Friday, November 16, 2012

Genius in a Bottle: Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, Ghosts, and Genies

Slate has a new feature that might be of some interest to Renfusa-heads: it's called The Vault and it looks at strange artifacts from out of history. Today's is a test tube reputed to hold Thomas Edison's last breath. The test tube was given to Henry Ford by Edison's son. (By the way, is it any great shock that two of the most colossal assholes of America's golden age of inventing formed a mutual admiration society?) Most likely the test tube was just hanging out in the room with Edison's death bed, but check out THIS [citation needed] action from the Slate article right here:
Some writers have hypothesized that Ford believed he could preserve Edison’s soul in a test tube for future resurrection. Given Ford’s love of exacting recreations, and belief in reincarnation, this speculation almost seems plausible.
To be fair, both Edison and Ford were holders of any number of strange occult beliefs, and to be honest that part of this story doesn't really interest me. Where I want to wander is this idea of catching a last breath in a bottle and this breath somehow holding a soul or ghost.

The association of breath with spirit is baked into the meaning of the word; the association is ancient and well-attested. And the idea of the spirit escaping with the final breath is just as old: Ovid tells us of Cephalus who accidentally killed his wife Procris and then took her final breath on his lips (inspiration, it seems, for at least three Shakespeare tropes).

But when did people start trapping last breaths in bottles or at the very least faking such? Those of us who are Tim Powers fans will recognize and appreciate the trope, and probably did as soon as they saw this post was about Edison's ghost; huffing and consuming ghosts is probably one of Powers's biggest contributions to postmodern occult lore. And while it seems like trapping final breaths would be a fairly common Victorian pasttime given the era's peculiar obsession with the leavings of the dead, it seems Edison's half-scientific, half-occult relic is the primary example of this.

But here's an interesting correspondence. What sort of spirit is most often associated with being trapped in a bottle? Djinn, of course. What do djinn have to do with ghosts, or the dead? Well, when it comes to out-and-out trickery, plenty, according to medieval Islamic thinker Ibn Taymiyyah:
Ibn Taymiyyah believes that the jinn account for much of the "magic" perceived by humans, cooperating with magicians to lift items in the air unseen, delivering hidden truths to fortune tellers, and mimicking the voices of deceased humans during seances.
And so we come full circle; Edison's ghost, a phantasm conjured by Henry Ford's fond wish to keep his friend alive, is a con game as old as the fake medium. Not that Edison would've known anything about that.


  1. Imma let you get back to Ford and Edison, but I can't help but notice on The Vault: if scroll down a few from the vial, down to Benedict Arnold's oath-- the space is kept blank so the person can either, I assume, swear to or affirm the oath.

    Huh. I thought the founding fathers were all Christian? I thought our great nation's slide into secularism (i.e. moral turpitude) was a recent development? Do you mean to tell me the history I've been reading in Texas-approved text books and Conservopedia is wrong? ;p

  2. What's funny is I was just talking about this last night. With all the Quakers in the Colonies who couldn't swear oaths, there always had to be a provision for "affirming" in all Colonial and early American legal proceedings: