A Visionary's Dreams of Antigravity Never Got Off the Ground

Photo courtesy Eastern University

The antigravity monument at Eastern U., in Pennsylvania, is one of 13 similar markers at colleges up and down the East Coast.
July 20, 2009

Roger W. Babson fought the law of gravity, and gravity won.

All that remains of the millionaire businessman's mid-20th-century battle against the weakest of the four fundamental forces of nature are 13 antigravity monuments on college campuses from Florida to New Hampshire. One of those granite markers, at Colby College, in Maine, may have to be uprooted soon to make way for a new science building.

Colby's marker, it reads, "is to remind students of the blessings forthcoming when a semi-insulator is discovered in order to harness gravity as a free power and reduce airplane accidents."

Babson, born in 1875, was a self-made millionaire who founded three colleges and once ran for the U.S. presidency as the candidate of the Prohibition Party. He became obsessed with gravity at the age of 18 when his younger sister, Edith, drowned in Massachusetts' Annisquam River.

"She was unable to fight gravity," Babson later wrote, "which came up and seized her like a dragon and brought her to the bottom."

Babson would go on to become an investment banker and entrepreneur who applied Isaac Newton's laws of physics to the world of finance. He is credited as one of the few investors who foresaw the Great Depression, having remarked publicly on September 5, 1929, "Sooner or later, a crash is coming, and it may be terrific." Within two months, the stock market had collapsed.

In addition to finishing fourth in the 1940 presidential election and writing 47 books, Babson founded Babson College, Webber International University, and the now-defunct Utopia College.

In 1947 his grandson drowned in New Hampshire's Lake Winnipesaukee, the second family member to succumb to "that dragon gravity," as Babson wrote about the boy's death in an essay titled "Gravity—Our Enemy No. 1." From then until his death 20 years later, he focused his attention on the study of gravity, a force he believed could be conquered and controlled. Today, antigravity research is an all-but-extinct field of study that has devolved into little more than science-fiction fantasy.

Babson started the Gravity Research Foundation in 1949 to award competitive grants to scientists who could offer the best suggestions for antigravity devices. Few serious academics entered, so Babson broadened the scope: Instead of conquering gravity, the foundation sought to understand it. Several prestigious scientists, including Stephen W. Hawking, have since won the competition, which continues today.

"By the time he got into antigravity research, he was older and had a lot of money," says Kenneth R. Carle, a former chemistry professor at Hobart and William Smith Colleges whose father was a close friend of Babson's. "People thought of him as being eccentric."

In the early 1960s, Babson began making donations to small East Coast colleges. He would give them about $12,000 worth of stock in the American Agricultural Chemical Company, but with two conditions: The colleges had to sell the stock between 35 and 40 years after having received it, and they had to plant one of his antigravity monuments on their campuses.

Some colleges received $5,000 cash donations instead, and a few received no money at all—just the monuments. At least four persuaded Babson to agree to an alternate inscription: This monument "is to remind students of the blessings forthcoming when science determines what gravity is, how it works, and how it may be controlled."

But Hobart and William Smith Colleges stuck with the original phrasing, and the institution received its monument in 1963. The day it was installed, says Mr. Carle, the chairman of the chemistry department died. "Students thought it was his gravestone," he says.

"I was very happy to get the stone," Mr. Carle adds, "but the physics department used to kid me about it."

Meanwhile, the American Agricultural Chemical Company was acquired by Conoco and then by DuPont, and Babson's stipulated cashout window landed during the highest five-year period in the history of the chemical company's stock. When Hobart and William Smith sold, the stock was worth well over a million dollars. "I got the last laugh," says Mr. Carle.

Emory University placed its monument in storage a decade ago but restored it after alumni complained, says Ray DuVarney, a physics professor at Emory. Now students sometimes tie balloons to it, but the monument, weighing well over a ton, has yet to budge.

Tufts University awards cosmology doctorates in front of its monument. Graduates kneel before it, and a cosmology professor drops an apple on their heads, a symbolic gesture of the unwavering force Babson believed humans would overcome.

A physics professor at Middlebury College, P. Frank Winkler, recites the monument's inscription each year to his introductory astronomy students. He asks if anyone can identify the quote. The answers are predictable: Isaac Newton, Albert Einstein. "Usually about four out of my 80 students know where the quote is from," says Mr. Winkler.

At Colby, mischievous students used to demonstrate gravity's dominance by toppling the monument. It has since been firmly grounded in concrete.

Administrators there are trying to figure out where to relocate the stone once they pull it up from the ground to make room for the new science building. The college had planned to start construction this summer, but its endowment plummeted in last year's stock-market sell-off, leaving plans for the building in limbo.

Fourteen years ago, Colby cashed in Babson's stock donation and used the money to build an elevated passageway between two of its academic buildings. The second-story bridge, which sits 12 feet off the ground, was named, in its benefactor's honor, the Roger W. Babson Skyway.