ESP Teaching Machines, 1971 – 1973

Exhibit / January 11, 2017

Object Name: ESP teaching machines
Maker and Year: Stanford Research Institute (Harold Puthoff and Russell Targ), Circa 1971-1973
Object Type: Experimental apparatus
Image Source, leftMind-Reach: Scientists Look at Psychic Abilities by Russell Targ and Harold E. Puthoff
Image Source, center: Do You See What I See: Lasers and Love, ESP and the CIA, and the Meaning of Life by Russell Targ
Image Source, right: Unknown
Description: (Michael Grasso)

In the early 1970s, the Stanford Research Institute received funding and support from a number of sources (including the Central Intelligence Agency, Apollo 14 astronaut Edgar Mitchell’s Institute of Noetic Sciences, and est leader Werner Erhard) to look into psychic phenomena such as clairvoyance, ESP, and precognition. SRI researchers Harold Puthoff and Russell Targ worked with prominent pop psychics Ingo Swann and Uri Geller in what they soon called “remote viewing” experiments. As CIA funding dried up due to increased budget scrutiny in the aftermath of Watergate, Targ and Puthoff looked to other sources of funding. One of those sources was the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).

NASA had expressed interest in long-distance, speed-of-thought communication mediated by machines, possibly inspired by Soviet experimentation in “psychotronics” and cybernetics in the 1960s. The SRI team had previously built “ESP teaching machines” that prompted the subject to choose one of four randomly-generated colored lights. A correct choice scored a “hit” and, with enough consecutive hits, the test subject would see an “encouragement light,” which would display “strength tester on the midway”-style messages. (In ascending order of success, the messages on the ESP machine were: “A Good Beginning,” “ESP Ability Present,” “Outstanding,” “Useful at Las Vegas,” and “Psychic, Medium, Oracle!”) Incorrect choices or passes would cause the correct choice to light up in response. Targ and Puthoff hypothesized that a combination of encouragement and positive conditioning could train psychically sensitive individuals to hone their predictive powers. The machine in the photo on the far left (with the separate paper output module) is the prototype presented to NASA.

The “strength tester” messages were adapted from an earlier 1971 limited-run commercial version of the ESP Machine designed for arcades and pizza parlors. With the help of Bay Area tech entrepreneur and future Atari (1972) founder Nolan Bushnell, Targ released three ESP Machines to Silicon Valley-area pizza shops (Bushnell would also go on to found Chuck E. Cheese’s in 1977), but found it impossible to market the apparatus outside the paranormally-attuned Bay Area. The machine in the center photo features Bushnell’s and Targ’s machine in a 1971 San Francisco Chronicle article at one of these pizzerias, with Targ’s daughter Elizabeth operating it.

The ESP Machine in the photo on the right uses the five standard Zener cards instead of four colored lights. Invented in the 1930s for use in parapsychologist J.B. Rhine‘s experiments at Duke University by his colleague Karl Zener, they became a standard shorthand for ESP experimentation in the public eye, making appearances in an episode of In Search Of… (1977) and in the megahit Ghostbusters (1984).

6 thoughts on “ESP Teaching Machines, 1971 – 1973

    • Well, Targ and Puthoff’s final findings at SRI with Geller, Swann, and other psychics were inconclusive, but it wasn’t for lack of trying or, eventually, for lack of funding from the Defense Department. Into the late ’70s, Targ and Puthoff were the sine qua non “legit” remote viewing researchers and so attracted most of the attention of the U.S. government. To wit, the founding in 1978 of what would become Project STARGATE.

      If you have a few months, here’s a link to a gigantic zip file of declassified documents having to do with the government’s and SRI’s involvement in remote viewing research at archive.org. It’s fascinating stuff.

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