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 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.

SPIDER at Vernon Mews, October 2016


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.

SPIDER update 10 November 2016

There has been a surprising development in the SPIDER saga.  It transpires that the equipment does not actually belong to the SPR!  Through a misunderstanding it was thought that the SPR was to be the ultimate destination.  However, as I have now learned, ownership in fact passed from Tony Cornell to a third party and was finally vested in Dr Melvyn Willin, the SPR’s Archives Liaison Officer.

As a result of this misapprehension the Society thought it had responsibility and was wondering what to do with the big boxes sitting in its Vernon Mews HQ, but now it can rest easy.  Melvyn tells me he is going to collect SPIDER at some point and take it home where it can be conserved and stored in optimal conditions.

So for the foreseeable future it is in safe hands, looked after properly and preserved for future historians as the groundbreaking initiative it was.  I think Tony would have been pleased with this positive outcome.