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.

The Spiritual Telegraph and the relation between body and electricity in Spiritualism

“We are negative to our guardian spirits; they are positive to us. The whole mystery is illustrated by the workings of the common magnetic telegraph. The principles involved are identical.”
Spiritual scientist

“1. Electric charges attract or repel one another with a force inversely proportional to the square of the distance between them: unlike charges attract, like ones repel.”
One of the four main effects resulting from interaction of positive and negative charges /James Clerk Maxwell in Treatise on Electricity and Magnetism, 1873/

The massive spread of spiritualism in the 19th century could be further explained with the differentiation of spiritualism from other old shibboleths concerning spiritual life and mystical beliefs, which made it plausible to a greater number of people.

To gain more legitimacy and attach a wider range of followers, spiritualists bridged the gap between science and spirituality in a manner which connected them. They had a wide interest in electrical phenomena and were even arguing that the emergence of electromagnetic telegraphy is caused by the spirit world. Thus the whole idea of the terrestrial telegraph became a counterpart of the Spiritual Telegraph.

The term of the “Spiritual Telegraph” was widely popular within the Spiritualist circles. It was basically used to describe a device quite similar to the electromagnetic telegraph, only existing in the spirit world. Inspired by the spiritual telegraph was also the notion of a whole system of spiritual telecommunication systems in the afterlife, all of them based on the ideas of telepresence and disembodied electrical contact. Quite popular was also the notion of technological devices that exist in our world and are based on electromagnetic scientific processes. However, most of those projects featured an energy source or basically a part, that didn’t quite exist in reality, which explains why none of those concepts actually came into being.

Nevertheless, many of the spiritualists used the inventions of the late 19th century to explain the work of the new medium and build around the theory of supernatural presence, whose footsteps could be traced to the roots of electromagnetism. Scientists, mesmerists, writers elaborated their theses about the Spiritual Telegraphy describing it mostly in telegraphic terms. For instance, one of the most prominent defenders of spiritualism was Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the author of the stories about detective Sherlock Holmes.

Spiritualists described electrical current as a form of “universal fluid” and compared its capacity to shrink time and space with the functions of the terrestrial telegraph. The spiritual world was connected to ours through a medium – a person (in most of the cases a woman) capable of transmitting fluid energies that came from beyond through the body’s nervous system and spreading it further. For spiritualists electricity and body were widely interrelated with the latter one often being described in terms of electrical principles such as current and charge, capacity and resistance, circuit and field.

Of course, the notion of the Spiritual Telegraph and spirit communication had its critics from the beginning. Critics of Spiritualism relied on physics, physiology, psychology and anthropology to disprove spiritualistic assertions. Scientists conducted experiments in which they unveiled more of the spiritualistic “findings” as frauds and trickery.  Still, the battle between skeptics and believers wasn’t fair enough – spiritualists used the same tools and branches of science for their conclusions, but had also a wider relation to public because of journalistic sensationalism, gossip, etc.

To sum up, the emergence of the telegraph and the invisibility and intangibility of electrical phenomena opened a “Pandora’s box”, which still can’t be closed. But more about that in the last point: Spiritualism nowadays.

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