Magic Numbers

Essay by Alana Mohamed: “…The willingness to believe in the “algorithm” as though it were a kind of god is not entirely surprising. New technologies have long been incorporated into spiritual practices, especially during times of mass crisis. In the mid-to-late 19th century, emergent technologies from the lightbulb to the telephone called the limitations of the physical world into question. New spiritual leaders, beliefs, and full-blown religions cropped up, inspired by the invisible electric currents powering scientific developments. If we could summon light and sound by unseen forces, what other invisible specters lurked beneath the surface of everyday life?

The casualties of the U.S. Civil War gave birth to new spiritual practices, including contacting the dead through spirit photography and the telegraph dial. Practices like table rapping used fairly low-tech objects — walls, tables — as conduits to the spirit realm, where ghosts would tap out responses. The rapping noise was reminiscent of Morse code, leading to comparisons with the telegraph. In fact, in 1854, a U.S. senator campaigned for a scientific commission that would establish a “spiritual telegraph” between our world and the spiritual world. (He was unsuccessful.)

William Mumler’s practice of spirit photography is perhaps better known. Mumler claimed that he could photograph a dead relative or loved one when photographing a living subject. His most famous photograph depicts the widowed Mary Todd Lincoln with the shadowy image of her decreased husband holding her shoulder. Though widely debunked as a fraud, the practice itself continued on, even earning a book written in its defense by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. 

Similar investigations into otherworldly communication and esoteric knowledge would be mainstreamed after World War I, bolstered by the creation of the radio and wireless telegraphy. Amid a boom in table rapping, spirit photography, and the host of usual suspects, Thomas Edison spoke openly about his hopes to create a machine, based on early gramophones, to communicate with the dead, specifically referencing the work of mediums and spiritualists. Radio, in particular, provided a new way to think about the physical and spiritual worlds, with its language of tuning in, channels, frequencies, and wavelengths still employed today…(More)”.