In Jon Fox’s stranger- than-fiction debut, the hero is a very charismatic self-educated inventor from Mississippi, Joseph Newman, and the villain is a certain small-mindedness, a mentality that isn’t necessarily open to new ideas. Working in his improvised lab in the backwoods of Mississippi, Newman claimed in 1979 to have developed a motor that defied the laws of physics. Mainstream news stations, and even an appearance on The Tonight Show, spread the revolutionary potential of his magnetic perpetual motion machine, which could end our dependence on oil and gas. Open-minded members of the scientific community tested his machine and supported his claims, despite general bewilderment that such a thing is possible. Newman was one step close to being credited for making “greatest scientific discovery since the wheel”. Instead, the maverick faced a decades-long, increasingly paranoid battle against the US Patent Office and the other half of the scientific establishment. Was there a conspiracy?
This interview with the director JON FOX was taken last week, November 10.
Dana Knight: I found Newman the most gripping and compelling documentary in the DOC NYC 2015 line-up so far. I have never heard of Joseph Newman, the eccentric inventor and controversial subject of your documentary. So I am curious how familiar would you say is the American public with this figure?
Jon Fox: I would say it’s something in their distant memory. Most people have not heard of him, but I’ve been on this project for 15 years and I can’t tell you how many times people said to me, “Yeah, I remember that guy”. Or they heard of so many things like it and he became wrapped up in the amalgamation of all those memories.
Knight: So you first heard about him on TV.
Fox: Yes, a little TV programme about conspiracies, about 15 years ago.
Knight: Oh, a programme about conspiracies? Not about inventions?
Fox: Exactly. A conspiracy programme with spooky music. But there was something about him and in the story that I found remarkable. I was 27 years old, I wanted to do something different, I wanted to change the world! And the story just spoke to me, there was something in it that grabbed me and got my full attention.
Knight: What were they saying about Newman on this programme? And what year was this exactly?
Fox: This was around the late 90s, maybe 2000. So after The Tonight Show, he very shortly went into obscurity, that was 1986. And he became very strange, he started preaching religion, he started saying that he has a direct line to God and he claimed at one point to be the Messiah. At another, he married his secretary while he was still married and claimed to be a polygamist although that wasn’t true. He started doing very weird stuff. My idea is that he really became broken by this journey. Once he declared bankruptcy and didn’t get a patent and lost that fight, something broke inside him. You always saw that he was a little difficult even before that but it was more creative than angry. So he faded for 15 years, no one had any interest in him. But now and then you would see an obscure show that would include him in a story. He got relegated to the fringe science circles.
Knight: In your film, Newman comes across as a modern tragic hero, his unsuccessful battle with the world of science is very moving. My main question watching the documentary was: who is his antagonist? Who is the invisible enemy? Is it simply the judge who refuses to give him a patent despite all the support from the scientific community? Are there larger economic forces and factors at play that we don’t see, we can only infer? You’re hinting at that a little bit in the doc.
Fox: This is the best question, one that we’ve been asking for the whole time. I could say there are three enemies. The first is science in general. It moves very slowly. If science is going to make a giant leap forward, it is because all the older scientists have died and a new young one has come up in their place with fresh ideas.
Knight: But he had support from many scientists of his day.
Fox: Yes, he did have support from many scientists but he never got peer-reviews at universities, never had mathematical documents that were backed at Harvard. He had a lot of scientific support but not from enough people who were influencing major budgets. He needed a university behind him. To do something like the Hadron Collider, you got universities and governments on board. And they like to take baby steps. Take for instance the Hadron Collider, what they were doing there is smashing atoms and seeing what happens and looking for new particles. That fits into science very easily because we are exploring, we are doing something unique and we are taking notes and we are going to learn something from it. What Newman was saying was that our paradigm for understanding electromagnetism is wrong. And it had to be unlearned and I’m going to teach you something different although I’m not a credentialed scientist.
Knight: How did the larger scientific community react to that?
Fox: I had conversations with different NASA scientists. Some said they think it’s very interesting but that they cannot be involved, they can’t risk having their name associated with this fringe science. This is a way to sum up the scientific community: “It’s interesting but…”. These guys always need to get grants and tenures at universities and if you’re working on something that has somehow been deemed crackpot science, it can really damage your reputation.
Knight: Ok, so the obstacle seems to be a linguistic one, they called his machine fringe science. But the real question is: is his machine a true invention or nothing at all? Because it can only be either/or.
Fox: Right, I think it’s a true invention. And I think that any honest scientist who would look at it would call it a true invention.
Knight: In this case, the discourse associating fringe science with him must have had more to do with his personality rather then the machine itself. And maybe this was due to his religious aura, he was an open-minded original thinker, a bit eccentric and totally unlike the people in the scientific community who were opposing him.
Fox: Maybe, to an extent, but at the beginning he wasn’t religious. One of the examples he gives on the Johnny Carson Show is the Wright Brothers. The Wright Brothers were told that it’s impossible to fly 3 years after they managed to fly. And the idea that science will teach us that certain things are impossible until they realise that they are wrong.
Knight: But they are taking their time to realise they are wrong!
Fox: Oh yes. But there is also a broader villain: a mentality that isn’t necessarily open to new ideas. Like for example the Patent Office is supposed to protect innovation. But the paradox is that it is very ill-suited to look for new ideas. They are very good at saying: nothing like this has been patented before. But if you are bringing something to them that is truly novel, that is challenging existent scientific theory, they don’t have the expertise on staff there to analyse it, they don’t really consider it their job. So I would call that villain small-mindedness.
I think that the second villain though is much more acute: I think there were people who were put in charge of either approving or denying a patent who did not do their job. For instance, judge Thomas P Jackson who was in charge with the federal case. He appointed a special master, as we show in the movie, an electrical engineer, William Skyler, who used to be the head of the Patent Office. Skyler said that the motor works, you have to give him a patent right now. The judge at that point should have given him a patent. Instead he sent the machine for more testing. And the people who tested his motor at The National Bureau of Standards were incompetent. Also, right from the get-go they tried to disprove that this could work and then they found ways to do that.
Knight: But were they really incompetent or pretending to be incompetent? I find it hard to believe that people in such positions can be genuinely incompetent.
Fox: It’s a great point. The main guy was a doctor Robert Hebner who right now is running a billion-dollar laboratory at University of Texas focusing on new energy technologies! And back then he clearly tested the motor wrong, he grounded it and when you ground a motor like this it takes away extra energy. So was there a conspiracy?
YOU HAVE TO SEE THE MOVIE TO FIND OUT!