Seeking Gravity Control in the 1950s

In the mid 1950s gravity control seemed like the next “big thing” after the development of nuclear energy. In that heady atomic-era nothing seemed impossible for physicists. Many aerospace firms were convinced that conquering gravity could be achieved in relatively few years .

Physicist Burkhard Heim presented a theory advancing Einstein’s geometrization of space at two International Astronautical Federation (IAF) congress sessions: 1952 in Stuttgart, Germany and 1954 in Innsbruck, Austria . They drew critical acclaim from both academic and corporate researchers. As reported by the New York Herald-Tribune (20 Nov.1955) in an article entitled “Conquest of Gravity Aim of Top Scientists in U.S.”, and by The Miami Herald (30 Nov.1955), Heim engaged in and completed a set of consulting contracts with the Glen Martin Aircraft Company’s Research Institute for Advanced Study (RIAS) in Baltimore, Maryland. George S.Trimble, the creator of RIAS, later told astronautics historian Lloyd Mallan that his two goals were: “Space flight and the control of the force of gravity itself for propulsion.”  The Herald-Tribune article featured Heim prominently and made clear that competitors in the aerospace market were intent on becoming the first to capitalize on this new technology:

“Some pure physicists, while backing the general program to try to discover how gravity is propagated, refuse to make predictions of any kind. Aircraft industry firms now participating or actively interested in gravity include Glenn L. Martin Co. of Baltimore, builders of the nation’s first giant jet-powered flying boat; Convair of San Diego, designers and builders of the giant B-36 intercontinental bomber and the world’s first successful vertical take-off fighter; Bell Aircraft of Buffalo, builders of the first piloted airplane to fly faster than sound and a current jet take-off and landing airplane, and Sikorsky Division of United Aircraft, pioneer helicopter builders. Lear, Inc., of Santa Monica, one of the world’s largest builders of automatic pilots for airplanes; Clarke Electronics of Palm Springs, California, a pioneer in its field, and the Sperry Gyroscope Division of Sperry-Rand Corp., of Great Neck, L.I., which is doing important work on guided missiles and earth satellites, also have scientists investigating the gravity problem.”

This was big science and gained the support of well-known scientists of the day including Dr. J. Robert Oppenheimer, Dr. Edward Teller, Dr. Freeman J. Dyson, Dr. John A. Wheeler and Dr. Bryce S. DeWitt. At the time gravity research was pursued by leading universities including the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. At the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, N.C. an “Institute of Pure Physics” was created to primarily carry on theoretical research on gravity, though the potential for applications for the military-industrial complex were not far removed. The institute was approved by the university’s president Dr. Gordon Gray who was a former Secretary of the Army and Assistant Secretary of Defense.

One of the more interesting sources for comments on the history of institutional gravity research in the 1950s and how palpable it seemed during that era to academicians and aeronautical planners alike is “The Anti-Gravity Handbook” by David Hatcher Childress. One historical source it cites is an article prepared for the USAF by the Gravity Research Group in 1956 and captures the frenzy to develop the first gravity propulsion system, though no claims of success are ever reported in the article.

The Herald-Tribune article continues:

“Other top-ranking scientific minds being brought to bear today on the gravity problem are those of Dr. Vaclav Hlavaty, of the University of Indiana, who served with Professor Einstein on the faculty of Charles University in Prague and later taught advanced mathematics at the Sorbonne in Paris; and of Dr. Stanley Deser and Dr. Richard Arnowitt of the Princeton Institute for Advanced Study. Dr. Hlavaty believes that gravity simply is one aspect of electromagnetism – the basis of all cosmic forces – and eventually may be controlled like light and radio waves.”

The Roger Babson Gravity Research Foundation of New Boston, New Hampshire was founded by economist Dr. Roger Babson and supported financially by Clarence Birdseye, the inventor and industrialist who gave the world its first packaged quick-frozen foods and laid the foundation for today’s frozen food industry. The connection between frozen peas and gravity is unclear but gives some sense that gravity control was considered not only the next new realm of physics to conquer but also a potentially major source of economic wealth for American industry.

Heim’s papers triggered intense interest by the aerospace and engineering communities. No one had before coupled general relativity with quantum dynamics for the purpose of providing propulsion. In 1956 Heim sent to the U.S.-based Gravity Research Foundation a 17-page progress report summarizing his theory. Included at the end of his report were sample calculations establishing the propulsive potential for his findings to enable an expedition to Mars.

From the Gravity Research Foundation’s website:

Babson’s main interest was to stimulate interest in the study of Gravity. He hoped that ultimately unique and practical applications would be found. His views were reflected by the wording in the announcement of the first essay competition that said the awards were to be given for suggestions for anti-gravity devices, for partial insulators, reflectors, or absorbers of gravity, or for some substance that can be rearranged by gravity to throw off heat.

The Gravity Research Foundation is still active and sponsors an annual essay contest.  Winners have included Bryce DeWitt, John Wheeler, Freeman Dyson, Stephen Hawking and other noted physicists.

Later in 1956 the General Physics Laboratory of the Aeronautical Research Laboratories (ARL) at Wright-Patterson Air Force base in Dayton, Ohio engaged Joshua N. Goldberg (later Emeritus Professor at Syracuse and Fellow, American Physical Society) to direct the support of research into gravitational and unified field theories stemming from general relativity. There is no indication that Heim Theory was their single point of inspiration, but in the 1960s the group came to study the propulsive possibilities of quantum gravity.

In 1957 Heim first proposed the theoretical possibility of “field propulsions” for space vehicles to an international congress on space flight. As noted in an 2006 article in New Scientist, as Heim presented his idea in public:

“… he became an instant celebrity. Wernher von Braun, who at the time was leading the Saturn rocket program that later launched astronauts to the moon, approached Heim about his work and asked whether the expensive Saturn rockets were worthwhile. And in a letter in 1964, the German relativity theorist Pascual Jordan, who had worked with the distinguished physicists Max Born and Werner Heisenberg told Heim that his plan was so important that its successful experimental treatment would without doubt make the researcher a candidate for the Nobel prize.”