As his radio experiments progressed in the 1930s Alec Reeves became convinced that people in other universes were trying to communicate with us, and that their signals were in Morse code. He began to log his interpretations. He believed his strongest contact to be Sir Michael Faraday. He lived in two worlds, a commercial radio lab and the individualist world of spiritualism and the sixth sense.

Now the nature of radio and the nature of the universe is better understood, this seems quaint to us. However there is a similarity today with doctors who are regarded by their peers as being eccentric if they express an interest in cryonics, another way of considering the problem of death, more in keeping with the late 20th and early 21 centuries where nanotechnology is in a similar state to radio in the early years of the 20th century. Only the future will tell whether this interest too is eccentric or forward thinking.

But we need to keep in mind that many ideas now accepted as commonplace were once the ideas of uneducated eccentrics. Marconi was told that radio went in straight lines, and it was only his lack of mathematical education that enabled him to persevere and make his famous transatlantic transmission. It was fortunate that he did not use VHF. From the perspective of the 1930s, maybe ESP and radio communication with the dead were in the same class. Only perseverance would tell.

Basic Principles of Reeves ESP machines.

The early models were designed to produce random Morse letters - not an easy task with 1930's technology. One of the particular difficulties for random generation was that Morse code (unlike ASCII or Baudot codes) had code groups of variable length. For example a common letter like E was one unit and an infrequent one like Z had many dots and dashes. This reduced the time taken to send messages, but made random generation hard. The ESP machines were originally designed to cater for this and the design features in later models contained some features which appear to be throw-backs to this need.

They could be regarded as devices to see order in various complex processes. Such devices are still used today to try and visualise complex phenomena, such as DNA codings. (see Pickover, CA, Visualising Biological Information World Scientific, 1995)

The common principles of the Reeves Machines seemed to be:

  1. Throw a coin 10 times.
    1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10
    Red= Tails (dash)
    Blue = heads
  2. Slide up and down a range 1 to t (ie let the random process run fast repeating itself and press a key to interrupt it at time t at which time a random set of 10 heads or tails is gathered.)
  3. generate a code length by another random process
  4. record or read the letter

On a modern computer, the process can be regarded as quite simple:
repeat until told to stop:
   repeat until key press:
      replace letter a$ with one represented by the ASCII code of a random number
   end repeat
   print a$
end repeat

A variation could be to add after "print a$"
"If the operator wants, remove the last letter printed."
This is what mediums do when they are "interpreting" random events. The output is a mixture of conscious thought and random process.

What follows is an Active-X interpretation of one of Reeves' ESP machines, in his case built using relays, uniselectors and a morse key. His machine had an A and a B random generator with selection between them also being random. It is not, of course, an ideal random text generator as available on PCs - that is not its purpose. Its purpose is to replicate what Reeves made. Click here to view source code.

A seance could be conducted as follows:
Click on "Next Letter" to start.
Contiune clicking on "next letter" if meaningful words appear.
If not move the mouse pointer across the image to click on "reject last letter"
repeat as long as you want.
Reeves wrote down the random letters as they appeared and then used various methods to try and extract something from them, filling pages of paper with different "decoding" schemes.

He also made a machine to give random pictures made of dots, on both a spiral timebase and a 64 line raster with the frame at 50 Hz mains and the line at 3.2 kHz.

He also proposed a machine to generate random speech. I do not know whether the latter was ever built.

Later Developments

This process has later been developed to much greater extent.

As described above, it could be considered as having a monkey typing at a typewriter. Regard this as an ESP machine type 0.

An ESP machine type 1, as far as I know never developed by Reeves, was to have the monkey typing at a typewriter with far more than one key for each letter. It has keys depending on the frequency of letters, ie there are lots of keys for common letters such as e and t, and few keys for Q and Z.

Type 2 is to arrange the system so that when the monkey types a particular letter, the typewriter is removed and replaced with another whose arrangement of letters is the probability of appearance based on which letters usually follow the previous one typed.

Type 3 is to base the replacement typewriters depending on the previous two letters, and so on

Type n is to base the replacement typewriters depending on the previous n-1 letters.

A refinement of this system is not to have 26 letters, but to have 28 letters, with one letter being the period (full stop) and another "letter" being the space.

This concept was further developed, using words instead of letters, by Stefan Strack (1991) in a computer program called Mark V. Shaney.

Strack wrote:

Mark V. Shaney featured in the Computer Recreations column by A.K.Dewdney in Scientific American. The original program (for a mainframe, I believe) was written by Bruce Ellis based on an idea by Don P. Mitchell. Dewdney tells the amusing story of a riot on net.singles when Mark V. Shaney's ramblings were unleashed.

Mark V. Shaney produces a confused imitation of style and contents of a piece of writing. Mark reads the original text and builds a "word probability table" that reflects the probability of a word following a sequence of words. In output mode, Mark will generate random text weighed by the probabilities in this table (a so-called Markov chain, hence Mark's name). Since Mark considers punctuation as part of the word, he is likely to produce grammatical sentences, albeit a caricature of the original text. It is in the same league with the famous Eliza and Racter programs, and shows that you don't need AI for "almost human" writing. Mark V. Shaney allows you to vary the "randomness" of the text output and supports huge probability tables in expanded memory or on disk. Version 1.0 of this program was posted on comp.binaries.ibm.pc in June 91.

Using version 1.3, the final version of the program before development ceased, I entered the text of Alec Reeves' copied correspondence and got the following result:

Equilibrium Coder mode. But by present systems. Unfortunately, the concept of "SYNSOL" is so recent and so wide in its application to congested mobile networks. Thanks very much for your note on it. I, too, am retiring, at least a county champion in one of your new endeavours. I should be pleased to get your letter to you personally and to your student that I have been the base of the Phoenicia Hotel. I am nearly sure I said, perhaps because of its incompatibility with the future and therefore for economy must use PCM or a similar job at University of Bangalor, for example, as an important feature of future radio mobile networks will be Commodore Hotel, New York City. All the best title for my firm. I am glad to get the award for which I shall do my best wishes for your continued good health, both for your letter of congratulations about my C.B.E. I very much for your continued good health, both for some other "Reeves'", of which there are one or two and are able to make the trip I know of giving real help to [name deleted] than a duty, and it helped me a Christmas card. The picture was very suitable; for many years he emigrated to North America, where he has now received. I have to be a pleasure than a much higher traffic density can be very pleased to show the economic feasibility of even a verb in it. I like your style of writing; as well that unless he is presenting "some applications". To prove that he can always spot the winners. Bob and his young wife as well that I could describe in it, in more detail than I do know; it ought to discourage him from doing much about it.. I an sure that the top award this year and I could, no doubt, arrange to have another drink together.

.. and so on -

What is being studied, of course, is the probabilistic nature of text, not messages from the dead. Had Reeves access to modern computers, he no doubt would have travelled further down this path, probably within the space of only a few weeks. But in his time, it was a major task just to produce a few random Morse letters, and fed with this information the brain could act as Strack's program to try and make sense of it. The human brain seeks sense and order, and if fed random noise whether visually or audibly will create information where none exists.

The Essence of Invention?

Maybe this is the essence of the process of invention - some of the circuitry in the ESP machines also appears in PCM equipment, and the video version contains radar circuits. The speech output ESP machine (of which there was only a brief outline, and which may never have been built) contained elements of the later equilibrium coding process (damped sine waves)

Shuffle the pack once again and instead of a fruitless attempt to communicate with dead and therefore annihilated minds we get a world wide communications system, or a highly accurate navigation system. Reeves was likely to have been interested in the nature of invention, and without modern computers and this later body of work, he could well have considered the idea that inventions come as telepathic messages from the dead to be a totally rational concept. Refining this process by artificial aids would be a valid endeavour which if successful could greatly increase the output of organisations such as STL where he worked. The fact that many of his contemporaries may have considered it barmy would not have been a disincentive - the same thing happened with Oboe at the time, and later Reeves was proved to be correct.

It is certainly true to say that had anyone been able to achieve repeatable electronic communication with those thought to be dead (and therefore annihilated), it would change civilisation completely - in a greater way that PCM or Oboe ever could. Reeves had gambled and won with both PCM and Oboe - two world changing inventions for one man - and gambled and lost with numerous other things, such as gas tube circuits and the equilibrium process. It was not unreasonable therefore to go for the far greater prize of repeatable ESP. After all, even in the 1940s many things previously thought to be impossible were happening - atomic physics showed it was possible to change one element into another, and the Germans were showing that rockets could get into space. However by the late 1950s at the time of Reeves' move from Barnet to Harlow, the ESP work appeared to come to an end. He showed only slight interest in things that others at STL were spending their spare time on, such as looking for voices of the dead on tape recordings.

The endeavour is unlikely to cease - a web search on "electronic voice phenomena" produces loads of sites, although readers are cautioned at entering into email correspondence with some of the site owners.

Modern physics does not rule out time travel, although an interesting "law of physics" has been postulated that a time machine cannot visit a time before which it was built. But if it is possible to send information backwards as well as forwards through time, then communication with "the dead" at a time they were still alive is a totally rational concept. Alec Reeves suggested at many times that he was guided by the "spirit" of Michael Faraday. If a note was found that could be proved to have been written by Michael Faraday to the effect that he was receiving telepathic messages from someone called Reeves in the 20th century and discussing inventions with him (the note would be in writing, ie a conventional message travelling forwards in time) then again this would have world shaking physical and philosophical implications. Of course no such evidence has ever been found.


Post Mortem Survival Ideas Rule Out Contact

A concept first attributed to NF Fyodorov in the 19th century is that it is the ultimate Christian duty and task of humanity to rescue its dead, and this has been discussed in works of fiction and fantasy to this day. One such method would be time travel to harvest the "program and data" in the deceased at the point of death and transport it to the future, thus avoiding causality conflicts. Unfortunately if causality conflicts are a problem, communicating with "the dead" would remain impossible. Similar physical theories of survival have been postulated in popular cosmology writing, but no physical method of communicating has ever been suggested.