From the heavy-handed style of the prose and the faint handwritten "1956" scrawled in pencil along the top of the first page, the photocopied pages had obviously come from some long-forgotten schlock popular science journal.
I had stepped away from my desk only for a few moments and somehow in the interim the article had appeared. The headline ran: "The G-Engines Are Coming!"
I glanced around the office, wondering who had put it there and if this was someone's idea of a joke. The copier had cut off the top of the first page and the title of the publication with it, but it was the drawing above the headline that was the giveaway. It depicted an aircraft, if you could call it that, hovering a few feet above a dry lakebed, a ladder extending from the fuselage and a crewmember making his way down the steps dressed in a U.S.-style flight suit and flying helmet--standard garb for that era. The aircraft had no wings and no visible means of propulsion.
I gave the office another quick scan. The magazine's operations were set on the first floor. The whole building was open-plan. To my left, the business editor was head-down over a proof-page checking copy. To her right was the naval editor, a guy who was good for a windup, but who was currently deep into a phone conversation and looked like he had been for hours.
I was reminded of a technology piece I'd penned a couple of years earlier about the search for scientific breakthroughs in U.S. aerospace and defense research. In a journal not noted for its exploration of the fringes of paranormality, nor for its humor, I'd inserted a tongue-in-cheek reference to gravity--or rather to antigravity, a subject beloved of science-fiction writers.
"For some U.S. aerospace engineers," I'd said, "an antigravity propulsion system remains the ultimate quantum leap in aircraft design." The implication was that antigravity was the aerospace equivalent of the holy grail: something longed for, dreamed about, but beyond reach--and likely always to remain so.
Somehow the reference had escaped the sub-editors and, as a result, amongst my peers, other aerospace and defense writers on the circuit, I'd taken some flak for it. For Jane's, the publishing empire founded on one man's obsession with the detailed specifications of ships and aircraft almost a century earlier, technology wasn't something you joked about.
The magazine I wrote--and still write--for, Jane's Defence Weekly
, documented the day-to-day dealings of the multibillion-dollar defense business. JDW
, as we called it, is but one of a portfolio of products detailing the ins and outs of the global aerospace and defense industry. If you want to know about the thrust-to-weight ratio of a Chinese combat aircraft engine or the pulse repetition frequency of a particular radar system, somewhere in the Jane's portfolio of products there is a publication that has the answers. In short, Jane's was, and always has been, about facts. Its motto is: Authoritative, Accurate, Impartial.
It was a huge commercial intelligence-gathering operation; and provided they had the money, anyone could buy into its vast knowledge base.
I cast a glance at the bank of sub-editors' work-stations over in the far corner of the office, but nobody appeared remotely interested in what was happening at my desk. If the subs had nothing to do with it, and usually they were the first to know about a piece of piss-taking that was going down in the office, I figured whoever had put it there was from one of the dozens of other departments in the building and on a different floor. Perhaps my anonymous benefactor had felt embarrassed about passing it on to me?
I studied the piece again.
The strapline below the headline proclaimed: "By far the most potent source of energy is gravity. Using it as power, future aircraft will attain the speed of light." It was written by one Michael Gladych and began: "Nuclear-powered aircraft are yet to be built, but there are research projects already under way that will make the super-planes obsolete before they are test-flown. For in the United States and Canada, research centers, scientists, designers and engineers are perfecting a way to control gravity--a force infinitely more powerful than the mighty atom. The result of their labors will be antigravity engines working without fuel--weightless airliners and space ships able to travel at 170,000 miles per second."
On any other day, that would have been the moment I'd have consigned it for recycling. But something in the following paragraph caught my eye.
The gravity research, it said, had been supported by the Glenn L. Martin Aircraft Company, Bell Aircraft, Lear "and several other American aircraft manufacturers who would not spend millions of dollars on science fiction." It quoted Lawrence D. Bell, the founder of the plane-maker that was first to beat the sound barrier. "We're already working on nuclear fuels and equipment to cancel out gravity." George S. Trimble, head of Advanced Programs and "Vice President in charge of the G-Project at Martin Aircraft," added that the conquest of gravity "could be done in about the time it took to build the first atom bomb."
A little further on, it quoted "William P. Lear, the chairman of Lear Inc., makers of autopilots and other electronic controls." It would be another decade before Bill Lear went on to design and build the first of the sleek business jets that still carry his name. But in 1956, according to Gladych, Lear had his mind on other things.
"All matter within the ship would be influenced by the ship's gravitation only," Lear apparently said of the wondrous G-craft. "This way, no matter how fast you accelerated or changed course, your body would not feel it any more than it now feels the tremendous speed and acceleration of the earth." The G-ship, Gladych explained, could take off like a cannon shell, come to a stop with equal abruptness and the passengers wouldn't even need seat belts. This ability to accelerate rapidly, the author continued, would make it ideal as a space vehicle capable of acceleration to a speed approaching that of light.
There were some oblique references to Einstein, some highly dubious "facts" about the nature of subatomic physics and some speculation about how various kinds of "antigravity engines" might work.
But the one thing I kept returning to were those quotes. Had Gladych made them up or had Lawrence Bell, George S. Trimble and William "Bill" Lear really said what he had quoted them as saying?
Outside, the rain beat against the double-glazed windows, drowning the sound of the traffic that crawled along the London to Brighton road and the unrelenting hum of the air conditioning that regulated the temperature inside.
The office was located in the last suburb of the Greater London metropolis; next stop the congested joys of the M25 ring road and the M23 to Gatwick Airport. The building was a vast redbrick two-story bunker amid between-the-wars gray brickwork and pebbledash. The rain acted like a muslin filter, washing out what little ambient color Coulsdon possessed. In the rain, it was easy to imagine that nothing much had changed here for decades.
As aviation editor of JDW
, my beat was global and it was pretty much unstructured. If I needed to cover the latest air-to-surface weapons developments in the U.S.A., I could do it, with relatively few questions asked. My editor, an old pro, with a history as long as your arm in publishing, gave each of us, the so-called "specialists" (the aviation, naval and land systems editors), plenty of rope. His only proviso was that we filed our expenses within two of weeks of travel and that we gave him good, exclusive stories. If I wanted to cover an aerospace and defense exhibition in Moscow, Singapore or Dubai, the funds to do so were almost always there.
As for the job itself, it was a mixture of hard-edged reporting and basic provision of information. We reported on the defense industry, but we were part of it, too--the vast majority of the company's revenue coming from the same people we wrote about. Kowtowing was a no-no, but so was kicking down doors. If you knew the rules and played by them you could access almost any part of the global defense-industrial complex. In the course of a decade, I'd visited secret Russian defense facilities and ultrasensitive U.S. government labs. If you liked technology, a bit of skulduggery and people, it was a career made in heaven. At least 60 percent of the time I was on the road. The bit I liked least was office downtime.
Again, I looked around for signs that I was being set up. Then, satisfied that I wasn't, but feeling self-conscious nonetheless, I tucked the Gladych article into a drawer and got on with the business of the day. Another aerospace and defense company had fallen prey to post-Cold War economics. It was 24 hours before the paper closed for press and the news editor was yelling for copy.
Two days later, in a much quieter moment, I visited the Jane's library. It was empty but for the librarian, a nice man way past retirement age who used to listen to the BBC's radio lunchtime news while gazing out over the building's bleak rear lot.
In the days before the Internet revolution, the library was an invaluable resource. Fred T. Jane published his first yearbook, Jane's Fighting Ships
, in 1898; and in 1909 the second, Jane's All The World's Aircraft
, quickly built on the reputation of the former as a reference work par excellence for any and all information on aeronautical developments. Nigh on a century later, the library held just about every book and magazine ever put out by the company and a pile of other reference works besides.
I scanned the shelves till I found what I was looking for.The Jane's All The World's Aircraft
yearbook for 1956 carried no mention of antigravity experiments, nor did successive volumes, but that came as no great surprise. The yearbooks are the aerospace equivalent of Burke's Peerage
or the Guinness Book of Records
: every word pored over, analyzed and double-checked for accuracy. They'd have given antigravity a very wide berth.
For a story like this, what I was looking for was a news publication.
I looked along the shelves again. Jane's had gotten into the magazine publishing business relatively recently and the company's copies of Flight International
and Aviation Week
ran back only a few years. But it did have bound volumes of Interavia Aerospace Review
from before the Second World War. And it was on page 373 in the May 1956 edition of this well-respected publication, in amongst advertisements for Constellation airliners, chunky-looking bits of radar equipment and (curiously for an aviation journal) huge "portable" Olivetti typewriters, that I found a feature bylined "Intel, Washington, D.C." with the headline: "Without Stress or Strain...or Weight." Beneath it ran the strapline: "The following article is by an American journalist who has long taken a keen interest in questions of theoretical physics and has been recommended to the Editors as having close connections with scienti- fic circles in the United States. The subject is one of immediate interest, and Interavia would welcome further comment from knowledgeable sources."
The article referred to something called "electro-gravitics" research, whose aim was to "seek the source of gravity and its control." This research, "Intel" stated, had "reached a stage where profound implications for the entire human race are beginning to emerge."
I read on, amused by the tone and wondering how on earth the article had come to be accepted in a mainstream aerospace journal.
"In the still short life of the turbojet airplane [by then, 1956, little more than a decade], man has had to increase power in the form of brute thrust some twenty times in order to achieve just twice the speed. The cost in money in reaching this point has been prodigious. The cost in highly specialized man-hours is even greater. By his present methods man actually fights in direct combat the forces that resist his efforts. In conquering gravity he would be putting one of his most competent adversaries to work for him. Antigravitics is the method of the picklock rather than the sledgehammer."
Not only that, the article stated, but antigravity could be put to work in other fields beyond aerospace. "In road cars, trains and boats the headaches of transmission of power from the engine to wheels or propellers would simply cease to exist. Construction of bridges and big buildings would be greatly simplified by temporary induced weightlessness etc. Other facets of work now under way indicate the possi- bility of close controls over the growth of plant life; new therapeutic techniques, permanent fuelless heating units for homes and industrial establishments; new sources of industrial power; new manufacturing techniques; a whole field of new chemistry. The list is endless ...and growing."
It was also sheer fantasy.
Yet, for the second time in a week I had found an article--this time certainly in a publication with a solid reputation--that stated that U.S. aerospace companies were engaged in the study of this "science." It cited the same firms mentioned by Gladych and some new ones as well: Sperry-Rand and General Electric among them. Within these institutions, we were supposed to believe, people were working on theories that could not only make materials weightless, but could actually give them "negative weight"--a repulsive force that would allow them to loft away "contra-gravitationally." The article went further. It claimed that in experimentation conducted by a certain "Townsend T. Brown" weights of some materials had already been cut by as much as 30 percent by "energizing" them and that model "disc airfoils" utilizing this technology had been run in a wind tunnel under a charge of a hundred and fifty kilovolts "with results so impressive as to be highly classified."
I gazed out over the slate rooftops. For Interavia
to have written about antigravity, there had to have been something in it. The trouble was, it was history. My bread-and-butter beat was the aerospace industry of the 1990s, not this distant cozy world of the fifties with its heady whiff of jet-engine spirit and the developing Cold War.
I replaced the volume and returned to my desk. It should have been easy to let go, but it wasn'. If people of the caliber quoted by Gladych and Interavia
had started talking about antigravity anytime in the past ten years I would have reported it--however skeptical I might be on a personal level. Why had these people said the things they had with such conviction? One of them, George S. Trimble, had gone so far as to predict that a breakthrough would occur in around the same time it took to develop the atomic bomb--roughly five years. Yet, it had never happened. And even if the results of "Townsend T. Brown's" experiments had been "so impressive as to be highly classified," they had clearly come to naught; otherwise, by the 60s or 70s the industry would have been overtaken by fuelless propulsion technology.
I rang a public relations contact at Lockheed Martin, the U.S. aerospace and defense giant, to see if I could get anything on the individuals Gladych had quoted. I knew that Lawrence Bell and Bill Lear were both dead. But what about George S. Trimble? If Trimble was alive--and it was a long shot, since he would have to be in his 80s--he would undoubtedly confirm what I felt I knew to be true; that he had been heavily misquoted or that antigravity had been the industry's silly-season story of 1956.
A simple phone call would do the trick.
Daniella "Dani" Abelman was an old media contact within Lockheed Martin's public affairs organization. Solid, reliable and likable, she'd grown up in the industry alongside me, only on the other side of the divide. Our relationship with the information managers of the aerospace and defense world was as double-edged as the PR/reporter interface in any other industry. Our job was to get the lowdown on the inside track and, more often than not, it was bad news that sold. But unlike our national newspaper counterparts, trade press hacks have to work within the industry, not outside it. This always added an extra twist to our quest for information. The industry comprised hundreds of thousands of people, but despite its size, it was surprisingly intimate and incestuous enough for everyone to know everyone else. If you pissed off a PR manager in one company, even if it was on the other side of the globe, you wouldn't last long, because word would quickly get around and the flow of information would dry up.
But with Abelman, it was easy. I liked her. We got on. I told her I needed some background on an individual in one of Lockheed Martin's "heritage" companies, a euphemism for a firm it had long since swallowed whole.
The Glenn L. Martin Company became the Martin Company in 1957. In 1961, it merged with the American-Marietta Company, becoming Martin-Marietta, a huge force in the Cold War U.S. defense electronics industry. In 1994, Martin-Marietta merged again, this time with Lockheed to form Lockheed Martin. The first of the global mega-merged defense behemoths, it built everything from stealth fighters and their guided weapons to space launchers and satellites.
Abelman was naturally suspicious when I told her I needed to trace an ex-company employee, but relaxed when I said that the person I was interested in had been doing his thing more than 40 years ago and was quite likely dead by now.
I was circumspect about the reasons for the approach, knowing full well if I told her the real story, she'd think I'd taken leave of my senses.
But I had a bona fide reason for calling her--and one that legitimately, if at a stretch, involved Trimble: I was preparing a piece on the emergence of the U.S. aerospace industry's "special projects" facilities in the aftermath of the Cold War.
Most large aerospace and defense companies had a special projects unit; a clandestine adjunct to their main business lines where classified activities could take place. The shining example was the Lockheed Martin "Skunk Works," a near-legendary aircraft-manufacturing facility on the edge of the California high desert.
For 50 years, the Skunk Works had sifted Lockheed for its most highly skilled engineers, putting them to work on top secret aircraft projects.
Using this approach it had delivered some of the biggest military breakthroughs of the 20th century, among them the world's first Mach 3 spyplane and stealth, the art of making aircraft "invisible" to radar and other enemy sensor systems.
But now the Skunk Works was coming out of the shadows and, in the process, giving something back to its parent organization. Special projects units were renowned for bringing in complex, high-risk defense programs on time and to cost, a skill that had become highly sought after by the main body of the company in the austere budget environment of the 1990s.
Trimble, I suggested, might be able to provide me with historical context and "color" in an otherwise dry business story. "Advanced Programs," the outfit he was supposed to have worked for, sounded a lot like Martin's version of the Skunk Works.
Abelman said she'd see what she could do, but I wasn't to expect any short-order miracles. She wasn't the company historian, she said dryly, but she'd make a few inquiries and get back to me.
I was surprised when she phoned me a few hours later. Company records, to her surprise--and mine--said that Trimble was alive and enjoying retirement in Arizona. "Sounds hard as nails, but an amazing guy by all accounts," she breezed. "He's kinda mystified why you want to talk to him after all this time, but seems okay with it. Like you said, it's historical, right?"
"Right," I said.
I asked Abelman, while she was at it, for all the background she had on the man. History or not, I said, trying to keep it light, I liked to be thorough. She was professional enough to sound less than convinced by my newfound interest in the past, but promised she'd do her best. I thanked her, then hung up, feeling happy that I'd done something about it. A few weeks, a month at the outside, the mystery would be resolved and I could go back to my regular beat, case closed.
Outside, another bank of gray storm clouds was rolling in above rooftops that were still slick from the last passing shower.
I picked up my coat and headed for the train station, knowing that somewhere between the office and my flat in central London I was going to get soaked right through.
The initial information came a week later from a search through some old files that I'd buried in a collection of boxes in my basement: a company history of Martin Marietta I'd barely remembered I'd acquired. It told me that in 1955 Trimble had become involved in something called the Research Institute for Advanced Studies, RIAS, a Martin spin-off organization whose brief was to "observe the phenomena of nature...to discover fundamental laws...and to evolve new technical concepts for the improvement and welfare of mankind."
Aside from the philanthropic tone, a couple of things struck me as fishy about the RIAS. First off, its name was as bland as the carefully chosen "Advanced Development Projects"--the official title of the Skunk Works. Second, was the nature and caliber of its recruits. These, according to the company history, were "world-class contributors in mathematics, physics, biology and materials science."
Soon afterward, I received a package of requested information from Lockheed Martin in the mail. RIAS no longer existed, having been subsumed by other parts of the Lockheed Martin empire. But through an old RIAS history, a brochure published in 1980 to celebrate the organization's "first 25 years," I was able to glean a little more about Trimble and the outfit he'd inspired. It described him as "one of the most creative and imaginative people that ever worked for the Company."
I read on.
From a nucleus of people that in 1955 met in a conference room at the Martin Company's Middle River plant in Maryland, RIAS soon developed a need for its own space. In 1957, with a staff of about 25 people, it moved to Baltimore City. The initial research program, the brochure said, was focused on NASA and the agency's stated goal of putting a man on the moon. But that wasn't until 1961.
One obvious question was, what had RIAS been doing in the interim? Mainly math, by the look of it. Its principal academic was described as an expert in "topology and nonlinear differential equations."
I hadn't the least idea what that meant.
In 1957, the outfit moved again, this time to a large mansion on the edge of Baltimore, a place chosen for its "campus-like" atmosphere. Offices were quickly carved from bedrooms and workshops from garages.
It reminded me of accounts I'd read of the shirtsleeves atmosphere of the early days of the Manhattan Project when Oppenheimer and his team of atom scientists had crunched through the physics of the bomb.
And that was the very same analogy Trimble had used. The conquest of gravity, he'd said, would come in the time it took to build the bomb.
I called a few contacts on the science and engineering side of Lockheed Martin, asking them, in a roundabout kind of way, whether there was, or ever had been, any part of the corporation involved in gravity or "counter-gravitational" research. After some initial questions on their part as to why I should be interested, which I just about managed to palm off, the answer that came back was a uniform "no." Well, almost. There was a guy, one contact told me, a scientist who worked in the combat aircraft division in Fort Worth who would talk eloquently about the mysteries of Nature and the universe to anyone who would listen. He'd also levitate paper clips on his desk. Great character, but a bit of a maverick.
"Paper clips?" I'd asked. "A maverick scientist levitating paper clips on his desk? At Lockheed Martin? Come on."
My source laughed. If he hadn't known better, he'd have said I was working up a story on antigravity.
I made my excuses and signed off. It was crazy, possibly dangerous stuff, but it continued to have me intrigued.
I called an old friend who'd gained a degree in applied mathematics. Tentatively, I asked whether topology and nondifferential linear equations had any application to the study of gravity.
Of course, he replied. Topology--the study of shape in physics--and nonlinear equations were the standard methods for calculating gravitational attraction.
I sat back and pieced together what I had. It didn't amount to much, but did it amount to something?
In 1957, George S. Trimble, one of the leading aerospace engineers in the U.S. at that time, a man, it could safely be said, with a background in highly advanced concepts and classified activity, had put together what looked like a special projects team; one with a curious task.
This, just a year after he started talking about the Golden Age of Antigravity that would sweep through the industry starting in the 1960s.
So, what went wrong?
In its current literature, the stuff pumped out in press releases all the time, the U.S. Air Force constantly talked up the "vision": where it was going to be in 25 years, how it was going to wage and win future wars and how technology was key.
In 1956, it would have been as curious as I was about the notion of a fuelless propulsion source, one that could deliver phenomenal performance gains over a jet; perhaps including the ability to accelerate rapidly, to pull hairpin turns without crushing the pilot and to achieve speeds that defied the imagination. In short, it would have given them something that resembled a UFO.
I rubbed my eyes. The dim pool of light that had illuminated the Lockheed-supplied material on Trimble and RIAS had brought on a nagging pain in the back of my head. The evidence was suggesting that in the mid-50s there had been some kind of breakthrough in the antigravity field and for a small window in time people had talked about it freely and openly, believing they were witnessing the dawn of a new era, one that would benefit the whole of mankind.
Then, in 1957, everyone had stopped talking about it. Had the military woken up to what was happening, bringing the clamps down?
Those in the know, outfits like Trimble's that had been at the forefront of the breakthrough, would probably have continued their research, assembling their development teams behind closed doors, ready for the day they could build real hardware.
But of course, it never happened.
It never happened because soon after Trimble, Bell and Lear made their statements, sanity prevailed. By 1960, it was like the whole episode never took place. Aerospace development continued along its structured, ordered pathway and antigravity became one of those taboo subjects that people like me never, ever talked about.
Satisified that everything was back in its place and as it should be, I went to bed.
Somewhere in my head I was still tracking the shrill, faraway sounds of the city when the phone rang. I could tell instantly it was Abelman. Separated by an ocean and five time zones, I heard the catch in her breathing.
"It's Trimble," she said. "The guy just got off the phone to me. Remember how he was fine to do the interview? Well, something's happened. I don't know who this old man is or what he once was, but he told me in no uncertain terms to get off his case. He doesn't want to speak to me and he doesn't want to speak to you, not now, not ever. I don't mind telling you that he sounded scared and I don't like to hear old men scared. It makes me scared. I don't know what you were really working on when you came to me with this, Nick, but let me give you some advice. Stick to what you know about; stick to the damned present. It's better that way for all of us."From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from The Hunt for Zero Point by Nick Cook. Copyright © 2002 by Nick Cook. Excerpted by permission of Broadway, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.