Telepathy and Wireless

In the next seminar session (June 4th), titled “Wireless and Telepathy,” we will address the relationship between theories on telepathic communication and media technologies. We will see how technologies such as wireless, telegraphy, the telephone, and the computer were frequently connected to a recurring fantasy: the idea that it would be possible to communicate through the use of our brain only (called “thought transference” or “telepathy”). The required text, to be downloaded through ILIAS, is Anthony Enns’ article Psychic Radio: Sound Technologies, Ether Bodies and Spiritual Vibrations.

The main subject of our attention will be wireless telegraphy, which -since its introduction at the end of the nineteenth century- was very often compared to telepathy.

But on which grounds was this analogy between telepathy and wireless based?

Let’s start by seeing how wireless telegraphy (and what we today know as radio) works. Simply put, a wireless telegraph is a device that can both detect and product electromagnetic waves (radio waves). Electromagnetic waves ravel through space, and can be sent and detected at great distance, allowing the possibility for communication at distance without wires. While early wireless telegraphs were not able to transmit sound, but worked through simple messages elaborated, as in telegraphy, in the Morse code, later techniques were developed to use electromagnetic waves to transmit more complex messages, including sound and the human voice. This was the requisite for the development, since the late 1910s, of radio broadcasting.

Of fundamental importance in this process is the transformation from the message (either in Morse code or as sound) to the electromagnetic waves to be sent, and the complementary process by which the receiver re-transforms the electromagnetic waves in a meaningful message. This process of transformation of the impulses into messages is of central importance to all electric communications media, including telegraphy, the telephone, television, and so on.

How does the functioning of wireless technology, then, was compared to telepathy? Since the end of the nineteenth century, in psychical research and parapsychology (but often also through the contribution of reputable scholars from the “official” science), many started to believe that while we think our brains, similarly to a wireless device, produce electromagnetic waves. In this perspective, if a brain would be able to detect these waves, and transform them to meaningful information, then the process of telepathy could be explained as something similar to the functioning of wireless telegraphy.

After the invention of wireless telegraphy, then, many hoped to find an evidence of telepathy by studying electromagnetic waves and wireless technologies. Like other scientific and technological discoveries of the time, such as the X rays, wireless was used as a way to gain the scientific recognition that psychical researchers and believers in telepathy and other occult phenomena so desperately needed.

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