The Secret History of Silicon Valley Part IX: Entrepreneurship in Microwave Valley

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.


In the 1950′s Stanford University’s Electronics Research Laboratory (ERL) continued to develop innovative microwave tubes for the U.S. military. This next product, the Traveling Wave Tube, would have a major impact on electronic intelligence. Stanford’s Dean of Engineering, Fred Terman, encouraged scientists and engineers to set up companies to build these microwave tubes for the military. Funded by military contracts, these 1950′s microwave tube startups would help build Silicon Valley’s entrepreneurial culture and environment.

Why Electronics Intelligence?
Starting in 1946 Electronic Intelligence aircraft (ELINT) had been probing and overflying the Soviet Union to understand their air defense system. During the 1950′s, the U.S. Air Force Strategic Air Command, U.S. Navy and the CIA were the primary collectors of tactical and operational ELINT on the Soviet PVO Strany Air Defense system. (The NSA owned COMINT collection.) They flew an alphabet soup of Air Force and Navy planes (Navy PB4Y-2′s, P2V’s, P4M’s and EA-3′s, Air Force B-17s, EC-47′s, RB-29s, RB-50′s, and the ultimate ELINT collector of the 1950′s – the RB-47H.) Common to all these planes (generically called Ferrets) is that they were loaded with ELINT receivers, manned by crews called Crows.

The Strategic Air Command needed this intelligence to understand the Soviet air defense system (early warning radars, Soviet fighter plane radar, Ground Control Intercept radar, Anti-Aircraft gun radar, and radars guiding Soviet Surface to Air Missiles.) We needed this data to build radar jammers that could make the Soviet air defense radars ineffective so our bombers with their nuclear payloads could reach their targets. The information we collected would be passed on to defense contractors who would build the jammers to confuse the Soviet air defense radars.

ELINT Tasking
The ELINT program sought answers to operational questions like: What was the Radar Order of Battle a penetrating bomber would face? Were there holes in their radar coverage our bombers could sneak through? What was the best altitude to avoid the Soviet defenses? ELINT operators on each flight were tasked to gather basic data about the characteristics of the radar: is this a new type of radar or an existing one? What is its frequency, power, pulse repetition interval, rotation rate, scan rate, polarization, carrier modulation characteristics, etc. Then they would use direction finding equipment on their aircraft to locate its position.

ELINT Receivers
Early ELINT receivers were not much different then the radios you had at home – someone had to manually turn a dial to tune them to the correct frequency. By the 1950’s these receivers could automatically “sweep” a frequency band, but this action was mechanical and slow. That was fine if the Soviet radar was operating continuously, but if it was just a brief radar transmission or burst communication (which Soviet submarines used), we would probably miss hearing it. (The Soviets kept their radars turned off to stop us from recording their signals. So at times multiple ELINT planes would fly on a mission – one to run at the Soviet border appearing to attack, the other to pick up the signals from the air defense network as it responded to the intrusion. Keep in mind that 32 of these planes were shot down in the Cold War.)

The ultimate dream of ELINT equipment designers was a “high-probability of intercept” receiver, one that would pick up a signal that came up on any frequency and capture even a single pulse, however brief.

This was a two-pronged challenge: the U.S. needed receivers that could tune much faster than any of the manual methods that existed, and it needed receivers that could tune a much broader range of frequencies along the electromagnetic spectrum. Again Stanford technology would solve these challenges.

Rapid Scan/High Probability of Intercept – Stanford’s contribution
In the last post we described Stanford’s high power, electronically tuned microwave tubes (the Backward Wave Oscillator) which made high power, frequency agile airborne jammers possible.

Now Stanford’s Electronics Research Laboratory delivered another tube which forever changed electronic intelligence receivers - the Traveling Wave Tube (TWT.) Invented in Britain and further developed at Bell Labs, this tube would deliver the “holy grail” for ELINT receivers - instantaneous scan speed and extremely broad frequency range. A Traveling Wave Tube (TWT) could electronically tune through microwave frequencies at 1000 times faster than any other device, and it could operate in a frequency range measured in gigahertz.  As a microwave preamp, it had high gain, low noise and extremely wide bandwidth. It was perfect for a new generation of ELINT receivers to be built into the Ferret planes searching for signals around the Soviet Union. Later on TWTs would be built that could not only be used in receivers, but also actually transmit broadband microwaves at high power.

Invention Versus Commercialization
While Stanford was doing its share of pure research, what’s interesting about the Electronics Research Laboratory (ERL) was its emphasis on delivery of useful products for its customers – the military – from inside a research university.  The military had specific intelligence requirements and that meant that a TWT needed to be rugged enough to withstand being put on airplanes. This military/university collaboration for deliverable products is where the Electronics Research Laboratory (ERL) would excel – and ultimately end up leading to its destruction.

twt schematic

Traveling Wave Tube – Source: Thales Electron Devices

The Rise of “Microwave Valley” – More Stanford Tube Startups
The Traveling Wave Tube generated another series of startups from Stanford’s Electronics Research Laboratory.  R. A. Huggins, a research associate at the Stanford’s Engineering Research Lab, left in 1948 to start Huggins Laboratories in Palo Alto and put the first commercially manufactured traveling wave tube on the market. With a boost from military R&D contracts, Huggins Labs continued to expand, diversifying into backward-wave oscillators, low-noise TWTs, and electrostatic focused tubes. (In the 1970′s Huggins Labs sold to an east coast company, Microwave Associates (which became M/A-COM.)

Stanley Kaisel, a research associate at the Stanford ERL tube laboratory, left to join Litton’s startup. He left Litton in 1959 and started Microwave Electronics Corporation (MEC) to make low power, low noise TWTs. He sold the company to Teledyne in 1965.

Venture Capital, Microwaves and the OSS
Dean Watkinsthe leader of TWT research at Stanford’s Electronic Laboratory, left Stanford in 1957 and co-founded Watkins-Johnson (with R.H. Johnson the head of Hughes Aircraft microwave tube department) to market advanced TWTs to the military. Unlike the other Stanford tube spinouts which were funded with military contracts, Watkins-Johnson would be one of the first venture capital funded companies in the valley. Its first round of funding came from Tommy Davis (an ex-WWII OSS agent) then at the Kern County Land Company who knew Fred Terman through his military contacts. Terman and Davis negotiated the Watkins-Johnson investment and would sit on the Watkins-Johnson board together.

Frustrated with Kern’s lack of interest in investing in more technology companies, Tommy Davis would go on to found one of Silicon Valley’s first VC firms with Arthur Rock, creating Davis and Rock, founded in 1961. They would be one the first venture firms to organize their firm as a partnership rather than an SBIC or public company. They would also set the standard for the 20% carry for general partners. Tommy Davis would go on to found the Mayfield Fund in 1969.

These Stanford tube spinoffs joined the growing list of other microwave tube manufacturers in the valley including Eitel-McCullough, Varian, Litton Industries and Stewart Industries. Others would soon join them. By the early 1960s, a third of the nation’s TWT business and a substantial share of the klystron and magnetron industry was located in the Santa Clara Valley– and almost all of these companies emerged from one engineering lab at Stanford.

But microwave tubes were just the beginning of Stanford’s relationship with the military. Fred Terman was just getting warmed up. Much more was to come. Read about in Part X of the Secret History of Silicon Valley here.

The Secret History of Silicon Valley Part VIII: The Rise of Entrepreneurship

This post makes sense in context with the previous post.


The Korean War catapulted Stanford University’s Electronics Research Laboratory (ERL) into a major player in electronic intelligence and electronic warfare systems. Encouraged by their Dean, Fred Terman, scientists and engineers left Stanford Electronics Research Laboratory to set up companies to build microwave tubes and systems for the military. Funded by military contracts these 1950′s startups would help build Silicon Valley’s entrepreneurial culture and environment.

The Beginnings – “Vacuum Tube Valley” Ecosystem circa 1950
From its founding in 1946 Stanford’s Electronics Research Laboratory (ERL) did basic research into vacuum tubes that could operate at microwave frequencies. The research was funded and paid for by the Office of Naval Research (ONR) and later by the Air Force and Army. Much of the basic research work was done by advanced students or by recent Ph.Ds doing postdoctoral internships, supervised by Stanford engineering faculty members or senior research associates (staff.)

In a 1950 proposal to the Navy Fred Terman noted that the work that Stanford proposed “correlates almost ideally with related industrial activities in this area.”  There were already “tube manufacturers in the area (Eitel-McCullough, Litton Industries, Varian Industries, Henitz and Kaufman and Lewis and Kaufman) that represented an integrated set of tube facilities for basic research, advanced development, engineering of new tubes, model shop and pilot and quantity production. And that circuit work is carried on by several organizations in the neighborhood, with Hewlett Packard Company being especially notable in this regard.” Terman was describing the valley’s already existing ecosystem for building vacuum tubes in 1950.

But unlike the majority of existing tube manufacturers in the valley who were making products for radios, Stanford Electronics Research Lab tube group had a special customer with very special needs – the U.S. Air Force and its Strategic Air Command.

So what exactly was the Electronics Research Lab designing? What were these microwave tubes? Why were they so important to the military? And what were these electronic intelligence and warfare systems used for?

Stanford Joins the Cold War - Microwave Power Tubes
Stanford’s work in microwave power tubes would solve two of the Strategic Air Command’s most important cold war problems.

During a nuclear war in the 1950′s the Strategic Air Command was going to fly its bombers with nuclear weapons into the Soviet Union. To protect their country, the Soviets were building an air defense network to warn, track and destroy these attacking bombers. Our bombers used jammers to confuse the Soviet air defense radars. But the jammers that we built in WWII were no longer sufficient to protect the planes we wanted to send into the Soviet Union.

These 1940′s jammers (built by the wartime lab headed up by Terman and his team now at Stanford) had been built around tubes originally designed for radio applications, put out 5 watts of power. This miniscule amount of jamming power was acceptable because each WWII bomber flew in formation with hundreds of other planes, together attacking just a single target each day. The combined jamming power of all the bombers on a mission was enough to saturate and confuse German radar. But in a potential cold war attack on the Soviet Union, our bombers were not going to fly in a massed formation to attack one target. Instead we would attack multiple targets in the Soviet Union at the same time.  And while a few bombers would penetrate the periphery of the Soviet Union together, each plane — now able to carry more explosive power than all the bombs dropped in WWII — would approach its target individually. As a result of this change in strategy (and explosive capacity), each bomber had to supply enough jamming power to defend itself.


B-47 - primary Strategic Air Command Bomber in the 1950's

B-47 – primary Strategic Air Command Bomber in the 1950′s

As a result, to protect its bombers flying over the Soviet Union the U.S. Air Force needed power tubes that had hundreds of times more power than WWII devices.

The U.S. Air Force also needed improvements in frequency agility to protect its cold war bombers. Frequency agility can be best described by what happened over Germany in WWII. As the allies jammed Germany radar, the Germans tried to avoid the effect of jamming by changing the frequency on which their radars transmitted. This was possible since the jammers in U.S. planes’ could only transmit on a narrow band of frequencies (providing spot jamming) and could not be retuned in the air. To cover all the possible frequencies German radars might be operating on, allied technicians pretuned the jammers before each bomber raid so that each plane transmitted on a different frequency. The combined effect of hundreds of planes in the bomber stream was to cover a broader frequency range than one jammer could by itself.  (This technique of covering a broad range of frequencies was known as barrage jamming.)

(A good Radar tutorial is here, on the Radar Range equation here and Electronic Warfare tutorial is here. The links will download PowerPoint presentations.)


But nuclear warfare over the Soviet Union in the 1950′s meant that a single bomber needed jammers that could cover multiple frequencies, and could be tuned instantaneously. Not only did the US need more more powerful microwave power tubes, the power tubes had to be frequency agile, (able to be tuned in the air to different frequencies) to jam the Soviet radars. (For example, the Soviet P-20 Token was an early warning radar our bombers would encounter.  It transmitted on 5 different frequencies over a band 300mhz wide. To jam it, all five frequencies had to be jammed at the same time. Our WWII jammers couldn’t do the job.)

Terman’s Systems Engineering Research Lab at Stanford would develop microwavepower tubes that offered a solution to both challenges and would be a a game changer for electronic warfare at the time.

High Power, Instant Tuning – Stanford’s contribution
Stanford’s Electronics Research Laboratory first contribution to high power microwave tubes for airborne electronic warfare in the 1950’s was the Backward Wave Oscillator (BWO). Stanford engineers realized that this tube, which had been invented in France, could electronically tune through microwave frequencies while producing almost a 1,000 watts of power – (equivalent to the output of 200 jammers over Germany in WWII.) Perfecting this tube for use as an airborne jammer became one of the labs primary objectives.

This was a critical development to support the new tactics of single bombers penetrating the Soviet Union. Equipping a bomber with several jammers built around Backward Wave Oscillator could give it enough power to use barrage jamming against multiple radars and get it through to its target.  Stanford gave its Backward Wave Oscillator design drawings to tube manufacturers throughout the U.S. By the 1960′s, the U.S. Air Force would ultimately equip its B-52 bombers with 6,000 jammers using these these oscillators.

The Rise of “Microwave Valley” Stanford Tube Spinouts
A technician in Stanford’s ERL tube shop, Ray Stewart, thought he could build these Backward Wave Oscillators commercially, and left to start Stewart Engineering in Scotts Valley near Santa Cruz.  The company had more orders from the military than it could handle. (Stewart would sell his company to Watkins Johnson, one of the most financially successful of the Stanford microwave tube spinoffs. More about Watkins-Johnson in the next post.)  Stewart joined a growing list of other microwave startups beginning to populate the valley.

One of the early microwave spinouts from Stanford was built around a microwave power 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.) While the Klystrons of the 1950’s had too narrow and bandwidth and were too large for airborne use, they could be scaled up to generate megawatts of power and were used to power the U.S. ground-based Ballistic Missile Early Warning System (BMEWS) radars (and the Stanford Linear Accelerator.)

klystronAnother of Terman’s students, Charles Litton, would start several Silicon Valley companies, and in the 1950’s Litton Industries would become the leader in pulse and continuous wave magnetrons used in jammers and missiles. Magnetrons were the first high power microwave device invented in WWII. Used in radars systems and missiles, magnetrons could produce hundreds of watts of power.

More to Come
These first microwave tubes were just the beginning of a flood of innovative
products for the military.  The next Stanford tubes and systems would revolutionize the Electronic Intelligence aircraft that were circling (and flying over) the Soviet Union.

More in the next post, Part IX of the Secret History of Silicon Valley.

The Secret History of Silicon Valley Part VII: We Fought a War You Never Heard Of

These next series of posts chronicles the untold story of how one professor returning from one war decides to enlist Stanford University in waging the next one and by accident, laid the foundation for Silicon Valley, venture capital and entrepreneurship as we know it today.

These posts cover two distinct periods – the first, the rise of “Microwave Valley” chronicles the decade of 1946-1956 as Stanford University became the hub of military/industry contracting in the Bay Area.

The second series of posts, the rise of  “Spy Satellite Valley,” starts in 1956 with two game changing events– one very public – the valley’s first semiconductor company and one very, very private – the valley as the home of the first optical and ELINT spy satellites and submarine-launched ballistic missiles.  The story ends in 1969 with campus riots at Stanford.


These posts will make a lot more sense if you look at the earlier Secret History posts.  If you read only one previous post, read this one (or this one.)

The Birth of Entrepreneurship in The Hot Cold War
Silicon Valley entrepreneurship was born in the middle of a secret war with the Soviet Union. It’s a war you probably never heard of since most of it was classified, and both parties never wanted it public lest it got out of hand.  Yet it was a war in which tens of thousands of Americans fought and hundreds died. Frederick Terman, Stanford’s Dean of Engineering, enlisted Stanford University as a major arms suppliers in this war. In doing so he accidentally launched entrepreneurship in Silicon Valley – with the help of the U.S. military, the CIA and the National Security Agency.

Stanford as a Center of Microwave and Electronics
In 1946 after running the military’s secret 800 person Electronic Warfare Lab at Harvard, Fred Terman returned to Stanford as the dean of the engineering school. Terman’s goal was to build Stanford’s electrical engineering department into a center of excellence focused on microwaves and electronics. Having already assembled one of most advanced electronic labs in World War II, Terman was one of the few academics who could do it.


Fred Terman

Terman’s first step was to recruit 11 former members of his staff from the Harvard Radio Research Lab — “Congratulations, you’re now Stanford faculty.”  Not only were they all great researchers, but they also had just spent three years building electronic warfare systems that were used in World War II. They would become the core of Stanford’s new Electronics Research Lab (ERL.)  While officially in the electrical engineering department, the lab reported directly to Terman.

Next, Terman used his military contacts to secure funding for the Lab from the Office of Naval Research, the Air Force and the Army Signal Corps. (Although the country had returned to peace, some in the military wanted to preserve our ability to fight the next war.) By 1947 the U.S. military was funding half of Stanford’s engineering school budget. Terman proudly pointed out that only Stanford, MIT and Harvard had a military sponsored electronics program.

Stanford Leads in Electronic Intelligence and Electronic Warfare
In the 1950’s Stanford Engineering Research Lab (ERL) made major contributions to electronic intelligence and electronic warfare.  Its basic research focused on three areas: microwave receiving and transmitting tubes, radar detection and deception techniques and understanding the earth’s ionosphere.

Stanford became one of the leading research centers in advancing the state of microwave tubes including the klystron which could provide high-power microwave in pulses, magnetrons which could provide continuous wave microwave power, and backward wave oscillators and traveling wave tubes – both electronically tunable microwave tubes.

Stanford’s research on the earth’s ionosphere would lead to meteor-burst communication systems and Over the Horizon Radar used by the NSA and CIA to detect Soviet and Chinese missile tests and ultimately to the research that made Stealth technologies possible.

Its studies in radar detection and deception techniques would lead Stanford to the applied part of it mission.  Stanford would build prototypes of electronic intelligence receivers (high probability of intercept/rapid scan receivers) for use by the military. These applied systems were prototypes of the jamming devices found on our bombers and receivers found in NSA ground stations and the fleet of ELINT aircraft flying around and in the Soviet Union and later on in the U-2, SR-71 and ELINT ferret subsatellites.

Later posts will talk about these technologies and the startups that spun out of Stanford to build them. But first, to understand what happened at Stanford and in Silicon Valley under Fred Terman, some context about the Cold War is helpful.  (Skip the next section if you’re a history major.)

The Cold War
After World War II ended, our wartime ally the Soviet Union kept its army in Eastern Europe and forcibly installed Communist governments in its occupied territories.  Meanwhile the U.S. demobilized its army, sent its troops home, scrapped most of its Air Force and mothballed almost all its Navy. As tensions rose, there was a growing fear that the Soviets could invade and occupy all of Western Europe.

In 1949, the Soviets exploded their first nuclear weapon and ended the U.S monopoly on atomic weaponry. That same year China fell to the communists under Mao Zedong, and the Nationalist government retreated to Taiwan.  A year later the Korean War turned the cold war hot, as communist North Koreans attacked and overran most of South Korea (except for a small defensive perimeter in the south.) American and United Nations troops entered the war fighting North Koreans and then Communist Chinese ground troops, and Soviet fighter pilots for three years.  34,000 U.S. soldiers died in battle.

To the U.S. the Soviet Union seemed bent on world conquest with Korea just a warm-up for an atomic war with massive casualties. (This was not an unreasonable supposition after a conventional world war which had left 50 million dead.)  Faced with the reality of the Korean War, the U.S. began to rebuild its military. But now the Soviet Union was its target enemy, and nuclear weapons had become the principal instrument of offense. Instead of rebuilding its WWII forces, the U.S. military embraced new technologies (jets, electronics, missiles, nuclear subs) and built entirely new weapon systems (bombers with nuclear weapons, ICBMs, SLBM’s) for a new era of international conflict.

Europe, completely outnumbered and outgunned by the Soviet Union, built the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) as a bulwark against ground Soviet attack.  And the U.S. planned strikes with nuclear armed bombers if war in Europe broke out.

Stanford’s Electronic Research Lab (ERL) which had focused on basic research on microwave tubes from 1946 was about to scale up for the Cold War.

Smarter Intelligence
One of the major differences between the war with Germany and the cold war confrontation with the Soviet Union had to do with access.  The Soviet Union was a closed country. Unlike Germany in World War II, the U.S. could not fly across the Soviet Union to learn how their defenses were set up. We did not have radar maps of their cities. The Soviet’s secrecy fed our cold war paranoia. The U.S. was determined to find out what was going on inside.  And the way we were going to do it was with electronic/signals intelligence.

But the technology that supported intelligence gathering against our WW II enemies was not sufficient to penetrate the Soviet Union. The U.S. military had to develop new ways to collect intelligence. The engineering department and labs that Fred Terman established at Stanford University would play a key role in advancing electronic intercept and jamming technology to support the more sophisticated intelligence systems that the Cold War required.

The Air Force Needs to Know
By the Korean War, U.S. policy held that the Air Force, carrying nuclear weapons into the Soviet Union, would be the means to fight World War III.

Through World War II, the U.S. Air Force had been a part of the U.S. Army. It split off into a separate service in 1947. By the 1950’s, the Strategic Air Command (SAC) had become the U.S. Air Force’s long range bombing arm and the designated instrument of Armageddon.

On the other side of the Iron Curtain, the defense of the Soviet Motherland lay with the Soviet Air Defense Forces, called PVO Strany, a separate branch of the Soviet military formed in 1948 designed to detect U.S. bomber raids, target and aim radar-guided weapons and destroy the U.S. bombers.

Example of Radar Coverage - Japan in WWIIExample of Early Warning Radar Coverage – Japan in WWII

SAC needed intelligence to understand the components of the PVO Strany air defense system in order to shut them down and make them ineffective so our bombers with their nuclear payloads could reach their targets. (The information we collected would be passed on to contractors who would build jamming devices the bombers would carry.) It sought answers to tactical questions like: What was the Radar Order of Battle a penetrating bomber would face? (Were there holes in their radar coverage our bombers could sneak through? What was the best altitude to avoid the Soviet defenses?) What were the different types of Soviet fighter planes?  How many?  How effective? What about the anti-aircraft (AAA) gun defenses?  In addition the Soviets were adding a new type of defensive radar-guided weapon called the Surface to Air Missile (SAM).

Example of Jammer versus Radar Coverage- Germany in WW11

Example of Jammer versus Radar Coverage – Allied Jammers over Germany in WW11

The Strategic Air Command also needed to know what the navigational waypoints and the target would look like on their air-to-ground bombing radars. (These radars painted a map-like picture of the ground and prior to GPS, this is how bombers navigated their way to the target.)

And on top of all this the Strategic Air Command needed to understand the current state of the Soviet Air Defense Force readiness and deployment updated on a daily basis.

The CIA Needs to Know
While the Air Force was working on collecting intelligence to execute their tactical missions, the CIA, founded in 1947, was responsible for providing U.S. political leadership with a much bigger picture. They developed the National Intelligence Estimate –  a  series of reports which summarized their judgment about the size of the Russian threat. Also seeking to learn more about the Soviet Union’s offensive weapon systems, the CIA wanted intelligence to help them understand: What type of strategic bombers did the Soviets have? How many did they have? How would they reach the U.S.?  How would we know if they were coming? (Have they moved to their forward operating bases in the Artic?) The same was true about the Soviet defensive systems – how many fighters would they build and of what type?  How many Surface to Air Missiles – what was their range and accuracy?

And by the mid 1950’s the Soviets were testing ballistic missiles, both intermediate range that could reach Europe and intercontinental range that could reach the U.S.  Whatwas their range? What was their accuracy? How big of a nuclear warhead could they carry (throw weight and yield)?  The military needed to answer these same questions about the nuclear armed missiles the Soviets were putting on their submarine force.

To give our leadership an estimate of the Soviet’s nuclear production capacity, the CIA also had to estimate how many nuclear weapons could the Soviet Union make. Where were their production facilities? What was the yield of the weapons and their weight and size?

Throughout the 1950′s the CIA’s Office of Scientific Intelligence was heavily involved in the development of Electronics Intercept and Electronic Warfare Intelligence – and Stanford and the emerging startups around it would provide the systems and concepts to help.

In the 1950’s the Strategic Air Command and the U.S. Navy were the airborne ELINT assets for the U.S. Beginning in the mid/late 1950’s the National Security Agency (NSA) starting taking more and more responsibility for collection – first in communications intelligence, then in signals and telemetry intelligence. The NSA ultimately built up hundreds of ground stations, satellites and aircraft manned by tens of thousands servicemen (under the cover of the Air Force Security Service, Army Security Agency and the Naval Security Group.)

The “Hot” Cold War
Remember the Soviet Union was a closed country. To collect the intelligence to answer its questions about the Soviet threat, the U.S. military resurrected the signals Intelligence lessons and skills we invented in World War II. Starting in 1946 ELINT aircraft had been probing and overflying the Soviet Union. SAC, the CIA, the Navy and our British allies flew modified planes called Ferrets around the periphery of the Soviet Union to understand their air defense system (the crews were called Crows). (What isn’t well known is that the U.S. and Britain flew planes on deep penetration missions into and across the Soviet Union numerous times – well before a U-2 spy plane was shot down over the Soviet Union in 1960.)

British Canberra PR3 - Overflew Kapustin Yar 1953

British Canberra PR3 – Overflew Kapustin Yar 1953

The Air Force adopted a cover story that these were weather data gathering missions. These flights were no secret to the Soviets, (given the sheer number of surveillance flights around the Soviet Union it’s surprising they didn’t need their own air traffic control system,) and they started to protest diplomatically in 1948. When our flights continued, the Soviets took direct action. In 1950, two months before the Korean War started,  the Soviets shot down an ELINT plane over the Baltic. All ten crew members were killed. This was the beginning of a Soviet policy to stop ignoring incursions. They would attempt to force the ELINT planes to land in the Soviet Union or they would destroy them. Every year through the the 1950′s and the early ’60′s the Soviets attacked and shot down at least one of our ELINT ferret aircraft. This was a deadly game.

pb4y-2 Privateer Navy ELINT

pb4y-2 Privateer Navy ELINT

We kept on probing their defenses convinced that it was in our national interest to continue. The low-level conflict continued until the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis when the local Soviet commander shot down a U-2 over Cuba. Both countries realized that a miscalculation could have been a catalyst for World War III and the Soviets stop attacks on U.S. spyplanes. (The Communist Chinese continued to shoot down U-2′s flown by Nationalist Chinese pilots until 1970, and the Soviet Union accidently attacked two Korean airline passenger planes in the Far East, one damaged in 1978 and one destroyed in 1983.)

During the Cold War 32 U.S. ELINT planes were shot down by Soviet pilots with 225 U.S. airmen killed. (The numbers vary depending on the sources you read.) Regardless of the number, this was a deadly shooting war.

Stanford and an emerging set of Silicon Valley startups would be deeply involved in designing the technologies, techniques and ELINT systems on these planes. Microwave Valley was about to take off.

Details in the next post, Part VIII of the Secret History of Silicon Valley.

A Wilderness of Mirrors

Excuse the non-Customer Development, non-entrepreneurial post.  I can’t get this one out of my head.


The VENONA Project
One of the most interesting (declassified) stories of cryptography is the deciphering of Soviet communications to their diplomatic missions in the U.S during World War II.  What was amazing about these decrypts was the Soviets used one-time pads which were theoretically unbreakable. The National Security Agency has a great website on the subject.

I had dinner last week with someone involved in the VENONA project (now retired.) We talked about one of the spies unearthed in the decoded messages; Ted Hall, a 19-year scientist at Los Alamos working on the Manhattan Project.  For lots of complicated reasons Hall was never arrested nor charged with a crime. Hall’s interest in Communism came from literature his older brother Ed brought home from college.

When Ted Hall went to work on the Atomic Bomb during World War II his older brother Ed joined the Air Force.

My Brothers Keeper
During the Cold War, when Ted Hall was under suspicion of being a Soviet spy, his brother Ed Hall, stayed in the Air Force and worked on every U.S. military missile program in the 1950′s (Atlas, Thor, etc.)

Ed Hall eventually became the father of the Minuteman missile project, our land-based ICBM carrying nuclear weapons to destroy the Soviet Union.

Surely the KGB, who ran Ted Hall as a spy, knew about his brother?  Perhaps even first…?

A Wilderness of Mirrors
My dinner companion, (who had a hand in his agencies counterintelligence group,) “acted” surprised about the connection between the two…

Oh, what a wilderness of mirrors we live in.

The Secret History of Silicon Valley Part VI: Every World War II Movie was Wrong

This is Part VI of how I came to write “The Secret History of Silicon Valley“. This post makes a lot more sense if you look at the earlier posts as well as the video and slides.


The next piece of the Secret History of Silicon Valley puzzle came together when Tom Byers, Tina Selig and Mark Leslie invited me to teach entrepreneurship in the Stanford Technology Ventures Program (STVP) in Stanford’s School of Engineering.  My office is in the Terman Engineering Building.

Fred Terman – the Cover Story
I’d heard of Terman but I didn’t really know what he did – his biography said that he was one of the preeminent radio engineers in the 1930′s literally writing the textbooks. He was the professor who helped his students Bill Hewlett and David Packard start a company in 1939.  In World War II he headed up something called the Harvard Radio Research Lab. There was plenty in his biography about his post WWII activities: chair of electrical engineering in 1937, dean of engineering in 1946, provost in 1955. He started the Stanford Honors Co-op in 1954 which allowed companies in the valley to send their engineers to Stanford graduate engineering programs.  74HGZA3MZ6SV

Since I was interested in the history of Silicon Valley, Entrepreneurship, and now Terman, I began to understand that Terman had a lot to do with the proliferation of microwave companies in Silicon Valley in the 1950′s and ’60′s. But how? And why? So I started to read all I could find on the development of microwaves. That led me back to the history of radar in World War II – and a story you may not know.

What Does WWII Have to Do with Silicon Valley?
Just a quick history refresher. In December 1941, the Japanese attack Pearl Harbor, and Germany declares war on the United States. And while the Soviets are fighting the Germans in massive land battles in eastern Europe, until the allies invade Western Europe in June 1944, the only way the U.S. and Britian can affect German war-fighting capability is by mounting a Strategic Bombing campaign, from England. Their goal was to destroy the German capability to wage war by aerial bombing the critical infrastructure of the German war machine. 

The allies bombed the German petroleum infrastructure, aircraft manufacturing infrastructure, chemical infrastructure, and transportation infrastructure. The Americans and British split up the air campaign: the British bombed at night, the Americans during the day.


b-17The Odds Weren’t Good
These bombers flew for 7+ hours from England and over occupied Europe, through a gauntlet of intense antiaircraft fire and continuous attack by German fighter planes. And they got it coming and going to the target.

But what the bomber crews didn’t know was that the antiaircraft fire and German fighters they encountered were controlled via a sophisticated radar-guided electronic air defense system covering all of occupied Europe and Germany.

The German electronic air defense system was designed to detect the allied bomber raids, target and aim the German radar-guided weapons, and destroy the American and British bombers. The German air defense system had 100′s of early warning radars, and thousands of radar controlled anti-aircraft guns, and Ground Controlled Intercept radars to guide the fighters into the bombers.


And the German night fighters had their own on-board radar. In all the Germans had over 7,500 radars dedicated to tracking and killing the allied bombers.


Each allied bombing mission lost 2-20% of their planes. Bomber crews had to fly 25 missions to go home. The German objective was to make strategic bombing too costly for the Allies to continue.  

By 1942 the Allied Air Command recognized they needed to reduce allied losses to fighters and flak. We needed a way to shut down the German Air Defense system. (Bear with me as this history takes you from the skies of Europe to Fred Terman.)

The Electronic Shield
To shut it down we first needed to understand the German “Radar Order of Battle.” What radars did the Germans have and what were their technical characteristics? How effective they were? What weapons were they associated with? We needed to find out all this stuff and then we needed to figure out how to confuse it and make it ineffective. 

So the U.S. set up a top secret, 800-person lab to do just that, first, to gather signals intelligence to understand the “Radar Order of Battle” and then, to wage “electronic warfare” by building mechanical and electronic devices to severely hamper the Germans’ ability to target and aim their weapons.

Ferrets and Crows  Signals Intelligence
The first job of the secret lab was to find and understand the German air defense system. So we invented the U.S. Signals Intelligence industry in about 12 months (with help from their British counterparts at the Telecommunications Research Establishment.) These mission of the planes called Ferrets, manned by crews called Crows, was to find and understand the German electronic air defense system.  We stripped out B-24 bombers, took out all the bomb racks, took out all the bombs and even took out all the guns.  And we filled it with racks of receivers and displays, wire and strip recorders and communications intercept equipment that could search the electromagnetic spectrum from 50 megahertz to 3 gigahertz, and this is 1943. 

We flew these unarmed planes in and out of Germany alongside our bombers and basically built up the “radar order of battle.” We now understood where the German radars were, their technical details and what weapons they controlled.

Tin Foil Rain – Chaff
We first decided to shut down the German radars that were directing the anti-aircraft guns and the fighter planes. And to do that we dropped tin foil on the Germans. No kidding. Radar engineers had observed if you cut a strip of aluminum foil to 1/2 the wavelength of a radar transmitter and throw it in front of the radars antenna, the radar signal would reflect perfectly. All the radar operator would see was noise, rather than airplanes. 

Well, you couldn’t stand in front of the German radars and throw out tin foil, but you could if you had a fleet of airplanes. Each plane threw out packets of aluminum foil (called “chaff”.) The raid on Hamburg in July, 1943 was the first use of chaff in World War II.  It completely shut down the German air defense system in and around Hamburg.  The British and then the Americans firebombed the city with minimal air losses.

Chaff used 3/4′s of all the aluminum foil in the U.S. in World War II, because by the end of the war, every bomber stream was dumping chaff on every mission.

Jam It and Shut it Down - Electronic Warfare
But this secret lab was focused on electronic warfare. So they systematically designed electronic devices called “jammers” to shut down each part of the German air defense system.  Think of a “jammer” as a radio transmitter broadcasting noise on the same frequency of the enemy radar set. The goal is to overwhelm the enemy radar with noise so they couldn’t see the bombers. We built electronic jammers to target each part of the German air defense system: their early warning radars, the short range radars, the antiaircraft gun radars, the Ground Control Intercept Radars, the air to ground radio links and even the radars onboard the German night fighters. By the end of the war we had put multiple jammers on every one of our bombers, and while their power output was ridiculously low, these jammers were flying in formation with 1,000 other planes with their jammers on, and the combined power was enough to confuse the radar operators.

Just to give you a sense of scale of how big this electronic warfare effort was, we built over 30,000 jammers, with entire factories running 24/7 in the U.S. making nothing but jammers to put on our bombers.

By the end of World War II, over Europe, a bomber stream no longer consisted of just planes with bombs.  Now the bombers were accompanied by electronics intelligence planes looking for new radar signals, escort bombers just full of jammers and others full of chaff, as well as P-51 fighter planes patrolling alongside our bomber stream.


Every WWII Movie and Book with a Bomber was Wrong
While there were lots of stories about how the British early warning radar system, called “Chain Home” saved England during the Battle of Britain by giving the Spitfire pilots time to scramble to intercept German bombers, there wasn’t a coherent story about American and British bombers encountering the German radar-guided air defense system.

This lack of information meant that every World War II movie or book that had airplanes on bombing missions in it was wrong.  Every one of them. (To someone who had grown up with reruns of WWII war movies on TV, this was a shock.) Every movie I had seen – 12 O’clock High, Memphis Belle, etc. –  assumed that there were no electronics other than radios on these bombers. Wrong. Not only didn’t the movie makers know, but the pilots and crews didn’t know about the German radar guided system trying to kill them. Nor did they know about the electronic shield being assembled to try to protect them.

But while this may be a great story what the does this have to do with the history of Silicon Valley?

The answer lies with who ran this lab and became the father of electronic warfare and Signals Intelligence in the Cold War for the next 20 years.

Who Ran the Most Secret Lab You Never Heard of?
It was Fred Terman of Stanford.  The Harvard Radio Research Lab was his creation. A Stanford professor was at Harvard in World War II because the head of the Office of Scientific Research and Development thought Terman was the best radio engineer in the country. (Why couldn’t he have set up a lab at Stanford?  Apparently, the Office of Scientific Research thought that Stanford’s engineering department was second rate.)

Finally, I had an answer to the question I had asked 35 years earlier when I was in Thailand: “How did electronic warfare get started?” Now I knew that it began in the early days of World War II as a crash program to reduce the losses of bombers to the German air defense network.  Electronic warfare and signals intelligence in the U.S. started with Fred Terman and the Harvard Radio Research Lab.

Spooky Music
Reading about Terman was like finding the missing link in my career.  Here was the guy who invented the field I had spent the first five years of my adult life working on. And 30 years later I was teaching in a building named after him and never knew a thing about him.  Play spooky music here.

I began to realize a few things: First, everything we had done in electronic warfare in the Vietnam War was just a slightly more modern version of what we had done over occupied Europe in World War II.  (And in hindsight, we seemed a bit more agile and innovative in WWII.)

Unbelievably, in less than two years, Terman’s Radio Research lab invented an industry and had turned out a flurry of new electronic devices the likes of which had never been seen.  Yet decades later the military lacked the agility to write a spec in two years, let alone get 10′s of thousands of new systems deployed on aircraft as Terman had done.  How was this possible?  In 21st century terminology we’d say that Terman built the Radio Research lab into a customer-centric organization doing agile development.

Just the Beginning
The public history of Terman’s involvement with the military ends when he returns back to Stanford at the end of the war. Nothing in his biography or any Stanford history mentions anything as exciting as his work in World War II. The public story of his last 20 years at Stanford, in the 1950′s and ’60′s, seems to have him settle into the role of the kindly dean and innovative provost.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

The Secret Life of Fred Terman in a War you never heard of in Part VII of the Secret History of Silicon Valley.

The Secret History of Silicon Valley Part V: Happy 100th Birthday Silicon Valley

When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.
- The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance

I always had been curious about how Silicon Valley, a place I had lived and worked in, came to be.  And throughout my career as an entrepreneur I kept asking questions of my VC investors and friends; Where did entrepreneurship come from?  How did Silicon Valley start? Why here?  Why now? How did this culture of “make it happen” emerge, etc.  And the answer came back much as it did in my past jobs; Who cares, get back to work.

After I retired, Jerry Engel, director of the Lester Center on Entrepreneurship, at U.C. Berkeley Haas Business School was courageous enough to give me a forum teach the Customer Development Methodology. As I was researching my class text, I thought it would be simple enough to read up on a few histories of the valley and finally get my questions about the genesis of entrepreneurship answered.

The Legend: HP, Intel and Apple
I read all the popular books about the valley and they all told a variant of the same story; entrepreneurs as heroes building the Semiconductor and Personal Computer companies: Bill Hewlett and David Packard at HP, Bob Taylor and the team at Xerox PARC, Steve Jobs and Wozniak at Apple, Gordon Moore and Bob Noyce at Intel, etc.  These were inspiring stories, but I realized that, no surprise, the popular press were writing books that had mass appeal.  They were all fun reads about plucky entrepreneurs who start from nothing and against all odds, build a successful company.  74HGZA3MZ6SV


But no one was writing about where the entrepreneurial culture had come from.  Where were the books explaining why were all these chip and computer companies started here?  Why not elsewhere in the country or the world?  With the exception of one great book, no one was writing about our regional advantage. Was it because entrepreneurs keep moving forward and rarely look back?  I needed to dig deeper.

The Facts: Vacuum Tube Valley – Our 100th Anniversary
To my surprise, I discovered that yes, Silicon Valley did start in a garage in Palo Alto, but it didn’t start in the Hewlett Packard garage.  The first electronics company in Silicon Valley was Federal Telegraph, a tube company started in 1909 in Palo Alto as Poulsen Wireless.  (This October is the 100th anniversary of Silicon Valley, unnoticed and unmentioned by anyone.)  By 1912, Lee Deforest working at Federal Telegraph would invent the Triode, (a tube amplifier) and would go on to become the Steve Jobs of his day – visionary, charismatic and controversial.

* Federal Telegraph and Lee Deforest in Palo Alto are the first major events in what would become Silicon Valley.  We need to reset our Silicon Valley birthday calendars to here.

By 1937, when Bill Hewlett and David Packard left Stanford to start HP, the agricultural fields outside of Stanford had already become “Vacuum Tube Valley.” HP was a supplier of electronic test equipment and joined a small but  thriving valley electronics industry with companies like Litton and Eitel and McCollough.

* By the late 1930′s when HP started, a small group (measured in hundreds) of engineers who made radio tubes were building the valleys’ ecosystem for electronics manufacturing, product engineering and technology management.

Who would have known?

Microwave Valley – the 1950′s and ’60′s
There isn’t much written about Silicon Valley during and after World War II.  The story of the valley post war, through the 1950′s, is mostly about the growth of the tube companies and the rise of Hewlett Packard.  The popular literature has the valley springing to life in the 1960′s with the semiconductor revolution started by Shockley, Fairchild, Signetics, National and Intel, followed by the emergence of the personal computer in the mid 1970′s.

But the more I read, the more I realized that the public history’s of the valley in the 1950′s and ’60′s were incomplete and just plain wrong. The truth was that huge dollars were spent on a large number of companies that never made the press or into the history books. Companies specializing in components and systems that operated in the microwave portion of the electromagnetic spectrum sprouted faster than fruit trees in the valley orchards. In ten years, from the early 1950′s to the early 1960′s, the valley went through a hiring frenzy as jobs in microwave companies went from 700 to 7,000.

This wave of 1950′s/’60′s startups (Watkins-Johnson, Varian, Huggins Labs, MEC, Stewart Engineering, etc.) were making  dizzying array of new microwave componentspower grid tubesklystrons, magnetrons,  backward wave oscillators, traveling wave tubes (TWT’s), cross-field amplifiers, gyrotrons, and on, on…  And literally across the valley, these microwave devices were being built into complete systems for the U.S. military by other new startups;  Sylvania Electronics Defense Laboratory, Granger Associates, Philco, Dalmo Victor, ESL and Argosystems. In the 1950′s and ’60′s more money was pouring into these companies than on the fledgling chip and computer companies.

* The 10x expansion in the number of engineers in the valley in the 1950′s came from the military and microwaves – before the semiconductor boom. And these microwave engineers were working at startups – not large companies. You never heard of them because their work was secret.

When I read the funny names of these microwaves devices… Backward wave oscillators, TWT’s, Magnetrons…long silent memories came back. These components were the heart of the electronic warfare equipment I have worked on; including fighters in Thailand and on B-52 bombers.  After 20 years, the story started coming home for me.

The Revolution Wasn’t Televised
What the heck happened here to create this burst of innovation?  What created this microwave startup culture in the 1950′s? And since there was no Venture Capital in the 1950′s/’60′s where was the money coming from?  This startup boom seemed to come out of nowhere.  Why was it occurring here?  And why on earth the sudden military interest in microwaves?


Part of the answer was that these companies and the military had forged some type of relationship.  And it appeared that Stanford University’s engineering department was in middle of all this. The formation of the military/industrial/university relationships during the Cold War and the relationship between Stanford and the intelligence community in particular, went on untold and out of sight.

While nothing I read described the specific products being worked on, or what specifically was Stanford’s contribution, there were some really tantalizing pointers to who the real customers were (hint, it wasn’t just the “military,”) or why was this work was being done at Stanford.

No one knew that it all pointed to just one guy at the center of it all -  Fred Terman of Stanford University.

* Stanford, the military and our intelligence agencies started the wave of entrepreneurial culture that today’s Silicon Valley takes for granted.

The “Secret Life of Fred Terman” and “Stanford Fights the Cold War” on the Part VI of the “Secret History” posts here.

Story Behind “The Secret History” Part IV: Library Hours at an Undisclosed Location

This is Part IV of how I came to write “The Secret History of Silicon Valley“.
Read Part III first and it will make a bit more sense.

All You Can Read Without a Library Card

It was 1978. Here I was, a very junior employee of ESL, a company with its hands in the heart of our Cold War strategy. Clueless about the chess game being played in Washington, I was just a minion in a corporate halfway house in between my military career and entrepreneurship. 74HGZ

ESL sent me overseas to a secret site run by one of the company’s “customers.”  It was so secret the entire site was could have qualified as one of Dick Cheney’s “undisclosed locations.” As a going away gift my roommates got me a joke disguise kit with a fake nose, glasses and mustache.

The ESL equipment were racks of the latest semiconductors designed into a system so complicated that the mean-time-between-failure was measured in days. Before leaving California, the engineers gave me a course in this specialized receiver design. Since I had spent the last four years working on advanced Air Force electronic intelligence receivers, I thought there wouldn’t be anything new.  The reality was pretty humbling. Here was a real-world example of the Cold War “offset strategy.” Taking concepts that had been only abstract Ph.D theses, ESL had built receivers so sensitive they seemed like science fiction.  For the first time we were able to process analog signals (think radio waves) and manipulate them in the digital domain. We were combining Stanford Engineering theory with ESL design engineers and implementing it with chips so new we were debugging the silicon as we were debugging the entire system.  And we were using thousands of chips in a configuration no rational commercial customer could imagine or afford.  The concepts were so radically different that I spent weeks dreaming about the system theory and waking up with headaches. Nothing I would work on in the next 30 years was as bleeding edge.

Now half a world away on the customer site, my very small role was to keep our equipment running and train the “customer.” As complex as it was, our subsystem was only maybe one-twentieth of what was contained in that entire site. Since this was a location that worked 24/7, I was on the night shift (my favorite time of the day.) Because I could get through what I needed to do quickly, there wasn’t much else to do except to read.  As the sun came up, I’d step out of the chilled buildings and go for an early morning run outside the perimeter fence to beat the desert heat.  As I ran, if I looked at the base behind the fence I was staring at the most advanced technology of the 20th century.  Yet if turned my head the other way, I’d stare out at a landscape that was untouched by humans.  I was in between the two thinking of this movie scene.  (At the end of a run I used to lay out and relax on the rocks to rest – at least I did, until the guards asked if I knew that there were more poisonous things per square foot here than anywhere in the world.)

Before long I realized that down the hall sat all the manuals for all the equipment at the entire site. Twenty times more technical reading than just my equipment. Although all the manuals were in safes, the whole site was so secure that anybody who had access to that site had access to everything – including other compartmentalized systems that had nothing to do with me – and that I wasn’t cleared for.  Back home at ESL control of compartmentalized documents were incredibly strict. As a contractor handling the “customer’s” information, ESL went by the book with librarians inside the vaults and had strict document access and control procedures.  In contrast, this site belonged to the “customer.”  They set their own rules about how documents were handled, and the safes were open to everyone.

I was now inside the firewall with access to everything.  It never dawned on me that this might not be a good idea.

Starting on the safe on the left side, moving to the safe on the right side, I planned to read my way through every technical manual of every customer system.  We’re talking about a row of 20 or so safes each with five drawers, and each drawer full of manuals. Because I kept finding interesting connections and new facts, I kept notes, and since the whole place was classified, I thought, “Oh, I’ll keep the notes in one of these safes.” So I started a notebook, dutifully putting the classification on the top and bottom of each page.  As I ran into more systems I added the additional code words that on the classification headers.  Soon each page of my notes had a header and footer that read something like this:  Top Secret / codeword/ codeword / codeword / codeword / codeword / codeword / codeword.

I was in one of the most isolated places on earth yet here I was wired into everywhere on earth.  Coming to work I would walk down the very long, silent, empty corridors, open a non-descript door and enter the operations floor (which looked like a miniature NASA Mission Control), plug a headset into the networked audio that connected all the console operators — and hear the Rolling Stones “Sympathy for the Devil.”  (With no apparent irony.) But when the targets lit up, the music and chatter would stop, and the communications would get very professional.

Nine months into my year tour, and seven months into my reading program, I was learning something interesting every day. (We could do what!?  From where??)  Then one day I got a call from the head of security to say, “Hey, Steve can you stop into my office when you get a chance?”

Are These Yours?

Now this was a small site, about 100-200 people, and here was the head of security was asking me over for coffee.  Why how nice, I thought, he just wants to get to know me better. (Duh.)  When I got to his office, we made some small talk and then he opened up a small envelope, tapped it on a white sheet of paper, and low and behold, three or four long black curly hairs fall out.  “Are these yours?” he asked me.

This the one of the very few times I’ve been, really, really impressed.  I said, “Why yes they are, where did you get them?”  He replied, ‘They were found in the ‘name of system I should have absolutely no knowledge or access to’ manuals. Were you reading those?”  I said, “Absolutely.”  When he asked me, “Were you reading anything else?”  I explained, “Well I started on the safe on the left, and have been reading my way through and I’m about three quarters of the way done.”

Now it was his turn to be surprised. He just stared at me for awhile.  “Why on earth are you doing that?” he said in a real quiet voice. I blurted out, “Oh, it’s really interesting, I never knew all this stuff and I’ve been making all these notes, and …”  I never quite understood the word “startled” before this moment.  He did a double-take out of the movies and interrupted me, “You’ve been making notes?”  I said, “Yeah, it’s like a puzzle,” I explained.  “I found out all this great stuff and kept notes and stored in the safe on the bottom right under all the…”  And he literally ran out of the office to the safes and got my notebook and started reading it in front of me.

And the joke (now) was that even though this was the secret, secret, secret, secret site, the document I had created was more secret than the site.

While the manuals described technical equipment, I was reading about all the equipment and making connections and seeing patterns across 20 systems. And when I wasn’t reading, I was also teaching operations which gave me a pretty good understanding of what we were looking for on the other side.  At times we got the end product reports from the “customer” back at the site, and these allowed me to understand how our system was cued by other sensors collecting other parts of the electromagnetic spectrum, and to start looking for them, then figuring out what their capabilities were.

Pattern Recognition

As I acquired a new piece of data, it would light up a new set of my neurons, and I would correlate it, write it down and go back through reams of manuals remembering that there was a mention elsewhere of something connected.  By the time the security chief and I were having our ‘curly hairs in the envelope’ conversation, not only did I know what every single part of our site did, but what scared the security guy is that I had also put together a pretty good guesstimate of what other systems we had in place worldwide.

For one small moment in time, I may have assembled a picture of the sum of the state of U.S. signals intelligence in 1978 − the breadth and depth of the integrated system of technical assets we had in space, air, land, and other places all focused on collection. (If you’re a techie, you’d be blown away even 30 years later.) And the document that the head of security had in his hand and was reading, as he told me later, he wasn’t cleared to read – and I wasn’t cleared to write or see.  I’m sure I knew just a very small fraction of what was going on, but still it was much more than I was cleared for.

At the time this seemed quite funny to me probably because I was completely clueless about what I had done, and thought that no one could believe there was another intent.  But in hindsight, rather than the career I did have, I could now just be getting out of federal prison. It still sends shivers up my back.  After what I assume were a few phone calls back to Washington, the rules said they couldn’t destroy my notebook, but they couldn’t keep it at the site either.  Instead my notebook was couriered to Washington – back to the “customer.”  (I picture it still sitting in some secure warehouse.)  The head of security and I agreed my library hours were over and I would take up another hobby until I went home.

Thank you to the security people who could tell the difference between an idiot and a spy.

When I got back to Sunnyvale, my biggest surprise was that I didn’t get into trouble. Instead someone realized that the knowledge I had accumulated could provide the big picture to brief new guys “read in” to this compartmentalized program.  Of course I had to work with the customer to scrub the information to get its classification back down to our compartmental clearance. (My officemate who would replace me on the site, Richard Farley, would go on to a more tragic career.)  I continued to give these briefings as a consultant to ESL even after I had joined my first chip startup; Zilog.


Two Roads Diverged in a Wood and I took the Road Less Traveled By,  And That Has Made All the Difference

Extraordinary times bring extraordinary people to the front. Bill Perry the founder of ESL, is now acknowledged as one of the founders of the entire field of National Reconnaissance, working the NSA, CIA and the NRO in programs to intercept and evaluate Soviet missile telemetry and communications intelligence.

ESL had no marketing people.  It had no PR agency.  It shunned publicity.  It was the model for almost every military startup that followed, and its alumni who lived through its engineering and customer-centric culture had a profound effect on the rest of the valley, the intelligence community and the country. And during the Cold War it sat side by side with commercial firms in Silicon Valley, with its nondescript sign on the front lawn. It had Hidden in Plain Sight.

As for me, after a few years I decided that into was time to turn swords into plowshares. I left ESL and the black world for a career in startups; semiconductors, supercomputers, consumer electronics, video games and enterprise software.

I never looked back.

It would be decades before I understood what an extraordinary company I had worked for.

Thank you Bill Perry for one hell of a start in Silicon Valley.

I was 24.

My first class of students at ESL:  Guardrail V Training Class (note the long black curly hairs)

My first class of students at ESL: Guardrail V Training Class (note the long black curly hairs)

Part V of the Secret History of Silicon Valley continues here.

Story Behind “The Secret History” Part III: The Most Important Company You Never Heard Of

This is Part III of how I came to write “The Secret History of Silicon Valley“.

1978. Two years out of the Air Force, serendipity (which would be my lifelong form of career planning) found me in Silicon Valley working for my first company: ESL. If you’re an entrepreneur, ESL is the most important company you’ve never heard of. If you are a practitioner of Customer Development, ESL was doing it before most us were born. If you think the Cold War turned out the right side up (i.e. Communism being a bad science experiment) ESL’s founder Bill Perry was moving the chess pieces. And no one who really knew could tell you. 74HGZA3MZ6SV

Bill Perry’s public life as Secretary of Defense and his subsequent work in preventing nuclear proliferation and nuclear terrorism is public knowledge. But part of his life that that doesn’t even merit a Wikipedia entry is that Bill Perry used Silicon Valley to help end the cold war.

Fred Terman Sent Us

In 1953 the U.S. Army needed to build missile and proximity fuse jammers and Quick Reaction Capability (QRC) systems (translation: the other side just came up with something that’s killing us in a shooting war, get us a fix quick.) The Army offered Fred Terman, the Dean of Engineering at Stanford, a $5M contract to build an electronics countermeasures lab. When Terman said no, Sylvania, a tube company which built proximity fuse tubes in WWII, won the contract and set up its Electronic Defense Lab (EDL) in Mountain View California in the middle of an orchard. Terman became a consultant to the company.

In ten years Sylvania EDL grew to be one the largest companies in the valley − 1300 people were working on electronic countermeasures and electronic intelligence. By 1961 its customers now included our intelligence agencies. (BTW, when the customers were “three-letter” intelligence agencies, contractors used an oblique way of talking about who they were working for: they were all referred to as simply the “customer.”)

In 1964, Bill Perry, the head of the lab, frustrated with GTE’s management, quit (GTE, a phone company had bought Sylvania in 1959.) And in the tradition of great startups, on the way out Perry took 6 of his best managers with him.

At ESL Military Intelligence Was No Longer an Oxymoron

Perry not only took his best managers, but he also took his customers, and his desire to build a company culture that was the antithesis of working for a phone company. In building ESL Perry made a conscious choice to emulate Hewlett Packard (then considered the “gold standard” of a great technology company.) HP had an ethical culture, entrepreneurial spirit, and deep Stanford engineering department connections. One key difference: unlike HP, which had restricted stock ownership to the founders and top management, Perry made sure everyone at ESL had stock. There were no venture investors. The “customers’” contracts funded the company. Seven years later in 1971 ESL went public.

Not surprising with a CEO with a PhD in Math, at ESL the engineers ran the company, pursuing bleeding-edge designs in antennas, receivers and microwaves – at times hand in hand with Stanford’s engineering department. (Some of this stuff was so advanced that the rumors were that we got it from the alien spacecraft hidden at Wright-Patterson Air Force base.)

ESL was unique among the “we do microwaves” that the Valley specialized in before it was Silicon Valley. ESL was a systems company that used computers, and in the mid-1960’s using computers for electronic intelligence was considered revolutionary. ESL specialized in embedding minicomputers in electronic intelligence systems, turning a tedious manual process into one that looked like magic. The “customers” in Washington had never seen anything like it.

While those computer-based systems paid the bills, Perry’s even more profound insight would change the outcome of the Cold War.  Up until ESL, radio and radar signals had always been received by analog receivers.  ESL realized that by turning these radio waves into computer bits, ones and zeros, they could be processed in ways that had been considered theoretically impossible.  ESL’s systems allowed signal extraction and correlation against targets the Soviet Union thought were undetectable and impenetrable. But this digital world required new theories, and new devices – two items provided by Silicon Valley in the form of Stanford’s engineering department and the emerging/booming semiconductor business.

ESL and “the Customer” – No Such Agency

ESL kept getting business and growing mostly through unsolicited bids. Because they were extremely good at what they did, most of the contracts they won were “sole source.” However, it didn’t hurt that Perry several allies at the “customer.” One of them, Bud Wheelon, had been a classmate of Perry’s at Stanford and they both had worked on the electronic intelligence collection problem, Perry at Sylvania EDL and Wheelon at the Space Technology Lab at Ramo Woolridge. In 1962 Wheelon left for a new job as the first director of the CIA’s Directorate of Science and Technology where he was responsible for development of OXCART, the A-12 Spyplane, and three major satellite reconnaissance systems.  These would be the heart of ESL’s business.

A-12 OXCART CIA Spyplane

A-12 OXCART CIA Spyplane

ESL found other ways to stay very close to its customers. Forty years before Agile Development methodologies became popular, ESL had analysts from its “customer” sitting side-by-side with ESL engineers designing new equipment together. And in the 1960s ESL’s customers asked the company to analyze and interpret telemetry data even though this was a traditional function of the “customer.” In five years, ESL went from a plucky startup to the market leader in Sigint and telemetry intercepts. While it was a for-profit company, Perry believed ESL’s goal was to serve the national interest instead of just the stockholders. He identified with their customers, not shareholders. If there was a conflict between profits and doing the right thing, at ESL the goal was to “think of the country first.” Yet ESL was just act one for Bill Perry.

Yes We Can – Dumping Detente – Bill Perry and “the Revolution in Military Affairs

After 20 years of an escalating arms race, the Nixon administration decided to take a new approach to dealing with the Soviet Union: Détente. Kissenger’s thinking was: history may be tilting to the Communists and we may not be able to win the struggle with the Soviet Union so let’s settle for parity. Yet while the U.S. had been engaged in the Vietnam War, and had agreed to parity in nuclear weapons, Soviet forces in Europe had built a 3 to 1 advantage in tanks, artillery, armored personnel carriers, and soldiers, all under Détente.

In response the U.S. dumped Détente and embraced a new strategy to counter the Warsaw Pact by not matching them tank for tank or solider to solider. The new insight was that we could change the game completely and take advantage of a lead we had that was getting longer every day – by using our computer and chip technology to aggressively build a new generation of weapons that the Soviet Union could not.

At the heart of this idea was something called “precision strike,” what we would today call smart bombs or precision guided munitions. But this new strategy was more than making the bombs smarter. It involved building stealth aircraft to deliver these precision weapons unseen by any enemy radar, and designing intelligence and reconnaissance systems that would target for them. Smart weapons, smart sensors, and stealth.  And the heart of all of this were microwaves, silicon chips, electronics and computers that only the U.S. could design and produce, and a good part of it was coming from Silicon Valley.

The Arms Factories that Won the Cold War Were Semiconductor Factories

Who was the government official pushing all of this? It was none other than Bill Perry, who had become the head of Research and Engineering for the Defense Department. From 1977 to 1981 Perry cranked up spending for research and development on a massive scale. The budget for the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) doubled, and huge “smart weapons” defense programs like the F-117 stealth ground attack plane and the B-2 stealth bomber; precision guided munitions; JSTARS, a surveillance system; and the satellite Global Positioning System (GPS); MX missile; Trident submarine; and Tomahawk cruise missiles.

F-117 Nighthawk - 1st Stealth Ground Attack Plane

F-117 Nighthawk – 1st Stealth Ground Attack Plane

These changes in American defense policy spooked the Soviets. The Chief of Staff of the Red Army said that this “Offset Strategy” was revolutionizing contemporary warfare and posed a military threat that the Red Army could not match. “We cannot equal the quality of US arms for a generation or two. . . . We will never be able to catch up with you in modern arms until we have an economic revolution. And the question is whether we can have an economic revolution without a political revolution.”

The U.S. Cold War strategy had gone from a “let’s be friends” to a “yes we can win” strategy. By the mid 1980s Ronald Reagan was cranking U.S. defense spending even higher. Gorbachev, now the Soviet Premier, had to grapple with the spiraling cost of military systems that weren’t amortized by consumer purchases. Arms control with the U.S. and massive cuts in weapons and the military seemed like the only way out. And the rest is history.

Bill Perry put us on the path to use Silicon Valley as a weapon in the cold war.

My small part as a foot solider in this adventure is in the next post.

Part IV of the Secret History of Silicon Valley continues here.

The Story Behind the Secret History Part II. Getting B-52s through the Soviet Air Defense System

This is post II of how I came to write “The Secret History of Silicon Valley“.

1974. The Vietnam war was winding down. After been stationed at three fighter bases in Thailand (Ubon, Udorn and Korat) and working on Electronic Warfare suites on F-4’s, A-7’s, F-105’s and AC-130’s, I got orders to report to a Strategic Air Command (SAC) B-52 bomber base in Alpena Michigan. 74HGZA3MZ6SV

Imagine how hot, humid and unbearable the weather was in Thailand. Now I was on an airbase that issued some very ‘cool’ gear – bunny boots and arctic parkas.  The downside was that the average winter temperature was about 10 degrees.  I remember the few times I had to go out to the flight line, it was usually 15 below zero (Fahrenheit.)

The B-52 – When it Absolutely Had to Get There the Next Day

During the Cold War, the B-52 bomber was one-third of what was called our strategic triad – meaning, it made up one-third  of the U.S.’s strategic weapons: ICBMs, nuclear submarines, and manned bombers.  The notion was that while the Soviets could knock any one or any two of those out, we still had a retaliatory capability.  (That was our strategic posture from the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s, the ’80s, and I think maybe even through the ’90s. Now we have ditched the cold war triad in the 21st century since the Soviet Union became Russia again and discovered its own style of capitalism.)

Think of a plane the length of a 767 airliner (but with 30 foot longer wings and 8 engines rather than 2) whose only mission was to FedEx 70,000 pounds of nuclear weapons to the Soviet Union.


Soviet Air Defense – PVO Strany

The B-52s had to get through a massive Soviet air defense system that had been built and evolved over two decades and was designed to shoot down manned bombers.  Not only did Soviet Air Defense have the same SA-2 missiles the North Vietnamese had (since they had given it to them), but the Soviet air defense environment was much denser with a layered defensive system of radars, Surface to Air Missiles (old SA-1’s and newer SA-3s, SA-5s) and a huge manned 1000+ plane fighter interceptor fleet.  In fact, the Soviet Air Defense Forces, PVO Strany, was so important in the defense of the Motherland it was a separate branch of their military.

And just to make the problem harder, the North Vietnamese had shot down B-52s in December 1972 and given the Soviets the captured electronic countermeasures equipment.  Even though the bombers we lost over North Vietnam were older versions, called B-52 D-models, many of the systems were the same.  Now the Soviets had first hand knowledge of how their air defense systems would work against the nuclear armed B-52G and H models in an operational environment.

Ann Arbor to Alpena – 180 Miles and a Major Culture Gap

While I never got tired of looking at the planes, one my fondest memories of this base was driving down U.S. 23 to Ann Arbor when the leaves turned in the fall.  Late September to mid-October the riot of the colors was so intense I pulled the car off to the side of the road to just stare for awhile. Each week as I would head down south, I could track the progress of the trees putting on their electric reds and yellows fall colors as they also headed south.  I’d spend a weekend in a college town, without a uniform, in a world as far away from nuclear weapons and the Strategic Air Command in politics and culture as you could get. While it seemed a bit incongruous, it was fun listening to my friends in graduate school over dinner worrying about grades and jobs. Then I would return back north to the much drabber green palette of bombers and uniforms and continue to defend democracy.  I had plenty of time in those three hour drives to ponder the value of universal National Service.

The Electronic Warfare Officer (EWO) and the Nielsen Ratings

The largest payload next to the nuclear weapons on B-52s was the electronic warfare equipment, which was to designed to help the bomber jam its way through the radar environment in the Soviet Union.  The bombers had wideband panoramic receivers and displays, chaff, and kilowatts of jammers up and down the frequency band.  One of the six crew members was solely dedicated to get the plane to the target through the gauntlet of the Soviet air defense system: the EWO or Electronic Warfare Officer.

When I first got to this B-52 base, I started asking: “What are we working on?” Again, just like in Thailand, the answer was, “Just fix the damn boxes.” I’d always be the one in the shop going, well, “Why? What are we jamming, how many Soviet radar types are there what does each one of them they do, how do we know about them, how did someone know to build these jammers to these specifications, how do these bombers penetrate Soviet airspace, how, when and where did the EWO use his equipment?” People used to just look at me: why are you asking these questions?

But I was now running the part of the electronic warfare shop that repaired the receivers and could get some of my questions answered.  The receiver I worked on, the ALR-20, when turned off looked like nothing more than a big orange TV display. But it was the main display for the EWO on the B-52 for situational awareness.  When it was on, he could see every signal from one end of the electromagnetic spectrum to the other and for a long way out around the aircraft.  Think of the most amazing spectrum analyzer you could build with 1960s technology.  Then think some more.

In time of war, the B-52′s would be piloted into Soviet territory at 500mph at 500 feet above the ground (by eyeball and by using some pretty sophisticated  low-light TV and infrared cameras.) Sitting behind the pilots, the EWO was also steering the plane, but he was taking it through the hostile electromagnetic spectrum.  He was constantly looking at the multiple lines on the ALR-20 display and could see the Soviet radar order of battle: ground to air communications, what radars were around (search, acquisition, tracking, etc.), were they about to get locked on the bomber and whether they were going to get a SAM up their rear or was it going to be an air-to-air missile from a fighter.  And because of his training, an EWO could identify and prioritize the threats.

The signals displayed by the ALR-20 were used to control the jammers of the rest of electronic countermeasures systems – putting out enormous number of kilowatts using brute force noise jamming and later on some much more sophisticated jamming techniques. All of this designed to make the plane if not invisible to Soviet radar, at least really difficult to lock onto and shoot down.

Just to rank how difficult it was to protect a B-52 in a dense defensive radar environment, our current B-2 stealth bomber has a radar signature of about an aluminum marble, while the B-52 designed in 1950 has the radar signature of a 170-foot sphere.  It was like trying to fly a whale through a fish tank and not get noticed.

(I remember a few times when the bombers were flying practice missions over their test ranges. On the way home the Electronic Warfare Officer would “accidentally” turn on the communications jammers over populated parts of the U.S. and shut down television and FM radio stations for hundreds of miles. This stuff was so powerful it probably could affect the Nielsen ratings. When they landed, the EWOs would write it up as an “equipment malfunction.” I could never tell if they had a sense of humor or just wanted to see if the equipment would work in the real world.)

Peace Is Our Profession – Is It a Drill?

In front of the entrance to every Strategic Air Command air base was a sign that said, “Peace is our Profession.” No joke.  Really.  Yet every time I came back to base, I kept thinking about whether this was the day for the alert drills.

At this time in the cold war, several B-52s at every Strategic Air Command base were on ground alert – they were loaded with nuclear weapons, had their orders and targets and were cocked and ready to take off to execute their mission – to destroy some part of the Soviet Union with large nuclear weapons.  All as an integral part of the Strategic Integrated Operating Plan – our war-fighting plan to destroy the Soviet Union.  When the alert sirens sounded, the bomber crews and the ground crews raced for their planes and they and their KC-135 refueling tankers would take off − hoping to miss the incoming Soviet ICBMs and SLBMs intended to destroy the bombers, the base and a good chunk of Michigan.

The problem for the rest of us on the base was that when the alert sirens went off, you did not know it was a drill.  I would always look at my watch and count down 10 minutes to see if we would be vaporized by a submarine-launched attack, and then hold my breath for another 15 minutes to see if there were ICBMs coming across the pole to take us out.  I wondered if I would actually see the flash or feel anything.  At these times, you never forgot that peace was the last profession we were in.

I never got used to it.

Stay Hungry, Stay Curious

When these bombers got their first modern Electronic Countermeasures suite (the ALQ-117 with automatic wide-band receivers and jammers), I got sent back to school for three months (to scenic Biloxi Mississippi again) to learn how to repair it.  This equipment was modern in the sense that it used integrated circuits rather than transistors, and it responded to threats “automagically” rather than requiring the EWO to do something. Learning about integrated circuits in the mid 1970s was fun as it meant learning a whole new language of digital versus analog computing and learning how to use a logic analyzer instead of just an oscilloscope.  Little did I know that these integrated circuits were coming from a place I would one day call home, and I’d be working at the companies who were designing them.

But once again, learning about the new electronic warfare equipment meant learning more about the Soviet threat environment and what we knew about the latest Soviet radar order of battle.

So now with a bit more “need to know” and a lot more “I want to know,” I started reading all the technical manuals I could get my hands on.  One of the wonderful things about a classified location is once you are inside, you have access to everything and can read anything − and I did.  I not only knew about my equipment but everyone else’s in the shop.  And I began to understand a bit about the Soviet radar order of battle at the height of the cold war from reverse engineering what our jammers were designed to counter and what frequencies our receivers were looking at and how the EWOs were trained to use our equipment.

I was always kind of curious. I was always curious about, and asking about, the big picture.

I was 22.


Part III of the Secret History of Silicon Valley continues here.

Listen to the podcast here

Download the podcast here

If I Told You I’d Have to Kill You: The Story Behind “The Secret History of Silicon Valley”

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.

Baht Bugs

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.

Steve at 19

Part II of the Secret History of Silicon Valley continues here.

Listen to the podcast here

Download the podcast here

Watch This Space

I am going to post on Mondays and Thursdays – at least until I run out of war stories. Posts are going to be a mix of topics: entrepreneurship, secret history and conservation. I’ll try to mix the topics up during the week. BTW, keep the comments coming, they’re read and appreciated.


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