Chapter 12:

The “Biefeld-Brown” Effect


The centerpiece of Townsend Brown’s discoveries — but by no means the only aspect — has come over the years to be known as the “Biefeld-Brown Effect.” Just how the effect came bear that name is another one of the many mysteries that bubble beneath the surface of the Parallel Universe of T. Townsend Brown.

Dr. Paul Alfred Biefeld was appointed the first director of the new Swazey Observatory at Denison University in Granville, Ohio, when it opened in 1911, and simultaneously assumed the post of Chairman of the University’s equally new Department of Astronomy. Prior to his arrival in Granville, Biefeld had received his B.S. degree in Electrical Engineering from the University of Wisconsin in 1894 and — following the trail of Robert Millikan and other Americans to Europe — went to Switzerland and received his doctorate from the Polytechnic University in Zurich in 1900.

Whenever the name of Paul Biefeld finds its way into publication, it is invariably accompanied by phrases like “colleague of Albert Einstein,” or “classmate of Albert Einstein.” However, it is not clear that the two had anything more than the sort passing acquaintance that any two individuals who attended the same large university at roughly the same time might have had.

Einstein failed his first entrance examination for the Zurich Polytechnic Institute in 1894, was finally admitted in 1896, and graduated as a secondary school teacher of mathematics and physics in 1900 — the same year that Biefeld earned his doctorate. Dr. Biefeld remained at the Polytechnic Institute as a professor from the time he received his degree until 1906, while Einstein left academia and found work as a clerk at the Swiss patent office in Bern — where he ultimately became the most famous patent clerk in the history of the profession. So, while it appears that both Biefeld and Einstein were in Zurich during roughly the same period at the end of the 1890s, they were enrolled in entirely different programs — Einstein at the undergraduate level and Biefeld in the doctoral program. It thus seems unlikely that they actually attended any classes together.

Nevertheless, in a 1941 newspaper article, the 74-year-old Biefeld claimed first-hand recollections of his by-then infinitely more famous classmate. “Yes,” Biefeld told the Denison campus newspaper, “when Einstein would forget to go to a class, he would come and borrow my notes to get caught up on what he had missed. He was rather careless in his appearance, and made no show of himself. Yet he had strong ideas and wasn’t afraid to speak them out.”

The only other thing that Einstein and Biefeld had in common was music: they both played the violin.

Townsend Brown was familiar with the Denison University campus, and no doubt felt comfortable in its leafy confines occupying the crest of a large hill overlooking the manicured, streets of the pleasant village of Granville. Brown had spent two years at Doane Academy, Denison’s prep-school, before his trying freshman year at Cal-Tech.

The available evidence suggests that when he returned to Denison, he as still reeling from the after-effects of his rejection by Millikan and others at Cal-Tech. Brown’s fragile, creative spirit was wounded, and perhaps caused him to be a bit fearful of the radical ideas that were swimming around in his own head. It certainly didn’t help any that his first attempt to obtain some sort of validation for his ideas had been so resoundingly rejected. So it is not surprising that after his experience with Millikan, Townsend returned to Granville feeling self-protective and restrained, and was no doubt apprehensive about any further discussion of his ideas. Nevertheless he was determined to find “the mechanism [that] was needed” to demonstrate the practical application of his discoveries.

And he was determined to find a sympathetic ear. He knew he was on to something important, whether or not the entrenched pillars of the scientific establishment cared to acknowledge him or not. He had learned to accept that as far as the broader scientific community was concerned, he was on the outside looking in. So it is not surprising that he found the support he needed somewhere beyond the province of a mainstream institution like Cal-Tech, or that he found the kind of compassionate counsel he needed from director a small, Midwestern observatory, Dr. Paul Biefeld. in whom he found a fellow traveler in the quest to find the between electricity and gravity.

About his relationship with Biefeld, Brown wrote some years later,

Dr. Biefeld had been interested in the subject of gravitation for many years. This interest probably coincided with [Einstein’s] interest in the "Unified Field Theory" and in the new concept of "Relativity" which was gaining recognition at that time. Biefeld believed in the possibility of some connection with gravitation. As he expressed it - "I am constantly on the 'look-out' for something that might represent an 'electrodynamic-gravitational' coupling. "

If the account is accurate, then Brown seems to be saying that Paul Biefeld was not only thinking along similar lines, but looking for the same sort physical demonstration of such a coupling, the sort of “practical invention” that would demonstrate a link between electricity and gravity.

According to Brown the pivotal exchange, took place when Brown asked Biefeld, “If a coupling did exist, what (physical) instrumentality might it resemble?" Biefeld “thought for a few minutes and then answered without equivocation, "the capacitor.”

A capacitor is one of the most basic of electrical components, along with resistors, transistors, diodes, etc. A capacitor is an electrical device that is capable of storing and discharging electrical energy. It typically consists of two charged metal plates — the electrodes — that are separated by an insulating substance called a “dielectric” which cause the electrodes to absorb their charge without actually conducting it between them. A typical electrical circuit will have anywhere from one to hundreds of capacitors, each capable storing a different level of voltage and current and discharging that current according to the requirements of the circuit.

So, by Brown’s account, it was Biefeld who first suggested that the “mechanism” for the transmission of gravitation might resemble the common capacitor. But in point of fact, Brown already knew that was the answer. He had observed as much in his Coolidge tube, which, with it’s asymmetrical electrodes, actually acted as precisely the kind of capacitor Biefeld was supposedly proposing.

But the question and answer served their purpose: By posing the question to Biefeld and getting the answer he anticipated, Brown had found for himself precisely the ally he was looking for.

This is really as much as anybody knows about the relationship between Paul Biefeld and Townsend Brown that has been immortalized in the naming of the basic electrical effect that Brown discovered in his Coolidge tube. That said, we can turn our attention to understanding the effect itself.

Townsend Brown himself wrote (in 1977):

The basic Biefeld-Brown effect is quite simple. It is manifested as a departure from the Coulomb Law of electrostatic attraction, in that the opposite forces are not equal. The negative electrode appears to chase the positive electrode [emphasis added], so that there is a net force of the system (dipole) in the negative-to-positive direction.

By “departure from Coulomb Law,” Brown is referring to the electrical theory the quantifies the manner in which similarly-charged particles will repel each other and oppositely-charged particles will attract, which was articulated in 1785 by the French physicist Charles Augustin de Coulomb. Under normal circumstances, the expectation would be that oppositely charged particles or surfaces of equal mass would attract each other equally. But the heart of Brown’s discovery was the anomalous behavior observed in his Coolidge tube — that the charges are not necessarily equal; In fact, the negative charge is slightly greater than the positive charge, so that the negatively charged surface actually moves more toward the positively charged surface more than vice versa. Thus, as Brown described, the “negative electrode appears to chase the positive electrode.”

This is the basic Townsend Brown discovery, the phenomenon for which he is most commonly recalled today. And because of his association with Biefeld in the mid-to-late 1920s, the effect has come to be known as the “Biefeld Brown Effect” though the first recorded instance of that terminology is lost to posterity.

But there may be another aspect to what we are calling the “Biefeld Brown Effect” which explains why we don’t call it simply the “Townsend Brown Effect.”

After his unpleasant confrontation with Robert Millikan at Cal-Tech, we see Townsend Brown beginning to shy away from any further acclaim for his genius -- as in this case, by attaching a mentor’s name to a discovery that could just as easily have been named wholly for himself.

But this is just the first occurrence of a pattern that will repeat itself through the rest of Brown’s life Considering the relative obscurity that his reputation struggles with today, you might say that the “Biefeld-Brown Effect” was really the earliest manifestation of Townsend Brown taking extraordinary measures to “hide in plain sight” — by diverting credit for his own discoveries toward others in what we can see now was a carefully calculated effort to obscure his achievements behind a veil of anonymity that would follow him the rest of his days

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