Friday, October 30, 2015
Excerpt from Lillian Belle Herrick Chapman's wireless telegraphy journal, 1901-1902. Courtesy of Schlesinger LibraryExcerpt from Lillian Belle Herrick Chapman's wireless telegraphy journal, 1901-1902. Courtesy of Schlesinger Library

Lillian Belle Herrick Chapman (1872–1965) was a science teacher, ordained Congregational minister, and poet. She graduated from Elmira College in 1894, majoring in physics and chemistry, and taught physics, chemistry, astronomy, and geology at Elmira Free Academy, in Elmira, New York, for 14 years.

On January 14, 1899, the journal the Electrical World published "Telegraphing Without Line Wires." Chapman kept a copy of this article, and by 1901 she and her student, Leon Bogardus, had amassed and/or constructed the pieces needed to assemble a wireless telegraph. She wrote detailed notes of their experiments; on October 23, 1901, they sent a message from one end of her desk to the other.

Chapman describes how they built the wireless telegraph machine in great detail, listing equipment for the transmitting station and the receiving station, such as wires, relays, batteries, and other pieces. On February 27, 1902, Chapman and Bogardus gave a lecture on wireless telegraphy to one hundred Elmira Free Academy pupils. During the lecture they sent a message from one end of the room to the other.

Page from Lillian Belle Herrick Chapman's 1902 diary. Courtesy of Schlesinger LibraryPage from Lillian Belle Herrick Chapman's 1902 diary. Courtesy of Schlesinger Library

On March 8, 1902, Chapman was able to send a message from the transmitting station she had in her rooms on Union Place to the receiving station on the Elmira Free Academy campus. On March 12, 1902, she wrote in her diary: "Every extra moment given to wireless telegraphy with fine results." All of their efforts culminated on April 15, 1902, when she sent a wireless message from the transmitting station to the receiving station one mile away.

Chapman's family, including her mother Louisa Cowan Herrick, her brother Frederick Herrick, and her sister Frances Herrick Brooks, were ardent believers in spiritualism. Louisa held many spiritualist meetings in her house in Horseheads, New York; Frederick and Frances founded a Spiritualist Church in Elmira, New York, in 1924. Spiritualism, which at its core is about communication, was considered by some to be the next breakthrough in science at the dawn of the 20th century. Chapman herself believed that "all communication is wireless telegraphy or an impression coming from the transmitter made upon the receiver, which is the brain of the medium . . . Science only broadens spiritualism; it does not narrow or deny it." (Lillian Belle Herrick Chapman diary, 1901)

Some séances of the 19th century featured what was called automatic writing or "spirit writing." This generally consisted of the medium channeling messages from the afterworld for those gathered at the séance. Often these writings were in handwriting different from that of the medium herself. The Herrick papers include spirit writing on small chalk boards or slates.

A transcription of one such message reads:

My dear friend Herrick I suppose when you came here this morning you hardly thought you would hear from me But I may never get another chance in my life to send a letter to my darling only child in the world. Please tell May? To not forget her mother Tell her that I am not in the grave nor sleeping I hope she will some time go to a place like this where I can write to her I will do so I want you all to be good to May? And I thank? You for what you have???

Herrick spirit writing on slate. Courtesy of Schlesinger   LibraryHerrick spirit writing on slate. Courtesy of Schlesinger Library

Author: 
Cat Holbrook