Iain Spillman – guest blog

Oliver_Joseph_Lodge3  Oliver Lodge (1851-1940)

Researching Oliver Lodge at the BT Archives

By Iain Spillman

During my research in the BT archives in Holborn, one of the most interesting finds was a long out of print biography of Sir Oliver Lodge.  The 1974 book by W.P. Jolly, Sir Oliver Lodge: Psychical Researcher and Scientist, sat uneasily among the heavily-bound volumes of technical and engineering data and aroused further curiosity as its title gives precedence to Lodge’s spiritualist interests, particularly telepathy, over his considerable contributions to telecommunications through electromagnetism and radio.

The concepts of extending telegraphic techniques to vision and to thought had been established since the telephone’s invention. Even Alexander Graham Bell had asked, ‘what is to prevent someone from discovering a way of thinking at a distance by electricity?’[1] While many, such as William Henry Preece, Engineer-in-Chief of the British General Post Office, dismissed Lodge’s logic as ‘fanciful speculation,’ telephony and telepathy remained culturally intertwined.[2] Both Lodge’s career and work reflected this association perfectly. Not only was he the second person ever to send a radio signal (after Tesla and before Marconi) but also became President of The Society for Psychical Research, succeeding Frederic W.H. Myers in 1901.

Lodge immediately introduced a rigorous scientific methodology to the Society’s experiments, principally in applying the same telegraphic logic that isolated a ‘wanted message amongst a background of electronic noise which is always received with any signal.’[3]  In psychical research, two different mediums (‘automatists’) provide scripts that are individually insignificant but achieve meaning when compared by ‘interpreters’ who search for the correspondence.[4] Jolly’s account of the experiment reveals that two of the ‘automatists’ originally participated under pseudonyms. ‘Mrs. Willett’ was a Mrs. Tennent and was related by marriage to Myers while ‘Mrs. Holland’ was an alias for Rudyard Kipling’s sister, Trix.[5] The timings of Lodge’s presidency, the Society’s experiments in ‘cross-correspondences’, and the publication of Rudyard Kipling’s ‘Wireless’ in 1902 have already been noted  by Laurence Davis in his essay, ‘Science and Technology: Present, Past and Future’ but does not ‘claim that Kipling was influenced by Lodge, or that Lodge equated wireless transmission with spiritualism.’[6]

While it has been acknowledged that Lodge held Trix Kipling in high regard as a medium any further compulsion to speculate upon her influence should be resisted without reference to Rudyard Kipling’s earlier texts.[7] The Society for Psychical Research had come to Kipling’s attention the previous decade as he mentions it in his short story, ‘The Dreitarbund’ (1887). Here, the three principal characters (Houligan, Marlowe and Bressil) feign receiving telepathic messages in order to win the hands in marriage of Miss Norris, Miss Emmett and Miss Yaulton. Their scheme is prompted by the book Phantasms of the Living (1896), written by S.P.R. members Myers, Edmund Gurney and Frank Podmore, (the latter, at the time, held a senior post within the British General Post Office).  Kipling appears not consider the ideas of ‘thought transference, brain-waves, percipients and people of that kind’ too seriously as he concludes the story by asking, ‘if the Psychical Research Society pops a good notion into your head, why on earth shouldn’t you work it out?’[8]

The publication of ‘The Finest Story in the World’ in 1891 sees Kipling more receptive to the possibility of telepathic communication, particularly when it involves the creative process of writing. In the text, an unimaginative bank clerk, Charlie Mears, has ambitions to be a writer and asks the story’s narrator for advice. Mears is able to give lucid accounts of sea voyages in the ancient world, the increasingly intricate detail of which convinces the narrator that Mears is not creating these stories but remembering past lives. However, the narrator is prompted to curse ‘all the poets in England’ as they draw Mears from ‘direct narrative’ by spurring ‘him to imitate them,’ the result of which is described by Kipling as ‘a confused tangle of other voices most like the muttered song through a City telephone in the busiest park of the day.’[9] ‘The Finest Story in the World’ certainly appears to be the foundation of ‘Wireless.’ Here, the dead John Keats is apparently summoned by the chemist’s assistant Shaynor acting as the medium, or perhaps the ‘automatist’? While the narrator (again, anonymous and maybe unreliable as in ‘The Finest Story in The World’), who had arrived at the shop to witness a telegraphic experiment, acts as the observer or ‘interpreter’.

While there appears to be a correlation between the detail of ‘Wireless’ and Sir Oliver Lodge’s experiments, the extent of any influence can only be determined through further detailed investigation of The Society for Psychical Research’s work and additional research into Kipling’s life and writing.

[1] Moffet, Cleveland, ‘The Edge of the Future: An Interview with Professor Alexander Graham Bell’, McClure’s Magazine, 1, 1 (June, 1893), 39-43 (p.41).

[2] Preece, William Henry, ‘Electricity in the Service of Man’, Blackfriars: The Post Office Magazine, January 1989, 1-7 (p.2).

[3] Jolly, W.P., Sir Oliver Lodge: Psychical Researcher and Scientist (London: Constable, 1974), p. 167.

[4] Jolly, Lodge, pp.167-8.

[5] Jolly, Lodge, p.168.

[6] Davis, Laurence, ‘Science and Technology: Present, Past and Future’, in The Cambridge Companion to Rudyard Kipling, ed. by Howard J. Booth (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011), pp. 52-63 (p. 60).

[7] Lee, Lorna, Trix: Kipling’s Forgotten Sister (Peterborough: Pond View, 2011), p.57.

[8] Kipling, Rudyard, ‘The Dreitarbund’ [1887], in Rudyard Kipling’s Tales of Horror and Fantasy (Cambridge: Pegasus, 2011, pp. 99-103 (pp.100,103).

[9] Kipling, Rudyard, ‘The Finest Story in the World’, The Contemporary Review, Jul 1, 1891, 60, 9-31(pp.15-16).


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