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Gordon Danby, co-inventor of Maglev and ally of East End community, dies at 86


Gordon Danby, a noted physicist who helped pioneer the use of Maglev transportation technology while working at Brookhaven National Laboratory, and a devoted member of the Wading River community, died Tuesday. He was 86.

Mr. Danby worked in the physics department at BNL but rose to fame after his work with James Powell, a nuclear engineer at the lab, paved the way for a new method of high-speed transportation.

“I think his legacy is going to be a major new mode of transportation that will benefit the world,” Mr. Powell, 84, said in an interview Thursday. “If it hadn’t been for Gordon, this … would have never gone the way it has gone.”

Maglev (a portmanteau of “magnetic levitation”) uses superconducting technology to move vehicles without having them touch rails or roadways. Magnets installed in the vehicles lift them off a guide track, propelling them forward at speeds of up to 300 miles per hour.

The technology is currently used on high-speed railways in Japan. It was invented in the 1960s when Mr. Powell was stuck in traffic on the Throgs Neck Bridge in New York City and dreamed up a way to travel faster. He turned to Mr. Danby, a friend and former roommate from BNL who was working with superconductors, to help refine the design.

Mr. Powell said it was Mr. Danby who proposed putting the conductors in the vehicles themselves as opposed to energizing the entire track — something that made the idea much cheaper and easier to design.

“A lot of people get an idea in their heads and they like to stick to it,” Mr. Powell said. “Gordon was not that type of person. He was always looking for better ways to do something.”

In 1966, the pair published a paper on Maglev; two years later, they secured a patent. Their work would lay the foundation for Maglev technology across the world; they worked closely with Japanese companies to bring the transportation solution there.

“I was happy to see people working on it and turning it into reality,” Mr. Powell said, noting that both he and his business partner weren’t concerned about losing the rights to the technology. Rather, they wanted to help scientists and engineers improve the lives of others.

In 1983, Mr. Danby was honored with the New York Academy of Sciences Boris Pregel Award for Applied Science and Technology for his contributions to accelerator physics and superconducting magnet technology. In 2000, Mr. Danby and Mr. Powell were awarded the Benjamin Franklin Medal in Engineering by the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia.

“He had a real curiosity and creativity,” said Mr. Danby’s daughter, Jennifer. “I don’t think he was afraid to venture into territory where he might discover something completely different from what he hypothesized. He was a real scientist in that way.”

Mr. Danby was born in Ontario, Canada, during the Great Depression and suffered from rickets as a child, his daughter said. He overcame the illness and went on to play semi-professional ice hockey in Canada.

Mr. Danby is seen here as a child with his grandfather in Ontario, Canada, where he grew up. He became a U.S. citizen in 1957. (Courtesty: Danby family)

After earning a PhD in physics in the 1950s, Mr. Danby moved to Long Island and became a U.S. citizen, working as a physicist at BNL. In addition to his work on Maglev, Mr. Danby also helped design and build what was at the time the world’s largest particle accelerator. His work with the Fonar Corporation on Long Island led to the first use of magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) in open and upright medical scanners, his family said.

Ms. Danby said her father always emphasized that his children, Jen and Judd, should follow their dreams.

“He definitely said to choose something you love and to pursue it,” Ms. Danby said. “If you love something, go. Go after it.”

Ms. Danby recalled learning how to play hockey with her father and touring BNL as a child. The experiences comprise some of her fondest memories. She said her father also once used his knowledge of physics to help his children win a local go-kart racing competition.

“He was a loving dad,” she said. “He and my mom taught us to be gracious in victory and defeat and to keep your eye on the prize with kindness and humor and generosity.” 

Ms. Danby said her father had a sense of humor and was able to put others at ease. He and his wife, Jane, moved to an old farmhouse in Wading River and worked hard to fix it up.

“They laughed a lot,” Ms. Danby said. “He loved my mother very much and they balanced each other.”

The Danbys became active in both the local historical society and civic association. Mr. Danby was a school board member in the earliest days of the Shoreham-Wading River School District, said Wading River Civic Association president Sid Bail. Mr. Danby was also a member of the Riverhead Conservation Advisory Council and was on the board of the Long Island Chapter of the Nature Conservancy.

Mr. Bail knew Mr. Danby for almost 30 years and said he was a “good friend” to both him, his wife, and the community.

Mr. Danby pictured in 2009. (Credit: file photo)
Mr. Danby pictured in 2009. (Credit: file photo)

Whenever there was a problem, he was always there,” Mr. Bail said. “We went through a few adventures together and Gordon was always willing to go to meetings and speak out. He would speak very intelligently and he believed in civility. He’ll be missed. That’s for sure.”

Riverhead Town community development director Christine Kempner worked with Mr. Danby several years ago to try to bring Maglev technology to the Enterprise Park at Calverton.

“He was a great person for his scientific stuff, but he was also a really great community member,” Ms. Kempner said.

Although Mr. Danby wasn’t able to secure enough funding for the project, Ms. Kempner said he did all he could to bring his invention to the area.

“He’s a visionary,” she said. “It’s like Nikola Tesla. People don’t understand. It’s so far ahead that people don’t move that quickly.

“I’m sure this is the mode of travel of the future,” she continued. “It’s a shame that it never happened during his lifetime.”

A memorial service will be held Monday, Aug. 15, from 2 to 4 and 7 to 9 p.m. at Alexander Tuthill Funeral Home in Wading River. Private cremation will follow, family members said.

In lieu of flowers, Mr. Danby and his wife requested that donations be made to their children’s two nonprofit production organizations: Mississippi Mud Productions, run by Jennifer Danby, and The Jazz Club of Lafayette, In., run by Judd Danby.

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Top photo caption: Mr. Danby holds up an award from the High Speed Rail Association in 1991 (Courtesy: Brookhaven National Lab)