Directory of Mark Twain's maxims, quotations, and various opinions:



Certain mental telegraphy is an industry which is always silently at work -- oftener than otherwise, perhaps, when we are not suspecting that it is affecting our thought... I imagine that we get most of our thoughts out of somebody else's head, by mental telegraphy -- and not always out of the heads of acquaintances, but, in the majority of cases, out of the heads of strangers; strangers far removed...
- Mark Twain's Autobiography

colorized photo
Colorized special effects photo of Clemens, 1906
courtesy of Dave Thomson

Hartford, Conn., October 4, 1884.

DEAR SIR, -- I should be very glad to be made a Member of the Society for Psychical Research; for Thought-transference, as you call it, or mental telegraphy as I have been in the habit of calling it, has been a very strong interest with me for the past nine or ten years. I have grown so accustomed to considering that all my powerful impulses come to me from somebody else, that I often feel like a mere amanuensis when I sit down to write a letter under the coercion of a strong impulse; I consider that that other person is supplying the thoughts to me, and that I am merely writing from dictation. And I consider that when that other person does not supply me with the thoughts, he has supplied me with the impulse anyway; I never seem to have any impulses of my own. Still, may be I get even by unconsciously furnishing other people with impulses.

I have reaped an advantage from these years of constant observation. For instance when I am suddenly and strongly moved to write a letter or inquiry, I generally don't write it -- because I know that that other person is at that moment writing to tell me the thing I wanted to know, -- I have moved him or he has moved me, I don't know which, -- but anyway I don't need to write, and so I save my labour. Of course I sometimes act upon my impulse without stopping to think. My cigars come to me from 1,200 miles away. A few days ago, -- September 30th, -- it suddenly,, and very warmly occurred to me that an order made three weeks ago for cigars had as yet, for some unaccountable reason, received no attention. I immediately telegraphed to inquire what the matter was. At least I wrote the telegram and was about to send it down town, when the thought occurred to me, "This isn't necessary, they are doing something about the cigars now -- this impulse has travelled to me 1,200 miles in half a second."

As I finished writing the above sentence a servant intruded here to say, "The cigars have arrived, and we haven't any money downstairs to pay the expressage." This is October 4th, -- you see how serene my confidence was. The bill for the cigars arrived October 2nd, dated September 30th -- I knew perfectly well they were doing something about the cigars that day, or I shouldn't have had that strong impulse to wire an inquiry.

So, by depending upon the trustworthiness of the mental telegraph, and refraining from using the electric one, I save 50 cents -- for the poor. [I am the poor.]

Companion instances to this have happened in my experience so frequently in the past nine years, that I could pour them out upon you to utter weariness. I have been saved the writing of many and many a letter by refusing to obey these strong impulses. I always knew the other fellow was sitting down to write when I got the impulse -- so what could be the sense in both of us writing the same thing? People are always marvelling because their letters "cross" each other. If they would but squelch the impulse to write, there would not be any crossing, because only the other fellow would write. I am politely making an exception in your case; you have mentally telegraphed me to write, possibly, and I sit down at once and do it, without any shirking.

I began a chapter upon "Mental Telegraphy" in May, 1878, and added a a paragraph to it now and then during two or three years; but I have never published it, because I judged that people would only laugh at it and think I was joking. I long ago decided to not publish it at all; but I have the old MS. by me yet, and I notice one thought in it which may be worth mentioning -- to this effect: In my own case it has often been demonstrated that people can have crystal-clear mental communication with each other over vast distances. Doubtless to be able to do this the two minds have to be in a peculiarly favourable condition for the moment. Very well, then, why shouldn't some scientist find it possible to invent a way to create this condition of rapport between two minds, at will? Then we should drop the slow and cumbersome telephone and say, "Connect me with the brain of the chief of police at Peking." We shouldn't need to know the man's language; we should communicate by thought only, and say in a couple of minutes what couldn't be inflated into words in an hour and a-half. Telephones, telegraphs and words are too slow for this age; we must get something that is faster. -- Truly yours,


P.S. -- I do not mark this "private," there being nothing furtive about it or any misstatements in it. I wish you could have given me a call. It would have been a most welcome pleasure to me.

- letter to William Barrett, published in Journal of Society for Psychical Research, Oct. 1884, pp. 166-167.

Also see Twain's two articles on Mental Telegraphy. From the Cornell Making of America website
"Mental Telegraphy, A Manuscript with a History" Harper's Monthly Magazine, December 1891
"Mental Telegraphy Again" Harper's Monthly Magazine, September 1895

Also see Joseph Jastrow's response to Twain's articles. From the Cornell Making of America website:
"The Logic of Mental Telegraphy" by Joseph Jastrow, Scribner's Magazine, November 1895

For good historical context of Twain's essays on "Mental Telegraphy" see:

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