Down the Rabbit Hole
*revised for the 2023 Edition
In another moment, down went Alice after the rabbit – never once considering how in the world she would get out again.
– Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland
This is not a fairy tale, but perhaps it should begin:
Once upon a time, there really was a T. Townsend Brown.
Somehow, the Big Mysteries of the century past – nuclear physics, relativity, quantum mechanics, UFOs and alien contact cover-up conspiracies, the clandestine operations of the military industrial complex – all converge in the life of this one mercurial man.
We know where he was born and where he was raised. We know who his parents were, his wife, his children and even his grandchildren. We know most of the dozens places where he lived. We know where died, and where he is buried.
Beyond that, Townsend Brown is a ghost. A zephyr. A myth.
In the summer of 2002, I was putting the finishing touches on The Boy Who Invented Television – a biography of Philo T. Farnsworth, who, truly, invented television. Every one of the billions of video screens on the planet – including the tiny displays we carry in our pockets today – can trace its origins to a sketch that Farnsworth drew for his high-school science teacher in 1922, when he was just 14 years old. That his name is not more familiar is one of the confounding curiosities of our time1.
I first heard of Philo Farnsworth in the summer of 1973, as I was graduating from Antioch College in Maryland and heading to the west coast to seek my fortune in the TeeVee business. A profile in a publication called Radical Software2 piqued my curiosity, but the harpoon didn’t sink in until I started hearing about his unfinished work in fusion energy – the still unanswered riddle of ‘how do you bottle a star?’
That riddle was first posed to me later that same summer, on a bluff over looking the Pacific Ocean in Santa Cruz, California, when an acquaintance introduced me to the concept 3of nuclear fusion and the promising work toward clean, safe, cheap and abundant energy that Farnsworth allegedly scuttled in the 1960s. Thirty years later that conversation led me to Townsend Brown.
As I wrapped up my Farnsworth biography, I felt like I’d found a new calling: researching and writing ‘biographies of obscure 20th century scientists.’ I wondered what I could do for an encore.
The universe must have been reading my mind when an email showed up in my inbox on July 9, 2002:
T. Townsend Brown was another inventor who is forgotten and swept under the rug. He died on Catalina Island in 1985.
Science in the late 50s said what he did was against physical law, yet the government classified his work. A bunch of government contractors both American and foreign have been working on it ever since.
So where did all the R&D go? If you go out in the desert about 125 miles southwest of Las Vegas at night you will see an object flying around in the distance with a bluish haze around it. That’s where it went. Also Sharper Image is selling an air purifier on cable TV for $60. He never collected the royalties for that either.
That message was signed simply ‘Janoshek’ and the ‘from’ address was untraceable.
I Googled up a website4 dedicated to the life and work of this T. Townsend Brown. From the opening paragraphs I learned that:
Thomas Townsend Brown, an American physicist, was a leader in developing theories concerning the link between electromagnetic and gravitational fields theorized by Dr. Albert Einstein. He advanced from theory to application with the development of solid and disc-shaped apparatuses, which are believed to have created and utilized temporary, localized gravitational fields.
Brown’s work became very controversial due to the similarity between his work and what is believed to be the propulsion method of some observed UFO’s. His name is also often mentioned in the same breath as the so-called “Philadelphia Experiment,” as a possible candidate along with Nikola Tesla, A.L. Kitselman and Dr. Einstein.
Gravitational fields? Einstein’s Unified Field Theory? That all sounded reasonable. But “disc-shaped apparatus and UFOs” ? Hey, I write serious science biographies, not pseudo-science. And I am not easily drawn into conspiracy theories – UFO or otherwise.
I found the email address of the website’s creator, and sent him a message. Not wanting to sound too eager, I asked benign questions about how he started the website, and how and why he cared about Townsend Brown.
Then I pretty much forgot all about it.
A month later, somebody named Andrew Bolland replied. He had developed a relationship with the Brown family during the mid 1980s. He told me some of what he had dug up. It got my attention. It sounded similar in some respects to the just-published Farnsworth story, and also entirely different. I proposed writing a biography of T. Townsend Brown.
Another month went by with no answer. Then Andrew wrote:
I spoke with Brown’s daughter and she thinks it would be fun to get involved. She was his primary research assistant – building prototypes and whatnot. Let me know if you want to pursue it.
And that, Alice, is how rabbit holes are opened.
1 There is a tendency in some circles to dismiss Farnsworth’s contribution, but in1927 his Image Dissector camera tube was a breakthrough of epic proportions, one that made everything that came before it obsolete and everything that came after it possible.
4 That website, soteria.com, is no longer online.