The Integration of Science and the Supernatural in the 19th Century

by SC


“Every age, and not just the modern age, has felt the need to make its religious beliefs comport somehow with the best scientific and philosophical learning of its day.”

– Thomas Laquer (2006)

Karl Marx famously stated that urbanisation rescued people from the “idiocy of rural life”, this quote alludes to the widely held belief that as technology progresses, it immediately results in the embrace of scientific rationality. Part of the reason why this is such a popular belief stems from the desire of 21st century historians to perceive themselves as technologically advance and thus dismissing any possible connections with the ‘primitive’.

The ‘Long Nineteenth Century’ (1789-1914) as coined by Eric Hobsbawm, was a period where modernity’s arrival was hailed by a mass of new inventions, but also a time where science managed to seeped into the psyche of the public and did no just exist in the minds of intellectuals. The abundance of scientific breakthroughs created an environment where people were beginning to challenge ingrained beliefs: Science and the supernatural were two competing parties trying to establish their influence in the battlefield of academia. Ironically, despite their competitive nature towards each other, both parties were often reactionary to the rising beliefs in the ‘opposition’s’ field of knowledge. Whilst possibly difficult to grasp in today’s context where popular culture portrays science and the supernatural as polar opposites; many technological inventions were seen as methods to tap into the supernatural. The 19th century within the western world was a time where science and the supernatural became intertwined and arguably reliant upon each other.

The new inventions which owed their existence to the industrial revolution and progress within the realms of science were (paradoxically) used by spiritualist as evidence of a world beyond the material. William Henry Harrison, the founder-editor of the Spiritualist proposed that thermometers and ultra-red illumination could be used to measure the spiritual activity in séances. In 1875, Harrison advocated the use of photographs as evidence; “We spiritualist would then be able to go to the scientific world and say… these flames can now be photographed… by the process which is laid before you”. The consistent desire to be validated as a legitimate in the eyes of already established fields, reflects how deeply 19th century spiritualism wanted to be accepted by science as a valid inquiry of the world.

Machines which were capable of recording sounds, capturing photos or typing were perceived as eerie by a majority of the 19th century audience, with such functions transgressing over the line of the supernatural. This equipment evoked the uncanny valley because it blurred what was once rigid lines between the animate and inanimate. Thomas Edison himself saw these new technologies as ways to tap into the occult since the machines seemed to be alive or extensions of the human conscious. Interestingly, new technologies were seen as steps towards a Utopian future and there was a growing movement which attempted to harness the power of spirits as an inexhaustible source of energy. Just as the steam engine had completely transformed the western world and created capitalism as a byproduct; controlling these supernatural forces were simply a new step in the evolution of mankind and its technological wonders . It can be argued these avenues of the supernatural were only opened up with the introduction of new technologies on the market. Due to humanity’s obsession to identify the supernatural in everyday life, it is not surprising that slowly such machinery came to embody some paranormal characteristics.

The practice of ‘typtology’ which developed quickly in the 19th century was heavily influenced by the invention of the electrical telegraph: Coincidentally the ‘Hydesville rappings’ only occurred four years after the first successful telegraph connection between Washington and Baltimore was established. In fact, often spiritualists were described as simple relays along a communication system with spirits, such imagery obviously pays homage towards the invention and popularisation of long distance communication. Likewise the many references to spiritualist as ‘celestial’ telegraphs evoke the image of a supernatural current transitioning between the medium and the occult in a similar fashion to electricity. This wording may have been deliberate to make their philosophies more understandable to the average laymen, however it does also reflect how many spiritualist often adopt the vocabulary and products of their scientific ‘rivals’.

The spiritualist community also quickly embraced the type writer as a new method of interacting with the occult. Whilst the 21st century audience may see this machine as a tool to inscribe words onto a piece of paper, two centuries ago it signalled the unnatural severing of the author from the physical act of writing. This distinction between authors and (type) writers was due to the fact that a finalised text did not carry the characteristics of an individual’s handwriting. Thus typewriters were eventually seen as people who were tapping into the thoughts of the author or simply possessed by the machine itself. Slowly this idea of possession began to develop supernatural connotations and this is reflected in how the noun ‘typewriter’ was used in the 19th century. Madame Blavatsky, the founder of Theosophy was often referred to as a ‘human typewriter’ due to her ability to channel the supernatural when writing and explaining her beliefs. Blavatsky dismissed claims of plagiarism by stating that all her writing had been done in a state of trance, and thus her body was simply a tool for channeling invisible forces. Likewise, mediums who used spiritual rappings and table tipping were often called typters, which roughly translates to ‘I strike’ in Greek. It is from this origin that the words ‘typist’ and ‘typing’ developed. The act of tapping found in the Morse code and typewriting were seen as physical and technological ways to invite spiritual possession by severing the ‘natural’ connection between the eye and writing.

Interestingly, as psychology became more of a respected field of knowledge, slowly it was able to strip away the supernatural associations of automatic writing. Both F. W. H Myer and Edmun Gurney were intensely motivated in proving that mediums who would produce writing or quotes during a trance, were simply tapping in their subconscious past, in a Freudian manner. Interestingly, both men attempted to discredit automatic writing because they believed the notion of an eternal spirit and afterlife was threatened by the popularisation of medium possession, which proposed a more fluid image of identity. New scientific inventions allowed spiritualist the opportunity to appropriate new tools into their repertoire, but evolving fields of science was also eventually responsible for stripping away the occult associations of type writing.

The commercialisation of electricity and its incorporation into all levels of society played a fundamental role in changing how the supernatural developed in the 19th century to today’s understanding of the paranormal. This was most famously reflected in the novel of Frankenstein, as electricity was regarded as the most basic and fundamental component of life. Shelley, inspired by her husband’s fascination with mesmerism, captured the growing public’s unease and fascination concerning the manipulating of electricity to create life and to interact with the dead. Mesmerism, which quickly became embedded into the consciousness of the public discourse and imagination was built upon many new scientific discoveries. It could be argued that the technological advances of the 19th century were not only a contributing factor to mesmerism’s doctrines, but rather it created a context where a belief system which frequently mixed technology and pseudoscience could thrive.

Mesmerism stood as a direct challenged to the traditional pillars of the medical community, proposing that the building of rapport and the interactions of two minds was able to overcome illness. This was in opposition to the general direction of the scientific community in the 19th century, which had turned towards an increasingly materialistic outlook on life. A notion which would only become more ingrained with the publication of On the Origin of Species. Franz Anton Mesmer a frequent user of magnets and electricity, attributed his medical successes to his ability to form an electrical conduit between himself and his patient. Even when the notion of electricity as the ‘essence of life’ was challenged by the emerging scientific discoveries, the mesmer community simply embraced ‘od’ or ‘odyle’ forces; a form of transparent magnetic fluid (Noakes, 2012). The key point isn’t whether or not 19th century spiritualism used these terms and descriptions in a ‘scientifically’ accurate way. But rather, by absorbing this scientific jargon into their terminology, it reflected a desire to legitimise their dogma in the eyes of their ‘rivals’, but also a wish to drop the connotations of irrationality which had long been a stigma on the occult. Mesmerism’s challenge to science during the nineteenth century is one of many attempts by supernatural ideologies to gain ground in the battle for how one perceived the world. Interestingly enough, mesmers relied and embraced new technologies so much, that they frequently accused scientist of being blind and dismissive to new avenues of thought, and readily referred to themselves as the ‘true scientist’.

Practitioners of mesmerism also regularly incorporated phrenology into their consultations with their patients. The belief that the brain was an organ with different areas which would trigger a certain response when touched was directly linked to the imagery of a machine. More tellingly is that the brain was often referred to as a ‘galvanic battery’ during the 19th century, and altered states of reality was believed to occur if too much blood (a metaphor for electric) was sent to the head. The rise of supernatural arts that was heavily intertwined with the latest scientific research shows that technological progress does not automatically equal to a decrease in superstition. This is because unlike religion or science, which carries with it a structured view of the universe, magic and technology are simply tools which make no such grandiose claims.

The rise of photography within the 19th century was not just influenced by the growing movement of spiritualism, but arguably its rising popularity was indebted to its supernatural associations. Much like the typewriter, a camera blurred the line between life and death, seemingly without a conscious, yet able to do things (such as recording sound or images) which previously only humans could perform. Spiritual photography worked under the assumption that the person in front of the camera was able to ‘mediumise’ the equipment in order to capture the unseen supernatural forces around them. As the theories and arguments for Darwinism and positivism seeped into the public conscious, this produced a yearning for the assurance of an afterlife. Spiritualist responded to this sentiment, and regularly attacked science as being harshly dismissive of personal spiritual experiences, all the while using tools of science to argue their position. This shift towards a supernatural which was more focused within the individual’s personal experience, can also be viewed as a response to the rise in technology capable of recording evidence. Thus, possibly this trend towards ‘smaller’ and more ‘personal’ interactions with the paranormal might have been a natural shift to legitimise the supernatural in the face of increasing demands of evidence.

Whilst it may seem like the relationship between the ‘spiritual photographer’ and the subject is unfair; since one is actively exchanging falsely created goods for money. Often, both parties were active participants in this lie; William Stainton Moses, a famous paranormal investigator commented that people regularly mistook a “broom as their dearly departed”. Similarly, even after William Hope, a famous spiritual photographer was proven to be a fraud, he still continued working as a photographer and a medium; as he was financially and publicly supported by his loyal fans. Science and emerging technologies were not so much the counter to ‘irrational’ ideas, but instead, simply gave 19th century citizens the opportunity to validate their attachments to the supernatural through modern methods.

Thomas Edison (a firm believer in the supernatural) famously remarked that death, “the final frontier”, was being opened out through the invention and commericalisation of new technologies. Likewise the industrial revolution gave Britain (and the rest of the western sphere) an opportunity to close the frontier between the east and west. Thus producing the great paradox of colonisation, whilst Anglo-Saxon culture was elevated to the most dominant position, it was not left ‘untarnished’ and was also transformed by its contact with foreign cultures. This absorption of eastern occultism was reflected in popular literature, with Dracula standing as a symbol of an ancient eastern evil unleashed upon the civilised (and unprepared) Anglo-Saxon societies. Similarly, Indian marijuana was used by the fictional protagonist John Silence in order to tap into the supernatural vibrations of his surroundings. This signified a shift in the perception of the supernatural; the west began to see itself as a piece in the global search for the paranormal and thus adopted other beliefs and rituals.

As science began to chip away at the vast distances and times between nations; linking once distance lands with the west, this resulted in the questioning of previously ‘unquestionable’ beliefs. Inspired by her understanding of eastern spirituality, Madame Blavatsky the founder of Theosophy, challenged the moral and religious authority of the Church as she claimed that she alone held the Truth, given to her through the Great White Brotherhood. Blavatsky’s willingness to challenge such an established pillar on conventionally accepted doctrines shows how technology and the freedom of movement provided citizens a chance to escape ‘pre-destined’ roles; making identity a more fluid conception. The supernatural greatly benefited the growing globalisation of the world through technologies like the railway and the telephone. It allowed the supernatural in the west to absorb and adopt a lot of foreign beliefs and practices, enlarging the circumference of what one perceived as the occult and also offering a refreshing breath of creativity into this field.

Modern historians have largely ignored the supernatural in their construction of history, anachronistically deeming it as primitive and incompatible with a ‘Whigsian’ approach to history. Much like the academics in the Renaissance, there is a sense of discomfort, in relation to just how deeply entrenched the supernatural was during a time of supposed ‘modernisation’. The view that the supernatural (something which dealt completely with emotions and personal experiences) and technology (something built on measured science and rationality) were polar opposites is an overly simplistic view which fails to look at how the supernatural still continues to absorb new technologies into its realms. It is because 19th century spiritualism shared so much in common with established sciences, that it was often hard for practitioners of either field to proper investigate and properly distinguish between each other.

Emma Hardringe Britten, a famous Victorian spiritualist, stated that spiritual science was merely the next step in the intellectual ‘progress of the human race’, echoing a sentiment which a majority of supernatural practitioners would have agreed with. Though, ironically, it is telling that her quote obviously alludes to both evolutionary theory and the survival of the fittest; the cutting edge of scientific thought. By describing the rise of her discipline in relation to the static older sciences, Britten is unconsciously exposing how deeply intertwined the destinies of scientific advancement and the supernatural was in the long 19th century.


… Science will continue to be colonized by spiritualists and other religious groups seeking to assert what they know, intuitively and spiritually, to be true, for in spiritualist perceptions, truth and science are inextricably linked

– Jennifer E. Porter (2005)