Introduction: Powerthief

Picture of Powerthief
The Graffiti Research Lab Vienna tool development archive is finally being brought to light. Here we present the Powerthief, an old piece of technology that we didn't come up with, but is worth reviving. By now they are mostly made redundant in every day life, and also illegal in most of central Europe. However, there are still useful applications for it in our environment today, especially if you're in need of a power-plug where there is usually none available.

The basic idea is pretty simple: in a lot of today's urban environments you can find a regular light bulb reasonably close-by. In Vienna, where this was executed, you can find one above almost every doorstep. The technology is even simpler - take the screw-cap of a regular light bulb and instead of connecting it to filaments it's being connected to a power socket.

To see how we made it and use it, we have a video we presented at the 2 year anniversary of the lovely gallery INOPERAbLE:

This project deals with electricity. Make sure not to blow yourself up!

You will need:

  • A light bulb
  • Electric cabling
  • Plastic tubing to cover the cabling
  • Power socket
  • Epoxy
  • Something to cut the tubing
  • Soldering iron and solder

Step 1: Putting It Together

Picture of Putting It Together
There isn't all that much to do. The steps have been captured (and played faster) on the video linked on the intro page. Remember that this project is dangerous and the use possibly illegal if you are in Europe. Improvise. In the video we used hot glue, but epoxy works better.

  • Break the light bulb and get rid of excess glass/other material
  • Solder the cables onto the connections (bottom and side) of the screw cap (there's no + / - since it's AC, so connect it how you want)
  • Make the casing from the tubing
  • Put the screw cap and the casing together with the epoxy
  • Connect the cables to the powerplug and put it on with epoxy
  • Test with care in a safe environment

Step 2: Using It

Picture of Using It

If you're using the Powerthief outside, be aware that you do not know what sort of cabling your powersource uses. Because of that, it's potentially dangerous for you and your equipment - we strongly advise against hooking up a 3000W projection/sound system as it might melt the cables and/or the Powerthief.

This tool is intended as an alternative powersource for people that want to elevate their voices outside, but are in a situation in which using other equipment such as batteries and inverters or gas generators isn't an option (for example because of $$$). Be absolutely sure that this is what you want to use.

Even though in the video we have a projector that has rather low light output, our tests with regular home projectors that take 300W to 500W and have between 2500 and 4000 ANSI lumens were successful and reliable, even using them for longer than an hour was not a problem.


Thanks to everyone involved and surrounding the development of this project: F*, Quartier digitaler Kultur, Bre Pettis, Evan Roth, James Powderly, Theo Watson


nolte919 (author)2009-03-12

This device can be found at Home Depot for $2.50. You can plug a light into it and a power cord at the same time. If you replaced the incandescent bulb with a compact fluorescent bulb and made sure the device you plugged in used less than the difference in wattages then the same amount of light would be put out and you wouldn't actually be stealing the power. And you wouldn't run the risk of over loading the supply wires.

Luziviech (author)nolte9192015-12-16

now try to get it outside wonderland america.

bo88y (author)nolte9192010-04-19

"Plug Base Attachment" from Aubuchon Hardware: $1.29

bo88y (author)bo88y2010-04-19

This "Plug In Socket Adapter, also from Aubuchon Hardware, can be used to convert the above "Plug Base Attachment" back into a socket, so that you could change a bulb by just yanking it! No more screwing on a stepladder or standing on a chair!* Much safer.

static (author)nolte9192009-03-25

Also available is one that converts the lamp socket into one receptacle. Here in the US AC receptacle are polarized, to insure that the neutral conductor, isn't switched with the line conductor, and of course the safety ground isn't carried through with these adatoptors. In the event you homebrew one of these things make sure, the neutral remains the neutral.

illdoyourdrugs (author)nolte9192009-03-18

wow THANKS man

unjust (author)nolte9192009-03-12

those devices are illegal in europe. (as noted several places)

tramitesmexico (author)2015-10-20

what a good idea!

alponso kane (author)2015-06-28

good idea

shabbokamli (author)2015-04-27


pedxing (author)2009-03-12

The polarity does matter in AC, for safety purposes. The "Hot" wire (black or red) connects to the centre, and the "Neutral" (white) goes to the side.

_soapy_ (author)pedxing2009-03-19

In general, what you say is true. However, you have no way of knowing that the light circuit is correctly wired. And that standard may not apply in other countries. In the UK, the old standard was that red was live, black was neutral and earth was green, yellow or striped green/yellow. The newer standard is that live is brown, blue is neutral, and earth is bare, or green/yellow striped. However, the biggest issue with this hack is how to turn the light on?

bo88y (author)_soapy_2010-04-19

A very basic circuit tester can tell you which is hot and which neutral.

Rimwulf (author)_soapy_2009-03-20

why does everything has to be complicated in the UK? the only standards I can remember right now is that we stopped us aluminum wires in housing.

stormende (author)2010-01-16

Hahaha it sux. Had to watch the whole video to notice that... We have it here in México! and they are legal so how many of them do you need?


columbianmatt (author)2009-11-12

in the uk your household lighting should be rated at 6 amps.
if its commercial it may be more like 10 amps,
as to france, they wire lighting radials on a 16 amp breaker.
but both the UK and france have RCD protecting the whole fuse board rated at 30mA.... this is a rad idea but you gotta have a rough idea what your plugging into, and in the worse case if you pull to many amps you'll trip the RCD, if it doesn't have one you'll trip the breaker....
if however the owner has an oldschool fuse board with re-wirable fuses and has either used the wrong rating of fuse cable or used some tin foil from an old kit-kat wrapper, you'll probably start a fire.
this is still a rad idea and i need one in my life.

infernisdiem (author)2009-10-28

they sell these every in the US.... lol

MadMoose (author)2009-03-28

It's called a "plug body". You screw it in to a light socket. Been around since about 1910.

abadfart (author)MadMoose2009-07-16

ya i got like a million and a half around my house

lil jon168 (author)2009-05-21

do you just screw that into the light socket?

LarrySDonald (author)2009-03-12

I really don't see where this would be more of a danger then plugging something into an unknown standard outlet. They rarely come with a little sticker saying "Please don't draw above 300W from me". Light sockets are no different - just another form of connector. Both should, at least in theory, be fused to whatever they are capable of providing. I'm not sure if lightbulb connectors (as opposed to sockets) have a vastly higher rate of not being properly spec:ed or something, but otherwise it'd be the same as an outlet - they promise nothing, including not promising you can safely hook up 100kW of electronics to it.

unjust (author)LarrySDonald2009-03-12

because you may be tying into a dimming or building control system that won't be outputting the standard wall outlet power, or the circuit may be sized for x # of 30 watt lamps, so you changing one lamp for a 400w demand could cause issues. or the wiring in the fixture could be only rated to 50 watts, so running 100w through could start a fire.

Sandisk1duo (author)unjust2009-03-15

hey, you get free power, it's an even trade off!

_soapy_ (author)Sandisk1duo2009-03-19

It's not even, not at all.

dfc849 (author)_soapy_2009-03-19

Nothing in life is ever truly free.

Sandisk1duo (author)dfc8492009-03-19

air is

greiss122 (author)Sandisk1duo2009-03-19

Nope, trees make it for a cost: us not killing them. That didn't make much sence.

Sandisk1duo (author)greiss1222009-03-19

you can take as much air as you like, no one will bother to stop you

psychlones (author)Sandisk1duo2009-03-20

Maybe where you live but even as we "speak" in the New York Metro area there are politicians looking for ways to circumvent the ACLU in order to require subcutaneous implantation of micro-valves that would cut off or restrict the air flow should you refuse/neglect to pay the tax on breathing. Have a happy!

jaredsalzano (author)psychlones2009-05-08

Against the constitution. Freedom of Speech.

_soapy_ (author)psychlones2009-03-21

You've at least got the right to free speech still, and have a body like the ACLU which has actual sway with politicos.

Both our right to free assembly and right to free speech were swept away in the last five years. Along with freedom from unreasonable search and seizure, every offence, no matter how minor, becoming arrestable, etc. Needless to say, the right to bear arms legally was crushed many years back. Now the police stop and search people and confiscate *anything* that could be used in the commission of a crime.

Try and think of anything that *cannot* be used to commit a crime. I can't. While thinking about that, think about joining the NRA and the ACLU. And think about boycotting the UK. Because that's where I'm talking about. And living.

psychlones (author)_soapy_2009-03-21

You are right except that increasingly the American public is willing to give up freedoms for a rather ephemeral "guarantee" of safety - I believe it was Benjamin Franklin who wrote: They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety" I was tempted to write a lot more and in truth just highlighted and deleted it all because this really isn't the forum for it. Instead, I will take a moment to thank all of you who stand up for your freedom to repurpose hardware in spite of draconian threats of IP laws that are now used as a sword to keep the implementation of ideas and creative works out of the public domain rather than a shield to guarantee their safe passage into the great marketplace of ideas as was originally intended. Thanks to all of you for sharing and in so doing demonstrating that you will not allow your creativity to be stripped from you and criminalized in the process. Have a happy!

Bigev (author)psychlones2009-03-26

That... *sniff* ... was beautiful.

psychlones (author)Bigev2009-03-26

We aim to please... uhh... can I get you a tissue?

Bigev (author)psychlones2009-03-30

Thank you... *HONK*

greiss122 (author)Sandisk1duo2009-03-21

True, except maybe the air police

mondaymonkey (author)Sandisk1duo2009-03-19

Nope, that breath you just took just cost you $1, now pay up

Sandisk1duo (author)mondaymonkey2009-03-19

*rolls teh eyes* there's no tax on air!

jaredsalzano (author)Sandisk1duo2009-05-08

In some countries, yes.

Yerboogieman (author)Sandisk1duo2009-03-26

It's included in all the taxes on everything, just, it isn't said anywhere it is taxed.

LarrySDonald (author)unjust2009-03-14

Indeed, just as it might at a standard outlet which doesn't have a "standard" output level either. Granted, a light socket might be more likely to be good for 30-100W while sockets are more commonly good for more, but both are simply connectors. Supposing an outlet leads to a 8A circuit, there is no guarantee there isn't another 7.9A hooked up to it just on the other side of the wall. I can see the logic to a degree - I'd be very careful drawing 100W+ off a random light socket since someone might have just assumed that's all that'll get plugged into it - but making it illegal to do so seems a bit extreme.

OrionBlade (author)LarrySDonald2009-03-19

The problem is that you're not paying for the electricity that you're using. If you sneak into my back yard and plug in an extension cord, and run your TV off it, I'm paying for the electricity you're using. Same as if you hook a garden hose up to my place and water your lawn, it's my water bill you're jacking up. If those are city owned lights, I can see where this is a bit snarky, but if the building owner pays for the lights, then you're actually trespassing, and stealing utilities. As far as the fire issue goes... most circuits are either 20 or 30 amps, I've yet to find a 15 amp circuit, and if you do pull too much power, you'll blow a fuse or breaker, not melt the wires. Whether anyone would care about the .35 cents worth of electricity that you sucked down while projecting an image on a nearby building is a completely different matter, but it's up to the property owner to decide (since they pay the power bill).

_soapy_ (author)OrionBlade2009-03-21

FYI, often in the UK the lighting circuit is 15A fused. In modern houses you will find that it's nearly all used at night, and the fuse blows when a bulb goes. (First upgrade at my old house was to a 15A RCD to replace it. Re-wiring a fuse by torchlight under the stairs got old real quick.)

LarrySDonald (author)OrionBlade2009-03-20

Certainly stealing electricity isn't right. I was mostly addressing the issue of banning the device due to hazards. I'm also against banning it on the basis that it could be used for theft. I own a set of lock picks, a crowbar, a smart card test board and a baseball bat but I haven't committed any crimes with them - I have them for perfectly legitimate reasons. I could, of course, but I don't. I can't really make stealing electricity work with what I currently consider moral, but I can also not endorse banning a device that might well be useful in a pinch (needing a plug-in in a place you are explicitly allowed to use, including owning it, when all you have it a light socket) in order to help stop that.

The wattage ratings are based on heating issues with incandescent light bulbs more than for electrical reasons. The higher the wattage, the more heat produced, and enough heat will melt or burn the fixture. Just attaching wires will not produce this type of heating. In this case it becomes an issue of the current carrying capacity of the conductors in the circuit. This depends on the cross sectional area and metal the conductors are made from.

bart416 (author)unjust2009-03-15

Not to forget about the cables used for light circuits being made to handle a lot lower currents. Laptops on the other hand can easily draw more than 1 amps.

static (author)LarrySDonald2009-03-25

In the US lighting fixtures are often on the same 15 amp lighting circuit as the receptacles are, typically speaking. However that's not to say any lighting fixture can safely conduct 15 Amps. Lighting fixtures often do have a warning as to not use lamps over a certain wattage, but that's more about the heat produced by the lamps, than it is about the current handling capabilities of the fixture. In not knowing what other load is one the circuit as the lighting fixture, your use the powerthief on there's a chance your use of it may trip a breaker.

firehazardjewelry (author)2009-04-15

well, this kind of premade plugs are not available in europe at all. i found them here in the us the first time ever... so, if i see the pictres right, it is done in and there they do not know that system at all... because

Love_Not_Found (author)2009-03-26

not only do they use differant power plug but they use a differant voltage the screw in outlets woudnt work there and would probily short out anything you even tried plugging into it

phillipnolan (author)2009-03-26

Guess you never ran across these nice pre-made units. Less expensive and much less labor intensive.

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