“This is the good part of my theories. You must continue this work.”–Albert Einstein – despondent after Hiroshima and Nagasaki – to Philo T. Farnsworth in 1948
“I’ve seen all I need to see.” –Philo T. Farnsworth – to his wife after conducting a clandestine, late-night fusor ‘run’ in 1966
“We were close. We were very close.” – Eugene Meeks, Farnsworth colleague, in 2001
The Waterstar Project seeks build an endowment to fund the recovery of a promising approach to controlled nuclear fusion that was abandoned more than fifty years ago.
Controlled Nuclear Fusion has been a Holy Grail of modern science for more than 80 years. Utilizing the same reaction found in our Sun and all the stars, controlled fusion offers the promise of a clean, (relatively) safe, and inexhaustible source of industrial energy derived from the Earth’s most abundant resource: seawater.
But first the process must be harnessed here on Earth.
I was asked recently, “how did you get interested in this subject?”
This is where the story begins, on a bluff overlooking the Pacific Ocean near Santa Cruz California, on a warm afternoon in the late summer of 1973.
I had graduated from a branch of Antioch College near Baltimore, Maryland, in the spring of 1973.In the course of what passed for my higher education – in between all the joints I rolled and smoked – I was one of an emerging global cadre of long-haired, hippie-radicale “video guerillas.”My classmates and Iexperimented with a new media paradigm, using the very first portable video recorders – the Sony Porta-Pak – to create programming for public access on cable TV.
Our text book through that era was periodical out of New York called “Radical Software.”
The 8th edition of Radical Software was published in the spring of 1973, just before I graduated from Antioch. That issue was dubbed the “VideoCity” edition” because – as I learned within its pages–electronic video was invented there in the 1920s.
And that’s where first I encountered a name which would ultimately become a primary preoccupation of my adult life: Philo T. Farnsworth.
It was in these pages that I first learned of the 14 year old farm boy with the cartoon-character name who figured out in 1921 how to bounce electrons around in a vacuum tube in order to transmit moving pictures through the air.I learned about his struggles to perfect his invention and his fights with RCA over his patents. I saw images of a pre-history I had never seen before, and wondered then, as I still wonder now, why is his name not more familiar and why his story is not more frequently told.
After barely qualifying for a Bachelor’s degree (did I mention that I majored in joint-rolling?), I packed my guitar, a 35mm camera, a pair of hiking boots and a few changes of underwear into my Volkswagen Sqareback and spent the better part of the month of August driving across the country, intending to seek my fortune in the actual TeeVee industry in Hollywood.
When I arrived in Los Angeles at the end of August, I joined up with Tom Klein, my former college roommate, who was a native of LA, and we started working on some public access video projects out of Santa Monica.
Sometime in mid-September Tom and I took a little road trip up the California coast, to meet a fellow video guerillawho ran the public access cable channel in Santa Cruz and went by the assumed persona of “Johnny Videotape.” I have no recollection of this character’s actual name, so for the purposes of this story, we’ll just call him “Johnny.”
“Johnny” knew a fellow named Phil Geitzen, who had edited that “VideoCity” edition of Radical Software.And Geitzen was acquainted with Philo T. Farnsworth III – the oldest son of the Philo T. Farnsworth who had invented television, who had died in 1971, just a couple of years before all of this was happening.
Johnny and Tom and I went on a little hike through the Santa Cruz mountains, and stopped on a bluff overlooking the Pacific Ocean.
As the the three of us sat on a large rock amid the scuffy California brush, Johnny regaled us with stories that Phil Geitzen had heard from Philo T. Farnsworth (the third) about Philo T. Farnsworth (the second).
And it was there, on this hillside in Santa Cruz, looking out at the blue horizon in the late summer of 1973 that I first heard the expression “nuclear fusion.”
At a time when conventional nuclear power – what the Eisenhower era reverently extolled as “Atoms for Peace” – was just beginning to encountercultural push back for its freshly perceived dangers – in other words, during the time when the expression “meltdown” was just beginning to enter the lexicon – I learned about the most fundamental force in the entire universe.
Johnny explained that “fusion” is the opposite of the more familiar “fission” that burns in the core of conventional nuclear power plants.
Fission splits heavy atoms like Uranium or Plutonium into lighter atoms; the combined mass of the split-off, lighter atoms is less than the mass of the original,heavier atoms, and that difference in mass is released as energy in accordance with Einstein’s famous formula, E=MC2.
For the record, fission does not exist anywhere in nature; its presence here on Earth is an entirely human fabrication.
Fusion, on the other hand, is the most natural and common phenomenon is the entire universe.Fusion is the process burning within our sun and every star in the heavens.
It seems as if God, when he got bored being God all by himself and set about to create a Universe that could provide some companionship, when he was sifting around for a way to “let there be light,”he actually started with the idea of fusion.
In The Beginning…
God must have said to himself, “First I’ll create hydrogen.Easy.One proton, one electron.Then I’ll add a neutron.Then I’ll take two of these hydrogen atoms and press them together into an entirely new element. The result will be all the heat and light I need to create an entire universe!
God clapped his big hands together, and the universe went “bang.”
That’s all God had to do.Create hydrogen atoms in infinite abundance and then hang gigantic balls of hydrogen thoughout his new Heavens, compressing those balls of gas with the gravity of their own mass until the atoms fused together into a second element and presto: there was light, and there was heat.
And God saw that it was good.
Some 14 billion years later, human scientists would name that second element “helium” and a Jewish patent clerk in Germany would calculate the awesome amount of energy released in its forming in the most famous mathematical equation ever written.
Over eons the stars did the rest of the work: forging an entire atomic chart of other elements, and then condensing those elements into planets. Over the course of several billion years (which might seem a mere six or seven days to a cosmic diety…)that process would eventually, produce organic, carbon based “life” forms that could carry and transmit that same energy.
God finally had himself some company, and on the seventh day he threw a party.
Look out at the night sky, and all you see, as Carl Sagan might have put it, are billions and billions of deep space fusion reactors.Along with sex, fusion energy is the most natural creative force in the Universe.
OK, back to that bluff overlooking the Pacific in the late summer of 1973.
Fusion, as Johnny had learned from Phil Geitzen, as Geitzen had learned from Philo Farnsworth III, offers mankind the promise of a clean and (relatively?) safe source of industrial energy from a virtually infinite fuel source.The hydrogen isotopes in sea water – the most abundant resource on Earth – store enough fusion fuel to power advanced civilizations for millions of years.And even though fusion is an atomic reaction, it presents none of the hazards or toxic byproducts that fission plants produce.
Johnny Videotape explained to Tom Klein and I that modern science has been trying to harness this fusion energy for useful purposes here on Earth for several decades – the obvious assumption being that if we can harness fission to generate electricity, then surely we can harness fusion toward a similar end.
Or maybe not?
Science has figured out how to harness the very unnatural process of fission into both controlled and explosive devices.The controlled devices are all those nuclear power plants, all those Three Mile Islands, Chernobyls and Fukushimas – all those meltdowns waiting to happen, and all that radioactive garbage that nobody knows what to do with.The explosive devices, well, that’s Trinity and Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
The only fusion devices mankind has managed to perfect are the explosive ones.The hydrogen bomb.The monster of incineration that its architect, Edward Teller, liked to call “The Super.” Great for wiping out entire cities; not so great for powering them.
A controlled fusion reaction, one that could produce the same megawatts of electricty that we can get out of a conventional nuclear power plant?That has proven much more difficult to deliver.
Because: As a heavenly star is a fusion reaction, so an earthbound fusion reaction is an artificial star – and thus presents a cosmic riddle:
How do you bottle a star?
What sort of vessel can you create that is capapble of containing a seething atomic inferno as hot as the sun?What sort of container could withstand such heat without disintegrating?Conversely, what sort of bottle could contain a star that would not ultimately extinguish the star simply by coming in contact with it?
That is the quandary that Johnny Videotape presented that warmafternoon on a bluff overlooking the Pacific Ocean in Santa Cruz, California in the summer of 1973.
And the reason Johnny was telling us all this was because hehad learned from Phil Geitzen, who had learned from Philo T. Farnsworth III, that Philo T. Farnsworth II – the man who as a boy had invented television – had spent the final decades of his life solving the riddle!
Philo Farnsworth had figured out how to bottle a star.
Now the story becomes rather apocryphal.Here is the story Johnny told, as I recall it 46years later:
Picture Philo T. Farnsworth working alone in a makeshift basementlaboratory.
In the doorway, his young son reverently stands by and watches as his father fires up his fantastic ‘star-making machinery.’Before their eyes, the unthinkable materializes:the artificial star.
Together they watch the vibrant, shimmering light, and a knowing gaze passes between father and son.
When he is satisfied that he has done all that he can do and seen all he needs to see, the father shuts off the machine – and begins to dismantle it.
He removes a critical piece from the machine, and places it on a high shelf somewhere in the lab where nobody will ever find it – so that the machine will never operate again.
And then he takes the secret to his grave.
That story landed like a harpoon in my heart.
I am hooked on it still.
And that is why the website fusor.net has been around for more than 20 years.
And why I have been telling this story to anybody who’ll listen for nearly 50 years.
It’s an odd obsession, to put it mildly.
Two years after that afternoon in Santa Cruz,I tracked down the family of Philo T. Farnsworth.
In the pursuit of the fortune that had lured me to Hollywood, I had landed on the idea of making “a movie for television about the boy who invented it.”
That project has its own curious origin-and-dead-end story; That the most effective story-telling medium ever devised has yet to tell the story of its own fascinating origins remains its own bizarre mystery.
For now, suffice it to say that in July of 1975 Iflew to Salt Lake City, where I was greeted in a modest-but-cluttered home by Philo Farnsworth’s widow Pem and two of her skeptical sons – the oldest, the aforememtiomed Philo T. Farnsworth III, born in 1929, and Kent, the youngest who was roughly my age. That trio of Farmsworths were the primary keepers of the family treasures (they are all deceased now).
Over the course of the next two days – and the next several years – I began to learn the untold story of the true origins of electronic video, and of the titanic struggles that accompanied its arrival in the world during the 1930s.
And over the course of those years Philo T. Farnsworth III became one of my best friends.
There are so. many. stories.I wish I had time to tell you the story of “The Prince, The Inventor, and The Egg.”I can only say now that Philo was one of the most unique individuals I have ever had the privilege of knowing until his untimely death in 1987.
Philo possessed unique insights into his father’s legacy.Though P3 (as he was often called) lacked his father’s mathematical prowess, he was an inventor in his own right and offered me keen insights into the inventive process that inform my own work to this day.
But in those first encounters, it became readily apparent that the entire family, and Philo III in particular, were fervently protective of their father’s legacy, and from the outset quite reluctant to discuss the fusion research – the star in a jar – that consumed the final decades of his father’s life.
But over time, time I would earn the family’s trust and learn the truth underlying that apocryphal story.
As we got to know and become comfortable with each other, I finally got around to telling Philo the story that Johnny Videotape had told me, the story that he had heard from Phil Geitzen that Phil Geitzen had supposedly heard from the lips of this very same Philo Farnsworth III.
The story, he said, was indeed apocryphal, and perhaps a bit broadly drawn.The details were well off – Philo III was hardly a child, he was in his mid 30s during the years when his father was experimenting with fusion.But he also confirmed its essence when he said, simply, that “the patents are incomplete.”
Think of a patent as a text book.A well written patent should instruct somebody skilled in the underlying arts how to build the novel device disclosed therein.But if critical details are left out of the patent, even the most skilled practitioner will be building a device that falls short of its intended purpose.
In other words, filing an incomplete patent is much like taking a critical piece out of the machine and placing on a high shelf where nobody will ever find it.
Philo first told me about those incomplete patents sometime in the mid 1970s. But it was another 15 years beforePem Farnsworth, who had been at her husbands’s side during all the important moments in his career, would confide in me the story that is the climax of his biography.
In the summer of 1989, I returned to Salt Lake to help Pem and youngest son Kent put the finishing touches on “Distant Vision” – the memoir that Pem had begun writing when I first met her in 1975.
And when we got to the “second chapter” – the decade devoted to fusion energy research – Kent and I could both tell that Pem was withholding something,a critical detail she was reluctant to divulge.
Finally, we sat Pem down with a cassette recorder and coaxed from her the story of a night in 1965,when Philo brought her back to his laboratory that was, in fact, in a basement in Fort Wayne Indiana.Once past the night watchman and settled in behind the controls, Farnsworth opened the electrical ciruits feeding the reactor and adjusted the controls.And then the strangest thing happened: he withdrew the electrical current, and the reaction just kept on going.
Pem and Philo watched as the needles in various gauges pinned at the limits.And when the needles finally settled down, Pem told us that her husband turned to her and said, “I have seen all I need to see…”
Weeks later, he filed the patents that his son descibed to me as “incomplete.”
It is quite common when reading of contemporary fusion research to encounter the skeptical caveat that “fusion energy is 20 years in the future and always will be…”
But I have met the family of Philo T. Farnsworth – the man who, as a boy, arrived on this planet with the unique insights that delivered electronic video to the world. I have looked them all in the eye and I have seen and felt the abiding reverence they hold for the legacy they are protecting and the secrets that Philo T. Farnsworth took to his grave.
And I share their conviction: fusion energy is not 20 years in the future.
The path to fusion energy was found 50 years ago and we missed it.
On Tuesday, July 16, 2019, the world will begin commemorating the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11, that improbable mission that culminated four days later with Neil Armstrong’s historic “giant leap for mankind.”
In recent weeks, there have already been recollections of the thousands – maybe hundreds of thousands – of men and women all over America who made countless individual contributions to the most ambitious project of the 20th Century.
But amid all the clamor and celebration, one pivotal name will likely be ignored, as it has been for most of the past 80 years.
That name is Philo T. Farnsworth. All he did was invent the damn television.
Without his seminal contributions in the 1920s and 30s, we might have had to just listen to the moon landing on the radio. Instead, half-a-billion people watched it all unfold in real time.
First: a note of sincere Gratitude to Frank Sanns, Richard Hull, Andrew Robinson and others who have borne of the burden of keeping this site running smoothly while I have been largely MIA over the past… well, sigh, it’s been a while now. I will spare you the gory details of my personal travails (begins with the letter “D”), other than to say how gratifying it is to see Fusor.net continue to run on its own energy (pun intended) and that interest in the topic remains high around the world.
The cost of maintaining the site has always been fairly modest, but over the past year has been increasing. My account with Media Temple provides a monthly allocation of bandwidth, but recently we have been running over that allocation and incurring additional charges. Some of that overage has been traced to the bots that crawl the site for search engines, and some effort has been made to minimize the bots impact, but we are still incurring additional charges. We have also recently added a Secure Sockets Layer (SSL) that cost an additional $75/year
In light of the changes in my personal circumstances and the increase in costs, it is going to be harder to bear the entire cost maintaining the site for at least the coming year.
So it is time, as have on occasion in the past, to ask the Fusor community to step up and pitch in.
If you are so inclined, just click on the “Donate” button to the right of this post and contribute whatever you can.
If you happen to turn on a TeeVee today… hell, if you look at a video screen (actually, you’re looking at a video screen NOW) … tip a nod toward Philo T. Farnsworth, who delivered electronic video to the planet 90 years ago today…
Most of that Saturday, we enjoyed the company of Washington Post correspondent Cathy Alter and photographer Andre Chung. I forget now how Cathy had gotten wind of the fusor crew, but she was intrigued enough to get some background on the subject and came prepared for an event that was – to put it mildly – somewhat foreign to her experience.
The result is this story that appears in the Sunday, May 29 Washington Post Magazine section:
…which offers an interesting perspective on how a lay-person responds when confronted with the fact of “amateur” scientists fooling around with nuclear reactors in their basements and garages.
Starting with a look at Richard Hull’s Fusor IV, Cathy writes:
I’m nervously checking out the 69-year-old Hull’s fusor, rubbernecking with 43 others, including a handful of high school students accompanied by game-but-baffled parents. We are gathered for the annual meeting of HEAS, which stands for the High Energy Amateur Science group and meets in this shed every year on the first Saturday of October for a day of, in Hull’s words, “anything that has to do with bangs, pops and sizzles.”
… I was captivated, bewildered and, frankly, a little afraid. As we filed out of Hull’s door at day’s end, a man in front of me turned around and said: “Just a tip. Be sure to wash your hands before you eat.”
And so it goes.
What follows are short profiles of Richard and eight of the other attendees at the HEAS gathering (pictured, above, clockwise from the top left: Richard Hull, Tim Raney, Kevin Dunn, Scott Moroch & Jack Rosky, Larry Adams, Connor Givans, Paul Schatzkin, Frank Sanns).
What is perhaps more interesting to read are the comments that follow the online version of the article, which offers a pretty good indication of what is the public’s perception of nuclear energy, fusion, and the fusor in particular.
It seems that as difficult as it may be to achieve net-power from fusion, it may be even harder to persuade a doubting populace that we really need it.
I dunno, maybe because most of the money seems to get siphoned off for the biggest, most cumbersome, complex, and costly (the 3-Cs of most fusion research) schemes and machines money can buy (and the bloated scientific staffs that build them) to solve what is essentially a simple challenge?
Fusion, at its core, is a simple concept. Take two hydrogen isotopes and smash them together with overwhelming force. The two atoms overcome their natural repulsion and fuse, yielding a reaction that produces an enormous amount of energy.
But a big payoff requires an equally large investment, and for decades we have wrestled with the problem of energizing and holding on to the hydrogen fuel as it reaches temperatures in excess of 150 million degrees Fahrenheit. To date, the most successful fusion experiments have succeeded in heating plasma to over 900 million degrees Fahrenheit, and held onto a plasma for three and a half minutes, although not at the same time, and with different reactors.
The most recent advancements have come from Germany, where the Wendelstein 7-X reactor recently came online with a successful test run reaching almost 180 million degrees, and China, where the EAST reactor sustained a fusion plasma for 102 seconds, although at lower temperatures.
Still, even with these steps forward, researchers have said for decades that we’re still 30 years away from a working fusion reactor. Even as scientists take steps toward their holy grail, it becomes ever more clear that we don’t even yet know what we don’t know.
If you’ve read anything about the promise of nuclear fusion, one of the words you encounter most frequently is “safe.” As in nuclear fusion will one day be a “clean, safe, and inexhaustible…” source of nuclear energy.
Yeah, well, maybe. Relatively speaking.
Compared to the nuclear reactors online today, yes, fusion is probably “safer” than fission.
For starters, you don’t have all the fuel present in the reactor the entire time – as you do with a fission reactor – so there is no danger of coolant breakdown, overheating and meltdown. (I’m tempted to draw this analogy: a fission reactor is a bit like putting your automobile engine inside the gas tank. What could possibly go wrong?)
To the contrary, all fusion experiments to date have involved vacuum chambers – the object is to have next-to-nothing in the chamber itself, and then admit only as much nuclear fuel as it takes to generate or sustain a reaction. (Following the automobile engine analogy a little further, a fusion reactor would be more like the cylinder, where only a tiny amount of explosive fuel vapor is admitted to the chamber to ignite the combustion that makes the whole thing go ’round). With a fusion reactor, the worst that could likely happen in the event of an accident is that the reaction chamber would rupture, the vacuum is lost, the reaction ceases, and a tiny bit of gas is released into the atmosphere. Not really much of a problem when measured against the “China Syndrome” scale of a potential fission reactor accident (see Fukushima, Chernobyl, Three Mile Island).
But let’s not kids ourselves that nuclear fusion is entirely “safe.”
First, we are still dealing with all the forces that bind atomic nuclei, and the radiation and particles that are released when atoms are split or combined.
Indeed, the whole way we measure fusion – by the quantity of neutrons produced – ventures into a realm that is potentially entirely lethal. In most of the experimental installations that are discussed here at Fusor.net, the level of neutron output is sufficiently low that there is no danger to being in the vicinity of the reactor for relatively short periods. But getting anywhere close to a self-sustaining reaction produces a neutron flux many orders of magnitude – i.e. in the trillions or even quadrillions – of neutrons per second. And as Doug Coulter’s recent experience demonstrates, “safe” is not one of the words that would describe that level of output.
In addition to the neutron flux, there are the X-rays and the gamma rays that have to be shielded.
And then of course there are the extremely high voltages – i.e. tens of thousands of volts – that operate a fusor. Be very careful what you touch…
So before plunging into one of these projects, it can be worth your time and effort to explore the forums for the myriad safety considerations that must be taken into account before building and operating your very own nuclear fusion reactor.
A simple search reveals that to date there are more than TWELVE HUNDRED posts that invoke the word “safety.” What is interesting is that, near as I can tell, there is no “FAQ” set that specifically addresses the safety considerations that should be taken in to account when building and operating one of these things.
Perhaps a few advanced searches can narrow the subject down:
There are 400+ posts that address “voltage” safety;
There are 150+ posts that address “X-rays” safety;
There are 280+ posts that address “vacuum” safety.
So, please, new users especially, avail yourselves to some of this material before embarking on a project with the blanket, unexamined assumption that nuclear fusion is perfectly “safe.” You’ll be glad you did…
Carl Greninger is an IT executive at Microsoft who became frustrated a few years ago with the limitations placed on science education in the public schools in his home town of Federal Way, WA.
It started with a guy named Carl Greninger, and his realization that tight budgets and fear of lawsuits have pushed out much of the fun, dangerous stuff from high school science labs, leaving “nothing sharper than silly putty.
“I walked into a classroom and I saw a science teacher. And he had a string and a paper cup. And he says, well, we’re studying physics, and I looked back at the kids and I saw the word ‘lame’ tattooed across their foreheads. And I said, I can do better than this in my garage,” he says.
And so despite the fact that he had no “nuclear physics” or engineering in his background, Carl went about the not entirely difficult project of building a fusor in his basement and garage.
Now comes this recent, detailed account of the inspiring work that Carl is doing, sharing his laboratory with students from all over his part of the country and getting them excited about the possibilities of fusion research and advanced science and physics in general:
As I have reflected on this experience, I think the fusion reactor was pretty awesome, but it was the students and what they were doing that was truly amazing.
Carl …had a vision of a private science club to teach students “real science.” He turned his vision into a Friday night program that attracts the brightest minds in the region. Adult volunteers, who are experts in biology, electrical engineering and software engineering also attend the Friday night meetings.
So yeah, fusion is definitely cool, but not nearly as cool as the knowledge and skill sets reaching for fusion can instill in its pursuers.
What Carl’s efforts demonstrate is that as our technology advances, there is a concurrent need for new and innovative educational concepts and processes. It’s gratifying to think that offering the body of knowledge that has been compiled here at Fusor.net has had some small hand in instigating such an effort.
It turns out that over the years, the Fusor.net forums have accumulated quite a bit of material that revisits the events that transpired at the ITT/Farnsworth laboratory in Fort Wayne, Indiana during the years when the Fusor was first introduced and developed (ca. 1959-1967).
That lab was located on Pontiac Street in Fort Wayne, so a search of the forums using just the word “Pontiac” delivers 40 results. Almost (?) all of these posts start with something Richard Hull shares from the investigations and interviews he conducted with the Farnsworth fusion team back in the early ‘aughts. I accompanied Richard on one of those expeditions in 2001 – the most pertinent results of those interviews (from my perspective, anyway) were included in my Farnsworth bio, The Boy Who Invented Television.
The full search results can be found here, and here are a few of the more choice threads:
What we’re missing – wherein Richard debunks the “apocryphal” reports of “runaway, self-sustained” nuclear fusion in the Farnsworth labs.
Gene Meeks – In Memorium – I call the device we build is the “Hirsch/Meeks Variation” of the Farnsworth fusor; Robert L. Hirsch is still very much among the living, but namesake Gene Meeks passed away in 2006. Richard posted a
That’s just a sample of what can be found by running a search for ‘Pontiac’ in the forums. If you’re relatively new here, it’s worth taking some time to drill through the links and hear some stories… it will give you a much better sense of the trail we are trying to follow, the footsteps we are trying to fill, and the legend that we’re trying to make sense of.