by Paul Schatzkin
October 1, 2015
What’s wrong with this picture?
Tomorrow (Friday, October 2) I will be driving from Nashville up to Richmond, Virginia for the annual gathering of the HEAS – the High Energy Amateur Science club. This loosely-configured assembly of dedicated science nerds has gathered on the first Saturday of every October for 25 years now – this year will be the 26th. The event attracts people from all over the country who come to demonstrate and talk about the amazing things they are building in their basements and garages, many of them exploring the most esoteric areas of high voltage phenomena worthy of the likes of Nikola Tesla.
This will be my fourth or fifth excursion to meet up with this unique tribe of real-life characters from The Big Bang Theory. It is held each year at the home and laboratory of Richard Hull, who also happens to be one of the world’s foremost authorities on Tesla, the amazing Tesla Coil, and what Tesla did or did not actually doin his lifetime (apart from the vast mythology that has formed around the cult of his personality in the past decade or so).
I first met Richard back in 2000, after I tacked some information about the Farnsworth Fusor to the end of The Farnsworth Chronicles, which I had posted as as sidebar to “songs.com” – the Internet music site I started in 1995. Once I’d discovered I had the ability to “self publish” whatever I wanted to the web, I scanned and uploaded the Farnsworth biography I’d had lying fallow since the 1970s. At the end I wondered if there was anybody out in the worldie-wide-web who might be interested in the work that Philo Farnsworth – you know, the guy who invented television (I know, you probably didn’t know…) – did in the last two decades of his life. In the 1950s and 60s, Farnsworth invented a novel approach to nuclear fusion – the same process that drives the sun and stars.
Fusion was then and is now still the holy grail of modern science. Given its history, it’s no surprise that a vast array of skeptics insist that the promise of fusion as the solution to our energy needs (and now pollution-generated climate change) is something that is “twenty years in the future and always will be…”
Now the question – and the discussion I want to have – is: did Philo Farnsworth find a viable approach to energy generation through nuclear fusion some fifty years ago? And if so, why aren’t we living in the fusion-powered future NOW?
When Richard Hull and I first started to confer with each other, he was just beginning to build his first fusor, spurred on by a fellow named Tom Ligon who was a disciple of another fusion researcher, the late Robert Bussard, who had was developed his own version of the Farnsworth process called the Polywell. Richard has since been the de-facto leader of the tribe, the most active and consistent participant in the growing, global community that is Fusor.net.
Over the course of the ensuing decade and half, what started out as a simple forum in one of the earliest online bulletin board formats has grown through several iterations into fusor.net – behind which lies a vast database of knowledge compiled by hundreds of people around the world who are experimenting with their own variations of Farnsworth’s invention. Between them, these (mostly) “amateur” (in the best possible meaning of the word) scientists produce on a daily basis more actual nuclear fusion than all of the expensively funded experiments being conducted at the behest of governments, corporations and institutions around the world combined.
But here’s the thing: this cadre of “fusioneers” – uniquely accomplished as they are, and in spite of the vast trove of knowledge they have helped assemble over the years – are not really experimenting with the Farnsworth Fusor. They’re experimenting with what I call the “Hirsch/Meeks Variation” of the Farnsworth Fusor. This simplified version of the Fusor was first built by colleagues of Farnsworth’s in the mid 1960s. Robert Hirsch and Gene Meeks built their version of the fusor on a dessert cart – so that it could be wheeled in to a meeting of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission in order to demonstrate Inertial Electrostatic Confinement. These events are well documented in the latter chapters of my book, “The Boy Who Invented Television.”
It is this “dessert cart” fusor that the Legion of Fusioneers are building in their basements and garages.
The simple fact of the matter is that nobody has built or tested an actual “Farnsworth Fusor” in more than 50 years. Think of how far technology has come in those five decades. Imagine a Fusor with computerized controls…
And now we read that the Titans of Tech – innovators and digital industrialists who have amassed unimaginable fortunes over the past three decades – are investing hundreds of millions of dollars into a whole new array of fusion concepts:
America has six private-sector fusion projects underway, according to a new report by the research firm Third Way. PayPal co-founder and Silicon Valley investor Peter Thiel has backed Helion Energy of Redmond, Wash. Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen has put money behind Tri Alpha Energy in Irvine, Calif., which has reportedly raised $140 million. And Bezos Expeditions, the investment fund of Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, is backing a Vancouver company called General Fusion, which so far has raised $94 million.
But the undeniable fact is: none of the approaches to fusion that any of these Tech Titans are funding is anywhere near as simple or elegant as the device that Philo Farnsworth first created in the late 1950s.
In 2001, I got to spend some time with Gene Meeks, the co-creator of the Hirsch Meeks Variation. Gene was as close to the critical work in the Farnsworth laboratory as anybody, and spoke in guarded terms about his experience. But when pressed on the subject, Gene finally spoke wistfully of a fusor iteration called “Prime II” and its prospects for achieving “breakeven” – that elusive goal of all fusion research, where the energy coming out of the reaction is greater than the energy it takes to make the atoms fuse.
“We were close,” Gene Meeks said of the Prime II. “Very close….”
If that was the case, then what I want to know – the discussion I want to have – is: why isn’t any money being invested to revisit the Farnsworth Fusor?
Now, I could be completely off base here. Despite having founded this site almost two decades ago, I am arguably speaking from a vantage point of somebody who is only minimally knowledgeable in the field. Unlike the countless contributors who have combined their efforts over a decade-and-a-half to form the vast database that is Fusor.net, I have never built anything more complicated than a slot-car – and that was also 50 years ago.
So maybe they all know something I don’t know. Maybe the discussion is moot. Maybe it has been proven somewhere that by the mid 1960s, Farnsworth was operating with faculties greatly diminished by decades of substance abuse. Maybe, as some have contended, the Fusor is a dead end, but fun to experiment with.
Or maybe the the truth is closer to the story I first heard about Farnsworth and fusion, on a hillside in Santa Cruz California in the summer of 1973.
I had first heard of Philo T. Farnsworth in the “Videocity” edition of a publication called Radical Software – this edition named for San Francisco – the city where Farnsworth first demonstrated electronic video in 1927. Later that summer I went out to the west coast to seek my fortune in the television business. That September I went up the coast to Santa Cruz, and met a friend of the Farnsworth family. He told me an the apocryphal story he had heard from Farnsworth’s eldest son, Philo T. Farnsworth III about the day his father put aside his fusion work. The story goes something like this:
Imagine a young boy watching from the doorway of his father’s laboratory while the father operates an amazing machine – a ‘star in a jar.’ The young boy watches as his father puts the machine through its paces, spinning off an eery, other-worldly light as the small synthetic star burns brightly. And then he watches as his father – satisfied that the device worked as intended – dismantled it in such a way that it would never work again, and placed the piece that made it work on a high shelf where nobody would ever find it.
That is, essentially, the story I first heard in the summer of 1973.
Two years later, I had the pleasure and privilege of meeting Philo T. Farnsworth III. Over the course of the following decade we became good and trusting friends and shared many amazing moments together. After I’d know him a while, I finally told him about that story, and asked him if there was any truth to it.
“That’s a pretty good story,” Philo said, “if a bit fantastic. But I’ll tell you this much: the patents that my father filed… are incomplete.”
In other words, something was removed from the public disclosures – the patents – that make all the difference in how the device that Farnsworth built works or doesn’t work.
Maybe the time has come to invest some small portion of the tech millions that are being poured into these new experiments to find out once and for all if the answer has been with us all along.
That’s the discussion I want to have now.