I'm in a leafy garden behind a San Francisco coffee shop, holding on to a copper rod connected by a wire to a big wooden box. Inside the box are glowing knobs that look like red jewels. There's an empty glass beaker through which a shortwave ultraviolet light can be shown, and a flat piece of Bakelite that hides a copper coil. There are dials appointed with an elegant brass finish.
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The box's owner, Joseph Max, is twiddling the dials and slowly rubbing two fingers across the Bakelite plate, eyes crinkled in concentration. When he hits on something, he writes down a score of 461 for my 'general vitality' and then he checks my 'aura coordination.' It's 405.
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'It's okay,' he says reassuringly but with a hint of bemusement.
'I have a bad aura?' I ask, frowning.
'Maybe you're going through a lot of stress lately,' he offers kindly.
When he hits on something, he writes down a score of 461 for my 'general vitality' and then he checks my 'aura coordination.' It's 405.
The copper rod is getting warm in my hand. In true San Francisco fashion, no one around us—not the gym-rat hipster couple, not the French family—seems to care this is happening. Just blocks away on Haight Street you can buy weed from a dispensary, ogle multiple people whose leashed cats ride on their shoulders like parrots, or buy Victorian-inspired fetish gear. Our wacky box does not even register as interesting.
Max is dressed in all black: black polo shirt, black fleece vest, black slacks, black wristwatch. His snowy white hair is pulled back in a neat ponytail. He peers with light blue eyes through his round glasses at his radionics machine, the battery-powered device I'm currently hooked up to that is supposedly scanning my aura like so many bags at the airport.
Latest windows 10 update problems. Max carefully records my numbers on a form he has brought with him, and then we proceed to the main event. He wants to give me a shot at operating the mysterious box, and in order to do so a nearby shrub has to make a donation.
Max snaps a leafy twig off the plant behind us and pops it into the beaker—the 'witness well.' I clean my fingers with alcohol to remove any grease and slowly rub my right index and pointer finger along the surface of the Bakelite—what's known as a stickplate—while turning a knob on the machine with my left. It's a little bit like rubbing your stomach and patting your head at the same time. The idea, he tells me, is to detect life in the plant. When I start to feel the 'stickiness' I'll stop turning the dial, and the number I land on will be the plant's rate—the measurement of its general vitality.
We are both sitting on the same side of a pair of green plastic tables, the box in front of us. Max is watching me expectantly, and I admit I want to feel the stickiness. For weeks now I have been told about The Stickiness, the magical, murky thrum that connects your body to the ether. And I do feel something. My finger catches, it trips along the bakelite plate a bit, and we decide that the plant's number is 381. (It is not a stellar number; but for an urban plant whose main job is to decorate a coffee shop, this is not surprising.)
I ask Max how he knows if I was right and he checks the leaf himself, settling on a slightly higher number. I nod and smile and sip my lukewarm vat of coffee. How did I get here, manipulating the innards of a tricked-out wooden box, comparing the vitality numbers about a plant?
This is the most common way people have explained radionics to me (and several people have tried): Radionics is a way of using a device to take your thoughts (or intention, or consciousness) and amplify and broadcast them into the ether to affect some kind of change in your own life or the lives of others. You could be seeking a romantic partner or a financial windfall or better health. Maybe you just want to find a diamond ring on a sandy beach. (This is something I was told a person asked for, and received, through a radionics device.)
To some extent, the user (or maker) decides how to use the machine and for what. Not everyone would take an aura reading; this is just Max's approach. The device is a cosmic ham radio—a direct, if fuzzy, line to the big Whatever that provides things when they are asked for in the right way. Radionics is also called psionics or psychotronics, and radionics machines 'wishing machines.'
The most common incarnation of a radionics device is a box outfitted with a stickplate, a witness well (the space where one places a physical representation of his or her intentions), and dials that allow the user to tune the box in to that intention. Inside the box there is often a combination of copper wires, circuit boards, and even crystals. The user places the witness in the well (it could be a hair clipping, say, or a photo of a house, if you're seeking a new home) and then gently rubs the plate while turning the dials, waiting for the all-important stickiness a physical sensation that has been described as a tingling or similar to that of rubbing a balloon or sensing a very high-pitched sound. Once stickiness has been achieved, the box may be left alone to broadcast the user's intentions to the universe.
There are as many variations on the radionics device as there are on your standard automobile. Boxes are common, but there are also bicycle helmets outfitted with crystal-topped copper rods. There are devices that employ pendulums instead of stickplates. There are belts and headbands. There are even entirely paper-based machines and radionics software. Design-wise, radionics devices look like a mashup of original-series Star Trek, Jules Verne, and 1950s science-fiction magazines. They have a charming ray-gun quality about them.
You can't buy a radionics machine at Target—or any store, really. That leaves true believers to build the machines themselves
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But you can't buy a radionics machine at Target—or any store, really. That leaves true believers to build the machines themselves or buy one from a handful of sellers. There is a whole community of makers who swap tips on Facebook groups and on sites like BerkanaPath.com about how to build the best stickplates and where to buy potentiometers and antique knobs. Radio Shack and eBay are staples within this community. Enthusiasts post YouTube videos and offer critiques and encouragement to fellow makers. There are conventions and associations.
A few have managed to turn radionics into a business, and, like the devices themselves, these organizations are eclectic. There are the sober sites that work hard to promote an air of antiseptic professionalism, and there are the admittedly more common rainbow-colored sites that promise riches and babes, usually with an excess of exclamation points. ('Yes, you can charge food radionically with sexual energy and intent!!!')
Radionics exists on the fringe and is dismissed by the mainstream scientific community. And the story of how this cast of curious characters and their DIY wishing boxes got here features orgasms, potato blight, and the death of at least one guinea pig.
Albert Abrams was born in 1863 in San Francisco, earned a medical degree from Heidelberg University in Germany in 1882, and returned home to become a professor of pathology at Cooper Medical College (later absorbed by Stanford University) and the vice president of the California State Medical Society. Abrams was a respected member of the San Francisco intelligentsia; his comings and going were fodder for the local society column, which dutifully recorded his Yosemite vacations and his wife's tasteful luncheons.
In 1916 Abrams published a paper espousing his discovery of what he modestly named 'Electronic Reactions of Abrams.' 'Every individual, it is maintained,' he wrote, 'is enveloped in a radiance (Aura) invisible to the carnal eye and only perceived by the soul accustomed to it.' As evidence of this, Abrams listed portraits of saints with glowing halos and luminescent fish and crustaceans. This radiating energy, or ERA, could be used to not only diagnose conditions but could be tapped into in order to treat and diagnose patients of any manner of things, including cancer and syphilis.
Thus, throughout the 1900s, Abrams rolled out a series of electronic devices that he insisted did just that, including the 'Dynomizer' and the 'Oscilloclast.' These machines could diagnose illness even in a remote subject, as long as the patient supplied a drop of blood, according to Abrams. Maladies were assigned a 'rate' and when patients were treated, the machines were tuned to that number.
Abrams garnered fans (including the muckracking author Upton Sinclair) and his machines were leased to practitioners around the country; he offered classes at his San Francisco outpost. At one point, he announced plans to found an 'electronic college.' (This did not come to fruition.) But many doubted Abrams, chief among them Morris Fishbein, editor of the Journal of the American Medical Association from 1924 to 1950. Fishbein devoted an entire chapter to Abrams in his 1932 book Fads and Quackery in Healing. In addition to calling Abrams a cultist, he wrote that: 'It is the opinion of most of the electricians who have investigated Abrams' device, that Abrams knew little or nothing at all about the fundamental facts of electricity.'
Suspicion grew to a point that the American Medical Association launched a sting operation against Abrams. The AMA mailed blood samples from a 'virtuous, unsuspecting lady guinea pig' to an Abrams devotee in Oklahoma City, claiming they were from a 'Mr. P.' Fishbein reported with no small amount of glee that the practitioner not only failed to realize he had been sent guinea pig blood, but diagnosed 'Mr. P' with several illnesses. (Unfortunately for the lady guinea pig, the very thorough AMA dispatched her in order to perform a postmortem and confirm that she wasn't suffering from any illnesses. She was not.)
In Jonesboro, Arkansas, a similar sting was undertaken on an Abrams practitioner using chicken blood. The practitioner was brought up on charges, and Abrams was expected to appear as a witness and defend his invention but he never got the chance. Abrams died in January 1924, an outcast from the mainstream medical community, the same week The British Medical Journal published an article excoriating his lucrative practices.
But Abrams' ideas didn't die with him. In 1927, not long after he departed this world, an Austrian psychoanalyst, Wilhelm Reich, published a paper called 'The Function of the Orgasm.' Nervous conditions, he wrote, could be resolved through 'full genital gratification,' and 'sexual, vegetative energy is active in everything that lives.'
Not long after arriving in New York in 1939, Reich announced the discovery of 'orgone,' something he described as 'the primordial, cosmic energy.' Reich believed that it floated throughout the atmosphere and that, if gathered and restored to the human body, its recipients would be infused with a number of health benefits. He built a contraption called an orgone accumulator, about the size of a phone booth, that he believed could collect and concentrate orgone. Patients sat passively inside, sometimes for hours at a time, hoping to be revitalized.
Among Reich's defenders were journalist Norman Mailer and artist William Steig. But Reich, too, had plenty of doubters, including the Federal Drug Administration, which investigated him. He was eventually ordered to stop selling orgone goods and literature over state lines and in 1956 was found guilty of violating that order and sentenced to two years in prison. Reich was 60 when he died of a heart attack in 1957 at the Lewisberg Federal Penitentiary in Pennsylvania. (Today there are some who wonder if the FDA's zestful pursuit of Reich had as much to do with prudishness as with public health.)
During the time Reich was defending the idea of orgone energy, T. Galen Hieronymus, an inventor in Kansas City, Missouri, in 1949 received a patent for his homemade radionics device. Galen, who was trained as an electrician by the National Guard and worked as an engineer for the Kansas City Power and Light Company, was an acolyte of Dr. Abrams and started tinkering with electricity and plants in 1931. His Hieronymus machine was intended to detect and measure 'eloptic energy' that emanated from all living things. The Hieronymus machine became the blueprint for today's radionics devices; Hieronymus introduced the idea of the stickplate and the well. He thought his machines were especially useful for agriculture and wrote that he had documented their effectiveness on curing crops of pest and disease, including aphids and potato blight. 'To date, our research has not revealed any substance that does not lend itself to analysis by our instrument,' Hieronymus wrote in his autobiography The Story of Eloptic Energy. Hieronymus died in 1988.
It is the legacy of these men—a pastiche of science, mysticism, and persecution—that set the stage for the modern radionics community.
Ed Kelly is perfectly aware of what people think about radionics. He runs what is probably the only legacy radionics company in the United States, but if a stranger at a cocktail party asks him what he does for a living, he usually says he's in the electronics business.
'If you have to go into a giant explanation they're probably going to either assume that you're a crazy person, or worse yet, that you're selling snake oil.'
'I just leave it at that, because, you know, it's just so kooky,' he says, resigned. 'And if you have to go into a giant explanation they're probably going to either assume that you're a crazy person, or worse yet, that you're selling snake oil.'
Kelly's father Peter founded Kelly Research Technologies (KRT) in 1984. The elder Kelly—who was 'kind of a hippie,' according to his son—discovered radionics during the early '70s and built what had started as a hobby into a career. He ran his business from a plot of land in Lakemont, Georgia, out of a pair of dome houses, where Kelly still lives with his wife and several cats. (One of which yowled throughout our phone conversation despite Kelly's reassuring asides.)
KRT's expertise is agriculture. In the United States, it's illegal to promote radionics for diagnostic or treatment purposes in people or animals, so the Kellys focus on crops. The company's machines are modeled after the Hieronymus version, and it publishes a book of rates for farmers. Say you want a corn seed that is most 'harmonious' with your land: You could use the Kelly gadgets to tune in to samples and figure out which one vibes best with the soil.
In the realm of radionic aesthetics, the KRT brand is more Wheaties than Lucky Charms—its site is simple, rendered in sedate colors. Its machines, built on-site by Kelly and his three employees, are businesslike, gray and black, in simple wooden boxes. The most popular (and least expensive) is the $1,450 Personal Instrument. Kelly says the company sells a few hundred machines a year to farmers all over the world who want to tap into the free-floating energies of the universe.
'To me, that's been one of the greatest validators,' says Kelly. 'These are men and women who are interested in yield and what kind of results they get. And you're not going to pull some crazy esoteric 'put a crystal on it' kind of deal on a farmer who is interested in what kind of results they get.'
Kelly is not a farmer, but he uses his machines to bolster the business. When things get slow, he places a photo of the dome on the witness well—remember, the spot where users place the physical representation of their intention—tunes up, and focuses on the idea of 'those who need us find us.' In half an hour or so, he says, it is not unusual for the phone to ring with a customer on the other line.
For an outsider, it is these kind of examples that are frustrating. Why not ask for a million dollars? A car? A house?
I called up Joshua P. Warren, who is a kind of paranormal jack-of-all-trades. He is a ghost hunter, he has dipped into cryptozoology and the study of the Bermuda triangle. He has made television appearances and written books about hauntings in his hometown, Asheville, North Carolina. He also sells wishing machines, which are built by a man he calls Dr. Mulder—a pseudonym borrowed from The X-Files. Dr. Mulder, Warren told me, is very private and not available for interviews. But Warren was able to provide examples of results he produced with his wishing machines. (It was Warren who told me that radionics had delivered to him a diamond-encrusted gold ring.)
Warren said that using the machine, he had obtained a second home in Puerto Rico, a pair of discounted high-quality headphones, and a deal to write a Star Wars-themed book.
Warren said that using the machine, he had obtained a second home in Puerto Rico, a pair of discounted high-quality headphones, and a deal to write a Star Wars-themed book about how to 'draw on the universe's energy to achieve your dreams.' Of course, you don't just tune a wishing machine and then wait for the keys of your beach house to arrive in the mail.
'You can't just kick back and wish for something and hope it's going to materialize,' says Warren. 'What you have to do is set the intention and then you go out and you interact with the world and see the opportunity present itself.'
In the case of his vacation home, for instance, he says he placed a photo of a sandy beach on his witness plate, tuned the machine, and shortly thereafter accepted a ghost-hunting gig in Puerto Rico, where he just happened to meet a real estate agent who showed him the house he eventually bought. The kicker? The photo—which he chose randomly off the Internet—showed the beach where his new home would be.
Like a fusty skeptic, I asked him why this wasn't just a coincidence.
'The wishing machine seems to operate via coincidence,' he told me.
These kinds of explanations can make you feel like you're running in circles. The people I talked to do believe there is a scientific basis for how radionics works—but that we just don't understand it yet. Several times the science-fiction author Arthur C. Clarke's famous line was quoted to me: 'Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.' Quantum physics was mentioned frequently. But they also believe there is something more—energy, consciousness, or even magic—that makes explanation difficult or even impossible.
It is hard to investigate the ethereal thinking around radionics, but physics is something that can be parsed. So I got in touch with Chad Orzel, a physics professor at Union College in New York and the author of several popular science books, including How To Teach Quantum Physics to Your Dog. This sounded about my speed, and I ran a few ideas about physics and radionics past him, particularly 'quantum entanglement,' which several people offered as evidence that radionics is possible.
'Entanglement is a very strange phenomenon,' says Orzel. 'But it's a very real thing.'
Basically, entanglement is the idea that two particles, separated by a great distance, can be shown to correlate with each other. By measuring one of the particles, you can be guaranteed to know the state of the other one, even though it's miles away. (Researchers in the Netherlands recently claimed to have proven this theory using particles encased in diamonds.) Quantum entanglement may be the key to building next-generation super-fast quantum computers, or to developing nearly unbreakable quantum cryptography. At the moment, though, it's a fascinating real phenomenon without many practical applications.
'People try to invoke this as a way of justifying ESP sorts of things: 'Well, maybe electrons in your brain are entangled with electrons somewhere else.' There's a couple of problems with it,' Orzel says.
The main one is that the particles used in such experiments were at some point in contact with each other, and scientists took great care during their separation to maintain that relationship. (It is the conscious uncoupling of the science world.) The same can't be said of other electrons sloshing around in the universe.
'If you look at it in a slightly incorrect way, it seems like you're influencing things a really long way away,' says Orzel. 'But what you're really doing is you're just making manifest a correlation that already existed because these two things interacted in the past.'
Suffice to say, Orzel is no fan of radionics.
'If you think carefully about it—it's just amazing that the universe works that way,' he says. 'But it's not quite as amazing as being able to use your thoughts to do magic. So it's frustrating in the way that it takes away from the wonder of the actual theory [of quantum entanglement]. Because it's not some crazy fictional version of magic. The reality is really pretty awesome in its own right.'
It is easy, and typical, to laugh at people who buy into things like radionics. But despite their dubious scientific backing, related ideas have completely crossed over to the mainstream in recent years. The United States government has been so intrigued by the psychic possibilities of the mind that it has expended no small amount of effort investigating it. The 2006 book The Secret, which promoted the idea that sending good thoughts out into the world produced positive results, sold more than 19 million copies. (It was also drubbed in The New York Times.) On a regular basis, my yoga teacher encourages me (and the dozen or so other people in the class, who may or may not think of themselves as 'woo-woo') to 'set my intention' before practice, and broadcast groovy vibes to someone I love.
So, though radionics is on the fringe, the fringe is coming closer to the center. It's now just something everyone tolerates (everyone who does yoga, anyway). Which does not make it true, or even good. It just means that under the right circumstances we are all probably capable of believing in things that other people think are impossible or ridiculous.
Like anything, a belief in the metaphysical can be passed down through families. Kelly inherited his father's radionics business. Warren grew up listening to ghost stories. A man I talked to who runs an online radionics forum told me his father was a hypnotherapist and paranormal investigator.
But Max says that—if anything—he is rebelling against a straight-laced upbringing.
Here on the bright San Francisco coffeehouse patio, there is little to reveal this rebellion. Max is soft-spoken and modestly attired. Sitting in front of a stack of his papers, we could be a couple of teachers going over our lesson plans. We could be doing our taxes.
Max was born in Detroit. His father worked for IBM and his family moved around a lot (IBM stands for 'I've been moved,' he jokes.) He got a degree in theater arts and became an audio engineer. He tried New York but ended up in San Francisco where he fell into the late-'70s punk scene, working both on and offstage, playing bass and synthesizer. Eventually Max would go on to do audio engineering for acts like Destiny's Child and tour the world with Daft Punk. He still works as an audio engineer.
'It's hard to be classified as crazy for doing anything in Berkeley.'
Max first learned about radionics while reading science fiction magazines as a kid. He filed it under interesting, but there wasn't much he could do about it then. Then his newly acquired engineering skills collided with the Bay Area's permissive acceptance of alternative philosophies. ('It's hard to be classified as crazy for doing anything in Berkeley.') He got into steampunk, started playing the theremin and—almost on a whim—built a Hieronymus box. He did it as an experiment, as much an art project as anything else. Then he tried to use it and felt the telltale 'stick'.
Hooked, Max delved into the radionics community. He started a blog ('Aetheric Arts'), he moderates a Facebook group, he went to a convention.
'I found that, for me,' he says, sighing, 'a lot of the people involved in it are also involved in the kind of fringe I don't have a lot of respect for. There were a lot of anti-vaxxers and anti-GMO people and government conspiracy theorists, and that's not my cup of tea.'
He has distanced himself from the community since then, but still experiments with his boxes.
Unlike most of the other people I talked to, Max says he uses the machines for healing purposes and doesn't really fiddle around with the idea of bringing riches or other perks into his life. ('Might as well be praying.') He extends his services to family and friends, doesn't advertise, doesn't charge, and believes the power of radionics to be supplemental to traditional medical care. He says he has helped ease his own neck pain, diagnose a friend's mysterious lethargy (it was a problem with her left ventricle) and treated his 94-year-old mother's constipation, among other successes.
Today, unfortunately, as we sit in the shade, regarding Max's machinery and careful notes, there is not much to be revealed or accomplished by his handsome Hieronymus machine. My aura is just okay, but other than that there is nothing wrong with me, nothing interesting or shocking for the machine to impart or improve about my state of being. But the point of our meeting, really, was not to check out my aura but to give me a chance to investigate the esoteric promises of radionics myself. We did, after all, agree about the relative number of that plant. I felt something (or at least convinced myself I felt something) similar to what Max was feeling.
Was that sensation a cosmic record scratch? If it was, it was anticlimactic.
We chat a bit longer and then I ask him how he would feel if there were a massive scientific study and in the end the verdict was that radionics was all bunk? Would Max be upset, would he feel like he had wasted a bunch of time?
He insists that he wouldn't.
'I would think, what a pretty box I made.'
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