"There's an understanding that is not desired to exist"
It was 1970, and Eric Dollard was sleeping rough at the RCA-Marconi Wireless Station at Bolinas, California, where he had worked from the age of seventeen until it was closed down. He’d started sleeping on site in an effort to protect his property — the 25 tonnes of electrical gear RCA had gifted him when it shut down the station — until he could get it out to somewhere secure. The RCA-Marconi Station had been wrecked by an environmentalist group and the gangs of vandals they hired to smash everything they could get their hands on. So Eric Dollard had turned into the ghost of Bolinas, haunting the place that had been his playground for nearly half his life.
On Green Street, nearby, was a house where a guy called Philo Farnsworth lived. People had warned Eric to steer clear of this guy because he was supposed to be more than a little deranged. But that was where the action was, and as Eric says, when you live on the street you’re more tolerant.
Philo was drinking heavily and doing all kinds of drugs, living mostly at night. Eric took to going round there sometimes for a drink and a smoke — which came as very welcome, in the circumstances.
It was a madhouse place, says Eric, with big piles of books piled from floor to ceiling and dusty boxes stacked everywhere. Lots of bottles of wine going down the guy’s throat, drugs Eric had never even heard of before.
Eric looked at him and thought, well he’s got to be a Farnsworth.
Thicker set, dark-eyed and heavily bearded — but the same high forehead, and, with his hair tied back, the exact same hairline, the squared-off widow’s peak you see in the later photographs of his father. So this was Philo Taylor Farnsworth III. Son of the great Philo Taylor Farnsworth II, the inventor of television.
If you haven’t heard of Farnsworth, don’t be surprised. The people you and I have heard of are very often simply those who got control of the patents; the ones who cheated and manoeuvered and made the money, while the originator drank himself to death or fed pigeons in the park.
Farnsworth cracked the electronic propagation of images when he was 21.
And so it began.
He was subjected to a seventeen-year campaign by RCA to wrest control of the new technology away from him. It was typical of the experience of young inventors who entered the capitalist raptor pen with their beautiful solutions. He did eventually win the long drawn-out defense of his patent against RCA’s heavily funded assaults: after years of litigation, he was the first inventor ever to receive royalties from RCA. But the Radio Corporation of America would harry and block him until his patents expired, and he would never make any money from his invention. Endless legal harassment, industrial espionage and overwork put Farnsworth on the road to alcoholism, despair and illness. In his mid-sixties now, he had only a year or so left to live.
So here was Eric getting stoned with Farnsworth’s son in the big rambling house at 202 Green Street, and the television was on but had a piece of cardboard propped in front of it. To block the light, explained Philo, because it wouldn’t turn off properly. Which was ironic, the son of the man who invented television unable to fix his own TV. Or too permanently stoned to bother. Living in the glow of burnt out cathodes.
Now Eric P Dollard happened — happens — to know more about electricity than any man since Nikola Tesla, and he’s worked out whose house this is, so he’s chuckling to himself about the TV, and Philo gets loud and starts boasting about things he did with electricity when he was younger, trying to show that he’s his father’s son, no doubt.
But Eric can trump all his stories. In his teens he had a 10-kilowatt generator in the garage and a 3,300-volt switchboard in his bedroom. He and his friends would gather to do crazy things with electricity and salvaged vacuum tubes. More than once they had created surges so powerful — the beginnings of fusion reactions, he suspects — that they jammed out all the radar systems at Hamilton Air Force Base.
So Philo says, all right, if you know so much, let’s see what you make of this. And he leaves the room and comes back a few minutes later with a big, screwed up cardboard box which clanks as he carries it.
“If you’re so smart, tell me what these are.”
“What you got?”
“These are my father’s.”
The box was full of vacuum tubes — but they weren’t TV tubes. Eric had been playing with tubes since he was six years old; his mother used to build the things at RCA. “It’s in my genes,” he says.
Eric takes a look and sees strange stuff. Any electrical engineer would say this was insanity — big grids with no cathodes, electrodes sticking out of the sides, all kinds of bizarre arrangements.
While he’s picking up tubes and looking at them, Philo is wheezing and chuckling to himself, until Eric holds up one particular tube, an empty quart lab glass with an umbilical cord hanging off it, and the glass is all pitted and burnt brown, and says, ‘What’s this? What the hell happened in here? Something took off in here, didn’t it?’
And Philo stops laughing.
His father had not put his name to any inventions after television, but his mind had never stood still. In fact, that was his problem — nothing could still his mind except alcohol. And judging by these tubes and the weird combinations of grids, contacts and fittings, he’d continued to experiment, and had made something intriguing happen inside the wrecked, cratered glass of this tube.
Inside the quart glass were two little metal shells, pointing at each other kind of like two little mirrors, and coated with some crappy-looking stuff — a silver caesium oxide compound, it turned out — and a simple ring in the middle. It was a simple electrostatic focus tube with an anode in the middle, the two plates, and little tiny wires coming in. It looked like it could handle about 100,000 volts: a lot for a small tube.
The glass had been attacked by something, like a shunt regulator in a TV, baked by some kind of incredible electrical activity that couldn’t have come through those little tiny wires.
“Philo – tell me what happened in this tube.”
But an idea had already started to form.
At the time, Livermore Laboratories, the big government lab, was trying to produce electricity from hydrogen fusion. Billions of dollars, giant magnets and lasers, 220-volt power lines on towers 150 feet high, insulators 20 feet long, giant flows of money, gas, electricity and equipment pouring into this place all for one basic simple premise: to make a fireball stand in space.
Farnsworth’s tube must have dated from about 1932.
Then Dollard tells how he hooked up the apparatus and lit it up, and he and Philo watched as, suspended in the vacuum, a star appeared. A fireball. A tiny sun.
A big part of Farnsworth’s depression, according to those who knew him, had been his disillusionment with what had become of his invention. He saw what they’d made of television and wondered why he’d bothered. The triviality and consumerism propagated by the medium sickened to him. Still, he may have remained innocent of the full significance of the technology he’d created. There is a touching little story, dating from two years before his death from complications of alcoholism, of Farnsworth watching the moon landings on TV, and turning to his wife with an expression of happiness on his face. This was what he had invented television for; this made it all worthwhile.
Farnsworth had gone much further in his private research than anyone knew. But he’d written nothing. Eric, through his association with Philo junior, was able to get close to the inventor before his death in 1971. The Farnsworth family took him in, realizing that here was one of the few people on the planet capable of unraveling the inventor’s private research, and that what Livermore Laboratories was spending millions to achieve, and failing, had been done on Green Street in an empty bottle.
Eric Dollard is an electrical engineer, who likes to build things that work, but at this stage, deprived of all his equipment and living in his car, he had turned to the underlying mathematics of electrical science; of magneto-dielectrics, longitudinal waves, monopolar electrostatic fields: the physics of the aether. The mathematics and the metrics needed to be purged, simplified, unified. An exorcism was required.
Farnsworth encouraged him in that — but the old man was in pretty bad shape by this time. Like most of everything else in Dollard’s life, he says, by the time he showed up all that was left was a screwed up empty shell.
Farnsworth had very serious health problems caused by pharmaceutical drugs and alcohol, and had lived under continuous harassment by suppression agents — including the same ‘environmentalist’ hit forces which had been used to physically destroy the Marconi station. Always a driven individual who could not turn off, harassment, industrial espionage and litigation had taken a toll on him. He was a wreck, an invalid. Eric and a young assistant engaged by the family would try to administer what psychological care they could, as they tried, and failed, to coax the science and engineering out of the screwed up hollow shell of the great Farnsworth.
So who is Eric Dollard? Why was he scouted, fast-tracked and let loose in the lab, before being cast aside like his great predecessor, Nikola Tesla?
Dollard’s abilities were noticed very early in life and he was taken out of school at twelve and enrolled in special tuition programs with Pacific Gas and Electric. By the age of fifteen he had been given free run of the RCA-Marconi coastal station, off-payroll. He even had keys to the base — RCA was originally set up by the Navy in 1919 — so that he could get in at night if he needed to. And he did need to quite often, to party on the beach with his friends. Graduating high school at 16, fully qualified as an electrical engineer, he was snapped up by Bell Telephone. At Bell Laboratories he was known as their “Angel of Electricity”. When his long-suffering parents destroyed his home laboratory, he left home, enlisted in the Navy, solved their various communications problems in short order, and was sent back to RCA to continue his electrical and communications research. He was still only seventeen.
People call Dollard the new Tesla, but I think in his own mind he might feel closer to Steinmetz — who was hired by General Electric specifically to analyze the mathematics behind Tesla’s work. Since Tesla engineered straight from mental visualization to metal and wood, there was little to go on, but C. P. Steinmetz, in his long career as founder and director of GE Labs, quietly took things even further, according to Dollard, doing quite inconceivable things in his laboratory, but having “the good sense to keep it to the equations” in terms of what he published, learning from Tesla’s mistakes. Ernst Alexanderson was the protege of Steinmetz, working with Tesla’s longitudinal waves under the Prussian’s protection — and leaving his mark all over Bolinas.
Dollard is by repute the only man to have been able to replicate Tesla’s experiments. His hands-on sensory experience of electrical phenomena and the specific nature of his education, it seems, allowed him to duck under the conceptual interference of modern physics and deal with fundamental aspects of energy that were known before Einstein. That were known until Einstein.
Then once he had served his use, his lab was smashed, Bolinas left to rust, and he was on his own, to be hounded and harassed and cheated and sabotaged until he checks out like Heaviside or Farnsworth. Is that how it goes?
“Electrical study is the tale of Prometheus. You will be rewarded. That eagle will peck you till you die.”
But Dollard keeps coming back to life, somehow. It’s part of the Promethean punishment, no doubt. Tesla’s famous Fifth Avenue laboratory was consumed by fire in 1895, and it was only by a superhuman effort and his gift of photographic memory that he was able to reconstitute his laboratory and his work in time to win the patent for radio. Dollard has had to come back from similar losses no less than eight times. Eight times his laboratory has been destroyed, sabotaged, confiscated, repossessed, shut down or embezzled. Those who step up to help are by no means always to be trusted. At one point he had his identity stolen — thus the importance of the middle initial.
Tesla and Alexanderson tend to be dismissed by modern physicists as ‘electricians’. And that’s what they were. The Electricians worked from experimentation to mathematics, not the other way round as in theoretical physics.
During his time at RCA Dollard began his deep research into these ‘premoderns’. Realizing the significance of the fact that he was working in one of the oldest radio facilities in the world, he turned archeologist. What he was learning about pre-1919 radio technology did not square with what he had been taught — or what he was seeing on the ground. There was a lot more to be discovered about this place. It was a palimpsest, a text that had been erased and written over. There was something underneath the layers.
RCA was in rapid decline. Its main product had been television sets in recent years, and that market was now swamped with Asian products. They shut down the Marconi Station, and Dollard found himself on the streets with nothing to his name but 25 tons of electrical equipment, thanks to two RCA executives who had listened to his appeals. He’d got the gear out and into a warehouse, but needed funds to set up a lab. He decided to work the salvage business and sell his services as an electrician. Sleeping in his car kept the overheads down.
And he would continue his archeology. That was another reason he was haunting the base, documenting, photographing. The ‘environmentalists’ had started brush fires under the antenna arrays in a stupid attempt to destroy them, and had unconsciously done him a favor. The ground, under what had been heavily overgrown brush, was revealing some interesting information. Foundations. Then the rains came and washed away the soil and he could see what looked like the tops of big, buried insulators.
Dollard is not a physicist — not in the modern sense. “Physicists hate electricity,“ he says, “because it’s not a physical process.” He is an electrical engineer, mathematician and scientist — an inventor too, because the scientist has an obligation to create something useful. His most recent contribution to humanity is an apparatus for predicting earthquakes, with vastly increased warning times, using telluric currents within the earth. This is not ‘physics’. It’s aether-science.
He doesn’t talk about ‘free energy’, and is clear what he is doing is not primarily about technology at all. It’s deeper than that. It’s about the mathematics, the underlying theory, and the “understanding that is not desired to exist.’
Dollard’s work should be seen as a rebirth of natural philosophy: its impact is not only scientific, but philosophical, cosmological, ontological.
All I can do is try to pass on the jolt, the charge that seemed to run through me when first I heard the Electrician speak.
The great Farnsworth drooling and dying, unable to help. A tiny star in an empty bottle gleaming in Dollard’s mind. With Farnsworth out of the running, Dollard had teamed up with the high school kid whom the Farnsworths had taken on and trained in Farnsworth’s methods, and whom Dollard describes as a “genius beyond belief”. He doesn’t name him, which is probably wise. Together they built a lab in the kid’s bedroom. They took what little was left from Dollard’s San Francisco lab and built a Tesla coil, going out to Bolinas to scavenge transmitter parts, and snaffling dumpster-loads of burnt out street lights from local contractors to use in experiments.
One particular bulb, heavily used in their spark gap experiments, had started to transform in some way.
Dollard put it in the electrostatic field created by the coil — with caution, because violent explosions were often the upshot — and within a couple of minutes of working it in the field something unbelievable happened.
A full galaxy appeared inside the bulb.
It spins, the whole thing: the stars, the nebulae, the suns, all the colors of the rainbow spinning inside a burned out streetlight, virtually powering and containing itself.
They’d gone beyond Farnsworth. A homeless guy and a high school kid had conjured a galaxy, a whole astronomical creation, floating in a burnt-out streetlight bulb on a work bench.
And then it explodes the bulb. Just for an instant it sits there without anything to contain it. Then it rises like a Jacob’s ladder between the coils and disappears.
This article is an attempt to flesh out a narrative touched on by Dollard in various interviews and lectures concerning events following his redundancy from RCA. I have used his own words where possible and filled in gaps from my own research. See:
Eric P Dollard History and Theory of Electricity (lecture),
Eric P Dollard The Theory of Anti-Relativity (paper, 2011),
and Eric’s website EricPDollard.com.
Acknowledgements: my hat is tipped to Jim Frieson, the Just Artisan, for insisting I listen to Dollard’s lectures; to Thomas J Browne for sharing with me his eye-witness account of a later demonstration of Dollard’s feat of ‘cosmic generation’; and to Neil Thomson for pointing out that Winston H Bostick’s team had already achieved something similar using an expensive laboratory set-up and two plasma guns, a fact of which Dollard, at the time, was unaware. What draws me to Dollard’s story is it’s wonderful cyberpunk quality, as well as the broad context of his natural philosophy — the ‘understanding not desired to exist’. I consider him to be one of the great unacknowledged geniuses of our times.
The idea that Nikola Tesla disappeared from the science and history books because he ‘went crazy’ half way through his brilliant career is absurd. How would that explain the near-complete burial of his fame as a scientist? He had already invented the basis for the fundamental technologies of our ‘modern’ world.