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