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Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature:
An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891.
Vols. IX–XI: Literature of the Republic, Part IV., 1861–1889

The Luminiferous Ether

By Edward Hitchcock (1793–1864)

[Born in Deerfield, Mass., 1793. Died at Amherst, Mass., 1864. From The Religion of Geology. 1852.]

NOW, the question arises, Do we know of any form of matter in the present world which remains the same at all temperatures, and in all circumstances, which no chemical or mechanical agencies can alter?—a substance which remains unchanged in the very heart of the ice around the poles, and in the focus of a volcano; which remains untouched by the most powerful reagents which the chemist can apply, and by the mightiest forces which the mechanician can bring to bear upon it? It seems to me that modern science does render the existence of such a substance probable, though not cognizable by the senses. It is the luminiferous ether, that attenuated medium by which light, and heat, and electricity are transmitted from one part of the universe to another, by undulations of inconceivable velocity. This strange fluid, whose existence and action seems all but demonstrated by the phenomena of light, heat, and electricity, and perhaps, too, by the resistance experienced by Encke’s, Biela’s, and Halley’s comets, must possess the extraordinary characteristic above pointed out. It must exist and act wherever we find light, heat, or electricity; and where do we not find them? They penetrate through what has been called empty space; and, therefore, this ether exists there, propagating its undulations at the astonishing rate of two hundred thousand miles per second. They emanate in constant succession from every intensely heated focus, such as the sun, the volcano, and the chemical furnace; and, therefore, this strange medium is neither dissipated nor affected by the strongest known heat. Both light and heat are transmitted through ice; and, therefore, this ether cannot be congealed. The same is true of glass, and every transparent substance, however dense; and even the most solid metals convey heat and electricity with remarkable facility; and, therefore, this ether exists and acts with equal facility in the most solid masses as in a vacuum. In short, it seems to be independent of chemical or mechanical changes, and to act unobstructed in all possible modifications of matter. And, though too evanescent to be cognizable by the senses, or the most delicate chemical and mechanical tests, it possesses, nevertheless, a most astonishing activity.

Now, I am not going to assert that the spiritual body will be composed of this luminiferous ether. But, since we know not the composition of that body, it is lawful to suppose that such may be its constitution. This is surely possible, and that is all which is essential to my present argument.

Admitting its truth, the following interesting conclusions follow:—

In the first place, the spiritual body would be unaffected by all possible changes of temperature. It might exist as well in the midst of fire, or of ice, as in any intermediate temperature. Hence it might pass from one extreme of temperature to another, and be at home in them all; and this is what we might hope for in a future world. Some, indeed, have imagined that the sun will be the future heaven of the righteous; and on this supposition there is no absurdity in the theory. Nor would there be in the hypothesis which should locate heaven in solid ice, or in the centre of the earth.

In the second place, on this supposition, the spiritual body would be unharmed by those chemical and mechanical agencies which matter in no other form can resist.

The question has often arisen, how the glorified body, if material, would be able to escape all sources of injury, so as to be immortal as the soul. In this hypothesis, we see how it is possible; for though the whole globe should change its chemical constitution, though worlds should dash upon worlds, the spiritual body, though present at the very point where the terrible collision took place, would feel no injury; and safe in its immortal habitation, the soul might smile amid “the wreck of matter and the crush of worlds.”

In the third place, on this supposition, the soul might communicate its thoughts and receive a knowledge of events and of other minds, through distances inconceivably great, with the speed of lightning. If we suppose the soul, in such a tenement, could transmit its thoughts and desires, and receive impressions, through the luminiferous ether, with only the same velocity as light, it might communicate with other beings upon the sun, at the distance of one hundred million miles, in eight minutes; and such a power we may reasonably expect the soul will hereafter possess, whether derived from this or some other agency. We cannot believe that, in another world, the soul’s communication with the rest of the universe will be as limited as in the present state. On this supposition, she need not wander through the universe to learn the events transpiring in other spheres, for the intelligence would be borne on the morning’s ray or the lightning’s wing.

Finally, on this supposition, the germ of the future spiritual body may, even in this world, be attached to the soul; and it may be this which she will come seeking after on the resurrection morning.