#BOFN: “Pontiac”


The first Farnsworth Fusion team

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:

 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.

The Money Pit Gets Deeper

This is what a $100-billion money pit looks like.

This is what a $100-billion money pit looks like.

No surprise here: 

The multibillion-dollar ITER fusion project will take another 6 years to build beyond the—now widely discredited—official schedule, a meeting of the governing council was told this week. ITER management has also asked the seven international partners backing the project for additional funding to finish the job.

via ITER fusion project to take at least 6 years longer than planned | Science/AAAS | News.

New Feature: The Best of Fusor.Net
#BOFN – Runaway! (Or… Not?)


When we discussed the future of Fusor.net at the HEAS gathering at Richard Hull’s home back in October, one of the recurring themes was: there is a wealth of information buried beneath the detritus of daily exchanges that one typically finds in the forums.

This site has been in existence more or less for nearly 20 years. The first iteration – the “songs.com” bbs – was so long ago – before the dreaded Y2K – that the posts don’t show the year.  But I’m pretty sure it was 1998.

Since then, knowledgeable people of all stripes have come and gone – or come and stayed – and deposited here a veritable treasure trove of information about the design, construction, and operation of the Farnsworth Fusor (or, more precisely, “Hirsch/Meeks Variation” of the Farnsworth Fusor).

So it is no wonder that much of the valuable information stored here can be found in posts that date back a decade or more.  The challenge now is to effectively mine those resources so the most valuable nuggets can be brought to the surface for the benefit of newcomers and veterans alike.

After exchanging some recent messages with Site Admin (and fusion veteran) Frank Sanns, I think we’ve come up with one way to periodically drill down and see what lies beneath.

Starting now, and hopefully once or twice a week for the foreseeable future, we’re going to post a series of “The Best of Fusor.Net.”

The key to the idea is the search engine that lives at the top of every page of the forums.  You can find out just about anything that’s ever been posted that way.  For example, search for “Gene Meeks”  (co-inventor of the fusor we build here) and you’ll find 60 entries over 10 pages that go back as far as 2001 – 14 years!

So clearly, there’s a ton of valuable stuff lying beneath the surface of this site. Let’s see what we can do to bring some of it closer to the surface.

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The "Mark 2 / Mod 2" fusor, one of the models that was operated in "the pit" in Fort Wayne. Photo from a scrapbook kept by Steve Blaising.

The “Mark 2 / Mod 2″ fusor, one of the models that was operated in “the pit” in Fort Wayne. Photo from a scrapbook kept by Steve Blaising.

For the first entry in the “Best of…” sweepstakes, we visit the subject of “runaway fusors.”

Last week, Frank and I got in to an e-mail exchange about the “runaway fusion” events that have been reported to have occurred in the Farnsworth fusion laboratories in Fort Wayne, Indiana in the mid 1960s.   I think he was referring to an event that I described on page 232 of my Farnsworth bio, “The Boy Who Invented Television”

…. engineer Fred Haak described an occasion when he, George Bain, and an- other engineer named Jack Fisher were preparing the Fusor for a metered run that would be conducted the next day. There was no instrumentation on the Fusor during the setup. As was often the practice, the workers were putting the Fusor through its paces to make sure its systems were all functioning when, according to Fred Haak, the Fusor in the pit “just lit up and went crazy.” George Bain killed the power immediately but the Fusor did not shut down—it actually continued operating, as an increasingly bright light emanated from the pit. After this spontaneous operation had continued for at least 30 seconds—perhaps a minute—a “pop and a hiss” indicated that the stainless steel reactor vessel had been breached, releasing its vacuum, at which point the reaction finally ceased and the Fusor cooled down.

It’s Frank’s contention that such an event could not have happened, and to make his case he sent me a link to a thread entitled “Can A Fusor Explode?”

The thread was prompted by a question that Steve Sesselman – another Fusor.net veteran (who, incidentally, pretty much holds down the Aussie contingent of the community) posted back in 2005 – more than ten years ago.   What follows is an interesting discussion of some of the inner workings of the fusor, and possibly the belying of some of the legends that surround the Farnsworth labs in the 60s.

See for yourself,  it’s just a couple of pages of posts, and it’s just a sample of some of the material that would go unseen if we don’t make an effort to pull it out.

So “watch this space” (actually, this category) for more such posts in the weeks ahead.

Do You Spend Much Time On Facebook?

FB-f-Logo_blue_530A question, I know, that for some people is like asking “do you spend much time breathing?

Well, no, not voluntarily….

If you are one of those people whose involuntary reflexes include frequent glances at the infinite trivia generator known as “Facebook,” then consider taking a look at the Fusor Builders group there.

The group is not officially affiliated with this or any other site (so far as I know) but a lot of the membership is similar.

Doug Coulter’s Solar Powered Star In A Jar

It is evident from the license plate of Doug's Chevy Volt (a mostly-electric vehicle, its batteries mostly charged by solar panels) what gets him up in the morning... and keeps him awake most of the day and night.

It is evident from the license plate of the Chevy Volt parked at the entrance to Doug Coulter’s homestead what gets him up in the morning… and keeps him awake most of the day and night.

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Last week I drove back up to Virginia (I was in Richmond for HEAS earlier in the month) to spend a day with Doug Coulter.

I’ve known of Doug for several years, and have occasionally looked in on his website, where he has made a concerted effort to focus and elevate the “open source” discussion of fusion above the noise that has become an issue for the Fusor.net fora of late.

Doug showed up on my radar again just before HEAS, after I posted this appeal to the Fusor community to, well, get serious about this line of inquiry.  Shortly after that post, I got a message from one of the regular visitors to the site to “have a talk with Bill Fain (another Fusor/HEAS regular) when you get there about Doug…”

At HEAS, I did talk to Bill, who, it turns out, has been working closely with Doug for quite some time on his fusor project, which Doug has been building for several years on his solar-powered, off-the-grid “homestead in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains near Floyd, Virginia.  And what Bill told me got me as fired up about this topic as anything I’ve heard since it first got my attention more than forty years ago.

After talking to Bill I visited Doug’s website, where he has been entirely forthcoming about some recent experiments (if somewhat and understandably circumspect about the techniques involved):

….we made a ginormous breakthrough, actually. We are at approximately 100 billion neutrons/second with under 100w input.

100 billion neutrons/second?? Whoa!  Jump back (literally and figuratively)!

Continue reading

And Now… The New York Times…


Yeah, I'm sure that'll work...

Yeah, I’m sure that’ll work…

..chimes in on the story we’ve been following for a couple of weeks, with it’s own story about

Start-Ups Take On Challenge of Nuclear Fusion 

This is pretty much old news, finally being reported in the nation’s “paper of record,” so I guess that makes it official:

“The fusion era is here and coming,” said William D. Lese, a managing partner at Braemar Energy Ventures, a venture capital firm with a stake in General Fusion, one of the leading start-ups in the field. “The increase in activity in this space is perhaps a sign of that.”

The statement that I find most intriguing is:

“They just keep pounding on the same dead horse,” said Edward C. Morse, a nuclear physicist at the University of California, Berkeley. “What happens in fusion is that the same ideas pop up every two decades. It’s like a game of whack-a-mole.”

It’s interesting because, while the tokamaks and stellarators and polywells keep popping up… the fusor that we’re experimenting with here just stays in its hole.

It’s all like some Jedi mind trick…


Fusion is SO Hot….

Screen Shot 2015-10-25 at 11.59.48 AM…it’s on the cover of TIME Magazine this week.

I discovered last night that the cover story of this coming week’s edition of TIME Magazine (dated Nov 2, 2015) is all about the quest for fusion – which is suddenly a hot topic now that it’s starting to attract all kinds of Silicon Valley, tech-titan, and VC money.

Unfortunately, the online version of the story is behind TIME.com’s paywall.  They don’t even let you view a limited number of articles per month, like most digital versions of legacy print media (like the New York Times) do.  They want you to subscribe for $3/mo to read the one article.

Well, pardon me but… fuck that.  Here’s a PDF of the story you can download and read at your leisure:  Time_Fusion.pdf. I suggest you save the article to your own hard drive lest some lawyer for TIME insist we take the link down.

There is some deliberate, conscientious rebelliousness to this act of digital defiance.

Those of us in the “Open Source” fusion community – on this and other sites – adhere to the conviction that, once achieved, the knowledge that makes fusion possible needs to be freely circulated.  It cannot be become the property of any single capitalist enterprise or consortium. It cannot be monopolized like fossil fuel production and distribution.  It should not be any more “proprietary” than that other form of combustion – you know, fire.

So, at the risk of defying the gods of digital commerce, this story is being made available to the “open source” fusion community here. 

You’re welcome.

It’s Not Exactly “Mr. Fusion”

Now, there's a scale that makes sense (even if it is based on a coffee grinder)

Now, there’s a scale that makes sense (even if it is based on a coffee grinder)

There’s been a lot in the cultural firmament this month about the second “Back To The Future” movie – the one where Marty and Doc Brown fly in the DeLorean time machine – now powered by a “Mr. Fusion” reactor – to the date of October, 21, 2015.  They arrive at a time where not only fusion power is a reality, but the Chicago Cubs have finally won a World Series.

So much for the predictive power of 1980s cinema.

So that was on my mind when my daily, multi-source info-feed delivered this article from LinkedIn:

ITER Is Not On A Commercially Viable Path – by Dr. Matthew Moynihan (on LinkedIn).

And what immediately struck me about the article (before I read it, of course) was this illustration that accompanies it:


I’ve been critical of the whole tokamak approach to fusion on the grounds that the approach produces massive, incredibly complex machines could fill a gymnasium.  I only arrive at this obviously negative (and perhaps ill-informed, since I’m hardly anybody’s idea of an expert) bias because my introduction to the subject comes by way of the Farnsworth Fusor, a device that sits on a table top.

Now comes the world’s joint effort to demonstrate magnetic containment – yes, another ginormous tokamak, only this time the largest one ever built, on a scale several orders of magnitude beyond anything that preceded it.

And just look at this photo of the campus that will house this behemoth.  My god, it’s not a gymnasium, it’s a whole fucking city!!  For one experimental reactor!!!

The  article makes a pretty solid case for why this project is little more than a monumental money pit.

Clearly ITER itself will never be commercial.  Supporters will argue: So what? ITER is a government experiment – not a commercial product – the next machine will work.”  There are several evils in this logic.  First, if you admit that ITER is not on the commercial path then stop treating it like it is.  Fund this experiment appropriately along with other experimental options; but do not risk everything on ITER.  That is a bet we already know will fail.  Secondly, delaying the change pushes the world into more dangerous climate realities, with a fusion option further and further away.  This is a dangerous path and it must change for humanity’s sake.

 So, yeah, it’s frustrating to see countless billions being poured down a rat hole when smaller scale projects don’t get serious consideration.  There is a mentality around this research that says “it has to be big.”

No, it doesn’t.

But that’s the mentality that governs the whole field.

And that’s what needs to change.

Oh Boy, More Tokamaks!

I have been taking exception lately to the notion that “Fusion is the energy of the future and always will be.”

For starters, while the line is clever verbiation (don’t bother looking it up, I just made that one up), it is also something of a self-defeating prophesy.

As the protagonist (who just happens to be a dog named “Enzo”) in the novel “The Art of Racing In The Rain” is fond of saying, “that which we manifest is before us.”  In other words, if that’s what you think is true, then, well, by golly… it probably is. For you.

But I get where such skepticism comes from when I read an article like this one that showed up in my Google Alerts (“nuclear fusion”) this morning:

The magnetic fusion device, tokamak, has been a focus for extensive research the world over, and will emerge as the energy option of the future by 2050. Tokamak aims to determine the economic and technological viability of using fusion energy to greater effect to produce electricity.

Did I read that right? “…will emerge as the energy option of the future by 2050…”? Well there ya go, it’ll be in the future… in the future.

Since so much of the research in fusion is devoted to tokamaks, I begin to understand where the attitude comes from.  Whatever their “potential,” tokamaks are so complex that it seems doubtful to me (admittedly a marginally knowledgeable observer) that they will ever achieve “economic and technological viability.” So yeah, sure, maybe the Tokamak will prove viable in another 35 years. Never mind that we’ve already been working with that approach for 50…

Perhaps more revealing is the statement that opens the article:

The Department of Atomic Energy has handpicked a Thapar University scientist to work on a prestigious nuclear fusion program…

I think that tells you all you need to know about institutional magnetic fusion projects.  They’re not about energy.  They’re about prestige.

The Future’s So Bright…

… we really are going to need shades…

Imagine being dropped into the middle of an episode of “The Big Bang Theory.” Then imagine taking LSD. Then imagine that the episode runs for like 12 or 14 hours…

Now you’ve got some idea what this past Saturday was like for me…

The occasion was the 26th annual gathering of HEAS – The High Energy Amateur Science group – a loose-nit gang of high voltage, radiation, and fringe science enthusiasts from all over the country who gather at the home and lab of Richard Hull in Richmond Virginia to talk gizmos.

This was my fourth or fifth time attending this event, but even so I felt woefully “out of my league.” I attended because this is the best chance I have every year to visit with the people who inhabit Fusor.net – the site I started back in 1998 to foster discussion among people who are interested in Philo T. Farnsworth’s approach to nuclear fusion.

I felt out of place, but there I was…

I think the tone of the weekend was set early on, when I was chatting with an 18 year old from Seattle named Noah Hoppis, who pulled a small – wait for it – geiger counter! out of his pocket.  He proceeded to explain how it works, how he got it, what he does with it, etc.

Noah was there with an older friend of his family, a woman named Linda who lives in the area and was providing transportation for the weekend.  I watched as Linda’s eyes glazed over, and at one point she said, “I understand all the individual words, but once he starts stringing them together…. he loses me.”

Which is pretty much how I felt the entire day.

I am at best marginally conversant in these questions of advanced science and physics.  Remember, I’m the guy who basically got flunked out of physics in high-school because I was a pain in the ass for the teacher.  That was in the 11th grade, and I spent the semester in the principals office pulling wires out of an early kind of computer circuit board.  The symbolism is pretty rich…

Despite my failure in any kind of academic scientific pursuit, I have some capacity for staying tuned in long enough to get a sense of the big picture, and maybe even some talent for distilliing the Broad Concepts into language that the average reader can comprehend.  I’ve done it in two books, and occasionally somebody will tell me “you said that pretty clearly” or words to that effect.  I smile and think to myself, “fooled ‘em again…”

So I spent the first two hours being a million miles – light years? – out of my comfort zone… thinking, “I have no business being here.”

After a few hours of that, I finally settled down and got my camera out and started taking some pictures.

First, here is Richard Hull himself, as his fusor runs on the apparatus around him.  Just over his left shoulder is the fusion chamber itself, and over his right shoulder is the video image of the actual “star in a a jar” reaction inside that chamber:


Now, of course, the reaction that Richard has created is pretty “low yield.”  1-2 million neutrons emitted per second may sound like a lot, but that level is safe to be in the same room with.  Exponentially, that yield is expressed as 1x10E6 (1 times ten-to-the-sixth) “Breakeven” for a system like this is predicted to occur somewhere between 10E12 and 10E14. Let me do the math for you: that would be somewhere between 10 and 100 TRILLION neutrons per second.  We ain’t there yet.

But fear not.  Here’s my favorite single photo of the weekend:


This is Scott Moroch and Jack Rosky, two students at a high school in Wayne New Jersey who are building – yes – their ow nuclear fusion reactor.   What Scott is holding in his hand is a model of the fusion chamber they plan to build that they rendered in a 3D printer. The model is plastic, the real thing will be stainless steel (and considerably larger).  Now THAT’s using new technology to create new technology…

Finally, my favorite demonstration of the weekend:


….where in Robert Tubbs looks on and assists as Dr. Kevin Dunn from the Hampton-Sidney College in Virginia demonstrates a form of “Caveman Chemistry” – namely a prehistoric chemical process called “fire.”

Conducted in the presence of the Fusor, it’s an intriguing juxtaposition of “Fire Version One” with “Fire Version 2.” Kevin made the point that “civilization” essentially begins with the discovery and control of “Fire v1.0″ What becomes of “civilization” if/when we finally control “Fire v2.0″?

And, not surprisingly, it is no easy feat to make fire from two pieces of wood. It takes some coordination to rapidly and repeatedly pull the bow back and forth to spin the spindle while pressing the spindle down against the second piece of wood.   It takes a bit of practice and perseverance to get the hang of it.

And I’m sure that, back at the beginning of time, there was one caveman telling the other caveman, “fire from two pieces of wood?!? That’s NEVER gonna work!”

And yet…

Watching these young guys try their hand at making fire – and knowing that they would go home to resume their efforts to build and operate a fusion reactor, I came up with this new rule: You’re not aloud to make “nuclear fire” until you have demonstrated that you are capable of making “carbon fire.”

You know, first things first…