Tesla: The greatest hacker of all time


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January 14, 1991



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…


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


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.


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


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.


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.


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


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.


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..


4 Responses

  1. “Virtual unknown” in the U.S.? You need to play more video games. Tesla Coils are quite popular among gamers.

    I guess you have to run — or sit — in certain circles

  2. Ed,
    The reprinted article was written in 1991.
    And even in the all enlightened joystick 21st Century, Tesla runs a far distant fifth in popular recognition to his contemporaries Edison, Marconi, Sarnoff and Steinmetz.

  3. I didn’t pick up on the date of the article, thanks.

    I’m not sure that Tesla’s reputation is really all that dim, though, even in 1991. Everybody in our band was familiar with him, in the late ’60s and early ’70s — but we had a couple of electronics nuts who manufactured about half of our amplifiers and other equipment. I remember on trips to Colorado Springs being disappointed in not finding markers to his work (they may be there now — anybody know if the city has amended that oversight?).

    In any case, thanks for preserving this part of history. Regardless how many know about Tesla, it’s not enough.

    Edison? The guy with the porn on his hard drive?

  4. Ed,
    Actually I goofed. The article’s original copyright date was 1987.
    When I lived in NYC in the late 70’s early 80’s some friends and I were trying to negotiate for the rights to the book TESLA: MAN OUT OF TIME.Things were rolling along smoothly until a Hollywood blurb mentioned that a major stdio release was about to go into production with (GOD HELP US) George Hamilton as the star and he was to portray Tesla! That queered the whole deal, but I’m certainly glad the Hamilton movie was never made (it was to be a comedy)!!!!!!
    I’m a great admirer of Tesla and his many monumental accomplishments and feel that he has never been give his just due during his lifetime and in the years that followed.
    Another interesting aside; In the early 70’s I lived in Telluride, Colorado and was able to see the artifacts of one of Tesla’s earliest commercial successes. The first practical working AC power in America trasnsported at a distance was created by Tesla coil generators in Ames, Colorado ,a few miles Southwest of Telluride , transferred by wire and cable, and used in the Telluride mines to run all their operations in the early part of the century.Tesla actually supervised the installation. Although not operational at the time I saw them the massive apparatus looked to be still in good working order.You probably can still see them if you are ever out that way.

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