The mystery of Life isn’t a problem to be solved
It is a reality to experienced.
― Frank Herbert, Dune
From 2003 to 2008, I researched and wrote a biography of a man named Thomas Townsend Brown. Or just Townsend Brown. Or ‘Dr. Brown’ to those who knew him.
This was going to be the follow-up to my first published book, a biography of Philo T. Farnsworth. When The Boy Who Invented Television was published in 2002, I felt like I had found my new calling as a ‘biographer of obscure 20th century scientists.’ The Townsend Brown bio was going to be the first sequel.
Until I was visited by the dreaded ‘sophomore curse.’
In 2009, I abandoned the Townsend Brown project – because after 6 years of research and writing, I still had no fucking idea what I was writing about.
Countless times over the ensuing years, I have had conversations that go like this:
Listener: “You were writing a book. What happened to that? What was it about?”
Me: “Have you ever heard of the Ionic Breeze Air Purifier?”
Listener: “You mean the thing that was advertised in the Sharper Image catalogs?”
Me: “Yes. The one that circulates air without any moving parts….
The listener nods in recognition. And then I start:
“The Ionic Breeze is based on an anomalous electrical effect that was discovered by Thomas Townsend Brown when he was a teenager in the 1920s…”
In my research I encountered what I can only describe as a cult1 of people who believe that Townsend Brown’s discovery, when applied in a slightly different manner and with different materials, produces what might be described as an ‘anti-gravity’ effect (though Brown himself decried the term).
Let’s just say for argument’s sake that he did just that.
In his career-crowning work, The General Theory of Relativity, Albert Einstein postulated that gravity is induced by a curvature in the space-time continuum – meaning that massive objects like planets and stars actually warp the space around them.
In the last years of his life, Einstein tried to formulate a ‘Unified Field Theory’ – ‘The Theory of Everything’ – which could make the mathematical connection between electricity, magnetism, and gravity.
The faithful believe that Townsend Brown discovered the physical manifestation of what Einstein could only calculate mathematically: a way of creating synthetic gravitational fields with electricity. If – as Einstein asserts – gravity is a warp in the fabric of space and time, then by manipulating gravity, Brown unlocked the door to intergalactic communication, interstellar navigation – and, yes… time travel.
I wanted to believe that, too.
Over the course of six years, I dug into the life of Townsend Brown, drawing on the small archive of papers he left with his family, extensive contact with his daughter Linda, some Freedom of Information inquiries, and an extensive correspondence with at least two individuals who professed to have intimate, first-hand knowledge of Brown’s activities. These sources alluded to deep connections to America’s military intelligence and national security apparatus – and made frequent allusions to unseen forces beyond that.
Eventually I succeed in amassing a manuscript of more than five-hundred-and-seventy pages.
I was operating on the Michelangelo Principal: when asked how he made his masterpiece sculpture of David, Michelangelo replied, “I just got a block of marble and removed all the parts that were not David.” As I saw it, my first draft was my block of marble, and as I got into a second draft, all I had to do was remove the bits that did not drive the narrative. About halfway into a rewrite, I hit a wall: I had no idea what my ‘David’ looked like.
All I could safely say about Townsend Brown was that “he spent half of his life engaged in some kind of classified military research, and the other half of his life engaged in covert intelligence operations – much of it intended to cover up the classified military research.”
In other words, I had written ‘the biography of a man whose story cannot be told.’
At this point in my conversations I typically turn to my listener and say,
“OK, now it’s your turn. I want you to ask me: ’So, Paul, what’s that book about?’”
With some prodding, I can finally get them to ask me, “OK, Paul. So… what’s that book about?”
“It’s about five-hundred-and-seventy fucking pages.”
I started the Townsend Brown project in the spring of 2003.
The first draft manuscript was written over three years from 2005 to 2008. As they were written, the chapters were posted on a website and open to discussion.
I reached my wits end and closed the book in the first weeks of 20092.
\There was a fair amount of fallout from that abrupt abandonment, and while I didn’t reconsider my decision at the time, I was reluctant to bury the material entirely. Then it dawned on me that given the new media at my disposal – which I had already been using to build a nascent audience for the story – there was no reason I couldn’t ‘publish’ the material myself.
You never really know what the future might hold – so I released the raw manuscript under the masthead of ‘Embassy Books and Laundry’ – a deliberate nod to a period in the 1950s when Townsend Brown said the he was “done with science.3” I suspected I might return to the story at some point, just as Brown never really turned his back on science.
I didn’t think it would be thirteen years. Maybe that’s how long it takes to dry off when you’ve been drenched by a cosmic firehose.
One copy of that manuscript fell into the hands of one of my oldest friends, Mike Williams, who I have known since I moved to Nashville in 1994. Mike and his wife Kathy hosted the weekly ‘6-Chair Pickin’ Parties’ that supplied some of the inspiration for the Internet music business4 I started in 1995. When I was fishing for a title for my first book, which I said was about “the boy who invented television,” it was Mike who said “that’s your title!”
So it seems fitting Mike would a have role in this undertaking, as well.
Mike had told me many times that he was intrigued by the story, that he was drawn to the mystery and the challenges of the telling. He asked for a digital copy of the manuscript and in 2018 presented me with extensively edited revision. Mike even went so far as to paginate his edit and present it to me bound as an actual book – the first time I had ever seen my own work in such a physical form.
What Mike’s edit showed me was how horribly over-written my first draft was. Like I was trying to conceal the fact that I didn’t really know what story I was telling by just piling an overabundance of words on it.
But even though it appeared I had abandoned the project, certain essential themes kept nagging at me until they could no longer be ignored.
Now it’s 2022. A change in my personal circumstances – a clearing of the decks, if you will – has propelled this project to the front burner again.
I don’t want to jump the gun here, but it appears that Embassy Books and Laundry is back in business.
This story lives at the center or the venn diagram where science, science fiction and pseudo science intersect.
An expression I heard often during the course or this endeavor inferred that the life of T. Townsend Brown represented one phase of a ‘multi-generational project’ unfolding alongside the thread of mankind’s evolution.
Twenty years after I first started, it seems my contribution to that story has now entered its second generation.
September 7, 2022
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1 *I’ve thought long and hard about the use of the word “cult” here. I’ve consulted the dictionary. Among the definitions are:
–a system of religious veneration and devotion directed toward a particular figure or object: the cult of St. Olaf.
–a misplaced or excessive admiration for a particular person or thing: a cult of personality surrounding the leaders.
By those definitions, I believe the term applies.
3 Chapter 74 – Winterhaven; footnotes
4 Internet Wayback Machine has archived pages from the site starting in 1997.