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Finding The Trailhead

Posted: Thu Feb 20, 2020 4:43 pm
by Paul_Schatzkin
waterstar_300-624x421.jpg (28.27 KiB) Viewed 755 times

Trailhead: [ treyl-hed ] noun: the point where a trail starts.

Waterstar: [ waw-ter + stahr ] noun: a miniature, synthetic star produced by the fusing of atomic parrticles distilled from water.

A couple of days ago, Richard Hull, the True Guardian of All Things Fusor, inquired about creating a new space where he can begin curating the Vast Quantities of information he gathered starting in the late 1990s in interviews with the various principals in the ITT/Farnsworth fusion project who were still living at the time. That discussion started here:


Richard's initiative comes in concert with the effort that started in Los Angeles in January, when several of us gathered with Philo Farnsworth's great-grandson Jonathan Moulton to begin assessing the family archives that have been shipped to LA from the Farnsworth's previous home in Ft. Wayne, Indiana. The primary purpose of that gathering, "The Waterstar Summit," was to begin to get a grip on the fusion-related material in those archives, as reported here:


Since Jonathan first contacted me last summer, we have talked about resurrecting an initiative that was first considered in the early aughts with Jonathan's father Tim Moulton and his grandfather, Kent Farnsworth (Philo T. Farnsworth's youngest son –1949-2017).

At the time we started calling it "The Waterstar Project" – "Waterstar" being an expression my first ex-wife and I came up with in the 1970s, about the same time I first coined the expression "star in a jar" (I'm nothing if not a master of the obvious).

Jonathan and I have repeatedly used the expression "finding the trailhead" to express our preoccupation with whatever it was that inspired Philo T. Farnsworth to begin his experiments with nuclear fusion in the late 1950s.

There is no question that Phil (as he was more commonly known) Farnsworth had more insight into the quantum mechanics that are possible within a vacuum tube than anybody before or since his time (especially 'since' – who even messes with vacuum tubes any more in the age of silicon?).

This is, after all, the man who turned Einstein's ideas (in particular the photoelectric effect, for which Einstein was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1921) into television, the single most ubiquitous appliance in all of human history. That singular point of entry – and the relentless need to improve on the initial conception throughout the 1930s – afforded Farnsworth a unique perspective on the inner workings of quantum forces and particles.

Fast forward to this scene in the summer of 1953, as described by Philo Farnsworth III (Phil and Pem's oldest son) in my Farnsworth bio, The Boy Who Invented Television. The Farnsworth family is driving to Utah for a testimonial dinner in Salt Lake City...
Rolling over the hot, endless plains in an “unrefrigerated car,” [Philo III] shared the backseat with his new wife, Ruth, his younger brother Skee, and a fifth of white wine, which they shared “in the clutch of our own ennui, hoping the day will end as soon as possible.” Pem was driving, with four-year-old Kent asleep with his head in her lap. Phil was slumped in the front seat, his head down, his fedora pulled down over his eyes.

All of a sudden, “Dad practically jumped out of his seat in one fluid movement and punched his fist forward, saying ‘I’ve got it.’ It was very uncharacteristic of him to grab you like that and say ‘hey, I’ve got it’ to a car full of people. And I knew instantly brother Skee and I had heard a lot of Dad’s talk [about fusion] ...we looked at each other and knew instantly that he’d had a large conception.”

As the concept of electronic television had arrived on a potato field in the summer of 1921, a practical approach to fusion energy arrived in a ’49 Cadillac on a Great Plains highway, somewhere between Indiana and Utah, in the summer of 1953. Farnsworth’s math, his [1948] conversation with Einstein, his years of experience, his observations in the [spherical] Multipactor—and most of all “the daring of this boy’s mind”—suddenly converged to deliver the concept for a device and a process that could unleash the power of the atom cleanly and safely, with a fuel source as abundant as water.

As his son concluded, in that moment in the car somewhere between Indiana and Utah, Philo T. Farnsworth had discovered “the answer to the riddle of the sphinx.”
And here we are sixty years later... still trying to find the answer to that riddle.

As described in my book and Pem Farnsworth's memoir Distant Vision: Romance and Discovery on an Invisible Frontier – that moment set Phil Farnsworth on a path of discovery that ended - for reasons surrounded in mystery – roughly fifteen years later. He died in 1971 – at the age of 64 – after an abortive attempt to resurrect the work in Salt Lake City.

The written record of that path wanders through as much myth as fact.

And here, at, for the past 20+ years, we have kept that path open.

After decades of costly failure with other approaches to the conundrums of fusion energy (i.e. 'how do you bottle a star?') our challenge now is to return to the source, to "recreate the trailhead" and see if we can find the original path that Philo Farnsworth embarked on from the front seat of a '49 Cadillac, when the fusor showed up in his mind's eye.

Which brings us back to "The Waterstar Project" – thanks mostly to Jonathan Moulton's finding some papers with that title in the boxes and files in his grandfather's garage.

We are in the early stages of planning and launching or crowd-funding campaign to conduct a feasibility study to determine what it would take to 'find the trailhead' and see if we can follow Farnsworth's own path.

One of the primary purposes of the project will be to assemble a searchable, digital archive of not only the Farnsworth archives, but all the notebooks and journals stowed away in the stacks of the Marriott Library at the University of Utah. That effort has already begun.

So it is with some excitement that we look forward to providing a new space here where Richard Hull can begin curating the precious, priceless material that he has amassed over the years.

We've decided to put it under the umbrella of a new section of the forums dedicated to that fresh effort: "The Waterstar Project: Finding The Trailhead" – in order to begin providing some branding for that initiative, the rhetorical details of which are articulated here: ... manifesto/

It's a daunting project. There is a shit-ton of stuff to sift through, to organize, to digitize, to store and serve. We don't know yet what all it will entail or what it will cost.

But we are driven by the possibility that if, indeed, we can find the trailhead, if we can recreate the path, then there is at least the possibility that we can rediscover the secret that Philo Farnsworth's family insists he "the took with him to his grave."


Re: Finding The Trailhead

Posted: Sat Mar 21, 2020 6:04 am
by Richard Hull
Once at PTFA, (Philo T. Farnsworth Associates), Phil hoped to continue the fusion work in Utah. True. However, there are several letters back and forth between PTFA and ITT. These letters are extant in our collected archives. Phil realized if he was to continue with the fusor concept he would need the patents and approached ITT about buying them. ITT wrote back saying they were not interested in selling the patents. A separate letter from the legal department at ITT followed immediately. The legal department advised PTFA that they, (ITT), were prepared to take all appropriate legal action should PTFA make any attempt to use, in any manner, part or all of the unique specifications of any and all patents issued to ITT that were the work product of the fusion effort at Fort Wayne. This cease and desist order from ITT legal put any thought of fusion development along the lines of Phil's original germ of idea contained in the ITT patents out of reach of any forward movement by Phil or PTFA. Fusion work was proposed as part of PTFA's mission and sold to many of the Fort Wayne people, but not one neutron nor any fusor would be set up or even contemplated following the terse warnings from ITT.

Did ITT think they had value in retaining those patents?? I seriously doubt it. But like all big companies, why tempt fate by selling patents already in hand.

Thus, the cave fusor was sent along with Gene to BYU as a training and experimental engine in the nuclear physics department under Andrew Gardner. As PTFA collapsed, all the Fort Wayne talent that followed Phil out west, were forced to seek other employment and or relocation, rapidly. Only Gene had a real job at BYU. This lasted until early 1972. Gene would return to Indiana to live and work the rest of his life until retirement.

Phil verbally espoused a love of mankind and sought to make all mankind the benefactor of all of his efforts. If this is really true, the cruelest thing he could do would have been to take "the secret" to his grave. The lamest excuse that throws out only extreme vanity is the line...."mankind is not ready for this yet". (I've got it and they shall not have it) The family may believe what they will. It remains that there is not one shred of evidence that Farnsworth had a secret beyond that of his game show appearance. He had 8 years of funded opportunity to make useful fusion a reality and failed.

In this failure, he joins a long list of some of the finest and most respected nuclear physicists taking part in the controlled fusion effort from 1952 to date. Everybody gets a chance to pull Excalibur from the stone in an effort to create a Camelot. Some pretenders come to the stone as boastful, some hopeful, and some come with dreams and faith, yet the blade remains fixed in stone.

Note: thanks to Rex Allers, below, I have added the definition of the PTFA reference.

Richard Hull

Re: Finding The Trailhead

Posted: Sun Mar 22, 2020 4:44 am
by Rex Allers
Your post starts with PTFA and continues to use that (acronym?). In this thread I have not found a definition.

From context it seems to be some organization or group. For the record here, what exactly is PTFA?

Re: Finding The Trailhead

Posted: Sun Mar 22, 2020 6:45 am
by Richard Hull
Sorry. I just added the definition in the original above. I have spoken in some detail about this before in and among the many mini-histories posted in the past.

After Phil sobered up and regained his health after leaving ITT over the period 1965-1968, his last gasp and grand plan was hatched. Philo T. Farnsworth Associates, (PTFA) was his last dream. Recognizing and valuing known performers and talent, he invited 100% of the ITT fusor team to follow him as he moved from Indiana to Utah. Ostensibly, this would be to continue to work on fusion. He also had dreams of water purification schemes, and other ecologically beneficial, money making concepts. He made deals with BYU (Brigham Young Univ.). He was given an office there while he looked for a suitable building to rent or buy to start up PTFA with the future arrivals of staff from Indiana. He used the money from the sale of his ITT stock bonuses over the years to outfit the company and was absolutely relying on contracts for various services and products to flow out of PTFA in order to keep the company growing.

As mentioned in the histories, Most all of the others were gone from ITT by May or June 1968. Bob Hirsch got a job with the AEC and Steve Blaising languished all alone and un-noticed in the fusion lab area, hoping for re-assignment for a couple of months!

I interviewed all who came to Utah from ITT except Eaddie Heaston and her husband, Jim. George Bain and his wife Eva went out along with Gene Meeks. Fred Haak, demurred, but was cajoled to come out to Utah to see the operation for a few days at PTFA expense. In my motel room, one night during the 1999 visit, with both Gene and Fred present, the subject of PTFA came up. Fred immediately chimed in saying that he was talked into going out to Utah to check out the operation. Within just a couple of hours with Phil in the building painting rosy images of the scattered effort he hoped for PTFA, Fred noted that the whole idea was just another of Phil's half-baked ideas and dreams. Fred noted that he was close enough to Phil for the years he worked in the effort at ITT to realize Phil had dreams and ideas that far exceeded his grasp. "I wouldn't be part of that operation for anything, I went back to Fort Wayne two days earlier than planned." Gene then chimed in "You were smart Fred.... You went back and stayed at ITT and got the big pension." Gene noted that the whole PTFA operation was a jack-legged put up. He said Phil, once again, stayed in his office making phone calls, writing letters or was out making promises and getting loans on promises. Gene noted that he felt sorry for George and Eva and Eaddie Heaston and Jim. The whole thing decayed in spite of all their best efforts.

When I mentioned it to George Bain in his Bloomington interview two days later, Eva was in earshot and came out noting that was a terrible time for both of them. I could tell from her continued discourse that the whole affair was still stuck in her craw. George was more circumspect and said, "we rolled the dice and they came up snake eyes." George noted that he never worked so hard in his life trying to make a go of it for PTFA and Phil. I asked about the fusion at PTFA. George noted that was his real reason for going to Utah, but within weeks Phil came to him and told him that fusion was a no-go and showed him the ITT letters. (Letters that I would not see for another 20 years.) George said that he had to redirect his efforts at securing engineering contracts at Phil's request. He noted that even Gene worked hard writing letters to suppliers and visiting local businesses that might need to contract-hire a technician from PTFA. All their best efforts came to no avail and within a year it was all over. (Note there were a couple of other hires at PTFA whose names and job descriptions I can't recall)

According to Steve Blaising....."Hell No!...I wasn't going to follow those bastards half way across the country!" "I had a great job at ITT and a new wife.... I stayed put!" Fred and Steve would retire with full pension and benefits from ITT many years later.

Both George and Gene verified that just before shut-down of PTFA, Phil went to Andrew Gardner who found funds to give Gene a job as assistant lecturer and lab technician at BYU. Phil agreed to loan the Cave fusor to BYU so that Gene could demonstrate it and control its use in student projects. Gene would note that, "We never put one atom of deuterium in the fusor the whole time!" All work was done with helium, argon or dry nitrogen gas. It was a "simulator"

This entire business was characteristic Farnsworth. Phil had a long history going way back to the first television effort and other lab start ups and various ventures of hiring good people, only having to fire them and have the whole thing collapse due to lack of funding until the next time when it would repeat. PTFA was just another and final example.

Richard Hull

Re: Finding The Trailhead

Posted: Sun Mar 22, 2020 8:31 am
by Rex Allers
Thanks Richard. Excellent and informed details, as usual.