About a month ago I had one of the strangest phones call of my life. “Steve my name is Donald xx, and I’m the head of external affairs of the CIA’s venture capital firm and we’d like you to keynote our conference.” CIA? “Do you mean the Culinary Institute of America? And you’d like me to do my talk on Customer Development and startups?” “No, we’re the other CIA.” 74HGZA3MZ6SV
So I gave my “The Secret History of Silicon Valley” talk as the keynote to the CIA’s venture capital conference.
Their VC firm, In-Q-Tel, has been in business for 10 years, and like most VC firms they have an annual event where they show off their new portfolio companies to their limited partners and other VC partners. Except at this VC conference, 100 or so of the 300 attendees had badges that had their first name and only the last initial of their last name. (And I could have sworn they all had the same badge.) They were all from somewhere in the intelligence community.
As I was leaving someone asked me, “You must have been working on this story for awhile.” Until then I had never thought about how long I had been thinking about this. But as I got into my car I realized that this talk was the result of my never-ending asking “how come” for 36 years. So this post is how I came to write “The Secret History of Silicon Valley”. (I’ll post more about the history itself later.)
So here it is in five parts.
Part I. Thailand: Bats, Moths and John Scoggins
I was 19 in 1973 and in Thailand in the Air Force working on electronic warfare equipment on fighter planes, gunships and Wild Weasels, at the tail end of the Vietnam War. I remember asking out of the blue one day, “Where does our equipment come from, what is exactly that we’re doing?”
My sergeant looked at me like the dog just talked: “What do you mean, what are we doing? We’re fixing this equipment; that’s your job. When the pilots say it doesn’t work we take the stuff out of the plane, bring it to the shop make sure it really is broken, you know, and unbreak it.” And I went, “No, no, no, but why are we doing this?”
I wanted to understand more about the North Vietnamese and their surface to air missiles and radar guided AAA they got from the Russians, and how we were trying to out-smart them with receivers to pick up their radar and jammers to jam the acquisition radars and missile guidance uplink signals — a little of which I had learned in my one year of training at Keesler Air Force Base in Biloxi Mississippi. Since it was the military and I was a lowly airman (I was outranked by the rest of the entire air force), the answer I got was, “Don’t you know there’s a war on? Shut up and keep fixing that equipment.”
But I kept on asking enough questions until finally I got the attention again of the guy who had brought me off of the very hot and humid flight line into the shop in the first place, John Scoggins. John said, “You’re really interested in this stuff, aren’t you?” I said, “Yeah, you know, like where did it come from, I mean, how long have the Russians had this stuff? Why did they build it? How did we figure out how to build jammers?” There was no public history about surface to air missiles, though I’m sure there were probably some good classified histories, which I didn’t have access to.
John said, “Well, Steve, it’s been going on for tens of millions of years.” I said, “What are you talking about? I’m asking about electronic warfare and countermeasures.” He said, “Tens of millions of years.” And I said, “What?” And he said, “Meet me at the tennis courts tonight.”
John was a lifer, who I guess in hindsight was a nerd and was in his element as an enlisted guy, but a master sergeant. He must have been in his 30s, so a real “old” guy to a 19 year old.
So, he said, tennis courts, 8:00 PM tonight. You’re on an airbase with 180 fighter planes, but we had a tennis court and gym and all kinds of accoutrements to give thousands of airmen in the middle of a war zone an alternative to almost free drugs and women (note to military, nice try but it didn’t work.)
The tennis courts had these very bright lights, and they would attract all kinds of bizarre tropical insects, including these large flying water beetles. I don’t know their actual genus, but they were called “Baht Bugs” because the Thai locals would come and capture them and sell them for a nickel each since they were a delicacy, and the Thais would take the raw bugs and literally slurp out their insides in real time. So, they would be running around the tennis courts collecting Baht Bugs.
There were also these large moths that would attract bats.
So, I go to the tennis court, and there’s John Scoggins, and there’s a pile of electronic equipment in the corner, and it’s night, and no one played tennis at night, even though they lit the tennis court. But there’s a pile of electronic equipment under one of the lights with a parabolic dish antenna, kind of a miniature setup of stuff we had in the labs and our shop.
And I said, “What on earth is this?” John put on headphones, and he gave me a set of headphones, and all of a sudden I could hear this chirping sound. And I said, “What are we listening to?” He said, “Bats.” “What?” “Bats.”
John explained that bats have the equivalent of radar. Not radar in terms of microwave radar frequencies, but they use ultrasonic frequencies to locate their prey at night, and so it’s essentially radar to locate bugs. And since they fly at night, they don’t use vision; their ultrasonics are essentially their eyes. They’ve build up a mental map −– just like our vision −– with echolocation. They send out these chirps, and when one bounces off an object, it comes back. Then they would go after the moths. That’s what I was hearing was the radar signals of a bat.
We’re listening, and it’s very cool. And John was recording all this stuff on a reel-to-reel tape recorder, recording the flight of the bats as they were going after bugs. Every couple minutes he’d say, now listen to this one, and you’d hear the bat chirp, and then every once in a while you’d hear even a higher frequency but lower volume sound.
John said, “Listen, you can hear the jammer.” The what? “The jammer,” he said, “Watch the moths.” It turns out the moths, through evolution, had developed their own electronic countermeasures to jam the bat radar. They had developed ultrasonic receivers and ultrasonic jammers and physical countermeasures. When they picked up the bat radar illuminating them by sensitive hairs on their antennas, they would send out their own little squirt of ultrasonics by rubbing their legs together, jam the bat radar, and then they would immediately take evasive action and dive to the left and right.
Through Darwinian selection over millions of years, these moths had developed an entire electronic warfare, electronic countermeasures, electronic countercounter-measures suite, and here was a guy in 1973 in Thailand who was figuring this stuff out. To be honest, it was my first insight that there was really a bigger picture.
So, John’s point was, “I keep trying to tell officers way above me that there’s probably a ton we could learn from watching these natural systems. What we’re doing in the air war over the North is just nothing more than something that’s been going on in nature for millions of years, but I can’t seem to get anybody’s attention.” (Thirty years later MIT would develop the Insect Lab and work on swarm behaviors for UAV’s and robotics.)
Years later, I searched Google for anything written on moth/bat radar and countermeasures, and while now there are quite a few papers, John had never published anything on the subject. If he did he would have been 20 years ahead of everyone else. But I always had thought the bat and moth thing was incredibly cool, and it answered a question I had never even asked: where is all this coming from?
In exchange for helping John with his bats and bugs, I learned about the big picture −– about the North Vietnamese air defense radar network and SAMs and what systems our equipment were trying to shut down, what the Wild Weasels were doing, and what John had heard from friends in Utapao and Guam on why we lost all those B-52’s in Linebacker II, what worked and didn’t over the north, almost all which was classified way past my pay level (and his.)
But I was always a sponge for new data and curious about where it came from, and what the history was, and what we were trying to do. Most of it went in one ear and out the other. But some of it was sticking. And all of it was interesting. It gave me a sense of purpose for the rest of the war. Under John’s tutelage I ended up running a small shift and part a very large shop and was being sent to other bases in Thailand to train others how to repair the new equipment.
Thanks John, wherever you are.
I had just turned 20.