businessman. The stories of his inventions emerge out of the laboratory records as sagas of audacity, perspicacity, and luck bearing only a general resemblance to the legendary accounts of the past.

Martin Gardner’s latest book is The Night Is Large: Collected Essays 1938-1995 (St. Martin’s Press, 1996).

COPYRIGHT 1996 Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal

COPYRIGHT 2008 Gale, Cengage Learning

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