This is the story of America’s strangest patent. It starts in a darkened basement.
In this basement, a man named T. Galen Hieronymus constructed eight identical boxes. In each of these boxes, he planted ten oat seeds and covered them loosely with a half-inch layer of soil. On seven of the eight boxes, he soldered and ran a copper wire to a series of metal plates of varying sizes that were positioned outside the house in places of direct sunlight.
In this basement, according to Hieronymus, plants grew in absolute darkness. In all seven of the wired boxes, despite the absence of sunlight, vibrant, green plants sprouted. In the eighth box — the control box — the seeds sprouted but lacked chlorophyll, they remained a sickly yellow, a ghostly white.
From this experiment, Hieronymus developed his theory of “eloptic energy.” Eloptic energy derives its name from the words “electrical” and “optical” because, according to Hieronymus, it exhibits qualities common to both light and electricity. From this simple experiment, Hieronymus embarked on a decades long quest to prove, legitimize and further the field of eloptic energy.
As a result of this quest, he produced U.S. Patent 2,482,773, a patent for a device capable of, “detecting the presence of and measuring the intensity or quantity of any of the known electro-chemical series of elements of material matter, or the combination of two or more such elements, whether in solid, fluid or gaseous forms.”
From these humble beginnings, Hieronymus — a known, respected scientist — began his descent into another strange realm where light often fails to penetrate: the world of “radionics.” Along the way, he would cross paths with a man Isaac Asimov dubbed “the most powerful force in science fiction ever” and he would claim to have caused a rain of caterpillars.
This is the story of America’s strangest patent and it ends — if you choose to believe — with a drawing that can kill you.
T. Galen Hieronymus
T. Galen Hieronymus began working in radio in 1913. By 1920, he had acquired his license and was working with KDKA AM — the world’s first commercial radio station — in Pittsburg, Pennsylvania.
In 1930, Hieronymus was working with Pathometric Laboratories on a notorious quack medicine device called “The Pathoclast.” Purported to be, “the most advanced condenser-tuned radionic instrument ever made,” Pathometric Laboratories boasted that the device could diagnose — and treat — health problems by reading the body’s electrical vibrations. Furthermore, the Pathoclast was completely non-invasive, requiring only a sample of the patient’s urine, hair, blood, or nail clippings to work its magic.
During this time, a vast array of electricity-based medical devices were being adopted by traditional doctors and medical institutions. Doctors scrambled to acquire the latest, greatest innovation in non-invasive electrodiagnostic technology. From the Pathoclast to the McGregor Rejuvenator to the Ellis Micro-Dynameter, in the 1920s and 1930s the verdict was in and the cure for what ailed you was electricity.
Hieronymus jumped into this burgeoning industry with both feet, arms clasped tight, knees tucked under his chin – a perfect cannonball pose.
He would make a splash.
The Hieronymus Machine
The first Hieronymus Machine was constructed around 1949, the same year Hieronymus was awarded a patent for his invention. The Machine relied heavily on Hieronymus’ theories on eloptic energy, specifically, the Machine claimed to allow the detection, analysis and manipulation of eloptic energy.
Composed of a chamber — or well — designed to hold a sample material, a glass prism, and a copper wire mounted onto a rotating armature. Hieronymus claimed that eloptic emanations were refracted by the prism at different angles, depending upon what kind of material was placed in the Machine’s well. These emanations were passed through a three-stage vacuum tube RF amplifier and routed to a flat “touch plate” mounted onto the Machine’s surface. By running one’s finger over the touch plate, the operator would — supposedly — feel a resistance or “stickiness” when eloptic energy was present.
Using these methods, Hieronymus built machines — with such names as “Eloptic Medical Analyzer” — that claimed to be able to diagnose and treat illness based on a sample materials provided by a patient. These claims, fairly run of the mill by the standards of the time, were — in fact — very similar to those made by Pathometric Laboratories, Hieronymus’ previous employer.
As time passed, Hieronymus escalated his claims and expanded the scope — and nature — of his theories. Hieronymus began asserting that his eloptic devices could be used to treat entire fields of crops by using a single sample from a single plant located in that field.
Hieronymus drew parallels between his machines and dowsing rods, claiming they were capable of finding oil, gold, silver or any element to which the machine was properly tuned. It was at this point that his invention crossed the threshold from medical quackery and into the bizarre realm of psychic machinery.
In fact, according to Hieronymus, a machine wasn’t even necessary. Some people, he said, had psychically developed themselves to the point where they could sense and manipulate eloptic energy without the assistance of a machine. His machine, he claimed, simply made this ability available to the layman by amplifying the eloptic energy present in the environment.
General Gross approached Hieronymus about an issue a friend was having. Gross’ friend, Ed Hermann, noticed an infestation of caterpillars in his wild cherry trees. Hieronymus requested a photograph of the tree, a handful of clippings, and some of the worms. All of these items were provided and placed into the chamber of one of Hieronymus’ machines. According to Hieronymus, the test results indicated that oil of cedar would resolve the issue.
Most people would stop there, but Hieronymus was not most people.
Taking oil of cedar and painting over the face of the photograph, Hieronymus placed the photo onto his machine’s sensor plate, fiddled with some dials and walked away. As the story goes, Hermann returned home three days later, inspected the tree and saw that “[a] carpet of dead caterpillars was directly under its limbs.”
…and Corn Worms.
Cited in interviews as Hieronymus’ favorite demonstration, this one begins in Camp Hill, Pennsylvania. Farmers at Camp Hill were having issues with corn worms and, preferring to avoid pesticides, asked Hieronymus what he could do. He took a sample of the infected corn, measured its vitality, and “searched until [he] found a chemical reagent that, when applied to the worm’s environment […] reduced its vitality to zero.”
However, during the “experiment” Hieronymus claimed to discover an odd idiosyncrasy in the way eloptic energy behaved. Several of the corn worm samples had been stored in plastic bags which, according to Hieronymus, served as “an almost perfect insulator against the poisonous energy” that he was directing at the worms.
John W. Campbell
In the odd story of T. Galen Hieronymus, there is another leading actor.
John W. Campbell was the editor of Astounding Science Fiction, a major publication during the Golden Age of Science Fiction. A proponent of ESP, psionic ability and telepathy, Campbell latched onto Hieronymus’ creation and took it one step further. Convinced that Hieronymus’ machines operated outside traditional physics, he argued that the machines worked via analogy or symbolism.
By drawing a schematic or visual representation of a Hieronymus machine, Campbell claimed that a person could operate that drawing in much the same way that Hieronymus operated his own machines. In the years that followed, myriad pseudoscientific researchers worked to further Campbell’s claims, creating more complicated and more expensive machines that claim to work via the user’s intent.
In his autobiography, Hieronymus said of Campbell, “I appreciated Mr. Campbell's interest in my work, but over the years since then, I have concluded that he set back the acceptance of my work at least a hundred years by his continual emphasis on what he termed the supernatural or ‘magic’ aspects of a mind-controlled device he built by drawing the schematic of my patented instrument with India ink.”
Regardless, the impact of Hieronymus’ patented machine is felt to this day. From the oddball late experiments of Einstein’s contemporary, Wilhelm Reich, to Mattel’s pioneering of the field of mind-controlled toys with Mindflex, humans have long sought to understand and expand the complex mysteries of the human mind.
And, in the end — though he may have failed — who can blame a man for seeking the paranormal?