Amdahl’s Law, Gustafson’s, Robots and Jobs

Please forgive me. This is a very long posting. It took a long time to write, so reading it will be less of a commitment than I’ve put into it. Why so long? Well, folks didn’t believe “the short form”, so I’ve had to elaborate and provide a theoretical underpinning. That takes more words than “does not” ;-)

Several folks have expressed great angst over robots and manufacturing. Generally expressing the position that robots are dooming employment (often with a subtext implied of ‘in a capitalist market’ as opposed to the ‘make work’ world of governments) and that it is inevitable that the economy will collapse as the excess workers pile up without any paycheck with which to buy the goods and services produced.

Others, me among them, point to a very long history of mechanization of labor and how the economy has always expanded and living standards risen after more automation and mechanization are implemented. This history starts far far before robotics and computers; though they are oddly connected. It is an interesting thread that starts with, well, thread. But we’ll come back to that later.

The more obvious examples I’ve posted before (usually in comments). Farms at one time employed 90+% of labor in the USA. Now down in low single digit percents. My Grandfather was one of those farmers. His son, my Dad, did not become a farmer. Yet before being a farmer, Granddad was a blacksmith. His father (my Great Grandfather) and several before him back into the 1700s at least (that we know for certain) were all blacksmiths. The furthest back we document is to the 1700s where a guy got off a boat in Virgina and worked iron, so was a Smith. Thus my last name.

A Personal Historical Perspective

How did a smith end up a farmer? Mechanization of ironworking. The industrial revolution. It is important to realize that a factory is nothing more than a giant robot for the manufacture of goods. Historical factories did not have computers running the machines, but the “program” was embodied in the structure of the factory. A giant machine with the flow of raw materials in, the processing, and the formation of finished goods at the other end all programmed by the design and structure of this giant machine for fabrication. It absolutely decimated “craft production” in all sorts of industries. Smithing among them.

There were great wailings and gnashing of teeth over all the people being put out of work and how horrible it would be and how the economy would never recover. It was traumatic. I’m sure several generations of smith were not expecting that THE premier craft of the day would become obsolete. The Smith was not just the maker of horseshoes, but the locksmith and war industry as well. Often orders were given to “capture the smith’s alive” as that was capturing the weapons manufacturing industrial base. It was that important a job. Yet a machine forge that does nothing but make nails and screws and screwdrivers all day long does it incredibly more efficiently. An hour of high skill labor to make a good screwdriver is, today, a $1 item at the hardware store – and it is a better product too. So the smiths “moved on” and Granddad expanded the farming operation. But he did keep a small smithy on the farm and did smithing for the local Amish. That’s where Grandma came from. ;-)

It wasn’t just smiths. Chandlers and Coopers and Tinkers and Wrights – all the huge laundry list of last names that were once connected with craft manufacture were all put out of a job. Look around you at your family, friends, neighbors, and all. How many of them have such manufacturing linked names? All their families were out of work. Yet the world did not end. The economy did not collapse. Life went on. We got our buggy whips made by machines instead of by hand and our candles uniform and much cheaper instead of laboriously hand dipped by the Chandlers down the street. (The Amish side of the family really appreciated the cheaper candles). While Granddad mostly made a living out of farming.

Then mechanization came to the farm. The tending of large draft horses gave way to the tractor. Usually unmentioned is all the hundreds of hours and dozens of acres it takes to tend, feed, and propagate draft horses. The Amish still do it, and it can be an effective way to farm, but it chews up resources at an astounding rate compared to a tractor and some Diesel fuel. “Biomass” is not a new fuel. It has been run through horses and oxen for thousands of years. It takes a enormous amount of land and water and fertilizer and labor to keep that team fed. It is the failure of “biomass” as fuel compared to Diesel that caused tractors to dominate. Now one farmer could farm far more acres, and you didn’t have to set 20% or 30% aside for fuel for the team. Ag output started to rise dramatically, on ever less labor. So Dad didn’t stay on the farm. He “moved on”.

Where Dad went isn’t quite as important. He moved into various ‘services’ mostly. First as soldier in W.W.II and then a brief stint building houses in the booming California. But most of his years post war were spent running restaurants or selling and managing realestate. Manufacturing, farming, and smithing left far behind. He did plant a very large garden and assure we kids knew how to farm and garden (somewhat different, BTW) and had me help him dig a well in the back yard so I’d know how to do it all (that Amish thing). He also taught me basic smithing as he felt it important that the craft not die out. Just as his Dad had taught him. With many generations prior the same. But he made zero money from farming or from smithing. (We did eat well from the garden and from the 5 acres outside town where he had his cows and ‘toy farm’ that kept the freezer full of beef).

On Mom’s side, it was mostly sailors. “Several” generations. How many is not known. At least 3 generations of Joseph Sumner who’s log books we know of. Then Mom married a Yank during that W.W.II dust up and came to America. Back in England, the rest of the family (including all the boys) did not go into sailing. Why? Mechanized ships did not need the huge crews of a 3 masted sailing ship. Nor did they need the riggers, the carpenters, the hoard of folks needed to build and repair wooden ships. Massive layoffs due to the “robot” of a mechanical ship that did things with the turn of a wheel and movement of a lever instead of a mass of men climbing in rigging and shifting spars. Instead, many of those folks became skilled in jobs like riveting and painting and electrical work. My Uncle one of them. He went into that newfangled radio stuff. (Over on this side, some of Dad’s brothers went into domestic electrical work and have a large Electrician Contractor company in Iowa).

The point behind all that family narrative?

Things change. People change too. Careers are no longer just learned from Dad and that’s that. What you do for a living now changes as the technology changes, and has since at least 1600. I’ve had several different jobs in my life. From stacking cases of peaches in a cannery, production planner for semiconductors (that didn’t exist when I was born), to various computer jobs. I expect I’ll have one or two more “career changes” before I’m done.

Which brings us to that thread.

The Jacquard Loom

A fellow wanted to automate even more the already advanced looms weaving fabric. The loom had greatly improved fabric quality and production with a mechanical powered loom that was far faster than by old hand methods. Yet it required some significant skill to get the different threads right to make a decent pattern. Jacquard wanted to change that and mechanize it.

Notice the dates in this quote. It was being designed in the late 1700’s and then demonstrated as a working machine in 1801.

The Jacquard loom is a mechanical loom, invented by Joseph Marie Jacquard, first demonstrated in 1801, that simplifies the process of manufacturing textiles with such complex patterns as brocade, damask and matelasse. The loom was controlled by a “chain of cards”, a number of punched cards, laced together into a continuous sequence. Multiple rows of holes were punched on each card, with one complete card corresponding to one row of the design. Several such paper cards, generally white in color, can be seen in the images below. Chains, like the much later paper tape, allowed sequences of any length to be constructed, not limited by the size of a card.

It is based on earlier inventions by the Frenchmen Basile Bouchon (1725), Jean Baptiste Falcon (1728) and Jacques Vaucanson (1740) A static display of a Jacquard loom is the centrepiece of the Musée des Tissus et des Arts décoratifs (fr) in Lyon. Live displays of a Jacquard loom are available at a few private museums around Lyon and also twice a day at La Maison des Canuts, as well as at other locations around the world.

To those who have “run ahead in the book”, yes, those “punched cards” were taken up as a control mechanism by “computers” in the early days and on up into the 1970s when I learned to operate an 029 Keypunch in college. (BTW, there were thousands employed then as Keypunch Operators, now largely gone on to other work. Though you can still see them in classic movies from the ’60s era, one including Doris Day.) The history of computers and automation reach back to the 1700s and 1800s. We’ve been at this process for at least 200 years now. You would think that if it were going to cause catastrophic and unrecoverable collapse of the economy it would have done so by now.

In comments here:

GallopingCamel stated:

Queen Elizabeth I arguably delayed the “Industrial Revolution” by 140 years because she wanted to avoid killing the jobs of the knitters who made hosiery in the 16th century.

This site has an interesting history of knitting. I care about knitting partly as my Mum taught me to knit at about 4 years old. I was curious about this thing she was always doing, and she decided to give-in and teach me this “girls work”. I still like knitting, but have not done it in a long while. Mum had been a seamstress in W.W.II making uniforms. Later she was a waitress in our restaurant. She also had several other jobs including census taker. So she, too, had transitioned from “manufacturing” to other work.

A primitive hand knitting technique dating back into prehistoric times was reproduced using one needle and short pieces of fiber in a study by Dorothy Burnham in the Royal Ontario Museum in early 1970’s. The next documentation speaks of three pieces of hand knitting found at the site of the old Syrian City of Dura Europos, which was sacked by the Persians in 256 AD. Study of these items defined them as having been hand knit with two knitting needles. Evolution has been and is ongoing from handknitting with one to two needles and onward to peg frames, knitting frames, circular sock machines, and home knitting machines. Just to spur your interest, I will give you a few tidbits of information from each stage.

Note that in the original it said “had knitting technique” and I added the ‘fix’ of the obvious dropped n.

Knitting has been around since “pre-history” with actual cloth samples from 256 AD. Then note the list of automations. Peg boards. Frames. “Circular sock machines”. Does that last one make you think of 1970s and South Carolina? Or 1990 and China?

The Crane Knitter ~ Flat Bed and Circular Sock Machines ~ 1870

The Reference in Cassell’s Household Guide of 1870 advertised the Crane Knitter as a striking new American invention: “It had a massive metal plate keyboard in which deep, square grooves for the reception of 106 needles are cut, and “asort” of metal carriage or traveler, which can be moved forward or back on the keyboard with the greatest facility by the aid of a short ball-crowned handle.” This was one of several sock knitting machines of that era, which included both flat and circular sock machines.

I am proud to say that I have two circular sock machines at The Knit Tree which have been restored. Occasionally, I have the opportunity to knit a special pair of socks from these sock machines for the One of a Kind category of our online catalog. Go see if a pair is there, now.

My Anslie and Legare are pictured at the beginning of this article (c late 1800’s) When I found the Anslie machine, (in the attic of one of my students) it still had a “Work Sock” hanging on it. The cylinder was jammed and it was inoperable. With a loving restoration, this sock knitter was brought back to life. A box of labels “Bundles for Britain” and the hand written pattern used for these socks which were knit for our soldiers during the war, were also in the wooden carrying box. This is the same instruction pattern, I follow for the socks offered in The Knit Tree’s One of a Kind Showroom – making these socks a special treat!

Yes, 1870. We’ve had mechanical knitters for the home since at least then. BTW, that “Bundles for Britain” may have helped keep my spouse’s Dad and his squad alive. When during W.W.II, they were wandering around Europe as the 101st Airborn, frozen or molding feet was still a major cause of casualties. He managed to “cut a deal” somehow ( Sargents have their ways ;-) and managed to get one big box of socks from Britain for his crew. He had been the British Liaison Officer to the Gliders and after landing may have used that to some advantage… but I digress.

Curiously, there is another connection of computers to thread here. Knitting Patterns are written in an arcane symbol method. It includes processes, particular steps to perform, and groups of repeated actions gathered together in one chunk, and repeated a number of times. In all reasonable ways, this is a programming language. Complete with subroutines and function calls. I used knitting book patterns as an example of writing a program in my teaching of Introduction To Computers. That, and that Ada Lovelace was the first programmer tends to get the women in the class more interested. Women have been doing programming far longer than men.

But earlier, and to GallopingCamel’s point:

Stocking Loom ~ 1589

Knitted stockings became high fashion in the 16th century. Wishing to please Elizabeth I, Rev William Lee, of Calveron, Nottingham, designed his stocking frame to produce fine silk stockings. This Stocking Frame did not impress the Queen. It is said that she was much to distracted with their Armada victory to take notice of Rev Lee’s invention. Hand knitters opposed the idea of knitting frames, therefore, framework knitting evolved very quietly for the next century.

If Elizabeth I had been a bit more enthusiastic, Britain might well have had a knitting revolution in the late 1500’s and the Jaquard Loom might have a more British name attached.

We see this consistently throughout economic history. Those who advance mechanization / automation / roboticizing (whatever you call the technological advance) end up rich and with lots of well paying jobs. Those who eschew it end up unemployed wondering what happened. It is essential to “embrace change”. As I’ve mentioned before, especially so in Silicon Valley where whole industries spring up, grow old, and die in a decade or two. Yet The Valley has more nearly full employment than just about anywhere else and with higher paying jobs. That is the result, not the cause. I could just as easily have ended up a cannery worker instead of a computer programmer; but the cannery moved away and automated their operations in a low labor cost land.

That site is mostly dedicated to home knitting machines. Now, thanks to other automation, you can buy them for “toy prices”. When made by hand by the smiths of the 1700s, they were incredibly expensive machines that only the rich could afford. This one, from Amazon, costs under $30.

NKOK Singer Knitting Machine

List Price: $31.99
Price: $28.67 & FREE Shipping on orders over $35. Details
You Save: $3.32 (10%)
Only 4 left in stock.

Sold by Country Supplier and Fulfilled by Amazon. Gift-wrap available.

Want it Saturday, Oct. 24? Order within 13 hrs 49 mins and choose Saturday Delivery at checkout. Details
Nkok-Singer knitting machine

Perfect for beginner knitters! knit cool fashion accessories like hats scarves socks and leg warmers!
Recommended for ages 8 and up

Want a knit cap or socks? Now it’s nearly trivial to do. Or you can buy them made on large machines in China for low prices. We all benefit when socks are no longer something you need to “cut a deal” to get and are instead so common place we no longer even think about them.

FWIW, I have a pair of hand knit socks that I treasure. My Mum made them for me in the ’70s for when I was going skiing. They are warm and bulky and work well in large boots. They are a treasure to me, rarely worn anymore. Yet the simple fact is that machine knit socks are better and stay up without frequent tugging… and it didn’t take a few weeks to make a pair. So I have one pair of hand knit socks, and have gone through hundreds of machine knit in the same time. Nobody even knows why you would want to ‘darn a sock’ anymore. That’s a feature.

You can write substantially the same story about every industrial manufacture over the last 500 years. A very long history of mechanization, automation, and increasing prosperity with ever more “stuff” for everyone at ever lower prices. Yes, we’ve had to change jobs. The Chandlers who live down the street are more likely to sell insurance or repair cars than spend all day dipping candles. I know of at least one clan of Smiths who do computer programming… The Coopers usually don’t make barrels any more, but Cooper Tires is a major maker of tires (on automated machines). We have moved, ever more strongly, into being ‘managers of machines’ instead of brute labor. Even my mechanic has a tire mounting machine used to remove old tires, mount new ones, and with a computerized automated wheel balancer that tells him just where to tap on the wheel weight and how big. I remember watching the local mechanic do that all by hand when I was a kid. A very long and hard process. Now just a minute or two per wheel. He benefits by more total billings in a day and I benefit by a better balanced tire and lower prices.

About Amdahl and Gustafson

Moving away from several hundred years of “existence proof” in the history of automation, is there some theoretical basis for not worrying so much about robotic labor?

I think there is, but I doubt it has been stated this way before.

First, a digression into Amdahl’s Law. In full disclosure, I worked at Amdahl Corp for a few years in the 1980’s. They made giant mainframe computers that cost $Millions each. These were of a kind called “scalar processors” in that they do each job in a linear series of steps. This is what most CPUs (Central Processing Units) do in most computers.

There was another kind of processor taking off then. Cray was making “vector processors”. These would do a whole bunch of the same operation on a batch of data all at once. So you would fill an array (data structure) with, say, 64 values for hours worked, and another with 64 values of “pay rate” and then ONE instruction would do all 64 multiplications at the same time and give ONE big array of 64 results. (That 64, btw, was the width of the vector unit in “my Cray” when I ran one. It was called a ‘stride’, and lots of Cray FORTRAN was written with array arithmetic and loops of “one stride” or 64 data items as a chunk. This let the compiler optimize for the vector unit) The “vector unit” survives as the GPU or Graphics Processor Unit in most computers with fancy screens and graphics, like your PC or Macintosh. Early PCs had no GPU. Companies like Nvidia changed that and made millions in the process.

At the time, there were intense arguments that were asserting the Mainframe was not relevant as parallel processing would consume their whole market. A hoard of smaller computers and / or vector units would make a Big Iron machine irrelevant. Amdahl showed why that was not the case. To this day you can still buy “Mainframe” computers, even though they are many 10s of times more powerful than the ones from the 1980. We still need “big iron”. But why?

Amdahl’s law, also known as Amdahl’s argument, is used to find the maximum expected improvement to an overall system when only part of the system is improved. It is often used in parallel computing to predict the theoretical maximum speedup using multiple processors. The law is named after computer architect Gene Amdahl, and was presented at the AFIPS Spring Joint Computer Conference in 1967.

The speedup of a program using multiple processors in parallel computing is limited by the time needed for the sequential fraction of the program. For example, if a program needs 20 hours using a single processor core, and a particular portion of the program which takes one hour to execute cannot be parallelized, while the remaining 19 hours (95%) of execution time can be parallelized, then regardless of how many processors are devoted to a parallelized execution of this program, the minimum execution time cannot be less than that critical one hour. Hence, the theoretical speedup is limited to at most 20×.

It is my assertion (we can call it “Smith’s Corollary to Amdahl’s Law”) is that something very similar applies to the economics of automation. I would state it as:

“If you automated all that can be automated, the work that cannot be automated still remains, along with the work of tending the machines. This limits the total work displacement from automation.”

Essentially, take that “improvement to an overall system” and apply it where the “system” is the economic performance and work done and the “improvement” is the robots. Once they’ve been applied to all they can do, the rest dominates the “work space”.

Here’s the graph from the Amdahl’s law link:

Amdahl's Law graph

Amdahl’s Law

I would assert the same holds for automation. IFF 95% of some manufacture can be automated, we will use a couple of thousand machines to do it, and that will make 20x as much stuff. We tend not to make the same stuff in the same quantity, so just as many folks will be employed in the non-automated parts of that particular product (shipping, accounting, marketing, sales, machine maintenance, computer programming, etc.)

Now couple that with the REASON you automate being lower costs to produce, and the “law of supply and demand” then those lower cost goods will be in ever more demand, leading to much more production, leading to expansion of the work needed in the non-automated portion. Someone is repairing, installing, and servicing all those knitting machines making all those stockings world wide. Think back to W.W.II era. “Silk Stockings” cost a minor fortune. Then nylon was invented, and matched with knitting machines, and generations of guys and gals have enjoyed the results ever since. Even in the ’60s I remember a ‘run in a stocking’ was cause for pangs as they were a costly item. Now they are nearly disposable. Yet also nearly indestructible.

In the end, instead of needing a few thousand workers making silk stockings (from tending moths to knitting a million knits / stocking) as they cost so much to make, we have a largely automated process that still employees lots of people that I’d guess was up in the millions if you include sales channels.

Substantially the same thing can be said about nails, hammers, hand tools in general, dishes, buckets and so much more. I don’t spend half a day making a hammer. I buy one for a fraction of an hours pay. If it rusts I don’t spend 1/4 of a day re-making it and cleaning it and all. It goes in the recycle and I buy another one. Thus the non-automated part of that hammer manufacture ends up consuming just as much labor as ever as we have more hammers (by a long shot) than when they were hand made.

This has shown up in food production in an indirect way. We eat more beef. Back in the 1500s and even into the 1800s, people ate a lot more grain and a lot less meat. Now we have mechanized agriculture. This has made grain so plentiful that we feed it to animals. Cows have about a 10 : 1 “feed conversion”, so you feed them 10 lbs of dry grain to get one ‘wet pound’ of meat. That 10 lbs of corn would feed a person for 10 days. That one pound steak gets them through one very nice dinner. Chickens are about a 2 or 3 : 1 conversion, so “poor people” now eat a lot of chicken. Long gone are the days when “A chicken in every pot” was a promise of great wealth to come. When I was about 6, it was still common to think of a chicken as a ‘special Sunday meal’ instead of ‘oh that cheap stuff again’. Automated chicken farms and automated chicken plucking and butchering changed all that. So we eat a lot more chicken and let them eat the grain. Total people employed in producing chicken has gone up.

BTW, I’ve plucked a pheasant by hand. If there is any job in the world I think is “not worth having”, it is chicken plucker. Lord thank you for the automated plucking machine!


On the one hand, Amdahl’s Law and Smith’s Corollary predict that as automation proceeds, there is a limit to what can be automated and the non-automated part comes to dominate the work. As we are already about 200 to 400 years into this whole automation thing, I’d assert we are already well along that graph.

Then add in lower cost to manufacture and how that interacts with supply and demand, that means more total consumption, and so more total production. This “economic growth” leads to more employment in those fields than the “static scored” graph would predict. And that, too, is what has been seen in the history of the world.

From knit shirts and stockings, to cars, radios, and even chickens: The more automation, the more of it we buy. Even computers themselves. In 1960 nobody had a personal computer. Now I’ve got 5 of them “hooked up” and 4 more sitting around archived as “obsolete”. And that doesn’t count my tablet and cell phone. In 1960 we had ONE wired ‘black phone’ for the house. Now we’ve got an internet connection AND one cell phone per person AND I’ve got 2 portable wireless hotspots. Communications is now very automated and very computerized, and I’m consuming far more it than ever before.

So not only does the non-automated part come to dominate the industry for any given industry, but those industries that automate most, grow most. Leading to more consumption of goods and more employment.

Flys In Amdahl’s Soup?

There’s another “law” that I think is also important. Gustafson’s.

But I think it is important for the context of what it says more than for the actual words.

Gustafson’s Law (also known as Gustafson–Barsis’ law) is a law in computer science which says that computations involving arbitrarily large data sets can be efficiently parallelized. Gustafson’s Law provides a counterpoint to Amdahl’s law, which describes a limit on the speed-up that parallelization can provide, given a fixed data set size. Gustafson’s law was first described by John L. Gustafson and his colleague Edwin H. Barsis:

It then goes into a bit of math that those inclined can go look up. The basic notion behind Gustafson’s Law is that the problem changes. It isn’t a fixed pie of problem size that the computer is attacking. So make a massively parallel computer, folks will find some massively parallel problems to use it on.

That, too, is exactly what has happened.

These two are often presented as fighting each other. I think that is not so.

Amdahl is talking about any one problem being worked and Gustafson is talking about all potential problems that could be worked.

Two different problem spaces.

Gustafson’s law addresses the shortcomings of Amdahl’s law, which does not fully exploit the computing power that becomes available as the number of machines increases. Gustafson’s Law instead proposes that programmers tend to set the size of problems to use the available equipment to solve problems within a practical fixed time. Therefore, if faster (more parallel) equipment is available, larger problems can be solved in the same time.

Accordingly, Gustafson called his metric scaled speedup, because in the above expression S(P) is the ratio of the total, single-process execution time to the per-process parallel execution time; the former scales with P, while the latter is assumed fixed or nearly so. This is in contrast to Amdahl’s Law, which takes the single-process execution time to be the fixed quantity, and compares it to a shrinking per-process parallel execution time. Thus, Amdahl’s law is based on the assumption of a fixed problem size: it assumes the overall workload of a program does not change with respect to machine size (i.e., the number of processors). Both laws assume the parallelizable part is evenly distributed over P processors.

Applied to the economics of automation and robotics, this is, to my point of view, basically the part about “we do more of it and buy more”. As we apply robotic assembly to things, we can make things we would never have made before. It is humanly impossible to construct an iPhone. Very large parts of it (or, in reality, very very small parts of it…) simply must be done by robots. Robotic assembly allows the iPhone to exist and so we buy lots of them. This employs folks all over the globe in the tens of thousands (and into the millions if you include the folks making aps, selling iPhones, iPhone network services, classes in programming IOS, and on and on). Yet we have millions of these exquisite machines that are in all ways possible a magic miracle that are thrown away when a new iteration comes out. Robots let that happen. The miracle becomes the mundane and we “do what could not be considered before”. Have disposable miracle boxes in our hands.

But it isn’t just computers and iPhones. Look at music. It was all hand crafted 500 years ago. Edison made it available to all, and music consumption went up. Robots run youtube. Yes, highly specialized robots we call “computers”, but they are robots. Disk controllers are indistinguishable from the controllers moving a grasping arm instead of a disk arm. Now we have $Billions in the “music” industry and every music recording needs a video with special effects, makeup, choreography, backup singers, etc. etc.

Similarly in movies. In the 1960s “special effects” were rare and expensive. Stunt doubles and various physical magic. The Foley Artist had a box of coconut shells for horse hooves, a cap gun, some bells and a wash board and other goods for making various sounds in the movies. Special effects and Foley Art were used lightly. Now they have a specialized automated sound robot that calls up any desired sound on demand, and even lets them make waveforms of any sort via computer synthesis. Now every movie has a list of tech support longer than the cast and you can’t find a movie without Foley Art used end to end and a load of computerized special effects all over it. In some cases, such as Avatar, most of the movie is ‘special effects’, or robotic production of the art. This used MORE people doing special effects, not less. Sure, a few carpenters likely had less set construction to do, but that didn’t cut budget of the movie spent on labor. There was a lot more electrical work on the sound stages.

As another example, my “old college roomie” is now teaching robotics at a local high school. They compete in robot competitions. This is not a small operation and they just placed at some level in the State competition. Not one of those jobs or the jobs related to all the events held would exist without the robots. The “problem space” has grown to include Robotics Engineer, Robotics Teacher, Robotics Judges, Robotics Venues, etc. etc.

Precisely because of Smith’s Corollary to Gustafson’s Law, that robotics and automation will lead to MORE uses in MORE ways and for MORE things than anticipated by static analysis of one use.

We see that playing out in the history of automation.

In the 1800s it was expensive and slow to cross the ocean as it took a Tall Ship with a large crew for along time. Steamers in the 1920s and 1940s made the journey faster with less crew, and more folks ‘made the crossing’. Instead of a ‘one way” when my Irish ancestors came to America, folks might cross a couple of times. Then, with the jet airplane the crew (labor) dropped a lot and the hours / passenger mile of crew costs dropped more. Now folks “jet over” for a long weekend. I’ve crossed the country (2800 miles) more times than I can remember. Once ever 2 weeks for a couple of years at one point. The fuel used to fly is far more than in a train. The difference is the highly automated cockpit and air traffic control and very low labor used. It is substantially an automated process compared to trains, and especially so compared to the trains of the 1800s. We can now have a flight crew of 2 pilots and a half dozen cabin crew take 1000 people coast to coast or from Europe to New York in about 5 hours. So we do it a whole lot more often than when travel was by manual operated ships, and trains that had similar crew sizes, but required a couple of weeks pay to cover them. It is a whole new “problem” that is being addressed. That of “weekend transcontinental travel”.

When you can look at nearly every industry and see the same thing, I think that’s a pretty strong existence proof for the fundamental nature of the economy. Not unlike Amdahl’s Law and Gustafson’s Law in computing, the advance of robotic production has the same effect on economic activity. Smith’s Corollary to Amdahl’s Law says that the non-robotic portion will come to dominate the labor space. (To some extent a tautology). More of us will be in “service” and sales and insurance and teaching and doing dance and putting on plays and polishing our speakers awards. Smith’s Corollary to Gustafson’s Law says we will be doing things we have no idea can be done today.

One final example. Especially on that last point. A relative just had surgery. They were out of the hospital in a day when I know that particular surgery takes a good week in the hospital (from my days working in hospitals on the wards). That surgery was done at a life phase where it would never have been done before due to it being “major surgery”. So what changed? It was done as robotic surgery via a very small incision. A great revolution in surgery is happening with robotic surgery. It is NOT reducing the number of surgeons. (Yes, you can quibble that it is robotic assisted surgery.. and I’d point out that iPhones are just robotic assisted assembly and socks are just robotic assisted manufacture and…) Since we don’t need holes big enough to get 4 hands inside a person, we can use robotic surgery and do what was impossible, at lower costs, higher speeds, faster recovery, better results. In the end, this means more surgery being done as the impossible becomes mundane.

It is that kind of thing that brings Smith’s Corollary to Gustafson’s Law into force. As long as there are unsolved problems to solve, there is no risk of running out of work for computers (scalar or vector) and as long as there are unmet human desires there is no risk of running out of work for robots and people to do. As the world is a very very long way away from everyone having a lifestyle like Trump or AlGore, clearly there is a relatively infinite “problem space” in which to employ robots producing goods and services. As robots do more of that portion which they can do, more of what’s left to do falls to people (Amdahl’s Law) and as robots do more, we will demand more and different things in greater quantity (Gustafson’s law).

These two forces working together mean that there is no risk of massive permanent unemployment from automation or robotics. There may well be other things that cause unemployment. (Mostly government rules and brittle labor laws about getting, keeping, and changing professions and licenses) Robots do not guarantee full employment for all. People can be incredibly stupid, especially when it comes politicians and economics. They seem to be a fundamentally bad mix with politicians seeming to think that the ability to sell themselves to ‘the masses’ somehow confers wisdom and understanding of the complex natural process that is a market ecology. Nothing could be further from the truth. Yet robots do not mean unemployment either. If they did, we’d all be unemployed already. The industrial revolution would have done it.

That’s my view on it. Please think about this (and actually read it, even if long) before starting the nay saying and mud tossing.

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About E.M.Smith

A technical managerial sort interested in things from Stonehenge to computer science. My present "hot buttons' are the mythology of Climate Change and ancient metrology; but things change...
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45 Responses to Amdahl’s Law, Gustafson’s, Robots and Jobs

  1. jdseanjd says:

    At the start there, I thought i was back in one of my favourite Heinlein novels.

    a nice piece to ponder on, thank you.

    Now if we can just figure out how to break the depopulation machines….

  2. EM – this is a longer historical view. For individuals, there will be periods of unemployment, retraining if possible, and problems if they aren’t bright enough or dextrous enough to do the new jobs that will open up.

    Maybe one important difference now is that the rate of change has been increasing, and that the associated social changes as people retrain will still take the same amount of time and may even take longer as the amount of knowledge needed to do a new job increases.

    A further difference is that transport around the world has become faster and cheaper so that workers in one country are competing with workers halfway around the world. We’re seeing that this week with steelworks in the UK, where producers of low-grade steel have closed and those that haven’t have reduced (or are reducing) the scale of their operations and are moving to the production of higher-grade steels where there is more profit. Since the cheap steel can be imported from China for less than the cost of the raw materials and energy to make it, the steelworks have to adapt or die.

    In the face of automation, there will be rearguard actions by groups to protect their jobs and keep things the way they are. At the moment, trains are basically driven by computer and the driver is there because the unions dictate that. Taxi drivers are up in arms, too, and whereas at the moment they are just complaining about Uber it really won’t be long before the Uber drivers will also be complaining about the driverless cars taking their jobs too. Driverless trucks are now on the public roads in Germany and have been used for years in Australian mines.

    The problem is thus not that there won’t be enough jobs, but that people will have to both create the new jobs and then learn how to do them, and so there will be a greater amount of time that people will be “between jobs and learning”. Like you I’ve done quite a few different jobs and each one required a new skillset and thus some intense studying before I got on top of it. I regard that as fun, but I’ve noticed that a lot of people prefer to keep doing the job they’ve learnt and don’t like the effort of learning a new job. It’s maybe also worth noting that the Peter Principle is still going to apply, and that people will still get promoted to their level of incompetence.

    If offered a choice of two products that do exactly the same job, there has to be a very good reason to choose the more expensive of the two. At the moment that is done by coercion – you can’t choose the Uber taxi because it’s been made illegal in a few countries, and the Chinese imports may have import tariffs to level the the end-user costs. That can keep things going for a while, but people tend to find a way around restrictions and the cheaper system will win in the end. Manufacturing may be coming back to Europe and the States from China, but it’s coming back with far more automation and far fewer people employed.

    One of my jobs had the title “cost-down designer”. On some boards I could take out half of the costs ex-factory by choice of components, design and manufacturing methods. Taking out the hand-assembly processes was a no-brainer, since it both reduced the cost and improved the reliability, with the result that our factory produced more (and better) boards with the same number of people, but that people gradually migrated from the hand-assembly lines to watching over the machines doing the job a lot faster. My job disappeared when the manufacturing moved to Hungary where the wage rates were about 20% of the UK rates.

    Today’s worker thus has a lot more uncertainty as to how long their job-placement will last. Some automated process (or simply cheaper wages) somewhere else can cause the end of that job and income-stream, and the end may come pretty quickly. Whereas at this moment there may be jobs in warehouses as stackers, I’d expect those jobs to get automated just as soon as possible so there won’t be that many jobs for the unskilled workers or those whose skills are no longer relevant. That will make a problem for individuals as to how to maintain their income-stream while they retrain (if they can) for a job that is available.

    While government regulations involved in starting and running a new business remain complex and difficult, and it’s likely that no-one could in a lifetime understand all the regulations that apply, there’s going to be a problem in new businesses starting to exploit a new opening. The system is getting more creaky, and it’s getting more difficult to adjust to the pace of change as that pace increases. You have stated before that you ran such a small business but found that the regulatory load was so high that it just wasn’t worth the candle. Meantime the regulations have been increasing at a rate of IIRC about a page a day.

    What I see therefore is that although increasing automation is making more products more cheaply with fewer man-hours, the ever-increasing number of people whose skillsets don’t match the jobs available and the increasing difficulties of starting a new business will mean that we’ll have an increasing proportion of people who can’t find a job (any job) even when they are willing and able. When we have robot window-cleaners and robots who do the necessary maintenance on those robots, what’s someone between placements going to do? We won’t need that many people to design new robots (and maybe even that job will be largely automated too).

    Historically, slave-owners had a pretty good life, and the work they did consisted of telling the slaves what to do. With robots, we could have the same high standard for everyone without the human slavery. Getting from where we are to that point looks to be a bit rocky, though, with the social systems breaking down for a while and people being destitute and jobless because their income stream has dried up although there’s just as many goods being produced and those goods are very cheap. Those who own the production won’t have a market who can pay. The system needs re-working to enable the purchasing of those products and thus to keep the cycle of production and consumption running reliably. Maybe Adrian’s UBI idea isn’t quite so negative, and if that is combined with making a new business easy to start up and run then we can generate the new (mainly service/entertainment) jobs we need to keep people occupied when they no longer need to actually produce the basic goods for life.

    Old jobs will go and new jobs will emerge, but I think that the rate of change is getting to be too fast for our current social system to deal with. Although this is not qualitatively different from the changes in the past, we need to change our attitudes in order to deal with the changes more quickly. My granddad had the same job all his life, my dad did for most of his life but changed near the end, I’ve had half a dozen careers so far, and I expect my daughter to change jobs every few years and probably have multiple part-time jobs at a time. Is she going to be broke between jobs and feeling depressed from being on Welfare or will she be able to have a good standard of living while she learns (or creates) a new job for herself? Will losing a job be a catastrophe or an opportunity to learn something new? What do we do with the people who can’t do the new jobs that emerge (some people have problems programming the TV to record what they want to see)? How do we reward the people who do better than average, so that they keep doing what they do well? When the basics of life are basically free (produced by robotic labour) there still needs to be some reason to get up off your ass and do something.

    These are interesting times.

  3. Brent Buckner says:

    In the limit perhaps one could create a robot that had full human capabilities that required less material and energy to construct and maintain than a human does. Between here and there I’m pretty sure there’s a case where the labour market value of many people’s efforts wouldn’t reach subsistence level.

  4. Dave says:

    Funny, when I saw “Jobs” in the title of this I imagined you were going to pontificate about the film due to you time at Apple. Based on your historical linking of progress and automation, you must be a fan of James Burke and “Connections”. If you have never watched this series it is one of the best to ever come out of the BBC in my opinion. I had a chance to watch him speak during my college years. One of the more brilliant people I have had a chance to see in person.

  5. Richard Ilfeld says:

    This time is (temporarily) different. There is a huge political industry engaged in preventing, not the progress of production, but the creation of alternatives. It’s as if the hordes left the farm and went to the city to seek their fortune, only to have the kings’s men tell them it takes two years to get a permit to do anything, and the banks aren’t allowed to lend you money. In the early days of cars, a million mechanics got their start under a shade tree or in the garage on the alley behind the row house. A million stylists did a few friends hair and nails in the parlor. One guy had a printing press in the garage, another was building widgets in the basement and selling them at the craft fair on Saturday. Its easy to find common themes in the biographies for those who rose to prominance in the 20th century. For every ten thousand bike shops you get one airplane invented.

    Outside of computing, this part of the economy is oficially supressed. A dozen experience I had as a kid, hanging on the airport fence and cadging a ride for washing a plane….learning to sail in the town pond with a canoe and a bedsheet, are closed to urban and suburban youth — I submit that lack of creative play chaos in young lives leads to lack of entrepeneurism in young adults.

    Perhaps you were sparked by a great speaker at collge. Today’s student won’t hear than message. The speaker is banned, or due to trigger warning the student is cowering in a safe room.

    Whether its the lemonaid stand for a ten year old, or a home based startup, the progressive politicos are determined to kick out the first couple of rungs of the ladder of success.

    Knowledge, like cash,compounds over time. Millions of the Obama cohort are starting late. Fewer will reach heights, and many will lead lives of dependence — eventually, if not already, the whole society will lose critical mass and regress.

    If you maintain order and rules about contracts and property, and otherwise leave people the hell alone,stuff will get figured out.


  6. Larry Ledwick says:

    @Simon Derricutt
    Your comments are basically a restatement of Amdahl’s law, that the labor market is becoming dominated by the slowest process, — that of training and adapting the work force to fit in new niches.

    My grandfather mostly worked as a painter, and trained his son’s to assist him with his painting jobs. When I was growing up my father still did painting around the house, and showed me and my brother how to handle a brush to “cut in” trim without masking tape. Now blue 3M painters tape is so cheap and available almost no one retains that painting skill. It is much faster and cheaper in the long run to mask the trim and just slather the paint on.

    But my Father did not make his living as a painter. In the Navy during WWII he was trained as a machinist mate on PT boats, and at the end of the war ran an engine preservation shop where they mothballed aircraft engines post war (cross over from the Packard Merlin V12’s used the PT boats to the very similar aircraft engines used in high performance fighter planes at the end of the war). He took an apprentice job after the war in a car dealership as a mechanic, and worked the rest of his life as a mechanic first in auto shops and later at large trucking companies.

    I likewise was trained in the Navy in computers did a brief stint of several years as a machinist (falling back on skills learned from my father when I could not get work in computers after Vietnam cutbacks and the shift from IBM 360 to the IBM 370 in banking). Then I shifted jobs and started over working in electronic repair of office machines and later as an electronics tech for the Civil Defense Program repairing and calibrating radiation detection equipment. That job transitioned into an emergency planner position where I wrote community disaster plans for the Office of Emergency Management until I decided government work was a job that would either turn me into a not very nice person or kill me due to the frustration and stupidity you had to deal with on a daily basis. I took a little time off, then worked for about 6 months as a rent a slave at a local green house before I found an entry level job in IT again, and moved back into IT. First as a tape runner (tape monkey) feeding 3480 cartridges to an Amdahl main frame and manually loading reel tapes, then into Unix operations where I have worked since.

    In that time period the U.S. Navy totally abolished the rate I was trained in. In 1969 being a computer operator was an important specialty. By the mid to late 1980’s lots of that work shifted to personal computers and by the 1990’s with the exception of a very small niche of mainframe computers and then then new Unix data centers everyone was doing basic processing on desk top PC’s.

    My current job is now a slowly vanishing specialty, and has merged into desk top support and sort of a junior sys-admin and scheduling job where much of my time is spent just monitoring the unix systems and keeping the processing running efficiently. This involves a bit of “art” as you figure out how to juggle jobs to keep the machines as busy as possible with out taking them to their knees or melting them, detecting problems before they get out of hand, and anticipating job conflicts as some jobs really don’t play well with others. As a result you have to deconflict those jobs as best you can. All the while the developers are constantly modifying the code and rolling out new capabilities, so much of my time is spent learning and adapting to an ever changing work topography as stuff that used to require a great deal of hands on attention is mostly automated but occasionally blows up, to new code that suddenly introduces new needs for manual attention. To shut down certain servers I need to bring down several programs and data bases in a specific sequence then when the server is ready to come back up, restart all those services and data bases in a specific sequence while looking for errors in the logs to catch problems before they become catastrophic.

    We hire in young kids straight out of college and they run rings around me with windows desk support skills, but they have no experience with the “Art” of juggling operations to keep the ship on an even keel and off the rocks. They teach me as much as I teach them.

    My biggest concern is our school system / culture is turning out whole generations of under educated workers skilled to work in car washes and pizza delivery but not really trained to adapt to a fast changing technical work environment where you can plan on having 3 – 4 – 5 different careers in your life time. Likewise the colleges are pooping out over educated fools with degrees which have absolutely no relationship to real income producing skills. They are no longer education centers but businesses who sell the myth that you have to have a college degree to be employable so they can charge more for a degree in underwater basket weaving to someone who will never weave a basket, while companies will not even interview prospective employees who do not have some degree, even if it is a totally useless degree like the history of social oppression or some other made up degree topic that sounds impressive.

    At the same time as I approach retirement age (although I will work as long as I can), I sometimes tire of the chase and would be perfectly happy doing exactly what I am currently doing for the rest of my work life. I really don’t want to re-train to be a dba, or a computer security specialist who has to be on top of things 24 x 7 x 365 while being on 24 hour call for problems and spend all my time keeping up to date on new patches and the latest security risks. Nor do I want to become a PHP programmer or web developer. I sometimes long for the days standing in front of a lathe or milling machine watching chips fly where you created something physical with your own two hands, and when you were done you could admire a nicely made piece of steel or aluminum and know you had produced something of value.

    In the IT industry most of the value is intangible, you make files and someone picks them up by FTP and your billing folks send an invoice and gets paid, but you never see a physical product for your efforts. Like a fire fighter it is a bad thing if you are really busy, yet management wonders why they pay you if things are running smoothly and nothing has blown up recently.

    (an outage a day keeps the pink slip away)

    At the same time folks think you can do magic and can remotely reset their password on their laptop when they are 2000 miles away from the shop and cannot even log onto the laptop because they forgot to renew their password before it expired.

  7. u.k.(us) says:

    What, if I might ask….
    ….would be the opposite of ” the nay saying and mud tossing.” ?
    Cus, I won’t be either nor neither, unless pressed.

  8. E.M.Smith says:

    @u.k. (u.s.):

    The opposite is “here here” or sometimes “hear hear”, and praise.

    Basically, I’m saying its ok to critisize the thesis. (It is also ok to be supportive, but I thought it more important to recognize that a critique was ok, but suggest being informed by reading the posting before leaping to an argument…)

  9. Power Grab says:

    Re Richard Ilfeld’s comments: I viewed a webinar yesterday about “data lakes” and the software tools used to deal with them.

    While I was watching it, I formulated a vision of how different it is to get into being a data jockey now. In the “Olde Days”, back in the mid-1980’s, it was more like being a shade-tree mechanic (unless you bought an Apple Mac, because you weren’t supposed to work on them yourself; you were supposed to take them back to the store and get things fixed or modified). Working on a Mac was not unlike trying to do watch repair while wearing boxing gloves. IBM-compatibles were less so. If you could read a manual, you could learn a lot and do it yourself.

    Nowadays, most everyone who’s anyone has many computerized devices, if not actual computers. But the amount and kind of data is harder to deal with. To make a profession of it, you have to find a way into the cloistered walls of the preserve, and the tools you use to make the data sing and dance are supposed to, at the same time, shield you from actually touching any data with your bare hands.

    The idea that one can trust those tools implicitly to produce output that is 100% accurate (or as accurate as you can make it, within the limits of the quality of your data) is hard for me to swallow.

    Heh-heh…one time I was asked for an ad hoc report by a VP at the same time as they also asked the Office of Data Jockeys to come up with it. I used sort of a “roll your own” combination of programs. I’m sure they used the latest and greatest tools. I won. (It helps if one knows their data very well.)

    While I’m rambling, I want to mention that I asked the webinar presenters if any of their products were in use on healthcare-dot-gov. One presenter responded that theirs was…but the infrastructure behind it was very complicated…and his product wasn’t the cause of any downtime. LOL! Yes, that _was_ the reason I asked. ;-)

    Now, if they really do ever get the data tools to be able to do “automagically” the same thing as I do, I will have to either retire or find something else to do. We’ll see who wins.

    If they win, and I still have some good working years left in me, I might make a significant change to my major hobby, which is in the arts.

  10. Larry Ledwick says:

    @Power Grab

    Now, if they really do ever get the data tools to be able to do “automagically” the same thing as I do, I will have to either retire or find something else to do. We’ll see who wins.

    Once you get in the trenches of IT you realize that most of the creative work is sufficiently one off that no reasonable improvement in software tool capabilities will completely replace humans and their ability to analyze why things are breaking and fix it, or to analyze a unique problem and come up with a solution.

    Expert systems are good for standardized problems like maybe monitoring a refinery and telling the staff that valve 22 is having a problem because pressures in the vessel it feeds are not right but somebody still has to go out there and look at the valve and determine it is not the valve that is the problem but the wrench someone left on a pipe above it which eventually fell off and jammed the valve. Same goes for data structures, expert systems can quickly identfy code failures you can predict like missing ; at the end of a mysql statement but it is much more difficult to come up with an expert system that will reliably tell you the reason joe blow is having problems with FTP is user error at the command line or his IT staff shut off a port that was open last week when it worked. The geometric growth of possible combinations and solutions grows so quickly when you get into unique combinations of a complex process that by the time you have enough experience to write an expert monitoring system to correctly identify the problem all the users who were working with that system will have either moved on to other tools and are no longer doing it the same way or will have retired. In real data processing environments you are always running to catch a moving train. The decision loop is too slow to allow automated systems to catch up with all these changes without manual intervention at some point in the process. A machine has to test every possible solution (sort of like figuring out chess moves) a human who understands the system and process can make intelligent jumps. That is a human attribute I don’t expect to see in code in my life time. In 100 years or so they might approach it on definable problems but then only on very high value systems where it is worth while to throw teams of engineers and testers at the problem like nuclear plant safety or a rocket launch to mars, or the F-35 (oops bad example don’t have a handle on that one yet).

  11. Terry Jay says:

    The opposite is “here here” or sometimes “hear hear”, and praise.
    Or preys. Attitude makes the day.

    Times change and things evolve. AT&T was a sanctioned monopoly, some pain ensued, and there are lots of phone companies and long distance is included in the monthly service for around $35, a notable portion for tax rather than service. When was the last time you made a person-to-person call?

    The improvement in the human condition in the economies that have quickly adopted automation and process improvement since, say 1800, is stunning, Much longer life span, much better health, much better living conditions. May it continue and spread.

  12. Power Grab says:

    @ Larry Ledwick: Your comments echo my own private ideas.

    I never wanted to seriously get into any of the “black box” data connectivity tools. I keep remembering all those patches and updates that hit our systems with regularity. If one of those black boxes breaks something in one of the other black boxes, then it could take a pretty long time to figure out the problem, let alone get it fixed…if it can be fixed. I’d rather spend my time doing other things.

    Back at the ranch, they’re painfully working through yet another conversion to the main mission-critical system. The last time they did it was because of Y2K. It really didn’t seem this painful back then. But the old system was entirely written in house. I’m guessing our in-house programmers knew the data well enough that they could better handle formatting it for the new system. This time it looks like they’re using conversion tools that were created to move the data from the old system to the new system (both from the same vendor). There’s always failures in multiple tables. They send the notices to everyone on the list.

    My department’s mission critical playground won’t even be ready for prime time until 10 months from now (so they say), which is incredibly late in our cycle. Fortunately, our shadow system serves our department well, even if the rest of the company has to suffer. The CIO knows I am prepared to make daily dumps into a common storehouse to help the rest of the company in the interim, but I have to have them tell me where I can put it. I’m surprised it’s taking this long. Maybe their plate is too full with the conversion activities….

  13. gallopingcamel says:

    Having spent most of my life automating other people’s jobs into oblivion I have pondered these issues many times and find myself agreeing with Chiefio.

    Innovation is creative destruction. It is easy to see the negative aspects such as jobs eliminated but not so easy to show that the positives outweigh the negatives.

    Tim Worstall at Forbes is amazing (for an economist) because he understands that the elimination of slavery and the industrial revolution created the wealth we enjoy today:

    Worstall is saying that the global per capita income that was $600/year for thousands of years, suddenly started to increase in 1820. Two hundred years later it is $6,000/year. This is hard for Malthusians to explain given that global population increased by a factor of seven since 1820. Total global wealth has increased by a factor of 70 in less than 200 years.

    This is no surprise to us Cornucopians who realize that wealth creation drove the population explosion. Wealth creation will continue to accelerate unless human folly intervenes. The folly could take the form of nuclear warfare or misguided government intervention as advocated by evil bastards such as Maurice Strong, David Suzuki, Al Gore, Barack Obama and Prince Charles.

    At a more personal level, I was an engineer who automated the manufacture of electronic machinery. Over the years I helped to eliminate thousands of jobs until I eventually outsmarted myself by eliminating my own (engineer) job.

    I was invited to review the operations of a certain large US factory producing “Medium” electrical transformers. A medium transformer weighs less than 40 tonnes and is small enough to be delivered by railway. Typically it will have 100,000 parts. The factory was so highly automated so that “Direct Labor” accounted for only 7% of the product cost.

    I was hired to look at engineering which also accounted for 7% of the cost. At that time it took one skilled engineer 13 weeks to design a medium transformer. Using “Design Automation” this time was reduced to one man-day, a productivity improvement of about 90 times. The design process no longer requires an engineer trained in the niceties of transformer design. All you need is someone who can enter data into a computer terminal.

    If you are wondering how this project turned out, the factory in question relocated to Mexico. So given labor is such a tiny component of the manufacturing cost what possible benefit could there be in leaving the USA for Mexico? The answer is “Government Regulations”………..a story for another day.

  14. Steve C says:

    I wonder whether the joker in the pack might not turn out to be (for want of a better name) “Carrington’s Law”: when Old Sol decides that “All your tech are belong to me”, burps, and KO’s the greater part of all our pretty tech.

    Jacquard looms, steam engines and the like could at least just get on with the job – give or take the odd boiler explosion, belt breakage or whatever – and the only real effect of “Carrington 1” was to knock out the (newfangled) telegraph infrastructure for awhile. Look at what’s lined up for the next one. Yes, the communications infastructure, again. The power infrastructure, including a lot of gallopingcamel’s “medium” transformers and the whole fuel/energy chain on which modern life depends. The manufacturing infrastructure needed to replace those transformers. Heat, light, power, food, medical facilities, even a lot of the military – not to mention a whole frantic new generation who live their lives online, once there is no “online” – all gone. Millions of “the disposessed”, in suddenly useless cities.

    Don’t get me wrong. I love this stuff, having learned my electronic skills on ex-WWII (and older!) gear based on firebottles, kept learning through the eras of crappy transistors, good ones, chips of ever-increasing “wow factor” right up to where we are now, where few, if any, people could actually give a detailed description of exactly what’s going on inside the black boxes which do, just about, everything. (And, please note, this isn’t just sour grapes that much of my hobby has already largely disappeared into a microscopic realm which defies my aging eyesight. It is a genuine worry.)

    We have put just about all our eggs in one, very fragile, electronic basket. Next Carrington, who’s going to keep everything ticking over when nothing works anymore? How, given that the old mechanical skills have already largely died out courtesy of the Robots? A friend, further through his sixties than I am through mine, has already related to me how it feels to go into a “Technology Museum” and realise that he – probably alone in the room – knows how to use every “old-fashioned”, “obsolete” tool on display. Books? So who’s going to save those from the mob who see them only as fuel for a fire to keep warm now?

    In my opinion, we’ve gone much too far into our “virtual world”. I honestly feel that we have done ourselves no favours in offloading so much of our knowledge into cyberspace (itself hardly a secure place, as TalkTalk and its customers have discovered this week) and out of our (knowledgeable) control. Once we old twozzers who still know how to solder and weld and screw stuff together have shuffled off the mortal coil, humanity will be as helpless as the day it was born.

    Pessimistic? ‘Fraid so. I believe the days of life being “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short” will return again come Carrington 2, and all the more nasty and brutish because there are a lot more of us now – and a lot more ignorant about the real world – than there were in Hobbes’s day. The only societies to survive relatively unscathed will be the “backward” societies which still live hand-to-mouth, and who will constitute the new “elite” for that reason. They might not eat well, but they’ll eat.

  15. gallopingcamel says:

    Steve C:
    As you point out our wealth rests on a shaky foundation. The electrical grid in the USA is not hardened to withstand the EMP pulses from nuclear weapons detonated in space. A “Carrington Event” such as occurred in 1859 would cause our industrial civilization to collapse worldwide.

    On the other hand a single volcanic eruption can cause widespread crop failures as in 1815 & 1816:

    Governments around the world are looking for “Heroic” problems that only governments can solve. Governments should make sure that such problems are real rather than wasting money on non-problems such as “Global Warming”.

    World leaders should be encouraging the development of hardened electricity generation, while creating huge stocks of non-perishable food as Hamurabi did in antiquity.

    So how do you harden electricity generation? Job one is to reduce our reliance on open air grids that cannot be shielded from EMP. The simplest way to do that is to build thousands of small nuclear reactors that will be entirely underground with metal containment shells. The transmission cables will also be in underground metal ducts while the transformers and switches will be in metal lined vaults.

    I am hoping for a small “Carrington Event” that is enough to get our attention without destroying our civilization.

    We have already received the “Gypsy’s Warning” about the volcanic menace. Just ask yourself what percentage of the human population would have survived if the 1815 eruption had been on the scale of Mount Toba:

  16. Adrian Ashfield says:

    “You would think that if it were going to cause catastrophic and unrecoverable collapse of the economy it would have done so by now.”

    No. In my opinion it hasn’t happened yet but it is on the cusp of happening.

    “Amdahl’s law

    “If you automated all that can be automated, the work that cannot be automated still remains, along with the work of tending the machines. This limits the total work displacement from automation.”

    “Now couple that with the REASON you automate being lower costs to produce, and the “law of supply and demand” then those lower cost goods will be in ever more demand, leading to much more production, leading to expansion of the work needed in the non-automated portion.”

    There are two fallacies here. A sufficient percentage of jobs can be automated to cause high, permanent unemployment. Secondly, the available money for such purchases is not increasing in America, AND there is a finite number of items that people want to buy.

    You have made a good case with analogies but I think the case I made with more figures is stronger. Perhaps you would consider publishing it, if you still have it. “Advances in technology that will change your life.”

  17. E.M.Smith says:

    @Carrington Topic:

    “Next Carrington, who’s going to keep everything ticking over when nothing works anymore? ”

    Me, and folks like me. More of us than you might think. As to the “new generation”, look to the Steam Punk and Maker folks. There are still “shade tree mechanics” out there who solder things.

    Some of why I’m less concerned that a Carrington 2 means the end of the world:

    1) Yes, it will be horrible. But most likely not global. One side of the earth gets a much bigger wallop than the other. In Carrington 1 Hawaii had all sorts of electrical effects. London not so much. So I’m of the opinion that 1/2 of the world will be a ‘disaster area’ but not the other. Furthermore, it is highly likely that it will not happen exactly at the equinox, so either Alaska or Argentina / Chile ought to be OK.

    2) As the frequency is very low, the wavelength is very long. Energy couples into the “antenna” of the right length, and that was about the 300 to 3000 miles of telegraph wires. Not the 2 feet of the electronic wiring in my car. Anything NOT connected to The Grid and The Net ought to survive fine.

    3) The first device is the ersatz fuse. (Maybe I need to make that one of Smith’s Laws ;-0 Perhaps Smith’s Law of Electrical Preparation? ) This is not a speculation, it is an observation. Observed several times.

    Here are 2 examples, one small and one very large. When returning from Florida I’d been informed by a neighbor that the crossbar on the power pole had fallen, that sparks flew for a good while, and PG&E had to fix it all. I also found discharge paths on the circuit board of my WiFi hub as it and the internet router were dead (though the router only had its brains scrambled and quasi worked a while). Both replaced from spares from the junk box everything is up and running fine now. The computers et. al. were fine. The second case was a lightning strike at the Disney Main Data Center. Took the whole complex down despite 2 power feeds from different grids. Lightning hit the flag pole out front and flashed over the 3 feet of sand to the main water drain raising the whole building ground plane to God Only Knows what Volts. Casualties? The 2 UPS systems (size of small car) at each end of the building as they had wires to outside the building. All the gear inside was fine.

    So look at your “first box” on the wires and make sure you have spares. Just putting a small portable UPS between computer and wall is likely more than enough ( about $150 cost on a bad day)

    4) Corollary to #3: Most of the data structure and power infrastructure and production infrastructure of the target area will survive Just Fine. There will be a very large demand for new UPS equipment and replacement interface equipment. (BTW, Disney took about 3 hours to figure out it was only the UPS boxes, then decided to “cut over” to straight ‘wall power’ for the day or so it took to get them repaired. You don’t NEED a UPS, it is just a protective feature.)

    5) Amps are not Volts and Volts are not Amps. The voltage produced was enough to put some sparks on telegraph lines yet not enough to fry the equipment nor the operators. It was NOT in the kV range or kA range. Most of the major power production and distribution IS. All that gear will survive Just Fine as 2 kV and 100 A are well “inside spec”. Realize that power at the top of the neighborhood pole is about 22,000 Volts. It is stepped down to 2200 Volts on the middle tier and then to 220 Volts in small patches for each block. Only those 220 V patches have equipment that is sensitive to 1 kV spikes.

    6) Lightening is your friend. No, honest! All the lightning strikes have assured that all sorts of folks have lightning protection systems. The Grid gets struck by lightning all the time. And survives. It is orders of magnitude stronger than a Carrington pulse. Similarly, all my gear has a surge protector between it and the wall. Will it be enough, or will it be “the first fuse”? And in a disaster to I really care which one it is (was)? Even things that are not EMP hardened are often lightning strike protected… (FWIW, you can get a nice little lighting protector that replaces one of the switches / breakers in your breakerbox. About $25 last I looked. Pops in easy…) Airplanes as designed to survive lightning strikes. Planes will still fly. Cars have survived lightning strikes. Many (most? all?) cars will survive.

    7) The Military is EMP hardened. They set their gear under a large EMP maker and zap it. What fails gets rejected. All the military will be working just fine, thanks. They are prepped for the Nuke EMP that is expected to be much stronger than a Carrington 2 (though more localized).

    8) The National Guard uses old Regular Military gear. It’s hardened too. As are all the folks who collect old military gear…

    9) Wavelength Matters. The simple fact is that any object less than about 100 to 1000 miles long will couple poorly to the pulse. Under 1000 feet it will be hardly there at all. Planes in flight, cars on the road, folks with hand held radios and cell phones may not even know it happened. Just too small to couple to the power. The Cell Tower is even too small. IFF (and it is likely the case) the feed cables are underground (or even more likely fiber of glass underground) even their signals won’t be interrupted. Power might be an issue if they are connected via large above ground wires, but those with local generators will still work. Size Matters and all the “small stuff” lives.

    10) Corollary to #9): All those portable electric generators survive and work fine. Including the ones that will be used to run pumps at gas stations and get refineries back up and running. Including all the ones in the millions of RVs all over the place. Including the ones in garages and basements of hospitals and on and on. The notion that we will be dark and powerless coast to coast is broken. It will be noisy, but with power.

    11) Cars are all great survival shelters. They have radio communications (if one way), power generation, protection from wind and rain and snow, and for about a day can produce significant heat. ( I spent a night in a blizzard in the car once… used about 1/2 a tank for the night). Add a small inverter for $20 or so and you can charge laptop, cell phone, run an LED or CFL light for weeks… There are a massive number of cars all over.

    12) People Like Me have packratted lots of stuff. I have 2 old cars that don’t have electronics in their operating parts. One Diesel one Gasoline. Even IF (and I think it isn’t likely) electronic based cars are fried, there will still be many cars and trucks running (and lots of fuel for them from the tanks of those that don’t work). I have no less than 4 inverters of different sizes that make power from said cars. I’d likely keep 2 and give 2 to others in a real disaster. I have a set of about a half dozen “camp stoves” and fuel for them, plus a large propane grill. The whole block will be able to cook and stay warm. (Some of them use wood, so we might lose a couple of ‘street trees’ – but a few of them need pruning anyway ;-) The list goes on. I figure I’d support about 4 houses worth just on my own. I know of at least one other person on the same block who runs a generator during power outages… I like “urban preparedness” as a hobby and have far more “stuff” for it than is needed in a real disaster (including 3 different sized tents… but that’s a long story ;-)

    End of the Short List.

    Yes, there’s a longer list…

    Would it be a mess? Most likely. But not “end of the world as we know it” bad. Far far less than Cat 4 Hurricane bad or even “500 year flood” bad. All those metal ‘yard sheds’ with their tools and motorized gear will all be fine. All the vehicles in metal sheds and garages and firestations will be fine. All sorts of stuff all over the place will be fine. It will be a very bad day for UPS gear and “boundary routers” and a lot of TV sets will fry. I’m OK with that. The hydroelectric dams will still work (with maybe a couple of boundary transformers having issues but I find that unlikely given the V and A they handle) and some of the ‘electronic controls’ and comms gear out of service. They might need to just pick a volume of water flow and accept that base load power level for a while. Cutting service zone to match until spares are installed. Nukes will still work. (Think they are hardened against lightning strikes? Heck, even airliner strikes…) as will many other generators. So a scramble for about a week, as the “islands” all get connected again and we figure out just who is going to run naked without a UPS for a while and who is going to get the replacement parts first.

    IMHO it will be residential neighborhoods that are the most messy. They have the most low volts gear to fry and the least protection on it. So look for a completely intact military core, most large central Government sites working but confused (aren’t they always? 9-), and major corporations dealing with a load of ‘edge crap’. While neighborhoods have fire service (Diesel engines…) and hospitals (local generators) still working, but ‘residential’ are last on the “fix what broke and restore power” list. I plan on about a week of “BBQ on the patio and live from canned goods” with lights from the inverter plugged into the car (or the Honda Generator if I’ve stored enough gas and/ or feel like using the siphon on the car). Just about the same as for a Great Quake.

    FWIW, in my ‘deep pile’ of stuff I’ve got an old Vacuum Tube Radio kit. IFF I’m wrong, well, I’ve got the parts to build a radio in about 2 days and see if anyone else is “out there”… It’s not like I’m not prepared for the worst. I just don’t expect it…

    So my suggestion really IS to just get a few Raspberry Pi boards and learn them. They can be used to make WiFi hot spots, routers, do desktop computing; whatever ails you. All their ‘small parts’ are too small to couple to an EMP anyway, and the whole thing with small parts like WiFi dongles and USB drives can all fit in one small iron Ammo Can that is EMP protective (and water proof). Why not get a production WiFi access point and boundary router? Go right ahead! It’s about $100 to $150 you are putting in a can or box and each one only does one thing, but if you have the bucks and not the tech interest, it’s a fine solution. I’d rather have 4 to 6 Pi’s instead, but that’s just me. “After the Fall” you can set up one streaming music from the SD card onto the WiFi access point as “wide open” and all the neighborhood kids can ‘get some tunes’ to play…

    There are actually plans floating around for making your own mico-net sort of thing. A box where folks can connect and share email, files, photos and all just locally. Add an ‘uplink’ to the surviving internet at any point, it becomes a local ISP… There will be a million of “us” making that kind of service available as something to keep us busy during a ‘disaster’ outage. Here’s just a random sample:

    PirateBox Takes File-Sharing Off The Radar and Offline, For Next To …
    Mar 11, 2012 … … twist, by turning any open space into a wireless and anonymous file-sharing system at a rock-bottom price. … created the PirateBox, a WiFi hotspot and server providing easy and ……

    How to Use iPhone as a Hotspot | AppsPirate
    Dec 24, 2012 … These phones can be used as hotspot. … You will also need a data plan with tethering to share WiFi … For instance, you can allow your WiFi laptop, notebook, tablets, and portable ……

    PirateBox – Android Apps on Google Play
    Rating: 4 – 172 votes – Free
    When starting the app WiFi tethering will be started automatically which creates an open WiFi hotspot to which other ……

    Portable Wifi Hotspot – Let’s Share Internet and … –
    Jan 28, 2015 … Turn on Android device into Portable Wi-Fi hotspot. Share your 3g internet around you free with one ……
    A Look At Karma, A Tiny Wi-Fi Hotspot On A Mission | TechCrunch
    Mar 2, 2013 … The Karma device creates a WiFi hotspot that moves around with … sees “Scott’s Karma” in the list of nearby wireless networks, there’s nothing to really encourage them to connect to it.…

    There are millions of them already built (though not all in use at any one time). So in any EMP disaster, most of them will still be viable. As will all those tablets and phones that are too small to couple to the pulse. In very short order, there will be millions of local ‘hot spots’. Then it’s just a matter of connecting those closest to each each other with a few router entries. That’s the worst case assuming ALL formal internet is down. The reality is that much of it is now ‘glass all the way’ and will be fine as the core is in lightning proof facilities.

    It’s that kind of thing that makes the Doom An Die scenario hard for me to swallow.

    Then again, “people like me” are dedicated to making sure it IS recoverable…

  18. Larry Ledwick says:

    I mostly agree with EM regarding a solar storm surge it is however a completely different animal than a Nuclear EMP. it has Very slow rise time and mostly couples to long lines of the proper orientation (ie along the direction the current wants to propagate) and mostly couples to those lines which are suspended over poor ground (ie rocky low conductivity soil). That is why Quebec and environs gets whacked regularly. Northern location where currents are more intense, major power lines running over the Canadian Shield rock layer which provides relatively poor ground.

    The one area I disagree with, is that one of the critical failure points in a Solar storm event are the very large transformers at power plants. They are custom designed units and one off for that location and configuration. It takes a bit over a year to get one built and installed in normal times, and there is no manufacturer in the US who still makes them. What makes them vulnerable is that for high efficiency they are designed to run right on the threshold of magnetic saturation. The currents induced in the lines by a solar storm will push those transformers over the edge into core saturation and then they will likely go boom. About 12 of those transformers going out would take down the national grid, and break it up into lots of small local grids.

    If that happens good luck getting them replaced within 2 – 3 years after the event, maybe even longer. So you might have a running power station with only minor damage and an intact power grid with scattered problems ranging from thousands of blown circuit breakers to reset to sub station transformers who also got pushed into core saturation and over heated and arched internally. This would cause them to make loud noises, bright light displays and spraying molten copper and burning transformer oil all over.

    What I expect is a much more fragmented infrastructure. Even if damage is relatively minor, it will take weeks to reset and clear all the circuit breakers and get running power stations back in sync with each other so they can be re-joined into a grid again. We have examples of this in ice storm and hurricane damage where some customers end up with no commercial power for 10 days to a month due to key component failures, and simple work load. All the line men in the country will be fried mentally after about 4 days of 22 hour days, plus you have other maintenance issues like exhaustion of local stores of spares and need to redistribute remaining spares and order critical items. Because high power transformers (even substation units) are so reliable and so expensive the power companies only keep very small numbers of spares in reserve and often end up borrowing from neighboring suppliers during major outages. They also generally let transformers keep running until they die, and use a just in time replacement system after each failure. If almost everyone got hit that is a problem. It would be sort of like the recent ammo shortage as demand totally over whelmed manufacturing capabilities for over a year. Same will happen to key power components.

    I agree that in most areas local grids will function at least on an adhoc basis. Approximately 10% of our daily power demand is available as installed emergency generators. That is the good news, the bad news is most have a 24 fuel supply with a few having 48 or 72 hour supplies. Natural gas fed systems may or may not function depending on if the suppliers suffer enough outages that they cannot maintain line pressure and run the drying and filtering equipment to remove gas liquids from the lines.

    EMP is a totally different animal and depending on the device and how it couples to the device will have very different effects. The E1 phase of EMP is an extremely fast rise time transient (under 5 nano second rise time to 50KV potentials) it is very difficult to filter as many protection systems designed for lightning simply do not react fast enough to clip the peak, the peak is past the device before it starts to conduct and dump the transient to ground. To be effective you need protection with very low capacitance and short leads (low inductance) to a very good low impedance ground up to the hf (30Mhz to giga hz range). Those are hard to make. Plus due to the fast rise time, you get all sorts of ground loop issues as the ground plane at one end of the device might be several thousand volts lower in potential to another point in the ground. You also have arcing and power follow to worry about. With very fast rise times, you get sufficient potentials to strike arcs between points in the circuit which normally have full isolation or operate at the same voltage level and normally need very little insulation, but once that arc forms, system power follows that arc and it is the power follow currents which actually kill the device.

    Small short antenna radios like police handy talkies cell phones etc. are essentially immune to EMP due to their very small size, but the key equipment that makes them useful (repeater sites, and cell towers) are well connected to long power lines, and have long coax lines which are just dandy to couple to all three of the EMP pulses. Some digital equipment will not be physically damaged but will be seriously pissed off and need to be power cycled to get its brains back.

    The E2 portion of EMP is essentially identical to a direct Lightning strike to the equipment or near by power lines. Moderate rise time (microseconds to milliseconds) and voltages and amperage comparable to lightning. Good line surge suppressors will knock most of that.

    The E3 phase the third pulse of EMP is a very slow rise time current which couples best to very long lines and would be similar to a solar storm surge. It is caused by the physical heaving of the earth’s magnetic field as it gets influenced by the detonation and the huge electrical fields generated at high altitude.

    At one time when I worked for emergency management I received training to inspect emergency operations centers and broadcast systems and their EMP protection. The program got spiked when someone in the class asked who would get sued if we suggested a change and took a radio station off the air when they attempted to perform the fix. (only certified licensed communications engineers need to apply was the final decision).

    But in the process got a good grounding (pun intended) in EMP. One of the key points that they made was one point low impedance grounds, and defense in depth is important. Do not depend on a single suppressor. Multiple protective actions add to each other. The second more worrisome lesson is EMP protection is a system challenge you need to close all the doors to get the job done. You leave one path unprotected and the power surge comes in the back door and still kills your equipment. On board ship we had a 440V power line to the pier blow (thousand amp line) and then dance all over the fantail of the ship arcing before the system finally shut down. Our computer was protected by 5 1:1 transformers in series to a 4oo hz MG set (motor generator). The surges killed the first 3 of those transformers and enough power noise got by all that to toast about 15 PC boards and another 10-20 boards failed early over the next few weeks.
    Those were mil spec discrete component epoxy dipped circuit boards, not very low voltage surface mount IC chips like we have today.

    I have high quality surge protectors in nearly every wall socket in the house. In an EMP event they would all share the effort to get that surge to ground. Due to the short rise time of the E1 surge the surge protector which first sees the pulse will get hit the hardest, so the wall plug directly below the power panel has a surge protector in it and nothing plugged into it. Its job is to die in small fireball as it shunts most of the pulse to the ground lead. Ideally I would have short lead length MOV’s installed in the power panel, but I live in an apartment and am not willing to beat my head against the management wall to get that done, nor willing to do it on my own and be blamed for any issue in another apartment after a lightning strike.

    Tripp Lite ISOBAR8ULTRA Isobar Protector
    Tripp Lite ULTRABLOK
    Tripp Lite SMART1500LCDT 1500VA 900W UPS
    Tripp Lite 1 Outlet (SPIKECUBE)

    All my surge protectors are Tripp Lite units. Most of my computers would have to have the surge get past 4 Tripp Lite suppressors and a Tripp Lite UPS traverse a power cord with a small coil in the lead (high inductance to stretch the pulse to make life easier for the surge suppressor) and past 2 or more ferrite choke cores on the lead just as it enters the computer back plain. Lastly one of those surge suppressors is included in a switched power strip which in a time of high tension would be switched off or possibly even unplugged from the wall.

    I also have two spare lap tops an some other items like 12V DC inverters in a 30MM ammo can.

    Tripp Lite PV375 Portable Auto Inverter 375W 12V DC to AC 120V 5-15R 2 Outlet

    The one problem with the ammo cans is the top is poorly connected electrically to the body of the can (only through a painted hinge and the latch) so you have a large slot antenna around the perimeter of the lid. High frequency component would likely get into the can with very little attenuation. Solution to that is take a file and clean the top edge of the can to bare metal then before you close the can, place a double layer of heavy duty aluminum foil over the top of the can then seal the lid. The rubber seals will press that aluminum foil into a tight electrical contact with the bare metal of the can and you have a full electrical enclosure Faraday cage with good shielding characteristics for a very low price. Right now due to recent military activities 20MM and 30MM ammo cans are relatively easy to get hold of at reasonable prices.

  19. gallopingcamel says:

    “Airplanes as designed to survive lightning strikes. Planes will still fly. Cars have survived lightning strikes. Many (most? all?) cars will survive.”

    According to Gauss the electric field inside a conducting box is zero. Such conducting boxes are called Faraday cages. Planes and cars are imperfect Faraday cages because they usually have non-conducting windows. Adding windows increases the intensity of electric fields inside the vehicle. Owing to a lack of windows, EMP has no effect on what is inside the engine compartment in spite of at least two movies I have seen that showed cars knocked out by EMP.

  20. gallopingcamel says:

    As Larry Ledwick points out “Large” transformers are the most vulnerable part of the high voltage transmission grid. Every large transformer is protected against lightning strikes by dozens of non-linear resistors known as “Arrestors” yet they occasionally fail.

    Medium transformers can be delivered to site in one piece with only the external cooling tubes missing. They can be installed and tested within a matter of days. Large transformers are totally different as they have to be assembled on site. We are used to replacing a few each year but the failure of large numbers at one time would present major problems owing to limitations in manufacturing capacity.

    Even a relatively minor disaster such as Fukushima can have an amazing impact on the manufacture of large electrical machines. The Fukushima disaster forced Japan to divert its output of large generators for domestic use and that caused major delays to projects around the world.

  21. Larry Ledwick says:

    The electric field inside a “perfectly conducting sphere” would be zero. Any other shape or deviation from perfectly conducting structure does have internal electrical and magnetic fields, especially in the corners of boxes due to their non-uniform shape and shields who deviate significantly from perfectly conducting. Powerful electrical or magnetic fields are still possible inside entirely closed and sealed conductive containers.

    To get best shielding you need both electrical and magnetic shielding so the best container would be one with a highly conductive outer covering with good electrical connections at all access points, with a steel layer inside which would provide a magnetic shield for any induced magnetic fields from non-uniform currents passing over the exterior of the case.

    All that becomes useless if you have openings in the case that are larger than the size needed to create wave guide beyond cutoff attenuation in the opening. In the case of a rectangular wave guide its dimensions must be substantially smaller that 0.5 wave length to achieve cutoff. Since the E1 pulse extends into the gigahertz range this can be a challenge for useful sizes of openings for cooling or controls. Penetrations cannot have wire pass through of the opening or that wave guide cutoff behavior will be defeated. High isolation enclosures need close electrical contact around the entire perimeter of the closed access panel/door such as brass finger stock that can maintain close electrical contact at all points along the seam.

    If the opening forms a long slot, where one dimension of the slot is large compared to the frequencies of the external E field, you can create a slot antenna which is very efficient at passing frequencies within its pass band into the interior of the shield enclosure. Even in well designed enclosures it becomes difficult to get isolation above about 70 db.

    An automotive engine compartment has essentially zero Faraday shielding at high frequencies, the bottom of the engine compartment is entirely open and the hood forms a very long slot antenna around its perimeter since the hood is essentially un-grounded to the body at radio frequencies and most physical connections are painted or oil coated.

    This is easily demonstrated with simple tests. Place a portable radio tuned to a strong local FM radio station on top of the engine block and close the hood. There will be no detectable change in the signal strength to the radio. Anyone who has tried to quiet a noisy ignition system on a 1960’s – 80’s vintage car has no illusions about the RF shielding of the body structure of a car. It is very difficult to shield against broad band high frequency signals like spark noise from ignition systems and nanosecond rise time impulses from E1 would not even notice the car body existed since it has so many electrically open penetrations.

    There are numerous cases of cars being struck by lightning and having their engine management computers being upset to the point they shut off or actually blow out components and need expensive repairs (often several thousand dollars in components). Cars who are not running at the time of the pulse would be less likely to be damaged, and some could be made to run by disconnecting power from the battery and waiting until all power bled off the system (helps to step on the brake pedal so the brake lights fully discharge any stored power on capacitors in the cars electrical components). The restoring power. Cars who are running would be at higher risk of damage to their control systems and complex electronics. In the 1980’s it was common for even very low levels of RF to cause problems in early electronic control systems. Some cars would shut down if a trucker keyed the mic on his CB radio beside the car. EMF and ESD (electro static discharge) protections are generally better in more modern cars, but they are also using much more sensitive surface mount components which operate at very low voltage levels. In high intensity RF fields modern cars are turned into bricks by an EMP pulse and require replacement of multiple electronic components to get the operational again.

    This all of course depends on the local RF field strengths since EMP, contrary to what is commonly shown in illustrations, is highly non-uniform near the burst with maximum field strengths in a half moon shaped area to the south of ground zero and much lower field strengths to the north (in the northern hemisphere due to the angle of dip of the earths lines of geomagnetic field).

    Also there have been extensive efforts since 1962 EMP tests to optimize weapons to produce maximum EMP effects. Modern weapons designed for this effect would be orders of magnitude more powerful in their EMP effects.

  22. E.M.Smith says:


    I generally agree with all that you said. I think it mostly comes down to POV on catastrophe.

    You are looking at it from minimizing all damage post Aw Shit.
    I am looking at it from “no, it would not be a total loss of everything”.

    It would still be a big Aw Shit with a lot of loss of many things (that is, I think, your point) and it would still take a couple of years to fully recover. But (and this was my point) it would not be the end of life with Zombie Apocalypse like failure of everything technological globally.

    So I think we are “in violent agreement” (to quote one friend during a ‘conversation’ ;-)

    I’m also seeing a “post event” world with many islands of activity and power and a long time to connect them all back together. A space where, for example, the ‘spares’ would go to just the places needed to get the refineries back up and running, then fuel could get to all the distributed “back up” generators. Then a long slow slog to get the grid gear that is fried, re-built and replaced.

    I’m also of the opinion that in a ‘single nuke EMP’ as is likely from Iran, that the East Coast and on out to about Colorado would be hardest hit (as the Great Circle route is a little closer for setting one off over about Chicago and they would want to maximize damage in the Chicago, Boston, Washington center of commerce and finance) and out here in California would likely be on the edges at most. So I worry a bit less about it (than I likely ought to…) In that case, you have Asia to California as supply chain for shipping in spares, with Mexico likely also OK.

    While for a solar event, heck, it might hit over the center of the Pacific and California gets an edge of it but NYC hardly notices… and in any case, the VHF / UHF component of it isn’t much anyway, so I don’t need as much of the exotic stuff. Then Europe / NYC / Carolinas becomes the supply / support path.

    While it’s macho American to think of us doing it all on our own, I think the realty is more that there will be a lot of folks globally pitching in. (And we really don’t know who’s going to be right under the pulse. Iran might decide to “do Europe” first, and the sun is a complete crapshoot).

    But yes, I’d figure about 2 to 4 weeks of “OMG” with candles and back yard generators, then about 3 to 6 months of “beans and rice cooked over backyard maple tree parts”; while us mere ‘citizens’ wait for islands of power slowly extending back out from government centers (they will demand the first fix) and capitals and power stations / refineries (where the guys will get themselves back up first) to bring up basic port services and some manufacturing (focused as needed) with things like “residential street lighting” being about 3 years out. At about year one urban core areas would be likely to have power 24 x 7 for some major cities (as they have base load plant nearby that doesn’t want to shut down at night), but a lot of places would be on the 3rd world “power is on between 7 AM and 10 PM, sleep at night when it is off” cycle. By year two I think we’d be into that whole “bring up flyover country” and “connect isolated mini-grids” process.

    FWIW, I’ve planned to put one of those surge protectors into my breaker box for about a decade now… but haven’t. With Iran “any day now” prepped to do the EMP thing, it is likely time for me to find my round tuit…

    These looked interesting (mostly due to easy availability):

    One is a Murry whole house surge “breaker” while the other two are Square D and Eaton single circuit protector / breakers. I’ve not done any more research than looking at what is available locally, so if you have any recommendation on breaker type surge devices, feel free to post a pointer. (Right now I mostly depend on “air gap” with over 1/2 my equipment not plugged in at any one time… then again, we don’t really “Do Lightning” here… so I’ve been lax.)

    UPDATE: (Maybe I ought to do a posting just on this…) Here’s an interesting article, and in some ways it highlights my POV on the damage. I’ve bolded a couple of bits:

    The EMP produced by the Compton electrons typically lasts for about 1 microsecond, and this signal is called HEMP. In addition to the prompt EMP, scattered gammas and inelastic gammas produced by weapon neutrons produce an ‘intermediate time’ signal from about 1 microsecond to 1 second. The energetic debris entering the ionosphere produces ionization and heating of the E-region. In turn, this causes the geomagnetic field to ‘heave,’ producing a ‘late-time’ magnetohydrodynamic (MHD) EMP generally called a heave signal.

    Initially, the plasma from the weapon is slightly conducting; the geomagnetic field cannot penetrate this volume and is displaced as a result. This impulsive distortion of the geomagnetic field was observed worldwide in the case of the STARFISH test. To be sure, the size of the signal from this process is not large, but systems connected to long lines (e.g., power lines, telephone wires, and tracking wire antennas) are at risk because of the large size of the induced current. The additive effects of the MHD-EMP can cause damage to unprotected civilian and military systems that depend on or use long-line cables. Small, isolated, systems tend to be unaffected.

    Military systems must survive all aspects of the EMP, from the rapid spike of the early time events to the longer duration heave signal. One of the principal problems in assuring such survival is the lack of test data from actual high-altitude nuclear explosions. Only a few such experiments were carried out before the LTBT took effect, and at that time the theoretical understanding of the phenomenon of HEMP was relatively poor. No high-altitude tests have been conducted by the United States since 1963. In addition to the more familiar high-yield tests mentioned above, three small devices were exploded in the Van Allen belts as part of Project Argus. That experiment was intended to explore the methods by which electrons were trapped and traveled along magnetic field lines.

    My PAS (Post Aw Shit ;-) vision is a space with a LOT of “small, isolated” but functional areas slowly knitting themselves together as the big boys get themselves fixed. Refineries brought back up fairly quickly as (for one thing) they often have local power supplies, and for another, the folks running them know how to fix things. Being a high priority will also help. I’d also see a literal “boat load” of products coming into ports from Los Angeles to Florida to Canada and trucked down. (Assuming a nuke right over central USA). With that happening, the “make a national grid again” isn’t quite so central to the problem space. It is more of a “distribute fuel and fix from smallest up to largest” building in from the edges for the larger bits.

    As one hypothetical: IFF a low yield nuke went off at medium altitude over Chicago, the port of Long Beach and the Palo Verde nuclear plant in Arizona are highly likely to be intact. Chicago is electronically fried and Bos-Wash is out of action (modulo military and presidential bunkers). Now fuel can still be off loaded from ships at the oil docks in SFO and on down to LA. (Some of them may need to ‘turn around’ some facilities from ‘shipping out’ to ‘shipping in’…) and a load of trucks would need to be rerouted from the ‘fringes’ (or wherever there were still working trucks) to haul fuel inward toward that core. Similarly, the LA basin still gets lots of power from Palo Verde, but you could go to rolling blackouts and instead ship some of that toward Texas as needed (assuming they need some to make up for fried north / eastern edges of the Texas Grid).

    The periphery goes on “low rations” as resources are shipped toward the damaged core, but it is functional and the start of the wave of rebuild and repair; along with being the start of the supply chain.

    Whole lot of work involved? Hell yes. Take a year or three to get all back to normal? Certainly. Zombie Apocalypse with The End Of Civilization? Only in Iran what would be a smoking hole from ONE submarine as soon as it was known what happened and that their (fully tracked and monitored) “peaceful scientific launch” had not been so at all…

  23. Larry Ledwick says:

    I think you have pretty well hit what I suspect would be the most likely outcome, with a couple minor exceptions.
    First everyone talks about one EMP event. No reason to discount the possibility of more than one burst, perhaps even spaced out in time. A one two punch sort of attack with careful planning regarding time on target could also take out backup systems after they are brought on line.

    Close in launch like from a ship or SLBM have times to effective EMP altitude of only about 6 minutes. Far too short for the decision cycle to process. Simultaneous or close in time launch of ICBMs from other continents would have flight times close to 30 minutes. Simultaneous launch to orbital trajectories could park warheads in orbit for any arbitrary time with an attack window every 90 or so minutes as the orbit crossed Conus (continental US).

    Any adversary which had space launch capability (which now or soon will include, Russia, China, Iran and Korea) could execute such a strike package where all missile were launched with in less than the 30-40 minutes necessary for a counter strike, and result in multiple bursts spaced out over time.

    Click to access Schneider-Russian-nuclear-modernization-.pdf

  24. E.M.Smith says:


    At that point we’re talking World War III and I’m not so worried about getting my TV working again… so it is “outside my planning scope”… Yes, it’s a real risk, but one that realistically applies mostly to the military as I’m going to be dead or in a bomb shelter as the nukes fall…

  25. Larry Ledwick says:

    Regarding the circuit box surge arrestors, they would probably work for the E3 pulse and perhaps for the E2 pulse but would be far too slow to react to the E1, if they are just normal circuit breakers. The surge would basically be long gone by the time they noticed the surge happened sometime during the E2 portion. I would have to know more about their specs they might have internal MOV’s but that is not obvious from the descriptions. If it does contain internal MOV protection wire that ground lead as short and straight as possible to the primary panel ground. On fast rise time impulses lead inductance can dramatically slow response and result in voltage “turn up” where they final clamping voltage is higher than you would get with a short low inductance lead.

    For the fast rise time E1 pulse you need a device that dumps to ground in nanoseconds, the only devices that react that fast (if properly installed with short low inductance leads) are high power MOV’s or in the case of radio coax connections fast acting gas gap surge protectors or low capacitance transorb type zeniers.

    For data lines you need something like these polyphaser Point of Entry protectors

    For antenna’s and coax runs you need something like:

    For power panel MOV protection they were showing us use of Industrial MOV’s like the PA style listed in this doc by Little fuse, we were using GE versions but looks like they no longer manufacture under their name. MOV’s react very quickly and can begin clamping voltages in as little as 1 nanosecond if they have low inductance leads to a good high frequency ground.

    Click to access littelfuse_varistor_catalog.pdf.pdf

    See page 15 of this catalog for some discussion of clamping response to high frequency pulses.
    see page 151 – 161 HA & DH series MOV’s for power panel applications

    You could also use the ZA style or the thermally protected styles listed on later pages at the component level. Often these are the devices which actually do the work inside over the counter surge protectors. You can increase capacity by taking several ZA devices and arrainging them like fins on a heat sink with their lead wires all twisted together, if you need more capacity than is available in a single device.

    The thermally protected versions are nice in that they cannot fail in short, or go into run away failure to ground after a big surge.

    Click to access an9767.pdf

    That is why I buy the devices by Tripp Lite (ultra blok) they have the MOV’s in them plus a small filter network tailored to 60hz power frequency to help block higher harmonics and frequencies from getting to the equipment.

    This link shows a tear down of the ISOBAR power strip showing the built in filter and he attempts to do some analysis of the filter network. Not perfect, but for the price much better that most surge protectors which usually just have a single ZA Mov, and maybe a capacitor.

  26. Terry Jay says:

    Well, ultimate catastrophe aside, how about some good news

    Kevin Williamson on improvements in life for millions.

  27. gallopingcamel says:

    @Larry Ledwick,
    “The electric field inside a “perfectly conducting sphere” would be zero. Any other shape or deviation from perfectly conducting structure does have internal electrical and magnetic fields, especially in the corners of boxes due to their non-uniform shape and shields who deviate significantly from perfectly conducting. Powerful electrical or magnetic fields are still possible inside entirely closed and sealed conductive containers. ”

    You don’t need symmetry to ensure a zero electric field inside a conducting surface. The field is zero regardless of the shape of the conductor. This is essential to understanding the behaviors of superconductors and Faraday cages that don’t need any kind of symmetry thanks to theorems attributed to Gauss:

    Click to access lecture4.pdf

  28. gallopingcamel says:

    @Larry Ledwick,
    You say that engine compartments of automobiles are not capable of ensuring that the E-M fields inside the hood are zero. Ok, I can agree to that as there are enough holes to allow some fields to penetrate.

    The important question is whether a nuclear induced EMP could deliver enough energy to damage essential wiring inside the engine compartment. I sincerely doubt it even though sensitive things like “On Board Computers” may be compromised. IMHO EMPs won’t knock out automobile engines even though they may wipe out sensitive electronics and large structures such as power grids.

  29. gallopingcamel says:

    Arrestor technology to protect power grids rests on non-linear resistors. In Europe, Silicon Carbide and Zinc Oxide in the USA. IMHO Zinc Oxide is technically superior.

    AFAIK the leading domestic supplier of arrestors for 500 kV or above in the 1980s was GE. In 1990, following decisions by Jack Welsh I helped plan GE’s departure from the arrestor business. Here is some historical information:

    Click to access History_of_Arresters_on_Power_Systems_1965-Present.pdf

  30. Gallopingcamel – sorry, but a bit of a nitpick here. The main thing about an EMP is that it is not static, and the Gauss’s Law examples do specify the static solution. During a pulse, the field internal to a conductive box will depend on the shape unless you have a superconductive box, and even then there is a limit on how fast the electrons will reconfigure (about c/10) to produce a zero field inside. Any openings in the box will thus have a short-lived imbalance of potential on opposite edges as the wave moves across them, and will thus radiate inside the box too.

    In cars, you need gaps in the shielding to get the wires in and out of the computer boxes, and generally the boxes are going to be thin steel with cooling slots and not solid Copper or Silver-plated Copper. The EMP performance will thus be compromised anyway, and with the processor running under 3V it won’t take much of a leakage to mess up the µp. Since the little trick of setting up a “jump to zero” in unused address-space to reboot the system in case of addressing problems or other screw-ups is probably no longer used in high-level language programming, it’s pretty likely that an EMP will produce a headless chicken result. The wiring won’t get damaged, but the car will most likely not work without a power cycle and maybe not then depending on what may have been affected in the Flash (or other) memory.

    I doubt if cars are specified to withstand a nuclear EMP, but maybe we could make some sort of estimate if anyone has any data of what happens when a car (whose engine is driven by computer) is struck by lightning.

  31. Larry Ledwick says:

    You don’t need symmetry to ensure a zero electric field inside a conducting surface. The field is zero regardless of the shape of the conductor.

    You don’t need symmetry to ensure a zero electric field inside a conducting surface. The field is zero regardless of the shape of the conductor.

    Opening statement of our reference link:
    Properties of conductors
    Inside a conductor in electrostatic equilibrium,the electricfield is ZERO. Why?

    The problem is that state of zero electric field only occurs once the external charge reaches equilibrium. When a real world imperfect shield enclosure is illuminated by a EMP class impulse which results in nanosecond rise times in the wave front and varies by 50,000 volts/meter or more, the conditions are very far from equilibrium and very substantial currents are induced over the surface of the shield as the charge attempts to equalize across the surface. That results in rapidly changing electrical fields inside the enclosure as well as creation or rapidly varying magnetic fields (which are not shielded by simple conductive enclosures). These effects then induce currents, magnetic fields and voltage potentials inside the shield with can damage modern solid state low voltage components.

    Source: The Effects of Nuclear Weapons Samuel Glasstone and Phhilip J. Dolan
    Third Edition 1977
    Prepared and published by teh United States Department of Defense and the Energy Research and Development Administration.

    Page 526
    The Electromagnetic Pulse and its Effects
    Paragraph 11.35 A so-called “electromagnetic” shield consists of a continuous metal, e.g., steel, soft iron, or copper, sheet surrounding the system to be protected. The shielding of individual components or small subsystems is generally not practical because of the complexity of the task. Good shielding practice may include independent zone shields, several thin shields rather than one thick one, and continuous joints. The shield should not be used as a ground or return conductor, and sensitive equipment should be kept away from shield corners. Apertures in shields should be avoided as far as possible, doors should be covered with metal sheet so that when closed they form a continuous part of the whole shield, and ventilation openings, which cannot be closed, should be protected by special types of screens or waveguides. In order not to jeopardize the effectiveness of the shielding, precautions must be taken in connection with penetrations of the housing by conductors, such as pipes, conduits, and metal-sheathed cables (11.59).

    11.36 Recommendations for circuit layout include the use of common ground points, twisted pair cables, system and intersystem wiring in “tree” format (radial spikes), avoiding ground loop layouts and coupling to other circuits, use of conduit or cope trays, and shielded isolated transformers. The avoidance of ground return cable in cable shields is also recommended. Some procedures carry over from communications and power engineering whereas others do not.

    Your second post:

    The important question is whether a nuclear induced EMP could deliver enough energy to damage essential wiring inside the engine compartment. I sincerely doubt it even though sensitive things like “On Board Computers” may be compromised.

    The issue is not damage to wiring, the issue is exactly as you state above, the physical destruction of sensitive electrical components in the engine management and control systems. In current production cars these are all highly sensitive low voltage computer surface mount IC components which don’t play well with voltage surges measured in thousands of volts. Such voltage surges will physically blow the components off the circuit board or blast the top layers of the IC chips off, and vaporize PC board traces, cause insulation failure inside capacitor and force transistors into zenier runaway blowing the transistor. If such damage occurs, they are not repairable, and under mass failure conditions such as an EMP attack not replaceable as all spare stocks would be exhausted. Even in normal day to day events such equipment like Engine Management Computers destroyed by something as simple as an accidental arc while trying to jump start a car, take weeks to replace because they are not normal stock items in auto parts distributor stocks and rarely in stock at dealer parts counters, usually needing order in from central distribution centers and waits of days or weeks for delivery.

    We have lots of examples of modern cars bricked by lightning strikes, accidental arcing at the battery terminals during jump starts (some models of cars will have their high energy ignition system fried by any attempt to jump start them without proper protective measures take) arc welding on or near the car etc. resulting in physical damage to key control components. Modern cars do not run at all if certain solid state components are damaged, unlike older cars which would run poorly even if they had problems, modern solid state engine management units are easily damaged by ESD or voltage surges in the electrical system.

  32. E.M.Smith says:

    My minor ‘oar in the water’ on the G.C. vs Larry discussion is just that I’m more interested in ‘enough’ attenuation than in ‘zero field’. Maybe it’s my California and Florida POV. On the very edge or marginally outside the range of a maximal coverage exact center of USA nuke EMP. All I want to to ‘attenuate enough’.

    So if the ‘effective circle of 80% damage’ reaches, say, Las Vegas, then an Ammo Can might well be more than enough even with the ‘issues’. Similarly, while the radiator and underside are not sealed, the big metal blob over the top, sides, and most of the ends, will provide some attenuation.

    Matching all that up:

    IFF you want 100% survival in Kansas right under the pulse, everything Larry is saying is true. However, if you are in Denver and the pulse is over Washington D.C. or Chicago, odds are that tin box and the old car will be just fine. (As would G.C.s gear as last I looked he was day down Florida… )

    So if the EMP takes out from “Denver to DC”, there ought to be ring of, I’d guess, about 400 miles from the edge inward where a lot of cars will still work and things in any kind of metal can will be fine. That’s “good enough” on a ‘herd immunity’ basis to have a recoverable society and economy. Even if the central 1000 mile circle is pretty much 90% fried.

    If you live in Kansas or Chicago or DC, put your ammo can inside a metal garbage can and put that in a metal shed ( defense in depth of a sort ;-) and call it a day… Oh, and take up the hobby of collecting an old car that’s a pre-electronics diesel and / or points and condenser car. ( I have one of each at the moment…)

  33. Larry Ledwick says:

    Exactly it all boils down to the classic planners dilemma what is “likely” and “what is possible”.

    In military planning they use two planning assumptions to help decide what actions to take against enemy attack.

    The first is MLCOA (Most likely course of action) and the second is MDCOA (Most Dangerous Course of Action).
    You are grounding your protection actions on the MLCOA in your view (several spoken and unspoken assumptions drive that decision), and I am protecting against the MDCOA. I know I can’t achieve worst case protection, but the closer I get to that limiting case, the more classes of MLCOA are covered.

    I personally don’t think anyone that seriously contemplated an EMP attack would limit the attack to a single warhead, as no matter how small that device was, it would be surely interpreted as an act of war, and the consequence would be total retaliation (if the source of the attack was known) and our ability to retaliate remained.

    The bad news is that of all attack scenarios EMP is the most likely to have considerable doubt about the source if the attacker wanted to execute the attack in the proper way.

    My personal planning assumption is a 4 device attack with three devices positioned to bracket most key regions of the country (east, central/mountain and west coast with locally high field strength) and with a 4th super EMP “cleanup device” detonated at altitude to blanket the entire country. Possibly with some time delay after the primary strike to allow reserve and backup systems to come on line before hitting them too.

    Several threshold nuclear states who are not friendly to the west already have or will have this capability within 10 years. A couple probably already have the capability but have not advertised it. Iran has already tested scud launches from a ship at sea and EMP profile missile launches which detonate at peak altitude. N. Korea has also recently tested submarine launch systems.

    With in 10-15 years both N Korea and Iran will have the ability to deliver weapons over intercontinental ranges. EMP attacks do not need precise targeting so precision guidance systems are not required only the ability to lift to 200-300 km altitude a device of sufficient weight.

    Is it likely? probably not.
    Is it possible? Yes.
    Would it be a very bad day if it did happen? Most definitely.
    Do the required protective actions cost much? No.
    Not really since they are dual use and also provide very good routine protection against common threats like lightning major power outages due to storms and other causes.

  34. gallopingcamel says:

    Larry Ledwick,
    The worst car I ever owned was an Oldsmobile Cutlass with an “On Board” computer that was inclined to fail if there was a lightning strike nearby. If the vehicle had been properly designed I would have been able to limp home with a failed computer but it was hooked up so that the car would not run without it.

    My point is that one should be able to EMP harden an automobile by making sure that it can run without the help of an “Onboard Computer”.

    Earlier I was suggesting that electrical generating plants could be hardened by enclosing them in metal containment shells. Transmission lines should be inside metal conduits. Switches and transformers should be inside metal boxes.

    Do you think such measures would be effective against nuclear EMP? IMHO they will be effective against Carrington events.

  35. Larry Ledwick says:

    Yes if there was any incentive to do so it would be relatively simple to do, some cars already have a “limp home”mode in their computers it would just require some intentional engineering effort to make a fall back module in the ECU which was very resistant to ESD or other stray currents and used primitive means of spark timing instead of all the magic adjustments built into them for normal operations. The old distributor ignitions used a very simple mechanical advance for spark timing, spark was set to about 11-12 degrees advance at idle and smoothly advanced to about 34 degrees (depended on the specific engine) by 3000 rpm and then stayed at that advance until red line rpm.

    No reason you could not do a very simple ignition curve like that digitally and make it really hardened against damage.

    At one time one of the magazines publised a low tech brute force limp home module which simply used a 555 oscillator and a transistor trigger to generate a constant spark at a suitable frequency that most engines would run (poorly) but would get you home. (sort of like the old vibrator ignitions on the old Model T early cars)

    Click to access The%20Model%20T%20Ignition%20Coil%20-%20Part%201.pdf

    Some of the new limp home systems do something similar. The big problem is the critically depend on a couple sensor to function, a crank position sensor (since they have no mechanical gear drive like a distributor) and a mass airflow sensor (which in a pinch could be replaced with a simple proportional fuel flow / rpm) and a throttle position sensor (since most are now fly by wire (ie no physical connection between the throttle pedal and the throttle valve.

    That is the weakness of the current systems you have 4 critical points of failure electrically lose anyone of those (crank position, throttle position, mass airflow/rpm ) and even if the ECU itself is undamaged it still can’t function because it does no know critical information of engine state. To add to that some also have digital controllers for the fuel pump which use a pulse width modulated power supply to change the fuel flow rate based on engine rpm and engine load. Lose that and you have no fuel flow. Modern fuel injectors are electro mechanical so you need to avoid damaging the trigger circuit for the fuel injectors too, and the trigger circuit for the coil on plug ignitions most use now days where each spark plug has its own single ignition coil.

    With time an enterprising mechanic who understands the old distributor ignitions or magneto systems could cobble together a mechanical ignition system for any car but it would take time and access to a few tools to manufacture the parts like a lathe and the ability to make a few castings or moldings for things like distributor caps (or steal such pieces from non-working cars) but they are getting hard to find as distributor designs are being phased out for coil on plug electronic systems.

    Click to access EMP-Paper-Final-November07.pdf

    Click to access A2473-EMP_Commission-7MB.pdf

  36. gallopingcamel says:

    Larry Ledwick,
    Are you saying that primitive automobiles would be insensitive to nuclear EMP while modern vehicles are vulnerable?

    That fits with my experience building the Duke University Free Electron Laser. Our electronics had to work in a high gamma ray/neutron flux environment such as one might expect in a nuclear war. It surprised me to find what worked and what did not:

    Teflon broke down into dust within a matter of weeks.
    PVC survived for decades but the colors faded.

    CCD cameras died within days.
    Vidicons lasted for at least five years.

    Twisted pair and coax worked flawlessly.
    Fiber optics not so well:

  37. Larry Ledwick says:

    If a person wanted to stock away some key components for a brute force ignition conversion you could do it with just a few low cost pieces. The coil and the ignition cap are probably the most difficult to self manufacture.

    And a distributor body that fits the cap and rotor (no I have not checked to see what these items were intended to fit or even if they are compatible, but these are the pieces which would be difficult to build from scratch.
    Next challenge would be to figure out some way to time the distributor to the position of plug #1 in the engine firing order, and cobble together the hard ware to glue it all together. Price tag for these pieces is about $85 right now. You would also need a good set of spark plugs and plug and coil wires to go with all this, so total bill for a stash of key components $100 more or less. Am I doing it , no not now, none of my cars have 8 cylinders although the 4 cylinder engines could be made to run on an 8 cylinder distributor if I could figure out a way to mount the distributor.

    The other option is to go down to the junk yard and get good working used replacements for all your key electronic components like ECU (engine control unit) and key sensors. They would also have use if you like to keep your cars for a long time as trouble shooting modules if you start having problems you think might be related to those pieces. In the short term this is a low priority for me, but if I got the opportunity to buy a older distributor ignition car in good condition at a not break the bank price I might consider it but current local emissions regulations make keeping a classic car a bit of a pain.

  38. gallopingcamel says:

    Larry Ledwick,
    Those links you provided are from 2007 and 2008.

    Even back then folks understood the hostility of the Iranian government. So why are we kissing folks who want to kill us?

    Are there any 2015 studies of EMP threats?

  39. Larry Ledwick says:

    The old electro-mechanical ignition systems, mechanical fuel pumps and good old carburetors would be essentially invulnerable to EMP. There is a transition phase in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s when many cars still used the same physical engines as earlier distributor ignition systems used and still used a physical distributor even if the rest of the control system was electronic. They could be converted to conventional spark coil and distributor ignition without too much trouble.

  40. Larry Ledwick says:

    The science of EMP protection was well understood by the 1980’s, first experience with it occurred in 1962 with the US Starfish Prime shot over Johnson island. The Russians did their testing over land and probably understand the protection issues better in the sense that they fried a whole lot of stuff with some of their shots (even firing live nuclear war heads over occupied cities at one point).
    Some of those tests were covered in this link: <- – – This appears to be an extract from some of the publications which came out about the time I took the EMP inspection class source is not specified, but it has good bibliography of technical sources.
    This is a direct print to pdf of the Glasstone Nuclear Weapons effects book chapter on EMP
    Note page 526 chapter 11.35 is identical to the quote I stated earlier coming from the book which I transcribed directly from the 1977 printing of the book. The whole book appears to be available at this link : (this is still considered one of the premier treatments of nuclear weapons effects)

    Live testing stopped after the comprehensive test ban treaty stopped nuclear testing. Since then all testing has been done with simulators and super computer simulations.

    That said, studies have not been updated like they should but there are a couple sources worth looking at.

    Recent book called "A Nation Forsaken" by Michael Maloof goes into some of the modern issues like problems with the wide spread use of computerized control systems in industry.

    This group Center for Security Policy is one of the only groups currently actively trying to ring the alarm bells, and this item has some reference links in it, which date from 2010, 2012

    One of their links is dead use this one to download the pdf

  41. Larry Ledwick says:

    Hmm too many links EM think last post got sucked into the spam bin.

  42. E.M.Smith says:


    Yes. Old cars just laugh it off. Anything after about 1985 has increasing degrees of failure. Now, some cars like one FORD IIRC, have something like 30 or 40 “computers” (read microcontroller chips) in them. ALL highly sensitive to low volts. These have largely replaced fine machined metal with a cheap sensor and electronics.

    Now you can get an 80s BMW, and go get parts (distributor with points, etc) from an earlier eara and just ‘drop in’ replace them. Son had a 1987 with electronic ignition that was the same as prior years other than the distributor had electronic parts in it. Same thing with Mercedes. After the early ’90s ever more ‘essential mechanical’ parts became sensors for ‘fine grain control’. Who needs a mechanical injection pump when you can have piezo electric injectors and computer generated pulses of fuel at 1000s / second?

    That’s why I have a ’79 car with mechanical distributor, points, and carburetor along with a 1980’s era Mercedes Diesel with 100% mechanical system. ( I used to have an International Harvester Scout with all mech Nissan 6 cyl turbo Diesel. Once the generator died.I ran it on ‘battery only’ for a couple of months while I saved up some money to fix it. Started it, then turned off the ignition (pre-ignition lock stupidity) and just drove with NO electrical system… I’d turn the electrics back on for turn signals as needed ;-) I’m now sorry I sold it…

    Pretty simple diagnostic: Lift the hood. If you can’t see the engine for the plastic, it’s likely not going to make it. IFF you can clearly see a distributor, it will likely make it; perhaps with an older points version stocked in the ‘deep kit’. IFF you can see a carburettor, you are almost certainly “golden”. IMHO the ‘best choice’ is a pre 1985 Mercedes Diesel. All Mechanical All The Time. Only ‘risk’ is that there is a fuel cut off solenoid to stop the engine (otherwise it never shuts off…). If, somehow, that got stuck shut (i.e. electricity can’t pull the plunger back) you would need to unscrew it, cut off the ‘pintle’ and put it back in. Then use the handy red “engine stop” lever under the hood for just that purpose of killing the engine when the solenoid fails and does NOT shut off the fuel…

    So after The Pulse expect to see a whole lot of antique cars, old trucks, and farm equipment driving around…

    FWIW, In Florida I found many fine old Mercedes for sale for about $1500 each. Major problem is finding someone there who still works on them. I know of one shop in Orlando…

    The major issue, as Larry pointed out, is that cars after about 1995 have eliminated essential mechanical systems and replaced them with electronics. There is NO rotor or distributor or timing gear to it. It’s a crank sensor and electricals. For some designs, even valves are electrically driven, not mechanical. Then the whole fuel system has gone electrical. That’s the car I’d not want as my only car…

    FWIW, in many states any car more than 25 years old (varies by State) gets a free ride on smog, so ‘passing smog test’ isn’t an issue. In Florida as near as I can tell there are no smog tests. (As all air blows out to sea in about 5 hours and the air is always clear, I can understand that…)

    Oh, and as an “emergency vehicle” it would also be perfectly fine to get an ATV or ‘go cart’ and store it… Even some of the golf carts would be OK. So you can expect post pulse to see a lot of retired folks tooling around on their ‘golf carts’…

  43. Pingback: EMP – A Summary Starting Point | Musings from the Chiefio

  44. gallopingcamel says:

    In 1947 my family bought a Jeep left in Wales by the US military. It simply was not worth shipping it back to the USA so we purchased it for a few pounds.

    What a vehicle! Age ten years I could look after that baby, including starting it with a crank handle! If it was around today it would totally ignore EMP.

  45. E.M.Smith says:

    Yeah, but it would only go 45 mph!

    Many surplus jeeps were converted to tractors for farming.

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