Vintage Tech: Learn While You Sleep (Hypnopaedia)

Snooze studies, brainwashing, and an urban sleep fest beneath the stars

It’s sometimes easy to forget that our technologically complex world wasn’t created out of whole cloth. Or that it wasn’t always here. Without an awareness of the past, “the sense of time falls in upon itself,” writes Lewis Lapham, “collapsing like an accordion into the evangelical present.”

Vintage Tech,” a column by B. Alexandra Szerlip, will examine some of the under-the-radar stories, personalities and techniques that inform our 21st century lives.

Americans “have no time—so they say!” observed a Frenchman traveling stateside in the 1890s. “They work so hard—so they must affirm! Competition is so bitter. ‘We must hustle,’ ‘we must hurry up.’ Capital phrase, that: Hurry Up.”

“In the West,” observed British anthropologist Stephen Hugh-Jones more than half a century later, “time is like gold. You save it, you lose it, you waste it, or you don’t have enough of it.” The Barasana, an Amazonian tribe Hugh-Jones devoted much of his career to, have no word for time.

Not surprising, then, that the notion of Sleep Learning first surfaced in the New World. In New York City to be exact.

It’s also not surprising that it surfaced when it did. Having emerged relatively unscathed from the First World War, Americans were in more of a hurry than ever. Speed was all. Thanks to mass production, there was ‘convenience,’ ‘streamlining’ and ‘labor-saving’  at every turn. Tea bags and instant coffee. Throwaway razor blades and disposable condoms. Motor cars, telephones, and airplanes. Artists were busy deconstructing time into slices and jags, scientists into atoms and quasars. Even the Grim Reaper was adapting to the new century, with heart attacks (a quicker exit) displacing tuberculosis.

All the more reason to “dream up” ways to convert “lost” nocturnal hours into “productive” use. Given a lifetime of, say, seventy-five years, at an average of eight hours sleep per night, that’s 219,000 hours, or 9,125 days, or a quarter century “wasted.” A third of one’s life! And that’s not counting the extended sleeping habits of babies, children and teenagers.


Workaholic Thomas Edison considered sleep “an absurdity, a bad habit,” claiming he got by very nicely on three hours a night. “Sleep, those little slices of death,” complained master-of-darkness Edgar Allan Poe. echoing a popular 19th century paradigm. “How I loathe them.” Thanatos was, after all, Hypnos’s brother.

Following the 1922 publication of the hugely popular Self-Mastery Through Conscious Autosuggestion (“Day by Day, in Every Way, I’m Getting Better and Better”), the brainchild of French psychotherapist Emile Coue, self-improvement was all the rage, laying the groundwork for Dale Carnegie’s endlessly reissued mega-bestseller How to Win Friends & Influence People (first released in 1936, it proved a hit in Nazi Germany) and, ultimately, today’s  $2.5 billion “self-help” industry.


Hypnopaedia aka Sleep Learning had been thrust upon the public in 1921, courtesy of a Science and Invention Magazine cover story. Echoing Poe, Hugo Gernsback informed his readers that sleep “is only another form of death,” but our subconscious “is always on the alert.” If we could “superimpose” learning on our sleeping senses, would it not be “an inestimable boon to humanity?” Would it not “lift the entire human race to a truly unimaginable extent?”

Hugo Gernsback demonstrating his TV Goggles

Gernsback proposed that talking machines, operating on the Poulsen Telegraphone Principle (magnetic recordings on steel wires) be installed in people’s bedrooms. The recordings library would be housed in a large central exchange; subscribers could place their orders by radiophone. Then, between midnight and 6 a.m., requests  would be “flashed out,” over those same radiophones, onto reels, each with enough wire to last for an hour of continuous service. Eight reels would give the sleeper enough material for a whole nights’ work!

In other words, in 1921 he anticipated the first spoken word LPs (Caedmon Records, est. 1952), Books of Tape (est. 1975) and the first digitally downloaded audio books (mid-1990s).

Want to learn? Be entertained? Up to you. Eight hours of history at a stretch would likely be too much for the mind to absorb. Subscribers would be free to switch things up. A romance or adventure novel? The latest opera?

The recordings would be transmitted from reel to “sleep reader” through a pair of rubber ear tubes. Granted, the head gear might take some getting used to, and it might take a few months for the subconscious “to take note,” but it was “almost certain that, in time, a lasting impression” would be made upon “the brain center.” It’s remarkable how many things the human body is able to absorb! Gernsback exclaimed. Learning, which is remembering, is like any other practice.  Once accustomed, “there is no doubt that in the morning, we will remember everything we hear during the night.”

He’d been playing with the idea for at least a decade, having introduced the Hypnobioscope—along with radar, TV (and channel surfing), solar energy, tape recorders, space flight, synthetic food, and any number of other crazy notions—in his 1911 novel, Ralph 124C 41+.

In the article’s last sentence, the author admitted that “all of the above is merely theoretical, of course.” But the still-to-be-built machine would doubtless be in operation “in the not-distant future.”

Madcap? Maybe. Hugo Gernsback was well-versed in electronics. Before the decade was over, he would found KRNY Radio (which sponsored some of the very first television broadcasts), as well as Amazing Stories, the first magazine devoted to science fiction. (The prestigious Hugo Award, established in 1953 to honor the best in sci-fi and fantasy writing, was named after Gernsback.)

By 1923, Hypnopaedia was allegedly being used, with some success, to teach Morse Code to U.S. Marines.


Enter Alois Benjamin Saliger, a tall, spare, Manhattan-based Czech whose previous patents included a rapid-fire centrifugal gun and a burrowing machine (great for dredging up sunken vessels). In 1927, six years after Science and Inventions’ cover story hit the stands, Saliger unleashed his crowning achievement, the Psycho-Phone, an “Automatic Time-Controlled Suggestion Machine.” One of the monthly ads he ran in popular psychology magazines quoted the “eminent” but unfortunately-named Dr. Quackenbos: “Suggestion during sleep is the great psychological miracle.”

The Psycho-Phone

The Psycho-Phone harnesses “the actual working principle utilized by the Supermen of all ages and places it at your service,” assured another ad. “You can make yourself over in accordance with your own specifications… Tell us in confidence your particular desire or need…”

Priced at $235 (some $3-4k today), the Psycho-Phone (“a wonder-working talisman!”) consisted of an Edison-like phonograph (Gernsback had insisted that an ordinary Edison photograph would be too grating and distracting), a return mechanism that drew back the carriage, and a clock timer to trigger “play” every hour on the hour.

Noting the latest technologies in his best-selling Men and Machines (1929), social theorist Stuart Chase mentioned a device  “invented to inculcate foreign languages by feeding the unconscious” during sleep using earphones attached to a victrola (“I do not hope much from it”), alongside rumors of a new contraceptive “whose spermatocidal function depends upon the generation of an electric current.”

Eventually, Saliger provided more than a dozen wax cylinders with titles like “Prosperity” (to attract money), “Inspiration” (to promote genius) and “Mating.” His most popular cylinders were reproduced in Spanish (Saliger claimed a thriving Latin American clientele), and a circular with excerpts from testimonials was printed up.

Aware that the pot was being stirred, Gernsback took the opportunity to run a piece, by pulp writer David H. Keller, in his newly minted Amazing Stories that suggested another use for Saliger’s device—working in reverse to transfer and preserve a person’s unspoken thoughts: Then:

 “… at any future time, the small glass cylinder could be inserted into a radio to repeat the thought. This machine has completely supplanted the pen and typewriter in the commercial literary and educational life.”

It’s hard to tell if Gernsback was mocking Saliger from the sidelines, applauding him, giving a nod to Edison (who speculated about a “spirit machine” sensitive enough to record messages from the Afterlife), or simply exercising his sci-fi bent.

By 1933, Saliger was claiming he’d sold more than 2,500 Psycho-phones to customers as far afield as China and South Africa, as well as to “lots of movie actors” whose names he wasn’t at liberty to divulge. Business partners (with conveniently deep pockets) had been found, melancholy dispersed, skin conditions cleared up, weight lost. More than fifty customers had reputedly found lasting companionship; one of them, having overcome an inferiority complex and been healed of a baseball injury, was now, he wrote in thanks, the expectant father of “a Psycho-Phone baby.”


Things quieted down until the late 1950s when, risen from apparent slumber, Hypnopaedia was back in the news, thanks in part to a controversial prison experiment lauded in a Mechanix Illustrated cover story.

“The small voice under your pillow can teach you anything,” ran the magazine’s cover line, “from self-confidence to college math.” Or help you “unlearn” anything from thumb-sucking and bed-wetting to speech defects and claustrophobia. The latest buzzwords were“ dormiphonics,” “automatophone” and “snooze study.” 

Technological progress was “proceeding at a bewilderingly rapid pace,” as evidenced by Helen McGrath, a formerly skeptical Vancouver newspaper reporter who was speaking Spanish—“haltingly but understandably”—after only seven nights, the equivalent of six months of study! Companies from California to France were vying for a piece of the pie under the watchful eye of the Federal Trade Commission.

“In the last 20 years, man has piled up more complex lore than the world accumulated in the preceding thousand years. There are just so many hours in the day during which to cram all this leaning into our heads. Man has to sleep sometimes. He might as well be able to use that time, not only to refresh his body but to amass more knowledge… in the most painless way possible!”

According to the Wall Street Journal, 100,000 people had already enrolled in some form of sleep learning program.


But Hypnopaedia was also being portrayed as something considerably darker, thanks to two bestselling novels: The Manchurian Candidate (which promoted the term “brainwashing,” coined during World War II) and Brave New World, the former by a retired Disney film publicist, the latter by a British intellectual.

“Alpha children wear grey,” Aldous Huxley wrote, describing how a state-controlled caste system was drummed into the brains of sleeping babies:

They work much harder than we do, because they’re so frightfully clever. I’m really awfully glad I’m a Beta… Gammas are stupid… And Epsilons are still worse….” The suggestions “were like drops of liquid sealing wax,” adhering, encrusting and incorporating themselves “until at last the child’s mind is these suggestions … and the adult’s mind, too.”

“One hundred repetitions three nights a week for four years,” rages a disgruntled Bernard, whose job is to help implement the process. “Sixty-two thousand four hundred repetitions make one truth. Idiots!”

“The lust for power,” Huxley wrote George Orwell, congratulating him on his “profoundly important” book 1984,can be just as completely satisfied by suggesting people into loving their servitude as by flogging them and kicking them into obedience.”

Now at work on Brave New World Revisited, Huxley turned his eye to the recent indoctrination experiment featured in Mechanix Illustrated. One hundred convict “volunteers” in the Woodland Road Camp near Visalia, California had slept with speakers under their pillows that connected to a phonograph in the Warden’s office.

I am filled with compassion and love for all. so help me God.

I shall attain self-respect and maturity.

Alcohol is repulsive to me.

More than half the convicts, Mechanix Ilustrated informed its readers, had reported “substantial benefits.”

Was this method something that government agencies should be allowed to use, unregulated and at their discretion? What if, Huxley asked, it wasn’t volunteers, or administrators with the best intentions?

Huxley had done his homework. Hypnopaedia gadget manufacturers told him that clients ran the gamut from students cramming for exams, politicians and preachers “who want to give the illusion of being extemporaneously eloquent” to those who wished to be “suggested or autosuggested” into becoming something other than what they were. The most sought-after recordings were Sexual Harmony and Weight Loss. Huxley, who despised popular culture, took a moment to parody the latter:

I am cold to chocolate.

Insensible to the lure of potatoes.

Utterly unmoved by muffins.

According to the latest scientific research, Huxley determined that a fifth of the electorate could be hypnotized “in the twinkling of an eye,” a seventh could be tricked by placebos, and a quarter by Hypnopaedia. Add to these “all too cooperative minorities” the “slow-starting majorities”—those who are awake or at least think they are. As the Buddhists insist, “most of us are half-asleep all the time and go through life as somnambulists.”

Thanks to the electroencephalograph, REM (rapid-eye movement) sleep had just been identified. This ‘light sleep,’ with its dreams and alpha waves, was seen as ripe territory for suggestibility, giving new meaning to Hamlet’s soliloquy.

“To sleep, perchance to dream—ay, there’s the rub!”

The cortex, Huxley wrote, “may be too inactive to think straight but it’s alert enough to respond to suggestions and to pass them on to the autonomic nervous system.” Small children, the sick, and those who’d recently undergone surgery, he noted, had proven particularly susceptible.

“For a would-be dictator, the moral of all this is plain,” he continued. Every hospital ward would be wired for sound, every labor camp, military barracks, ship at sea, along with “the dismal waiting rooms in bus terminals and railway stations.”

Anticipating, by more than half a century, social media’s role as a frighteningly effective disseminator of ‘fake news’, Huxley added, “Can democratic institutions survive the subversion of skilled mind-manipulators,” those who know how and are prepared to go to the trouble—businessmen, Ecclesiastics, politicians “in and out of power?”

No one seemed to have ever broached the idea that nighttime learning tapes might interfere with the body’s ability to rest and recharge.


Hypnopaedia, meanwhile, had been commandeered by Hollywood as a plot device. Invasion of the Body Snatchers (original title: Sleep No More) and Manchurian Candidate (the film version far less lurid than the book) were followed by Clockwork Orange and TV sit-coms like My Three Sons, The Patty Duke Show, and I Spy.

From A Clockwork Orange, 1971

In the 1990s, at the same time that Dr. Gordon Shaw’s “Mozart effect” (a theory that listening to classical music makes you smarter) was getting media attention, Sleep Learning provided comic TV relief in The Simpsons (Homer orders weight-loss hypnosis tapes but gets sent the wrong ones), Friends (Chandler’s stop-smoking sessions lead to gender confusion), and at least one early computer game.

These days, thanks to the demands of our 24/7 lives, slumber is very much in the news.  Sleep, notes Harvard cognitive neuroscientist Robert Stickgold, isn’t merely “down time” between episodes of being alive. Much of the “civilized”world apparently thinks otherwise. In 2014, the Center for Disease Control labeled sleep deprivation a public health hazard of epidemic proportion. Over the last hundred years, writes UC Berkeley neuroscientist Matthew Walker, humankind has “abandoned what evolution spent 3,400,000 years perfecting in the service of life-supporting functions.”

Books on the correlation between sleep, motor skills, cognitive performance, blood pressure, diabetes, stress, depression and obesity, even between sleep and creative breakthroughs, abound. As for the so-called “sleepless elite” (Donald Trump, Margaret Thatcher, Martha Stewart, and various other top-tier CEOs) who claim that, like Napoleon, Ben Franklin, Nikola Tesla and the aforementioned Edison (geniuses all), they’re immune to a 7-to-8-hour baseline—Thomas Roth of Detroit’s Henry Ford Sleep Disorders Center puts it this way:

“The percentage of the population who need less than five hours of sleep per night, rounded to the whole number, is zero.”

Like deep space and deep oceans, sleep remains something of a frontier. We know that all living creatures, from insects and hummingbirds to mammoth whales, sleep. We know that, deprived of it long enough, we die. And we know that Sleep Learning, for all its short-cut allure is, as Professor Steven Brown of the University of Zurich diplomatically puts it, “highly overstated.”

That said, it’s looking increasingly likely that sleep serves to strengthen and consolidate some existing short-term memories, moving them into longterm “storage” in the prefrontal cortex. As for new learning, it “might indeed be possible,” notes Dr. Bjorn Rasch, one of the world’s top authorities, but “the effects are small.”

A different kind of sleep experience took place earlier this year, thanks to British composer Max Richter’s ambitious, eight-and-a-half hour concert “lullaby,”a composition informed by the latest sleep “sound frequency” research. Sold-out indoor performances in New York and Austin were followed by a sold-out outdoor performance in a downtown Los Angeles park. All featured Richter on piano, keyboards and electronics, in collaboration with a cellist, a violinist, and a soprano steeped in the Baroque.

Even Hugo Gernsback, whose futuristically fertile imagination conjured up the Hypnobioscope more than a century ago, might have been surprised by the idea of 560 strangers—each having spent $80 for the privilege—laying on strategically placed cots beneath a full moon, in the heart of a city of four million inhabitants, for an almost primeval coming together, an elaborate serenade that began at 10:30 p.m., concluded at sunrise, and was intentionally designed to put them to sleep. A uniquely intimate and vulnerable one-night stand on a grand scale.

Given our increasingly data-saturated world, “The piece is a big space which you kind of dream into,” Richter told CBS News, “and it blocks out everything else. It stops the chatter in our brains and allows us to look at the big things in our lives that we’re too busy to look at or don’t want to look at.”

Snoring was acceptable. No alcohol, mobile phones or psycho-phones were allowed.

More Reads

Let Essayistic Fiction Help You

Adam Colman

Off Brand Video #2: Erica Magrey’s Gimme Fever

Patty Gone

A Review of: Fascination: Memoirs by Kevin Killian

Shiv Kotecha