Water Divining on Kangaroo Island

(Investigator #18, 1991 May)

Divining for water or metals is an ancient practice still with us.

The water diviner or "dowser" holds a T-shaped rod or stick in both bands and walks around. When he goes over a patch containing underground water the stick points downward.

Below I've reproduced two pages from The Origins of Popular Superstitions (1910) by T.S. Knowlson. The author was a skeptic in almost all of the superstitions he discussed. However, that water divining genuinely worked, he considered virtually a "fact".

American exposer of quackery, James Randi, as well as a number of other researchers have put dowsers and dowsing to the test. In scientific tests the dowsers nearly always do no better than chance predicts. In July 1980, for example, eight dowsers were tested in Sydney using ten plastic pipes buried under 10 centimetres of soil. The idea was to use divining rods to detect which pipe at any time had water flowing through it. The dowsers had predicted a success rate of over 90% but instead scored only about 13%. This was better by a little than chance would predict, but not significantly better.

The German Tribune (1989, March 19, No 1363) reported a two-year investigation of dowsing in Munich, Germany:

Scientists try to divine the watery truth

... Hans Dieter Betz, a physics professor in Munich, is one of the two heads of an investigation into divining rods.

The findings are to be made public in April, but he had some comments to make in advance: "Our work over the past two years has shown that it is most probable that the results are not accidental."

Professor Betz was circumspect because the project has been criticised considerably.

The Association for Scientific Investigation of Para-science suspects that there are loopholes in the research arrangements.

In an open letter to the Scientific Research Ministry in Bonn the association said that its experiments had been supported by grants worth DM400,000. But, the letter said, research projects in the Federal Republic should not be held up to public ridicule, international ridicule in fact.

The Ministry had no intention of this, said a Ministry spokesman. "Otherwise we would have called the projects off."

The experiments involved 11 scientists in disciplines ranging from biochemistry, computer science to radiobiology.

Neither the participants in the experiments, that is the diviners, nor the experimenters themselves knew where in the tests, the place to be traced was.

According to Professor Betz water pipes were laid in the basement of a barn. The diviner had to discover its precise location from the storey above.

In another experiment the blindfolded diviner had to find the same spot every time, operating from a catwalk in the open air.

Professor Betz said: "Of course the diviner always began from a different starting point and without being able to orient himself."

The professor came to two conclusions in these tests. He said that in the first place most diviners exaggerated their abilities. "They simply did not find the right spot all that often, and not as exactly as they claimed."

He continued: "Some of the participants found the exact spot more frequently, which cannot be explained as accidental entirely."

The Munich research team hopes shortly to have discussions with hydrologists and geologists. They are the most skeptical about the activities of diviners...

I was exposed to dowsing last October on Kangaroo Island. It happened at Western Cove, a village on the shore of Nepean Bay and about 15 kilometres from Kingscote, the main town.

Mark and his wife, new arrivals to the area, were building a house from rocks collected on beaches and from waste wood and metal found on the Kingscote dump. Mark showed me his well, one metre deep, from which came the water for cement work on his house and for his garden. "I found that with a divining rod", he explained.

Mark's neighbour, Terry, erected a prefabricated house two years ago. He lives there with wife and daughters, and is regularly joined by relatives who drop in from Adelaide. Terry, like Mark, has a well which he found by water divining.

Terry showed me his method. He used wire from two coat hangers, bent at one end to form a handle, and held parallel to each other. When the tips of the two wires move together it indicates that there is water below.

Terry demonstrated, tramping back and forth on his property. And at several spots the two wires did move together. "If we dug here, we'd get water," explained Terry.

I tried it too. In several instances I attempted it with a sense of anticipation and cooperation and it worked. In several other instances I adopted a skeptical nothing-will happen attitude and nothing did. I suspect, therefore, that what made the two wires move or not move were semi-conscious or unconscious changes in muscle tension in the hands and arms and slight departures of the wires from a strictly horizontal (parallel to the ground) position.

I tried it out on Terry's well, where I knew there was water, and later on the ocean itself — and nothing happened. Dowsing could not even indicate an ocean.

How did Mark and Terry, therefore, discover their wells? On the landward side of Western Cove is a semi circle of hills. From these hills water seeps underground towards the bay. Dig almost anywhere and you'll get water. I came across four other wells and all had water. Near the shore, and scattered along the coast for a kilometre, are six ponds scooped out by bulldozer decades ago and all have water.

My conclusion therefore agrees with Students Encyclopedia: "Scientific tests have not shown that dowsing is an accurate method of finding water." (1976, Volume 6, p. 79)

The following is extracted from:

The Origins of Popular Superstitions (1910) T.S. Knowlson


It is curious to read old authors, quite superstitious in some directions, who suggest the use of a forked hazel twig to find springs of water is "a vulgar notion"; for in modern times there has been not only a revival of the divining rod for this purpose, but dowsers, or water finders, are in regular employment.

So recently as 1882 there was a correspondence in The Times on this subject. Mr E. Vaughan Jenkins of Westbury and Mendip, Wells, Somerset, wrote as follows:—

"You may possibly like to hear of my experiences as to the divining rod. In July, 1876, that very hot summer, the old well under my house became fouled, and the water unfit to drink, so I decided on sinking another well, about one hundred yards from my house, if I were advised that water could be found there. The field is perfectly dry, and there is no appearance of water anywhere near where I wished to sink. I sent for a labouring man in the village who could 'work the twig,' as the divining rod is called here, and he came and cut a blackthorn twig out of my hedge, and proceeded around the field, and at one spot the twig became so violently affected that it flew out of his hands; he could not hold it. I may here observe that the village churchyard adjoins my field, and it was of consequence to me to know whether the spring went through or near the churchyard. So I asked the man to tell me which way the spring ran (of course under the ground), and he proceeded to follow up the spring, and found that it did not go near the churchyard.

Having some doubts as to this man, about a month after I heard of another man, living seven miles off, who, I had been told, could 'work the twig.' I sent for him, and he was quite unaware the first man had tried for water; and, to my astonishment, when he came near the spot indicated by the first man, he could not hold the twig, it was so much affected. I then asked him to tell me the course of the underground spring, and he went as near as possible to the first man—from about S.W. to N.E. I thereupon decided to sink a well, the last man assuring me that water was not very far down. At thirty-nine feet the well-sinker came upon a spring of most beautiful water, and there is in the well about thirty feet of water in the summer, and in the winter it is nearly full."1

Such narratives as this can be duplicated from literature of more recent date, and Mr Beaven, in his Tales of the Divining Rod, has given the whole subject of rod divination a thorough-going and up-to-date analysis.2

But why a rod? Why not divine without one?

The answer of history is that from Babylonian times, probably long before that, the rod was known to have some strange and unaccountable power when held in the hands of mesmeric operators; it was used, not very successfully, to discover ore bodies; it figures in all kinds of divination practices, as we can see from the pages of the Old Testament. Here, then, is a so-called superstition which bids fair to become in one specified direction an acknowledged fact. As yet it is purely unscientific; nobody seems to know why the twig held in the hand becomes agitated when near a spring, but of the fact itself doubt diminishes every year that passes.

1 Quoted in Popular Superstition, by G. L. Gomme, p. 317.
2 Professor W.F. Barrett and Sir Oliver Lodge have made satisfactory tests with dowsers.