Fusion's beginnings

I saw this play out from my viewpoint, that of a young family member, and as someone my father thought would walk in his footprints one day. Now, as an interested steward of the Farnsworth Archives, and a "rehearsal physicist," I am walking through all of the information left behind, much of what I took in as a young man, unites with my research and now questions beg asking. In some subjects, I seem to have information that no one (else) offers up; this bothers me because it is not logical for me, an outsider, to have insights above those who were on the playing field.

The family, which is me, my mother, Pem, and father, Phil, met at the dinner table every morning and evening, and the topic would always move to the fusion research. Always preferring the simple over the complex, his efforts to convey the fusion process were more like speaking his mind as opposed to translating it into kidspeak.

I know that this (fusion idea) began, before the lab was built to house the work, in fact years before. I also know that ITT/Farnsworth was not inclined to finance the work. It was the cold war era, and though strides in fusion would have been heavy currency in those times, ITT was cash-poor and struggling to re-grow vitality.

However, Phil was done thinking the process through, and had the scent, and all this talk about not backing the project for one or another reason, was fine for a while, but there came a moment when something snapped, I think he was so close to a really simple method for fusion he could almost reach out and touch it. In looking back, I would have done the same thing, a simple method of studying controlled fusion was a short hop, and the rewards, of course, would be tremendous. Once a fusion reaction was demonstrated, money would cease to be a concern.

At the time, one of the obstacles in the way of funding was pure credibility, and Phil was faced once more with lighting up a whole herd of torches so he could lead folks through the dark to see his point. But, controlled fusion was supposed to be an enormously complex thing; nuclear physics was so complicated that no, single person could ever produce a controlled fusion reaction on their own ... you had to be many in number, and a German scientist, or at least that was a common theme at the time. So...

Phil mortgaged the house, borrowed on his insurance, he literally geared up the family, the house and any who would help towards the goal of controlled fusion, and we began work. My older brotherís bedroom upstairs was large, larger than the master bedroom, and he was off in a musical career, so the basement was the shop and his bedroom was a lab.

I was let in on the whole project because I was enthralled by this wild display of will and ingenuity, and was soon sweating copper fittings, soldering and any other thing that would help, no doubt I was a whole lot easier to live with as a helper, than an observer. Pem learned how to draw a reasonably good 12 sided polygon, this would be her second debut as a drafts person.

We had assembled a bake out oven, a couple spot welders, we had a heliarc; we had built benches and wired the necessary outlets for 110 and 220. We connected a shack outside to the lab with lines for oxygen, argon, hydrogen and a gas for general use like butane.

All the while this was going on, the rumor mill at ITT was boiling with buzz about what the "Doctor" was up to. I was not aware at the time, but from my vantage point looking back, it must have been quite something. There were staffers from ITT that were putting in spare hours, and lending their expertise. About the time we began assembling the vacuum system, work stopped and all went quiet. I think ITT central in Nutley, N.J. got the picture and did not want Phil successfully controlling a fusion reaction in a lab so far outside their "reach." Solitary scientist, Philo Farnsworth, had something happening and it was growing legs.

So (barely) enough money was budgeted to begin work at the plant on Pontiac Street in Fort Wayne, and the work at home was frozen in time. I was glad that my fatherís work was funded, but life was not the same at the house. I did get twice-daily reports of what was done, what worked, what failed at the lab, and an ongoing tutorial of what fusion was (mechanically) in his fusion device. This went on for many years, and was very interesting stuff.

Someone once said of the image dissector, that it "had everything it needed, and nothing it did not." And fusion ala Farnsworth was very much that: simple. It was not long before (instead of) getting reports of how the attempts to pull a high vacuum on the fusor were proceeding, we started getting neutron counts. My father began coming home with a film badge (to monitor his exposure to radiation), and the government began to clamp down on access to the work. Tritium was combined with deuterium.

Neither my mother nor I were welcome at the lab for security reasons, and I only visited twice, and my mother only a time or two more. I did go one day and I saw the fusor do its thing, and it was astounding to me. I watched as the voltage applied to the fusor's cathode was increased past the 50kv point, all the particle counters began to chatter, and the focus on the fusor device intensified, the room was electric.

We had a few explosive moments as stray dust particles would bridge the high voltage supply and a spark would startle everyone, and there was another event, which was substantially larger in nature, and I can only speculate what that was. I have spoken to many of the members of that research team, while they can recall my visit, this event was unfamiliar to them, or they shrug it off. Okay, whatever.

I do not care who you are, when this room was "on," counters clicking away, air crackling, a hint of ozone in the air, you are not capable of thinking of much else. I do not think I would have the mindset to revisit all this history had it not been for that particular afternoon, it was very impressive, and acted like a powerful condiment which seasoned all my recollections of what my father confided in me from that day forward.

And just like that it was over.

There are a couple of stories telling what went down, and I expect there is some truth and some license-to-obscure (living) in both. Basically, Phil did not like that he was not drafting this patent which would cover the current work. The people who were writing the patent kept trying to build in some departures from the operation as Phil had described it. It might have been that Phil could not convince them of what was happening two floors down in the lab. Whatever the cocktail was made of, it resulted in Phil leaving ITT for good; he went home one day and never returned. Progress halted even though the work tried to continue in his absence.

Phil never said a single word ill about any of the players, nor would he defile the work, it was just over, like Forrest Gump said.

I know that my father was concerned about the world being ready for cheap, abundant power. Being the cold war, one could easily imagine tiny high power sources for things like lasers being used in wartime. My mother was, and still is, very concerned about whether the secret of fusion power is appropriate for man at this time. Leaving ITT might have been of some comfort because it would halt the work.

Fusion research murmured and struggled again in Utah where Phil had moved, for whatever reason, this method of fusion required more of his health than he had left, and he died with the instincts which made this fusion possible; he did not die with the secret of fusion, he died with the map to this method of fusion. Phil had envisioned a higher yield device than a Tokamak, (lb. for lb.)

My work since 1998 has been to immerse myself in all the notes, journals and personal recounts and recollections with the hope of catching hold of the process by which he guided his pursuit. Stand in his shoes (about 1963 or 64) ... fire up a reaction and see what he was seeing. Not enough is known of his method, or his list of things to do next: it all needs fresh eyes.

It was like Phil was a light in a dark space. After 50 hours in the lab, and another 50 in quiet contemplation, he could then tune in his crystal radio, fiddle with a cat's whisker, and get the next installment of the process he sought to expose to the light of day.