[an error occurred while processing this directive]
BBC News
watch One-Minute World News
Last Updated: Tuesday, 30 August 2005, 16:10 GMT 17:10 UK
Science and the seance
By Hannah Goff
BBC News

Fox sisters
The Fox sisters, founders of Spiritualism, used code of knocks
The world's most eminent scientists are not usually associated with the dim-lit surroundings of a clairvoyant's parlour.

But some of science's biggest names have not only dabbled in, but been entirely convinced by the world of the seance.

Guglielmo Marconi, Alexander Graham Bell and John Logie Baird are familiar to most for the household indispensables they invented. But the attraction to spiritualism they all shared is definitely not part of the GCSE science syllabus.

All three men, and many other Victorian scientific pioneers, became involved with the religion, which depended on strange forces being demonstrated through bizarre phenomena.


But how did the world of certainty and precision collide and, in some cases, fuse with that of levitating spiritualists and voices from the "other side"?

To some, it was simply down to chronology. When the Fox sisters of Hydesville, New York State - widely considered to be the founders of modern spiritualism - first claimed to have communicated with the dead, the world was awash with scientific endeavour.

Just four years earlier a communication of a very different sort - the first electric telegraph - was sent across the Atlantic.

Table turning
The Spiritualist craze spread in Victorian society

Science was challenging the old certainties about life - making the impossible, possible.

According to the biographer of the Fox sisters, Barbara Weisberg: "There was so much that was exciting and so much that wouldn't have been thought possible two decades before.

"If people could communicate over the telegraph, why couldn't this world and the next world communicate?"

This gave the sisters' claims greater legitimacy, she says.

As the spiritualist craze grew people from every level of Victorian society crammed into dingy parlours, where knocks and raps indicated the presence of spirits.

Defying gravity

Messages from the dead were spelt out using lettered cards while strange voices were mumbled in the dark.

But it was in the search for proof these phenomena were real and not cons, that the world of the spiritualist and the scientist came together.

Science historian at Cambridge University, Dr Richard Noakes, says scientists leapt to the task.

I am convinced that discoveries of far-reaching importance remain waiting along these shadowy and discredited paths
John Logie Baird on spiritualism

"If there was any truth in phenomena that appear to defy the known laws of nature, the known laws of gravity, then scientists believed that they had to be the ones to investigate."

When the bizarre phenomenon of table-turning hit the parlours of Victorian England, the leading experimental scientist of the day, Michael Faraday, was called in.

After attending two seances, the deeply Christian Faraday devised an experiment to see if there was a rational explanation. He decided there was and dismissed supernatural causes as nonsense.


Some 15 years later, the feats of medium Daniel Dunglass Home reached new heights as he was seen to levitate out of one window and back through another. Many believed he was simply a hypnotist.

This time the eminent chemist, William Crookes, who unlike Faraday was keen to discover a psychic force, subjected Home's activities to his own test.

Daniel Dunglass Home
Daniel Dunglass Home was accused by some of being a hypnotist

He devised a machine he called a radiometer to measure the "invisible forces" the medium appeared to be tapping into.

Another gave a reading when the maestro appeared to move a lever without touching it.

"Here's an instrument Daniel Dunglass Home can't possibly mesmerise because it's not a living being. How can you hypnotise an instrument?" says Dr Noakes.

"So Crookes reckons he got the traces of a psychic force in operation."

Crookes went on to invent the cathode-ray tube, pioneer research into radiation effects, photography, wireless telegraphy, electricity and spectroscopy.

Logie Baird, who built on Crookes' work to create television, was also persuaded by his seance experiences.


Not only did he claim to have communicated with the spirit of US scientist Thomas Edison, but after visiting a seance in 1926 he wrote: "I am convinced that discoveries of far reaching importance remain waiting along these shadowy and discredited paths."

But Logie Baird was trying to do exactly what mediums of the day were doing - transmitting sounds and images through space. Only the source of these, if you believe the medium, were different.

At the end of the 19th Century when Guglielmo Marconi was experimenting with the first radio signals, he was shocked when he started to receive signals.

Stone marking the Fox sisters' home in Hydesville, New York State
The Fox sisters are still revered today
The author of Spirit Communication, Roy Stemman, says Marconi concluded these were from the spirit world.

"He spent his last years trying to perfect an electronic device that would establish a permanent contact between this world and the next."

This was never achieved, but his work pioneered the telecommunications that still link the globe today.

Dr Noakes says that whether or not the scientists declared the whole thing to be bogus, the example they set was "extremely powerful to the next generation of scientists".

Despite years of research, no scientist has proved seances were anything more than an elaborate con trick.

But the work they did trying often contributed to a greater understanding of the laws of physics.

Science and the Seance was broadcast on BBC Two on Wednesday 31 August at 2100 BST.

Add your comments on this story, using the form below.

I was brought up to accept orthodox religion by a very pious mother. After my experiences as an WW2 RAF vet of atrocities committed by man I began to have doubts. Upon losing my wife after 64 years of marital bliss I rejected my man made beliefs and followed the teachings of spiritualism. After teaching myself to meditate I am convinced that I exchange daily conversation with my wife. This gives much comfort. I would suggest the reading of a free `on line`book by Victor Zammit. This can be assessed using web site http:www.victorzammit.com Then make your own decisions. An open-minded sceptic, John
J A Phillips, Kelowna, Canada

How long has this debate been running for? I challenge spiritualists to give a demonstration at any third-party location which stands up to even the most flimsy of testing procedures. If there was even the slightest hint of truth to this,it would be a SCIENTIFIC fact, not the black art it is. Repeat after me.... It's all in the mind, it's all in the mind. Smoke and mirrors.
Nik, Norwich

So, Scientists are going to 'explore' the world of the seance, are they? We all know what will happen - they will 'explore' it for 6 months and decide it is totally fake. Then we can get back to talking with the spirits, and the scientists will feel safe in their neat, orderly lives. Come on, Science, stop messing around, explore the big one - God. I'd be interested in what they would find... lol!
Mike Ginns,

Whether or not there is an afterlife, televisions will still work. Inventing the mobile phone does not qualify a person to dispove the existance of the soul. It's a ridiculous division, between spirit and science, which only seems to exist in the minds of those who are neither scientists, nor prone to considering the mysteries of life and death.
Mark Walton, London

I would not dream of pushing my views on anyone about seances as it has to be a personal experience, but my experiences has left me in no doubt that something exists beyond death. I cannot explain it nor do I wish to. I just wish most religions and scientific institutes would accept this and stop trying to rubbish spiritulism at every opportunity. The acts of clairvoyance and similar 'miracles' are recorded all througout history and are no doubt part of the human mind we have yet to understand.
Greg, Preston Lancashire

I am astonished that this article could be written without mentioning Sir Oliver Lodge. It was Lodge who first demonstrated radio in this country. It was Lodge who did much of the donkey work with Logie Baird to create the television. It was also Lodge who was all but cast adrift by his fellow scientists for dabbling in the paranormal. Finally we should consider just how difficult it must have been to convince the public (most of whom would not even have had mains electricity) that they would be able to have a box in the corner of the room that would talk to them - and later, have pictures of the person speaking.
Jonathan , Slough

As a physicist by training I am hard-nosed about psychical phenomena and remain to be convinced. However, if you read the meticulous accounts of even more hard-nosed scientists who have investigated psychical claims in the past it will gradually become apparent that some of these investigations showing apparently paranormal occurrences cannnot with honesty be dismissed with a patronising sneer. It is those who have not read the serious literature, in, for example, the journals of The Society for Psychical Research, who are inclined to boast arrogantly of their closed minds.
Michael Wallbank, Birmingham, UK

What's interesting here is not spiritualism, but the open-mindedness of the scientists...
mike taylor, bristol, uk

Two words, "Derren Brown". Watch his programmes and you will see the whole "morden spiritualism" is fake. Talking to dead people and physic forces, yeh right! It's a trick!
Ian Tobin, London

Your e-mail address
Town/city and country

The BBC may edit your comments and not all emails will be published. Your comments may be published on any BBC media worldwide.

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites


Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific