The Man Who Declared War on Gravity

In the 1900s, a millionaire who could, at best, be considered eccentric, declared war on gravity. He wrote tracts with titles like, "Gravity: Our Enemy Number One," and founded an institute to roll back the power of this deadly force.

Let's take a look at what the world would look like today, if he'd won.

Top image: Jetpack-Fan on Deviant Art.

Roger Babson was, by all accounts, a brilliant man. He was an MIT-educated engineer who founded a statistical reports company. The fact that his company was one of the few to predict the 1929 stock market crash made it no surprise that within a decade he was a multimillionaire, a task considerably harder to do in the 1930s than it is today. He was an enthusiastic New Dealer, and hired artists to carve public monuments. He wrote nearly fifty books. He was inventive, entrepreneurial, and intelligent. He was also, in one particular way, bed-bug crazy.

The Man Who Declared War on Gravity

As PopSci detailed in an article last year, Babson had a particular obsession: gravity. His sister had been drowned in a river when he was young, and while some might blame the water, or poor supervision, he wrote about the event, "the fact is that ... she was unable to fight Gravity, which came up and seized her like a dragon and brought her to the bottom. There she smothered and died from lack of oxygen."

Some of the public works that Babson commissioned were 'gravity stones,' to remind students at the colleges where they sat of the weighty shackles that they must hope to one day cast aside. Not content merely to inspire, Babson endowed colleges with modest sums of money so that they might end the tyranny of gravity. The Gravity Research Foundation, which Babson founded, is still around today, though today it researches topics relating to gravity instead of ways to overcome it. No doubt about it, Roger Babson fought a war on gravity. Today we briefly wonder — what if he had won it?

Accidents, Plane Crashes, and Drowning

Babson's three main complaints against the dragon of gravity were airplane crashes, drownings, and broken hips and legs due to falls. He wanted these problems to be solved completely by anti-gravity devices. If his war were won completely, there would be three types of his devices in common use; one for planes, one for personal use, and one stretching over any hazardous public places.

The Man Who Declared War on Gravity

Of the three, planes would be the most lucrative and the most practical. The anti-gravity devices probably wouldn't play too much hell with the flight of the plane, because the shape of the wing channels air so there are pressure differences above and bellow it. This happens whether gravity is a factor or not. Antigravity devices would definitely make plane travel cheaper and more ecological. The weight of the plane and the passengers would be taken out of the equation — although we'd probably want to keep planes capable of conventional flight if the antigravity device were to fail — and the engines would just have to get up to speed on the ground and then overcome air friction to get travelers to their destination.

Personal devices would be more difficult to implement than plane safety systems. When a plane is crashing, it generally gets some warning. Not so with people. And though a plane won't suffer any damage if it cruises along without gravity during its entire voyage, people suffer terribly if they stay in microgravity. A personal antigravity device couldn't stay on all the time. It would have to be an emergency system that would, say, cast antigravity over a four foot radius if it were engaged.

The most practical place to put it would probably be a belt. It would have to be engaged by a combination of factors. It would have to have a sensitive height sensor, which would trip if someone were to begin to fall. Height wouldn't be enough, though. Anyone going down a set of stairs would trip themselves up, and anyone on an elevator would hit their head on the ceiling if it were just up to height. The device would also need a proximity sensor, and engage only when the height sensor and proximity sensor went off together, meaning a person's position had changed in respect to both their absolute height and with respect to the objects around them.

It's a shame that the situation that inspired Babson to start his quest would be the one least likely to be in any way helped by achievement of his dream. Leaving aside the ecological nightmare that would be subjecting any creatures living in a river or pond or canyon to zero gravity, the entire area would become more dangerous, not less.

One of the great things about rivers, or oceans, is that they stay in the lowest possible area. If, for example, someone's swimming pool suddenly lost its gravity and big wodges of it started sailing through the air, a person could drown with most of their body on land and their head in a patch of water that they couldn't clear away. As for dry places, any rocks kicked would sail forever until they hit something or someone. Any loose rocks wouldn't clear from a trail naturally, they'd just hover. And good luck trying to hike downhill. Babson's idea of entirely safe rivers in which it was impossible to drown would never have worked, no matter how much or how little gravity there was.

The Problems with the Solution

The Man Who Declared War on Gravity

We've gone over why public places can't work as antigravity areas, but what are the problems with the other devices? The planes, though the most attractive and lucrative of the lot, do have their practical downsides. The first would be the thing that people complain about most currently; carry-on restrictions.

Antigravity on board the plane would mean that any fluids, any small loose objects, and all people walking up and down the aisles would float around un-tethered for the duration of the flight. Planes would have to be locked down the same way space flights are. And the toilet situation would be awful. Air sickness or a child spitting up might be cause to ground the plane for a while.

And then there's the plane in general. If an engine goes out or a wing tears off, anyone on board would certainly rather have antigravity than no antigravity, but the plane stills needs to be landed with precision. Simply switching off gravity would effectively let the plane slip the Earth entirely. Space begins only a few hundred miles up, and flying, as the plane would be, on a straight line away from the planet, it would reach space in only about an hour or so. If mechanical problems develop too near the ground, meanwhile, the loss of gravity does nothing to slow the plane down. A badly-flown plane under the influence of antigravity could barrel through houses or apartments, towing along debris in its wake.

Personal devices wouldn't be free of hassles, either. How much good the device would do would depend on how fast the sensor went off. The elimination of gravity wouldn't stop a fall once it had started. It would only lessen the momentum that a free fall would have had, and lessen the weight of the body falling to the floor. In other words, jumping out of a plane and engaging a personal antigravity device half way down wouldn't help a bit. Engaging it too far up would mean drifting on the wind for miles, possibly coming to rest on power lines or in traffic. Maneuverability is hard when there's no object to push against.

Which brings us to the problem of criminal use of antigravity devices. Clip an antigravity device to a person and you could keep them off the ground, flailing in the air, while you robbed them of everything in their house. Clip it to them outside and you could throw them like a football. Clip a device to a truck and lift it just the slightest bit and the wheels can spin as fast as they want, it isn't going anywhere. We rely on gravity to get us around, as much as we fear its wrath. Without it there to help us get traction, we're pretty helpless.

The Fun Stuff

The Man Who Declared War on Gravity

Which isn't to say I wouldn't love to live in a world where gravity is optional. Elevator shafts would be great fun. By simply switching off gravity within the elevator shaft anyone would be able to, say, take hole of a rotating belt of handles that would pull them up or down easily. People on the bottom floor would be able to step to the middle and just jump their way up to the top. People going down would be able to push themselves slightly down and waft to the floor.

A more practical use of antigravity devices would be in do-it-yourself fire control. Fire is a surprisingly minor problem on a spaceship. Fire needs oxygen, and it gets oxygen by heating up air so it expands and is less dense. As gravity exerts a constant pull on the air, heavier and more oxygen rich air jostles the oxygen-depleted air from the fire up, supplying more oxygen to the fire. In space, with no gravity, the hot air just expands, without getting pushed out of the way. The fire burns through its oxygen supply and goes out. Being able to toss an antigravity device into a fire and watch it just put itself out would make things a lot easier.

Companies that are looking for a demographic for personal antigravity devices outside of the break-a-hip crowd would do well to market floating beds. Spending a large amount of time without gravity is a bad idea, since it causes brittle bones and weak muscles. When space agencies want to study the effects of long-term microgravity, they ask people to go to bed for weeks at a time. Being on a soft, flat surface seems to mimic the effects of a gravity-less existence. And since we spend that part of our lives in zero gravity anyway, it makes sense to market antigravity devices as beds. Everyone looking for novelty, or just a little more space in their dorm room, would love them.

But let's face it, if we could shed gravity, we all know what we'd do. We try to mimic it in ice skating, surfing, parachuting, and many other sports. We'd fly. In city parks and country fields and in specially-built flying arenas and even quiet suburban streets, you'd see people gliding through the air, having the time of their lives. The government would have to start doing PSAs about how gravity was good for you, at least some of the time, to get people to come out of the clouds. The concept of solo flights across the Atlantic would take on a whole new meaning.

Winning a War on Gravity probably wouldn't increase safety so much as it would create new infrastructures, new modes of transportation, and probably a few new cults. Most of all, it would create a new way to have fun, and when put in those terms, well, get on that, Gravity Research Foundation!

Roger Babson Image: Library of Congress

Plane Image: Baseball Bugs

Floating Flight: Sarahazam

Baby Image: Kids Exercises.net

Via PopSci and GRC twice.