Thursday, 13 October 2016

Tony Cornell and the SPIDERs from Cambridge

Tony Cornell 'chasing spectres with a Spectrum'

Psychical researchers these days can utilise a wide range of sophisticated instruments when studying spontaneous cases (possible ghosts, poltergeists and the like), even if the theoretical basis for their application is often dubious.  But while the power of the equipment at their disposal has increased enormously over the last decade, attempts to record evidence of paranormal phenomena have long been an important aspect of the field.  A significant figure in applying technology to the detection and documenting of spontaneous cases was Tony Cornell (1924-2010), a Cambridge-based researcher with extensive practical experience.  In his 2002 book Investigating the Paranormal he discusses extensively the use of instrumentation and in particular an innovative method for collecting information.  This was a piece of kit called the ‘Spontaneous Psychophysical Incident Data Electronic Recorder’, or SPIDER, which he largely developed with Howard Wilkinson of Nottingham University, and with input from Alan Gauld, who was also at Nottingham, in trialling it.

There have actually been two separate versions of SPIDER.  The prototype was put together by Cornell with help from a technician and a computer programmer in 1982 and was initially housed in a cardboard box.  Modifications were made, then Cornell and Wilkinson unveiled the Mark II, christened SPIDER, in 1984, though Wilkinson continued to improve it.  It is essentially a large black-painted box, accompanied by a smaller brown chest labelled ‘C.U.S.P.R. (Cambridge University Society for Psychical Research, a group Cornell ran for many years), containing an array of devices to monitor an environment.  Controlled originally by a 16K ZX Spectrum computer with DCP Interspec, relay box and Sinclair printer, it could record motion, temperature changes, sound and electromagnetic activity, and included floodlights, an audio recorder, a cine camera (later a camcorder), infrafred video and still 35mm cameras.  These operated for set periods, as selected, or when initiated by the sensors.  Readings were logged automatically so the equipment could be left to operate without any supervision for several days.

The editor of mass-circulation magazine Your Computer deemed the project of sufficient interest to send excitable journalist Meirion Jones to interview Cornell in his basement HQ in Victoria Street, Cambridge; put Cornell on the cover, and devote three pages of the May 1983 issue to ‘Captain Spectre and his Spectrum-powered spook hunt’, though the interview covered more than SPIDER.  There was a more sober status update, co-written by Cornell, in the subsection ‘Notes on the instrumentation of spontaneous cases’ of the article ‘Research report of the Cambridge University Society for Psychical Research (CUSPR)’, which appeared in the (national) Society for Psychical Research’s June 1984 Journal.  The total cost to date was put at about £850, from which it is clear that over the years Cornell sank a considerable amount of his money into SPIDER.

Cornell used SPIDER on at least a dozen occasions between 1982 and 1996, amounting to about 1,200 hours, and several of these are described in his book.  The Mark I was first employed over a six-week period in 1982-3 in an antique shop storeroom in Cambridge which appeared to be experiencing poltergeist phenomena.  SPIDER was then taken to such diverse locations as Chingle Hall, a Leicestershire stately home, Abbey House in Cambridge, Stirling Castle, Berry Pomeroy, Chillingham Castle, and others.  In 1988 the television network NBC invited Cornell and Wilkinson  to investigate stories of disturbances on RMS Queen Mary, permanently moored as a tourist attraction in Long Beach, California, USA, for its series Unsolved Mysteries (one dreads to think how much the excess baggage charge was).  With poltergeist researcher William Roll, who brought several mediums with him, they made an extensive 10-day examination of the ship (in addition to Cornell’s chapter on the trip Roll refers it in his Journal of Parapsychology review of Investigating the Paranormal, though with more interest in his own participation than in that of his English colleagues).

Cornell and Wilkinson, along with a production company making a television programme, visited the Bell Inn at Thetford with SPIDER in September 1991 to continue an investigation into a haunted bedroom, and Cornell spent further time there the following year.  In 1994 he returned to the Bell along with members of a group I was in, Norfolk-based ESPRI, for a programme in Inca Productions’ series Ghosthunters.  Cornell brought SPIDER with him, but it was not operational as that would have taken about 90 minutes to organise and the room was already crowded (and overheated) with people and equipment.  Instead only the video cameras and monitors were set up to simulate how it would look (described by Andy Waters in his 1994 report for the ESPRI newsletter).  With Inca’s cameras rolling Cornell explained the case, I explained how SPIDER worked, and the group pretended to conduct a vigil.  The programme aired in June 1996 but the ESPRI contributions, including mine, were left out, as was the entire visit from Cornell’s book.

It probably wouldn’t have made any difference had SPIDER been operating because little of significance was noted during the hundreds of hours of SPIDER’s deployment. There were electrical failures with no apparent cause which rectified themselves, some object movements which could not be accounted for, and occasional temperature drops which may have had normal causes, but that was it.  However, Wilkinson gave a talk at an SPR combined study day and training event in 1994 which was reported by Peter Flew for the SPR’s magazine The Psi Researcher (forerunner of its current The Paranormal Review).  Wilkinson’s talk, ‘Recording the evidence’, covered SPIDER, later technical elaborations, and the problems involved in using electronic equipment on location.  He pointed out that a police speed camera might be trained on a traffic black spot for hundreds of hours before capturing an accident, and paranormal activity is even rarer than traffic accidents.

Investigating the Paranormal contains several pictures of SPIDER: on p. 6; p. 117 (at the Bell); and p. 197 (the Mark I in the antique shop).  The Your Computer article is also well illustrated.  It is clear that the boxes are rather clunky, but as the above account hopefully indicates, SPIDER’s importance in the evolution of psychical research as a scientific enterprise cannot be underestimated.  Even though superseded by more complex, and much smaller, gadgets, it is still of historical significance.  So what of SPIDER now?  The two boxes are currently sitting in a corner of the meeting room in the SPR’s new headquarters at Vernon Mews in London.  That is not a long-term solution because the space they occupy is required for the installation of AV equipment.  If a home is not found for SPIDER the chances are it will go into a storage unit where it may deteriorate.  It deserves to be where it will be cherished, and preferably displayed to the public.  A tall order certainly, but if anyone has any thoughts on what can be done to preserve SPIDER and make sure it is remembered for the pioneering undertaking it was, I would be interested to hear them.


Cornell, Tony. Investigating the Paranormal, Helix Press, New York, 2002.

Flew, Peter. ‘Investigating Spontaneous Cases’, The Psi Researcher, No. 15, Winter 1994, pp.16-23.

Jones, Meirion. ‘Where micros fear to tread’, Your Computer, May 1983, pp. 50-1, 53.

McLaren, I. P. L., Loosemore, R. P. W, and Cornell, A. D. ‘Research report of the Cambridge University Society for Psychical Research (CUSPR)’, Journal of the Society for Psychical Research, vol. 52, June 1984, pp. 307-11.

Roll, William. Review of Investigating the Paranormal, Journal of Parapsychology, vol. 67, Spring 2003, pp. 187-203.

Waters, Andy. ‘A Night to Remember’, ESPRI Newsletter, Winter 1994, n.p.

Monday, 26 September 2016

Black Chronicles: Photographic Portraits 1862-1948

The National Portrait Gallery is currently showing a small exhibition, Black Chronicles: Photographic Portraits 1862-1948, the end date marking the Windrush’s arrival.  The black, and Asian, presence in Britain is underrepresented in the early photographic record and the studio portraits shown here indicate the diversity of the black experience, and the significant contributions black and Asian men and women made to British culture, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Cartesdevisite and cabinet cards have been drawn from the NPG’s own collections, supplemented by large modern bromide prints taken from glass plates in the Hulton Archive.  They show people active in numerous walks of life.  There are actors, dancers (Les Ballet Nègres, the first black ballet troupe), composer Samuel Coleridge-Taylor (‘The African Mahler’), musicians, boxer Peter Jackson (‘The Black Prince’), a missionary, soldiers, and diplomats.  Ram Gopal, an early exponent of Indian dance in England, has a case to himself.

A significant portion is dedicated to portraits of members of the African Choir, a 16-strong group which toured Britain in 1891-3, including a performance before Queen Victoria at Osborne House.  They were photographed by the (original) London Stereoscopic Company, and it would have been even more interesting to have seen these as originally intended – perhaps stereoscopy aficionado Sir Brian May will take note for a future publication in his series devoted to bringing vintage stereograms to a modern audience.  The African Choir negatives were only rediscovered in the Hulton Archive in 2014, which suggests they were not considered to have much commercial potential in the past.

An album contains a number of photographs of Sarah Forbes Bonetta, a Yoruba captured, aged 5, by King Gezo of Dahomy (curiously black and Arab slavers tend to be omitted from the historical narrative in favour of an emphasis on the European-African-American triangle) but a British naval officer, Captain Forbes, persuaded the king to offer the girl to Queen Victoria as a gift: her surname was derived from the name of Forbes’s ship.  She became a society figure in England after the Queen paid for her education and became her godmother. At the other end of the social scale, Ndugu M’Hali, known as Kalulu, was servant to Henry Morton Stanley on his expeditions and the inspiration for his 1873 book My Kalulu, Prince, King and Slave: A Story of Central Africa.  He was given to Stanley by an Arab merchant, and Stanley paid for his education.

A series by Benjamin Stone records visitors to the House of Commons: a sergeant and three privates of the King’s African Rifles, a delegation of Basuto chiefs, South Nigerian Regiment ‘gun carriers’.  Various individuals connected with the Raj are depicted, from Duleep Singh, Maharaja of Lahore, the last Sikh ruler of the Punjab who was exiled to England, to Dadabhai Naoroji, the first Indian Westminster Member of Parliament.  Demonstrating Africa’s exoticism in British eyes, in 1905 half a dozen pygmies were brought to England and performed to large audiences for two years.  They were photographed by Stone during a visit to the Commons.

There is much to think about in the exhibition, even though it is a small slice of what could have been shown.  Mounted by the NPG in collaboration with Autograph ABP, an arts charity, it constitutes part of a three-year archival research programme, The Missing Chapter, supported financially by the Heritage Lottery Fund.  The Missing Chapter’s goal is to ‘to augment the photographic narratives of migration and cultural diversity in relation to Britain’s past, and disseminate a visual heritage that is fragmented and dislocated.’  This is a laudable aim, if inelegantly put, and Black Chronicles fulfils it well.  My only criticism is that spreading the content over several rooms dissipates its impact.  The main section, in its own space, has a powerful effect, with large prints imposingly presented on black-painted walls; but the other elements are just a couple of cases sited in general galleries, and are fiddly to find.  It feels like a loss of confidence by the gallery’s management.

Black Chronicles runs 18 May - 11 December 2016.  A conference accompanies it, The Missing Chapter: Cultural Identities and The Photographic Archive, at the NPG on 21 October 2016, marking the culmination of The Missing Chapter project.

Thursday, 8 September 2016

The Society for Psychical Research’s new Psi Encyclopedia

As I know from my own experience, it is unwise to rely on Wikipedia for anything psi-related, driven as it is by pseudo-sceptics determined to cast the subject in as negative a light as possible.  This is extremely detrimental because of Wikipedia’s status as the default online knowledge resource.  Craig Weiler’s book Psi Wars: TED, Wikipedia and the Battle for the Internet addressed the unsavoury business of those antagonistic to psychical research distorting content associated with it.   He eloquently showed how a core group, ‘Guerrilla Skeptics', aided by a number of independent editors sharing its general outlook, had between them rendered Wikipedia’s psychical research and parapsychology pages untrustworthy.

That is why the SPR’s new Psi Encyclopedia, which has just been launched in tandem with its new website, is to be welcomed.  Unlike Wikipedia the undertaking is not crowd-sourced, a method that is fine in theory but unfortunately gives the upper hand to those who have most stamina pressing the delete key, to the detriment of balance.  Rather it takes the form of invited articles, often lengthy and detailed, written by experts who, unlike many Wikipedia contributors, are named.  They have endeavoured to present a rounded picture, acknowledging fraud and error where demonstrated, but minus the reflexively negative agenda so damaging to Wikipedia’s coverage.

The encyclopaedia’s ‘about’ page lists four different types of entries: there are broad overviews; articles breaking those overviews down into smaller themes to be examined in greater depth; case studies; and lists.  These categories combine to provide information to suit a wide range of needs.  Apparently at launch the site’s total word count was half a million words, with a lot more to come.  A very useful section is ‘New to Psi Research?’, describing major areas and linking to specific articles.  As someone who regularly handles students’ enquiries I anticipate that the encyclopaedia is going to make my job a lot easier.

One may not agree with everything in it – psychical research is a lively affair after all – and those who are hostile will naturally moan about a lack of ‘balance’ (as they see it, i.e. not conforming to their particular view); but one can be confident that at least the information has been carefully compiled to be as accurate as possible and is designed to inform rather than mislead.  The editor has provided a contact form and will be glad to receive feedback, suggestions for additional topics, and offers from suitably qualified writers to contribute.  This is a work in progress but early comments have been overwhelmingly positive, and in the years to come it will undoubtedly prove to be the standard source for reliable online information on psychical research.  Project funding came from the late Mr Nigel Buckmaster, and the entire field owes him a huge debt for enabling the Psi Encyclopedia to become a reality.

Tuesday, 6 September 2016

The new Society for Psychical Research website

As of 5 September 2016 the Society for Psychical Research has a spanking new website, though sharing a number of similarities with the old one.  It has the news section; listings for forthcoming Society events (still irritatingly termed ‘upcoming’); information on the SPR’s publications; abstracts of the Journal’s articles; information on research; details of books recently published in the field; and links to the online library (holding the complete contents of the Journal, Proceedings and the magazine Paranormal Review).  You can learn about the organisation and how to join it, and report a personal experience.  All the basics from before are present, but there is more.  New additions include provision for blogs and articles, greatly increasing the amount of content.  The Society’s Twitter feed, which I run, now appears on the front page.  The appearance too has undergone a radical makeover.  More colour has been introduced – a fetching lavender-based design, with links to some areas represented by pictures.  There is improved optimisation for mobile devices.  The result is a more attractive and flexible offering than before.

The old website had served the SPR well for nine years but it was generally regarded as dated, so this is a welcome refresh.  In fact, looking at versions as preserved by the ‘Wayback Machine’, it is remarkable to see how the site has evolved since its first archiving in 2001.  In 2007 extensive revisions were instituted under the direction of Dr Zofia Weaver.  The SPR’s Electronic Communications Committee worked hard to expand the content in order to make the site a major source of information about the subject and the Society, though we never achieved the ‘website of websites’ I had envisaged; perhaps that ambition was unrealistic.  We did lose the bright orange colour the original website had sported, adopting instead a more restrained palette.

The most important change in the latest incarnation is the addition of the much-anticipated online encyclopaedia, funded from the exceedingly generous Buckmaster bequest.  There have been complaints for a long time that Wikipedia’s treatment of those areas covered by the term psychical research is unsatisfactory, indeed biased to the point of being misleading and heavily slanted to cast the entire subject in a negative light.  The SPR’s encyclopaedia works on a different model, consisting of invited articles solicited from experts on a wide range of topics.  This project is still growing, and is not expected to be complete for several years, but from the start it should prove to an invaluable – and hopefully reliable – source of information.

One slight personal hitch has arisen with the new website.  I had added a large amount of material to the old one, mostly book reviews plus some news items.  My reviews have been transferred but the URLs have changed, which means that it is no longer possible to access them in their new locations directly from the bibliography in my blog by clicking the links.  I may add them to my book blog in due course, but there are a lot so it would be quite a task.  In the meantime they can be found by going to the SPR website and using the search box within the new publications area, putting in either publication title or author.  Inserting my name will bring up all the books I have reviewed.  (At present there is no general search box for the entire website.)

Such minor issues aside, a lot of work has gone into the new venture under the supervision of Robert McLuhan.  In its expansion it has more closely approached the idea of the ‘website of websites’ I had envisaged the last time we undertook a major revision.  I am sure that the revamp will generate a great deal of interest, and in so doing be a major vehicle for the SPR to promote itself, and stimulate interest in psychical research.

Tuesday, 23 August 2016

Encounters with the Spirit World

On 18 August 2016 my wife and I went to the College of Psychic Studies (CPS) at 16 Queensberry Place in South Kensington to see the exhibition drawn from its archives which was put on between 14th and 20th August.  It followed a smaller-scale one held over a weekend in January to celebrate the 90th birthday of the College’s ownership of the building.

It was the first time I had been to Queensberry Place and I was immediately impressed by this finely-preserved town house with its spacious feel, its extensive library, and particularly by its historical associations.  To visit the top floor where Harry Price had had his National Laboratory of Psychical Research, and the room occupied by College President Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (a position commemorated by a recently added blue plaque outside), was a privilege.

According to CPS publicity, there were over 500 items to look at.  In addition to portraits of eminent individuals which normally adorn the walls, displays of objects dating back to the 1850s filled virtually every room and corridor – 13 rooms on four floors – together providing a remarkable insight into Spiritualism’s history and culture.  Clearly-presented information panels guided the viewer.

The walls and cases were stuffed with treasures.  On the top floor I was pleased to see the guidebook and pages from Light and other newspapers relating to the May 1925 Exhibition of Objects of Psychic Interest at Caxton Hall organised by Harry Price which, alongside a successful bazaar, helped to fund the purchase of 16 Queensberry Place.  The final accounts on show indicate that the net profit from the entire enterprise amounted to £1,001, a handsome sum.  Price’s 1926 tenancy agreement could be seen alongside pictures associated with some of his activities.

Elsewhere there was mediumistic art from the Victorian period to the present day (this is a collection that is still growing) and some of the contemporary work was for sale.  There were large numbers of spirit photographs, with famous names such as William Mumler, Richard Boursnell, Édouard Buguet, Frederick Hudson and Madge Donohoe mingling with the less-well known such as Stavely Bulford, F. M. Parkes and Craig and George Falconer (the last set only recently donated).

There were notebooks of trance writings produced during the 1870s and 80s by Rev. William Stainton Moses, one of the founders of the London Spiritualist Alliance (the CPS’s original name) and its first President. His own library has been preserved intact as well.  It was nice to stand next to the ‘Henry Slade table’; according to a brass plate set in the top, John Nevil Maskelyne claimed it was a ‘trick table’ in the court case Regina v. Slade in October 1876.  Harry Price later used it in experiments with Stella Cranshaw.

Some of the most intriguing objects were the smallest.  A cabinet held ‘Hair from Miss Showers’ spirit’ next to an ‘Autograph of John King, the materialisation spirit of medium Charles Williams’ and ‘Drapery from a materialised spirit form through the medium Miss Florrie Cook’, plus a collection of apports.

Add photographs of mediums, artefacts such as trumpets and planchettes, slates and crystal balls, Captain Bartlett’s Glastonbury pictures, a large page of automatic writing by Matthew Manning and a great deal more, and it can be appreciated how much there was to savour.  It was a pleasure to become reacquainted with Ethel Le Rossignol’s glorious paintings which I had seen in 2014 at the Horse Hospital.  There were examples of Georgiana Houghton’s spirit-inspired watercolours, though not the large album owned by the CPS as it had been loaned to the landmark exhibition of her work currently on at the Courtauld Gallery.

 I was fortunate to be introduced by College archivist Leslie Price to Principal Gill Matini and curator Vivienne Roberts.  Their enthusiasm for this clear labour of love was palpable.  That it was an enormous effort could perhaps be gauged by the way all three narrowed their eyes at me when I innocently suggested they might consider repeating the exercise at some point with other parts of the collection.

Leslie told me the event had been very popular and in particular there had been significant attention from artists, so perhaps its influence will appear in artworks in due course.  He also said that new discoveries are still being made and fresh avenues for study opened up, as should happen in all good archives.  Hopefully interest generated during the week will help to stimulate further research, and perhaps donations.  It was certainly an opportunity to educate as the displays were supplemented by tours and talks given by staff.

The CPS has an outstanding archive and it is to their credit that they opened their doors to let the public have a taster of its riches.  It was shame it was on for a short time, but it involved suspending other activities which would have made it difficult to extend.  Entry was free, however the CPS have created a number of greetings cards from pictures in their possession so it was possible to give something back and come away with attractive mementoes of the visit.

I would have liked to have stayed longer and was sorry we had to leave when we did, but we were going on to the Courtauld to see Georgiana Houghton’s spirit works.  The good news is that while sadly the bulk of the Houghton paintings will be going back to their home in Australia in due course, everything on show at the CPS will be available to the serious researcher to examine in South Kensington.  It is an exceptional collection of which the CPS is justifiably proud.