The Occult and the Telephone

A disembodied voice traveling through a wire was as spooky as a ghost.
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Google Books

Telephones were once new, and when they were, they were magical. Not in that Jobsian way of being magical, but like, actually a bit touched by the supernatural.

"All previous generations, as the result of invariable experience, linked together as an obvious axiom that when the ear could hear the eye must be able to see the speaker. That assumption has been broken down by the telephone,” wrote Fremont Rider in his impressively contrarian book, Are the Dead Alive? in 1909. 

What happened when that link between sight and sound broke down is the subject of Devin McKinney's recent story on HiLoBrow.

And what happened was that the telephone became implicated in a realm of research that straddled the line between the occult (hearing voices in the ether) and the technological as researchers built tools to let you transmit your voice through space and time. 

It's not that crazy. Think about it: if invisible electromagnetic waves could be used to transmit radio broadcasts, if copper wires could carry your mother's voice across an ocean, if grooves in a platter could play—no, be—music... Then what else was possible? What else couldn't we see with our lowly unaided perception? 

From the 1909 book Are the Dead Alive? (Google Books)

"The key to the telephone as miracle, metaphor, and medium for ghosts lay in ... the 'numerous slits' in reality and rationalism that allow the mundane to commingle with the mystical, and mortal matter to be infused with a spirit which lures our fancy with the prospect of something eternal," McKinney continues.

"'Many steps in the last few years have been taken upward toward the boundary line that separates the spirit from matter,' Isaac K. Funk wrote in 1911. 'The phonograph that photographs the voice, the long-distance telephone which enables us to hear the voice of a friend tho the ocean intervenes, the wireless telegraph which by waves of ether is a prophecy of conversation with the inhabitants on other planets, the x-ray giving us power to look through solids, the kinetoscope that helps us to see events of the past in action—where is the end?'"

Looking back, it is easy to separate what looks to us like pseudoscience from what has been elevated into science. But to those at the time, it was not so easy to split the many wonders of the age into reality and fantasy. 

"The postulate was not only thrilling but also supremely logical," McKinney writes, "if technology could so transform our conception of the material world and its limits, why not our relationship to realms beyond?"

Overenthusiastic perhaps, but not crazy. 

 


This is one of today's 5 Intriguing Things, my daily curated look at our world's futures. You can read the full newsletter and get all five links delivered to your inbox each morning by subscribing here.

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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science website in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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