When Thomas Edison Tried Besting Nikola Tesla by Building a "Spirit Phone"

Left: Library of Congress, Wikimedia Commons; Right: Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
Left: Library of Congress, Wikimedia Commons; Right: Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

By the 1920s, Thomas Edison’s legacy was secured. The American inventor had forever changed the world by introducing the phonograph, the motion picture camera, and the first practical incandescent light bulb. If he had decided to retire that year, his reputation as one of the greatest geniuses of the past two centuries would still be strong today. But he had plans for a new invention, and it was his most ambitious yet—a “spirit phone” that could be used to contact the dead.

Instead of merely fame, fortune, or scientific advancement, one of Edison’s biggest motivations for the new machine was the chance to best a rival one last time. That rival's name? Nikola Tesla.

Tesla and Edison: Old Adversaries

The friction between Edison and Tesla made for one of history’s greatest rivalries. Their relationship went back to 1882, when Edison was a successful scientist and businessman and Tesla a promising young engineer working for the Continental Edison Company in Paris. Tesla eventually moved to the business’s American location on a good recommendation from his supervisor, but Edison wasn't as confident in the new transfer, calling his ideas “splendid” but “utterly impractical.”

As the two men advanced in their careers, the differences between them became more apparent. While Thomas Edison was a tireless experimenter, Tesla preferred figuring out his inventions on paper before picking up any tools. Tesla was a slave to cleanliness, and Edison, in Tesla's words: "lived in utter disregard of the most elementary rules of hygiene."

The conflict came to a head with the “War of Currents.” Tesla’s versatile alternating current (AC) eventually won out over Edison’s safer but limited direct current (DC), marking Tesla’s biggest victory over his former employer.

Though they would likely never admit it, the two men shared several similarities. Both were eccentric, egotistical, and obsessive workers. They also both dabbled in using technology to talk to ghosts.

When Tesla “Positively Terrified” Himself

Around the turn of the 20th century, when electricity was first being used to light rooms at the flip of a switch and make images move onscreen, the idea of using technology to contact spirits didn't seem that absurd. Tesla considered this possibility while experimenting with a crystal radio powered by electromagnetic waves in 1901. The signals he picked up one night were so unnerving that his scientific mind couldn't help but think of ghosts. He wrote in his diary, "My first observations positively terrified me, as there was present in them something mysterious, not to say supernatural, and I was alone in my laboratory at night."

In 1918, he wrote of similar sounds he heard after tinkering with another radio, but he was careful not to automatically attribute them to otherworldly sources. "The sounds I am listening to every night at first appear to be human voices conversing back and forth in a language I cannot understand,” he wrote. “I find it difficult to imagine that I am actually hearing real voices from people not of this planet. There must be a more simple explanation that has so far eluded me.”

There was a simple explanation: The type of radio he used is capable of picking up very low frequency radio signals from unseen sources like electrical storms, atmospheric disturbances, and household electronics. Translated to audio, the signals can sound like the uncanny chatter of disembodied voices.

Edison's Scientific Séance

When Edison learned that Tesla thought his inventions might be used to get in touch with another plane, he wanted in on the action. Though a notable agnostic and critic of the séance-holding mediums that were popular at the time, he became intrigued by the idea of forces existing beyond our world. In 1920, he told The American Magazine, “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.” Others later referred to this device as his "spirit phone."

Like all of his experiments, this one was rooted in science. Edison pulled from the work of Albert Einstein, particularly his theories of quantum entanglement and special relativity. Edison’s thinking went like this: If it’s possible to convert mass to energy, then maybe the spirits of living people become coherent units of energy when their bodies stop working. And if entangled particles can affect each other across great distances, as the quantum entanglement theory states, then maybe there’s a way for those energy bundles to interact with our physical world.

According to the authors of Edison vs. Tesla: The Battle Over Their Last Invention, Edison put a prototype of his spirit phone invention to the test in 1920. He invited both mediums and scientists to come over and observe a mysterious experiment. They saw a projector-like machine, set out on a workbench, that emitted a thin beam of light onto a photoelectric cell. The illuminated cell was meant to detect the presence of forces and objects moving through the beam—even those invisible to the naked eye. If a being from another world were to attend the gathering and pass through the light, a meter hooked up to the photoelectric cell would let them know, Edison explained.

If his guests showed up that day expecting scientific evidence of ghosts, they were disappointed. Hours passed and the needle on the meter remained still—even the mediums in attendance had to admit there was nothing supernatural going on. But the inventor wasn’t discouraged. Though some skeptics have called Edison's dabbling in the supernatural a hoax, an entry recovered from his personal diary suggests his pursuits were genuine. He continued working on his so-called “spirit phone” throughout the 1920s.

Poor Connection

Edison died in 1931 without producing any evidence of spirits more convincing than the sounds picked up by Tesla’s radio decades earlier. But the quest to transmit a message from the other side using technology wasn’t quite over. In his earthly state, Edison had made plans to continue his work after death. He made a pact with his engineer William Walter Dinwiddie that whoever died first would try to make contact with the other. Dinwiddie passed away in 1920, about a decade before Edison, and as far as we know, that marked the end of any correspondence between the two men.

Though Dinwiddie wasn't around to receive a ghostly message from Edison when he died, others took up his mantle. A group of researchers claimed the inventor reached out to them during a séance in 1941. Edison's spirit allegedly shared the plans for building the spirit phone he had spent the last decade of his life working on. The group followed the entity’s instructions, but when assembled, the machine was no more effective at communing with the dead than the ones Edison had built while he was alive. An essay in the anthology Spirited Things recounting the attempt notes, “Alas, the contraption did not seem to successfully transmit any life units.”

7 Ghost-Hunting Tools Recommended by Paranormal Investigators

Etekcity / Olympus / Amazon
Etekcity / Olympus / Amazon

My former apartment was haunted. The ghost, who seemed to be friendly, delighted in knocking container lids off the kitchen counter when no one was in the room. Sadly, I never documented the evidence because I didn’t have a night-vision camera handy.

Don’t make the same mistake I did. Whether you're a full-fledged believer in the spiritual realm or a hardcore skeptic looking for some spooky fun, you can conduct your own paranormal investigations with just a few essential tools. “You don’t want to get lost in the gear,” says Jason Stroming, founder and lead investigator of the New York Paranormal Society. “Some people bring so much stuff to investigations that it looks like they’re about to launch the Space Shuttle.”

Here are seven expert-recommended devices to get you started.

1. Olympus Digital Voice Recorder; $32

Olympus/Amazon

On any ghost-hunting TV series—A Haunting, The Haunted, Most Haunted, Ghost Hunters, Ghost Asylum, or Ghost Adventures—the investigators will whip out a digital voice recorder to conduct an EVP session. That stands for “electronic voice phenomena,” but can encompass any mysterious sounds or voices from spirits in the vicinity. These handheld, battery-operated devices are an essential tool for any ghost enthusiast, Stroming says.

He recalls an EVP session at the Snug Harbor Cultural Center and Botanical Garden in Staten Island, New York: Just before midnight, during an otherwise uneventful investigation, Stroming and his crew heard the distinct creak of footsteps on the old wood floors. “We went to see if the security guard had come back in, but you can’t really get in to the front door without it making a lot of noise. We would have heard that,” he tells Mental Floss. At Snug Harbor a few months later, the crew had his digital recorder running when “the same thing happened—the footsteps. That to us was exciting, because it was the same time and the same activity,” Stroming says. “We all heard it.”

If you’re ready to capture your own EVPs, the Olympus VN-541PC recorder offers 4 gigabytes of storage and a one-touch record button.

Buy it: Amazon

2. Canon PowerShot; $249

Canon / Amazon

Stroming approaches the paranormal from a more skeptical point of view. “We try to debunk things first and look for rational explanations,” he says, so a digital camera with a night vision function is a must-have. They’re essential for capturing everything from unexplained light anomalies and shadow figures to mysterious creaks, thuds, and footsteps. The pocket-sized Canon PowerShot SX620 digital camera takes still photos and 1080p HD video in low light. Basic camcorders will record movement and sound (and not disrupt electromagnetic fields like a smartphone can). Those adapted for ghost hunting, like the Cleveland Paranormal Supply Co.’s model ($189 on Amazon), record in night vision and let you switch easily from infrared (also known as thermal imaging) mode to full spectrum mode.

“We try to take a lot of photos,” Stroming adds. “You just never know what’s going to show up.”

Buy it: Amazon

3. K-II ELECTROMAGNETIC FIELD (EMF) DETECTOR; $60

Electricians use inexpensive EMF meters to locate sources of electromagnetic radiation from homes and offices (common culprits are older appliances and cell phones). Ghosts are also thought to emit EM radiation or disturb the existing magnetic fields in a room. Stroming’s team uses EMF meters primarily to debunk spectral sources of EM radiation. “We’ve had cases where people are sleeping right next to an old alarm clock, or they don’t realize that their fuse box is right below them and could be giving off huge electromagnetic fields. That can cause hallucinations or the feeling of being watched,” Stroming says. “We say, ‘Move the alarm clock for a week, call us back and let us know.’ They always say it stops.”

On the other hand, an anomalous EM field in the middle of a room with no obvious source merits further investigation. While Stroming prefers the basic K-II EMF Meter, the ghost-hunting supplier GhostStop suggests its Rook EMF Meter. This fancier version can block man-made frequencies and indicate EMF disturbances with light and sound alerts, says paranormal investigator Graham Ober, GhostStop’s customer service tech.

Buy it: Amazon

4. Etekcity Lasergrip INFRARED THERMOMETER; $16

Etekcity/Amazon

A regular thermometer can measure the ambient temperature in a given environment. An infrared thermometer, commonly used by electricians and HVAC technicians, can take the temp of specific object with a laser. They’re handy for detecting cold spots in a potentially haunted area, which ghost investigators say can be signs of otherwise invisible entities.

Stroming uses an infrared thermometer to identify drafts around windows or air conditioning vents before an investigation begins, as well as for measuring thermal radiation during the session. When held about 14 inches in front of the object to be measured, the Etekcity Lasergrip 774 infrared thermometer can detect temps from a frigid -58°F to a broiling 716°F, although most paranormal entities seem to shift the room temp just a shade in either direction (3 degrees is the threshold for possible spectral activity, Ober tells Mental Floss).

Buy it: Amazon

5. Portable Home Security; $71

Any serious paranormal investigator will use motion sensors or vibration detectors to pick up movement in empty rooms. A basic portable home security system, with a couple of sensors and a receiver, is an inexpensive option. Just place the sensor on a table or shelf in an unoccupied room and carry the receiver with you. The receiver will emit an alarm or chime when motion is detected in the empty location, and you can then send in the unluckiest member of your ghost-hunting crew to check it out.

Vibration sensors (sometimes called geophones) work in a similar way. They can be set on the floor to detect phantom footsteps or other unexplained movement, and will light up when anomalies are sensed.

Buy it: Amazon

6. BINARY RESPONSE DEVICE

Binary response devices, or “yes/no boxes,” are another important tool. Investigators can ask suspected spirits simple questions and allegedly receive answers through the device—the theory being that spirits can harness the energy in the machine and use it to respond. Different replies are indicated with lights on either side of the gadget. GhostStop’s Flux Response Device features green and red lights to facilitate yes/no questions (green for yes, red for no) and to obtain answers to slightly more complex inquiries, such as “which corner of the room are you in?” (red for left, green for right). The steampunk-style Gyroscope Digital Talking Board from Paranologies has a yes/no/maybe function along with a full alphabet for longer words, much like a 21st-century Ouija Board ($17 on Amazon).

7. P-SB11 GHOST BOX; $130

NUATE / Amazon

A ghost box is a catch-all term for a device used to verbally communicate with spirits. Many of these gadgets continually scan radio frequencies, creating a din of white noise. “The idea is the spirit can use that white noise to communicate in some way, either verbally or through EVP sessions,” Ober says. Users can simply listen for disembodied voices, or yell questions into the void and hope for an answer from beyond.

There are numerous models on the market, from the popular P-SB7 Spirit Box (and the more advanced P-SB11) designed by Gary Galka of DAS to GhostStop’s Sbox, a similar device with added recording capability. “A lot of people are interested in recording the audio from the SB7,” Ober notes. “We’ve taken that technology a step forward, so you’re able to record that audio without having to have a second device present.”

One of Ghost Adventures’s fave devices is the Ovilus, designed by Bill Chappell of Digital Dowsing. Instead of scanning radio frequencies, the various Ovilus models generate words in response to environmental fluctuations or EMF anomalies, supposedly translating the spirit’s communications into English terms. Not everyone is sold on the device (“It’s like a high-tech Magic 8 Ball,” Stroming says), but Zak Bagans, lead investigator of the Ghost Adventures crew, is very fond of shouting rude questions at local spooks through it.

Buy it: Amazon

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A Wide Difference: When Shoulder Pads Reshaped the 1980s

Linda Evans goes big in the shoulder department in Dynasty.
Linda Evans goes big in the shoulder department in Dynasty.
ABC Television

At some point in the 1980s, a mandate was handed down from CBS network executives concerned about the excesses of the costume designers on their hit primetime soap Dynasty. Specifically, they wanted stars Linda Evans and Joan Collins to stop wearing shoulder pads, the rigid foam accessory that gave their profiles a distinctive V-shaped appearance.

Word quickly came back to CBS: Defiantly, Evans and Collins would not be shedding their pads. According to Nolan Miller, the show’s costume designer, the stars “almost mutinied.” Their exaggerated shoulders were there to stay.

For most of that decade, shoulder pads were as ubiquitous a fashion statement as neon colors and Ray-Bans. Though American women might not have gone for as severe and steep a postural precipice as the Dynasty stars, the pads were nonetheless emblematic of the era. Pitted against chauvinistic attitudes about women in the workplace, feminine style took on a physically assertive stature. But that idea didn’t originate with television stars. It was rooted in a response to the domestic work crisis during World War II.

From protective gear to feminist wear

Joan Crawford is all padded up and ready to square off with Moroni Olsen in Mildred Pierce (1945).Warner Home Video

Before the war, shoulder pads were perceived as a glamorous but impractical clothing flourish or as part of protective football gear. In 1931, Italian designer Elsa Schiaparelli showcased high fashion styles with the look, the purported result of being influenced by surrealist artwork. So did fellow designer Marcel Rochas. But international evolution was slow to make it to the States.

It wasn’t until costume designer Adrian Adolph Greenburg dressed actress Joan Crawford in a stylish padded look for films like 1932’s Letty Lynton all the way through 1945’s Mildred Pierce that the wide-profile approach drew national attention. (It’s believed that Greenburg was struck with inspiration at the sight of Crawford’s large shoulders, and opted to accentuate rather than try to hide them.)

That admiration gave way to purpose when women began taking on new roles in the domestic labor scene. With men fighting overseas, women took to the pads as a way to better assimilate into a physical world. Their silhouettes became more angular, more defined, and broader—a subversive announcement that their role was professional and equitable. With shoulders raised to meet those in a padded men’s suit, the pads worked to establish conformity in the workplace.

With resources during wartime scarce, these pads were often made of wool, cotton, or even sawdust. But as the war wound down and men began returning to their old work roles, the pads lost much of their utilitarian purpose. Shoulders began to slope once more.

Shoulder heights rise again in the '80s

Joan Collins and Linda Evans compete for biggest shoulders with John Forsythe as judge in Dynasty.ABC Television

Because fashion is often cyclical, it wouldn’t take another global conflict for shoulder pads to rise again. Designer Norma Kamali was reported to have reintroduced them into casual daywear in 1980. Coupled with the decade’s newfound edicts of material wealth and gender equality, the pads surged in popularity. Women’s attire was once again squared off. This time, it wasn’t just about office appearance. Designers saw potential in the ability of the pads to reform the female body, making the waist appear smaller and even helping to make up for bad posture. Some were even customizable. On Dynasty, Linda Evans and Joan Collins each had unique pads. Evans preferred a thicker foam, while Collins hated them touching her neck.

The pads were not without controversy. Some blouses were designed for pads and sold without them, necessitating an additional purchase in order to prevent the clothing from sagging. Unless they were sewn in, the pads could easily become dislodged, creating peculiar anomalies as they slid down the arms or torso. Purse straps could shift their position. And if a person wasn’t careful, they ran the risk of doubling or tripling up on the pads, with a layer each in a blouse, sweater, and jacket. The resulting puff threatened to brush their earlobes.

Thanks in part to the influence of celebrities and even Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, who favored the look, the power pad trend endured for most of the ‘80s but disappeared along with much of that decade’s ostentatiousness by the 1990s. While they still make periodic comebacks on fashion runaways, foam shoulder enhancement is now considered poor form.