Locklin on science

Mormon nuclear fusion

Posted in Design, energy by Scott Locklin on July 2, 2013

Most of you have never heard of Philo T. Farnsworth. Philo T. Farnsworth is famous for never getting credit for inventing the Television machine.  I never thought Television was particularly interesting (either as a device, or in any other way), though I have to admit, the Television machine is a pretty impressive accomplishment for a 14 year old farm-boy Mormon. Even more impressive was his successful attempt to build a fusion machine.


Farnsworth, like all good inventors, took a workman like approach to nuclear fusion. Thousands of morons (as opposed to Mormons) in the scientific establishment have been trying for literally, decades, to the tune of hundreds of billions of dollars, to achieve what Farnsworth did, using what amounts to a pile of junk.  His solution is still considered pretty  good, and if it were given a fair trial, it might even beat the billion dollar efforts out there in achieving break-even (aka as much fusion energy out as was put in). The Navy recently revived the idea in the form of “Polywell Fusion.” It’s so simple, anyone can build a Farnsworth Fusor in his basement; there are websites devoted to hobbyist efforts. Kids regularly build these things for science fair projects. That’s how dumb and easy they are. The most complicated thing about them is the vacuum pump they use.


The “big science” buffoons use magnetic confinement; a copy of a Soviet idea that never went anywhere. You end up with a giant toroidal machine, with megawatts of energy going to keep the fusion plasma contained in place. Farnsworth’s idea just used some rings of metal to more or less passively keep the ionized fluid in place. It’s such a simple device, you could construct one out of TV and refrigerator parts, with the electrostatic rings made of old coat hangers. Such machines are used commercially as neutron sources, as they produce lots of fusion reactions (though nowhere near breakeven thus far).


Farnsworth was probably the last great American inventor. I’d like to think there will be great inventing men to come after him, but I’m pretty sure it won’t happen here any more, as the continuity is gone. Independent inventing men like Edison, Tesla and the Maxim brothers are part of America’s tradition; Farnsworth was the last of the great ones. Now we think of men as inventors when they write some crap piece of software. Farnsworth was uneducated by modern lights; only a few years of college. He was an actual farm boy, and he thought of television while ploughing the fields. TV is a rastering process, like ploughing fields. Yet, he invented all manner of machines, as well as being an accomplished mathematician.

Why won’t there be any more like him? The tinkering mentality is gone. Guys from the midwest  in the early 20th century were tinkerers who fixed things because they had to in those days. You can’t really understand physical reality by screwing around with CAD and computer models. You can only understand physical reality by, well, tinkering with it. My pal Rodrigo recently sent me a Tom Wolfe essay (about Intel’s Bob Noyce, primarily) which illustrates the point, and also demonstrates why modern bureaucratic space flight is such a galloping failure:

The engineers who fulfilled one of man’s most ancient dreams, that of traveling to the moon, came from the same background, the small towns of the Midwest and the West. After the triumph of Apollo 11, when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first mortals to walk on the moon, NASA’s administrator, Tom Paine, happened to remark in conversation: “This was the triumph of the squares. ” A reporter overheard him; and did the press ever have a time with that! But Paine had come up with a penetrating insight. As it says in the Book of Matthew, the last shall be first. It was engineers from the supposedly backward and narrow-minded boondocks who had provided not only the genius but also the passion and the daring that won the space race and carried out John F. Kennedy’s exhortation, back in 1961. to put a man on the moon “before this decade is out.” The passion and the daring of these engineers was as remarkable as their talent. Time after time they had to shake off the meddling hands of timid souls from back east. The contribution of MIT to Project Mercury was minus one. The minus one was Jerome Wiesner of the MIT electronic research lab who was brought in by Kennedy as a special adviser to straighten out the space program when it seemed to be faltering early in 1961. Wiesner kept flinching when he saw what NASA’s boondockers were preparing to do. He tried to persuade to forfeit the manned space race to the Soviets and concentrate instead on unmanned scientific missions. The boondockers of Project Mercury, starting with the project’s director, Bob Gilruth, an aeronautical engineer from Nashwauk, Minnesota, dodged Wiesner for months, like moonshiners evading a roadblock, until they got astronaut Alan Shepard launched on the first Mercury mission. Who had time to waste on players as behind the times as Jerome Wiesner and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology…out here on technology’s leading edge?

Just why was it that small-town boys from the Middle West dominated the engineering frontiers? Noyce concluded it was because in a small town you became a technician, a tinker, an engineer, and an and inventor, by necessity.


Of course, Farnsworth was hounded by scumbags for most of his life. David Sarnoff, the evil weasel who founded NBC, and early patent troll, attempted to sue Farnsworth to penury. He ultimately failed in this endeavor, though the mind reels at the injustice of a towering genius like Farnsworth having to pay any attention to such nonsense. Who knows what wonders Farnsworth may have come up with had he been free to pursue his interests, rather than being tied up in pointless patent disputes with sleazeballs?

Consider Philo Farnsworth the next time someone tells you we live in an era of scientific progress. Where are our Philo Farnsworths today? They certainly aren’t laboring in a make work program in some government lab, nor do they seem to be inventing anything particularly interesting.





https://www.neco.navy.mil/synopsis_file/N6893609C0125%20_Redacted_JA.pdf (the navy can’t update their security certs, apparently).

14 Responses

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  1. sherwoodr said, on July 2, 2013 at 11:08 am

    Now I’ll never be able to watch TV without imagining a little Farnsworth behind a mule ploughing pictures onto my screen.

  2. blackswanmedia said, on July 2, 2013 at 2:19 pm

    the Farnsworths of tomorrow aren’t boys at all: http://phys.org/news/2013-07-student-flashlight-body-batteries.html

    • Scott Locklin said, on July 2, 2013 at 6:58 pm

      If our lionized next generation of inventors is … plugging a Peltier junction into an LED and calling that an invention:

  3. Lee Gomes said, on July 3, 2013 at 2:40 am

    I wonder if you aren’t being unfair to the boring old farts who do the bureaucratic “basic” science that give tinkerers like Farnsworth the empirical infrastructure with which to tinker. Edison got his start in telegraphy; where would that field have been without people like Maxwell, who was no one’s idea of an entrepreneur? This is an issue with considerable “policy implications;” we can’t starve basic research funding and expect tinkerers and basement inventors to come to our rescue. (The research paper that laid the groundwork for Page Rank, and thus Google, was funded by the National Science Foundation. And Bob Noyce and the Intel crew, and Fairchild Semiconductor before them, were quite happy to accept DARPA money while they worked the bugs out of their chip-making process, something Tom Wolfe neglects to mention. Noyce, Moore and the others who founded Intel also benefitted enormously from the work done at Bell Labs, whose limitless budget was made possible only because AT&T had a federally-sanctioned monopoly on telecommunications; the Labs were a kind of de facto NIST.) You’re quite right that there is a tendency by Congress and the executive branch, when funding “basic” research, to continue to plow money into bloated non-starters like fusion. But perhaps in the scheme of things, this is a relatively small bug in a program that otherwise has enormous social benefit. In any case, please write more about dolphin language.

    • Scott Locklin said, on July 3, 2013 at 2:54 am

      Well, Maxwell did his basic research without any government funding I know about, beyond his teaching stipend. Government funding got us 30 years and thousands of string theorists whose scientific output has been nil. I can think of a hundred projects more mathematically interesting and less pointless and talmudic than noodle theory.
      It’s true governments should fund some basic research and crazy long term projects like the manned space program. I just think the system doesn’t work very well these days, and I don’t think any young researcher should waste his time working on such projects just because “it’s a living.” Being coauthor number 1598 on the Higgs paper is horse shit, and a waste of human potential, even if you did something technically difficult. Figuring out what the ants are talking about: not horse shit.

    • Scott Locklin said, on July 3, 2013 at 3:02 am

      Oh yeah, here’s a scoop for you: google on tri-alpha energy. Privately funded fusion startup. I’ll eventually decode their patents on here, but they’re doing something very clever which might change everything.

  4. Lee Gomes said, on July 3, 2013 at 3:04 pm

    The LHC Atlas paper announcing the Higgs-like discovery had 2,932 authors, according to Windows cut and paste and Microsoft Excel. Author 1,598 was W.F. Mader, listed with the Institut für Kern- und Teilchenphysik, Technical University Dresden, Dresden, Germany. I wonder what Prof. Mader thinks about his contributions being called “horse shit” and “a waste of human potential.” Clearly, YOU aren’t temperamentally suited for this sort of work, and forcing you to engage in it would indeed be a waste of your considerable human potential. But I wonder about projecting that on to everyone else, and disparaging science that doesn’t involve a plucky researcher working alone. And while you seem to like the space program, had it published papers, there would have been thousands of co-authors for those, too.
    But I still want to read more here about animal language, including about the role that statistical techniques like Zipf’s Law might play in teasing out whether a communication system is or is not a “language.” And I Googled Tri-Star Energy, and await your further reporting on the matter. A change-the-world energy company funded in part by Hollywood actor Harry Hamlin; that sounds like the sort of Kickstarter project whose jugular would not long survive an encounter with Locklin on Science. The fact that you seem to think they may be on to something is remarkable indeed. Please keep us posted!

    • Scott Locklin said, on July 3, 2013 at 8:33 pm

      Well, you could always ask him: I don’t mind, though you might make him feel bad. As I pointed out in Takimag, the most recent Higgs result is incredibly boring (the result was boring in the 70s when it was previously more or less verified), and indeed, anyone whose career was dedicated to it wasted his time. I’m pretty sure Phil Anderson (who invented the “Higgs” mechanism -Higgs made it relativistic), and who won the Nobel for something else thinks it is a waste of time also. He wrote a great essay called “More is Different,” expanded into a book, more or less advocating for more small science and less reductionist bullshit, because reductionist bullshit has gotten us exactly nowhere in the last 50 years.

      Tri-alpha is funded by serious people (I think in the billion range for the latest round), and the patents and principal employees are all legit.

      Find me a guy with a dolphin vocalization database, and I’ll write about what I find in it. Thus far, nobody I found on google wants to share.

  5. Russell Seitz said, on September 26, 2013 at 12:40 pm

    “. Such machines are used commercially as neutron sources, as they produce lots of fusion reactions (though nowhere near breakeven thus far).”

    “lots of fusion reactions …….”

    Scott, could you be a half dozen or so orders of magnitude more specific?

    Cold Fusion has proved an utter crock, and the glow discharge illustrated isn’t even warm by astrophysical standards, so how about giving us a plain vanila peer reviewed reference ?

    • Scott Locklin said, on September 26, 2013 at 4:17 pm

      Sure: here’s a commercial neutron source you can buy: it is a fusor reactor:

      Here’s Farnsworth’s patent, if that’s “peer reviewed” enough for you:
      Here’s Bussard’s paper: http://pop.aip.org/resource/1/phpaen/v2/i1/p146_s1?isAuthorized=no
      The above linked Navy doc also has plenty of background in the technology.

      As for you apparently not believing the Fusor generates neutrons, there are ample peer reviewed sources you can go look at on the wikipedia page. I don’t know why you’re referring to this as “cold” fusion. If you stuck your tongue on a plasma of that temperature you wouldn’t call it cold.

  6. thenorsewind@gmail.com said, on October 19, 2014 at 6:25 am

    You might want to take a look at this: http://aviationweek.com/technology/skunk-works-reveals-compact-fusion-reactor-details

  7. Maury Markowitz said, on June 23, 2015 at 11:37 am

    “His solution is still considered pretty good, and if it were given a fair trial, it might even beat the billion dollar efforts out there in achieving break-even”

    No, it won’t.

    Given our backgrounds are *very* similar, maybe take me more seriously than the average internet commenter. And I’m just as sceptical of the large fusion devices as you are.

    Google Todd Rider. Rider, who I last talked to shortly after he wrote the paper in question, spelled it out for me in detail. Non-equlibrium fusion systems will not work. Even the abstract is pretty clear on this:


    • Scott Locklin said, on June 24, 2015 at 4:15 am

      It would be great if someone were to do that to, say, laser inertial confinement or tokomaks, which pretty obviously suffer from similar difficulties considering their 40 year track record of over promising and complete failure to deliver, to the tune of 10s or 100s of billions invested. For all I know, somebody has, though governments continue to invest in these failed technologies.

      • Maury Markowitz said, on August 30, 2016 at 1:15 pm

        “do that to, say, laser inertial confinement or tokamaks”

        Rider did that from a technical side and there appears to be no *theoretical* problem, at least in energy terms.

        But from an economic standpoint, it’s already dead and everyone outside the fusion labs has known this for decades:


        There are papers from major players in the 1970s that state very clearly that large reactors will *never* be economically attractive. And that’s when they thought that you didn’t need all the superconducting magnets and control systems modern designs have, which make it much worse.

        Simply put, fusion is never going to happen as a power source. Other systems are, and since they share parts, always will be cheaper than any fusion system you can ever build. Ever.

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