John Kennedy thought he had made some remarkable discoveries. It was April 1971, and the Pompano Beach, Florida, resident wasn't sure what to do with his revelations, which dealt with “a dynamic new theory of gravity." He needed advice—so he sent a letter to the White House.
“Gravity can be cancelled or controlled electronically!” Kennedy wrote, noting that he didn't have the “know-how” to build an apparatus using these concepts, but that it could be built for under $100. “I am trying to find someone to build it, but because of the vital nature of such a discovery I hardly know whom to trust," he said, closing, "People have been killed for less.”
Kennedy's letter ended up on the desk of Edward E. David, Jr., the science advisor to President Richard Nixon. David was the ninth person to hold the position, which had taken shape in the period after World War II. It eventually became a full-time position in 1957, after the Soviet launch of Sputnik sent the American government into a tizzy of scientific activity. Nuclear weapons and nuclear power, the burgeoning field of biomedical research, the imminent space race—the growing list of scientific demands on the government, and in particular on the president’s role in these efforts, required a steady expert hand nearby. The advisors have played a large role in formation of policy over the years—with some fits and starts along the way, including a dark period when President Nixon simply abolished the position, and today, when no advisor has even been nominated.
But along with the standard parts of the science advisors’ job, they held another, far less pressing role: answering the strange, grandiose, and often outright crazy scientific ideas sent in from around the country.
The strangest thing about Kennedy’s letter may be how common it was. A journey through the archives of a few presidential libraries reveals many examples of people claiming to have grand new discoveries that will change the course of history. For example, William J. Dowling, of Oklahoma City, wrote in 1969 to announce that he had established a brand-new field of science, which he called psychokinesiology. No particular details about this field were offered, but he wrote, “When the nature, scope and accuracy of the findings and application of this science are generally known, the knowledge will be subject to countless radiant ramifications of its importance.”
A telegram, also in 1969, arrived from Louis Wargo, of Hyattsville, Maryland, following multiple other notes about various fields of science. It screamed: “YOU NEED ME I CAN BRING A SOCIALLY SICK NATION TOGETHER AND ALSO A SCIENTIFIC WORLD TOGETHER AND PUT MANS FATE BACK IN THE HANDS OF GOD.”
Most often, these letters and telegrams were addressed to the president himself (Mr. Wargo actually began by contacting the First Lady, Pat Nixon), but at the first mention of scientific concepts the White House staff presumably shuttled them off to the office of the science advisor. And, in the polite atmosphere of yesteryear, the science advisor often wrote back. “I want you to know that President Nixon very much appreciates your letter to him regarding the discoveries you believe you have made in the field of sound detection,” wrote Lee A. DuBridge, Nixon’s first advisor, to Mabel Carroll Boyle, of Glendale, California. Ms. Boyle had written in an almost tragically shaky hand on the stationery of Glen Manor Convalescent Center regarding her supposed discoveries.
A few themes would grace the advisors’ desks again and again. “I have been in the process of perfecting a mathematical system of pre information [sic] on earthquake [sic] if my theory proves important I hope to offer it to the United States government later on,” telegrammed Ethel Harriet Mercer of Santa Monica, California. She believed serious earthquakes were on their way in “Italy China also California.” But not to worry—“Japan Alaska South America Mexico Australia Canada” were safe. She would write again a month later, noting that her “preinformation system” now included volcanoes. Our friend Louis Wargo, who could heal a sick nation, also believed he could predict earthquakes, as did numerous others.
Then there were the energy mavens: DIY scientists who claimed to have solved the world’s problems, most of whom proposed to violate a not-insignificant number of the laws of thermodynamics. D.A. Kelly, a project manager from Technidyne Associates in Clearwater, Florida, wrote to Ronald Reagan’s advisor George A. Keyworth about “devices which produce more output power than the input power levels.” (The same company, apparently, would push cold fusion ideas to the Department of Energy a few years later [PDF].)
Nicholas A. Besse, of parts unknown, wrote in June 1971, “I think we have the answer to your problem because we have developed a pollution free fuel not made from oil. Our biggest concern now is how to reveal this marvelous product to the public without the oil companies burying us alive both figuratively and literally.” The advisor wrote back suggesting private funding was required.
Eduardo Villasenor de Rivas wrote in 1972, “I have a new, economical form of producing electricity which will solve the national power shortage.” The power source was supposedly clean and would last 1000 years. With infinite patience, the science advisor replied, “On the basis of your letter it is not clear what technologies you have in mind.”
Some ideas seem strangely prescient today. Eugene J. Angeledes, of Poray Associates in La Habra, California, wrote in about his novel ideas for a propulsion technology for use on a submarine. He called it the “Stawarz Jet Propulsion System.” It was 1971—six years before Star Wars was released. The science advisor wrote back, “wish[ing] you success in the development at hand.”
And sometimes, the letter writers didn’t even bother to restrict themselves to energy, or earthquakes, or any specific field, but instead claimed to have solved … well, everything? Hard to say, honestly. “We are a scientific organization which, after some 30 years of intensive research, testing, proving and application, has broken new ground in the science of man, presently being prepared for international announcement,” wrote R. Lachar, president of a Detroit entity known as the sinister-sounding Lachar Directorate. “Our discoveries and methods could not only save billions of dollars but are capable of providing the scientific basis for a complete reconstruction of society within an incredibly short period of time.” Once again, the president’s science advisor wrote back to Mr. Lachar politely and, at least it seemed, sincerely, asking to see more details of these supposed findings.
In a way, the advisor acts as the government’s scientific face, absorbing the public’s anxieties and desires about the future of humanity, manifested in these Hail Mary communiqués. There is no indication that any actually received any sort of official attention beyond those polite letters in return, and thankfully, no indication that John Kennedy of Pompano Beach, or anyone else, was killed for their groundbreaking discoveries.