Ham Radio Operators of the Spirit World.
People have always sought to communicate with beings that exist beyond the boundaries of ordinary human experience. The question of whether there is actually anybody at the other end of the line is a modern one, and was largely moot until the last few centuries or so. Organised religions evolved formal, public, and highly bureaucratic institutions to govern and regulate our relations with the denizens of the Otherworld. Most of these institutions begin with personal, direct ecstatic experience, but gradually calcify into dogmatic organisations whose function is more political than visionary. Religion begins with some solitary, fool-hardly ape plucking up the courage to step off the beaten path and touch the Monolith; with some ecstatic, bedraggled madman discussing celestial geometry with angels in a cave. After this initial experience, a belief system is codified, an institution emerges around it, and the religious experience itself is diluted into a set of dogmas and ritual observances. Perhaps one of the reasons why faith is such an important concept to religious institutions is because the last thing they want is for people to figure out that they can go into the cave and attempt to talk to the gods and angels themselves – taking responsibility for their own religious convictions, and effectively cutting out the middlemen. Nevertheless, a tension runs throughout the history of religion between these two very different ideas of religion – between religion as a hierarchically controlled public dogma, and religion as personal, direct experience.
No matter how dominant the public institutional face of religion has been, it has never fully deterred the gnostic impulse to experience the divine directly. Like Ham Radio Operators of the spirit world, there have always been certain individuals who seek to storm heaven, and question the ancestors, angels, and gods for themselves. To achieve this, history is scattered with stories of people who have used whatever technologies were available to them – often their own minds and bodies – to establish a channel of communication with higher intelligences. Of these countless tales, few are as entertainingly offbeat as that of John Murray Spear, a reformist and former minister of the Universalist church of America, whose contacts in the spirit world instructed him to construct an unfathomable machine called the New Motive Power – an engine designed to somehow incarnate the divine in the everyday material world, and usher in a utopian era on earth. To avoid subjecting the reader to undue suspense, it can be freely acknowledged at this point in the yarn that the machine didn’t quite work.
Spear was born in Boston in 1804, and baptised into the Universalist church by one of its American founders, Spear’s namesake John Murray. Universalism is chiefly distinguished from the mainstream of Christian theology by a very reasonable supposition: that a truly loving God would never construct the world as a complex form of entrapment designed to ferret out sinners, and subject them to eternal damnation. Hence, the Universalist Church advocated the doctrine of universal salvation: the idea that everybody, ultimately, would be redeemed, saved, and lead to the eternal bliss of heaven. To such a viewpoint, the entire universe itself was a kind of alchemical engine, slowly tending towards the ultimate perfection and harmonization of all its individual parts. This optimistic, avowedly utopian vision of nature clearly had a profound impact on John Murray Spear, who became a minister of the church at the age of 24. From the very beginning of his career, Spear involved himself courageously in the crucible of progressive, reformist politics of the 19th century. He was outspoken in his support of women’s rights and the abolition of slavery, a stance that resulted in him losing several of his church posts, and being beaten senseless by an angry mob in Portland, Maine in 1844.
In 1947, the flying saucer arrived in the skies of America to fertilize the imagination of its gnostic underbelly with a new model for otherworldly contact. In 1847, it was the souls of the departed who came to fulfil a largely similar function. The Age of Reason was inaugurated in the 18th century, and was perhaps the shortest epoch in human history; according to the historian James Web, “Reason died sometime before 1865….after the Age of Reason came the Age of the Irrational.” In reality, reason and unreason were very closely intertwined in the 18th and 19th centuries, sharing an equal prominence and many of the same underlying metaphors and preoccupations. It was the age of the electrical current and the “animal magnetism” or “universal fluid” of Franz Mesmer; the age of the telegraph (1844) and the telephone (1876) and the medium and the séance. The spiritualist movement began in a farmhouse in Hydesville, New York, where the Fox family were troubled by the inexplicable sound of knocking and furniture moving late at night. On the night of March 31, 1848, Kate Fox (aged 12) challenged the spirit to respond to the rapping of her knuckles, and it allegedly did, with an equal number of “raps”. Kate and her sister Margaret claimed to have established contact with the soul of a peddler named Charles B. Rosma who had been murdered and buried in the cellar of the house five years earlier. The Fox sisters displayed their supposed mediumistic abilities publically, and an open source, DIY religious belief of sorts mushroomed very quickly around the idea of communication with the souls of the dead. Spiritualism was enmeshed in the same progressive, reformist politics as Spear – most of its most prominent mediums were women, and its adherents were chiefly abolitionist and supportive of women’s suffrage. Like Universalism, Spiritualism tended to reject the idea of eternal damnation, viewing the afterlife instead as a hierarchical system of spheres through which the soul progresses, cumulatively purifying and perfecting itself.
John Murray Spear was naturally drawn to this new movement, and in 1851 he departed from the church in order to pursue a career as a medium and healer. His early attempts, in which he claimed to channel the spirits of Emmanuel Swedenborg, Benjamin Franklin, and others, were apparently unremarkable, and Spear remained an obscure figure in the burgeoning Spiritualist scene. However, things took a turn for the surreal when he started to receive messages from a group of spirits that called themselves the ‘Band of Electricizers’. The Electricizers infused him with a vision of the future which was by turns prophetic and deranged, and give him the instructions for an electrically powered, mystically gestated machine that would make that future happen.
THE THING MOVES!: The Band of Electricizers and the New Motive Power.
Spear declared himself to be the "general agent on Earth” of an enlightened Congress of Spirits whom he called the Band of Electricizers. This group included Benjamin Franklin (again), Thomas Jefferson, and the Universalist physician Benjamin Rush. They had made Spear the mouthpiece of a visionary, utopian project to transform and perfect human society. As is typical of prophets of channelled material, the message of the Electricizers abounds with goofy neologisms. Their wisdom was imparted to Spear in a series of profound “Revealments”; the Electricizers themselves were part of a larger “Association of Beneficence” which also included Healthfulizers, Educationalizers, Agriculturalizers, Elementizers, and Governmentizers. While some elements of the Electricizer program for the regeneration of mankind were progressive and sensible (free love, increased rights for women), other aspects of their utopian project suggest the visionary dementia of the best Outsider Art. According to Peter Robertson in a Magonia review of Spear’s biography:
They teach a new physics and give him visions of a fabulous new technology. This is not technology as we know it, it is more akin to Renaissance magic, a kind of magical prevision of the technological world to come. Much of this is at a level of surreal madness that few can have reached before or since: boats made in the shape of giant ducks powered by the psychic energy of couples having sex for example, or sewing machines constructed by a mixture of performance art, ritual magic and, you've got it, sex again!
The most important task, however, which had been imparted to Spear was the construction of the mysterious “New Motive Power”, a machine whose ultimate purpose remains obscure, but which promised to infuse “new life and vitality into all things animate and inanimate.” The construction and putative “animation” of the machine took place at High Rock, a hill overlooking a small town called Lynn, situated north of Boston. As Robert Damon Shneck writes in a Fortean Times article, Lynn was once “well known for shoe manufacturing and has a history that is pure Lovecraft, full of witchcraft, sea serpents, spontaneous human combustion and rioting Quakers.” As such, it was the perfect location for what was to follow, a strange expenditure of human effort and energy which feels somewhat like an amateur scientific experiment mixed perhaps unconsciously with the distinct character of an occult working. High Rock contained a cottage which was owned by a pair of prominent spiritualists and reformers called the Hutchinsons; also supporting Spear was the Reverend SC Hewitt, editor of the Spiritualist newspaper New Era, and a mysterious woman who was called the “Mary of the New Dispensation”, and whose role was to somehow mystically give birth to the living machine.
The machine itself was constructed with zinc batteries, metal balls, and copper wires, enchased in a wooden frame, and equipped with a device for inhalation and respiration. A complex ritual process, evocative of much later cyborgian dreams of biological/mechanical interface, was undertaken to animate it. First, a group of individuals of both sexes were brought into contact with the New Motive Power, as though to somehow charge it with the animating principal of life. Next Spear, like a magus clothing himself in ceremonial robes, assumed a suit constructed with metal plates and gemstones, and went into a deep trance. According to an attendant clairvoyant, a “stream of light, a sort of umbilicum” linked Spear to the machine during the height of his trance. Finally, in the most bizarre and Cronenbergian section of the rite, the “Mary of the New Dispensation” was brought before the device. The woman, believing herself to be immaculately impregnated with the “living principal” of the machine, was laid prostrate before the New Motive Power . She underwent labour pains and kind of ritualized pregnancy, and, according to Spear, “at precisely the time designated and the point expected, motion appeared in the New Motor corresponding to embryonic life.” The New Era was jubilant, proclaiming “THE THING MOVES!”: “The time of deliverance has come at last, and henceforward the career of humanity is upward and onward – a mighty noble and a Godlike career.”
Of course, like all specifically dated apocalyptic prophecies and attempts to incarnate the miraculous or immanentize the eschaton, the New Motive Power was destined to be a damp squib. Even in the hothouse spiritualist environment of High Rock cottage, the putative movements of the machine were deemed to be feeble and underwhelming. The Electricizers then dictated that the New Motive Power be dismantled, and transported to Randolph, New York, where the change of air might further stimulate its spiritual powers. In Randolph, according to Spear’s sometimes contested testimony, his invention experienced the fate that is perhaps pre-destined for all such unholy, hubristic living machines: it was destroyed by an angry and superstitious mob. It was never rebuilt, and had never been photographed during its brief life-span.
The Spiritualist movement, though plainly fraudulent or delusionary in most instances, was nevertheless a pleasantly disruptive phenomenon that usurped the traditional authority of the male priesthood, and re-ignited the ever-present desire in people to experience the Otherworld directly and personally, rather than through the tired liturgies of an organised and earth-bound institution. It is easy to laugh at the innocence and eccentricity of John Murray Spear today, but his delusion of a redemptive, living machine is in many respects the reductio ad absurdum of the modern world’s faith in the idea of human perfectibility and transcendence through technological progress. We have not lost this notion, and it persists today in an equally extreme form in the writings of Ray Kurzweil and those who wait after the coming rapture of the Singularity. Having followed the dictates of the Band of Electricizers for two tough decades, Spear was undaunted, his final sentiments on the subject echoing the longing, common to both Universalism and Spiritualism, for the eventual redemption and bliss of all living things: "Dearly have I loved the work in which I was engaged. I have been helped to see that beyond the clouds that were round about me, there was a living, guiding, intelligent, beneficent purpose—the elevation, regeneration and redemption of the inhabitants of this earth.”