Spiritualism and Telegraphy

The decades around the mid-nineteenth century were a defining period for the introduction of new ways of communication across the globe. It was namely around that time that the telegraph came into being. That was also the time of some new religious concepts, which took significant influence from the electronic media of the time and its brand new means of information exchange. Most notable example for that trend would be Spiritualism, which sprang into existence in the USA, as well as the UK and across Europe around the same time as Morse’s telegraph (1840s).

Based on the possibility of “disembodied” communication across huge distancies presented by the new medium, the reality of telegraph communication shared quite a few common characteristics with the basic concept of spiritualism. According to its main belief, the spirits of the dead continue to exist in a spirit world and have the ability to communicate with the living through mediums capable of establishing a link to the afterlife. These structural and operative similarities with the telegraph did not remain unnoticed by the people representing the “spiritual” medium. Some spiritualist texts and works of fiction of that time included themes of the interconnection and interaction between electromagnetic telegraphy and spiritual communication.

As the public interest into the notion of communicating with dead people grew stronger within the next few decades, Spiritualism tried to distinguish itself from its supernatural, and for that matter supersticious, roots, by giving the world and its followers a logical scientific explanation for its occurences. The scientific knowledge of the period in the fields of physics and especially electromagnetism helped illustrating the mysterious metaphysical phenomenon of spiritualism as a science-based process of communication, that shares a very similar electromagnetic functionality with the telegraph. Around that time there was a strong fascination with electricity and its manner of functioning in general, so it is only logical that Spiritualists would borrow its scientific basis in order to deliver an explanation for their methods of communication with the dead.

Nowadays many scientists agree that there was an important relationship the rise of Spiritualism and the spread of electrically-mediated telecommunication technologies in the nineteenth-century. Research projects are being currently developed, the main focus of which are religious, scientific and popular texts from the 1850s to the 1880s. There are also particular research dimensions of those projects, such as: the role played by telegraph-based telecommunication in the establishment and expansion of Spiritualism; the integration of specific electrical vocabulary and metaphor system within the Spritualist movement (telegraph cables – nerves) as well as other related notions and expressions (conduction, vibration, signal interruption); the practice of using electrical devices within seances in order to establish or demonstrate the connection to the spirit world, as well as to showcase the effects this world has over the bodies of the medium participating in the seance.


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