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.”

Has An Element Ever Been Removed From the Periodic Table?

lucadp/iStock via Getty Images
lucadp/iStock via Getty Images

Barry Gehm:

Yes, didymium, or Di. It was discovered by Carl Mosander in 1841, and he named it didymium from the Greek word didymos, meaning twin, because it was almost identical to lanthanum in its properties. In 1879, a French chemist showed that Mosander’s didymium contained samarium as well as an unknown element. In 1885, Carl von Weisbach showed that the unknown element was actually two elements, which he isolated and named praseodidymium and neodidymium (although the di syllable was soon dropped). Ironically, the twin turned out to be twins.

The term didymium filter is still used to refer to welding glasses colored with a mixture of neodymium and praseodymium oxides.

One might cite as other examples various claims to have created/discovered synthetic elements. Probably the best example of this would be masurium (element 43), which a team of German chemists claimed to have discovered in columbium (now known as niobium) ore in 1925. The claim was controversial and other workers could not replicate it, but some literature from the period does list it among the elements.

In 1936, Emilio Segrè and Carlo Perrier isolated element 43 from molybdenum foil that had been used in a cyclotron; they named it technetium. Even the longest-lived isotopes of technetium have a short half-life by geological standards (millions of years) and it has only ever been found naturally in minute traces as a product of spontaneous uranium fission. For this reason, the original claim of discovery (as masurium) is almost universally regarded as erroneous.

As far as I know, in none of these cases with synthetic elements has anyone actually produced a quantity of the element that one could see and weigh that later turned out not to be an element, in contrast to the case with didymium. (In the case of masurium, for instance, the only evidence of its existence was a faint x-ray signal at a specific wavelength.)

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Graham Crackers Were Invented to Combat the Evils of Coffee, Alcohol, and Masturbation

tatniz/iStock via Getty Images
tatniz/iStock via Getty Images

Long before they were used to make s’mores or the tasty crust of a Key lime pie, graham crackers served a more puritanical purpose in 19th-century America. The cookies were invented by Sylvester Graham, an American Presbyterian minister whose views on food, sex, alcohol, and nutrition would seem a bit extreme to today's cracker-snackers. Much like the mayor in the movie Chocolat, Graham and his thousands of followers—dubbed Grahamites—believed it was sinful to eat decadent foods. To combat this moral decay, Graham started a diet regimen of his own.

Graham ran health retreats in the 1830s that promoted a bland diet that banned sugar and meat. According to Refinery29, Graham's views ultimately inspired veganism in America as well as the “first anti-sugar crusade.” He condemned alcohol, tobacco, spices, seasoning, butter, and "tortured" refined flour. Caffeine was also a no-no. In fact, Graham believed that coffee and tea were just as bad as tobacco, opium, or alcohol because they created a “demand for stimulation.” However, the worst vice, in Graham's opinion, was overeating. “A drunkard sometimes reaches old age; a glutton never,” he once wrote.

Graham’s austere philosophy was informed by the underlying belief that eating habits affect people’s behaviors, and vice versa. He thought certain foods were "overstimulating" and led to impure thoughts and passions, including masturbation—or “self-pollution,” as he called it—which he believed to be an epidemic that caused both blindness and insanity.

Illustration of Sylvester Graham
Library of Congress, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Graham's views directly influenced Victorian-era corn flake inventor John Harvey Kellogg, who was born a year after Graham died. Like his predecessor, Kellogg also believed that meat and some flavorful foods led to sexual impulses, so he advocated for the consumption of plain foods, like cereals and nuts, instead. (Unsurprisingly, the original recipes for both corn flakes and graham crackers were free of sinful sugar.)

In one lecture, Graham told young men they could stop their minds from wandering to forbidden places if they avoided “undue excitement of the brain and stomach and intestines.” This meant swearing off improper foods and substances like tobacco, caffeine, pepper, ginger, mustard, horseradish, and peppermint. Even milk was banned because it was “too exciting and too oppressive.”

So what could Graham's followers eat? The core component of Graham’s diet was bread made of coarsely ground wheat or rye, unlike the refined white flour loaves that were sold in bakeries at that time. From this same flour emerged Graham's crackers and muffins, both of which were common breakfast foods. John Harvey Kellogg was known to have eaten the crackers and apples for breakfast, and one of his first attempts at making cereal involved soaking twice-baked cracker bits in milk overnight.

Slices of rye bread, a jug of milk, apples and ears of corn on sackcloth, wooden table
SomeMeans/iStock via Getty Images

However, Kellogg was one of the few remaining fans of Graham’s diet, which began to fall out of favor in the 1840s. At Ohio’s Oberlin College, a Grahamite was hired in 1840 to strictly enforce the school’s meal plans. One professor was fired for bringing a pepper shaker to the dining hall, and the hunger-stricken students organized a protest the following year, arguing that the Graham diet was “inadequate to the demands of the human system as at present developed.” Ultimately, the Grahamite and his tyrannical nutrition plan were kicked out.

Much like Kellogg’s corn flakes, someone else stepped in and corrupted Graham’s crackers, molding them into the edible form we now know—and, yes, love—today. In Graham’s case, it was the National Biscuit Company, which eventually became Nabisco; the company started manufacturing graham crackers in the 1880s. But Graham would likely be rolling in his grave if he knew they contained sugar and white flour—and that they're often topped with marshmallows and chocolate for a truly decadent treat.