(Investigator 212, 2023 September)

In the latter part of the 19th century and early in this, tests conducted on Douglas Blackburn and G. A. Smith by the Society for Psychical Research revealed some of the most compelling scientific evidence of the existence of thought transference, or telepathy.

In 1882, the heyday of Spiritualism, Blackburn, who was the editor of a weekly journal in Brighton, met G. A. Smith, a 19 year old accomplished hypnotist whom he considered to be a genius. Shortly afterwards they entered into a compact practising thought-reading.

One of their exhibitions was described fully and enthusiastically in a spiritualistic paper and attracted the attention of Messrs. Myers, Gurney, and Podmore of the Society for Psychical Research who requested a private demonstration.

The committee who designed the protocol for the test were very thorough and cognizant of possible trickery. Blackburn, recounting the experiment in the Daily News of September 1, 1911 had this to say:

“Smith sat at a table, his eyes padded with wool and bandaged with a thick dark cloth. His ears were filled with a layer of cotton-wool and plugged with pellets of putty. His entire body and the chair on which he sat were enveloped in two very heavy blankets. I remember, when he emerged triumphant, he was wet with perspiration, and the paper on which he had successfully drawn the figure was so moist that it broke during the examination by the delighted observers. Beneath his feet and surrounding his chair were thick, soft rugs, rightly intended to deaden and prevent signals by feet shuffles...a nice the farther side of...a very large dining room, Mr Myers showed me, with every precaution, the drawing that I was to transmit to the brain beneath the blankets. It was a tangle of heavy black lines, interlaced, some curved, some straight, the sort of thing an infant playing with a pen or pencil might produce...I took it, fixed my gaze on it, pacing the room meanwhile...but always keeping out of touching distance of Smith...I drew and redrew the figure many times, openly in the presence of the observers, in order, as I explained, to fix it in my brain. I conveyed to Smith the agreed signal that I was ready by stumbling against the edge of the thick rug near his chair. Next instant he exclaimed, “I have it." His right hand came from beneath the blanket, saying, “Where's my pencil?” Immediately I placed mine on the table. He took it and a long and anxious pause occupied about five minutes during which time I was sitting exhausted with the mental effort quite ten feet away.

Presently Smith threw back the blanket, and excitedly pushing back the eye bandage produced the drawing, which was done on a piece of notepaper and very nearly on the same scale as the original. It was a splendid copy.”

Smith subsequently became Edmund Gurney’s secretary and Blackburn went to South Africa where he became a successful writer.


The Smith-Blackburn experiment was one of the first investigations carried out by the Committee on Thought Transference set up by the Society for Psychical Research in 1882, and at the time was alleged to have provided the best evidence to date for telepathy. However, in 1908 Blackburn confessed that the act was fraudulent and had been accomplished by sleight of hand - he had secretly drawn the image on a cigarette paper and transferred it to the brass tube projector on his pencil. When he stumbled against the edge of the rug this was the agreed signal for Smith to exclaim, “I have it”, and to ask for a pencil. Under the blanket Smith had a luminous painted slate which gave sufficient light to see what was on the cigarette paper and to copy it with great accuracy.

Further reading:

Brandon, Ruth. 1984. The Spiritualists. Prometheus Books. Buffalo, 14215. NY.

Hansel, C.E.M. 1980. ESP and Parapsychology. A Critical Re-evaluation. Prometheus Books. Buffalo. 14215. NY.

Kurtz, Paul. (Ed.) 1985. A Handbook of Parapsychology. Prometheus Books. Buffalo. 14215. NY.

From: Edwards, H. 1994 Magic Minds Miraculous Moments,  Harry Edwards Publications