Readers who have been following faithfully along with the draft online
publication of Defying Gravity: The Parallel Universe of T. Townsend
Brown will hopefully recall how this project began: In the summer
of 2002, I received an anonymous e-mail which first brought Brown to my
attention. That e-mail also said “…smarter image is selling an air purifier on
cable for 60+. He never collected the royalties for that either.”
The writer of this message was obviously referring to The Sharper Image, and
the “Ionic Breeze” air purifier which has been relentlessly marketed
via TeeVee infomercials for quite some time now. Readers of the chapter
entitled “How Many Generals Does It Take?” will recognize the Sharper
Image product as undeniably similar to the device that Townsend Brown was
demonstrating in the mid 1960s.
So I have had it in the back of my mind for quite some time that at some
point, I would approach The Sharper Image and ask them what they know about the
“paternity” of their product.
I finally got off my duff a few weeks ago and contacted the Public Relations
Department at The Sharper Image corporate headquarters in
San Francisco. Of course, the “public relations” office
doesn’t really want to have any contact with “the public,” so my call was
answered by a machine. I told the
machine why I was calling and what I hoped to learn regarding the origins of
the technology behind their very successful product. I left my phone number and my e-mail
The next morning I received an e-mail from Suzie Stephens in the Sharper
Image Public Relations office that sounded like it was a copy-paste job from
her folder of “boiler-plate responses to impertinent questions:”
you for taking the time to contact The Sharper Image Public Relations. We
appreciate your interest in our Best Selling Ionic Breeze Air Purifier.
This is a Sharper Image Design product that was developed in house. For
more information on the Ionic Breeze and how it works, please feel free to
visit our website at http://www.sharperimage.com
for thorough information on the product and its technology or contact me if you
have additional questions.
Well, I did contact Suzie via e-mail that same
day. And, rather than be circumspect
about what I was after, I explained precisely what I was interested in: finding if indeed there is a trail of patents
and developments that would lead from today’s ubiquitous Ionic Breeze products
back to the work that Townsend Brown demonstrated back in the 1960s.
That was nearly a month ago and Suzie still hasn’t
responded. I don’t guess she’s got
“boiler plate” response for actual questions — especially when they challenge The Sharper Image’s frequent boast that their products were “invented here.”
However, my research assistant, Elizabeth Helen Drake — who
is not known to let go of any subject once she gets the bit in her teeth —
seized the opportunity and delivered all
the info I could possibly require on the subject. It was easy, thanks to Google and a couple of
Elizabeth started with a search for “invention ionic breeze,” which produced, among other
results, this page on The Sharper Image website, which clearly cites the patent on which the Ionic Breeze
products is based:
Solid-state Zenion Effect™
technology (U.S. Patent No. 4,789,801) is exclusive to the Ionic Breeze Silent
Air Purifiers. It eliminates the need for a motor or fan for air circulation
and it is this invention that allows Ionic Breeze to feature totally silent
operation and ultra-low energy use….the process is proprietary and patented …
The solid-state electronics use an electrical charge to create air that is
densely packed with positively charged ions and negatively charged electrons.
(An ion is an atom with a positive or negative charge.) This non-mechanical
“electronic linear propulsion” or “electrokinetic”
circulation, is dead silent.
Finally, a patent number! With that
info in hand, it was not hard for Elizabeth to find what we’ve been looking for. There are any
number of websites that provide access to patent files (not the least among
them the patent office’s own website),
but Elizabeth founded all she needed at a handy site called “Free Patents
Online,” where she was easily able to pull up the patent in question.
Patent #4,789,801 for “Electrokinetic transducing methods and apparatus and
systems comprising or utilizing the same” was applied for on April 3, 1987 by Lee, Jimmy
L., granted on December 6, 1988, and
assigned to a company called “Zenion Industries” of Rohnert Park, California. (Curiously, the law firm that handled the
filing for Mr. Lee was “Townsend and Townsend.” Around here, that’s known as a “Cosmic Ha-Ha.”)
For our purposes, the most intriguing component of this patent is the
section on “prior art,” There, in unimpeachable black-and-white, is
precisely the information we were looking for:
Electrokinetic transducers and apparatus
and systems comprising the same have been known for many years. For example,
electrokinetic transducers of the “diode” or “two-array”
type, and systems comprising the same, are disclosed in U.S. Pat. No.
3,018,394, issued to Thomas Townsend Brown on Jan. 23, 1962, and in U.S. Pat.
No. 2,949,550, issued to Thomas Townsend Brown on Aug. 16, 1960. Further,
electrokinetic transducers of the “triode” or “three-array”
type, and systems comprising the same, are disclosed in U.S. Pat. No.
3,518,462, issued to Thomas Townsend Brown on June 30, 1970.
There you have it, folks: the “prior art” on which the patent for the Ionic Breeze is based
consists of not one, not two, but THREE patents issued to Townsend Brown in the
1960s and 1970.
But wait… there’s more. One paragraph later, the patent states:
The prior art teaches that such electrokinetic
apparatus may be used as an electric fan, when the exciting voltage applied to
said electrodes is continuous, direct-current voltage, or may be used as a
loudspeaker, when the exciting direct-current voltage applied to said
electrodes is modulated in accordance with the desired sound output from the
Here you see both the “fan” and the “loudspeaker” applications of the
technology, the latter describing the apparatus that blew Morgan away when he first saw and
heard it in Dr. Brown’s study at Ashlawn in the fall of 1964.
Return with us now to the Sharper Image page cited above, and see how that
language is treated. Quoting the actual
patent language, the page says,
The inventor writes, “Electrokinetic transducers
and apparatus and systems comprising the same have been known for many years.
The prior art teaches that such electrokinetic apparatus may be used as an
Can you see what’s missing from that paragraph? The section
of the patent that cites the prior art — the part that names Thomas Townsend
Brown three times — has been
conveniently excised, skipped right over, before the language from later in the text is resumed. Consequently, Townsend Brown’s seminal
contribution to this popular and successful product has been reduced to the
empty space between two sentences.
And thus is another Great American Inventor is swept under
the rug of history while others go on to reap the benefits of their
* * *
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 name is attached to the patent 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 dissuades me from the conclusions reached above, but it was nevertheless an interesting and illuminating conversation.
So stay tuned for “The Paternity of the Ionic Breeze, Part 2,” in which we’ll learn the nature of Mr. Lee’s relationship with Townsend Brown, what improvements he added to Brown’s designs to make them commercially viable, and some other tasty details that will offer yet another glimpse into the mysterious, Parallel Universe of T. Townsend Brown.