A Skeptical Scrutiny of the Works and Theories of WILHELM REICH

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Vacuum Orgone (VACOR) Tubes

By Roger M. Wilcox

Last modified 30-September-2003

Vacuum Orgone ("VACOR") tubes were highly evacuated glass tubes with electrodes on the ends.  When a high enough voltage was applied to the electrodes, the space inside of the tube would glow.  Reich claimed that such high-vacuum tubes, when placed in an orgone accumulator for a period of time, would glow at a lower threshold voltage than identical tubes that had not been placed in an accumulator.

Reich described his VACOR tubes and experiments in a lengthy article titled "The Oranur Experiment, First Report," first published in his journal Orgone Energy Bulletin, volume V, numbers 1-2.  Copies of this journal are surprisingly hard to find; at this time they are only available in microfilm format from the Wilhelm Reich Museum at http://www.wilhelmreichmuseum.org/view_category.asp?cat_id=9.  Fortunately, though, Reich considered this article important enough that he re-published it as a separately available work a couple years later.  This separate publication retained both the title of the original article (The Oranur Experiment: First Report (1947-1951)) and the page numberings used by the article as it originally appeared in the journal.  Currently, this reprint is available from the same Wilhelm Reich Museum in bound photocopy format.  (A portion of this article was also reprinted in the much more easily accessible Selected Writings, but the VACOR tube descriptions were not among the parts so reprinted.)

The VACOR tube began its life as a variant of the gas-filled tubes used in a Geiger-Müller counter.  Reich believed that the GM-counter was actually recording orgone energy phenomena and not ionizing radiation, and set out in the Oranur article to "prove" this.

I describe the operation of a Geiger-Müller counter circuit in some detail in my critique of Reich's G-M counter technique.  A standard Geiger-Müller circuit places several hundred volts between the two terminals of the tube.  The voltage has to be below the breakdown voltage for the gas in the tube under normal conditions, and above the breakdown voltage for the same gas with just a tiny amount of incident ionizing radation.

Reich seemed to be aware of how a GM counter worked to a limited extent:

"From nuclear physics, through its publications, as well as through several electronic physicics with whom I discussed this problem, I learned that nuclear physics was quite certain that in the Geiger action the outer radioactivity merely acts like a trigger on the 'gas ions' within the counter tube; accordingly, the energy which activates the GM recording system has its source in the electricity which comes from the line to the electronic tubes (filament and plate voltage).
[It should be noted here that GM tubes do not have "filaments."  They only have a plate and an anode electrode.  They are not the kind of "tubes" one would have encountered in a vacuum tube radio or TV of the time.]
With each 'ionization event' in the counter tubes, the resistance between the anode and the cathode is lowered in such a manner that an instant electromagnetic energy flow is activated.  The radium ray, as such, has, to this view, nothing whatsoever to do with the impulses recorded at the output end of the device."
    — The Oranur Experiment: First Report (1947-1951), pp. 243-244 [emphasis in original]
However, as Reich was convinced that the radiation which triggered the GM counter was orgone radiation and not ionizing "nuclear" radiation, he somehow came up with the convoluted hypothesis that it was the orgone radiation itself, and not the sudden conduction of the high-voltage plates across the tube, that provided the "energy" recorded by the GM counter.  To test this hypothesis, he hooked up an electroscope to the anode wire of the GM tube, as shown in figure 4, page 244 of the Oranur article:
Figure 4
Fig. 4
(Note that in Reich's time, a divided-by (÷) sign was used to indicate what nowadays is called the minus (–) terminal.)

Reich had associated electroscope deflection with orgone energy phenomena since he first observed it in 1939.  Thus it was with great glee that he observed the electroscope in the above circuit deflecting whenever the GM counter registered incident radiation:

"The result of this experiment challenged the theory that the impulses which activate the GM tube are only triggers for 'ionization events' in the counter tube.  The electroscope leaf would jump high with each impulse developed in the counter tube.  The leaf was constantly kept away from the metal rod of the electroscope if the succession of impulses was fast enough, i.e., in the neighborhood of ca. 2000 impulses per minute.  The energy at the electroscope in each single impulse amounted to about the equivalent of a range of 100-200 electrostatic volts (!!), i.e., the amount of electromagnetic voltage necessary to achieve the same degree of deflection of the leaf.  The equivalent in volts with rapid succession of impulses was in some electroscopes much higher — with 3000-4000 CPM in the vicinity of 500 e.s. volts.  These were incredible, tremendous reactions.  They in no way fitted the minimal amounts of energy as expressed in the theory of electron microvolts.  The great amount of energy in itself contradicted the theory that ionization was responsible for the action of the counter tube plus amplifying grid system."
    — The Oranur Experiment: First Report (1947-1951), pp. 244-245 [emphasis in original]
The "theory of electron microvolts" that Reich mentioned probably refers to the fact that a single high-energy charged particle (e.g. the kinds of particles responsible for most nuclear radioactivity) only has an energy of a few electron-Volts.  But let me make one thing clear before I continue.  An electron-Volt is indeed a unit of energy (and a very very small unit of energy at that) — but a Volt is not.  A Volt is a unit of electric potential or electromotive force.  The plates of a capacitor, or of a GM tube that is turned on but not registering any impulses, can have a potential difference of several hundred Volts, and yet no energy is expended until the capacitor or GM tube actually discharges — after which, the potential difference will have dropped to zero.  Likewise, an electroscope does not measure "energy," it measures electric charge or the Voltage (potential difference) level.

And more importantly, remember that what Reich called the "GM Ampl." in the diagram above is more than just an "amplifier" — it provides the high near-breakdown Voltage for the Counter Tube.  This means that when the tube does conduct, it forms a circuit of several hundred volts.  The electroscope is deflecting because several hundred volts are flowing through the circuit to which it is attached whenever an impulse count goes off.  Thus, the 500 electrostatic Volt reading Reich saw on the electroscope when the counts-per-minute got close to continuous conduction is totally expected by conventional theory.

In fact, if Reich had replaced the GM tube in Figure 4 with a conducting wire, the electroscope would have deflected even more.

Characteristically, though, Reich lept to the unjustified conclusion that the radiation itself, and not the hundreds of volts placed across the tube by the GM amplifier, was responsible for the electroscope's deflection, and that since this "fact" went contrary to what conventional nuclear theory predicted (since the amount of energy in a single radioactive charged particle is so small), it therefore "proved" that the radiation was caused by something other than nuclear radiation.  Which of course, to Reich, meant orgone energy was involved.

Reich decided to go further and try to see if orgone energy could be demonstrated in a tube that wasn't filled with gas.  So, starting with the basic GM tube design, he added an extra plate and evacuated the tube to the greatest extent possible.  This new design he called a Vacuum Orgone (VACOR) tube.  A diagram of a VACOR tube appeared on page 248 of the Oranur article as Figure 7.  It looked like this:

Figure 7 - VACOR tube
Plate electrodes: 16 cm. long, 4 cm. wide(64 cm2), aluminum
Distance: 4-6 cm.
Vacuum: ½ micron pressure
Central wire: tungsten
Fig. 7.  3-electrode, 2-plate  VACOR TUBE
Two photos of this tube appear on pages 198c and 198d of the article.  Unfortunately, I cannot reproduce these photos here.  A picture of one of Reich's VACOR tubes also appears in Cosmic Superimposition, chapter VI (p. 241, 2000 ed.) as "Figure 37," but the only descriptive text accompanying Figure 37 is the caption "Orgone energy luminating in an 0.5 micron pressure vacuum tube."

D. Marett of "Another Orgone Research Lab (AORL)" has written an article in which he tried to duplicate some of Reich's VACOR work, titled "Meteorological Functions in Modified Vacuum Orgone (VACOR) Tubes".  This article contains perhaps the most comprehensive description of Reich's VACOR tubes and the experiments he did with them currently available on the Internet.  The second paragraph of this article states:

"Reich began experimenting with vacuum tubes in the late 1940's in an attempt to understand unusual pulsation phenomenon which he had witnessed in geiger-mueller tubes stored in orgone accumulators.  He began experimenting with evacuated tubes resembling vacuum discharge tubes often used for visualizing glow discharges at various pressures (Yarwood, J., High Vacuum Technique, John wiley&Sons, 1961, P73-75).  One of these tubes is shown on P.185 of his article, which included a grid wire.  This simple tube design was evacuated by Reich to a permanent vacuum of 0.5 micron, which is 3.8x10-4 Torr, usually with an argon filling.  Reich found that after prolonged exposure inside of an orgone accumulator, these tubes could be made to luminate at much lower D.C. threshold levels than what would be expected from the level of rarification [sic] of gas inside."
Now, 3.8 x 10-4 Torr is a very low pressure.  D. Marett isn't kidding when he calls this a "high vacuum."  This is one-half of one one millionth of the normal air pressure at sea level, which is why it's referred to as "0.5 micron."  This is much lower than the pressure inside a conventional "vacuum" tube.  Getting the inside of a glass tube down to such a low pressure is a Herculean task.  And if there is even the tiniest imperfection in the seals around the electrodes of such a tube, a little bit of outside air could slowly leak in.

If you apply a high enough voltage across argon, or any gas, it will glow.  This is the principle by which a neon sign or a fluorescent tube operates.  The voltage at which the gas's electrical resistance breaks down, and the gas starts to glow, is called the "breakdown voltage."  The thing is, you need a certain minimum density of gas molecules for the glow to happen at the "normal" breakdown voltage.  Extremely rarefied gases require a higher voltage before they will break down and conduct electricity.  Gases that aren't quite so rarefied have a lower breakdown voltage.  D. Marett even admits this in the third paragraph of his article, and in his Calibration notes to his Experiment 1.

Given Reich's history of sloppy experimental controls, I can imagine what might have happened in the course of conducting his original VACOR experiments:

At least one person involved with orgonomy, Bernhard Harrer of the Wilhelm Reich Society in Germany, has tried and failed to duplicate Reich's results with his VACOR tube experiments.  He presented his negative findings at the Reich Society's annual meeting in 1993 or 1994.  Harrer also came to the conclusion that Reich's tubes had leaked air inside of themselves.  James DeMeo of the Orgone Biophysical Research Lab wrote up a rebuttal to Harrer's results, which can be viewed at http://www.orgonelab.org/harreren.htm about 3/4 of the way down the page.  His main objection seems to be that Harrer didn't exactly duplicate the exceedingly precise conditions under which Reich did his VACOR experiments.  This is a strange objection, because when DeMeo himself later claimed to have successfully duplicated Reich's VACOR experiments (in his 1999 fundraising letter at http://www.orgonelab.org/j_fundng.htm), he made no mention of these precise conditions being present.

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