Balloon Wars: Part 16 of the Secret History of Silicon Valley

In the 1950’s the U.S. Military and the CIA enlisted balloons (some as tall as a 40-story building) as weapons systems targeting the Soviet Union. Throughout the decade they launched a series of Top Secret/codeword balloon projects and thousands of balloons, to gather intelligence about the Soviet Union. The individual stories of these programs are interesting but an unexpected consequence of their secrecy was that they created a mythology that outlasted the missions.

Why Balloons?
In the 1950′s balloons had attributes that airplanes couldn’t match. In the days before satellites they could stay aloft for a long time (days or even weeks,) they could reach altitudes where airplanes couldn’t fly (100,000 feet,) and they could go places that were too dangerous for manned aircraft (flying over the Soviet Union.)

The Search for Soviet Nuclear Weapons
Project MOGUL was an Air Force balloon program to detect Soviet nuclear tests by listening to sound waves traveling through the upper atmosphere. During World War II, scientists had discovered the existence of an ocean layer that conducted underwater sound for thousands of miles. They thought that a similar sound channel might exist in the upper atmosphere. If they could put microphones in the upper atmosphere, the U.S. thought they might be able to hear Soviet nuclear tests and even detect ballistic missiles launches heading toward their targets. Designed to test this theory, Project Mogul balloons carried microphones up to the sound channel to “listen” and radio transmitters to send the sound to the ground. At first, project MOGUL flights involved trains of small weather balloons up to 600 feet in length. Later MOGUL flights used the large polyethylene balloons developed for the Navy’s SKYHOOK.

Flying Sandwich Bags – SKYHOOK
SKYHOOK balloons, funded by the Office of Naval Research, were designed to stay at a fixed altitude (~100,000 feet) and carry a payload of thousands of pounds. They were huge, 400 feet high, made possible because the then new material called polyethylene.  These “flying sandwich bags” were built by a company that had experience using this material in packaging – General Mills (the same company that makes Cheerios.)

Sniffing for a Reactor – Nuclear Air Sampling – ASHCAN
In 1957 the Air Force started Project ASHCAN (using SKYHOOK class balloons at 100,0000 feet) to take high altitude air samples and search for nuclear particles and trace gases in fallout from tests in the Soviet Union. For the first time, U.S. intelligence could estimate the amount of plutonium being produced by Soviet weapons production reactors. These balloons were secretly launched from Brazil and the Panama Canal Zone, and from air force bases in the U.S.  Over time, U.S. intelligence also used reconnaissance planes like the U-2, RB-57’s, and C-130 aircraft to collect air samples.

Genetrix Launched from the U.S.S. Valley Forge

Ballooning Over the Soviet Union – GENETRIX
While the nuclear detection balloons did their spying while flying above the U.S. or allied countries, the next series of balloons flew over the Soviet Union.

In the 1950’s, while U.S. reconnaissance aircraft flew around the periphery of the Soviet Union, U.S. military planners still had virtually no information about what was going on in vast areas of the Soviet territory. While there were a few overflights of the Soviet interior in the early 1950’s these missions were extremely risky and couldn’t provide enough information to assess Soviet military strength. Spy satellites and the
U-2 spy planes were still far in the future so the U.S. military became big fans of reconnaissance balloons as a solution to this problem.

In 1950 the Air Force thought that high-altitude balloons might be used to perform photo and ELINT spyflights over the Soviet Union.  They placed aerial reconnaissance cameras on the balloons and ran a series of test programs (code names of GOPHER, MOBY DICK, GRANDSON and GRAYBACK) launching 640 balloons from New Mexico, Montana, the West Coast, Missouri and Georgia. With the tests completed, the program name changed to GENETRIX and was given the designation of Weapons System 119L.

In late 1955 President Eisenhower gave the ok to launch the GENETRIX balloons over the Soviet Union. Hundreds of these balloons took off from secret sites in Norway, Scotland, West Germany, and Turkey carrying a gondola with two reconnaissance cameras.

The United States launched 516 of the GENETRIX balloons but only 44 or so made it out of the Soviet Union.  The rest landed on Soviet farms dumping 600-pound cameras in hayfields. We did get coverage of about 8 percent of the Soviet Union, but politically it created a lot of tension as cameras were popping up on Khrushchev’s desk.  “Oh, another balloon Mr. Premier.”  The Soviets put on a public exhibition of the equipment.

Bigger and Better- MELTING POT
Never one to give up, the military suggested a bigger and better balloon program. Since the GENETRIX balloons flying at 55,000 feet were relatively easy for Soviet fighters to intercept, the new balloons would be built around the Navy SKYHOOK design and fly at 100,000 feet for up to a month. These balloons would carry a new reconnaissance camera, built by the Boston University Physical Research Lab. Three of these balloons were launched in July 1958 from an aircraft carrier off the east coast of Japan (in those months the jet stream at the altitude went west to east.) All three accidentally dropped their gondolas over Communist territory.  President Eisenhower cancelled all the balloon overflights.

Unexpected Consequences – UFO’s in the 1950’s
All these balloon flights had an unexpected consequence on a jittery and paranoid nation in the Cold War. Before sunrise and after sunset, while the Earth below was dark, high altitude balloons were still lit by sunlight, and their plastic skin glowed and appeared to change color with the change in sun angle. Some of the Project Mogul balloon flights were launched from Alamogordo Air Base in New Mexico in 1947, and a few crashed nearby – one near a town called Roswell. The start of the Mogul balloon flights coincided with the first reports of UFO’s. To someone on the ground, these balloons may have looked like UFOs.

Because each of these separate balloon programs were highly compartmentalized programs it’s doubtful that there was any one individual who realized that the sum of the programs were putting thousands of high altitude balloons in the air in the 1950′s. The MOGUL, MOBY DICK, ASHCAN and GENETRIX programs were the CIA/military’s most closely guarded secret projects. Balloon sightings were dismissed with cover story: they were just weather balloons. Even as one part of the military tried to investigate these sightings, the other kept them away from the true purpose of the balloon missions.The reason for the denials – 1) the Soviets could have masked their nuclear tests and filtered their reactor emissions if they knew what we were sampling and 2) GENETRIX balloon flights over the Soviet Union were a violation of international law.

The thousands of classified balloon flights (along with the first flight of the high altitude CIA U-2 reconnaissance plane in 1955) are a possible explanation of of UFO sightings in the 1950′s and the claim of military cover-ups.

The Secret History of Silicon Valley Part 14: Weapons System 117L and Corona

This post is the latest in the “Secret History Series.”  They’ll make much more sense if you read some of the earlier ones for context. See the Secret Historyvideo and slides as well as the bibliography for sources and supplemental reading.

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The Soviet Union’s detonation of an atomic weapon in 1949 and the start of the Korean War in 1950 fed cold war paranoia in the military and political leadership of the United States. The U.S. intelligence community was determined to find out what was going on inside the Soviet Union. But Soviet secrecy had the country locked down tightly. Desperate for intelligence, the CIA would fly the Lockheed built U-2 spy plane into and over the Soviet Union on 24 missions from 1956-1960 taking photos of its military installations.

But even as the U-2 was beginning its overflights, the U.S. military had concluded that the future of intelligence over the Soviet Union would no longer be with airplanes, but would rely instead on spy satellites orbiting hundreds of miles above in space.

One company in what is today Silicon Valley would build most of them.

Weapons System 117L
In 1956 Lockheed Missiles had just won the contract to build the Polaris Submarine Launched Ballistic Missile (SLBM) for the U.S. Navy in Sunnyvale California, and down in Los Angeles, the U.S. Air Force was on a “crash program” to build land-based Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBM’s) – the Atlas, Titan and Minuteman.

In 1954, three years before the U.S. or the Soviet Union ever orbited a single satellite, the Air Force asked the RAND corporation to study what satellites could do for the military. Their answer: satellites would enable us to peer over the closed border and inside the Soviet Union.  In 1956, the Air Force organization building our ICBMs was assigned to build a family of satellites to spy on the Soviet Union from space. These satellites would be configured to carry out different reconnaissance missions, including photo reconnaissance, infrared missile warning, and Electronic Intelligence.

This military spy satellite program was called Weapons System 117L.

Spies in Sunnyvale
In 1956 the Air Force gave Lockheed Missiles Division in Sunnyvale the contract to build Weapons System 117L.

Over the next two years Weapons System 117L evolved into a large ambitious program with multiple satellites:

  • The Satellite and Missile Observation System (SAMOS) would take low resolution pictures of the Soviet Union from space and transmit the photos electronically to earth.
  • Another SAMOS version (called Ferrets) would collect electronic intelligence on Soviet radars and transmit the location and radar details electronically to earth.
  • The Missile Detection Alarm System (MIDAS) would provide early warning of the launch of Soviet missiles heading to the U.S. by looking for the hot exhaust (the infrared plume) of rocket engines and transmit the location of the launch electronically to earth.

Crisis
In 1957, a year after Lockheed got the contract to start building WS-117L, the Soviet Union tested an ICBM – one that could carry a nuclear warhead to the United States. They quickly followed with the launch of Sputnik, the first earth-orbiting satellite.

These two events jolted the U.S. intelligence agencies into crisis mode. The Soviet Union claimed they could turn out ICBMs like sausages, and the CIA desperately needed to know how many missiles the Soviets really had and where they were.

Not Good Enough
The photo reconnaissance satellite designed for Weapons System-117 would have let the U.S. military see objects larger than 100-feet from space.  This 100-foot resolution was sufficient for its original mission – to assess how effective the first wave of nuclear attacks on the Soviet Union had been. This “post-strike bomb damage assessment” would allow targets that had been missed by the nuclear armed SAC bombers to be retargeted for follow-on attacks. Because of the immediacy of the information, it required real-time electronic read-out of film developed on orbit.

The problem was that while 100-foot resolution was good enough to locate craters left in cities from space, it wasn’t sufficient for the new mission; to locate the new Soviet ICBM silos and bombers. In addition, the electronic read-out of film developed on orbit was nowhere near ready; it was too complex for its time and technology.

The CIA and Corona
The CIA convinced the Secretary of Defense that the best bet was to build a separate photo reconnaissance satellite carrying a camera that took pictures from space as it passed over the Soviet Union. Film from the camera would be de-orbited in a capsule that could survive the heat of re-entry from space. A parachute would slow the descent of the capsule, which would be snatched in mid-air over the Pacific Ocean by a recovery plane hooking its parachute.  The idea was that this film-based spy satellite would be a short-term project until the Lockheed electronic readout version was in better shape.

This Project was code-named Corona.

The Flamingo Motel
In March 1958 a few unassuming guests checked into the Flamingo Motel in San Mateo, California, near the San Francisco airport.  The CIA, and their primary contractors Lockheed, Kodak, Fairchild and GE, met to hash out their roles and the schedule. The CIA was the customer. Lockheed would integrate and assemble the satellites, Itek (which replaced Fairchild) would provide the camera, Kodak the film, and GE would provide the recovery system that would bring the exposed film through the fiery re-entry back to earth.

After the meeting, the Lockheed manager for Corona rented his own hotel room in Rickey’s Hyatt House in Palo Alto to start to plan the program. He needed to find a factory, separate from the already secret Polaris factory in Sunnyvale. He found an unused facility at the Hiller Helicopter factory on Willow Road in East Palo Alto which became the Lockheed “Advanced Projects” facility.

Deception
To hide the fact that we were launching high-resolution photo reconnaissance satellites over the Soviet Union, the CIA had the Air Force publically cancel the SAMOS photo reconnaissance portion of WS-117L. The program then was resurrected as a “deep black” “compartmentalized” CIA program. When the Corona satellites were launched the CIA used a “cover” story. They called the Corona satellites the  “Discoverer” program and claimed it was an experimental program to develop and test satellite subsystems and explore environmental conditions in space. The film recovery capsule was described as a “biomedical capsule” for the recovery of biological specimens sent into space as an early test of how humans would react to manned spaceflight.

East Palo Alto – Lockheed’s Satellite Factory
The Corona project was run like a startup – a small team, minimum bureaucracy, focussed on a goal and tightly integrated with customer needs. Starting in February 1959, only 12 months after the program began the Air Force launched the first  Corona reconnaissance satellite from the military’s secret spaceport on the California coast at Vandenberg Air Force Base. But the first 13 missions were failures. Yet the program was deemed so important to national security the CIA and the Air Force persevered. And when the first images were received they transformed technical intelligence forever. At first, objects as small as 35-50 feet could be seen from space, with later versions improving to be able to see 6-10 feet objects, over millions of miles of a formally closed country.

Corona Image of Stepnogorsk Bioweapons Facility

Over the life of the program there were 145 Corona launches – 120 were complete or partial successes. During that same decade the Corona program evolved into six different satellite models (the KH-1 thru KH-6) with three different intelligence objectives.

Lockheed turned the Hiller Helicopter plant in East Palo Alto into the control facility for all spy satellites and the Corona spy satellite assembly line – building about one a month and delivering ~145 Corona satellites over the life of the program.

Stanford, Jasons, WS-117L and Corona
In addition to Lockheed, Stanford University also had a hand in Corona. Sidney Drell, then a professor in the Stanford Physics department, was one of the dozen of young scientists who were founding members of the Jason Group (scientists working on national security problems.) His first project was understanding whether a Soviet nuclear burst in space could blind the infrared sensors on the Midas portion of WS-117L.  This research got him invited to be part of the President’s Scientific Advisory Council (PSAC). But it was when the CIA asked him to solve some technical problems with the film on the Corona spacecraft that his career became intertwined with photo reconnaissance. His studies convinced the CIA that photo interpreters needed an order of magnitude improvement in resolution, and Corona had been pushed to its limits. In the late 1960′s Drell, as a member of the Land Panel convinced the CIA that the next generation of photo reconnaissance satellites should transmit their images back to earth in real-time, and use CCD’s rather than film.

For his work, Drell, still at Stanford, was recognized as one of the ten founders of National Reconnaissance by the NRO.

Corona Firsts
While Corona had a number of technological breakthroughs, including the first photoreconnaissance satellite, the first recovery of an object from space, etc. it was Corona imagery in 1961 that told the intelligence community and the new Kennedy administration that the “missile gap” (the supposed Soviet lead in ICBMs) was illusory. By fall of 1961 Soviet Union had a total of six deployed ICBMs – we had ten times as many. In truth, it was the U.S. that had the lead in missiles.

Corona was just the beginning. Overhead reconnaissance would become an integral part of the U.S. intelligence community. Hidden in plain sight, Lockheed and the U.S. intelligence community were just getting started in Silicon Valley.

Next – Agena, Midas, Ferrets and the NRO in Part XV of the Secret History of Silicon Valley.

The Secret History of Silicon Valley Part 13: Lockheed-the Startup with Nuclear Missiles

This post is the latest in the “Secret History Series.”  They’ll make much more sense if you read some of the earlier ones for context. See the Secret History bibliography for sources and supplemental reading.

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The Future is Clear – Microwave Valley Forever
In 1956 Hewlett Packard, back then a maker of test equipment was the valley’s largest electronics employer with 900 employees. But startups were rapidly spinning out of Stanford’s Applied Electronics Lab delivering microwave tubes, components and complete electronic intelligence and electronic warfare systems for the U.S. military and intelligence agencies. The future of the valley was clear – microwaves.

1956 – Change Everything
In 1956 two events would change everything.  At the time neither appeared earthshaking or momentous. Shockley Semiconductor Laboratory, the first semiconductor company in the valley, set up shop in Mountain View. And down the street, Lockheed Missiles Systems Division which would become the valley’s most important startup for the next 20 years, moves its new missile division from Burbank to 275 acres next to the Moffett Naval Air Station in Sunnyvale.

Lockheed – Building Nuclear Missiles in Sunnyvale
Lockheed, an airplane manufacturer, was getting into the missile business by becoming the prime contractor to build the Polaris, a submarine launched ballistic missile (SLBM) developed by the Navy. The Polaris was unique: it would be the first solid-fuel ballistic missile used by the U.S.  Solid fuel solved the safety problem of carrying missiles at sea and underwater and also allowed for instant launch capability. Polaris launched SLBM’s would become the third part of the nuclear triad the U.S. built in the cold war –  the Polaris, the B-52 manned bomber, and the Minuteman, and Titan land-based Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs.)

Each Polaris missile carried a 600 kT nuclear warhead, (later Polaris versions carried three) and each ballistic missile submarine carried 16 of these missiles. 10 years after the program started the United States had built and put to sea 41 ballistic missile submarines carrying 656 Lockheed missiles (28.5 ft high, and weighing 29,000 lbs.) The company acquired a 5,000 acre missile test facility near Santa Cruz, and for years would test it’s missiles in the mountains above the valley.

One can assume that with spares, Lockheed built close to 1000 of these missiles in those ten years.  That’s 100 missiles a year, 8/month or 2 a week flying out of Moffett Field.

You Can Be Sure if It’s Westinghouse
Polaris submarines carried each missile in a separate launch tube. Down the street from Lockheed in Sunnyvale, another American corporate icon, Westinghouse became the developer of the launch tube for the Polaris missile.  To launch missiles from a submarine under water, Westinghouse had to solve several problems. The launch tube had to keep the missile snug in its tube until firing.  It had to eject the missile with sufficient velocity so it would head to the surface for a 100’ feet under water, and it had to protect the submarine when ocean water came rushing in to the now empty launch tube.  Oil-filled shock absorbers solved the cushioning problem and compressed air launched the missile out of the tube through a thin diaphragm that separated the missile from the ocean once the missile launch covers were opened.

Zero to 28,000 people – We Become “Defense Valley”
By 1965 Hewlett Packard, the test and instrumentation company, had grown ten-fold.  From 900 people in 1956 it now employed 9,000. Clearly it must have been the dominant company in the valley? Or perhaps it was Fairchild, the direct descendant of Shockley Semiconductor, now the dominant semiconductor supplier in the valley (80% of its first years business coming from military systems) with ~10,000 people?

Nope, it was the Lockheed Missiles Division, which had zero employees in 1956, now in 1965 had 28,000 employees in Sunnyvale.  The best and the brightest were coming from across the country to the valley south of San Francisco.

And they were not only building Polaris missiles.

By 1965 Lockheed factories in Sunnyvale, Stanford and East Palo Alto were building the most secret spy satellites and rockets you never heard of. While the 1950′s had made us “Microwave Valley,” the growth of Lockheed, Westinghouse and their suppliers had turned us into “Defense Valley.”

In the next post; Spy Satellites in East Palo Alto and Stanford – Corona, WS-117, Samos, Ferret’s and Agena in Part XIV of the Secret History of Silicon Valley.

In Victory: Magnanimity

“In War: Resolution. In Defeat: Defiance. In Victory: Magnanimity. In Peace: Goodwill.”  Winston Churchill

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In March I was the keynote at the In-Q-Tel Venture Capital Conference, giving a talk on the Secret History of Silicon Valley. (In-Q-Tel is the Central Intelligence Agency’s Venture Capital firm in Silicon Valley.)
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The gist of the talk was that the needs of electronic intelligence in the midst of the Cold War and a single Stanford Professor was a key catalyst for entrepreneurship in Silicon Valley.

There were about 300 people in the audience, about 150 from the U.S. intelligence community.

Irony
Last week I was the keynote at the American Business Association of Russian Speaking Professionals.

There were about 300 people in the audience, almost all from the old Soviet Union.

I presented the same Secret History talk, pointing out that the launch of the first Soviet satellite (Sputnik) galvanized the U.S. government to accidentally contribute to the start the Venture Capital industry as we know it.

Afterwards a few of the audience came up and told me stories about Soviet weapons systems that could have won someone an intelligence medal 30 years earlier.

I would have loved to have given the talk to both audiences at the same time.

Close enough.
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The Secret History of Silicon Valley 12: The Rise of “Risk Capital” Part 2

This post is the latest in the “Secret History Series.”  They’ll make much more sense if you watch the video or read some of the earlier posts for context. See the Secret History bibliography for sources and supplemental reading.

This is the second of three posts about the rise of “risk capital” and how it came to be associated with what became Silicon Valley.

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The First Valley IPO’s
Silicon Valley first caught the eyes of east coast investors in the late 1950’s when the valleys first three IPO’s happened: Varian in 1956, Hewlett Packard in 1957, and Ampex in 1958.  These IPOs meant that technology companies didn’t have to get acquired to raise money or get their founders and investors liquid. Interestingly enough, Fred Terman, Dean of Stanford Engineering was tied to all three companies.

Varian made a high power microwave tube called the Klystron, invented by Terman’s students Russell and Sigurd Varian and William Hansen. In 1948 the Varian brothers along with Stanford professors Edward Ginzton and Marvin Chodorow founded Varian Corporation in Palo Alto to produce klystrons for military applications. Fred Terman and David Packard of HP joined Varian’s board.

Terman was also on the board of HP. Terman arranged for a research assistantship to bring his former student, David Packard, back from a job at General Electric in New York to collaborate with William Hewlett, another of Terman’s graduate students. Terman sat on the HP board from 1957-1973.

Ampex made the first tape recorders in the U.S (copied from captured German models,) and Terman was on its board as well. Ampex’s first customer was Bing Crosby who wanted to record his radio programs for rebroadcast (and had exclusive distribution rights.) Ampex business took off when Terman introduced Ampex founder Alex Poniatoff to Joseph and Henry McMicking. The McMicking’s bought 50% of Ampex for $365,000 (some liken this to the first VC investment in the valley.) McMicking and Terman introduced Ampex to the National Security Agency, and Ampex sales boomed when their audio and video recorders became the standard for Electronic Intelligence and telemetry signal collection recorders.

Meanwhile on the West Coast – “The Group”  1950’s
When Ampex was raising its money, in 1952, an employee of Fireman’s Fund in San Francisco, Reid Dennis, managed to put $20,000 in the deal. Five years later Dennis and a small group of angel investors who called themselves “The Group” started investing in new electronics companies being formed in the valley south of San Francisco. These angels who were all working in their day jobs at various financial institutions, would invite startup electronics companies up to San Francisco to pitch their deals and they would invest an average of $75 -$300K per deal.

The Group is worth noting for:

  1. Investing their own private money,
  2. Reid Dennis would found Institutional Venture Partners in 1974
  3. First group specifically investing in the valley’s electronics industry

SBIC Act of 1958
During the cold war the launch of Sputnik-1 by the Soviet Union in 1957 both traumatized and galvanized the United States. Having the first earth satellite launched by a country that been portrayed as a third-world backwater with a bellicose foreign policy shocked the U.S. into believing it was behind the Soviet Union in innovation. In response, one of the many U.S. national initiatives (DARPA, NASA, Space Race, etc.) to spur innovation was a new government agency to fund new companies.  The Small Business Investment Company (SBIC) Act in 1958 guaranteed that for every dollar a bank or financial institution invested in a new company, the U.S. government would invest three (up to $300,000.) So for every dollar that a fund invested, it would have four dollars to invest.

While SBIC’s were set up around the country, companies in Northern California including Bank of America, Firemans Fund and American Express (Reid Dennis of the Group ran theirs), began to set up SBIC funds to tap the emerging microwave and new semiconductor startups setting up shop south of San Francisco. And for the first time, private companies like Continental Capital, Pitch Johnson & Bill Draper and Sutter Hill were formed to take advantage of the government largesse from the SBA. Like all government programs, the SBIC was fond of paperwork, but it began to formalize, professionalize and standardize the way investors evaluated risk.

SBIC’s were worth noting for:

  1. The good news – government money for startups encouraged a “risk capital” culture at large financial institutions.
  2. The better news – government money encouraged private companies to form to invest in new startups
  3. The bad news – the government was more interested in rules, regulations and accounting then startups (because some SBIC’s saw the government funds as a license to steal)
  4. By 1968 over 600 SBIC funds provided 75% of all venture funding in the U.S.
  5. In 1988 after the rise of the limited partnership that number would be 7%.

Limited Partnerships
By the end of the 1950’s there was still no clear consensus about how to best organize an investment company for risky ventures. Was it like George Doriot’s ARD venture fund – a publicly traded closed end mutual fund? Was it using government money as a private SBIC firm?  Or was it some other form of organization? Many investors weren’t interested in working for a large company for a salary and bonus, and most hated the paperwork and salary limitations that the SBIC imposed. Was there some other structure?

The limited partnership offered one way to structure an investment company. The fund would have limited life. It would charge its investors annual “management fees” to pay for the firm’s salaries, building, etc. In a typical venture fund, the partners receive a 2% management fee.

But the biggest innovation was the “carried interest” (called the “carry”.) This is where the partners would make their money. They would get a share of the profits of the fund (typically 20%.) For the first time venture investors would have a very strong performance incentive.

Venture Capital In 1958 General William Draper, Rowan Gaither (founder of the RAND corporation) and Fred Anderson (a retired Air Force general) founded Draper, Gaither and Anderson, Silicon Valley’s (and possible the worlds) first limited partnership. The venture firm was funded by Laurance Rockefeller and Lazard Freres, but after some dispute lost to the sands of time, Rockefeller pulled his financing, and the firm was dissolved after the first fund.

The first limited partnership that lasted for a while was formed by Davis and Rock in 1961. Arthur Rock, an investment banker at Hayden Stone in New York (who helped broker the financing of Fairchild) moved out to San Francisco in 1961 and partnered with Tommy Davis. Davis (an ex-WWII OSS agent) then a VP at the Kern Land Company got involved with investing in technology companies through Fred Terman. Davis’s first investment in 1957 was Watkins-Johnson (the maker of microwave Traveling Wave Tubes for electronic intelligence systems) where he sat on its board with Fred Terman. Rock and Davis would raise a $5M fund from east coast institutions and while they invested only $3.4 million of it by the time they dissolved their partnership in 1968 – they returned $90 million to their limited partners – a 54% compound growth rate.

Limited partnerships are worth noting for:

  1. By the 1970’s the limited partnership would become the preferred organizational form for venture investors
  2. The “carried interest” (the “carry”) assured that the venture partners would only make real money if their investments were successful. Aligning their interests with their limited investors and the entrepreneurs they were investing in.
  3. The limited life of each fund; 7-10 years of which 3-5 years would be spent actively investing, focused the firms on investments that could reasonably expect to have “exits” during the life of the fund.
  4. The limited life of each fund allowed venture firms to be flexible. They could change the split of the carry in follow on funds, add partners with carry in subsequent funds, change investing strategy and focus in follow-on funds, etc.

Silicon Innovation Collides with Risk Capital
Lacking a “risk capital” infrastructure in the 1950′s military contracts and traditional bank loans were the only options microwave startups had for capital. The first semiconductor companies couldn’t even get that – Shockley and Fairchild could only be funded through corporate partners. But by the 1960′s the tidal wave of semiconductor startups would find a valley with a growing number of SBIC backed venture firms and limited partnerships.

A wave of silicon innovation was about to meet a pile of risk capital.

More on this in Part XIII of the Secret History of Silicon Valley.

The Secret History of Silicon Valley 11: The Rise of “Risk Capital” Part 1

This post is the latest in the “Secret History Series.”  They’ll make much more sense if you watch the video or read some of the earlier posts for context. See the Secret History bibliography for sources and supplemental reading.

This is the first of two posts about the rise of “risk capital” and how it came to be associated with what became Silicon Valley.
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Building Blocks of Entrepreneurship
By the mid 1950’s the groundwork for a culture and environment of entrepreneurship were taking shape on the east and west coasts of the United States. Stanford and MIT were building on the technology breakthroughs of World War II and graduating a generation of engineers into a consumer and cold war economy that seemed limitless. Communication between scientists, engineers and corporations were relatively open, and ideas flowed freely. There was an emerging culture of cooperation and entrepreneurial spirit.

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At Stanford, Dean of Engineering Fred Terman wanted companies outside of the university to take Stanford’s prototype microwave tubes and electronic intelligence systems and build production volumes for the military. While existing companies took some of the business, often it was a graduate student or professor who started a new company. The motivation in the mid 1950’s for these new startups was a crisis – we were in the midst of the cold war and the United States military and intelligence agencies were rearming as fast as they could.

Yet one of the most remarkable things about the boom in microwave and silicon startups occurring in the 1950’s and 60’s was that it was done without venture capital. There was none.  Funding for the companies spinning out of Stanford’s engineering department in the 1950’s benefited from the tight integration and web of relationships between Fred Terman, Stanford, the U.S. military and intelligence agencies and defense contractors.

These technology startups had no risk capital – just customers/purchase orders from government/military/intelligence agencies.

This post is about the rise of “risk capital” and how it came to be associated with what became Silicon Valley.

Risk Capital via Family Money   1940’s
During the 1930’s, the heirs to U.S. family fortunes made in the late 19th century – Rockefeller, Whitney, Bessemer -  started to dabble in personal investments in new, risky ventures. Post World War II this generation recognized that:

  1. Technology spin-offs coming out of WWII military research and development could lead to new, profitable companies
  2. Entrepreneurs attempting to commercialize these new technologies could not get funding; (commercial and investment banks didn’t fund new companies, just the expansion of existing firms,) and existing companies would buy up entrepreneurs and their ideas, not fund them
  3. There was no organized company to seek out and evaluate new venture ventures, manage investments in them and nurture their growth.

Several wealthy families in the U.S. set up companies to do just that – find and formalize investments in new and emerging industries.

  • In 1946 Jock Whitney started J.H. Whitney Company by writing a personal check for $5M and hiring Benno Schmidt as the first partner (Schmidt turned Whitney’s description of “private adventure capital” into the term “venture capital”).
Jock Whitney writes himself a check to fund J.H. Whitney Co.

Jock Whitney writes himself a check to fund J.H. Whitney Co.

  • That same year Laurance Rockefeller founded Rockefeller Brothers, Inc., with a check for $1.5 million.  (23 years later they would rename the firm Venrock.)
  • Bessemer Securities, set up to invest the Phipps family fortune (Phipps was Andrew Carnegie’s partner,)

These early family money efforts are worth noting for:

  1. They were “risk capital,” investing where others feared
  2. They invested in a wide variety of new industries – from orange juice to airplanes
  3. They almost exclusively focused on the East Coast
  4. They used family money as the source of their investment funds

East Coast Venture Capital Experiments
In 1946, George Doriot, founded what is considered the first “venture capital firm” – American Research & Development (ARD). A Harvard Business School professor and early evangelist for entrepreneurs and entrepreneurship, Doriot was the Fred Terman of the East Coast. Doroit had the right idea with ARD (funding startups out of MIT and Harvard and raising money from outsiders who weren’t part of a private family) but picked the wrong model for raising capital for his firm. ARD was a publicly traded venture capital firm (raising $3.5 Million in 1946 as a closed-end mutual fund) which meant ARD was regulated by the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC.) For reasons too numerous to mention here, this turned out to be a very bad idea. (It would be another three decades of experimentation before the majority of venture firms organized as limited partnerships.)

The region around Boston’s Route 128 would boom in the 1950’s-70’s with technology startups, many of them funded by ARD. ARD’s most famous investment was the $70,000 they put into Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC) in 1957 for 77% of the company that was worth hundreds of millions by its 1968 IPO. It wasn’t until the rise of the semiconductor industry and a unique startup culture in Silicon Valley that entrepreneurship became associated with the West Coast.

Georges Doriot the first VC

Georges Doriot the first VC

Doriot and American Research and Development are worth noting for:

  1. Some of the very early VC’s got their venture capital education at Harvard as Doriot’s students (Arthur Rock, Peter Crisp, Charles Waite.)
  2. ARD was almost exclusively focused on the East Coast
  3. ARD proved that institutional investors, not just family money had an appetite for investing into venture capital firms.

Corporate Finance
One of the ironies in Silicon Valley is that the two companies which gave birth to its entire semiconductor industry weren’t funded by venture capital. Since neither of these startups were yet doing any business with the military—and venture capital as we know it today did not exist, they had to look elsewhere for funding. Instead, in 1956/57, Shockley Semiconductor Laboratory and Fairchild Semiconductor were both funded by corporate partners –  Shockley by Beckman Instruments, Fairchild by Fairchild Camera and Instrument.

More on the rise of SBIC’s, Limited Partnerships and the venture capital industry as we know it today in Part XII of the Secret History of Silicon Valley here.

The End of Innocence

I love TechCrunch. If you’re a startup raising money or just want to see your name online, there’s not a better blog on the web.  Reading this TechCrunch post made me remember the first time I saw someone confront a worldview they didn’t expect.

TechCrunch PRDiscovering that your worldview is wrong or mistaken can be a life-changing event. It’s part of growing up but can happen at any age. What you do when it happens shapes who you’ll become.

Dinner in a Strange Land
When I was in my mid 20′s working at ESL, I was sent overseas to a customer site where the customers were our three-letter intelligence agencies. All of us knew who they were, understood how important this site was for our country, and proud of the work we were doing. (Their national technical means of verification made the world a safer place and hastened the end of the Soviet Union and the Cold War.)

As a single guy, I got to live in a motel-like room on the site while the married guys lived in town in houses and tried to blend in with the locals. When asked what they did, they said they worked at “the xxx research facility.”  (Of course the locals translated that to “oh do you work for the yyy or zzz intelligence agency?”)

One warm summer evening I got invited over to the house of a married couple from my company for a BBQ and after-dinner entertainment – drinking mass quantities of the local beer. The quintessential California couple, they stood out in our crowd as the engineer (in his late 20′s, respected by his peers and the customer) had hair down to his shoulders, sharply contrasting with the military crewcuts of the customers and most of the other contractors.

His wife, about my age, could have been a poster child for the stereotypical California hippie surfer, with politics that matched her style – antiwar, anti government, antiestablishment.

One of the rules in the business was that you didn’t tell your spouse, girlfriend, significant other who you worked for or what you worked on – ever. It was always a welcome change of pace to leave the brown of the unchanging desert and travel into town and have dinner with them and have a non-technical conversation about books, theater, politics, travel, etc. But it was a bit incongruous to hear her get wound up and rail against our government and the very people we were all working for. Her husband would look at me out the corner of his eyes and then we’d segue the conversation to some other topic.

That evening I was there with three other couples cooking over the barbie in their backyard. After night fell we reconvened in their living room as we continued to go through the local beer. The conversation happened to hit on politics and culture and my friend’s’ wife innocently offered up she had lived in a commune in California. Well that created a bit of alcohol-fueled cross-cultural disconnect and heated discussion.

Until one of the other wives changed a few lives forever with a slip of the tongue.

Tell Me it Isn’t True
One of the other wives asked, “Well what would your friends in the commune think of you now that your husband is working for intelligence agencies x and y?”

As soon as the words came out of her mouth, I felt time slow down. The other couples laughed for about half a second expecting my friend’s wife to do so as well. But instead the look on her face went from puzzlement in processing the question, to concentration, as she was thinking and correlating past questions she had about who exactly her husband had been working for. It seemed like forever before she asked with a look of confusion, “What do you mean agencies x and y?”

The laughter in the room stopped way too soon, and the room got deathly quiet. Her face slowly went from a look of puzzlement to betrayal to horror as she realized that that the drunken silence, the dirty looks from other husbands to the wife who made the agency comment, and the wives now staring at their shoes was an answer.

She had married someone who never told her who he was really working for. She was living in a lie with people she hated. In less than a minute her entire worldview had shattered and coming apart in front of us, she started screaming.

This probably took no more than 10 seconds, but watching her face, it felt like hours.

I don’t remember how we all got out of the house or how I got back to the site, but to this day I still remember standing on her lawn staring at strange constellations in the night sky as she was screaming to her husband, “Tell me it isn’t true!”

The next day the site supervisor told me that my friend and his wife had been put on the next plane out of country and sent home (sedated) along with the other couple that made the comment. By the time I came back to the United States, he was gone from the company.

It’s been thirty years, but every once an awhile I still wonder what happened to the rest of their lives.

———-

The End of Innocence
In much smaller ways I’ve watched my children and now my students discover that their worldview is wrong, mistaken or naive. I’ve watched as they realize there’s no Santa Claus and Tooth Fairy; the world has injustice, hypocrisy and inequality; capitalism and politics don’t work like the textbooks and money moves the system; you can’t opt out of dying, and without regulation people will try to “game” whatever system you put in place.

Learning to accept the things you can’t change, finding the courage to change the things you can and acquiring the common sense to know the difference, is part of growing up.

While I love TechCrunch, the post and the quote about the PR agency (“one PR firm has discovered a dynamite strategy, throw ethics out the window”) left me wondering; how do PR agencies interact with TechCrunch and other blog and review sites? Is this behavior an outlier or is it the norm in the PR industry?

Or is it just someones end of innocence?

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