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January 14, 1991
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THE GREATEST HACKER OF ALL TIME
by Dave Small
(c) 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
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
greatest hacker is, everyone agrees (provided they know of him),
and there's no further argument. So, let me introduce you to
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
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
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
run it wide open in an experiment that ranks as among the
greatest, and most spectacular, of all time. One side effect
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
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
over the world. He invented the Tesla Coil, which makes the high
voltage that drives the picture tube in your computer's CRT.
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".
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,
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
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
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
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
electrified,the current ruches to the ground instead of into
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
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
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
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
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
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,
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
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
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.
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
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".
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
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
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
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
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
try". That's not how micros got started. I mentioned to
Time magazine journalist that if anyone could make SDI go,
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
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
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
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
punctured, and the chip ruined. Countless computers have been
damaged this way. Read any manual on inserting memory chips to
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
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
wave bouncing back and forth in the planet below. In short, he
was modifying the ground's electrical potential, changing it
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
few minutes, the insulation inside that generator grew so hot
that the generator caught fire. When the lights went out all
Colorado Springs, there was the first proof that Tesla's idea
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
lot of voltage and current. And simple wave theory will show
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
the planet, and subjects the grounds to steep electrical swings.
The military applications are pretty obvious -- those ICBM's
North Dakota, for instance. It's possible they could be damaged
in their silos, and from thousands of miles away. Running two
more Coils, you don't have to bee exactly on the far side of
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
bothered to read Tesla's notes. And maybe they are tuning up
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,
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
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..
If you have comments or other information relating to such
as this paper covers, please upload to KeelyNet or send to the
Vangard Sciences address as listed on the first page.
Thank you for your consideration, interest and support.
Jerry W. Decker.........Ron Barker...........Chuck Henderson
If we can be of service, you may contact
Jerry at (214) 324-8741 or Ron at (214) 242-9346
Uncle Taz Library