In Brief

In Circe Elijah, the biblical prophet ostensibly reincarnated in American evangelist John Alexander Dowie, repeats the fantasy that Stephen indulged in Proteus of reaching the divine by telephone: "I am operating all this trunk line.... Book through to eternity junction, the nonstop run.... Are you all in this vibration?... It's just the cutest snappiest line out.... You call me up by sunphone any old time." Joyce was thinking of evangelist Thomas Jefferson Shelton's moneymaking claims of telepathic powers, but at the same time he probably also had in mind a recently invented device called the photophone that anticipated the fiberoptic communications of the present day.

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Alexander Graham Bell and his assistant Thomas Sumner Tainter invented the device in 1880. Bell regarded it as his "greatest achievement," more important even than the telephone, and had to be dissuaded from naming his second daughter Photophone. His invention worked much like a telephone but transmitted sounds over a beam of light rather than a copper wire. At the end of a speaking tube, a mirror made of thin flexible material responded to the variations in air pressure produced by the sound waves of the speaker's voice, becoming alternately concave and convex. These motions created corresponding pulses in the brightness of a beam of light reflected off the other side of the mirror. On the receiving end, a parabolic mirror focused the beam of light onto a photoreceptor, where its pulses were converted back into sound waves. The invention soon was made electronic, with electromagnetic earphones like those used in the telephone, but in its first iteration no electricity was involved: the device was fully photoacoustic.

Bell and Tainter successfully tested their photophone in three experiments in 1880. In the last and most ambitious of these, they achieved wireless communication between two rooftops about 700 feet (213 meters) apart in Washington, D.C., sending signals between them on a beam of reflected sunlight. The solar source of light for the device (Edison's development of commercially viable incandescent bulbs was happening at exactly the same time, so sunlight was the only powerful source available) did not, it seems, lead anyone to call it a "sunphone," but similar names were proposed. The French scientist Ernest Mercadier, another inventor of incandescent light bulbs, persuaded Bell for a while to use the term "radiophone" because the device's mirrors relied on the sun's radiant energy.

By 1904 telephones had gradually started to appear in cities (Ulysses mentions them in five chapters), and Marconi's radios were proving capable of transmitting signals over considerable distances, but the photophone was not a feature of everyday life. From 1901 to 1904 a German scientist named Ernst Ruhmer conducted a series of experiments that extended the device's range to several miles, using naval searchlights in some models to show that the technology could work even at night. The British navy, and other European armed forces, continued to develop and adopt photophones for several decades afterwards, so Joyce might well have heard reports of the device's potential when he began writing Circe in 1920.

It is possible that none of this technology lies behind Joyce's reference to a sunphone, because Thomas Jefferson Shelton popularized that word in the 1910s and 20s as an aspect of his cosmic vibrations. As Harald Beck and John Simpson note on a JJON page, the Miami Herald reported on 27 September 1916  that "T. J. Shelton advertises Sunphone and Sunsense, which ‘leads you into real and genuine telepathy so that you can talk to God, your neighbor, and yourself’. ‘Sunphone and Sunsense’, he says, is dictated by himself the way he thinks it ought to be written and taken down by his wife the way she thinks it ought to be written, thus giving the product of both brains and leaving the last word where it belongs both in new and old thought." On 15 October 1921 the Oakland Tribune advertised "Sunphone Sermons By T. J. Shelton, Preacher Writer Teacher" in the Hotel Oakland.

Given Joyce's prodigious propensity for layering multiple signifying contexts on top of one another, however, it makes sense to consider that he may be alluding both to Shelton and to the technological device. Indeed, it seems quite likely that reports of the revolutionary technology inspired Shelton to dream up a new catchy, lucrative label for marketing his telepathic gifts. Nothing in Beck and Simpson's reporting indicates that he treated the sunphone idea as anything other than a vague metaphor for instantaneous spiritual communication. In Joyce's hands, though, the telepathy involves telephony: Elijah operates a "trunk line" and offers his subscribers "the cutest snappiest line out." Following him, one can "Book through to eternity junction." The associative logic strongly recalls Stephen's thoughts in Proteus, where umbilical cords become telephone lines connecting mystic monks to the realm of divinity: "The cords of all link back, strandentwining cable of all flesh. That is why mystic monks. Will you be as gods? Gaze in your omphalos. Hello! Kinch here. Put me on to Edenville. Aleph, alpha: nought, nought, one."

If Elijah's words do mockingly combine a huckster's metaphysics with groundbreaking scientific technology, it would not be the first time that Joyce made such a seemingly bizarre connection. Far from seconding Baudelaire's suspicion that science and metaphysics are antithetical principles, Joyce repeatedly suggests that the burgeoning discoveries and inventions of the Victorian era promise to enlarge perception, understanding, and even emotional and spiritual experience. Elijah's words about vibrations and sunphones are bracketed by sounds of a gramophone singing "Jerusalem! Open your gates and sing Hosanna" and at the end of his spiel he joins in. In Hades Bloom thinks of the potential for gramophones and photographs to keep memories of the departed alive, and of putting telephones in coffins in case they wake up. The stereoscope becomes a fulcrum on which Stephen can toggle back and forth between ordinary perception and spiritual revelation. Parallax, based on the same optical principles, suggests the benefits of viewing one's experiences from multiple angles.

John Hunt 2023
Cover of March 1905 issue of Technical World showing Ernst Ruhmer listening to a photophone call. Source: Wikimedia Commons.
Illustration of Bell and Tainter's photophone transmitter in Amédée Guillemin's El Mundo Fisico (1882). Source: Wikimedia Commons.
Historical plaque on the wall of the Franklin School in Washington, D.C., from whose rooftop photophone communication was successfully demonstrated. Source: Wikimedia Commons.