Blindly Down a Separate Path

My Steps and Stumbles en Route to Discovering Spin-Stabilized Permanent-Magnetism-Induced Levitation

Joseph Chieffo

I remember standing between the bookcases, inured to the view framed by the texts and the ribs and flanks of skeletal steel, to missing bilateral solitude. It was 1977 and I was an evening student of Philadelphia’s Drexel University, pursuing a first-rung degree in Physics. At the moment, I was scouring the library’s Physics section, feeling frustrated at the dearth of “vital” information. Compounding my frustration was the realization that, at twenty-three years of age, I’d already grappled with the problem of permanent-magnetism-induced levitation for nearly three years, only to find that the full extent of my progress was succinctly summed up in the circumstance: there, between the cases and the book covers, I was groping for clues to a solution. Eventually, what I found was the law according to Earnshaw, the Reverend Samuel Earnshaw. More precisely, I’d found an author’s read on the implications of Earnshaw’s Theorem relative to the production of levitation using permanent magnets. In essence, it conveyed the impracticability of configuring permanent magnets in static formation such that an element thereof resides freely levitated through the effect of that formation. Still, “natural” levitation was an oxymoron; moreover, in light of my own age-cemented conjecture linking the two principal modes of disequilibrium, it appeared that spin-stabilization—a once indispensable tool in the investigation—was merely a compass in the hand of one bent on squaring the circle. The possibility of impossibility hadn’t even occurred to me. Oddly, I felt at once disheartened and relieved: I would never know the beauty and the bliss of the phenomenon, nor would I have to. Of course corroboration was in order, but the perfunctory acknowledgement of a wisp of uncertainty failed to blunt my sense of finality. There would be no corroboration.

My ambivalence was short-lived, halted by a spontaneous launching into the spiraled wire realm of electromagnetism. I’d long thought of EM as my lifter of last resort, the tried and true glass-cased standby for the intrinsic force of the synthetic “leading stone.” Now, after little more than one pane-shattering moment, I was fully immersed, reinventing the wheel of Ezekiel in miniature. In the months that followed, my academic aspirations turned to vapor. My future as theoretician pondering the fundamental nature of gravitation had itself become imponderable. Obsessed with “defying” gravity momentarily, I could no longer entertain dreams of wresting its secret twenty years hence, particularly in light of what I now perceived was the maddeningly circuitous curricular marathon that lay before me. Yet despite the stark inevitability, and despite my preoccupation with “foolish flight,” I reeled at the realization: my formal education was over. Gradually, I grew despondent over my collapsed future and began to consider how little I knew and cared about electromagnetic levitation. The mode seemed tinged with an inelegant complexity that at once overwhelmed and underwhelmed me. My levitation dream soon succumbed, extinguished by a quitting-contagion.

Philosophy and mathematics engaged my creative passion through much of the next six years, though not so thoroughly as to preclude eventual, brief encounters of a third, improbable kind. It seemed the telekinetic blocks still exerted their influence, occasionally stirring me to toying attempts at coaxing behavior I’d once granted was impossible. It was probably nothing that years of habituation couldn't explain.

Maybe it was a matter of habit, or the gentle bleaching that is the passage of time; or maybe, somewhere within that mind’s clearly defined strata of absolute black and indisputable white, was an indistinct diffusion of both. Whichever the case, it was looking as though my clarifying inoculation with Earnshaw might be in need of a booster. I was feeling unusually effervescent and robust that mid-September evening in 1984, imbued with possibility. There were no lines of force compelling, directing, or constraining me; no bearings that inspired and none that disinclined. There was, however, the delicate intimation that “tomorrow” could prove most propitious, that my magnetic flights of fancy seemed poised for an empiric-favoring metamorphosis. I decided that morning would allow for a taking up of the blocks. In the meantime, the eve was mine for basking.

The desktop laboratory seemed a mood-fitting change of setting. The apparatus thereof was starter-set simple; indeed, it was the selfsame ceramic-magnetic “floater-and-base” assembly that launched my investigation into PMI levitation nearly a decade earlier. Nevertheless this latest of prologues wasn’t entirely about returning to configurative basics. It was, in a larger sense, the initial phase of an uncharacteristically unscripted investigation, a kind of instinctual bumping about. In taking the duster to the trial-worn ring and multi-layered, tape-bound plate, I’d answered the first in an emerging series of foot-turning intuitive nudges. To the casual observer, it was an answer that might have signified renewed willingness to compromise on levitation ideals; in fact, it was a response admitting of kindly nuance and my own mutability. A brisk and dexterous, midair turn of the ring was the only prerequisite, one that had furnished the operative linchpin for the arrangement since year one. Informed by a myriad of such executions, I knew well that spin imparted thus would serve to neutralize one of the two principal modes of disequilibrium; namely, that manifested by the intended floater’s proclivity to flip and plunge under concerted magnetic influence. Yet experience had also taught that dissolution of the mode meant precipitation of its correlate, that spin, in effect, merely altered the aspect of failed flight, rendering it a swift curl to the plate’s periphery. But now, in spite of that “inevitable” and once dispiriting trade-off, I felt intensely, playfully curious.

Picking up the conceptual pieces that I’d forsaken in my second year, I recalled two intriguing anomalies and an idea that would graze the consciousness from time to time. The former were stuttered translations in which the ring wavered, undulating mere ticks beyond the fuzzy frame of subliminal suggestion before giving familiar curvilinear expression to recondite natural principles. The latter was an obvious and, until now, dismissible innovation, conceived in a question: Might the fleeting exception suggest that sustained levitation could be produced through some alternative operation, one made practicable by the integration of magnetic ring and spinning top? Perhaps the idea had ripened through years of commingled aging with the well-impressed flickers of undulant flight, as I found myself hurriedly fingering through a miscellany of metal fasteners. I had my top within the minute, albeit in minimized and rudimentary form. Holding the ring on edge, as a collector might some numismatic curiosity, I made a gentle, bouncing sweep over the plate. Detecting the requisite “push,” I was now fully primed to begin testing. I centered the top and lightly pressed its riding point against the plate’s adhesive binding, and with a snapping twist of the stem, imparted rotation. The makeshift spinner wobbled about center, loosely locked in the ethereal grip of the field, providing what I construed as a seconds-long hint of favorable synergism. Further testing was in order.

Feeling for the next step, I quickly settled upon the idea of spinning the top on a stage positioned within the midair-launching zone of old. Once again, efficacy was lost in the translation from the conceptual to the concrete. It appeared the field had relatively little (or no) capacity for containment of the top at elevation. Still, I couldn’t rule out the possibility that “relatively little” would be absolutely ample. Presupposing what ostensibly was the least intractable circumstance, I assumed that my execution was simply too ham-handed to accommodate securement and paused to divine a means to exploit plate-level containment in the launch sequence. A reorienting thought emerged informing that it might be possible to manually raise a field-secured spinner into the launching zone. I snatched a nearby scrap of paperboard, laid it atop the base-plate, and initiated rotation thereon. Gingerly lifting the board, I watched intently for a hint of a near-threshold transition. The top abruptly catapulted from the surface, landing at the edge of the plate. I followed with a second attempt, and then a third. Each yielded the same curious, unincorporable result. Suspecting that the apparatus had become unusually forceful, recalling a magnetic coupling of the plate and desktop I'd noticed while setting up for testing, I was prompted to consider the possibility that the field was being amplified by the desk's sheet steel substrate. I removed a layer from the plate and repeated the launch sequence. Again the top was ejected, though clearly with diminished force. It appeared a subtle adjustment was needed.

Whether it was by stride or misstep, or desultory mix, the pace, I observed, was quickening. In a fit of rummaging for a field-abating shim—an as yet indeterminate article to fill an indefinite slice of space—a slender stack of scratch paper seized my attention. The realization struck that field intensity could, most probably, be adjusted on as fine a scale as buoyancy demanded. The extraction of a single plate-bearing sheet should effect a hairspring-gentle boost in the lift force, a singular addition, a subtle softening.

With a notepad-thick adjustment now in place, I resumed testing with a plunge, executing each function with a sense of impending definitiveness. Trial one finished with a “sliding egress,” a miss that I promptly, yet uncertainly, answered with an extraction. Trial two reproduced the result with a path-tracing exit, raising a suspicion that the field was both soft and pitched. Settings unaltered, trial three confirmed my suspicion, prompting a second trimming of the stack, followed by a tentative wedging of paper and plate along the traverse. Trial four delivered a concussive jolt, a spectacle for which I was thoroughly unprepared. In spite of all of my experience, reasoning, and imagining, and despite the progression of this latest line of inquiry, the incongruous vision of a seconds-long, midair lingering came as a stunning revelation. A minute or more would elapse before I would become sufficiently settled to fully assimilate the event.

Upon resetting, I proceeded from the position that the occurrence was merely a prelude, the opening step in a convergence toward sustained levitation. The steps were few; closing came quickly and was proclaimed in a most determinative sense. It was at the seventh launch, or thereabout, when space embraced the weighty top and held it up in lilting flight—in levitation! The top hovered for more than a minute, nearly an inch above the block-work plane, before the action of spin-erosive forces compelled its surrender. I paused for a steadying moment and then reengaged with another launch. The outcome was virtually the same. I then scrambled the settings and resumed the launch-and-adjust sequence in a test for reproducibility. The top was floating within minutes. Finally, I’d been persuaded: not only was levitation “by permanent magnet” possible, it was systematically demonstrable. Suddenly, I had neither the reason, nor the will to proceed. Putting the blocks aside, I marveled at a feeling. It was the sense that I was beneficiary to a world that proffers and embraces every imagining that derives from love, that I had taken more than enough to sustain me.

A Postscript to this Article

Within a year of my discovery, in the course of a patent search, I learned of a similar find predating my own by several years. It was the yield of inventor Roy Harrigan, of Vermont. When I entered into my pursuit of PMI levitation, I did so believing that had something so remarkable been crystallized, it would have been common knowledge. It was a belief that I held for more than a decade, one that proved to be a most auspicious “blunder.”



My thanks go to Mike and Karen Sherlock for renewing my interest in matters of magnetic levitation, and for their unwavering support.

Copyright © 2008 by Joseph Chieffo. All rights reserved.


Noesis 187