At 50, when a man should be thinking about his laurels and how to have a good time resting on them, Larry Smith has almost nothing at all except a basement full of electrical odds and ends. The whole is not greater than the sum of the parts, except inside Smith's head, where the parts add up to a vision that has claimed 10 years of his life and most of his money.
Smith is a piece of genuine Americana, the flip side of Ben Franklin and Thomas Edison, a basement tinkerer with the terrible growing suspicion that he might never get to the first floor. Maybe he has one more year before he has to scrap the whole thing for good and go back to work full-time. Maybe less. If he can get it together, though, he's convinced he could be a millionaire . . . his invention pointing the way toward new thinking about electrical force fields and their unexplained effects on plants, animals and, yes, people.
See what it's dong to him. When he tries to explain how these pieces fit together to form BIOFIELD -- as his trademark is registered with the U.S. Patent Office -- it's like following a rat in a blind maze. Ten years of switchbacks, dead ends, odd tangents and growing ramifications have made Smith almost incapable of talking in a straight line.
A tall, lanky man, he jerks around the basement of his brik split-level home in Greenbelt (halfway) between the Bowie and Laurel racetracks) in a lather of frustrated eagerness, grabbing at condensers, rectifiers, scientific applications -- trying to decide what went wrong, how it can be fixed, and what it will be able to do then. The upstairs rooms don't have much furniture. A bachelor, Smith rarely goes out except on BIOFIELD-related business. (Recently he took a consulting job with the Federal Aviation Administration.) "I think I'd go crazy . . . I know I would," he says, "if it weren't for the horses."
To be sure, the horses.
There seems to be no question in the minds of many horse trainers, veterinarians and even a few scientists that Smith's BIOFIELD has had a calming effect on some of the horses put under it. Not all, but some. Just enough of an effect so it can't be discounted. Bud Delp, who trained Kennedy Derby winner Spectacular Bid, owns three BIOFIELDS and has invested $2,500 in Smith's Bioelectric Systems, Inc. So has King Leatherbury, who has trained more winning horses in Maryland than anyone else. Many Maryland trainers (and some from California, Florida and New York) have used BIOFIELD at least once and say they would again if they had a nervous horse.
A graduate student at Kansas University wrote a Ph.D. thesis trying to show that BIOFIELD had a calming effect on emotionally disturbed children he studied.
But all that was years ago. Smith still isn't out of the basement, and he certainly isn't a millionaire.
That's partly because the theory behind BIOFIELD, the connection between cause and effect, gets into what American scientists refer to contemptuously as "fringe areas." Flaky stuff, they say -- imprecise, hard to pin down. It's not easy to raise research and development money in such areas of electric theory. Which is a little on the ironic side because, after all, Americans discovered electricity itself and invented the light bulb and the electric chair.
BIOFIELD is a grid of copper wires energized by a 3,000-volt direct-current generator and hung about 10 feet up in a horses's stall. The positively charged grid sets up a weak electrical current from the negatively charged earth up through the horse. Scientists call this a low-frequency electrostatic DC field. They know how to describe it and set it up, but so far little rigorous research has been done on what the effects of such a field are on living things, if any.
It happens that the BIOFIELD idea came froma Bulgarian nuclear scientist refugee named Cristjo Cristofv, who is known for discovering that high-enery explosions can be monitored through electromagnetics (the Cristofv effect). Cristofv believed, along with quite a few other European scientists, and not many American ones, that the natural low frequency electrostatic DC field surrounding the earth helps determine human moods, health, behavior, even intelligence. There are some weird examples and anecdotes cited to add credence to the idea, such as the case of the University of Massachusetts students who took an IQ test in the middle of a severe thunderstorm. Previous University of Massachusetts students had scroed somewhere around the 75th percentile, but the class taking the IQ test during the thunderstorm scored in the 95th percentile. Why? Some people have theorized the high scores were a result of the test being taken in an electrostatic field caused by the storm.
Believers in this theory reason that if the natural field has such effects, then artificial fields of various types and strengths can be used toward particular aims. There are claims that artificial fields can:
Heal bones, reduce pain, speed up cell growth in both plants and animals, retard decay and cancer, thin blood, repel flies, speed reaction time, reduce deviant behavior in distrubed children, stimulate plant respiration, improve rat performance through mazes, stimulate the hypothalamus, alleviate fatigue, sooth ulcers and insomnia . . .
One problem, as established American scientists see it, is that the action here is not direct, that the effects in many of these claims are so sublte as to raise serious questions about whether they are there at all.
Good old American entrepreneurial ingenuity caused another problem. Officials at the Food and Drug Administration are kept busy monitoring hustlers who lose their heads over all the wild possibilites and claims that the particular piece of equipment they're marketing can do almost anything. This has created what responsbile believers in electrostatic field theories call "an unfortuante aura of quackery." Meanwhile, in Europe, field generators are marketed as health aids.
Cristofv's idea was itself entrepreneurial. Having fallen on hard times in Chicago, he patented in 1967 the "Cristofv Anti-Fatigue Device," which was supposed to reproduce and amplify the earth's natural and beneficial electrical field in office buildings and automobiles where steel and concrete normally cut it off. Sitting under a Cristofv field, he said, was like sitting outside on a beautiful clear day in Aspen, Colo.
The Food and Drug administration inJanuary 1968 seized a shipment of the devices, alleging false and misleading therapeutic claims. A default decree ordered them destroyed. Other devices seized by the FDA several months later were turned over to a company for salvage after a consent decree was issued. Cristofv died penniless in 1970. In 1978 an ad was placed in the Wall Street Journal offering distributorships for more of the devices. According to an FDA official, an investigation is ongoing into claims for the device.
The idea behind the device dies hard -- there's that element of belief. It's more than just another piece of science; it's a tiny religion, a cult of the far-out, the unexplained, the fringe. The basic dogma was put fairly well by former NASA engineer James Beal in a recent symposium on electric fields sponsored by the National Science Foundation: "As a product of the cosmos, we are all tuned in and our biorhythms react accordingly (though subtle in effect) to electrostatic and electromagnetic fields, low frequency radiation, ions and perhaps other unknown factors."
Indeed, the exquisite factor of the unknown.
Cristofv's son George took up the gauntlet after his father's death, figuring he might do better with another aspect of the idea: using the electricfield principle to allow pilots to pinpoint disturbances in the air. Meanwhile, Larry Smith, successful lawyer, Peace Corps staffer, consultant for Lear Jet and Federal Aeronautics Administration bureaucrat, was just turning 40 and looking for a good cause.
Smith ran into George Cristofv in Tucson (where Smith had practiced law) through a Bulgarian friend who had an engineering business. Smith was hooked in a matter of days. The plan was to develop a viable air turbulence detection device and market it to airlines. Smith thought the project was just what he needed: "I saw the importance of it . . . and I believed in it. It was a tremendous challenge to ressurect something that had died."
We come now to another part of the answer as to why Smith is still in the basement: As Dr. Elliot Postow, established American scientist and editor of the journal of the Bioelectromagnetics Society puts it: "Flaky areas just seem to attract more flakiness. You could call it the flakiness factor."
Yes. Well, there was Schwartzman, of course, who hadn't helped anything by his Barnum & Bailey marketing techniques; and then in Tucson the string of mishaps continued, in spite of Smith's self-described status as a "practical and common-sense guy;" he certainly seems a lot less flaky than some established American scientists.
Smith had a plane all set up with the detection device to demonstrate to officials at Collins Radio. The plane wouldn't fly. They got a second plane into the air but there was no turbulence at all for the device to measure. There were problems with the patent that Cristofv's son was claiming. And at about this time the IRS, claiming tax evasion, padlocked the machine shop of Smith's Bulgarian friend in Tucson who was making the detection devices.
All this took a year, but Smith was so firmly hooked by this time he didn't even think of bailing out. He had heard that the Cristofv field could repel flies, so he spent several weeks constructing a field at a nearby dairy farm. Also, he had heard it had calmed at lest one horse.
The horse had been stallwalking for 45 days, the stable manager said, before the field was put over it. Within 24 hours it had stopped. The horse was putting on weight and acting like a different animal. The manager said it had been "nervous as a racehorse."
A great big neon bulb lit up in Smith's head. This was the answer to everything. With racehorses there was plenty of money to be spent, and you could bypass the scientific lack of enthusiasm with some real quantifiable results: if it made a losing horse win, it worked. Simple as that. He tried it on some local horses, with 100 percent success. He got livestock and agricultural rights on the patent and moved to the Washington area, where he figured the big money was.
Within three years he'd sold about 120 units at $1,000 apiece and complimentary articles about the device had appeared in The Horseman's Journal and The Washington Post, among other publications. Trainers like Leatherbury and Delp were singing its praises.
Delp's story is fairly typical: about six years ago, he found himself with a little filly named Artist's Pride that had a dismal track record but a terrific bloodline and lots of potential. Artist's Pride was a stallwalker, which is to say she paced monotonously from one corner to the other: a kind of nervous tic among racehorses. Stallwalkers use up so much energy in the stall that by the time they get to the track, they're ready to fall asleep.
Trainers calm stallwalkers by putting a goat in with them or by hanging something like a car seat or a rubber ball for them to play with, but none of these things worked with Artist's Pride. Delp was desperate.
About that time Smith was marketing the ifrst of his BIOFIELDs around the Maryland tracks, and Delp, who says he's "always ready to try something new," agreed to let Smith put one up on a trial basis in Artist's Pride's stall. In about a week, he says, Artist's Pride had stopped stallwalking almost completely. In a couple of weeks she'd won a good stake at Delaware Park, in another week a $20,000 stake in Maryland. After six months under BIOFIELD, she'd won a total of $60,000. Delp was sold. Word began getting around to other trainers. Articles were being written about BIOFIELD, and it looked as if Smith was on his way out of the basement.
I've felt like Alice and her looking glass. On my side, I live in the real world of these animals and their trainers, but when I step through in order to find support, that reality evidently appears reversed to those who should be vitally interested in what I am doing. -- Larry Smith, 1979
Even as Smith's sales and future began to look rosier, there was a problem, with the heart of his equipment: the high-voltage generator. At least it seemed that way; but not being an electrical engineer, and not truly understanding the thing, Smith couldn't be sure. There was always a nagging suspicion that the whole theory was at fault -- the snake in the garden -- which of course had to be suppressed at whatever psychic cost.
Gradually, though, it began to seem as if Smith's original eqiupment, which apparently had worked perfectly, was not working so well anymore. He was spending more time trying to service old units than he was selling new ones. Actually, the new ones didn't seem to be working that well either. He'd been through two manufacturers, who had both gone bankrupt, and the third produced what Smith said were an inferior batch with only a 50 percent success rate -- too unreliable to market without seriously jeopardizing the confidence he'd built up with earlier buyers. The buyers believed; but Smith knew that once the belief started to erode, he'd go under like a piece of sponge cake.
The important thing, he decided, was not to trust anybody with building the generators. It was just too tricky. The only way to be sure they were up to proper standards was to build them himself, even if he had to learn the engineering from scratch. He felt the flakiness factor at work, but figured he could beat it.
For six months he did. The first batch he built was fine. But the second was awful: only a 20 percent success rate, and some of these had exactly the opposite effect intended. The horse under them freaked out, kicked and bit, stallwalked and weaved with a vengeance, until the plug was pulled. Then they calmed down again.
"Why?" Smith asked himself frantically. "I'd made no changes, was buying the same parts from the same manufactureres. I chased enough red herrings as a possible cause to stock a fish market. In desperation I gambled $8,000 on test equipment which showed promise of helping. I got lucky. It showed the problem."
That was in 1976.
Smith has been pretty much shut down ever since, trying to solve the problem he found. The crux of the matter, he says, is that the problem can't be solved with current technology -- leaving him with the choice of abandoning his BIOFIELD project or advancing the technology himself. Smith feels he is in too deep not to try.
In the world of established American science, where Smith now puruses his "odyssey" for research and development money to work out the bugs, people want quantifiable tests and experiments. Race horses don't qualify. Neither does much of the other work done with electric fields on animals and people. Inconclusive and flaky, people tend to say, although, of course, you can't ignore it completely. Fairly typical is the comment of Dr. Dick B. Tracy, a professor at the University of Kansas, where a graduate student tested BIOFIELD on disturbed children in 1974 for a Ph.D. thesis. "My opinion on the tesis is that nothing definite was found. You would probably get pretty much the same results doing nothing at all but letting the children change normally over a period of time. The thesis' review of the literature is accurate, but unfortunately much of the literature is not particularly conclusive either. I would seriously question some of the methods used."
The closest Smith has come to foundation funding was from the Joseph P. Kennedy Jr. Foundation. Eunice Shriver wrote that she was interested in Biofield's effects on disturbed children. Last year the foundation gave Smith $2,500 for a pilot study on one horse and indicated it was prepared to go much farther if that worked out.
"Frankly, I wanted to politely decline the grant because a really adequate test with several horses would cost in the tens of thousands, but I had no other options and nothing to lose. So we cut my original program way down and moved it to the University of Maryland." There Smith had one horse to experiment with, and the placid campus atmosphere, he found, was a long way from the kind of racetrack excitement that produces stallwalking. "What we were trying to do was [like testing] a tranquilizer for combat stress on a soldier at an R and R camp instead of in the trenches." BIOFIELD had no effect at all. There was no mention of faulty eqiupment.
Smith says he has gotten "the brushoff" from several New York foundations, the Food and Drug Administration, the Department of Enegry, the Electrical Research Section of the American Electric Power Service Corporation, the Electric Power Research Institute, the Geological Survey, NASA, two major drug companies and some New York investment banks. The flakiness factor couldn't account for all of this, he's thinking. After all the time and effort, he detects an undercurrent of conspiracy. He wonders if his research is deliberately being stifled.
Both government and the electrical industry have been under fire for the past few years from concerned citizens who feel that the atmosphere is actually being polluted by certain types of unnatural electrical fields, such as those from microwave transmitters and high-tension power lines. People have bombed towers to stop construction of new lines. They have filed suits, and judges have ruled in their favor. Nobody can deny the claims, the state of research being what it is, because nobody really knows.For the first time in history, large amounts of money are being committed to study electrical fields: the possible bad effects of them.
Smith himself inadvertently discovered one of these bad effects. Remember those BIOFIELDs that would cause horses to freak out? In testing his equipment, he claims to have made a new finding -- faulty eqiupment generates a small amount of radio frequency "noise," similar to that produced by high-voltage power lines, electrical storms and microwaves. He thinks this "noise" is what drove the horses crazy. And he claims that a Department of Energy official inadvertently told him that if this connection were solidly made, "It wold play havoc with the industry." It would show that power line radiation does indeed have a bad effect on health.
Thomas Garrity, program manager for power delivery in the electric energy systems division of DOE, remembers when Smith came to apply for a grant. "We weren't quite sure what he was observing," Garrity said, "but we solicited the services of a vet and a research biologist. They met with Smith and tried to ferret out what he was doing." After the meeting Department of Energy officials concluded that to accept an unsolicited proposal like Smith's would be "violating procedures" because the department was already soliciting specific proposals on a big new test facility for electrical fields.
Smith's office these days is full of old BIOFIELDs (including the one used by the University of Kansas graduate student) which have been sent back to him for repair. He can't afford to repair them, except temporarily, and he refuses to use the temporary measure because they would just be shipped back again in a few months for repairs.
"He's been working his rear end off, poor guy," says King Leatherbury. "BIOFIELD worked on my horses; I can honestly attest that it calmed them down. Right now I'm kind of waiting for him to get into production. I was very enthused, but I've reached the point now where I don't want to put any more in until I see some results. It's been a long time."
Now Larry Smith is trying to find wealthy individuals to back his work. He talks and talks about BIOFIELD, even though after a while the beginning of the idea has doubled around to the end again. You're almost tempted to tell him: Drop it. Drop it before it drags you down. But he spreads out his long hands and asks: "If I didn't do this, who would?" CAPTION: Picture 1, Larry Smith and horse trainer King T. Leatherbury at Laurel Raceway with a stall-walking horse that Leatherbury says has been calmed by BIOFIELD. Leatherbury, who has trained more winning horses in Maryland than anyone else, invested $2,500 in Smith's company.; Picture 2, Smith installs a new BIOFIELD unit in one of Leatherbury's horse stalls at Laurel Raceway.; Picture 3, Larry Smith in his basement with a BIOFIELD power supply unit. pPhotographs by Bill Snead