In Cryptonomicon, we first see a computer taken out by an EMP. Afterwards, its hard drives are erased by a large electromagnet, as we learn later. Considering that the electromagnet was in the building hit by the EMP, could it still have been used against the computer's hard drives?

Note that this is not a duplicate of "Could a hard drive actually have been erased as described in Cryptonomicon?" (which I asked). That question asks if the mechanism is feasible, this question asks if it still would have worked considering the EMP.

  • I really love this question but technically speaking, it's asking for real world explanation so would have to VTC :( Commented May 2, 2014 at 1:14
  • @DVK The rules state that they're off topic "unless they relate directly to a work of Science Fiction & Fantasy". Surely this we come under that?
    – Moogle
    Commented May 2, 2014 at 7:40
  • "Questions seeking scientific solutions or explanations are off-topic unless they relate directly to a cited work of fiction.*" (Emphasis mine). If it is still deemed off topic nonetheless, may I kindly request to migrate it to physics?
    – SQB
    Commented May 12, 2014 at 11:40

2 Answers 2


As I described in one of your other questions, an EMP works by generating a magnetic pulse which, in turn, induces a current in any conductor it passes through. (This is a rough approximation anyway.) (Interestingly, this would briefly "switch on" any electromagnet it happened to pass through if it wasn't already on to begin with.)

As I implied there, the amount of current generated in the target(s) is related to the amount of energy that went into the EMP. Electromagnets -- especially ones powerful enough to degauss a hard drive -- need to operate at very high currents. As a result, it's certainly possible that an EMP that fried sensitive electronics nearby, like the ICs in the computers or the cops' walkie-talkies, an act that takes very little current to pull off, would be woefully inadequate to harm the electromagnet even if it had no shielding of any kind.

Similarly, whatever is used to power the electromagnet must by necessity be able to generate (and, by extension, tolerate) the high current the electromagnet requires. It, too, is likely to survive an EMP only powerful enough to destroy relatively sensitives microchips. However, the power source might itself be computer controlled, or might have relatively delicate control circuits within it; in this case it would either be disabled, or would need to be shielded (unless it was located out of the effective range of the EMP). Being "tied to the grid" (i.e. using the power from the wall socket) would most likely not work at all, as the EMP, while most likely being inadequate to do any real harm, would almost certainly induce backcurrents in the electrical lines and result in breakers all up and down the grid being tripped, blacking out a good chunk of the area.

  • In short, if the power supply is in what amounts to a Faraday cage, even an incomplete one, it should be ok. If the power supply has sensitive chips in it (not sure why it would for an electromagnet) it would need to be in a full Faraday cage. In short, I don't see why the power supply for an electromagnet would fry from an EMP. Especially if the electromagnet can end up being somewhat close to the drive.
    – methuseus
    Commented May 1, 2014 at 16:12
  • @methuseus I can easily see it having sensitive chips if it's part of a computer-controlled self-destruct mechanism, for example, or if it includes self-monitoring features. If it's just a simple generator with no such features, though, then yes -- but then again the generators you can buy at e.g. Wal-Mart do have computerized controls within them, much like what's in the (mechanically) near-identical engines in the cars that were described as coming to a halt as well.
    – Kromey
    Commented May 1, 2014 at 16:20
  • I just looked at the linked question, and I agree, there's probably some chips that would be affected by the EMP, unless it's mains-powered with a step-up transformer, and the EMP managed to only disrupt the building's power rather than cut it out entirely. I don't think it's feasible for something that size. A degaussing tool that you put the drive on, sure, but not a doorway.
    – methuseus
    Commented May 1, 2014 at 16:27
  • @methuseus Well I didn't touch on whether or not such a magnet could affect the drives, seeing as how he asked a separate question about that, just whether or not it would function after the EMP. It's also possible it's powered by a simple battery bank, and/or a "pull down" circuit that would in effect turn the magnet on in the event of power failure -- or in the event that the circuit itself was destroyed. Basically, too many unknowns to say for sure, but the power source is the point of failure here.
    – Kromey
    Commented May 1, 2014 at 16:48
  • Hmmmm, I guess beefy wiring from a bank of batteries in another room... And yes, a pull-down would be effective. But, yes, too many unknowns.
    – methuseus
    Commented May 1, 2014 at 16:53

I am not intimately familiar with the specific events in the novel being referenced, however, it's certainly possible to utilize an electromagnet following an EMP attack.

However, you're going to either need a Faraday cage, or you're going to need to bury the electromagnet under ground (down a couple feet, possibly more depending on the wavelength of the EMP you're defending against). EMPs can damage electronics that are not connected to a power source.

Here's a video about using a Faraday cage to defend against EMP. (Note that a galvanized garbage can will function as a Faraday cage if you seal the lip with conductive tape; the lip serves as a slot antenna if you do not seal it, and the can provides almost no protection in that case.)

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