The Victorian Age was a time of both rapid scientific growth and a rise in paranormal belief. As it turns out, men of science were not immune to an interest in the paranormal. One notable case was Thomas Edison. In October 1920, Edison told Scientific American, “I have been thinking for some time of a machine or apparatus which could be operated by personalities which have passed on to another existence or sphere.” Also in 1920, he told American Magazine, “…I am inclined to believe that our personality hereafter will be able to affect matter. If this reasoning be correct, then, if we can evolve an instrument so delicate as to be affected, moved, or manipulated … by our personality as it survives in the next life, such an instrument, when made available, ought to record something.”
Now Edison was known as a consummate rationalist and there are claims that these quotes were simply a prank he played on the press. Certainly, there is no evidence that such a machine was actually built nor has anyone ever found so much as a sketch of this machine. Despite that, Edison did seem to believe in some paranormal things. For example, he seems to have believed that Dr. Bert Reese had some kind of psychic power. Reese had subjects write their thoughts on a piece of paper while he was out of the room. Reese would return, hold the balled-up piece of paper to his forehead and “read” the contents. Edison said of Reese, “I am certain that Reese was neither a medium nor a fake. I saw him several times and on each occasion I wrote something on a piece of paper when Reese was not near … In no single case was one of these papers handled by Reese … yet he recited correctly the contents of each paper.”
As it turns out, Harry Houdini showed how Reese did his trick during a séance some time after this.
In Tales of the Talisman volume 10, issue 2, Erin K. Wagner imagines what it might have been like if Edison really had created his ghost machine. We may never know whether Edison was playing a prank or seriously tried to think of ways to communicate with spirits, but there’s no doubt Edison’s statements to the press about the possibilities of communicating with the spirit realm electrified the public.