A Skeptical Scrutiny of the Works and Theories of WILHELM REICH

As related to

Orgone Accumulators (ORACs)

By Roger M. Wilcox

Last modified 27-March-2013

An orgone accumulator, or ORAC, is a box with organic material lining the outside of its walls and metallic material lining the insides of its walls.  Popularly, such a device was sometimes referred to as simply an "orgone box."  Reich believed that orgone energy was attracted and absorbed by organic material, but attracted and immediately re-radiated by metallic material, and that therefore a box constructed with an outer organic shell and an inner metallic shell would absorb atmospheric orgone energy and concentrate, or "accumulate," this absorbed orgone energy in its interior.

Slower electroscope discharge

I've described what an electroscope is, and Reich's theories about how an orgone energy "charge" would deflect an electroscope, in my critique of the orgone energy hypotheses.  One common property of electroscopes in any environment where they're exposed to the air is that they will eventually discharge.  Reich observed that an electroscope inside an orgone accumulator would discharge more slowly than a control electroscope situated outside the accumulator in the same room.

Little needs to be said about this.  I do not doubt that an electroscope inside an accumulator box will discharge more slowly than one sitting out on a table in the same room.  Why?  Because although the electroscope in the box, in Reich's words, "has access to the air through the disk at the top and other holes" (The Cancer Biopathy, p. 130, 1973 trans.), there is no question that the air inside the accumulator would have been subject to far fewer air currents than the air around the control electroscope.  Less moving air means less chance for the air molecules which have picked up an electric charge to leave the area and for new, uncharged air molecules to replace them.  If Reich had made his accumulator air-tight and evacuated it, the electroscope wouldn't have discharged at all.

In fact, Einstein brought up this very objection before his meeting with Reich.  In a journal entry dated 16-January-1941, Reich claimed to refute it:

    "Refutation of the argument advanced by Einstein that the rate of discharge of the electroscope depends on the movement of air.
    "An electroscope set up indoors and in the open air, with and without a fan, yielded the same final result."
    — American Odyssey, p. 57
I assume by "the same final result," Reich meant that the electroscope discharged at the same rate regardless of whether there was a fan blowing air past it, and regardless of whether it was placed indoors or outdoors.  The only thing that made a difference as to the rate of electroscope discharge, from Reich's experiments, was whether the electroscope was inside an accumulator box.

But there's one crucial experimental case that Reich missed: he never tested whether an electroscope encased in an accumulator box would discharge at a different rate than an electroscope encased in a non-accumulator box of the same size.  Perhaps strong air currents, such as those generated by a blowing fan, will not discharge an electroscope any faster than the weak air currents that normally run through a room, but weak air currents might discharge an electroscope faster than the super-weak air currents that would exist inside a box with only a few holes in the top of it.  The "still" air in a room without a fan will still be subject to more circulation and air-exchange currents than the air within a small box.  Even if the small box has a few holes poked in it.

From the opposite viewpoint, Reich could have also placed a fan around the air holes in his accumulator — or under his accumulator, blowing air upward through it — and thus checked the rate of electroscope discharge inside an accumulator with a high rate of air flowing through it.  If this discharge rate was the same as the discharge rate inside an accumulator with no airflow, but different from the discharge rate of an electroscope outside an accumulator with a fan blowing across it, then that might've demonstrated that he was on to something.

So, why didn't Reich perform either of these comparisons?  Or if he did, why didn't he mention them in any of his notes?  My own suspicion is, he was angry at Einstein for raising objections, and wanted to discount them as quickly as possible (with no regard to thoroughness) so that he could point and say "See, I was right!" and then get back to his "more important" work.  It would be in keeping with what's known about Reich's personality.

T(o) – T

T(o), sometimes written as To, is the air temperature inside an orgone accumulator.  T is the "control" temperature of the air in the same room.  Reich maintained that T(o) was, on average, higher than T, i.e. that the quantity [T(o) minus T] was positive more often and to a greater extent than it was negative. Figure 11 in The Cancer Biopathy (p. 116, 1973 trans.) shows one of the experimental setups Reich used to demonstrate this alleged property of his orgone accumulators.  I have reproduced Figure 11 below as faithfully as my limited artistic skills will allow:

Figure 11 — T(o) – T
FIGURE 11.  Measurement of temperature difference T(o) – T indoors.
Reich put the thermometer in a narrow column above the metal box, rather than down in the metal box itself, because he reasoned that warm air rises and thus the best place to read a temperature increase would be just above the accumulator:
"Since heat rises, the most favorable spot for temperature change to be registered is above the top metal plate."
    — The Cancer Biopathy, ch. IV, sec. 4 (p. 113, 1973 trans.)
And he was right: in any enclosed space with little or no air currents, warm air tends to rise to the top of the space and cooler air tends to descend to the bottom of the space.  And if the enclosed space is sufficiently insulated, the warmer air at the top can stay warmer for quite some time.  Cotton wool, in fact, is an excellent thermal insulator.  Thus, the air whose temperature was measured by the accumulator thermometer (the thermometer on the right) is inside an insulated box where the warm air would have risen to the top, which is where the thermometer was.  And there wouldn't be much that could stir the air back up: while there were holes poked in the sides of some of Reich's accumulators, they would provide hardly enough ventilation to overcome this "thermal separation" effect.  It would have required a breeze, or a small fan, to mix the warm and cool air back together.

Of course, the control thermometer was measuring the temperature of the air in an enclosed space, too — the enclosed space being the entire room in which this experiment is taking place.  The warm air in the room would have risen all the way to the ceiling, while the control thermometer was sitting down in the brisker air a few feet off the ground.  This would be sufficient to explain the temperature difference between the control thermometer and the thermometer on the right.  (It's also possible that a little of Reich's own body heat could have gotten trapped in the well-insulated accumulator box when he set it up, but the contribution from this slight amount of heat would have been negligible compared with the normal thermal separation of the air that happens within an enclosed space.)

Reich claimed to have taken this into account:

"As a control of these results, we take measurements inside, outside, and above a box of the same size but constructed solely of wood or paper.  We establish to our complete satisfaction that with such a box temperatures are completely equalized: all the temperatures are the same.  Temperature differences occur only when we line the inside of the box with metal."
    — The Cancer Biopathy, ch. IV, sec. 4 (p. 117, 1973 trans.) [emphasis in original]
Note one important difference between this "control" box and the orgone accumulator box pictured above: The accumulator is lined with a thick layer of cotton wool.  A box constructed "solely of wood or paper" is not.  Unfortunately for Reich, a wooden or paper box doesn't provide nearly as much thermal insulation as does a cardboard or wooden box with a thick lining of cotton wool.  When the warm air rises to the top of such a poorly insulated enclosed space, it will conduct out and reach equilibrium with the air temperature of the surrounding room much more rapidly.

Let me be as clear as I can on this point, because at least one of my readers missed it: The box Reich describes as his experimental control does not have the same thermal properties as the box Reich describes as his accumulator.

In 1941, Reich gave an orgone accumulator box (with thermometers set up in strategic places) to Albert Einstein.  Einstein quickly discovered that, yes, the temperature inside the box did indeed tend to be higher than the temperature outside the box.  However, an assistant pointed out that convection currents between the air over the table and the air in the room as a whole could explain the temperature difference.  Einstein then took pains to measure the air temperature above the table — without the orgone accumulator being present — and the air temperature below the table, and found that the air above the table was warmer than the air below the table by 0.68 degrees Celsius.  As far as Einstein was concerned, this completely explained the temperature difference inside and outside the accumulator.  In his private notes and in a lengthy letter of reply to Einstein, Reich, in an all-too-characteristic manner, levelled a thinly-veiled accusation of incompetence at Einstein's assistant.  He conducted his own experiments with horizontal wooden and metal panels until he'd convinced himself that rising air currents could not be responsible for the temperature difference, even though he didn't conduct these experiments in the room where Einstein's assistant had noticed the air currents.  He also tried experiments wherein he covered up the tip of the control thermometer with an insulating layer, and where he placed control thermometers in the ground next to an accumulator box he'd buried, even putting one of these control thermometers in "a glass container" of unspecified size.

However, Reich never built a non-metal-lined box with the same thermal (insulating) properties as the accumulator — including the accumulator's thick lining of cotton wool — with a cylindrical thermometer casing at the top of the main enclosed volume, and measured the temperature difference between that box and his accumulator.

The T(o) – T experiment is significant in that many attempts have been made to reproduce it.  More attempts have been made by subsequent orgonomists to reproduce the T(o) – T experiment than any other of Reich's experiments.  And what is most amazing about these attempts by orgonomists at reproducing the T(o) – T experiment is, even when the control thermometer is not in an insulated enclosure, the experimenters quite often do not record an average T(o) – T above zero.  In other words, even when this experiment is repeated by "true believers" in Reich's work, they cannot reproduce Reich's results consistently.  At the American College of Orgonomy's 1991 annual meeting, Richard Blasband reported his results using a plastic-walled box for the control and an accumulator with wooden walls on the outside and a metal lining on the inside; the most encouraging result he could report to the listeners was that the temperature inside the accumulator tended to rise and fall faster than the temperature inside the control box.  As Richard Morrock noted in the Spring 1992 edition of the Skeptical Inquirer, "It was not clear what this proved, other than the already known fact that metal [plus wood] and plastic do not conduct heat at the same rate."

Heat engine

If the air temperature inside an orgone accumulator really is higher than the surrounding air temperature, on average, and if the orgone accumulator really is causing this to happen by heating up the air in some manner, then one should theoretically be able to build a heat engine out of it.  One should be able to poke some holes in the bottom of the accumulator to let air in, place a small turbine over the top of the accumulator, connect the turbine to an electric generator, and let the rising heated air generate free electricity for you.  Or: poke a hole in the side of an accumulator and plug it up with a Peltier-Seebeck device (an array of thermocouple junctions) with one side facing the allegedly-warmed interior of the accumulator and the other side facing the cooler outside air, for instant electricity with no moving parts.

Or: place a Stirling engine over the top of the accumulator, and use the heat differential to drive the piston.  Paulo N. Correa and Alexandra N. Correa, who insist that they practice "aetherometry" and are not orgonomists, have concocted such a device.  They present abstracts of their findings on this webpage, but the complete articles must be purchased in order to read them.  Even from the abstracts, though, their findings do not appear to be anything that can't be explained by conventional physics.  The first experiment (code-named AS2-25) used an accumulator painted black and set out in direct sunlight — of course such a device will have a higher internal temperature than its surroundings, for obvious reasons.  The second experiment (code-named AS2-26) seems a bit more promising on the surface, because it was done at night.  However, they used the same black painted accumulator from the first experiment, which had been out in the sun before the experiment began and thus had already acquired quite a bit of conventional solar heating before the experiment began.  In addition, the Stirling engine they used seems to have been the MM-6, a Stirling engine so weak that it can operate just off the warmth in the palm of your hand.  The Correas' results for this second experiment mention only how rapidly the MM-6 motor was rotating, not how much power or torque was actually being generated.  The fact that the accumulator had enough latent heat to drive such a tiny Stirling engine (with no load connected to it) for seven hours says more about the miniscule heat requirements of the MM-6 than it does about anything "unusual" going on inside the accumulator.  The third experiment (code-named AS2-32) does claim to measure the average power produced by the accumulator over the course of 48 hours.  (">173 kJ per day," which works out to about 2 Watts; but since this is a time-average, the actual amount of heat produced at any given instant may be much higher than this during the day and much smaller (or even negligible) during the night.)  They claim their experiment demonstrates that "this technology is >1.5x more efficient at capturing solar radiation than passive solar collector standards, and nearly 3x more efficient at outputting work-equivalent energy than photovoltaics."  This may be true, but again, this says more about the efficiency of a solar-powered miniture Stirling engine than it does about anything conventional physics can't explain — photovoltaics are notoriously inefficient, and passive solar collector "standards" can take any number of mechanical inefficiencies into account that the Correas' calculations didn't.  None of these 3 experiments made any mention of using a control device with the same thermal properties to compare the accumulators against.

To my knowledge, no other orgone-related experimenters have attempted to build a heat engine out of an accumulator.  Perhaps a few other orgonomists did try to build such a "free energy generation" device, and when it didn't work, they simply ignored that line of inquiry from then on and never published their results.

Therapeutic properties

All of the above claims, according to Reich, paled in comparison to the accumulator's alleged ability to "fix" the internal orgone energy problems inside a patient's body, thereby helping to heal said patient of all sorts of psychological and biopathic maladies.

— Remainder of article yet to be written. —

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