Many Americans can trace their Spirit Investigation roots back to the early Spiritualists of the mid to late 1800s. Although reports of Spirits (in Western cultures) date back to Ancient Greece and writings from Pompeii, much of our modern methodology stems from the work of early Spiritualists in America. Some techniques that are still used include asking for knocks/raps/touch and use of devices such as talking boards.
Although many low-tech methods are still in use today, the Spiritualists of the time did use their knowledge of engineering and industrialization to design faster, more machine friendly ways to communicate with the deceased. Many inventors and Spiritualists designed technological solutions to communicate with the dead that enjoyed popularity; however, are no longer in use.
One such device is the “Spirit Dial” or “Dial Plate”. Spiritualists utilized dial plate telegraph technology as the template for a new, mechanical means of connecting to the deceased. “In 1853, a Thompsonville, Connecticut spiritualist, Isaac T. Pease, called his invention, suitably enough, the “Spiritual Telegraph Dial.” Just a dial with letters arranged around the circumference and a message needle to point to them were necessary. There was no need for messy wires or electricity.” (Orlando). The religious backlash to the device and the Spiritualist movement was severe, many accused the early Spiritualists of being Necromancer and Witches (jcs-group); however, many scientifically minded individuals set out to use the tools of science to disprove the movement.
One such individual was Robert Hare, M.D. He was an emeritus professor of chemistry in the University of Pennsylvania and alumnus of both Yale College and Harvard University (Orlando) and author of over 150 scientific papers. In 1855, he wrote a book “Experimental Investigation of the Spirit Manifestations” in which he used Pease’s plates with a pulley system. The pulley system lessened a medium’s ability to consciously control an outcome. He named the modified invention, a “spiritoscope” and began to test the device and mediumship to his satisfaction (Hare).
In Hare’s summary he notes, “It is surprising with what readiness a spirit, even when unused to the apparatus, will, by moving the lever, actuate the index, causing it to point to the letters, words, or figures distributed on the face of the disk, as above mentioned” (Hare, pdf pg 11). While using his spiritoscope, he noted that, “Agreeably to my experience in a multitude of cases, spirits have reported themselves who were wholly unexpected, and when others were expected. When I was expecting my sister in Boston, my brother reported himself. Lately, when expecting her, Cadwalader was spelt out, being the name of an old friend, who forthwith gave me a test, proving his identity. As this spirit had never visited my disk before, I had not the smallest expectation of his coming” (Hare, 33). Hare references a medium named Mrs Gourlay who was able to articulate a response to Hare after he read the Sicilian Mariner’s Hymn and replaced a few of the Latin words. In response to this chant, a reply was given through the spiritoscope, ” Dear Brother :—I answer your prayer by saying I do watch over you, and pray for your welfare. I am grateful for your remembrance, and shall strive to deserve it. O ! brother, our cause is a common one, and we feel the same interest in its promulgation. I am daily striving to disseminate its truths, but can make little progress, having so much ignorance to contend against. I know that the truths of progression, with the help of a good and wise God, will ultimately prevail over all the land ; but when that happy time comes to earth, your freed spirit will rove the endless fields of immortality with those loved friends who have gone a little while before. Then will we revel in delights which, in comparison with earth’s joys, are far more beautiful and sublime. I wish you could look with the eye of prescience, and see that glorious time, when all nations shall become as a band of brothers” (Hare, 55).
Hare was not the only person to have positive experiences with dial plates and similar spirit devices. In England, another dial plate was patented and in France, spiritist Allan Kardec published a book “Le Livre des Mediums”. His book supported Spiritualism and referenced several events that he found to be beyond the explanation of Science and Psychology and mentions his own experiences with dial plates. (Kardec).
Church Leaders Associated Spiritualism With Witchcraft. (n.d.). Retrieved June 18, 2015, from http://www.jcs-group.com/enigma/religion/spiritualism1.html
Hare, R. (1855). Experimental investigation of the spirit manifestations: Demonstrating the existence of spirits and their communion with mortals : Doctrine of the spirit world respecting heaven, hell, morality, and God : Also, the influence of Scripture on the morals of. New York: Partridge & Brittan (available: https://ia601407.us.archive.org/21/items/experimentalinv00hare/experimentalinv00hare_bw.pdf).
Kardec, A. (n.d.). Spiritualist philosophy: The spirits’ book. New York. Available: http://www.spiritismireland.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/03/the-spirits-book.pdf
Orlando, E. (n.d.). The Museum of Talking Boards: The Dial Plate Talking Boards. Retrieved June 18, 2015, from http://www.museumoftalkingboards.com/dials.html