Edison's forgotten 'invention': A phone that calls the dead

General Electric

What better time than Halloween to explore the mystery around Edison’s most ghoulish invention?

In 1920, Americans were still reeling from the horrific casualties of World War I. Meanwhile, spiritualism, ouija boards, and the slew of new technological inventions from men like Thomas Edison were capturing the national zeitgeist. All these converged when Edison told American Magazine that he was working on a device known as a “spirit phone” — in other words, a phone that would let the living communicate with the dead.

The result was a national craze. Most of the major newspapers and magazines in the country leapt to cover this astounding new “invention.” And the magazine that broke the story received over 600 letters to the editor from people obsessed with the device.

These letters range from offers of help with the design to claims that such a machine already existed — and at least one gentleman wrote to ask how he could place a call once he reached the afterlife, since he expected to die shortly. (Click here to see the ten most popular reader responses to American Magazine’s story.)

Why was Edison’s mere mention of the spirit phone such a national sensation? There are a few reasons:

  • By 1920, Edison was a national hero. Newspaper and magazine reporters often stopped by his house to chat as part of their normal beat.
  • Radio had recently gotten huge. The idea of information traveling wirelessly through space and time — based on technology you couldn’t see or touch — was something that until then, wasn’t possible. If you could hear live humans talk through a box, why not dead ones?
  • Plus, Edison, who founded GE, had invented the phonograph, and had thus already performed the miracle of bringing the voices of “dead souls” to the living.
  • “In our world today, one needs only to watch an old movie or the history channel to hear a dead person speak,” says Gerald Fabris, Museum Curator of Sound Recordings at the Thomas Edison National Historical Park. “To hear speech that originated from the mouth of a deceased person was an amazing event.”

So was the spirit phone even real?

No schematic or prototype was ever found, so the answer is: probably not. Many have suggested it was a hoax and that Edison was playing a joke on reporters. While no one can be certain how serious Edison took the idea, Fabris points out that the lack of a prototype or blueprint doesn’t necessarily mean it was a hoax.

“Edison considered thinking about something to be serious work,” says Fabris. “He posted copies of the following quotation around his laboratory for his employees to see: ‘There is no expedient to which a man will not resort to avoid the true labor of thinking,’ by Sir Joshua Reynolds.”

Spirit phone impostors have popped up over the years, including a “Psycho-Phone,” pictured below, that was the subject of a PBS History Detectives feature, but was not authentic.

Perhaps, since his death in 1931, Edison has been spending his afterlife developing the phone, along with the cadre of deceased inventors that letter-writers claimed had been working on it for years.


Talk about a calling dead zone: The Pyscho-Phone was a device built in the 1920s, but not by Edison. Photo: Morgan Beatty.

Learn more in these GE Reports stories:
* “Top 10 Responses to Thomas Edison’s ‘Phone to Call the Dead
* “In 1900 Electric Vehicles Reigned and Edison Charged Them!
* “Edison speaks! Cracking the pallophotophone code

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