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.”

Looking to Downsize? You Can Buy a 5-Room DIY Cabin on Amazon for Less Than $33,000

Five rooms of one's own.
Five rooms of one's own.

If you’ve already mastered DIY houses for birds and dogs, maybe it’s time you built one for yourself.

As Simplemost reports, there are a number of house kits that you can order on Amazon, and the Allwood Avalon Cabin Kit is one of the quaintest—and, at $32,990, most affordable—options. The 540-square-foot structure has enough space for a kitchen, a bathroom, a bedroom, and a sitting room—and there’s an additional 218-square-foot loft with the potential to be the coziest reading nook of all time.

You can opt for three larger rooms if you're willing to skip the kitchen and bathroom.Allwood/Amazon

The construction process might not be a great idea for someone who’s never picked up a hammer, but you don’t need an architectural degree to tackle it. Step-by-step instructions and all materials are included, so it’s a little like a high-level IKEA project. According to the Amazon listing, it takes two adults about a week to complete. Since the Nordic wood walls are reinforced with steel rods, the house can withstand winds up to 120 mph, and you can pay an extra $1000 to upgrade from double-glass windows and doors to triple-glass for added fortification.

Sadly, the cool ceiling lamp is not included.Allwood/Amazon

Though everything you need for the shell of the house comes in the kit, you will need to purchase whatever goes inside it: toilet, shower, sink, stove, insulation, and all other furnishings. You can also customize the blueprint to fit your own plans for the space; maybe, for example, you’re going to use the house as a small event venue, and you’d rather have two or three large, airy rooms and no kitchen or bedroom.

Intrigued? Find out more here.

[h/t Simplemost]

This article contains affiliate links to products selected by our editors. Mental Floss may receive a commission for purchases made through these links.

How 'Rumor Clinics' Fought Fake News 80 Years Ago

Fake news spread fast in 1940s America.
Fake news spread fast in 1940s America.
GraphicaArtis/Getty Images

Strange tales circulated around 1940s America. There was one about a lady whose head exploded at a beauty salon after her perm ignited residue from her job at the munitions factory. Others claimed Japan was planning to spike America's water supply with arsenic, and that a Massachusetts couple reported picking up a hitchhiker who claimed Hitler was on the verge defeat, before vanishing like a ghost from the back of their car.

All of those stories were lies—but that didn't stop people from spreading the rumors. As the United States plunged into the Second World War, newspapers fought fake news amid fears of Nazi propaganda efforts.

The Rumor Clinics

About three months after Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, the first rumor clinic was created in Boston on March 1, 1942, under the leadership of Harvard Professors Gordon Allport and Robert Knapp and the Eastern Psychological Association. The Boston Herald worked with the Massachusetts Committee on Public Safety's Division of Propaganda Research and a network of volunteers who hunted down rumors and their origins to dispel misinformation the publishers believed could harm the war effort, civilian defense, or the general morale of the country. A council that included the Boston police commissioner, the state’s attorney general, representatives of local unions, and the chamber of commerce vetted each edition of the column.

The Boston Herald’s weekly rumor clinic column was duplicated across the country, with as many as 40 different newspapers running their own versions, according to a January 24, 1943 New York Times feature. At the time, there was fear that Germany’s propaganda prowess would sow dissent among the U.S. population. “The United States was convinced that the moment war broke out they would be completely bombarded by rumors planted by the Germans. In order to head off these rumors, people who wanted to defend the United States decided to track these down,” Nick Cull, a University of Southern California professor and expert in war time propaganda, tells Mental Floss.

Rumors undercut rationing and industrial war efforts, such as the rumor about a woman whose head exploded at the hair salon. Other tales re-enforced racism and other prejudices already present in the country. Some of those rumors included that Jewish people were not required to serve in the military, or that white soldiers were having Black children after receiving Red Cross blood donations from Black civilians.

“It was stories that Americans told each other,” Cull says. “The rumors were so colorful that you could never forget them once you heard them.”

Nailing a Local Lie

About three months after the first column ran, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt created the Office of War Information through executive order on June 13, 1942. As Sidney Shalett wrote in The New York Times, the OWI looked to local communities as “the best place to nail a local lie.” The OWI began working with the rumor clinics and soon found that despite the assumptions German saboteurs were wreaking havoc on America’s psyche, most of the rumors were race-based lies spread by other Americans, according to Cull.

By the end of the war, the rumor clinics started disbanding, as the OWI adopted a new strategy of spreading facts without repeating rumors. Instead of directly challenging racist rumor mongering, the OWI released materials and information promoting the idea that all Americans were in the fight together against the Axis.

According to Julie Smith, a Webster University instructor and media literacy expert, while debunking rumors can be effective, the repetition of the debunked rumors can also re-enforce them. This became a concern for the OWI, leading it to grow wary of printing rumors just for the sake of denying them. “Misinformation has been around forever," Smith says, "and we have not gotten any smarter."