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Bible Encyclopedias

1911 Encyclopedia Britannica


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When the movement of modern spiritualism first reached Europe from America in the winter of 1852-3, the most popular method of consulting the "spirits" was for several persons to sit round a table, with their hands resting on it, and wait for the table to move. If the experiment was successful the table would rotate with considerable rapidity, and would occasionally rise in the air, or perform other movements. Whilst by many the movements were ascribed to the agency of spirits, two investigators - count de Gasparin and Professor Thury of Geneva - conducted a careful series of experiments by which they claimed to have demonstrated that the movements of the table were due to a physical force emanating from the bodies of the sitters, for which they proposed the name "ectenic force." Their conclusion rested on the supposed elimination of all known physical causes for the movements; but it is doubtful from the description of the experiments whether the precautions taken were sufficient to exclude unconscious muscular action or even deliberate fraud.

In England table-turning became a fashionable diversion and was practised all over the country in the year 1853. Dr John Elliotson and his followers attributed the phenomena to mesmerism. The general public were content to find the explanation of the movements in spirits, animal magnetism, odic force, galvanism, electricity, or even the rotation of the earth. James Braid, W. B. Carpenter and others pointed out, however, that the phenomena obviously depended upon the expectation of the sitters, and could be stopped altogether by appropriate suggestion. And Faraday devised some simple apparatus which conclusively demonstrated that the movements were due to unconscious muscular action. The apparatus consisted of two small boards, with glass rollers between them, the whole fastened together by indiarubber bands in such a manner that the upper board could slide under lateral pressure to a limited extent over the lower one. Tice occurrence of such lateral movement was at once indicated by means of an upright haystalk fastened to the apparatus. When by this means it was made clear to the experimenters that it was the fingers which moved the table, not the table the fingers, the phenomena generally ceased. The movements were in fact simply an illustration of automatism. But Faraday's demonstration did little to stop the popular craze.

By believers the table was made to serve as a means of communicating with the spirits; the alphabet would be slowly called over and the table would tilt at the appropriate letter, thus spelling out words and sentences. Some Evangelical clergymen discovered by this means that the spirits who caused the movements were of a diabolic nature, and some amazing accounts were published in 1853 and 1854 of the revelations obtained from the talking tables.

Table-turning is still in vogue amongst spiritualist circles. The device was employed with success by Professor Charles Richet and others in thought-transference experiments.

See A. E. de Gasparin, Des Tables tournantes, du Surnaturel, &c. (Paris, 1854); Thury, Des Tables tournantes (Geneva, 1855) Faraday's letter on Table-turning in The Times, 30th June 1853. Quarterly Review, Sept. 1853 - article by Carpenter on Spiritualism, &c.; Mrs De Morgan, From Matter to Spirit (London, 1863); Ch. Richet, Proceedings S.P.R., vol. v. F. Podmore, Modern Spiritualism (London, 1902), ii. 7-21, gives an account of the movement in 1853, with references to contemporary pamphlets and newspaper articles. (F. P.)

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Bibliography Information
Chisholm, Hugh, General Editor. Entry for 'Table-Turning'. 1911 Encyclopedia Britanica. 1910.

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