There exists a SF short story about anti-gravitation called the Mother of Invention (AFAIK). A bunch of scientists are shown a (fake) movie in which an anti-gravity device is demonstrated by an inventor. The scientists are told the inventor's notes were lost/destroyed and they have to start from scratch. The bottom line - there was no anti-grav invention, the scientists needed to believe it had been invented so they would think 'outside the square'.

Anyone know who wrote the short story, and has anyone got a copy?

  • There's a Tom Godwin story by that name, which features some prisoners stranded on a planet building an antigravity system to get off the planet. (Admittedly unlikely, because I don't think they're scientists or shown a film, but thought I'd check.)
    – alexwlchan
    Commented Dec 5, 2014 at 13:11
  • A similar plot appears in "Motivational Engineers" by Bill Johnson, Analog January 1996. Aliens arrive on Earth with an assortment of interesting products and technologies from around the universe, which they offer to trade for corresponding Earth products. But they won't reveal the secrets of their space drive at any price, ostensibly so they can maintain their trade monopoly. Naturally, the Earthlings get very interested in developing their own space drive, to get direct access to interstellar markets and cut out the middleman. Commented Dec 6, 2014 at 5:13
  • But it turns out the aliens don't actually have a space drive - they are actually from a nearby planet and have no idea how to create one. They set the whole thing up as a ruse to motivate humans to get to work on inventing a space drive, and hopefully they will succeed where other civilizations have failed, and then share (or sell) what they invent. Commented Dec 6, 2014 at 5:16
  • 2
    Similar plot vehicle in Ray Bradbury's The Toynbee Convector, where a man pretends to time travel to the future to find the world is a nirvana. He returns and reports the future world with mocked evidence such as photographs (of models he had made). Society, "knowing" what is to come, shapes itself into that nirvana.
    – Jane S
    Commented Nov 3, 2015 at 21:26
  • @JaneS one of my favorite stories! Commented Nov 26, 2016 at 4:05

3 Answers 3


I'm pretty sure this is "Noise Level" by Raymond F. Jones.


"Noise Level" (December 1952 Astounding), an archetypal Astounding tale of Conceptual Breakthrough, scientific advance taking place through destruction of a previous paradigm: Scientists are told that Antigravity exists, and so proceed to invent it.

"Noise Level" on ISFDB

  • 5
    +1 That's it all right. I had dug out my copy of the December 1952 Astounding so I could post an answer with suitable quotations, but you beat me to it. Well done. Perhaps you should add a link to the ISFDB page for that story, because the OP wants to find a copy and that will tell him where it's been reprinted.
    – user14111
    Commented Dec 5, 2014 at 13:29
  • See also this question and answer.
    – user14111
    Commented Dec 5, 2014 at 13:33
  • @user14111 thanks, added ISFDB link
    – Kreiri
    Commented Dec 5, 2014 at 13:34

There was also a similar story adapted in X Minus One: Double Dare, by Robert Silverberg, published in December 1957.

Here's the synopsis:

When an alien from Domerang V offhandedly remarks that Earth possesses "second rate technology" a dangerous bet is born. Two Domerangi engineers come to Earth, where they will be given challenges to overcome, and two human engineers will go to Domerang for testing. The winners get the prestige of being proven the best. But is there something more going on?

As I remember the X Minus One version, the human engineers cant leave Domerang V until they have passed all 3 tests, each test is to solve an engineering or technical problem that the aliens present.The first one is to create a a better type of vermin trap, the second one is to create a hair removal lotion.The humans pass both tests and actually improve upon the aliens designs. The final test is to recreate a perpetual motion machine. The humans meet their ambassador who says their alien counterparts on Earth have also so far passed the tests and have even created a real anti gravity machine that the humans faked and wanted reverse engineered.So the humans on Domerang V have no choice but to reverse engineer the real perpetual motion machine that the aliens have faked to win their freedom. Hence the title Double Dare.

  • "Double Dare" was not "published in December 1957". As it says on the page you linked to, the story was published in the November 1956 Galaxy which you can read here. The X Minus One radio adaptation was aired on December 19, 1957. Anyway, this does not answer the question. "Double Dare" is, as you say, a similar story, but the story the OP described in some detail is "Noise Level".
    – user14111
    Commented Nov 3, 2015 at 22:29

I have read this story, and I remember that the fake anti-gravity device is presented to the scientists as a backpack — like a jetpack, but without jets.  So I threw the word “backpack,” along with the others, at Google.  I found Alec Nevala-Lee’s Wordpress site on the first page of the Google results.  See in particular this section, which describes the story and confirms that it is “Noise Level” by Raymond F. Jones, published in the December 1952 issue of Astounding (#18).  This page includes a couple of illustrations from the story, AND …

                         it links to The Vinnie Vincent Fan Forum, which contains the complete text of the novelette.  Here are some excerpts:

… Dunning rose in a rather steep arc and levelled off.  Against the background, he seemed about as high as the roof of the hangar beyond.  For about a hundred feet he drifted slowly, then accelerated his pace.  …

Abruptly the screen flared.  A puff of light exploded from the pack on Dunning’s back.  For a terrible moment he seemed suspended in an attitude of violent agony.  Then he plunged like a dropped stone.


‘The remains of the device are here for your examination.  So far, we see only burned and bloody wreckage in it.

‘Dunning’s quite evident paranoia was carried out in an utter lack of notes.  …

… We have to duplicate that work of Dunning’s.

                  (much later)

He threw the main power switches and then adjusted slowly a number of dials.

Almost imperceptibly, and without wavering, the enormous disc-like mass rose in the centre of the shop.  It hovered without visible support three feet above the floor.

A couple of notes:

  • Oddly, the text is accompanied by an image of an Astounding Science Fiction cover that says “May,” without giving a year.
  • The text looks like it might have been OCR’ed — I saw a few one-character errors.

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