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Science of the supernatural

Image credit: diomedia, Fortean Picture Library, thinkstock

Scottish engineer, inventor and innovator John Logie Baird died in June 1946, 70 years ago. Intriguingly, like some other notable figures of his time, he was drawn to the idea that the dead can communicate with the living. So how did these men of science attempt to uncover the truth behind the paranormal?

This year marks the 90th anniversary of the demonstration of television by pioneer John Logie Baird. It’s also been 70 years since his death. Baird achieved what others thought impossible: transmitting what he called ‘the living image’. He was also one of many reputable scientists and inventors in the early 20th century who were intrigued by the paranormal.Baird’s grandson Iain Logie Baird, former curator of television at the National Media Museum in Bradford, says that “in the 1920s and 1930s, there was a much more blurred line between science and spiritualism than there is today.

“Part of this was driven by the massive sense of loss resulting from World War One. A large part of a generation of men was missing and everyone was affected by it.”

Many prominent and reputable men thought it their duty to investigate this spirit phenomenon, using their expertise to try and decipher so-called ‘supernatural’ events.

Baird’s brief foray into the world of the paranormal began shortly after his television achievement. According to his musings in ‘Sermons, Soap and Television: Autobiographical Notes by John Logie Baird’, he thought it would be possible to use infrared or ultraviolet (UV) rays in place of light in order to send an image in complete darkness.

With the help of his assistant, Wally, he tried UV first, but it affected the boy’s eyes, so he switched to infrared. Baird used electric fires to produce the radiation, writing that they were “practically heat rays. I added more fires until Wally was nearly roasted alive, then I put in a dummy’s head and added more fires and the... head went up in flames.”

After this disaster, Baird decided to try shorter infrared waves. He did this by using ordinary electric bulbs covered with a thin layer of ebonite, which cut off all light, but let the infrared rays pass. Wally managed to sit under this apparatus without much pain and Baird “saw him on the screen although he was in total darkness. That was something new and strange, I was actually seeing a person without light,” he wrote. Newspapers called it ‘seeing in the dark.’

Baird continued to exhibit his achievements to scientists and other interested parties and, while staying at a hotel after one such demonstration, he befriended an elderly professor. He had been called in to investigate a medium called Marjorie, “a respectable married lady who in early life had lost her only son”.

The boy, called Jack, had supposedly slit his throat with a razor in a ‘fit’ of depression, leaving bloodstained thumb marks on the handle. The razor had been locked away, untouched after the incident. Marjorie, heartbroken, joined a spiritualistic circle to try to speak to Jack again. “Here she was discovered to have astounding mediumistic powers,” Baird wrote.

Touching the spirits

During a séance led by Marjorie in a dark, quiet room, she became entranced and Baird wrote that “her body exuded from its orifices a strange vapour called ectoplasm”. It “floated about her like a cloud and was of such a fine and mysterious nature that it could be used by the spirits to build ectoplasmic bodies”. The spirit of Jack appeared, answering questions and using the ‘ectoplasm’ to materialise his hand, moving objects and touching the audience.

Then the elderly professor was called in. Baird wrote that the professor “approached the whole matter with complete scepticism and went to work with the careful thoroughness of a highly trained scientific observer”. As the room was dark, he was at a disadvantage. According to old tales, ectoplasm is instantly destroyed by light and can badly affect the medium, causing bleeding and even death. The professor shook hands with ‘Jack’, saying it “felt hard and cold like the skin of a serpent”.

Baird wrote that the professor wanted to compare thumb prints of the ectoplasmic hand to the bloodstained prints on the razor. The spirit Jack agreed and pressed his hand on a piece of wax - the prints were identical. The professor had an idea and “heard that I had a device which enabled a person to see in the dark [infrared].

“He wanted to borrow this so that he could watch the whole process of materialisation without destroying the ectoplasm.” Unfortunately, as Baird went to arrange this, the professor died in a motor accident. A spiritualist said that it was “the action of the spirit forces and the result of his effort to pry into sacred secrets”.

Baird wrote that he was convinced that “discoveries of far-reaching importance remain waiting along these shadowy and discredited paths”.

Iain Logie Baird says that his grandfather was not an avid spiritualist like some of his colleagues, “but he was somewhat intrigued by the phenomenon. He dipped a toe into that world through some of his contacts.”

Sometime after the ‘Marjorie’ event, Baird wrote that he was invited to another séance - the claim was that this would give “definite and irrefutable evidence of the survival of the personality after death”.

At this séance, a dense, purple cloud formed in the darkness and the ‘spirit’ signalled the audience by tapping in Morse code. The message was directed to Baird “and it came from no less a personage than Thomas Alva Edison,” he wrote. Baird added that Edison had “been experimenting with noctovision [invisible light] in his home in the astral plane, and was convinced that it would prove of great use in assisting communication between the living and those who had passed over,” but to use it “now would incur grave danger”. ‘Edison’ assured Baird that he was continuing his research into the matter.

The agnostic Thomas Edison, before his unfortunate demise - and apparent otherworldly communication to Baird - had always been intrigued by ghosts and the paranormal, but didn’t know if the spirit world existed. He freely spoke of his quest to seek answers, once telling the New York Times that he possessed a machine that would measure ‘life units’, which disperse through the universe after death.

In 1920, he announced that he was building a device that would let us hear voices of the deceased. Some American people thought it was a joke, as there was no recorded evidence of Edison ever actually designing, let alone building, this ‘ghost phone’.

However, it was discovered that although English language editions of his memoirs ‘Diary and Sundry Observations’ had omitted his dabbling into the paranormal, the 1949 French version still contained his findings. This edition showed how Edison attempted to discover foundations for his ‘ghost phone’ by amplifying sound from his phonographs - a device developed in 1877 as a result of the prolific inventor’s work on the telegraph and the telephone.

The spirit phone echoes tools used in modern-day ghost hunting, like Electronic Voice Phenomena, where one hears ghostly ‘voices’ on playback of magnetic tape or digital recordings, but not during recording time.

Hearing voices

Chartered psychologist Callum E Cooper and ghost hunter Steven T Parsons, editors of ‘Paracoustics: Sound and the Paranormal’, say: “Much like seeing images in the clouds... audio can act the same way with regards to our perception and interpretation of what we are exposed to.

“We are drawn to picking out human faces or full human-like forms in unclear images, when in reality, what we are looking at are random shapes, which purely resemble something to our mind and experiences.”

They said that it’s the same for audio. When we hear sounds, our brains try to make sense of what we are hearing and it is an instantaneous process. “This is known as the pareidolia effect - which applies to visual and audio stimulus.”

Parsons and Cooper add that Edison was particularly influenced by his own beliefs, having been raised by parents involved in spiritualism and later hiring laboratory assistants with a keen interest in psychical research and professing psychic abilities themselves.

This may have been true, as Edison’s quest into the supernatural continued until (and apparently even after) his death. He was in contact with and allegedly inspired by another well-known spiritualist, inventor Sir William Crookes, who claimed to have captured ghosts on camera. The so-called ‘spirit photographs’ were met with unrestrained hostility among the scientific community. Yet Crookes soldiered on.

Englishman Crookes was the inventor of the cathode ray tube and discovered the element thallium. His cathode ray studies were essential in the development of atomic physics and he had a distinguished reputation among his peers.

Initially sceptical, he became intrigued by the phenomena of mediumism, performing many investigations on the most famous mediums of the Victorian era such as Daniel Dunglas Home and Florence Cook.

His experiments on Florence Cook and her spirit companion, Katie King, made him famous worldwide. In his article, ‘Researches into the Phenomena of Modern Spiritualism’ (1874), Crookes took many photographs of King - 44 in total - which apparently showed the ectoplasmic spirit in solid form.

Crookes wrote that “five complete sets of photographic apparatus were ... fitted up for the purpose, consisting of five cameras, one of the wholeplate size, one half-plate, one quarter-plate, and two binocular stereoscopic cameras ... all brought to bear upon Katie at the same time on each occasion on which she stood for her portrait.

“Five sensitising and five fixing baths were used and plenty of plates were cleaned ready for use in advance, so that there might be no hitch or delay during the photographic operations, which were performed by myself, aided by one assistant.

“My library was used as a dark cabinet. It has folding doors opening into the laboratory; one of these doors was taken off its hinges, and a curtain suspended in its place to enable Katie to pass in and out easily.

“Each evening there were three or four exposures of plates in the five cameras, giving at least 15 separate pictures at each séance.”

Seeing is believing

The materialisations of Katie King lasted for three years, with Crookes writing that he had “absolute certainty that Miss Cook and Katie are two separate individuals so far as their bodies are concerned”. He wrote that several marks on Miss Cook’s face were “absent on Katie’s”, and Miss Cook’s hair was almost black, whereas after he cut a lock of Katie’s hair, “having first traced it up to the scalp and satisfied myself that it actually grew there”, he determined that it was “a rich golden auburn”.

Although there was a huge backlash from his peers, Crookes never altered his opinion. In 1898, in his presidential address to the British Association for the Advancement of Science, he said: “Thirty years have passed since I published an account of experiments tending to show that outside our scientific knowledge there exists a Force exercised by intelligence differing from the ordinary intelligence common to mortals.

“I have nothing to retract. I adhere to my already published statements. Indeed, I might add much thereto.”

Parsons and Cooper point out that all of these men were leading thinkers, “but unfortunately they were also, just as the rest of us are, human, and therefore subject to all the whims and vagaries that being human entails as regards our hopes, wishes and beliefs.

“It is absolutely the case that each of these figures diligently explored the subject and experimented testing their hypotheses and ideas, but they all failed to demonstrate a single proof.

“Of course, that does not demonstrate that there is no possibility of post-death survival or communication with the living, but it does cast a large shadow over the idea.”

For more than 100 years, many people have delved into the paranormal depths, but despite their efforts there is still no substantial proof that we ‘survive’ death and that the dead can communicate in the living realm. Parsons and Cooper comment that “we also lack any substantial evidence for the existence of ghosts and other paranormal experiences.

“But what we cannot argue against is that people continually report having such experiences so, in that sense, they are entirely real. What we cannot yet provide is an explanation as to why people have these experiences and what it is they are actually experiencing.” *

Other notable spiritualists

Physicist Oliver Lodge studied telepathy in the 1880s and attended séances. He wrote several books based on the psychics he saw and his greatest source of enlightenment was Boston’s ‘Mrs Lenore Piper.’ He also claimed to speak regularly to his deceased son Raymond through mediums.

Psychologist William James, one of the leading thinkers of the 19th century, believed that every person had a soul which exists in a spiritual universe, leading a person to behave the way they do in the physical world - the soul ties everything together. He was also a founding member of the American Society for Psychical Research.

British engineer Alec Reeves regularly experimented with the paranormal, conducting studies to measure the power of thought and attempting to communicate with the dead. He reportedly performed paranormal investigations on the roof of ITT’s Paris laboratory and said he was guided by the late Michael Faraday.

Alfred Russel Wallace, co-developer of the theory of natural selection, was a full convert to Spiritualism and publicised his views without embarrassment. He was alienated from the scientific community as he would discuss his paranormal theories in inappropriate venues. However, Charles Darwin - who disagreed with Wallace’s views - remained his loyal advocate.

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