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An Afternoon with Cliff Stoll

An Afternoon with Cliff Stoll

Cliff Stoll is both an iconoclast and a prototypical mad scientist. If you saw him at Maker Faire Bay Area recently, you’d know his white hair juts out like it’s been hit with a jolt of static electricity, and his demeanor is just as energetic. I visited his home thinking I’d be covering his R/C forklift, but I was drawn in for an entire afternoon of conversation and gadgetry.

Cliff’s first claim to fame was catching the hacker Markus Hess, who was employed by the KGB to obtain US military secrets. This was all done in 1986 when Stoll was a systems administrator at Lawrence Berkeley Labs, a day job he held while pursuing a PhD in astronomy. He published The Cuckoo’s Egg based on his experience which became a best seller.

In between this he worked for Buffalo’s student-run WBFO, the leaders of which went on to form NPR. Cliff declined a position, choosing instead to continue his studies. Then in 1977 he visited the MITS 8080 computer in Albuquerque that was being built with a BASIC compiler. One of the chaps working on the machine offered Stoll a job. That man was Bill Gates. Once again, Cliff turned it down to pursue his education.

In the intervening years, he’s lived a relatively quiet life, finding joy in raising a family, working for a telecom company, and teaching physics to homeschooled kids. To add to his long list of vocations, he took up making hand-blown Klein bottles, unwittingly becoming an entrepreneur. For the uninitiated, a Klein bottle is like a Mobius strip with an extra dimension added. To keep costs down, he had to buy the bottles in bulk. The only storage space he had was a tiny crawl space that ran under his house. Not wanting to get on his hands and knees to move and retrieve stock, he built an R/C powered Klein bottle forklift. Check it out in action:

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As we explored his house I found so much maker eye candy I nearly broke the switch on my camera. Check out some of the things he’s made and collected over the years:

Being a man of thought, Cliff had a lot to say about many topics our readers find interest in. Here are just a couple:

    On 3D Printing

The cool thing about 3D printing is that you can make something that you couldn’t make otherwise. But I like the idea of making things with your hands– your fingers. If someone else has made something that I can download to my printer, it’s automatically not interesting. It’s sort of like saying I made this Heathkit tuner. You did assemble it and solder it, but did you understand it? Not really. I finally gave my Makerbot to Oakland Tech High School and they’re going crazy over it!

    On Stuxnet

In the late 80s I wrote a short paper on how one could use bugs in computers to extract information from an adversary. To me, the absolute obvious part was in the conclusion, saying “as soon as we begin doing that, within a short time the adversary will start doing the same thing. This will essentially destroy worldwide communication and the worldwide trust that allows you to have international networks. In this case, you can easily and plausibly deny that you’re responsible for it.”

Cliff Stoll is a rare breed of maker who is of the old-school, but is also so unstoppably curious that he can tackle new technologies with ease. There is a type of connection we can make with men of his ilk (Forrest Mims also comes to mind) that can give us all perspective on the projects and endeavors we work on. I hope you had half the fun reading this as I did during my time with Cliff.

12 thoughts on “An Afternoon with Cliff Stoll

  1. jachim (@jachim) says:

    I had the good fortune (and balls to weasel my way in) to eat lunch and spend a small portion of an afternoon with Cliff in college. He is a fascinating – and frenetic – guy. I can only imagine how cool it was to visit him at home.

    His TED talk was very fun to watch, too.

  2. phill says:

    I used to watch the shorts “cliff’s notes” on PBS when I was growing up. His TED talk is also amazing. I’ve always enjoyed and learned a lot from him.

  3. Doug says:

    Amazing timing for this story, I just got my copy of The Cuckoo’s Egg back from a co-worker today. I think it is time for a reread.

    jachim – UWEC? I didn’t eat lunch with him but had a conversation with him just before lunch. and had him sign my copy of The Cuckoo’s Egg. He signed it to “Hot Ziggity Doug” he really is a fascinating guy! I remember his story of building a radar gun to track speeders in his neighborhood in order to convince the city to install speed bumps.

    1. Michael Colombo says:

      Ha! That’s funny because when I was there he tld me a story about how the city tried to crack down on him having a tenant in his backyard cottage because it was an “illegal apartment.” ” So, he went through the old city records and found a dwelling permit from WWII when there was a housing shortage. Not only did he win the case, but now has a thick binder of documents and photographs of the history of his home to show for it.

  4. ka1axy says:

    I read the Cuckoo’s Egg years ago. It’s a great book, and a must read for anyone managing a network. Every time Cliff Stoll shows up, I smile. He’s a true renaissance man, and I’d love to meet him. Anyone with a slide rule on his wall and a box of punched cards is someone I would enjoy talking with.

  5. Kathryn W. Kemp says:

    I clipped a NY Times op-ed essay by Clifford Stoll in 1996, and it floats around in my files to this day. It is remarkably pertinent to the present day fascination with MOOCs, and controversies over how to teach effectively. “Invest in Humanware” is available at

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In addition to being an online editor for MAKE Magazine, Michael Colombo works in fabrication, electronics, sound design, music production and performance (Yes. All that.) In the past he has also been a childrens' educator and entertainer, and holds a Masters degree from NYU's Interactive Telecommunications Program.

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