The Point of Origin:
Santa Cruz, 1973

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.

The Sony “PortaPak” ca. 1970. All that fits in your pocket now.

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 I  experimented 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.  

Cover of the “VideoCity” edition of “Radical Software” ca. 1973

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 guerilla  who 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 encounter  cultural 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.  

Albert Einstein, God’s resident mathematician

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. 

Planet Earth: deep space refueling station for fusion-powered spacecraft throughout the Galaxy.

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.  

Uncontrolled nuclear fusion

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?  

Controlled nuclear fusion

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 warm  afternoon 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 he  had 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 46  years later: 

This is how you bottle a star.

Picture Philo T. Farnsworth working alone in a makeshift basement  laboratory.  

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.

Pem Farnsworth, ca. 1977, at the dedication of the historic monument at 202 Green Street, where electronic video made its first appearance on Earth on Sept 7, 1927.

For now, suffice it to say that in July of 1975 I  flew 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. 

Philo T. Farnsworth III ca. 1972

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.

Philo chuckled. 

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. 

Schematic of the Farnsworth Fusor from US Patent # 3386883.  Something is missing…

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 before  Pem 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. 

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

Above, “Star Mode” in one of the many amateur and student science projects that have kept Farnsworth’s approach to fusion alive for the past 20 years.  This work has been fostered by Fusor.net – a website I created in 1998.

Apollo 11 +50:
Please Remember This Man, Too

Cut to the chase: Follow this link to Chapter 20: Tranquility Base at Medium.com

*

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.

The outline of the Farnsworth story goes like this: Continue reading “Apollo 11 +50:
Please Remember This Man, Too”

Why Nuclear Fusion Is Always 30 Years Away

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?

Why Nuclear Fusion Is Always 30 Years Away.

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.

Meanwhile, somebody with an original idea like Doug Coulter on a substantially smaller scale runs a one-man shop out in the woods, doing everything (more or less) by himself.  We’ll probably see a better result than the billions being spent on the 3-Cs.

So, yeah, fusion will be 30 years in the future… until it isn’t.

Fusion in the Northwest

Here’s a great example of what one motivated individual can do to inspire the next generation of Fusioneers.

CarlG2
Carl Greninger

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.

High school senior Raymond Maung poors liquid nitrogen into the reactor. Photo by GABRIEL SPITZER / KPLU
High school senior Raymond Maung poors liquid nitrogen into the reactor. Photo by GABRIEL SPITZER / KPLU

Yeah, That’s Sure To Work…

It's Called

Isn’t this the outfit that got a whole lot of press last year when they got some funding from one of Silicon Valley’s start-up incubators?

“What Helion is trying to achieve is to shoot two plasma balls made of hydrogen atom cores at each other at one million miles per hour to collide within an indescribably strong magnetic field to create a 100 million degree Celsius reaction for a millisecond.”

via Energy’s Holy Grail? You can find it at Redmond’s Helion Energy | Crosscut.com.

Letterman Gets Fused

I really do need to keep better track of my daily Google Alerts.  Unfortunately, I’ve become somewhat immune to them.  The fusion alerts, in particular, are usually about the ITER or the NIF or some giant government funded fusion boondoggle. They show up in my inbox everyday, and I mostly ignore them.

So I missed this when it showed up in my inbox last week: an appearance on the David Letterman show by Jamie Edwards, the 13-year-old from Lancashire, England, who is now the youngest person to ever build a fusor and achieve a nuclear fusion reaction.

The appearance actually begins just few seconds prior to this video.  Letterman has introduced Jamie who has taken his seat on the sofa, and the conversation begins:

Unlike his immediate predecessor in the “youngest fusioneer” sweepstakes, Jamie is modest, well spoken, and even a bit funny as he deflects Dave’s attempts to make light of something he barely comprehends.

What’s ironic is that this appearance is on that gizmo called television, and there’s no mention of the fact that the same guy who created the fusion process that they’re talking about also invented the medium they’re talking about it on.  But, that’s the way it goes when Philo Farnsworth is the topic.

Philo who??

– – – – – – –

But… wait!  Despite all the coverage of Jamie’s work – and his appearance on a big-time US network TeeVee show – it turns out that Jamie’s claims of having achieved actual fusion (as evidenced by the production of neutrons) remains unsubstantiated as of this date.  There is a thread of discussion on this in the fusor forums, read it here.

We Have a New “Youngest”

Previously, Taylor Wilson was the youngest fusioneer, achieving fusion in his own home-built reactor at age 14.

Now we have 13 year old Jamie Edwards:

youngest_fusioneer

And now we know the missing ingredient in a successful fusion operation:

Jamie Edwards is the boy from Preston who two weeks ago entered the record books as the youngest person — he was 13 — in the world to build a nuclear fusion reactor. George Barker is his assistant, sidekick and loyal best friend.

George, 13, says: ‘I organise meetings for Jamie, and tidy up for him — he’s really, really messy; you should see his bedroom, it’s a right tip with stuff everywhere! I make brews for him — he  prefers hot chocolate with just a little bit of milk.’

A Change is Gonna Come

Get out your Sam Cook records, kids… A Change Is Gonna Come.

Fusor.net
has been in business since 1998 – I think that's like several centuries
in Internet years. Why, when we started this, it was all hand-cranked,
remember?

In the 15 years since its inception, Fusor.net has
had three major incarnations. First there was the very simple BBS
operated under the aegis of my 90's-era Internet music business,
Songs.com. Then there was a brief interval when it was hosted by a
service called "Intranets." When that enterprise faded into the digital
sunset, we set up our own forums using a platform called "w-agora" –
which was fairly state of the art at the time (about 2002).

So this platform has served us well for at least a decade. But now it, too, is about to go the way of the digital dodo…

A number of factors have arisen in the past few months that dictate a change:

1)
We discovered that users from Australia were having difficulty getting
consistent access to the site. Our host, Sitemason.com, was maintaining
a fairly high firewall in order to defend their servers against bots
from Asia, and that was causing problems for legitimate users on the
other side of the dateline;

2) The platform that we have been
operating on for the past decade has become quite antiquated and is no
longer supported by the developer. Sitemason has been precluded from
upgrading its services for other customers as long as the Fusor.net
boards were dependent on outdated circuitry;

3) Sitemason's own
business has evolved in such away that they are no longer able or wiling
to devote their limited resources to keeping the wheels of one site
rolling down the digital highway. I have done business with these
people since, oh, 1997 or thereabouts, and regard them as outstanding in
their field. It has always been a genuine pleasure to do business with
them. But their business has changed, and though they personally like
having a unique site like Fusor.net under their umbrella, the site is no
longer compatible with their business model and they've politely asked
us to find other hosting.

Accordingly, in the weeks ahead, two
major things are going to happen. One will be (hopefully) transparent,
and the other… well, not so much…

1) Fusor.net is going to move
to new servers. This in itself should/would not be disruptive, save for
the 24 hours or so it would take for the Domain Name Service (DNS)
change to propagate around the Internet. But while we're at it…

2)
The operational face of the forums is going to change dramatically
with the conversion from w-agora to the now default standard discussion
platform, phpBB. The user interface of phpBB is very different from
what we have become accustomed to with w-agora; the simple one-line
threading of discussion threads will be transformed into a format that
will be unfamiliar at first and will probably be a source of some
consternation while we're getting used to it.

The Fusor.net front
page – i.e. the "blog" portion of the site, will also be converted,
from TypePad to WordPress, but that will be of less concern to the
regular users of the forum.

We may not know until we get there
the full extent of the disruption For example, we don't know yet if we
will be able to transfer existing user registrations — user ID and
password – from the old platform to the new one. We're still
researching all the particulars. I will use this space to keep users
apprised as we learn more.

The tentative date for the transition
is April 22-25. It is likely, that the forums will be semi-closed for
at least several days while all of the engineering is implemented. By
"semi-closed" I mean that the existing forum will remain in a a "read
only" state, and new postings will not be allowed until the site is
re-opened in its new format and on its new servers.

That's the news, now HERE'S THE POINT: We're going to need to raise some money to get this done.

Fusor.net
has always been a free service and I have every intention of keeping it
that way. But we will need to raise something on the order of
$600-$800 to to implement all these changes. So it's time to pass the
virtual hat.

On the very front page of the site – http://fusor.net
– in the upper right corner, there is a link to my PayPal account. I'm
asking now for everybody who feels that they benefit from this site's
existence to go there now and pitch in whatever you can. Please make a
note on your submission that it is for "fusor.net" so I'll be able to
keep track of the contributions.

Things might be a bit chaotic
for a while, but I fully expect that we will survive any disruption.
Once we do, the site will be well positioned to flourish for another
decade or so.

And, hallelujah, by the end of that 10 years, practical fusion energy will only be another twenty years away!

OK, kids, please hurry over to the PayPal button now. Let's get this ball rolling…

(if you have anything to add to this discussion, please post your comments in the forums.)

Thanks,

Paul Schatzkin
aka The Perfesser
Founder of Fusor.net