Morse Code, Poltergeists and Spritualism in 19th century America.


After convincing congress to plow $30,000 into his project, Morse strung up a wire between Baltimore and Washington D.C. The first official message careened along that Baltimore-D.C line in 1844, and it was a strangely oracular pronouncement. “what hath god wrought!” this bit of scripture was suggested by daughter of the U.S, commissioner of patents, though Morse himself surely concurred with the sentiment; besides being the son of a staunch evangelist, he would later transfer a good portion of his considerable fortune to churches, seminaries and missionary societies.
Still the first telegraphed message reads as mush like an anxious question as a cry of glee, and today we know the answer: What God, wrought or rather, what men wrought in their God aping mode, was the information age.
Morse’s system was not just electrical (and hence, effectively instantaneous); it was Digital. The electric current that ran along telegraph wire was itself an analogue medium, flowing in the undulating waves that every where weave the world. But by regularly breaking and re-establishing this flow with a simple switch, and by establishing a code to interpret the resulting patterns of pulses, Morse chopped the analogue dance into discrete digital units, dots and dashes that signified. But what really defines the telegraph as the as the first neural net of the information age was how rapidly it infiltrated and changed the world, especially the exuberantly industrialising United States .
Pg 70-71
TechGnosis – Myth and Mysticism in the age of Information Erik Davis Serpent’s Tail; New edition edition (12 Nov 2004)

In 1848, the Fox family started hearing creepy knocks and mysterious thumpings in their humble, Hydesdale, cottage in upstate New-York. Such eerie rappings pop – up regularly within folk lore, and they are usually attributed to the poltergeists still tracked by contemporary ghost busters. But the three sisters did something unprecedented in annals of strange phenomena; they started rapping back.
To improve communication, the sisters convinced the spirit – supposedly a murdered peddler whose bones lay under their home – to respond to their queries with a simple code.. One knock for yes, two knocks for no – a spectral echo of the dots and dashes then hurling through wires across the land. The cottage in Hydesdale was the launching pad for Spiritualism, a modern quasi religion of necromantic information exchange that would grow so popular as to pose a genuine threat to mainstream Christianity. By the 1870s, there were approximately eleven million spiritualists in the United States and countless more across the globe.
Pg 74 TechGnosis – Myth and Mysticism in the age of Information Erik Davis Serpent’s Tail; New edition edition (12 Nov 2004)


One thought on “Morse Code, Poltergeists and Spritualism in 19th century America.

  1. What interests me about this link between telecommunication, and spiritualism, is the obvious connection, in the popular imagination,
    and how rarely the two are related in social theory/history.
    It easy to understand how the introduction of telecommunication must have caused an extremely shocking and mind-blowing re-evaluation of how people of that time thought of space-time and distance. The achievements of telecommunications networks and direct communication with people who would otherwise have been days away, must have seem like something fantasticical and almost supernatural in itself, it must have then been quite feasable to extend this technological undermining of distance into considerations of a similar bypassing of time and body so that communications with dimensions beyond the physical world are possible. I find this really interesting, and think it is worth considering to what extent technology still contains an inherent supernatural wonder within the popular imagination.

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