Most of us are familiar with the “War of the Currents,” famously fought between scientists Thomas Edison and Nikola Tesla. History tells us that Tesla prevailed over his rival and former boss, ensuring that alternating current would be the standard over Edison’s favored direct current. The fight was bitter, and as we know, it led to a lifetime rivalry between the two men. However, what is lesser known is their bizarre competition to contact the dead.

In 1901, Tesla was working late in his lab one night, experimenting with a crystal radio. Suddenly, he was interrupted by strange, disembodied voices, seemingly being received by his device. He noted the event in his diary:

“My first observations positively terrified me, as there was present in them something mysterious, not to say supernatural, and I was alone in my laboratory at night.”   

In 1918, while experimenting with a similar radio, Tesla heard the voices again. The phenomenon intrigued him, though he was unable to explain it. He felt that the voices were indeed human, though speaking a language he had never heard before. Tesla stopped short of declaring that he had contacted the other side, feeling that there had to be a more rational explanation. 

This, however, did not deter Edison. When news of Tesla’s experiments reached him, he decided to beat his old rival to the prize and began working on his own device to communicate with the great beyond. Soon after, in 1920, the Spirit Phone was invented. In a 1920 article in an interview with The American Magazine, Edison wrote:

“I have been at work for some time building an apparatus to see if it is possible for personalities which have left this Earth to communicate with us.” 

Edison’s method was distinctly different than Tesla’s “Spirit Radio”. His theory borrowed heavily from Einstein’s Theory of Special Relativity. He thought that if matter cannot be destroyed, only changed into energy; then maybe he could detect that energy. Also, assuming that “energy” retained some semblance of cognizance, he should be able to perceive patterns as it interacted with other energy. 

Later that year, he invited press members, spiritualists, and mediums, to demonstrate his invention. The device was similar to a projector, casting a beam of light against a screen. According to Edison, the device was sensitive enough to detect the presence of objects too small for the human eye to observe. The mediums were instructed to make contact with people who had passed on, including one of Edison’s own assistants. Apparently, he and his assistant had made a pact; whichever passed first, the other would try and contact them in the afterlife. 

Despite the mediums confirming the presence of spirits from beyond, the machine failed to record any proof of it. The device was never tested publicly again. Beyond his comments in the magazine and a few other scant references, no record of Edison’s Spirit Phone exists today in patent, design, or prototype. Most experts, including Edison’s estate, deny the device was ever created. 

Tesla, however, did complete his device. We know this because he filed a patent for it. In fact, if you’re interested, you can order the parts to build your own for about $25. Did Tesla speak to the dead with his Spirit Radio? Unlikely. What Tesla heard on his radio were very low-frequency radio waves that, while undoubtedly unsettling, are perfectly explainable. Unfortunately for Tesla, they would not be fully understood until nearly 20 years after his death. That said, when put in context with Tesla’s contemporary writing, it was doubtful he believed the voices were those of the dead; rather, they were more likely the communications of other worlds, possibly even Mars.