Not A Pull
In addition to Dr. Millikan
and his classmates, one of the invitations Townsend Brown sent out
for his demonstration in Pasadena in the spring of 1924 found its
way into the hands of a reporter for the Los Angeles Evening Express.
When readers opened their newspapers on Monday, May 26, 1924, the
headlines revealed the news of their young neighbor and of his “Claims
Gravity Is A Push, Not A Pull.” The ensuing article gives us another
perspective on Townsend Brown’s Big Ideas:
Experiments now going
on in a private laboratory at Pasadena by a youth of 18 may revolutionize
the whole theory of gravitation as first deduced by Sir Isaac Newton.
Townsend Brown, a student
of 706 Arden Road has conducted experiments since last September
which have convinced him that while there is a law of gravitation,
the force is caused by a “push” and not by a “pull, ” and development
of this theory by practical inventions will revolutionize industry.
Young Brown has his
laboratory at home filled with expensive equipment to pursue his
investigations. He is a normal, serious-minded young man with no
false illusions about his mission in life, but with a desire to
become a pioneer along the line of scientific research that will
open the way for startling discoveries and inventions.
STATEMENT OF THEORY
In plain words, his
theory is this: That ether waves some outside space push from all
directions against the earth, and against other objects and planets
in space, forcing objects the way the wave extend, instead of drawing
them, according to the old Newton theory of gravitation.
By means of his equipment
he conducts experiments with the X-ray, which is of the same family
as light and the ether wave, and by means of which it is possible
to test the theory. By means of this machine, he says, that since
the X-ray is deflected, the gravity wave, being of the same family,
also can be deflected.
If this theory is proved
so thoroughly that it displaces the Newton theory, inventions of
the future will revolutionize human industry, according to the young
scientist. By deflecting ether waves that are pushing against objects,
man can control weight to such an extent that his deflecting machinery
would enable him to lift a battleship out of the sea and set it
on dry land.
A few days after the story
appeared in Los Angeles, it was picked up by national wire services.
A version of the story was printed in the New York Times, and was
proudly reprinted in The Times Recorder back in Zanesville, Ohio,
on June 3, 1924, along with a reminder that
Friends of the Brown
family will remember that almost from infancy Townsend has been
interested in science and that he was the first person in Zanesville
to have a radio, which he installed himself.
given the language of the day, the ideas described in these press
accounts sound arcane if not entirely convoluted. And remember, Einstein’s
theories of gravitation had already pretty much put certain aspects
Newton’s earlier theories permanently on the top shelf. But there
is a relatively simple explanation for what these stories tried to
convey, and in this case, the accompanying pictures are worth the
proverbial thousand words. Appearing alongside the text of the Evening
Express article is the only known photograph of the young Townsend
Brown displaying a Coolidge X-ray tube. The caption accompanying this
photo says he is shown “experimenting with equipment with which he
deflects the X-ray…”
The word “deflect” may
be the key word in that sentence, because it was in the Coolidge tube
that Brown first observed the phenomenon to which his name would forever
be attached. But it was not the “X-ray” beams that Brown was deflecting.
It was the tube itself.
The Coolidge tube was
the most advanced X-ray device of its time; its basic configuration
remains central to all X-ray devices still in use today. The tube
is named for its inventor, William D. Coolidge. It is worth also worth
noting that prior to developing the X-ray device, Coolidge collaborated
with his colleague Colin G. Fink at General Electric to produce a
formula for tungsten which greatly improved the quality and durability
of incandescent light bulbs in the first decades of the twentieth
century. But it was his X-ray tube for which Coolidge is remembered
The Coolidge tube was
unique among early twentieth century vacuum tubes in that its electrodes
were highly asymmetrical — there was a tremendous disparity between
the size of its positive and negative electrodes. We will likely never
know precisely what prompted Brown to investigate this configuration,
but it is precisely the properties exhibited by these electrodes,
when charged to a high voltage, that he was determined to explore.
The presence of the Coolidge
tube in Brown’s Pasadena library might also explain Beau Kitselman’s
debatable proposition — as offered in his 1962 monograph “Hello, Stupid”
— that Brown “wondered if X-rays might be the key to space travel.”
Incongruous as that sounds, perhaps it sounds more plausible than
the notion that “he got the idea in a dream.” In any event, Kitselman
does a credible job of describing what happened after Brown got his
hands on the expensive X-ray tube:
[Brown] “mounted [the
Coolidge tube] in a careful balance, as if it were an astronomical
telescope. His idea was to point the tube in different directions
and somehow find a variation in the power used by the tube, the
strength of the X-rays generated, or something….[He] didn’t find
what he was looking for, no matter where he aimed his apparatus,
no tell-tale differences appeared. But he did find something he
wasn’t looking for; he found that the X-ray tube generated a thrust,
as if it wanted to move….
He soon learned that
the new force was not produced by the X-rays, but by the high voltages
which they required. Many experiments were necessary to make certain
that the force was not one of the known effects of high voltage,
and that it is a mass force, like gravity, rather than an area force,
like most known electrical forces.
What Kitselman is saying
here is as simple a concept as it is a radical departure from accepted
electrical science at the time. Electricity had long since been proven
to have an effect on the space around its circuits, i.e. the magnetic
fields that form around any flowing current. What Brown was now asserting
was that, in the configuration he was experimenting with in his Coolidge
tube, the high-voltages he was applying were having an effect on the
mass — the weight — of the apparatus. This was indeed a radical departure
from the accepted science of the day, which perhaps explains in some
small way Robert Millikan’s curt dismissal of the idea.
These experiments with
the Coolidge tube, then, are the first indications that Brown had
found what he believed to be the physical coupling between the electromagnetic
force and gravity, just as Einstein had predicted theoretically in
his first expressions of the Unified Field Theory.
As the article in the
L.A. Evening Express had said, “After [Brown’s theory] is accepted…
the field will be open for inventors who can make use of machinery
to control this “push” gravitation. The possibilities are unlimited,
he said, and control of gravitation might pave the way for a visit
to Mars in a few years.”
In other words, what Brown
needed now were those “practical inventions” that would clearly demonstrate
that his ideas were in fact more substantial than the flawed ruminations
of an erstwhile young scientist. Mars may have been much farther off
than “a few years,” but that did not deter the young man from pursuing
the task at hand, to find a mechanism that would irrefutably demonstrate
the phenomenon he had observed in his X-ray tube.
But even as his ideas
were being picked up on the wire services and printed as far away
as New York, Brown was still mired in the rejection of disparaging
classmates and faculty at Cal-Tech. So it is no wonder that, with
the end of the spring term, he packed up all his gear and returned
to the relative safety of his home and family in Zanesville and, the
following fall, resumed his studies on the campus of Denison University
in Granville, where he solicited the counsel of the resident professor
of Astronomy, Dr. Paul Alfred Biefeld.