While trolling through my RSS feeds last week, I came across a delightful blog post by John Ptak, who has a penchant for quirky historical oddities — in this case, an 1879 issue of The London Punch crediting US inventor Thomas Edison with the invention of antigravity undergarments.
It’s worth perusing just for the imaginative illustrations (see above), with museum goers floating aloft to view paintings hung near the ceiling, and parents tethering their levitating offspring to bicycles for an afternoon jaunt.
It wasn’t real, of course, but at the time, Edison was just coming into his fame, and seemed like he could achieve any number of marvels previously thought impossible. He was even featured in an early science fiction novel by Garrett P. Serviss, Edison’s Conquest of Mars (1898), which introduced numerous tropes of science fiction: alien abductions, spacesuits, and disintegrator rays, for example.
While that novel didn’t feature antigravity underwear, HG Wells invented a fictional substance called "cavorite" for The First Men in the Moon, capable of blocking gravity. The concept is that, because cavorite shields the air above it from gravity, there is more air pressure below, shooting the lighter air outward. The material is used to build a spaceship and travel to the moon, but who says it couldn’t also be used for underwear?
What about real-life antigravity schemes? Many of the young boys who devoured those early science fiction novels grew up to be fascinated by futuristic technologies. Some of them spent decades laboring over prototype inventions that never quite seemed to work. Whether they were crackpots or visionaries depends on who you ask, but here are five of the best known proponents of antigravity.
1. Roger Babson. Roger Babson was a successful businessman who went on to become the founder of Babson College. In 1948 he also founded the Gravity Research Foundation, devoted entirely to studying ways to reduce the effects of gravity — or, at least, gaining a better understanding of this mysterious physical force.
One Foundation trustee, Agnew Bahnson, created the sister Insitute for Field Physics at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, for the study of gravitation. When Babson died in 1967, the Foundation dissolved, although there is still an annual essay contest for groundbreaking insights into gravitational phenomena. Among the past winners is astrophysicist George Smoot, who went on to win the 2006 Nobel Prize in Physics.
2. Thomas Townsend Brown. In a chain of events straight out of The X-Files, in 1955, a man named Thomas Townsend Brown traveled first to England, then to France, to work on a top-secret research project called Projet Mongolfier. Brown’s previous work had been in high-voltage experiments, and 30 years before, he had developed a device he called a "gravitator." He claimed it produced anti-gravity effects simply by applying high voltages to materials with high dielectric constants.
He based the concept on his earlier work investigating the Biefeld-Brown effect, also known as electrogravitics, which Wikipedia describes as "an electrical effect that produces an ionic wind that transfers its momentum to surrounding neutral particles" — in other words, it produces a kind of electric propulsion.
Brown endured his share of ridicule for his ideas, but by the 1950s, several aerospace firms were interested in studying this effect as part of a broad gravity propulsion research program in the US that lasted from 1955 to 1974. It is still the basis for so-called ionocraft, "lifters," or, more recently, EHD (electrohydrodynamics) thrusters. Numerous patents were issued during the 1960s — several to Brown himself.
Brown's reputation took a beating in part because he believed the Biefeld-Brown effect could explain the maneuvering of UFOs. Yes, he was a diehard ufologist, and co-founder of the National Investigations Committee on Aerial Phenomena, although he resigned almost immediately after it was established. His work with Project Mongolfier no doubt added to his aura of mystique, although it seems his research may have ultimately lost support when it failed to produce the desired results.
3. Henry William Wallace. In the early 1970s, several patents for antigravity-type devices were granted to Henry William Wallace, an engineer at GE Aerospace in Pennsylvania.
He figured if you could build the device out of just the right materials (say disks of brass), and then spin it rapidly, it would generate its own energy field. Wallace dubbed it a "Kinemassic Forcefield." And if you could get that force field to undulate in turn, you could "neutralize" gravity. In short, it would create an anti-gravity field.
A 1980 article in New Scientist described his invention thusly:
4. Eric Laithwaite. Although many dismissed Wallace as a bit of a crank, an electrical engineer at Imperial College, London, named Eric Laithwaite, independently developed his own version of an anti-gravity device along similar lines.
Laithwaite started out working with linear induction motors, then went on to help create one of the first magnetic levitation systems. James Bond fans might recall a scene in The Spy Who Loved Me that featured Laithwaite's system levitating a tray across a table with sufficient speed to decapitate a dummy. (You can see some fascinating video footage of Laithwaite talking about both the maglev work and his work on gyroscopes here.)
Then he became fascinated by gyroscopes after an amateur inventor named Alex Jones showed him a prototype "reactionless propulsion drive." Laithwaite gave a 1974 talk at the Royal Institution in which he insisted that a spinning gyroscope weighs less than a motionless one, and that this could not be accounted for by Newton's laws of motion. Ergo, reactionless propulsion should be possible. His talk was not well-received. Indeed, it is the only time the Royal Institution has declined to publish an invited lecture.
Laithwaite backed off his "Newton was wrong" stance, but still thought a reactionless propulsion system was possible based on the behavior of gyroscopes. His perseverance paid off in 1999 when the US Patent Office granted him Patent # 5860317. But a working prototype never materialized.
5. Eugene (Yevgeny) Podkletnov. One of the more recent proposals for antigravity devices was contained in a paper that appeared in the peer-reviewed journal Physica C in 1992 by Russian engineer Eugene Podkletnov.
Podkletnov claimed that rotating a chilled superconducting disk very quickly would reduce the effects of gravity — specifically, he reported a slight reduction in weight in any object suspended above the disk. (One of the many cool properties of superconductors is that they repel magnetic fields.)
That first paper didn't attract much notice, perhaps because the observed weight reduction was so tiny (0.3%). But in 1996, a longer paper appeared in the Journal of Physics D, reporting a more significant weight reduction of 2%. Then the Sunday Telegraph got wind and ran an article proclaiming the achievement of "the world's first antigravity device."
To say the claim was controversial would be an understatement, even though Podkletnov insisted his claim was simply a reduction in gravity's effect — not blocking it entirely. But it was enough to intrigue NASA sufficiently to embark on its own research program for an "antigravity shield." The research was fraught with problems, and Podkletnov himself proved to be of little help, saying he was "just a ceramics physicist" who had hired others to build the actual device.
In 1997 he retracted his second paper and left his position with the Tampere University of Technology in Finland to return to Moscow. That same year, he claimed to have built a new device capable of generating a "gravity repulsion beam." He envisioned making flying machines that could reflect gravity waves and maneuver like UFOs.
While Podkletnov claimed his work was reproduced by scientists in Toronto and Sheffield, none of them came forward with the results of those purported experiments. So let's just say the physics community remains skeptical about the real-world potential for true antigravity devices. Although antigravity underwear would still be really cool.