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
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  • Reucroft, Stephen, John Swain. (2008, May 26). “Can Salt water really be burned to make energy?”. Boston Globe.
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  • 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 (
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