The Hacker's Almanac for Monday March 5, 2007

5 March, 2007

Download the Hacker's Almanac for Monday March 5, 2007. For future editions, subscribe to the podcast feed.

Twenty-five years ago today, the Soviet probe Venera 14 landed on the surface of Venus. Following four days behind its identical twin Venera 13, the craft's mission was to take color pictures of the landscape and to test the rocks on the surface. Unfortunately, Venera 14 happened to land directly on top of its own lens cap which had been ejected during the descent to the planet. When the craft's spring-loaded arm reached out to measure the soil, it hit the lens cap instead, preventing it from making any useful soil measurements.

After traveling four months to reach Venus, Venera 14 was only designed to last half an hour once on the surface, but managed to make it 57 minutes, less than half as long as its sibling craft.

On this day in 1995, the Free Internet Chess Server went online. The Sever was created in response to the commercialization of the long-running Internet Chess Server which had been maintained by volunteers and operated free of charge since the 1980s. When the ICS's administrators decided to start charging for membership, a group of programmers broke off to form their own site as a non-profit. They released their original software package, called "chessd", for free under the GNU Public License.

Since then almost 300,000 people have registered accounts on the Free Internet Chess Server and most of the games played there follow blitz or lightning rules, requiring the players to make their moves in a few minutes or less.

On this day in 1904, Electrical World and Engineer published a paper called "The Transmission of Electrical Energy Without Wires" by Serbian inventor Nikola Tesla. Tesla had set out to study how electrical current propagated through the atmosphere and through the earth. And in 1899, he camped on a large plateau outside of Colorado Springs in the Rocky Mountains where he observed intense lightning storms and ball lightning, a phenomenon where large glowing spheres bounce and bob erratically through the air. Some episodes of ball lightning have even been reported to cause damage to earthbound objects, including carving deep tunnels into the ground.

In the paper, Tesla set out a theory of the earth's role in transmitting electricity that he would use as the seed of a series of inventions for the rest of his life, including alternating current and radio. He wrote,

"Impossible as it seemed, this planet, despite its vast extent, behaved like a conductor of limited dimensions. The tremendous significance of this fact in the transmission of energy by my system had already become quite clear to me. Not only was it practicable to send telegraphic messages to any distance without wires, as I recognized long ago, but also to impress upon the entire globe the faint modulations of the human voice, far more still, to transmit power, in unlimited amounts, to any terrestrial distance and almost without loss."

(The Transmission of Electrical Energy Without Wires by Nikola Tesla)

Tesla spent much of his later life trying to build a directed-energy weapon, or 'death ray', that he described as a "superweapon that would put an end to all war". He was never able interest the US War Department in the device and died penniless of heart failure at the New York Hotel in 1947.

Ball lightning remains without a consensus scientific explanation to this day.

Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,