The Gravity Monument
Nestled deep in a little glade of woods behind the Mathematics and Science building at Emory University is a pink stone and a little bench. A passerby (not that there would be many here in the woods behind a science building) might not think twice about stopping to read the inscription on this innocuous stone, but those that did stop to ponder it’s meaning would find it to be quite an odd statement indeed.
“[This monument] to remind students of the blessings forthcoming when science determines what gravity is, how it works, and how it may be controlled."
Roger Babson was a self-made millionaire who made his money by applying the laws of physics to his investments, and by doing so was one of the few people who predicted the coming stock market crash (what goes up must come down... see, it works!). Ultimately he went on to author scores of books and magazine articles based on his experiences in business, and despite his sort of kooky theories (which appeared to work) he became quite a respected business mind, going on to lead several companies listed on the NYSE. He later went on to found three colleges, Babson College in Massachusetts, Webber College in Florida and the now closed Utopia College in Kansas.
He went on to run for president in 1940 as the candidate of the Prohibition Party (lame!) but predictably lost to FDR. He was very interested in social issues of the day and he engaged some of the local unemployed stonecutters of Gloucester MA to carve inspirational inscriptions on 36 giant boulders around the nearby abandoned town of Dogtown that said things like “IF WORK STOPS VALUES DECAY”, “GET A JOB”, “NEVER STOP, NEVER WIN”, “KEEP OUT OF DEBT” and “HELP MOTHER”. These “Babson Boulders” can still be seen today on the Babson Boulder Trail near Gloucester.
But it was one of his even more unusual ventures that brought us here today, The Gravity Research Foundation. On the surface, it sounds like a reasonable scientific operation, a foundation meant to study the root forces of gravity, one of the least understood forces in our universe. But as you dig into it it seems more and more strangely founded. Firstly, Babson’s fascination with gravity came about at the age of 18 when his younger sister drowned. He claimed that “she was unable to fight gravity, which came up and seized her like a dragon and brought her to the bottom”. Later in life his grandson drowned as well and after this his simmering dislike of the force that binds us to our planet became a fully-fledged revenge jag, and he wrote an essay entitled “Gravity—Our Enemy No. 1.” Somehow lack of swimming lessons, or a crusade against water didn’t factor in here.
He set up the GRF in 1949 in New Boston, New Hampshire because he believed that it was the safest place from nuclear attack. (In fact he paid to have a giant sign claiming that New Boston was the safest town in America if WWIII happened, which the town elders eventually amended to just say that it was a safe place to live.) From their Armageddon resistant New England stronghold, they set about furthering the reach of their agenda. The primary activity was to award grants to scientists with plans for anti-gravity devices. The initial applicants were predictably fairly far out leading Babson to reframe the mission of the GRF to understand gravity rather than conquering it.
The GRF hosted conferences focused on gravity issues, but a large share of their time went into their sponsored essay contests, awarding writing by researchers about gravity. There may still have been some hesitation amongst scientists to associate themselves with a crackpot anti-gravity organization but the $5000 prize money helped some overcome their skepticism. Past winners have included Stephen Hawking multiple times and more recently, Nobel prize winner Astrophysicist George F. Smoot. The essay contest continues to this day.
In the 1960s Babson and the GRF, came up with a new plan to influence the next generation of scientists. He was concerned that students weren’t paying enough attention to gravity and wanted a way to remind them of its extreme importance. He began by making donations to several New England universities. The money came with conditions however. First the $12,000 donation was to be in stock in the American Agricultural Chemical Company with the requirement that it had to be sold between 30 and 45 years later. Some colleges took $5000 up front rather that the “Gravity Grant” of stock, but the joke was on them in the long run. AACC was eventually bought by DuPont and in that stipulated window the DuPont stock was at an all time high making the original $12,000 grant worth over a million dollars. The second requirement was that the university had to place a stone monument somewhere on their campus inspiring students to further understand and conquer gravity.
The monuments were often considered eccentric at best by the academic staff but ultimately became well loved by most students. They were a staple of minor pranks ranging from knocking it over to show it how gravity works to tying balloons to it in hopes that gravity might forget about it or placing it on the roof of a building to illustrate that gravity can’t keep a 1 ton rock on the ground.
By this time airplane crashes had become a pet concern of Babson and he was very interested in developing a gravitational shield for airplanes to repulse them from the ground using a means other than aerodynamic lift. This is what led to the inscriptions of the first monuments:
"It 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."
Ultimately a 1962 plane crash in Paris that killed more than one hundred Atlantans motivated Babson to bequeath a monument to Emory University in Atlanta. However for one reason or another they convinced him to go with the less science-fictiony non-airplane inscription seen in the photo above.
There is some debate as to the truth of this claim, but at Hobson College, the two trees that shade their monument are said to be direct descendants of Newton’s famous apple tree. Other monuments have been moved around or temporarily stored. Emory’s used to be in the main quad area but when they put in a new sculpture by Isamu Noguchi nearby the gravity monument seemed a little at odds. It was temporarily put in storage but after alumni made enough noise it was replanted in its current location.
Try as I might to make fun of this guy, I do really respect his insane ambition. It may seem crazy to try and come up with an anti-gravity device, but eventually someone will do it and it will be awesome. Perhaps the fact that we are still talking about this means that he really did have some impact on it’s eventual occurrence.