Tesla - The Greatest Hacker of all Time
by Dave Small © 1987 Reprinted from Current Notes magazine.
The question comes up from time to time. "Who's the greatest hacker ever? "Well, there's a lot of different opinions on this. Some say Steve Wozniak of Apple II fame. Maybe Andy Hertzfeld of the Mac operating system. Richard Stallman, say others, of MIT. Yet at such times when I mention who I think the greatest hacker is, everyone agrees (provided they know of him), and there's no further argument. So, let me introduce you to him, and his greatest hack. I'll warn you right up front that it's mind numbing. By the way, everything I'm going to tell you is true and verifiable down at your local library. Don't worry -- we're not heading off into a Shirley MacLaine UFO-land story. Just some classy electrical engineering...
THE SCENE: COLORADO SPRINGS, CO.
Colorado Springs is in southern Colorado, about 70 mile south of Denver. These days it is known as the home of several optical disk research corporations and of NORAD, the missile defense command under Cheyenne Mountain. (I have a personal interest in Colorado Springs; my wife Sandy grew up there.) These events took place some time ago in Colorado Springs. A scientist had moved into town and set up a laboratory on Hill Street, on the southern outskirts. The lab had a two hundred foot copper antenna sticking up out of it, looking something like a HAM radio enthusiast's antenna. He moved in and started work. And strange electrical things happened near that lab. People would walk near the lab, and sparks would jump up from the ground to their feet, through the soles of their shoes. One boy took a screwdriver, held it near a fire hydrant, and drew a four inch electrical spark from the hydrant. Sometimes the grass around his lab would glow with an eerie blue corona, St. Elmo's Fire. What they didn't know was this was small stuff. The man in the lab was merely tuning up his apparatus. He was getting ready to run it wide open in an experiment that ranks as among the greatest, and most spectacular, of all time. One side effect of his experiment was the setting of the record for man-made lightning: some 42 meters in length (130 feet).
THE MAN: NIKOLA TESLA.
His name was Nikola Tesla. He was an immigrant from what is now Yugoslavia; there's a museum of his works in Belgrade. He's a virtual unknown in the United States, despite his accomplishments. I'm not sure why. Some people feel it's a dark plot, the same people who are into conspiracy theories. I feel it's more that Tesla, while a brilliant inventor, was also an awful businessman; he ended up going broke. Businessmen who go broke fade out of the public eye; we see this in the computer industry all the time. Edison, who wasn't near the inventor Tesla was, but who was a better businessman, is well remembered as is his General Electric. Still, let me list a few of Tesla's works just so you'll understand how bright he was. He invented the AC motor and transformer. (Think of every motor in your house.) He invented 3-phase electricity and popularized alternating current, the electrical distribution system used all over the world. He invented the Tesla Coil, which makes the high voltage that drives the picture tube in your computer's CRT. He is now credited with inventing modern radio as well; the Supreme Court overturned Marconi's patent in 1943 in favor of Tesla.
Tesla, in short, invented much of the equipment that gets power to your home every day from miles away, and many that use that power inside your home. His inventions made George Westinghouse (Westinghouse Corp.) a wealthy man. Finally, the unit of magnetic flux in the metric system is the "tesla". Other units include the "faraday" and the "henry", so you'll understand this is an honor given to few. So we're not talking about an unknown here, but rather a solid electrical engineer. Tesla whipped through a number of inventions early in his life. He found himself increasingly interested in resonance, and in particular, electrical resonance. Tesla found out something fascinating. If you set an electrical circuit to resonating, it does strange things indeed. Take for instance his Tesla Coil. This high frequency step-up transformer would kick out a few hundred thousand volts at radio frequencies. The voltage would come off the top of his coil as a "corona", or brush discharge. The little ones put out a six-inch spark; the big ones throw sparks many feet long. Yet Tesla could draw the sparks to his fingers without being hurt -- the high frequency of the electricity keeps it on the surface of the skin, and prevents the current from doing any harm. Tesla got to thinking about resonance on a large scale. He'd already pioneered the electrical distribution system we use today, and that's not small thinking; when you think of Tesla, think big. He thought, let's say I send an electrical charge into the ground. What happens to it? Well, the ground is an excellent conductor of electricity.
Let me spend a moment on this so you understand, because topsoil doesn't seem very conductive to most. The ground makes a wonderful sinkhole for electricity. This is why you "ground" power tools; the third (round) pin in every AC outlet in your house is wired straight to, literally, the ground.
Typically, the handle of your power tool is hooked to ground this way, if something shorts out in the tool and the handle gets electrified,the current ruches to the ground instead of into you. The ground has long been used in this manner, as a conductor.
Tesla generates a powerful pulse of electricity, and drains it into the ground. Because the ground is conductive, it doesn't stop. Rather, it spreads out like a radio wave, traveling at the speed of light, 186,000 miles per second. And it keeps going, because it's a powerful wave; it doesn't peter out after a few miles. It passes through the iron core of the earth with little trouble. After all, molten iron is very conductive. When the wave reaches the far side of the planet, it bounces back, like a wave in water bounces when it reaches an obstruction. Since it bounces, it makes a return trip; eventually, it returns to the point of origin. Now, this idea might seem wild. But it isn't science fiction. We bounced radar beams off the moon in the 1950's, and we mapped Venus by radar in the 1970's. Those planets are millions of miles away. The earth is a mere 3000 miles in diameter; sending an electromagnetic wave through it is a piece of cake. We can sense earthquakes all the way across the planet by the vibrations they set up that travel all that distance. So, while at first thought it seems amazing, it's really pretty straight forward. But, as I said, it's a typical example of how Tesla thought. And then he had one of his typically Tesla ideas.
He thought, when the wave returns to me (about 1/30th of a second after he sends it in), it's going to be considerably weakened by the trip. Why doesn't he send in another charge at this point, to strengthen the wave? The two will combine, go out, and bounce again. And then he'll reinforce it again, and again. The wave will build up in power. It's like pushing a swingset. You give a series of small pushes each time the swing goes out. And you build up a lot of power with a series of small pushes; ever tried to stop a swing when it's going full tilt? He wanted to find out the upper limit of resonance. And he was in for a surprise.
THE HACK: THE TESLA COIL
So Tesla moved into Colorado Springs, where one of his generators and electrical systems had been installed, and set up his lab. Why Colorado Springs? Well, his lab in New York had burned down, and he was depressed about that. And as fate would have it, a friend in Colorado Springs who directed the power company, Leonard Curtis, offered him free electricity. Who could resist that? After setting up his lab, he tuned his gigantic Tesla coil through that year, trying to get it to resonate perfectly with the earth below. And the townspeople noticed those weird effects; Tesla was electrifying the ground beneath their feet on the return bounce of the wave. Eventually, he got it tuned, keeping things at low power. But in the spirit of a true hacker, just once he decided to run it wide open, just to see what would happen. Just what was the upper limit of the wave he would build up, bouncing back and forth in the planet below? He had his Coil hooked to the ground below it, the 200 foot antenna above it, and getting as much electricity as he wanted right off the city power supply mains. Tesla went outside to watch (wearing three inch rubber soles for insulation) and had his assistant, Kolman Czito, turn the Coil on. There was a buzz from rows of oil capacitors, and a roar from the spark gap as wrist-thick arcs jumped across it. Inside the lab the noise was deafening. But Tesla was outside, watching the antenna. Any surge that returned to the area would run up the antenna and jump off as lightning. Off the top of the antenna shot a six foot lightning bolt. The bolt kept going in a steady arc, though, unlike a single lightning flash. And here Tesla watched carefully, for he wanted to see if the power would build up, if his wave theory would work. Soon the lightning was twenty feet long, then fifty. The surges were growing more powerful. Eighty feet -- now thunder was following each lightning bolt. A hundred feet, a hundred twenty feet; the lightning shot upwards off the antenna. Thunder was heard booming around Tesla now (it was heard 22 miles away, in the town of Cripple Creek). The meadow Tesla was standing in was lit up with an electrical discharge very much like St. Elmo's Fire, casting a blue glow. His theory had worked! There didn't seem to be an upper limit to the surges; he was creating the most powerful electrical surges ever created by man. That moment he set the record, which he still holds, for manmade lightning. Then everything halted. The lightning discharges stopped, the thunder quit. He ran in, found the power company had turned off his power feed. He called them, shouted at them -- they were interrupting his experiment! The foreman replied that Tesla had just overloaded the generator and set it on fire, his lads were busy putting out the fire in the windings, and it would be a cold day in hell before Tesla got any more free power from the Colorado Springs power company!
All the lights in Colorado Springs had gone out. And that, readers, is to me the greatest hack in history. I've seen some amazing hacks. The 8-bit Atari OS. The Mac OS. The phone company computers -- well, lots of computers. But I've never seen anyone set the world's lightning record and shut off the power to an entire town, "just to see what would happen". For a few moments, there in Colorado Springs, he achieved something never before done. He had used the entire planet as a conductor, and sent a pulse through it. In that one moment in the summer of 1899, he made electrical history. That's right, in 1899 -- darn near a hundred years ago. Well, you may say to yourself, that's a nice story, and I'm sure George Lucas could make a hell of a move about it, special effects and all. But it's not relevant today. Or isn't it? Hang on to your hat.
THE SDI AND THE TESLA COIL
Last month we talked about an amazing hack that Nikola Tesla did -- bouncing an electrical wave through the planet, in 1899, and setting the world's record for manmade lightning. This month,let me lay a little political groundwork. Last October I attended Hackercon 2.0, another gathering of computer hackers from all over. It was an informal weekend at a camp in the hills west of Santa Clara. One of the more interesting memories of Hackers 2.0 were the numerous diatribes against the Strategic Defense Initiative. Most speakers claimed it was impossible, citing technical problems. So many people felt obligated to complain about SDI that the conference was jokingly called "SDIcon 2.0". Probably the high(?) point of the conference was Jerry Pournelle and Timothy Leary up on stage debating SDI. I'll leave the description to your imagination -- it was everything you can think of and more. Personally, I was disturbed to see how many gifted hackers adopting the attitude of "let's not even try". That's not how micros got started. I mentioned to one
Time magazine journalist that if anyone could make SDI go, it was the hackers gathered there. I also believe that the greatest hacker of them all, Nikola Tesla, solved the SDI technical problem back in 1899. The event was so long ago, and so amazing, that it's pretty much been forgotten; I described it last issue. Let me present my case for the Tesla Coil and SDI.
SOVIET USE OF THE TESLA COIL
You will recall I said that Tesla was born in Yugoslavia (although back then, it was "Serbo-Croatia"). He is not unknown there; he is regarded as a national hero. Witness the Nikola Tesla museum in Belgrade, for instance. There's been interferences picked up, on this side of the planet, which is causing problems in the ham radio bands. Direction finding equipment has traced the interference in the SW band to two sources in the Soviet Union, which are apparently two high powered Tesla Coils. Why on earth are the Soviets playing with Tesla Coils? There's one odd theory that they're subjecting Canada to low level electrical interference to cause attitude change. Sigh. Moving right along, there's another theory, more credible, that they are conducting research in "over the horizon" radar using Tesla's ideas. (The Soviets are certainly not saying what they're doing.) When I read about this testing, it worried me. I don't think they're playing with attitude control or radar. I think they're doing exactly what Tesla did in Colorado Springs.
COMPUTERS AND GROUNDING
Time for another discussion of grounding. Consider your computer equipment. You've doubtlessly been warned about static electricity, always been told to ground yourself (thus discharging the static into the ground, an electrical sinkhole) before touching your computer. Companies make anti-static spray for your rugs. Static is in the 20,000 to 50,000 volt range. Computer chips run on five to twelve volts. The internal insulation is built for that much voltage. When they get a shot of static in the multiple thousand volt range, the insulation is punctured, and the chip ruined. Countless computers have been damaged this way. Read any manual on inserting memory chips to a PC, and you'll see warnings about static; it's a big problem. Now Tesla was working in the millions of volts range. And his special idea -- that the ground itself could be the conductor -- now comes into relevance, nearly a hundred years after his dramatic demonstration in Colorado Springs. For, you see, in our wisdom we've grounded our many computers, to protect them from static. We've always assumed the ground is an electrical sinkhole. So, with our three-pin plugs we ground everything -- the two flat pins in your wall go to electricity (hot and neutral); the third, round pin, goes straight to ground. That third pin is usually hooked with a thick wire to a cold water pipe, which grounds it effectively. Tesla proved that you can give that ground a terrific charge, millions of volts of high frequency electricity. (Tesla ran his large coil at 33 Khz). Remember, the lightning surging off his Coil was coming from the wave bouncing back and forth in the planet below. In short, he was modifying the ground's electrical potential, changing it from an electrical sinkhole to an electrical source. Tesla did his experiment in 1899. There weren't any home computers with delicate chips hooked up to grounds then. If there had been, he'd have fried everything in Colorado Springs. There was, however, one piece of electrical equipment grounded at the time of the experiment, the city power generator. It caught fire and ended Tesla's experiment. The cause of its failure is interesting as well. It died from "high frequency kickback", something most electrical engineers know about. Tesla forgot that as the generator fed him power, he was feeding it high frequency from his Coil. High frequency quickly heats insulation; a microwave oven works on the same principle. In a few minutes, the insulation inside that generator grew so hot that the generator caught fire. When the lights went out all over Colorado Springs, there was the first proof that Tesla's idea has strategic possibilities. It gets scarier. Imagine Tesla's Coil, busily pumping an electrical wave in the Earth. On his side of the planet, he was getting 130 foot sparks, which is a hell of a lot of voltage and current. And simple wave theory will show you that those sort of potentials exist on the far side of the planet as well. Remember, the wave was bouncing back and forth, being reinforced on every trip. The big question is how focused the opposite electrical pole will be. No one knows. But it seems probable that the far side of the planet's ground target area could be subjected to considerable electrical interference. And if computer equipment is plugged inot that ground, faithfully assuming the ground will never be a source of electricity, it's just too bad for that equipment. This sort of electrical interference makes static look tiny by comparison. It doesn't take much difference in ground potential to kill a computer connected across it. Lightning strikes cause a temporary flare in ground voltage; I remember replacing driver chips on a network on all computers that had been caught by one lightning strike, when I lived in Austin. Imagine the effect on relatively delicate electronics if someone fires up a Tesla Coil on the far side of the planet, and subjects the grounds to steep electrical swings. The military applications are pretty obvious -- those ICBM's in North Dakota, for instance. It's possible they could be damaged in their silos, and from thousands of miles away. Running two or more Coils, you don't have to bee exactly on the far side of the planet, either. Interference effects can give you high points where you need with varied tunings. Maybe, just maybe, the Soviets aren't doing "over the horizon" radar. Maybe they just bothered to read Tesla's notes. And maybe they are tuning up a real big surprise with their twin Coils.
"STAR WARS" AND THE TESLA COIL
You've heard of the Strategic Defense Initiative, or "Star Wars". We're searching for a way to stop a nuclear attack. Right now, we've got all sorts of high powered research projects, with the emphasis on "new technology". Excimer laser, kinetic kill techniques, and even more exotic ideas. As any of you know that have written computer programs, it's darned hard to get something "new" to work. Maybe it's an error to focus on "new" exclusively. Wouldn't it be something if the solution to SDI lies a hundred years ago, in the forgotten brilliance of Nikola Tesla? For right now we can immobilize the electronics of installations half a planet away. The technology to do it was achieved in 1899, and promptly forgotten. Remember, we're not talking vague, unproven theories here. We're talking the world's record for lightning, and the inventor whose power system lights up your house at night.
THE TESLA COIL WORKS.
All we'd have to do is build it. You might not believe the story about Tesla in Colorado Springs, and what he did. It's pretty amazing. It has a way of being forgotten because of that. And I'm not sure you want to hear about the SDI connection. Still, as you work on a computer, remember Tesla. His Tesla Coil supplies the high voltage for the picture tube you use. The electricity for your computer comes from a Tesla design AC generator, is sent through a Tesla transformer, and gets to your house through 3-phase Tesla power. Tesla's inventions... they have a way of working..