An amazing invention, and a patent failure
by Rod Driver first published Sept 22,1999, in The Providence Journal

Part one of two parts: The invention.


IT'S AN EXTRAORDINARY SIGHT -- a magnetic top spinning, bobbing and weaving in space for two minutes or longer. It remains levitated two or three inches above a larger base magnet. The top is not touching any other object, and no strings, electricity or other devices are used.

Levitation is one of mankind's oldest dreams, and it has now been achieved using just a few dollars' worth of ordinary permanent magnets and some pieces of plastic.

Anyone with even a casual interest in physics has to be amazed. For more than 150 years, such levitation was "known" to be impossible. An 1842 paper by the Rev. Samuel Earnshaw in an English scientific journal had effectively proved mathematically that stationary levitation would never be achieved using only ordinary permanent magnets. "Earnshaw's theorem" is stated in many college textbooks on electricity and magnetism. But this hasn't stopped thousands of people (including yours truly) from spending countless futile hours trying to achieve such levitation anyway. (Earnshaw's theorem does not deny the possibility of levitation using "diamagnetic" materials, superconductors or active electromagnetic circuits. The big surprise is the achievement of levitation using just ordinary permanent magnets.)

When I first saw a levitating magnet in a store in 1994, I had to have one -- and I didn't mean tomorrow! No scientist had even suggested, let alone proved, that a spinning magnet could levitate in apparent defiance of Earnshaw's theorem. And even after seeing it done, it is not trivial to reproduce it. The toy comes with a set of brass and plastic washers to adjust the weight of the spinning magnet. The weight must be experimentally adjusted to within one-tenth of a gram -- less than the weight of a single postage stamp. Also, the base magnet must be carefully leveled. The top will not levitate unless the weight is right, and you cannot be sure the weight is right until the top levitates. Moreover, you cannot even begin to adjust the weight and leveling until you have learned how to spin the magnetic top while fighting the strong resisting force of the base magnet. It was remarkable that someone had made the idea work initially without knowing that it was possible.

So I promptly contacted the physicists who had patented the invention, Bill Hones in Seattle and his father, Ed Hones, in Los Alamos, N.M. But despite spending a total of 50 minutes on the phone with these two gentlemen, I never really got an answer to the question, "How did you first do it?" The best I could gather was that they had had faith in their dream that it could be done plus extraordinary patience and determination.

For four years, I showed this remarkable toy to anyone who exhibited the slightest interest -- plus many who didn't -- expressing my admiration for Bill and Ed Hones for their remarkable discovery.

Meanwhile, in New Mexico, a couple named Mike and Karen Sherlock had been so excited when they first saw a levitating magnet that they had established a mail-order business devoted exclusively to selling these amazing toys. Knowing the difficulty that a newcomer encounters when first trying to make the device work, the Sherlocks also produced an instructional video featuring "the inventor," Bill Hones. As a result of their advertising on the radio and on the internet, the Sherlocks were soon selling hundreds a day, each shipped with a copy of the video.

It was only after the fact -- after this levitation phenomenon became known -- that several physicists wrote papers to explain it. There is still more work to be done on this. A complete proof that such sustained levitation is possible appears to be a difficult mathematical challenge.

But there was something else of interest in the published papers. Several of the authors asserted that Bill and Ed Hones were really not the inventors-- Bill Hones had allegedly learned how to levitate a magnet from a man in Vermont named Roy Harrigan, who had patented his "Levitation Device" in 1983.

When Mike and Karen Sherlock heard and confirmed this story in 1997, they were shocked; they stopped selling the toy and they reported the reasons on their Web site.

Wanting to meet the inventor said to be responsible for the amazing scientific discovery, my wife and I visited Roy Harrigan in March. Harrigan and his wife live in an isolated house on a hill near Manchester, Vt. When we got there, the driveway was under 18 inches of snow. Harrigan would rather invent than shovel.

The only place to sit in Harrigan's living room is the couch. Every other chair, the table, the desk plus much of the floor is covered with magnets, motors, a radiometer, a spark coil, a van de Graff generator, various Harrigan inventions, ideas and drawings plus other devices under construction.

Harrigan, 57, is a high-school graduate who also spent an unsatisfying year and a half in college. He said he has thousands of inventions, and he showed us several of them. Sixteen patents are registered in his name. He doesn't have the money to patent everything, he explained. None of his inventions has brought him either fame or fortune.

To me, Roy Harrigan's most exciting device was the levitating magnet, although he does not consider it his most important invention. He had attempted magnetic levitation as a child. Then more than 20 years ago, he got the idea of spinning the smaller magnet. Experts assured him that such levitation was impossible. But Harrigan didn't know Earnshaw's theorem. So he just kept trying until one day, after perhaps a thousand attempts, the magnet floated in space.

After seven years of hassles, Harrigan was granted U.S. patent No. 4,382,245 for the invention in May 1983.

But Harrigan had had bad experiences with purported backers of earlier inventions; and he had become suspicious of anyone who claimed to be helping him. This soon became true for the magnetic invention also. So he did not market it; and his patent re mained unnoticed. Any scientist or engineer who might have run across it probably assumed that the idea would not work. It wouldn't have been the first patent awarded for an idea that doesn't work.


The patent that failed its invention
by Rod Driver first published on Sept 23, 1999 in The Providence Journal

Second of two parts

IN 1993, Seattle entrepreneur Bill Hones ran across a 10-year-old U.S. patent describing a device for levitating a spinning permanent magnet. Hones contacted Roy Harrigan, the inventor, to ask about it. Harrigan assured him that the magnet really does levitate. To prove it, he sent Hones a videotape showing an actual working model.

But Hones, who had been trying for six years to levitate magnets, was skeptical. He thought there might be hidden strings or wires holding up the spinning magnetic top.

So in September 1993, Hones traveled to Vermont to see for himself. He quickly became a believer, and he spent two days with Harrigan learning about levitation, and hearing about some of Harrigan's other inventions. There is little room for doubt about what happened during those two days because Harrigan, having been burned in prior dealings with developers, videotaped their meetings.

Today, in the light of subsequent events, that videotape is a remarkable document. On the tape, Hones says that, after years of unsuccessful efforts, only now -- thanks to Harrigan -- does he realize that a magnet might levitate if it is spinning. For a long time, Hones practices the technique under Harrigan's guidance until he finally gets the magnet to levitate. Then he talks enthusiastically about a partnership with Harrigan to produce and market the invention. He offers Harrigan 5 percent royalties -- probably a fair offer. And he says that Harrigan's patent number 4,382,245 and a write-up about Harrigan will appear on every package.

But Hones was unable -- or unwilling -- to make even a $1,000 downpayment, and Harrigan declined to sign a contract. Before leaving, Hones pressed Harrigan to lend him the prototype for further study. With the camcorder still running, Harrigan's working model was packed in a box for Hones to take back to Seattle. Hones assured Harrigan that "you don't have to worry about somebody disappearing in the night with it."

In the following months, Bill's father, Ed Hones, used computers at the Los Alamos National Laboratory to study the prototype. Then, he and Bill Hones made some minor changes in the design and got a patent in their own names. They entered into an agreement with a manufacturer in China to produce the "Levitron," and they marketed it as their own invention. Bill and Ed Hones sold as many as half a million of these levitation devices, giving Harrigan neither a penny in royalties nor a word of recognition!

In radio, TV and print interviews Bill Hones has told the audience -- or let someone else tell the audience -- that only after many years of failure did he discover the secret of spinning a magnet to levitate it.

In New Mexico, Mike and Karen Sherlock had established a business marketing "Levitrons." And they were producing an instructional video, featuring Bill Hones, to help their customers learn how to work the toy. During the taping in January 1996, Hones looked into the camcorder and declared "I am the inventor of the Levitron." He seemed to have come to believe his own fantasies. It is a shock to watch videotapes of Hones's performances in 1996 in comparison with the videotapes of his 1993 visit with Harrigan.

Later, when the Sherlocks learned what had happened to Roy Harrigan, they were dismayed; and in August 1997, after confirming the story, they stopped selling the levitation device and explained why on their "" Web site.

Bill and Ed Hones responded with a lawsuit charging the Sherlocks with defamation and trademark infringement, and seeking to shut down the Web site. In April 1999, seeing how absurd their case was, Bill and Ed Hones withdrew the defamation complaint, leaving only the trademark-infringement charge. Despite abundant evidence that the term "levitron" was being broadly used generically, a federal judge ruled in July that the Sherlocks had to turn over their "" Web site address to Hones. (The Sherlocks will soon re-post their story at another Web address.)

The Sherlocks want to continue marketing levitation devices, but they don't want to continue helping Bill and Ed Hones profit from the discovery. So, for two years, while defending themselves against the lawsuit, the Sherlocks tried to enter into a licensing agreement to produce and sell Roy Harrigan's invention. But Harrigan distrusted virtually everyone, including his own hard-working lawyer. So no agreement was reached.

But there will be new levitation devices on the market. It turns out that in 1984 an inventor in Delaware named Joseph Chieffo, who knew nothing of Roy Harrigan at the time, made the same remarkable discovery -- namely, it is possible to levitate a permanent magnet by spinning it.

Chieffo tried unsuccessfully to interest manufacturers in his invention.Then, in December 1988, he placed small classified ads in Popular Science and Popular Mechanics offering plans and parts to achieve "genuine free flight with ordinary magnets." The instruction booklet was only $5 postpaid, but the response was so poor that Chieffo soon canceled his ads. Just a handful of people had became aware of Chieffo's invention.

So today, having failed to make a deal with Harrigan, the Sherlocks are collaborating with Chieffo to produce alternatives to the Hones's product, which they intend to market in May 2000, when Harrigan's patent expires. After hearing this story, people wonder why Harrigan's patent didn't protect Harrigan's rights. The answer is a lesson for all patent holders: A patent only protects its owner as long as the owner enforces it.

Harrigan is a creative and ingenious inventor, but he is hopeless at pursuing business or legal problems. And he now distrusts anyone who tries to help him.

A further reason that Harrigan failed to market his levitation device after 1983 was his preoccupation with another invention -- a simple instrument about the size of a telephone handset for resuscitating victims of cardiac arrest. Harrigan keeps on e of these nearby at all times, and wears it in a holster on his belt when he leaves the house. But that is a story for another article.

Rod Driver, an occasional contributor, is a professor emeritus of mathematics at the University of Rhode Island and a former state representative.

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