A Mind Reading Machine:
The Transmitter of Thought

Drawing of a device called the 'Transmitter of Thought,' a mind-reading device said to have been invented by Estelle True-Nell and built by Mr. Thomas Edison.
She is the inventor of a small peculiar instrument called the transmitter of thought. It was constructed for her by Mr. Edison.
- St. Joseph Gazette (St. Joseph, Missouri), 9 November 1890.

With it your life is like an open book

In the early 1890s, Estelle True-Nell advertised the use of a Transmitter of Thought in her practice as a scientific life reader. Estelle and others like her claimed that this device would allow them to identify and reveal the subject that was foremost on your mind.

To learn more, listen to this episode of How to Be Estelle. You'll find more information and a transcript below.

Transcript for Transmitter of Thought

[00:00:00] Narrator: Estelle True-Nell was a remarkable woman. Our modern era has forgotten her, and I think that's too bad. I'd like to introduce you to her amazing life, one career at a time. Along the way, we might pick up a tip or two for ourselves, as we learn How to Be Estelle.

[00:00:25] Narrator: Estelle enhanced her services as a scientific life reader with the use of several technologies. In addition to the Cleopatra Amulet and the Magic Mirror, she sometimes claimed to have a device called the Transmitter of Thought. "With it," said one newspaper, "your life is like an open book." An 1892 ad said,

[00:00:45] Newspaper: "This person is in possession of a transmitter of thought which conveys the subject foremost on your mind to the seer, and with the remarkable faculty of far sight seeing, can clearly see what the end will be at the beginning."

[00:00:58] Narrator: To see what the end will be at the beginning is something that audiences craved at the end of the 19th century, and it's still something we long for today.

[00:01:08] Narrator: The Transmitter of Thought was used in both private consultations and as part of public lectures. Here's an account from the South Bend, Indiana Tribune in May 1891. Although the performer isn't named, I really believe this is Estelle:

[00:01:22] Newspaper: "We received a call from the manager or advance agent of a very popular mindreader and forecaster, whose notices will appear in our columns tomorrow. Arrangements are being made to have this lady deliver her famous lecture on the "Science of transmission of thought." As we understand it she has an instrument by which she can tell what is foremost in your mind and in connection with it she meteorizes in her magic mirror what she sees for you. The lady will give private readings while arrangements are being made for her lecture. Watch for the notices."

[00:01:53] Narrator: Also from the South Bend Tribune later that month:

[00:01:57] Newspaper: "The subject is a new one (transmission of thought) and promises to furnish wholesome food for reflection. It has been well attended wherever delivered and the comments of the papers have been such as every lecturer would feel proud of. This peculiar gifted lady seems well prepared for this special business, as she owns the instrument made especially for her by Mr. Edison which will be used to illustrate how this work can be done. Her emblematic reading is wonderful. The magic mirror will be showed and explained, and many illustrations will be given."

[00:02:28] Narrator: This "gifted lady" went on to lecture and consult in Wisconsin, Kansas City, and other parts of the Midwest in 1891 and 1892.

[00:02:37] Narrator: There was public interest in how the transmission of thought might work. The St. Joseph, Missouri Gazette described it in an article on Theosophy. According to the paper, another lecturer ". . . regarded the transmission of thought from one to another as no more marvelous than that of electricity." Of course, you could argue that electricity in the 1880s was still pretty marvelous. So, how does transmission of thought happen? According to the paper, "The process depends on tension. Those having a large degree of nervous force can project their thought into another mind."

[00:03:14] Narrator: It could be useful to be able to convert a large degree of nervous force into something like transmission of thought, but I do think it might be better for our world if that doesn't happen.

[00:03:25] Narrator: Estelle was certainly not the first or the only person to work with the transmission of thought.

[00:03:32] Narrator: In the Midwest in the late 1880s, Professor J. Randall Brown and his wife, Lillie May Brown, gave exhibitions of "mental telegraphy and refined spiritualistic phenomena." Lillie was billed as a materializing medium, and Randall performed the "photographic impression," in which a volunteer on stage pictured in his mind a friend who was in the audience, and Randall, blindfolded, would describe the person being pictured. Then, he'd remove his blindfold, go out into the audience, and identify the person. The Kansas City Times said that this "feat was much applauded."

[00:04:08] Narrator: The Browns' version of the Transmitter was described by the Evansville, Indiana Courier like this in April 1891:

[00:04:15] Newspaper: "Another wonderful test was reading a person's mind over a wire. One gentleman went into the gallery and another stood on the stage and Professor Brown successfully read their thoughts by means of the wire. This part of the exhibition was alone worth the price of admission."

[00:04:31] Narrator: Newspaper ads showing an illustration of the Transmitter of Thought depicted it as two solid handles connected by a thick rope or wire -- a lot like a jump rope, to be honest. Those illustrations usually included a label claiming the Transmitter to be one of only three in the country, and most ads marked the device as "Edison's Latest."

[00:04:52] Narrator: Edison's Latest? That was the claim. The South Bend Tribune said,

[00:04:58] Newspaper: "Her gift of second sight seems to be well developed, and she achieves wonderful results. Mr. Thomas Edison made at her order a transmitter of thought, and this aids her very much. We understand her callers are of the best class. Her charges are somewhat higher than the ordinary clairvoyant or fortune teller, but she is very reliable in all her predictions."

[00:05:21] Narrator: Of course, with an Edison-made mind-reading machine, one could charge somewhat more. But Edison, really? Was that even possible? Well, a newspaper report from Ohio in 1889 described Edison's thoughts about electricity, and as part of that article, it did say this:

[00:05:41] Newspaper: "Edison also says he thinks it possible to construct a machine that will enable one person to read the thoughts of another by the use of this same mysterious and marvelous natural force, and it is not safe to dispute him or he might invent it."

[00:05:55] Narrator: Both Estelle and a clairvoyant named Mrs. Dr. De San advertised themselves as the inventor of the Transmitter of Thought. Someone made Edison aware of the advertising, and in December 1890, his attorneys, Eaton and Lewis, took action. They reported to Edison,

[00:06:12] Attorneys: "In accordance with your instructions we wrote to Mrs. Dr. de San of St. Paul, Minn., the woman who advertised a certain 'Mind Reading' machine and used your name in connection therewith, directing her to discontinue doing so, or to take the consequences."

[00:06:26] Narrator: The letter worked. They reported,

[00:06:29] Attorneys: "We have received a letter from her under date of the 11th of this month in which she states that she will discontinue using your name at once, and apologises for what she calls her thought-less act."

[00:06:38] Narrator: So, the Edison claim seems pretty unlikely. Mrs. Dr. De San did stop using Edison's name and the image of the Transmitter in her advertising. An unnamed clairvoyant (who may have been Estelle) did advertise an Edison-branded transmitter in 1892, as did a Mrs. Dr. DeRaee. If there really were three Transmitters in the U.S. at that time, that would explain the other two, but it seems Edison and his attorneys weren't aware of either of them.

[00:07:07] Narrator: Transmission of thought hit a bumpy road after that. An 1891 article titled, "Mind-Reader Brown Exposed" reported that J. Randall Brown and his wire transmitter broke down in Davenport, Iowa.

[00:07:21] Newspaper: "He undertook to read the mind of Mayor Ficke, of this city, while separated from him by the whole length of the opera house, the means of communication being a wire which each of them was to hold to his head."

[00:07:34] Narrator: Several attempts failed, and, the paper reported,

[00:07:38] Newspaper: "The audience made things very warm for the man on the stage for a few moments and then the performance came to a close."

[00:07:45] Narrator: By the spring of 1892, Estelle does seem to have stopped advertising tools like the Transmitter, and she even describes them at one point as

[00:07:54] Estelle: "nonsensical contrivances designed to entrap the unwary."

[00:07:59] Narrator: She does continue to describe the transmission of thought itself. In 1893 in a wonderful ad titled Know Thy Destiny, she speculates:

[00:08:09] Estelle: "We are on the dawn of a new era in which we are beginning to develop a new instinct, a sixth sense as it were, through which we will be enabled to flash our thoughts instantaneously into each other's minds indifferent to time, space, and atmosphere, and eventually discarding our present imperfect form of SPEECH for this new method of communication-- 'TRANSMISSION OF THOUGHT' by absorption, by intuition, by an instinct we will be guided by, though perhaps not understand."

[00:08:36] Narrator: Isn't she great? I will have more thoughts to beam out to you next time, as we continue to learn How to Be Estelle.

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