Many Generals Does It Take?
In 1967 Townsend Brown,
his wife Josephine, and their 22-year old daughter Linda were living
in Santa Monica, California, where Brown had taken his efforts to
further develop — and hopefully commercialize — the device everybody
simply called “The Fan.”
As he had demonstrated
for Morgan, Brown’s invention was an electrostatic air purifier, a
device that could move air without moving anything else. No motor,
no whirling fan blades. Just turn it on and the air moves through
it, driven by an electrical charge that pulls out impurities before
the air is propelled out of the system. As with all of Townsend Brown’s
inventions, the idea was simple, novel, and elegant.
“The Fan” was just one
application of the basic discovery that Brown made when he was a teenager,
a phenomenon still referred to as the “Biefeld-Brown Effect.” Besides
its application as a fan and air purifier, the effect could also be
applied in the form of a loudspeaker, which Brown also developed at
different times during his life.
Brown himself was ambivalent
about the commercial application of his discoveries,
often referring to them disparagingly as his “ashtray products.” He
strongly believed throughout his life that the ultimate application
of his discoveries would be manifest in space travel. The same effect
that could propel air through the plates of his air purifier, when
amplified with tremendously high voltages, could produce lift and
propulsion in a variety of metal discs and other objects, causing
them to levitate and fly. But in 1967, Brown was concentrating on
the more practical, down to earth uses of his inventions, and was
focused on “The Fan.”
At the time, Brown was
working with a small company in Santa Monica called Guidance Technologies,
Inc.. GTI was owned by a wealthy industrialist named Floyd Odlum,
who had also had a major hand in the development of the Atlas rockets
that propelled America’s first satellites and astronauts into space.
GTI was a failing company that Odlum had acquired with the intent
of turning it around, and Brown and his family assumed that “The Fan”
was going to be the product that Odlum would take to market in to
reverse GTI’s sagging fortunes.
Linda Brown worked closely
with her father in the laboratory at GTI where The Fan was being developed.
She and her father put up with months of assembly delays caused by
GTI’s weak finances, at the same time they were being asked to conduct
endless demonstrations of the device they suspected were intended
solely to pump up the value of the company’s stock.
The Fan itself was something
of a marvel in its day. Linda and her father took particular delight
in one demonstration they conducted for no less a luminary than the
very famous Dr. Edward Teller, the crusty, Hungarian-born veteran
of the Manhattan Project who became known subsequently as the “Father
of the Hydrogen Bomb.” When Teller was shown the fan, he walked around
it, inspecting it closely, peering into its innards and feeling the
cool air rushing over his quizzically turned face. Finally, the great
physicist shrugged his shoulders and confessed in a thick accent,
“I don’t understand what makes it work.” One witness to this confession
was Teller's wife, who turned to Linda and said under her breath,
“You have no idea how wonderful it is to hear him say that!"
Another of Floyd Odlum’s
prominent colleagues who spent time contemplating Brown’s invention
was the bombastic General Curtis LeMay. In his own glory days during
World War II, LeMay had helped plan the fire-bombings of Germany,
and he was among those who persuaded Harry Truman to separate the
Air Corps from the Army to form the United States Air Force. A staunch
anti-communist, LeMay subsequently served as the first commander of
the Strategic Air Command, that great fleet of B-52s that circled
globe twenty-four hours a day, prepared to drop a nuclear payload
on the commies at a moments notice. LeMay was also regarded as the
model for General 'Buck' Turgidson, the blustery character that George
C. Scott portrayed in Stanely Kurbrick’s cold-war masterpiece, “Dr.
In Santa Monica, LeMay
busied himself with less dramatic endeavors. As one of the stockholders
in Odlum’s various businesses, LeMay took a personal interest in GTI,
and spent an inordinate amount of time hanging around the laboratory
where Linda and Townsend Brown were trying to perfect The Fan. In
his typically huffy manner, LeMay tried to convince anybody who was
listening that he understood what made The Fan work, even demonstrating
the effect by blowing smoke from his inch-thick cigars into its long
metal plates to demonstrate the air-purifying effect.
The story Linda most like
to retell, though, was of the occasion when the great General Curtis
LeMay, former Chief Air Force Nuclear Bombadier, offered to help Linda
change a dead light bulb over her workspace. She watched as the General
perched himself precariously on top of her lab stool and reached into
the ceiling fixture, and wondered quietly to herself, “how many Generals
does it take to change a light bulb?”
Despite all the demonstrations
and visits from celebrity scientists, military luminaries and potential
stockholders, progress on the development of a commercial prototype
of The Fan proceeded slowly. They waited some months for a new engineer
who would help steer the project toward a commercially viable product.
But once he arrived, his contribution to project was a new coil for
the all important “leading edge” of the system that was entirely unsuited
to the task. Once the suggestion proved ineffective, the highly touted
new supervisor was reduced to helping the Browns move units around
in the lab and helping them set up for the next demonstration.
And so it went for nearly
a year, until Brown and Linda were asked to wheel a larger demonstration
unit into the curiously drab headquarters of a new outfit, some kind
of "think tank" called The RAND Corporation.
“Dad and I put on our
usual ‘song and dance routine,’ as Dad like to call it,” Linda recounted.
This time, they demonstrated not only the air-moving-and-purifying
features of the system, but its capabilities as a “loudspeaker” as
well — a function that had its own unique and compelling characteristics.
“Since the loudspeaker has no moving parts, it could be modulated
without any distortion, and there was virtually no limit to its upper
frequency range,” Linda explained. “It’s a little difficult to explain,
but the net effect was that in this configuration, the unit was capable
of sending a signal that was entirely undetectable.”
Whereas most demonstrations
of either The Fan or its loudspeaker application elicited unrestrained
expressions of amazement and curiosity, the assembly at RAND was “ominously
quiet” after the demonstration. “It was kind of odd,” Linda said.
“No puzzled looks, no furtive walk-arounds.”
When they were done, Townsend
Brown gently instructed his daughter to pack all the units but one
and take them back to the GTI facility in Santa Monica, explaining
that he would catch up with her later that evening at home after he
stayed behind to talk with the RAND officials. One unit -- "the
big unit" that Dr. Brown was working on in his study the day
Morgan first stuck his head in -- was left behind at the RAND offices.
When he got home that
evening, Brown shocked Linda with the announcement that the project
they’d been working on for so long was being shut down.
"It's over, Sweetie,"
Dr. Brown told Linda, "Maybe now it's time you got on with your
He didn't offer much more
in the way of explanation. Whatever the reason, the work on "The
Fan" came to an abrupt halt that summer. And that’s pretty much
how it went with Townsend Brown, over the course of his entire life,
as he tried to forge some kind of success for himself and his family
from the discovery that he first made when he was just a teenager,
growing up among the gentry of Zanesville, Ohio.