The Great Hacker Ever

    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

The Great Three

                             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.

            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
         More Hacker wallpaper
            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                                    
                               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..

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