Chapter 4

How 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. Strangelove.”

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 own life."

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.

Next Chapter


© 2005 Paul Schatzkin/Tanglewood Books. All Rights Reserved. ANY reproduction of this material without the express, written permission of the author will be dealt with severely. Contact: Contact via e-mail



Return to