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Transmissions from the Timothy Leary Papers: Experiments in Teletype to Tele-Thought


The Experiential TypewriterThe Experiential TypewriterAs both a psychologist and innovator, Timothy Leary was interested in the role technology played in transmitting human thoughts and feelings. Although his earlier research focused on the assessment of personality, it's not unexpected that the problem of communication would concern him after his experiences with mind-expanding drugs. For those with an interest in technological gadgets and how they affect our interaction with others, the Leary papers document some unusual and creative ideas in human communication.

His early experiments with psilocybin and other drugs required the reporting of test subjects' psychedelic experiences. He and his colleague Richard Alpert (Director of the Center for Research in Personality) conducted drug studies for psilocybin, mescaline and LSD at Harvard University. Written accounts or "session reports" were an important aspect of these studies, allowing the participant to describe the experience in their own words. Unfortunately, the alteration of time and space while under the influence of these drugs, along with the ineffable nature of the experience, made it difficult for test subjects to describe the experience during and concluding their session.

The Experiential Typewriter

Grappling with this problem, Leary and others sought a method of recording the vast amount of information that comes to a person with a consciousness-expanding experience using a short-hand device called The Experiential Typewriter. Created and designed by Dr. Ogden Lindsley (Harvard Medical School) and William Getzinger, (Electronic Engineer, MIT Lincoln Laboratory), Leary promoted its concept and design in the journal, The Psychedelic Review 7 (1966).

The device was made up of a keyboard and twenty pen recorder using an Esterline-Angus operation recorder and console. Ideally, the keyboard symbols or codes would be individualized for the user. One key-stroke would correlate to a reaction or feeling, recorded onto polygraph paper.

Richard Alpert testing the Experiential TypewriterRichard Alpert testing the Experiential Typewriter

Keyboard lamps would illuminate the keys for sessions in darkened rooms. Other potential design features included phone connections for communication from another room to the test subject, multiple keyboards per console for telepathy tests, or a second polygraph recorder to measure physiological changes.

A Tele-thought Appliance

Fast forward twenty years and issues in communication, neurological potential, and resulting technological tools for transmitting thoughts were still repeatedly touched upon in his writings. Naturally, the theme of instant, high-speed communication was embraced by Leary in the use of personal computers and the Internet. He developed a line of software products he called "Natural Intelligence Mind Appliances (NIMAs) such as MIND MIRROR. In 1986, he proposed a "Tele-thought" communication system to aid in the film adaptation of William Gibson's cyberpunk novel, Neuromancer.

Essentially an instant messaging system for thoughts between networked colleagues, his description for the Tele-thought system reads a bit like a modernized proposal for the experimental typewriter. In a memo drafted 20 March 1986, Leary describes the problems with communication using available technology: telephones convert "vocal words" into electric impulses, yet these converted "oral" words mean different things to different people; teletype machines convert written words into electric impulses and can "link up everybody," but, he writes, "words do not convey what people think. Indeed, words are usually used to disguise thought." He goes on to explain:

"Television converts filmed images into electronic signals which are much more powerful than words. But the images that one sends to others via TV are usually designed to evoke a response from the passive viewer and usually do not express the thoughts of the sender… MIND MIRROR is a Tele-Thought Appliance. It allows you to digitalize any thought and screen it for others. We expect that within a few years Tele-Thought Appliances will be as indispensable as telephones, teletypes, television in human communication. Note: Tele-Thought is totally voluntary. The person uses MIND MIRROR only when she wants to see what's on her mind; he shows his thoughts only when he wishes others to know what he thinks. The NEUROMANCER crew could be the first team in the league to use this device."

In the revised edition of his autobiography Flashbacks (1990), Leary wrote that within fifteen to thirty years "everyone who owns a television set will be spending almost all of their Screen Time actively zooming around inside the digital ocean and interacting busily with others" as opposed to passively consuming entertainment and other media. Clearly Leary was prescient regarding his predictions on the importance of social media and the Internet. It is yet to be seen if his Tele-thought concept (with a nod to its predecessor: the experiential typewriter) will surface and attain popularity.

More information regarding his ideas on NIMAs and the Experiential Typewriter will be available to researchers in Leary's unpublished writings, such as "Tranart: The Communication of the Ecstatic Experience" and drafts from his memoirs; along with his Mind Mirror and Neuromancer project files, correspondence; and the many photographs from their 1960s test sessions.


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(Can I please just clarify the above comment: this article originally spoke of "the experimental typewriter," which really is an easy mistake to make because Leary's invention was an experimental typewriter! ...but also an experiential one.)

The name is Experiential. Not

The name is Experiential. Not Experimental. Check out Leary's text.

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