A Straight Dope Classic from Cecil's Storehouse of Human Knowledge

Is there a way to permanently silence somebody's loud car stereo?

February 26, 1993

Dear Cecil:

A few of us were discussing those booming megawatt sound systems have nowadays — a bane of urban existence if ever there was one. We fantasized about being able to send an electronic signal that would defeat, override, distort, or blow out an offending car stereo, without blowing up the driver unless absolutely necessary. Could this be done with available technology?

Cecil replies:

Well, there's always electromagnetic pulse, or EMP. EMP has the drawback of requiring you to detonate a nuclear bomb, which may deter the squeamish. But it does work, no small thing in an age of halfway measures.

Scientists got their first hint of EMP in 1962 after a hydrogen bomb test high over the Pacific. In Hawaii, 800 miles away, 300 street lights failed, burglar alarms rang, and circuit breakers popped on power lines. Investigators concluded that the exploding bomb had unleashed a brief but intense burst of energy that, by means of various atmospheric reactions that we need not go into here, poured a killer dose of juice into every hunk of unshielded metal for hundreds of miles around and fried the electrical and electronic devices connected thereto.

According to one writer, "a nuclear burst over the United States would produce an electromagnetic pulse that could cause widespread damage or disruption to electronic communications equipment, commercial power and telephone lines, and especially to digital computers." I know: sounds like a dream come true. Solid state electronic gear is particularly vulnerable, so if you do it right there won't be an operative boom box (or computer) in the entire state. You'll be a national hero.

Interesting sidelight: when a defecting Soviet pilot landed his supposedly high-tech MiG-25 fighter in the West some years ago, U.S. experts were amused to discover that the plane was equipped with tiny vacuum tubes rather than transistors. How primitive, they thought — but then they got to thinking, jeez, what if those wily Russkies were using tubes, which are less vulnerable, to protect themselves against EMP? Cecil must inquire next time he visits the Ministry of Defense.

Using electromagnetic pulse as an anti-noise measure isn't without its problems. One is that while EMP itself makes for a nice surgical strike, the underlying bomb would definitely diminish the property values (although there are some who would say a little collateral damage is a small price to pay for peace and quiet). Possibly the side effects could be minimized if you were to locate the bomb according to scientific principles. I regret to say that research in this area has not been as aggressive as it might have been, but come on — you wanted a concept, you got a concept. Now all that remains is to work out the practical details.

Advances on the anti-boom box front

Dear Cecil:

Your recent column about using EMP [electromagnetic pulse] to combat "boom cars" shows real forward thinking. Your tax dollars are already being applied to this problem. Federal scientists have the fix at hand. Once again, you are both ahead of and behind the curve.

Cecil replies:

It's a gift, babe. You enclose an article from Aviation Week reporting that the Air Force, sensitive to the boom car phenomenon but reluctant to use nuclear weapons to combat it, is developing a new weapon that will generate EMP by nonnuclear means. "A nonnuclear EMP burst is produced by creating a magnetic field in a coil and then squeezing it by the detonation of conventional explosives," it says here. "The resulting pulse of microwave energy can carry thousands of feet and damage or upset electronic components."

The Air Force is retrofitting a bunch of ex-nuclear cruise missiles with the EMP generators. We know they'll work, too. Aviation Week continues, "In early 1993, private automobiles parked about 300 meters from a U.S. EMP generator test site had their coils, alternators, electric seats and electronic engine controls accidentally disabled by the pulse." Accidentally, eh? Sure. I say somebody in the test site heard one rap song too many.

The boom car abatement debate: Getting ugly

Dear Cecil:

A while back someone wrote asking if there wasn't some effective device to render car stereos and boom boxes inoperative when they were turned up to a certain volume. Your reply referred to something like nuclear bombs or cosmic forces or some other sad expression of comic overkill rather than taking your correspondent's question seriously and answering it accordingly. You could have advised the gentleman that several such devices have already been invented and are already available on the open market. One good example is the very handy Smith and Wesson .38 caliber Police Special. For fine tuning accuracy the five or six inch barrel is recommended. In a steady hand, this tool is also effective on explosively loud motorcycles with hollowed out tailpipes instead of mufflers.

Dear Cecil:

There are other solutions to the question of how to take out a boom box. (1) Pump in a signal with more wattage than the speakers' capability and kaboom! Fried boombox. (2) Stick a lightning rod on or near the stereo and let a gigawatt or more do the trick. (This can also cause an electromagnetic pulse effect.) Neither solution is without side effects: (1) If the signal can burst a speaker, it can also "pop" one's eardrums. (2) If you don't fry from the bolt of lightning your car could konk out and you could drive over a cliff or into another car. But hey, no pain, no gain.

Dear Cecil:

Another device which is being considered for use against electronic systems is High Power Microwaves (HPM). These generators use sources such as very intense beams of electrons (typically currents of several kiloamperes) to produce microwave radiation at powers of over a gigawatt. HPM radiation can either temporarily confuse or scramble computers, or at high enough powers, actually melt the electronics and permanently disable the system. Neither method is cheap or likely to be available at Radio Shack anytime soon, but maybe the government can be persuaded to test one of these devices at the next Whitesnake concert.

Dear Cecil:

For years I have wanted someone to design a device small enough to fit in a standard briefcase that would consist of some very large capacitors kept permanently charged by a battery. At the touch of a switch, concealed under the briefcase handle, the capacitors would put a huge surge of power into a transmitter tuned to the critical frequencies of the transistors in the offending boom box or radio. The thing would have very short range so it would not fry every radio for a mile around, just the targeted one, pretty much next to which you would have to be standing. The destructive radiation could be focused to reduce the chances of collateral damage, such as to a passing police car. Is such a device feasible?

Cecil replies:

Later, champ. Right now I'm trying on the shoulder holster and practicing the proper inflection for: "Hey … you talkin' to me?"

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