NASA, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
NASA, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

"People Have Been Killed for Less": The Bizarre Letters Sent to Presidential Science Advisors

NASA, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
NASA, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

John Kennedy thought he had made some remarkable discoveries. It was April 1971, and the Pompano Beach, Florida, resident wasn't sure what to do with his revelations, which dealt with “a dynamic new theory of gravity." He needed advice—so he sent a letter to the White House.

“Gravity can be cancelled or controlled electronically!” Kennedy wrote, noting that he didn't have the “know-how” to build an apparatus using these concepts, but that it could be built for under $100. “I am trying to find someone to build it, but because of the vital nature of such a discovery I hardly know whom to trust," he said, closing, "People have been killed for less.”

Kennedy's letter ended up on the desk of Edward E. David, Jr., the science advisor to President Richard Nixon. David was the ninth person to hold the position, which had taken shape in the period after World War II. It eventually became a full-time position in 1957, after the Soviet launch of Sputnik sent the American government into a tizzy of scientific activity. Nuclear weapons and nuclear power, the burgeoning field of biomedical research, the imminent space race—the growing list of scientific demands on the government, and in particular on the president’s role in these efforts, required a steady expert hand nearby. The advisors have played a large role in formation of policy over the years—with some fits and starts along the way, including a dark period when President Nixon simply abolished the position, and today, when no advisor has even been nominated.

1970 letter sent to the White House science advisor
Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum // Public Domain

But along with the standard parts of the science advisors’ job, they held another, far less pressing role: answering the strange, grandiose, and often outright crazy scientific ideas sent in from around the country.

The strangest thing about Kennedy’s letter may be how common it was. A journey through the archives of a few presidential libraries reveals many examples of people claiming to have grand new discoveries that will change the course of history. For example, William J. Dowling, of Oklahoma City, wrote in 1969 to announce that he had established a brand-new field of science, which he called psychokinesiology. No particular details about this field were offered, but he wrote, “When the nature, scope and accuracy of the findings and application of this science are generally known, the knowledge will be subject to countless radiant ramifications of its importance.”

A telegram, also in 1969, arrived from Louis Wargo, of Hyattsville, Maryland, following multiple other notes about various fields of science. It screamed: “YOU NEED ME I CAN BRING A SOCIALLY SICK NATION TOGETHER AND ALSO A SCIENTIFIC WORLD TOGETHER AND PUT MANS FATE BACK IN THE HANDS OF GOD.”

Most often, these letters and telegrams were addressed to the president himself (Mr. Wargo actually began by contacting the First Lady, Pat Nixon), but at the first mention of scientific concepts the White House staff presumably shuttled them off to the office of the science advisor. And, in the polite atmosphere of yesteryear, the science advisor often wrote back. “I want you to know that President Nixon very much appreciates your letter to him regarding the discoveries you believe you have made in the field of sound detection,” wrote Lee A. DuBridge, Nixon’s first advisor, to Mabel Carroll Boyle, of Glendale, California. Ms. Boyle had written in an almost tragically shaky hand on the stationery of Glen Manor Convalescent Center regarding her supposed discoveries.

1969 letter sent to the White House science advisor
Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum // Public Domain

A few themes would grace the advisors’ desks again and again. “I have been in the process of perfecting a mathematical system of pre information [sic] on earthquake [sic] if my theory proves important I hope to offer it to the United States government later on,” telegrammed Ethel Harriet Mercer of Santa Monica, California. She believed serious earthquakes were on their way in “Italy China also California.” But not to worry—“Japan Alaska South America Mexico Australia Canada” were safe. She would write again a month later, noting that her “preinformation system” now included volcanoes. Our friend Louis Wargo, who could heal a sick nation, also believed he could predict earthquakes, as did numerous others.

Then there were the energy mavens: DIY scientists who claimed to have solved the world’s problems, most of whom proposed to violate a not-insignificant number of the laws of thermodynamics. D.A. Kelly, a project manager from Technidyne Associates in Clearwater, Florida, wrote to Ronald Reagan’s advisor George A. Keyworth about “devices which produce more output power than the input power levels.” (The same company, apparently, would push cold fusion ideas to the Department of Energy a few years later [PDF].)

Nicholas A. Besse, of parts unknown, wrote in June 1971, “I think we have the answer to your problem because we have developed a pollution free fuel not made from oil. Our biggest concern now is how to reveal this marvelous product to the public without the oil companies burying us alive both figuratively and literally.” The advisor wrote back suggesting private funding was required.

Eduardo Villasenor de Rivas wrote in 1972, “I have a new, economical form of producing electricity which will solve the national power shortage.” The power source was supposedly clean and would last 1000 years. With infinite patience, the science advisor replied, “On the basis of your letter it is not clear what technologies you have in mind.”

Letter addressed to the White House science advisor from Technidyne
Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum // Public Domain

Some ideas seem strangely prescient today. Eugene J. Angeledes, of Poray Associates in La Habra, California, wrote in about his novel ideas for a propulsion technology for use on a submarine. He called it the “Stawarz Jet Propulsion System.” It was 1971—six years before Star Wars was released. The science advisor wrote back, “wish[ing] you success in the development at hand.”

And sometimes, the letter writers didn’t even bother to restrict themselves to energy, or earthquakes, or any specific field, but instead claimed to have solved … well, everything? Hard to say, honestly. “We are a scientific organization which, after some 30 years of intensive research, testing, proving and application, has broken new ground in the science of man, presently being prepared for international announcement,” wrote R. Lachar, president of a Detroit entity known as the sinister-sounding Lachar Directorate. “Our discoveries and methods could not only save billions of dollars but are capable of providing the scientific basis for a complete reconstruction of society within an incredibly short period of time.” Once again, the president’s science advisor wrote back to Mr. Lachar politely and, at least it seemed, sincerely, asking to see more details of these supposed findings.

In a way, the advisor acts as the government’s scientific face, absorbing the public’s anxieties and desires about the future of humanity, manifested in these Hail Mary communiqués. There is no indication that any actually received any sort of official attention beyond those polite letters in return, and thankfully, no indication that John Kennedy of Pompano Beach, or anyone else, was killed for their groundbreaking discoveries.

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Courtesy of Royal Treasure Chest
If You Love Antique Stores, This Subscription Box Is For You
Courtesy of Royal Treasure Chest
Courtesy of Royal Treasure Chest

Do you love wandering the aisles of antique malls, shopping at vintage clothing stores, and filling your home with knick-knacks and ephemera from the past? Then this subscription box is for you.

Royal Treasure Chest is a curated monthly subscription that sends a package full of vintage goodies to your door, thoughtfully hand-picked based on your personal taste. The subscription box offering is an extension of Royal Treasure, an online vintage shop with a presence on Etsy and eBay and run by wife-and-husband team Denise and Royal.

Prices start at $15 for a monthly single-item box. Also available is a $40 plan (three items) and a $60 plan (five items). Your box is highly customizable. First, you select your category (or categories) from the following options: Beautiful old hardcover books, curios and knick-knacks, jewelry, tie bars and cufflinks, paper ephemera (like postcards or photographs), and ladies' or gentlemen's accessories. Then you can go into detail about your style, favorite eras, and likes and dislikes. That means it's great for indecisive people who want to treat themselves to a box of nice things every month.

To find the vintage collectibles, Royal Treasure's Pittsburgh-based team travels to estate sales in Western Pennsylvania and Ohio. Every box comes with a note printed on parchment paper recounting where your new treasures were found and gives details about the families that once owned them. (The grandfather was a World War I fighter pilot! This family of dance instructors counted a young Gene Kelly among their pupils!) It reads like a letter from a friend and gives a homespun feel to the whole operation.

I subscribed to the $40 plan and loved the items I got. Every box also included a bonus postcard with a message written by someone from another era. I definitely took Royal Treasure up on the opportunity to go into detail about my taste. One of the things I wrote was that I like dogs, and I got a lot of dog-themed stuff that made me smile. In one month's box, I got a porcelain dog figurine as well as a trinket box and a decorative plate with country scenes on them. I liked the puppy statuette and thought the box and plate were nice enough, but then I looked closer and realized they each had a tiny dog cavorting around the landscape and I appreciated them even more. Now that's attention to detail.

vintage clothes
Courtesy of Royal Treasure Chest
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Mathew Tucciarone
Candytopia, the Interactive Art Installation Made of Sweet Treats, Is Coming to New York City
Mathew Tucciarone
Mathew Tucciarone

A colorful exhibition is sharing some eye candy—and actual candy—with visitors. The sweet art pop-up, called Candytopia, is heading to New York City this summer following successful stints in Los Angeles and Santa Monica, Gothamist reports.

Candytopia feels a little like Willy Wonka’s chocolate room. More than a dozen rooms with psychedelic backdrops will be on view, as well as candy-inspired interpretations of famous artworks such as Mona Lisa and The Thinker. The installation is the brainchild of Jackie Sorkin, the star of TLC’s Candy Queen.

Many of the art installations are made from actual candy, but unlike Wonka’s lickable wallpaper, visitors will have to keep their hands and tongues to themselves. Instead, guests will be given samples of various sweet treats like gummies, chocolates, and “nostalgic favorites.”

Forbes named Candytopia one of the best pop-up museums to visit in 2018. New York City seems the perfect place for the exhibit, having formerly hosted other food-inspired pop-ups like the Museum of Pizza and the Museum of Ice Cream.

Candytopia will debut in New York City on August 15 at Penn Plaza at 145 West 32nd Street. Tickets must be purchased in advance, and they can be ordered on Candytopia’s website. Private events and birthday parties can also be arranged.

Keep scrolling to see some more installations from Candytopia.

A wing of the Candytopia exhibit
Mathew Tucciarone

An Egyptian-inspired statue made of candy
Mathew Tucciarone

A candy version of the Mona Lisa
Mathew Tucciarone

A shark statue
Mathew Tucciarone

[h/t Gothamist]

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