Creativity and the Kanzius Machine

Earlier this decade, the Pennsylvanian inventor John Kanzius went into his garage and started tinkering with radio equipment. When he came out again, he had created a machine that would take the media by storm. The machine was ostensibly novel in two different ways: as a method in the treatment of cancer, and as a means of “burning” saltwater. Kanzius was an innovator.

A good idea is a good idea. Most of us would like to have more of them, so it would be nice to know where they come from. What makes a person innovative? What is the cause of creativity? If we hope to answer these questions, we ought to drift slightly away from philosophy and into a concrete case. I propose we take a look at the case of John Kanzius.

What Creativity Is

Another way of asking the question, “Where do these creative things come from?”, is to ask about the creative process. What stages does a person go through when they’re doing creative work?

Margaret Boden’s The Creative Mind: Myths and Mechanisms [amazon] is an easy-to-read introduction to creativity in cognitive science. According to Boden’s model of the creative process (credited to mathematician-philosopher Henri Poincare), there are four phases in the creative process: preparation, incubation, illumination, and verification. The preparation phase “involves conscious attempts to solve the problem, by using or explicitly adapting familiar methods”. This stage includes a recognition of the problem, puzzle, or project, and the motivation to engage in such a project. It’s the period of long nights, headaches, and false starts. The incubation phase is when the mind consciously focuses on other pursuits, but unconsciously works upon the ideas and problems freely. The unconscious mind wanders hither and yon, while the waking mind focuses elsewhere. The illumination phase is the moment of enlightenment, the flash of insight that reveals both the possible solution or endgoal. This is the time when the muse comes to visit. In the verification/evaluation phase, one begins implementing the insight, applying it to the problem-space in a conscious and systematic way. (Boden 2005: 29-31)

It seems obvious, at least to me, that the first and the last of these phases can be directly augmented by collaboration with other people. Conscious conversation can help structure the ways that people think, and getting a firm grip on the problem and proposed solutions are all about discovering those structures. But the middle two phases (incubation, illumination) cannot be directly augmented by collaboration. They are the most secretive and exotic phases in the creative process. That having been said, part of the point of the discussion below will be to show something about the social element of creativity. It need not be the case that we think of innovators as having access to a magical realm of ideas that eludes ordinary people.

At the end of the day, the study of creativity is the study of how people create products. The products can be anything — an invention, a painting, a theory, a song, a philosophy. But the point is always that, at the end of the process, there’s something to show for it. While this four-phase model is useful in giving a rough answer to the question at the top, it won’t be satisfying to someone who want to ask the further question: “Where do these damned ideas come from?” Also, it won’t be useful to someone who wants to know more about the craft, asking questions like “What’s your technique?” or “Where did you learn to do this so well?” Since all of these are very natural questions, it sometimes pays for us to distinguish between pre-illumination and post-illumination parts of the creative process.

But creativity isn’t just about creating products. If that were true, then any old robot on an assembly line could be called “creative”. Rather, creativity is the creation of a product in such a way that the product is novel, surprising, and valuable. (Boden 2005) My plan is to talk a little bit about what makes the story of John Kanzius all three of these things, sometimes making reference to research in the psychology of creativity.


Photo courtesy of Island Sun Newspaper

Kanzius and the Machine

John Kanzius spent his life as an executive of Erie, Pennsylvania radio stations as a partner at Jet Broadcasting Company. Working in radio was a natural vocation for him, since reports have it that he had been “building radios since childhood”. (Chen:2007) He accomplished his career without holding a degree from any college or university. After he retired, he moved to Sanibel Island, Florida with his wife.

In 2002, Kanzius was diagnosed with leukemia, a form of cancer that afflicts the blood. Subsequently, he underwent chemotherapy treatments at the M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Texas with the oncologist Dr. Steven Curley. (Gupta:2008) Chemotherapy is one of many processes in the treatment of cancer which suppresses the growth of cancer cells at the cost of damaging healthy tissue.

During the course of his treatments, he was taken aback by the effects of the chemotherapy upon afflicted children. “I noticed young kids losing their smiles, losing their hair. And I said to myself, ‘Today’s chemotherapy is cruel. And there’s got to be a better way to treat cancer.’ ” (Sawyer:2007) His sympathy for the suffering around him would seem be entrenched. “I ran into the same patients over and over again, and to see their smiles disappear within a few weeks and then watch their hair disappear and them clinging to their mothers, asking, ‘What’s wrong with me,’ was heartbreaking.” (Chen:2007) By January of 2008, after his 36th round of chemotherapy, Kanzius would say with reference to himself, “I didn’t think that one could feel this bad and still be alive”. (Stahl:2009) The chemotherapy put him in a state of affective vulnerability. (For a study on affective vulnerability and creativity, see Akinola 2008.)

Had alternative therapies been available to him and his fellow patients, they would not have been any less invasive. For example, a form of cancer treatment called “radiofrequency ablation” kills cancer cells by inserting a needle into a target area and coursing radiofrequency currents through it, which would raise the temperature until the cells die. (Nephin:2005) But obviously this is a hard thing to endure. So Kanzius was determined to find a non-invasive solution. Following Poincare’s checklist, he had found a problem to work on — he had entered the preparation phase.

Inspiration struck one night as he lay in bed with insomnia. Kanzius reflected back on his thoughts at the time: “What if I could make the cancer cells act like little radio receivers and pick up the signal? And when they pick up the signal, they get hot, they create a fever and the cancer cell dies?” (Gupta:2008) With this intuition in mind, Kanzius immediately set himself to work creating a radiofrequency generator using materials found around the house. This was his moment of illumination.

His initial idea was to target the cells alone with radio waves, but this plan alone was a non-starter. As the director of the radiation oncology program at Duke Comprehensive Cancer Center noted, research had already been done into the electroconductivity of cancer cells relative to normal cells, though no “magic frequency” had been found that targeted only cancer cells. (Nephin 2005) But Kanzius then took the idea to Dr. Curley, his oncologist, who took the idea to a colleague. Kanzius’s conviction prompted the colleague to suggest the idea that the injection of gold or metallic particles into malignant cells, and the use of radio waves to heat up the particles, would accomplish exactly what Kanzius set out to do. (Kanzius:2006) Ideally, the process would target specific cancer cells without damaging the living tissue that surrounds it. And unlike chemotherapy or radiofrequency ablation, it would ideally be a non-invasive procedure. Kanzius had found his collaborators, who gave him a plan for refining his initial concept.

It would soon be demonstrated that the process that Kanzius inspired could induce hyperthermia in the metallic particles, kind of like putting a fork in the microwave. Testing of this procedure was underway by 2005 at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. Those doing the testing were cautiously optimistic about the prospects of the research. Dr. Curley continued to endorse the prospect of a novel means of cancer treatment in 2009, describing the project as “the most exciting thing [he] had seen in twenty years of cancer research”. (Sawyer 2009)

Kanzius was a man with intrinsic motivation, at least in the sense that the motivation to develop a cancer cure in a specific way was derived from confidence in the initial insight. For we recall that immediately upon getting the idea he jumped out of bed and began assembling the machine, and his enthusiasm for the project persisted even after a sober examination of the evidence indicated that research would not be completed in time to treat his own ailment. (For a study on intrinsic motivation and creativity, see Prabhu:2008)

Regrettably, Kanzius himself passed away in early 2009. Yet Kanzius’s research project continues apace. Dr. Curley has developed a kind of molecule that is attracted to cancer cells, which he then attaches to the gold particles. In experiments, he reports having shown that the molecules successfully hone in on cancer cells in petri dishes. When exposed to Kanzius’s radiofrequency (RF) generator, Curley reports a “hundred percent kill” of the malignant cells. Animal testing has begun, with some positive results, and resulted in the publication of six papers in scientific journals. Moreover, Curley has begun talks with the Food and Drug Administration in anticipation of human clinical trials, though this may take upwards of two to four years of further research to initiate. (Sawyer:2009)

To be clear, the use of gold particles in reaction to electromagnetic fields is an idea that was at least contemporaneously known in the community of cancer researchers. Use of near-infrared light and strong alternating magnetic fields were tested in 2003, though these methods have practical limitations. (Moran:2009) However, there is no question that, as a treatment of cancer, the invention was a completely novel idea. The treatment of cancer using this procedure has created a series of articles in professional journals, has won praise and cooperation from an intially skeptical Nobel laureate (Rick Smalley), facilitated a series of patent applications (at least one of which has been granted), and inspired a medical research group headed by Dr. Curley that is currently finding success in practical applications of Kanzius’s machine. (Simon: 2008)

“Saltwater Burns!”

But that is not the end of the story.

An additional discovery happened during the process of testing Kanzius’s machine when he discovered, after doing some tests on desalination of saltwater, that the radiofrequency generator was capable of initiating oxidation-reduction. During redox there is a transfer of electrons from oxygen atoms to hydrogen atoms in converting water molecules into hydrogen and oxygen molecules. What’s happening is that hydrogen atoms are being reduced (from +1 state to 0 state) and oxygen atoms are being oxidized (from a -2 to 0 state). (Bissonnette, in conversation) As a result, was demonstrated before an audience at the Materials Research Lab at Penn State that the hydrogen can then be ignited. (Roy:n.d.)

Or, if you drop the jargon: they showed how to burn saltwater.

Then the local media shifted into overdrive, suggesting that saltwater could be used as an alternative energy source. Unfortunately, this isn’t a practical option. The amount of energy that is produced by the burning saltwater is the same as that which goes into powering the machine that burns it. But despite some unfortunate public comments to the contrary, the chemistry behind the process is as simple as it is well known. Furthermore, the more specific impact of radiofrequency generators upon chemical reactions have had a long and studied history, though typically the interest has been in the effects of static fields upon the yields and rates of chemical reactions. (Stass:2000) A static field is contrasted with time-varying electromagnetic fields, in which the current alternates directions — for instance, devices like Kanzius’s that make use of radiofrequency radiation. (WHO:2009)

Unfortunately, it is not clear whether or not it is genuinely novel as a method of ionizing saltwater. Original news reports featured interviews from professionals like John White (a polymer engineer) who seemed to believe that Kanzius’s discovery contributed surprising new insight into our body of knowledge in the applications of radiofrequency technology to chemistry. (NBC:2008) Others have had a less enthusiastic assessment. Stephen Reucroft and John Swain of Northeastern University argued that we already knew about the effects of radio waves on inorganic substances: i.e., the reaction of a fork to a microwave. (2008) Still, their assessment of the interaction between saltwater and the relevant sort of radio waves was terse and presented for a newspaper audience. This makes it hard for a naive observer to see if they were downplaying a genuine innovation for the sake of cutting off the “saltwater as fuel” myth, or that this particular means of producing redox in saltwater was not innovative at all. So, on the basis of the data available at the time of this writing, I was not able to determine if Kanzius was the first to demonstrate that electromagnetic fields could be used as a catalyst in the production of hydrogen from saltwater. (I don’t doubt that someone in the comments section can school me.)

For now, it is enough to note that this discovery was serendipitous, and surprising in that way. And serendipitous inventions can make for the stuff of legend. As Boden points out, the history of scientific creativity contains legendary cases like that of Fleming, who discovered penicillin through sheer accident. This is a case of finding without looking, where the outcome is both unpredictable and random in some sense of those terms.

The Point

My task here was to convince you that we can legitimately be interested in asking the question, “Where did Mrs. So-and-so’s idea come from?”, as opposed to more general questions about the whole process of creativity. Sometimes, people are able to hit two birds with one stone. Kanzius invented a possible means of destroying one of the worst ailments known to humankind, and yet he also may have provided a novel means of ionizing saltwater. Creative products can be surprising in different ways at the same time.

Another take-home message is that so much can depend on the amount of time and energy that collaborators put into making sure that the product comes out right. So: to be creative, you don’t necessarily need to be a lone wolf. Help can be found in unexpected quarters: Dr. Curley, the media, local politicians, and indeed Mrs. Kanzius.The help of minds and bodies willing to engage with Kanzius’s novel idea might one day turn out to give us a treatment for cancer.

Please click here to visit the Kanzius Research Centre to learn more, and to donate to the research group.

Works cited and further reading.

  • Akinola, Modupe, et al. “The Dark Side of Creativity: Biological Vulnerability and Negative Emotions Lead to Greater Artistic Creativity.” Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. (2008)
  • Batey, Mark, et al. “The relationship between measures of creativity and schizotypy.” Personality and Individual Differences. Netherlands: Elsevier Science. (2008)
  • Bissonnette, Carey. In conversation. (2009)
  • Boden, Margaret. The Creative Mind: Myths and Mechanisms. 2nd ed. New York: Taylor & Francis. (2005)
  • Chamorro-Premuzic, T., et al. “Effects of personality and threat of evaluation on divergent and convergent thinking.” Journal of Research in Personality. Academic Press Inc. Elsevier Science. (2008)
  • Chen, Julie. (2007). Scientists testing radio-wave device made by John Kanzius to cure cancer. [Television series episode]. In The Early Show. CBS.
  • Czernecka, Karolina; Blazej Szymura. “Alexithymia-imagination-creativity.” Personality and Individual Differences. Netherlands: Elsevier Science. 2008.
  • Furnham, Adrian, et al. “Personality, hypomania, intelligence and creativity.” Personality and individual differences. Netherlands: Elsevier Science. (2008)
  • Gupta, Sanjay. (2008). A Way to destroy cancer? [Television series episode]. In House Call. CNN.
  • Harrison, Y.; J. A. Horne. “One Night of Sleep Loss Impairs Innovative Thinking and Flexible Decision Making”, Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, Volume 78, Issue 2, May 1999, Pages 128-145, ISSN 0749-5978, DOI: 10.1006/obhd.1999.2827. (
  • Ioffe M. S., Pollington S. D., Wan J. K. S., “High-Power Pulsed Radio-frequency and Microwave Catalytic Processes: Selective Production of Acetylene from the Reaction of Methane over Carbon”. Journal of Catalysis, Volume 151, Issue 2, February 1995, Pages 349-355, ISSN 0021-9517, DOI: 10.1006/jcat.1995.1037. (
  • Kanzius, J. (2006). US patent application 20060190063 – enhanced systems and methods for rf-induced hyperthermia. Patent Storm, Retrieved from
  • Miller, Geoffrey F., et al. “Schizotypy versus openness and intelligence as predicators of creativity.” Schizophrenia Research. Netherlands: Elsevier Science. (2007)
  • Moran, Christine H., et al. “Size-Dependent Joule Heating of Gold Nanoparticles Using Capacitively Coupled Radiofrequency Fields.” Nano Res, vol.2, 2009, Pages 400-405, DOI 10.1007/s12274-009-9048-1.
  • NBC. (Producer). (2008). John kanzius’ water fuel cell [Web]. Retrieved from
  • Nephin, D. (2005, May 10). Possible Radio wave cancer treatment to be tested on animals. Associated Press State & Local Wire.
  • Phillips, Carmen. NCI Cancer Bulletin for March 24, 2009. Retrieved from
  • Prabhu, Veena, Charlotte Sutton, William Sauser. “Creativity and certain personality traits: Understanding the mediating effect of intrinsic motivation.” Creativity Research Journal. United Kingdom: Taylor & Francis. 2008.
  • Preti, Antonio, Marcello Vellante. “Creativity and psychopathology: Higher rates of psychosis proneness and nonright-handedness among creative artists compared to same agre and gender peers.” Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease. US: Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, 2007.
  • Reucroft, Stephen, John Swain. (2008, May 26). “Can Salt water really be burned to make energy?”. Boston Globe.
  • Rietzschel, Eric F. et al. “Personal Need for Structure and Creative Performance: The Moderating Influence of Fear of Invalidity.” Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. Sage Publications. (2007)
  • Rustum, Roy. (n.d.). Response to email and telephone. Retrieved from
  • Sawyer, Diane. (2007). Cure for Cancer. [Television series episode]. In Good Morning America. ABC.
  • Simon, Tanya. (2008). The Kanzius Machine: A Cancer Cure? Retrieved from
  • Stahl, Leslie. (2009). For October 18, 2009. [Television series episode]. In 60 Minutes. CBS.
  • Stass, D.V.; J. R. Woodward, C. R. Timmel, P. J. Hore, K. A. McLauchlan, “Radiofrequency magnetic field effects on chemical reaction yields”. Chemical Physics Letters, Volume 329, Issues 1-2, 13 October 2000, Pages 15-22, ISSN 0009-2614, DOI: 10.1016/S0009-2614(00)00980-5.(
  • Warnecken, Felix; Michael Tomasello. “Extrinsic Rewards Undermine Altruistic Tendencies in 20-Month-Olds”. Developmental Psychology. Vol. 44, No. 6, 2008, Pages 1785-1788. APA. DOI: 10.1037/a0013860 (
  • World Health Organization. (2009). Electromagnetic fields (EMF). Retrieved from


  1. Since we’re discussing creativity, I feel free to creatively switch the focus.

    I shop in an open air produce market, and the guys (it’s an all-male business) have very little formal education. They never use calculators or pen and paper to sum, multiply or divide. They are fast and accurate: avocadoes cost 1850 pesos a kilo,
    what’s the price of 300 grams?
    While I struggle with my school-learned math in my head, the guy comes up with the answer in 5 seconds, 555 pesos. He prides himself on his speed, on beating the educated guy, me. They all try to beat me.

    Questioning him, I discover that he has invented his own method, a much simpler method than the one I learned in school.

    In this case, he would divide by 10: thus, 100 grams is 185 pesos. Dividing by 10 is always easy as is dividing by 2 in other cases. Then he adds 100 plus 100 plus 100. Easy: 300. Then he adds 80 plus 80 plus 80.
    Easy: 240. 5 plus 5 plus 5. Easy: 15.

    For me, that’s creativity.

  2. Definitely!

    For the sake of readability I left a lot of stuff out from Boden’s book. But those are cases of what she would call “exploratory creativity” — in other words, your local producers are taking a fresh look at an existing conceptual space. In this case, the space of math.

    I remember being quite delighted with myself as a child when I “discovered” that the first ten multiples of 9 can be remembered by creating two single-digit series, counting upwards from 0-9 for the first digit and counting down from 9-0 in the second digit, and then listing them side by side. Hence:

    ↑ ↓
    0 9
    1 8
    2 7
    3 6
    4 5
    5 4
    6 3
    7 2
    8 1
    9 0

    Of course it’s actually just trivial pattern recognition, but my otherwise math-phobic brain still feels quite pleased with itself.

  3. Arthur Koestler’s book “The Act of Creation” is interesting in this connection. He explains that Humans have an ability for creative thought and this is best captured when rational thought is abandoned in favour of making connections between apparently incompatible frames of thought. In jokes and humour these incompatible frames are reversed, (e.g. Philosophy is the systematic abuse of a terminology invented for that purpose), in the arts the frames are juxtaposed, and in science they become amalgamated into a new concept, as perhaps we see in the development of the Kanzius machine
    This creative act, Koestler called ‘Bisociation’, not to be confused with ‘Association’.
    Koestler explains that the confrontation of alien frames of thought, or matrices, reveals in a sharp pitiless light what we failed to see in following our dull routines. The tacit assumptions hidden in rules of the game are dragged into the open. The bisociative shock shatters the frame of complacent habits of thinking and seemingly, the obvious is made to yield its secret.

  4. Creations and discoveries can happen either by intention or by luck (accident). Sometimes it is achieved through observations (e.g. the multiples of 9). Sometimes it is through analytical assembly (e.g. sort of like putting together a puzzle based on knowing how pieces fit together). Sometimes through repetition, a solution emerges.

    I can create and construct things based on technical knowledge but I don’t think I am creative. e.g. Writing music is a creative talent which I lack but I have written a couple of songs for the piano.

    Technically and scientifically, I guess it boils down to the definition of “creativity” in the context of the article. Otherwise, we are all making up our own examples of creativity (because we are all creative?).

  5. David, true, the article wasn’t very clear on this point. I tried to concentrate on Kanzius, which made it unclear. To answer your question, Boden’s working idea of creativity is as the process that leads to the creation of some product. The product and/or process must be valuable, surprising, and novel.

    A product can be valuable in three ways. It can be therapeutic, providing satisfaction only to the creator; in other words, it could just be the outcome of a playful activity. A thing can be valuable in the sense of usefulness, if it provides the solution to some real-world problem (as Kanzius’s machine might). Or the product can be social, providing satisfaction for others — for example, most forms of art.

    There are two ways a thing can be novel. First, it can be new to the creator. everyone is creative in this sense, at least when growing up. Second, a thing can be historically novel. This is rare; we reach our boldest heights when we make a new machine, write a groundbreaking novel.

    So I agree, there’s no sense in denying that children are creative in some sense. It’s just worth noting how we’re able to work with a single concept of creativity, and ratchet our expectations up or down depending on taste and context. And in this context, the creativity we’re reaching pretty high. If it turns out he discovered a viable treatment for cancer… well, I can’t think of any more historically novel invention you could aspire to make.

    And there are at least three kinds of surprise. The process can be surprising in the sense that it is just a surprising association of ideas — think non-sequiturs, or episodes of Family Guy. It can be surprising in the sense of being an exploration of pre-existing ideas — for example, a new and strange logical proof derived from the usual rules. It can be surprising in the sense of being a paradigm shift, showing us things we had once thought impossible; Einstein’s relativity, for instance.

    And, finally, as you emphasized, it can be surprising in the sense of serendipity. Products are novel if they arise from a boring process, and yet yield completely accidental results. This was true in Kanzius’s case, and in Fleming’s.

  6. Benjamin, I really like your response. It places the view on the outcomes of “creativity” as opposed to being bogged down by the definition of creativity. My main reason for raising that point was from self-reflection – I’ve often wondered if I am creative or not (I tend to think not). However, I seem to create things, sometimes novel, sometimes surprising and usually satisfying for myself, if not others.

    I agree with and support your statement on the height of creations being reached. I think sharing leads to inspiration which leads to higher orders of creative outcomes. I believe the Internet is a great example of this point. There is so much sharing (perhaps too much?) which leads to synergies and aspirations never before witnessed on a global scale.

    Allow me to segue into my piano compositions. I am pleased with and proud of my work and would like to take this opportunity to share it.

  7. I am always totally flabergasted by how easily people can simplify the Kanzuis phenomenon: ‘What’s happening is that hydrogen atoms are being reduced (from +1 state to 0 state) and oxygen atoms are being oxidized (from a -2 to 0 state).’

    It’s that simple? Oh, that’s alright then… NO it is NOT! Perhaps it’s just me, but haven’t you conveniently skipped some important processes along the way?

    How does the above explain why an electrolytic compound is required? Why does it not work with just water? Why does the water molecule not simply ionise? What is the relationship between the reaction and 13.56MHz?

    So, just how are you getting to the redox process in the first place?

    I’m yet to see a fully balanced chemical equation for the reactions that are taking place. Some scientists even stated that it was simply another form of Faraday electrolysis, and were quite happy with that?! Huh??