The case of the Shut-Down Project, Ion Propulsion, and Credit Where It is Due.
In fairness to the
inventors, developers, manufacturers and marketers of the Ionic Breeze air
purifiers, I thought it would be appropriate to speak to Jim Lee, the man whose
is credited for the patent (U.S. Patent No. 4,789,801) cited on The Sharper
Image website, before publishing the results of our little fact-finding
expedition regarding the true origins of these products. It took a couple of
weeks to finally get through, but on Monday December 5, I spoke with Mr. Lee by
phone for about thirty minutes. Nothing he said contradicts the assertion that my
mysterious correspondent made in the first e-mail that started me off on this
quest: Townsend Brown is indeed the originator of the “electrokinetic” air
purifiers, even though it was improvements developed and patented by Mr. Lee
that made the product a practical consumer item. Much to my surprise, it turns out that Mr.
Lee learned of “the fan” first hand from Townsend Brown himself.
PS: So you did work with Townsend Brown?
Jim Lee: I not
only worked for him, but he worked for me for a while. I had a company called Zatek Industries in
interested in his ion wind technologies, trying to make something of it. It was kind of crude, what he had, but it was
interesting. He was having a lot of
financial problems. So we put him on as
a consultant of sorts, gave him some space in the back. He was working on what he called
“petro-voltaics,” measuring the voltage across rock samples. There seemed to be an interesting phenomenon
there which he seemed excited about, so we put him a corner and provided him
with some material and time and money and he played with that for six months or
a year, and he was available to consult
with us on the ion wind technologies.
The conversation then
drifted around to Jim’s recollections of Townsend Brown’s career history:
JL: He’d been burned pretty bad by people
licensing his stuff and not paying him.
PS: What are you
referring to ?
JL: This is going back pretty far. He had licensed some of this technology — the
ion wind device that he had a patent on. People took a bunch of his patents and tried to exploit them and paid
him a little money up front and then didn’t pay him any more. He had actually made the patent assignments —
which is a very bad thing to do — instead of just licensing, he actually
assigned his patents. He told me one
time there were over fifty of his patents that had been assigned.
PS: Who did he assign them to?
JL: A group of
people… I believe in
were really bad news people. He ended up
losing all his patents.
This sounded to me
like he was talking about the operations featured in Chapter 4: How Many Generals Does It Take? So I asked Mr. Lee if he was referring to
Guidance Technologies, the outfit that Brown and his daughter Linda worked with
when they relocated to the West Coast in
the late 1960s.
JL: That sounds
familiar. Anyway, that left the poor old
guy in really bad shape. His health was
failing and he had no money. So the idea
was to see if we could make anything out of these ion wind devices. That took years and years, well after he
passed on [Brown died in October, 1985]. In the meantime he was trying to determine what was happening with the
petro-voltaic phenomenon. He’d applied
for some grants, he was working with the University of Hawaii,
and SRI [Stanford Research Institute].
I was rather surprised
at the next thing Mr. Lee said, though, of course, I should not have been
surprised at all, for the incident he describes is entirely consistent with
other excerpts from Townsend Brown’s career:
JL: He wrote up a report and went to
happened. The project was completely killed [emphasis added]. He just closed up the doors, said “there’s
nothing here….” It was just a complete mystery to all of us. We were all getting pretty excited about what
he was doing…
JL: Right. After his trip to
and consulting a consortium of scientists from around the world down in Florida, he came back
from that trip and closed up shop, saying, “no, there’s nothing here, we can’t
do this any more.” It was very
mysterious. Like he’d touched on some arena that he shouldn’t have been playing with
[emphasis added]. That was the end of
it. He left, and went back into
retirement, and I never talked to him again.
PS: Did your association with Brown begin
somewhere at Stanford?
JL: We met there. We met because we were both speaking at a sponsored thing at the
Stanford Research Institute, and he did talks on ionization, and so did I. We were all interested in different applications
of ionization. He was introduced to me
by a guy named Bob Dadd, who has since passed on. Bob came to me and said “you ought to meet
this guy,” so we went over to his apartment and he showed me a prototype of an
ion fan, and it was just a big old ozone generator (laughs). I think that might have contributed to his
lung problems. Any, he was just a sweet
old guy, and then later I met him when we were speaking at SRI at an “ion and
light” type show, and we hit it off pretty good. I was
building a company, so we gave him the means to pursue some of his ideas, and
if anything did come out of the ion fan that he had then he’d have a royalty
position in that. Unfortunately that
didn’t happen that way…
JL: How did it
JL: His patents
expired before we could really make anything of them. We came up with some of our
own about ten years later, and busted through the problems that he was fighting
which were controlling the ozone and keeping the energy consumption down. Those were the main hurdles he had over
time. The technology just wasn’t there,
the cost of components was very high, and some [high voltage components] weren’t even around yet…
PS: Well, that’s the problem when you’re ahead of
JL: Yeah, he was certainly ahead of his
time. He was doing things with selenium
stacks. It was amazing what he did do
with what little he had.
PS: So your contribution to the Ionic Breeze was
solving the ozone generation problem?
watts and produced very little air flow and a whole lot of ozone. It was more effective as an ozone generator
than anything else. But he did have a
patent on that electro-kinetic approach. We later found out that there were other patents that overlapped from
PS: Can you explain to me easily how the Ionic
Breeze works, how it is that electricity can move air without any moving parts?
JL: Simply? When I’m talking to lay people about it… take
a wet watermelon seed between your two fingers, pressing it, accelerate it
forward… we do that with charge potentials. We capture the oxygen and nitrogen in an electric field, and the like-forces
press against the molecule and literally shoot it forward…
“like-forces,” — you mean the similarly charged fields?
JL: yes, you have a positively charged field and
a positively charged molecule (or negatively but mostly positive), press the
forces on the molecule will accelerate it forward. And you have a down line or negatively
charged element or ground element…
switches gears for a moment when Mr. Lee started asking me questions.
JL: What are you writing exactly?
PS: I’m trying to
write the definitive biography of Thomas Townsend Brown…
JL: Isn’t there a book out that has a whole
section on him — “The Force Fields of
Townsend Brown” or something like that?
PS: That’s the
name of a chapter in William Moore and Charles Berlitz’s book, The Philadelphia
JL: He was very mum about that stuff. We tried to pry that out of him when we were
associated with him but he was very tight-lipped about that. But that device he had, that accelerator with
the flying-saucers type array, he actually demonstrated that to me in a very
crude way, with an umbilical cord of course, and he didn’t have the advantage
of all this technology we have now. But
he actually elevated the thing.
The conversation now
steered toward an area where Mr. Lee was very helpful in clearing up what
apparently has been a long-standing misconception I’ve had about the principals
behind Brown’s “fan” and his flying capacitors:
talking about what we call “the tethered saucer.” Now, as I understand it, the effect that
makes the Ionic Breeze work is the same effect that makes the tethered saucer
JL: No, no. It’s quite a bit different, actually. The tethered saucer is more of a gigantic capacitor, the surface of the
saucer against the charge potential of the Earth itself, or a platform…
I have thought all
this time that the effect that makes the air purifiers work was more or less
the “inverse” of the same effect that made the “tethered saucers” fly. So I asked about that, and Mr. Lee clarified
the issue for me further:
PS: Is the air purifier not somehow a
manifestation of what they call the Biefeld Brown Effect ?
JL: I woudn’t say that. The Ionic Breeze is more of an electrokinetic
ion momentum transfer. It actually moves
air it moves molecules. The saucer was
just a big capacitor with a charge potential, but there is no air movement
underneath the saucer, no turbulence, it was all field opposition. With the Ionic Breeze you actually have air
flow, you actually have molecular air flow.
PS: The way it
was explained to me was, it’s basically the inverse of the same effect: if the apparatus is anchored the air moves
through it, if the apparatus is suspended then it moves through the air. Is that wrong?
JL: It’s a bit of a stretch. The connection is
the different potential of the fields that you’re using. That exists in both applications, but the
point is to get maximum field opposition with this tethered saucer array, with
no dynamic air flow, just literally potential fields of force. With the Ionic Breeze, it was using the two
force fields to manipulate the molecules of atmosphere — mostly nitrogen, of
course — and the problem he had when he did that was, he tore the oxygen apart,
and when he tore the oxygen apart the by-product was O3 [ozone] and
very high levels of it. So it never
really amounted to anything, and when I met him his patent had already run about
twelve or fourteen years [of its alloted seventeen years].]
Here the conversation
took a very unexpected turn, and opens the door on something that might be
central to the whole Townsend Brown mystery, and reveals aspects of Townsend
Brown’s discoveries and ideas that were not previously discussed in much
detail. This stuff is important. Pay attention, folks…:
actually started out with that in his mind. He was looking at rocket propulsion. It’s interesting that Deep Space One uses and ion motor, very similar to
what he imagined happening.
PS: What’s Deep
JL: Actually, there are two of them now. Deep Space
One was launched about six years
ago. It uses an ion propulsion system
much like Brown envisioned, except they’re using a xenon gas. They ionize the gas and expel it from the
back of the probe. They use solar power
to generate the high voltage. It doesn’t
generate a lot of force but over long distances and long time it builds up
velocity. It uses ion propulsion like
Townsend imagined. Not to launch the
spacecraft, but to propel it in a vacuum. NASA did this. NASA overcame one of the intrinsic problems
that Townsend was fighting, too, how do you generate all this space charge and
have these charged molecules, whether their xenon or nitrogen or whatever, they
go back and charge the producing element, so they build up a charge on the body
of the craft itself. So NASA came up with a very novel way of
charging the xenon molecule so that it transfers the charge back to the capsule
itself; They recover that charge and re-use it as a recycled energy
source. It’s not perpetual motion or
perpetual energy, but close to it. So,
they complimented the energy exchange and once it got deeper into space it had
less solar energy capacity so it went way beyond their wildest dreams. But that
was all Townsend, he was thinking about that back in the 1930s… and he actually
demonstrated some of it in the 1950s [emphasis added].
PS: And then it all disappeared…. So how did your
relationship with The Sharper Image come about (if you don’t mind my
The conversation then
turns to Mr. Lee’s relationship with The Sharper Image, how that came about and
how they have handled certain aspects of their marketing. We also noted, with some irony, that Mr.
Lee’s patent expired the next day, — December 6, 2005
PS: When The
Sharper Image touts in their promotion that the “Ionic Breeze” was “invented
here,” is that an accurate reflection of the facts?
JL: No. We’ve taken a great deal of exception to that,
but, they’re retail people… They do a lot of stuff like that. Like I said,
they’re retailers. They look at matters
a little different than a scientist. Obviously,
we had to cite Townsend’s previous work, we weren’t in any way trying to
circumvent his patents, we were making a substantial improvement over
somebody’s prior work. The safest, and
obviously the most honest way to do it is you always cite what you know is
prior art, in order to demonstrate why your art is different or an improvement
on it. Which is the essence of the
Zenion patent. How the retailers go
about conveying that to the consumer, they get pretty wild. They take a lot of editorial license to do a
lot of things. We had a lot of
discussion with them about that over the years. They would like everybody to believe they’re out there inventing all
this stuff themselves, and to a certain extent we just don’t really care, as
long as they market the products with our patent numbers and our names, which
they do, — and they pay the royalties.
We discussed some of
the earliest manifestations of the ionic breeze technology, and how, generally,
in the world of science, each advancement builds on those that went before it,
and that gave Mr. Lee another chance to explain how his contributions improved
on Townsend Brown’s original conceptions:
PS: Brown was demonstrating this in the early sixties…
JL: Some of this stuff actually back in the
forties… some of it was a theoretical nature, too…. A a lot of guys out there trying
to make it work, and even Townsend himself, when he came to me, or I came to
him, we got together… He said “you know if we could just solve this problem of
this ozone, we’d really have something. So my job was trying to solve the problem of the ozone, and it turned
out the way to solve the problem of the ozone was to manage the energy it took
[to power] the device in the first place, so one went with the other. It wasn’t by design, it was just how are we
going to control this, we have too much current across this field, so why don’t
we manage the energy across the field, and limit the current, the current was
bombarding the molecules, so I came up with the theory that if you limited the
energy you could limit the ozone. So…la
la we have very little ozone, and a device that instead of running at 250 watts
is now running at about 8 watts.
Wrapping up, Mr. Lee
has a couple more observations about Townsend Brown, and I’ve got one or two
JL: He was a wonderful old guy. One of the sweetest old men you’d ever want
to meet, very humble, for all he did and all that he knew, you know, he shared
everything… that’s what got him into trouble more than anything….
PS: Did you ever
notice that here was a finger missing on his left hand? Did you ever ask him how that happened?
JL: Yeah…He said he didn’t want to talk about
it. There were a couple of areas he
didn’t talk about… when he got around to the Philadelphia Experiment stuff, the
Manhattan Project, you know, you just didn’t talk to him about it.
PS: Last question. The “loudspeaker” variation. Has there ever
been any thought of developing the speaker application?
JL: That’s part of the application that expires tomorrow,
too. We’ve had licensees try to do that,
but it’s so costly, for the market potential, it’s more of a high-end kind of
product. We’ve demonstrated it down to 14Hz all the way up
to 250kHz, and there’s enormous audio-phile type potential, but the cost
barriers are insurmountable. You’d have
to sell something like that for like $5,000 per system. We had a couple of licensees over the years
get pretty excited about it. They dumped
a lot of money into it, but when they looked at market potential, they were
looking at the top one or two percent of the people in the market who might buy
something like that, and they couldn’t justify that. We still have a couple in my lab to play
PS: I’ve never
heard one… I’ve got an Ionic Breeze sitting under my desk, but I’ve never heard
incredible… one licensee we had the sound level up to almost 100db…
JL: Right… it was pretty exciting there for a
while, but my company, we had to focus on where the market was …
PS: Well Jim you’ve been very helpful, I appreciate
your taking the time to talk with me today.