Category - farnovision

Apollo 11 +50:
Please Remember This Man, Too

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

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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:

  • Farnsworth was 14 years old in the summer of 1921 when he first dreamed of transmitting moving pictures, one line at a time, on a magnetically deflected beam of electrons from the bottom of one vacuum bottle to the bottom of another;
  • In the winter of 1922, he drew a sketch of his idea for his high school science teacher in Rigby, Idaho.  Arguably, every video screen on the planet – including the one you are looking at now  can trace its origins to that sketch;
  • In 1926 – After sitting on the idea for four years Farnsworth was set up in a laboratory in San Francisco with sufficient “venture capital” to begin experimenting with his ideas and fabricating the first television tubes;
  • On September 7, 1927, with his wife and a handful of colleagues at his side, Farnsworth successfully transmitted the image of a rotating line from his “Image Dissector” tube to cathode ray tube receiver in an adjoining room.  If you need a date when television actually arrived on the planet, that’s a date.  It should be in the annals of human evolution along with Apollo 11’s touchdown on July 20, 1969,
  • In the summer of 1930, Farnsworth was granted the seminal patents for the art that made fully electronic television possible.  His patents became the technical cornerstone of a new industry.
  • He fought through the 1930s with David Sarnoff and the Radio Corporation of America over the ownership of those patents;
  • In 1939, RCA capitulated, accepting a license and making Farnsworth the first inventor ever paid patent royalties by RCA;
  • As his invention spread across the land in the late 1940s and 50s, Farnsworth went on to other pursuits: most notably, a nuclear fusion process.  Prototype devices were tested in the 1960s. 50 years later, nobody with knowledge of the field can say categorically whether or not the Farnsworth Fusor showed the way toward a clean, safe, and essentially limitless supply of energy from the same reaction that powers the sun and stars;
  • By the time he appeared as a mystery guest on the TeeVee quiz show “I’ve Got A Secret” in 1957, none or the panelists recognized or knew the name whose invention had made their jobs possible.

All of this is recounted in my Farnsworth biography, The Boy Who Invented Television: A Tale of Inspiration, Persistence, and Quiet Passion (Amazon),

The last part of this tale – and Farnsworth’s own experience with Apollo 11 – has been retold in the final chapter of the book, which I have posted to Medium.com in time for the 50th anniversary of the first lunar landing.

Please follow this link to read that chapter and follow some additional links to web-stuff about the Philo T. Farnsworth, whose forgotten genius is rekindled every time we look at a video screen.

Like you are doing right fucking NOW.

 

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:

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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: 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:

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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:

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

….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.

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…

 

Bezos, Thiel, Allen and Musk: You’re Going To Need A Bigger Boat

Captains of Industry, in search of a Bigger Boat

As I was getting ready to spend this past weekend with “the science nerds” in Richmond VA, I read this article in Forbes.com:

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.

…which set me to thinking about my own experience with the subject of “fusion,” and I posted this reply to Medium.com:

Bezos, Thiel, Allen and Musk:
You’re Going To Need A Bigger Boat

Point being, not so much that they need a “bigger” boat – I think those guys are already starting to grasp that – but that they may have already missed the boat that was carrying the cargo for which they seek.

I know, slightly “off topic” from my usual fare, but that’s what’s occupying my imagination this week…

@NYTimesDowd: Missing the Details -v- Missing The Point

Dowd_New-articleInlineSo at least Maureen Dowd agrees with me that things get dicey when Hollywood justifies rearranging established facts with the rationale that fact-twisting serves some auteur’s  artistic purpose.

In her column in Sunday’s New York Times, Ms. Dowd takes screenwriter Tony Kushner and Director Stephen Spielberg to task for their version of the vote on the 13th Amendment in their movie Lincoln:

Hollywood always wants it both ways, of course, but this Oscar season is rife with contenders who bank on the authenticity of their films until it’s challenged, and then fall back on the “Hey, it’s just a movie” defense…

…And then there’s the kerfuffle over “Lincoln,” which had three historical advisers but still managed to make some historical bloopers. Joe Courtney, a Democratic congressman from Connecticut, recently wrote to Steven Spielberg to complain that “Lincoln” falsely showed two of Connecticut’s House members voting “Nay” against the 13th Amendment for the abolition of slavery…

…I’m a princess-and-the-pea on this issue, but I think Spielberg should refilm the scene or dub in “Illinois” for “Connecticut” before he sends out his DVDs and leaves students everywhere thinking the Nutmeg State is nutty.

Maureen’s feathers were ruffled by the rearranging of some the historical details in Oscar contenders Lincoln, Argo, and Zero Dark Thirty, which the various filmmakers all rationalize as within the bounds of dramatic license.  She quotes Lincoln screenwriter Tony Kushner:

He said that in historical movies, as opposed to history books where you go for “a blow-by-blow account,” it is completely acceptable to “manipulate a small detail in the service of a greater historical truth. History doesn’t always organize itself according to the rules of drama.

OK, so Kushner and his colleagues think it’s OK to make stuff up on the fringes if it ultimately serves the heart of the story.  I suppose that’s arguable.

But when Maureen quotes Kushner speaking of manipulating “a small detail,” I can’t help but wonder what she would think of Aaron Sorkin (whom she dated in some past life), who twisted historical facts in The Farnsworth Invention to the point of missing the point altogether.

The true story of the origins of television – and the unbridled genius who first delivered it unto this world out of his 14 year old brain – has long been obscured by a veil of corporate intrigue and denial.

So it was exciting to learn a couple of weeks ago that the veil would be lifted some, now that the Television in Academy in Hollywood has posthumously elected Philo T. Farnsworth to its Hall of Fame.

Now guess who the Academy has asked to present the induction to the Farnsworth family at a banquet in Hollywood next month.  Why, none other than Aaron Sorkin!

Should be very interesting. I have received an invitation and my flight is booked.  I can hardly wait.