IBM and ESP Part One

One of the most fun finds I made while going through the Parapsychology Laboratory’s correspondence was a 1938 exchange between J. B. Rhine and IBM.

Rhine contacted them first. “I am writing you concerning the possibility of adapting the Test Scoring Machine which you have invented, to the purpose of research we are conducting at the Parapsychology Laboratory here in extra-sensory perception.” Rhine was always trying to refine their experiments and tighten the controls, and part of that quest was the creation of an ESP machine.

The best part in this exchange however, was the response from IBM. “There is no question in my mind,” Reynold Johnson wrote back enthusiastically, that “it would be possible to develop a machine along the lines that you outline.” Again, this was 1938.

Reynold Johnson wasn’t just any IBM employee. He had designed the test scoring machine Rhine mentioned while working as a high school science teacher, and his design was bought by IBM, who then hired him as an engineer. Johnson went on to have an amazing career, with 90 patents to his name and he has been called the “father of the disk drive. (His Wikipedia entry is worth reading, he was an interesting guy.)

“I have given some thought to the application of the Test Scoring Machine to the problem you describe,” Johnson went on, “and have made out several forms which might possibly work out for the purposes you have in mind.” A detail from one of the forms he sent is shown above.

Johnson wasn’t sure if his machine could do the trick and said, “Undoubtedly a special machine more along the lines you outlined could be developed, but a good deal more information would have to be made available to us,” and then they talked about where the funds would come from in order to pay for the development of such a machine.

In the last letter I found Johnson said he was going to take up the matter with their Engineering Department and get back to him, but I couldn’t find any more letters after that. That isn’t to say they aren’t in there. There are over 700 boxes in the Parapsychology Laboratory archives at Dukes and I didn’t go through them all.

I keep meaning to post about how much else is in there to explore. I just scratched the surface. There are still countless discoveries like this one to be made.

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