A Skeptical Scrutiny of the Works and Theories of WILHELM REICH

As related to

The Orgone Field Meter

By Roger M. Wilcox

Last modified 27-March-2013

The orgone field meter was an apparatus which could allegedly measure the strength of an orgone energy field objectively.  It bore many similarities to a low power Tesla coil.

Reich described the orgone field meter in The Cancer Biopathy, chapter IV, section 6:

"The different pole of the secondary coil of an induction apparatus (an old diathermy apparatus, for instance) is connected by ordinary electric appliance wire to an iron plate, 2 feet long and 1 foot wide.  The iron plate is insulated on the underside with wood.  A similar metal plate is then mounted above and parallel to the first at a distance of 6 to 12 inches and in such a way that it can slide up and down.  The top side of the upper metal plate is insulated with a piece of plastic celotex, or like material the same size as the plate and 1/2 inch thick.  Electric wire connects the two iron plates to a simple cylindrical bulb of about 40 Watts set between them."
A diathermy apparatus is a device that heats tissues inside a patient's body through the use of high frequency (often radiofrequency) electric current.  It was invented in 1906 by a German physician named Carl Franz Nagelschmidt; his prototype device took ordinary 50 Hz, 120 Volt alternating current (such as one might find in any European wall outlet) and stepped it up through a transformer to 2000 Volts.  As explained on an FDA webpage about diathermy devices, two kinds of diathermy machines are currently used: dielectric diathermy machines, which heat tissues by passing high-voltage, low-amperage alternating current through the tissues directly; and inductive diathermy machines, which generate a rapidly oscillating magnetic field that induces eddy currents in the tissues to heat them.  (Some modern inductive diathermy devices even generate oscillating currents at the same frequencies as microwave ovens, and achieve their heating effect in much the same way that a microwave oven heats food.)  The diathermy apparatus Reich used was almost certainly of the inductive variety.

A diagram of the complete orgone field meter device appeared on the next page of The Cancer Biopathy (p. 148, 1973 trans.) as Figure 18, which looked somewhat like this:

Figure 18 - orgone field meter
C: secondary coil system; i: indifferent pole; d: different pole
O: organic material
M: metallic material
OF: luminating orgone energy field
S: centimeter scale
B: 40-60-Watt tungsten bulb
E: electric eye
G: galvanometer
FIGURE 18.  Diagram of orgone field meter device
Note that the diagram did not depict the upper iron plate as being connected to anything other than the wire going to the bulb.  No claim was made that the upper plate was grounded.  However, the next sentence implies that something had to be completing a circuit between the upper iron plate and the induction apparatus:
"The primary current of the induction apparatus is maintained at the minimum level necessary to make the bulb glow.  How this glow is obtained will depend, of course, on the nature of the induction apparatus used."
The "something" that was completing the circuit could have been the air; at extremely high voltages (tens of thousands of Volts), air will break down and conduct electricity.  This is, in fact, how lightning works.  Reich did not say what the voltage step-up ratio of the coil should be, how high the voltage going into the induction coil should be, how high the voltage coming out of the coil should be, or how much current should be going through the coil.  However, from a comment Reich wrote two paragraphs farther down, we can infer that the current and output voltage of the coil was supposed to be pretty high — he wrote: "To prevent the possibility of electric shocks there should be no metal on the [top] surface of the [upper] plate."

An orgonomy article, written by D. Marett of "Another Orgone Research Laboratory (AORL)" and available on the web at http://www.geocities.com/CapeCanaveral/2514/tesla.html, helps to narrow down what kind of induction apparatus Reich might have been using.  The second paragraph in that webpage ends with the following passage:

"Reich used the term 'induction coil' in some instances to refer to another instrument, which was his medical diathermy machine presently on display at the WR museum.  This device was used in Reich's orgone field meter experiment, described on page 147-149 of the 'Cancer Biopathy'.  This device had an output voltage of 0-4000V, presumably AC.  It is not clear whether there was provision for a D.C. output ... .  Thus, although it is not entirely clear what Reich was refering to when he mentions an 'induction coil'.  By definition, an induction coil is a device which pulses D.C. through a transformer, often using a mechanical hammer interruptor.  The output of the transformer is high voltage pulsed D.C., and may be regulated if necessary.  The diathermy machine on the other hand is more like a tesla coil, using a spark gap as the interruptor, discharging a capacitor through the primary of an open form coil, and the resonant secondary producing the high voltage dampened sine waves.  This can also be rectified to D.C. if necessary.  What differs with both of these devices from a regular high voltage transformer is that they operate using disruptive discharges rather than smooth sign [sic] waves.  This technology is used only in specific circumstances nowadays, but in the early part of the century these devices were very common."
    — D. Marett, The Effect of Tesla Coil Radiation on the Orgone Accumulator.
This would seem to imply that Reich's induction apparatus could not generate an output voltage higher that 4000 Volts.  In order for there to be a weak electrical current conducting through the air from the upper plate to the induction apparatus, the output voltage would have to be way up in the super-high-voltage range typical of a Tesla coil (over 50 000 Volts).  Was Reich onto something here?  Was there indeed a mysterious, never-before-detected energy field present which allowed the air to conduct electricity at a paltry 4000 Volts?

No.  Some induction devices operate by means of a mechanical interruptor or switch in addition to a regular transformer coil.  The prototype diathermy machine invented by Nagelschmidt, in fact, used four metal plate capacitors which discharged across a spark gap, which would produce an effect similar to a mechanical interruptor.  According to Keith Levkoff (kLevkoff@panix.com), who has an engineering background, such a device would probably generate some very high-voltage, high-frequency electrical components well outside its "normal" range.  A device specified to generate 0-4000 volts could easily produce some components at much higher voltages, even voltages in the range of a Tesla coil.  A modern TV picture tube uses this trick to make high voltages without the need for huge transformers; it's called the "flyback" effect.  (Keith also notes that, at the extremely high frequencies used by diathermy machines, a typical light bulb filament would have a very high inductive reactance, which would raise its total impedance drastically.)

Even at Tesla coil voltages, though, there are still limits as to how far an electric current can travel through the air between two conductors.  Unfortunately, Reich did not say how close the induction apparatus should be to the upper plate, or even how long the wire connecting the coil to the lower plate should be, so we cannot calculate the minimum voltage necessary for the current from the upper plate to "leap" across the gap to the induction apparatus.

Nevertheless, in The Cancer Biopathy, chapter IV, section 6, Reich went on to describe 6 experiments he performed with the orgone energy field meter.  Here is the first [emphasis in original]:

"Observation: 1. An argon gas tube (fluorescent tube) held in the hand and moved toward the upper metal plate luminates.  The distance from the plate at which it starts to glow depends on the strength of the primary current.  The light goes out when we place the gas tube on the upper plate and take away our hand.  The lumination returns as soon as we move our hand close again, and it becomes particularly strong if we touch the glass of the tube.  The lumination is most intense between the two metal plates, and fades steadily as the distance from the apparatus is increased.  The lumination is intermittent.  By this method we can determine exactly the energy field of the orgone energy field meter."
If Tesla-coil-like voltages were being output from the induction coil, none of these results are surprising.  One demonstration freshman physics students sometimes get to participate in involves a Tesla coil and fluorescent tubes.  A Tesla coil is little more than a high-frequency transformer with a huge step-up ratio.  One pole of the Tesla coil's secondary transformer coil sticks up in the air and ends in a spherical metal ball, while the other pole sits on the ground.  The voltage output can be over a hundred thousand volts; however, the amount of current being discharged at that voltage level will be very slight (only a few milliamperes in most cases).  When the Tesla coil is switched on, it produces an ear-splitting buzz and hiss as little lightning bolts leap from the upper pole.  If a student holds a fluorescent tube such that one end is close to the Tesla coil's top pole and the other end is near his or her skin, the high voltage electric current will leap from the top pole to the nearby electrical contact on the fluorescent tube, go down the tube (lighting it up), jump from the other electrical contact on the fluorescent tube to the student, conduct down the student to the floor, and from there conduct back to the bottom pole of the Tesla coil, completing the circuit.  Since the amperage is so low, it will not penetrate very deeply into the student's skin, and the student will not even feel the electricity conducting down the surface of his or her body (unless some of it passes through nerves very close to the skin surface, such as those on the insides of the wrists).

This is very similar to Experiment Number 1 described by Reich above.  One end of the fluorescent tube is close to one of the iron plates; the other is close to the skin of the experimenter.  With sufficiently high voltage, the weak current will leap across the gaps, complete the circuit, and light up the fluorescent tube.  Of course the effect will be intermittent since a minimum threshold current flow through a fluorescent tube is necessary to get it to light up.  And of course the effect will be strongest near the lower plate, since that provides a shorter and lower-resistance path for the electricity to flow through than the upper plate does (current has to flow through the lightbulb, B, before reaching the upper plate, but does not have to do so if it goes straight from the lower plate through the fluorescent tube).  Reich did not say where along the length of the tube he touched the glass to make it glow brighter, but if it were close to one of the tube's electrodes it would provide a lower-resistance path (less distance from hand to electrode = less electrical resistance).

In other words, the results of this experiment fall completely within the predictions of conventional electric circuit theory.  Orgone energy fields are neither necessary nor useful for explaining the results.

Reich contintued, with Experiment Number 2:

"2. The cylindrical bulb begins to luminate more intensely when we gradually lower our hands toward the upper plate.  The lumination becomes especially intense if we actually lay our hands on the upper plate.  (To prevent the possibility of electrical shocks there should be no metal on the surface of the plate.)  The more body surface we bring close to the upper plate, the stronger the lumination becomes.  By carefully adjusting the strength of the primary current, we can even perceive pulsations of the heart, in the form of slight fluctuations in the intensity of the lumination."
Again, this is completely in keeping with how a high-voltage open circuit would behave.  Compared with the air, the experimenter's body offers a lower-resistance path from the upper metal plate to the far pole of the induction apparatus (the one marked with the "i" in Figure 18).  Actually touching the upper plate would provide even less resistance.  I'll bet that if Reich had moved his hand toward the lower metal plate, the light bulb would have gotten dimmer, as the current that would otherwise be going through the bulb to get to the upper plate would simply go straight from the lower plate to the experimenter, bypassing the bulb entirely.  Unfortunately, Reich did not describe what happened when he moved his hand toward the lower plate.

And as for Reich's heartbeat changing his own conductivity, well — congratulations, Reich, you've just discovered the operating principle of the electrocardiogram (EKG) meter.  And again, orgone energy cannot explain these effects more simply than conventional, mainstream electrical physics can.

Experiment Number 3 touched on Reich's ideas about orgone energy and the electroscope:

"3. A static leaf electroscope shows no deflection when we approach its plate with the palm of the hand.  But if we put the electroscope in the energy field of the apparatus, on its upper plate, and then move the palm of the hand toward the plate of the electroscope — without touching it, of course — the electroscope leaf will be influenced."
According to a short article at http://www.fwkc.com/encyclopedia/low/articles/e/e007000662f.html, an electroscope's leaf will not only deflect in the presence of a static electric charge, it will also deflect in the presence of a strong voltage potential difference.  Such as the potential difference between the upper metal plate and Reich's hand, or the difference between Reich's hand and whatever part of his body happened to be closest to the unconnected "i" pole of the secondary induction coil at the time.  At some distance from the orgone field meter's metal plates, no voltage potential would exist that would be strong enough to influence the electroscope.  The results Reich obtained from Experiment number 3 do nothing to demonstrate the existence of anything other that ordinary electric current.

Experiment Number 4 didn't fare much better:

"4. A freshly cut branch with many leaves makes the bulb luminate, although the lumination is weaker than that elicited by the hand.  A live or freshly killed fish placed upon the upper metal plate produces the same effect.  Note that the longer the fish has been dead, the feebler the lumination.  Eventually it fades completely.  The same gradual decrease in lumination is also true for the branch.
Poor fish.  (And poor lab assistants, who had to put up with the dead fish smell.)

In any event, these effects are expected.  After all, a live human experimenter, a live or freshly-cut tree branch, and a live or freshly-killed fish all have one thing in common: moist tissues. The water and salt solutions in their cells make excellent conductors.  However, a dead fish and a cut tree branch will both slowly dry out if exposed to the air.  They will become poorer and poorer electrical conductors.  Therefore, their contribution to a low-resistance path for the electric current to follow will become less and less.  Once again, orgone energy adds nothing to our understanding of these results.

Experiment Number 5 only strengthened the conventional electric-circuit picture:

"5. There is no lumination when we bring an old piece of wood close to the upper plate.  (We, of course, make sure that the wood is long enough so that our own orgone energy field does not come into contact with the orgone energy field of the apparatus.)  An iron plate held above and parallel to the upper plate does make the cylindrical bulb luminate, however."
What does this prove?  That old wood is a lousy conductor and that iron is a decent conductor, of course.  We've known that since the earliest days of experimentation with electricity.  Reich simply did not seem to understand that high-voltage electricity can conduct through the air if no other closed circuit is available.  Nor did he seem to understand that he would get the same experimental results had he replaced the bottom metal plate of his "orgone field meter" apparatus with a wire, and had he attached no organic materials — wood, celotex, or otherwise — to the metal parts of his apparatus at all.

Experiment Number 6 didn't involve Reich's orgone field meter:

"6. The argon gas cannot be made to luminate in the energy field of an X-ray machine of 60-80 kilovolt."
No, but it would have luminated had he disconnected one end of the X-ray machine's secondary transformer coil and held the fluorescent tube nearby.

All six of these experiments demonstrate nothing that wasn't already known about high-voltage transformers.  But Reich drew 4 conclusions from these 6 experiments, and they all read like the script of a bad science fiction movie.

Here is Reich's Conclusion Number 1:

"1. In contrast with simple, electrical high-tension voltage, the secondary coil of an induction apparatus develops an orgone energy field that can be demonstrated by the lumination of an inert gas, such as helium, argon, or neon, without any direct wire contact being necessary."
Oh brother.  Let's clear the air about one little detail here: the fluorescent tube he was using in experiments number 1 and 6 would have been more than just a glass tube filled with argon.  Fluorescent tubes are filled with argon and a little bit of mercury vapor.  When high voltage electricity passes through certain gasses, particularly monatomic gasses like argon or mercury, it excites the atoms in the gas which then give off precise frequencies of light depending on what kinds of atoms they are.  Neon, for example, gives off many discrete frequencies of reddish or orangish light, which is why true neon signs appear a kind of red-orange in color.  Argon and mercury, by contrast, give off primarily ultraviolet light (which is invisible to the human eye) when an electrical current of sufficient voltage passes through them.  Fluorescent tubes are coated on the inside with a fluorescent coating, hence their name; when the otherwise-invisible ultraviolet light hits this coating, the coating glows white (or at least blue-white).

However, Reich was right in asserting that other glass tubes full of inert gasses, with or without a fluorescent coating, would glow in the vicinity of his apparatus.  His apparatus was putting out thousands of Volts.  Such high voltages are indeed capable of conducting through air and glass.  If you've ever seen one of those hollow novelty glass balls with the round metal electrical terminal in the center and the lightning bolts arcing out toward the inner surface of glass, you've seen this principle in action.  The metal ball in the center of these novelty glass spheres is at a potential of several thousand Volts relative to the ground, which is enough to cause some electricity to conduct through the gas inside the sphere and make it glow in little streamers.  You can even strengthen these streamers by touching the outer glass surface with your finger or a metal object, which gives them a better conduction path to the ground.  "Simple, electrical high-tension voltage," as Reich put it, is entirely sufficient to explain the lumination of the gasses in these glass containers.  In explaining the behavior of these devices, it is neither necessary nor helpful to invoke the supposed existence of orgone energy.

Conclusion Number 2 does not show the ignorance of electrical theory that conclusion number 1 did, but it's equally screwy:

"2. The orgonotic lumination is the result of the contact between two orgone energy fields."
Reich doubtlessly drew this conclusion from Experiments Number 1 and 6, but he probably also drew this conclusion for Experiment Number 3.  Only in the vicinity of the orgone field meter did Reich's hand cause an electroscope to deflect.  Since Reich believed that an induction coil has its own orgone energy field — although he did not state why this should be so — and since he'd seen the electroscope deflect in the presence of orgone radiation, it "naturally" followed that it took two interacting orgone energy fields to deflect an electroscope.

Were orgone energy the best explanation for the results of Reich's 6 orgone field meter experiments, this conclusion would actually make some sense.  But it isn't the best explanation.  Good old-fashioned electrical conductivity through the air is the best explanation.

Conclusion Number 3 is totally unjustified:

"3. The lumination effect can be achieved only by contact between an orgone energy field and the field of a living organism, not through contact with non-living, organic matter.  This means that the living organism is distinguished from the non-living in that it has an orgone energy field."
None of the 6 experiments justify this conclusion.  Not even Experiment Number 4 with the dead fish.  Let's assume, just for the sake of argument, that orgone energy fields are real and that both living organisms and induction coils with current flowing through them have orgone energy fields.  If a living organism's orgone energy field must be in contact with the field produced by the induction coil in order for lumination to take place, the way to test this is by bringing in a second induction apparatus, switching it on, and bringing it near the metal plates of the orgone field meter.  Then, if the lumination still occurs, it means any two orgone energy fields — whether created by living organisms or by operating induction coils — will cause a lumination effect when they are in contact with one another.  Reich did not perform this experiment.  He had no basis for jumping to such an unjustified conclusion.

And note that even in the case of the dead fish experiment, a freshly-killed fish or tree branch still caused lumination to occur.  If Conclusion Number 3 were correct, the lumination should have ceased the instant the fish died.  And what about the iron plate in Experiment Number 5?  If a chunk of iron is alive, then I'm a monkey's uncle and Wilhelm Reich was the greatest scientist that ever lived.

Finally, Conclusion Number 4 brings that little galvanometer in Figure 18 into the picture:

"4. By installing a sensitive electric eye opposite the cylindrical bulb, the luminating energy can be transformed into electrical energy and measured in electrical units by means of a galvanometer.  The orgone field meter can thus be used for the determination of the intensity and range of the orgone energy field of a living organism"
Ironically, Reich could have left out the lightbulb entirely and replaced it with an ammeter.  He would have gotten the same result as placing the light bulb next to an electric eye and reading the photovoltaic current on a galvanometer.  But I suppose that wouldn't have jibed with Reich's notion that orgone energy is supposed to "glow."

In summary

A somewhat pro-orgonomy researcher named Bernhard Hoffer also wrote a critique of Reich's orgone field meter.  His article appeared in the March 1998 issue of the German Diwan Magazine.  An English translation of his article can be found at http://www.datadiwan.de/magazin/dz0101e_.htm.  Despite Hoffer's somewhat credulous belief in the unproven ill health effects of electromagnetic fields (which he calls electromagnetic pollution or "electro-smog"), he still manages to bring some real knowledge of the physical sciences to bear on Reich's orgone field meter observations.  His conclusion, too, was that none of Reich's observations were outside the realm of what one would expect from the normal, well-established laws of electricity and magnetism.

Reich's "orgone field meter" was nothing more than a low powered Tesla coil with a light bulb attached.  The effects observed by Reich are no different than those observed with a Tesla coil, and were all predicted by conventional electric theory.  Even if orgone energy does exist, the orgone field meter does not distinguish orgone energy from ordinary electric current in any way.

Send comments regarding this Web page to: Roger M. Wilcox.
Main Wilhelm Reich index page | Roger M. Wilcox's home page