The Secret History of Silicon Valley Part X: Stanford Crosses the Rubicon

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.

———————–

Swords Into Plowshares
After the end of World War II, returning veterans were happy to beat swords into plowshares (and microwave tubes) on the Stanford campus. From 1946 until 1950, Stanford’s Electronic Research Lab conducted basic research in microwave tubes.  Although this reseearch would lead to the development of the Backward Wave Oscillator and Traveling Wave Tube for military applications, Stanford was building tubes and circuits not entire systems.  The labs basic research was done by graduate students or Ph.Ds doing postdoctoral internships, supervised by faculty members or hired staff (many from Fred Terman’s WWII Electronic Warfare lab.)

In 1949, with the detection of the first Soviet nuclear weapons test, the Iron Curtain falling across Europe and the fall of China to the Communists, Cold War paranoia drove the U.S. military to rearm and mobilize.

Source: Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation (in constant 2009 $’s)

Source: Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation (in constant 2009 $’s)

We’ll Do Great in the Next War
Early in 1950, just months before the outbreak of the Korean War the Office of Naval Research asked Fred Terman to build an Applied electronics program for electronic warfare. All branches of the military (the Air Force and Army would fund the program as well) wanted Stanford to build prototypes of electronic intelligence and electronic warfare systems that could be put into production by partners in industry. The Navy informs Terman that, “money was not a problem but time was.”

Pitching the idea to the President of Stanford, Terman enthusiastically said, “In the event of all-out war, Stanford would become one of the giant electronic research centers…”  (A bit optimistic about the outcome perhaps, given that both the U.S. and the Soviet Union had nuclear weapons at this point.)

Crossing the Rubicon – The Applied Electronics Lab
Setting up a separate Applied Electronics Lab for military funded programs doubled the size of the electronics program at Stanford. The new Applied Electronics Laboratory was built with Navy money and a gift from Hewlett-Packard. With the memories of WWII only five years old, and the Cold War now a shooting war in Korea, there was very little discussion (or dissension) about turning a university into a center for the production of military intelligence and electronic warfare systems.

The work in the applied program focused in fields in which faculty members or senior research associates specialized.  Many of the other staff in the applied program were full-time employees hired to work solely on these military programs.

ELINT, Jammers and OTH
The Applied Electronics Lab used the ideas and discoveries (on microwave tubes and receiver circuits) from Terman’s basic research program in the Electronic Research Lab. The Applied Lab would build prototypes of complete systems such as Electronic Intelligence systems, Electronic Warfare Jammers, and Over the Horizon Radar. The Applied Electronics Lab also continued work on the Klystron, pushing the tube to produce megawatts in transmitted power. (Stanford designed Klystrons producing 2½ Megawatts were manufactured by Varian and Litton would power the radar in the BMEWS (Ballistic Missile Early Warning System) built at the height of the cold war.) The close tie between the two labs was a unique aspect of the Stanford Lab. Stanford had a Customer Development loop going on inside their own lab. The discoveries in tube and circuit research suggested new electronic intelligence and countermeasure techniques and systems; in turn the needs of the Applied Lab pushed tube and circuit development.  With the Applied Electronics Lab Stanford was becoming something akin to a federal or corporate lab run under university contract.  The university found government contracts profitable as the government reimbursed their overhead charges (their indirect costs.) This means they could fund other non-military academic programs from this overhead.

The Stanford Applied Electronics Lab built prototypes which were handed off to the military labs for their evaluation. Subsequently military labs would contract with companies to build the devices in volume. In some cases, branches of the military contracted directly with Stanford which worked with local contractors in Silicon Valley to build these components or systems for the military. The prototype ELINT receivers built by the Applied Electronics Lab used the Stanford Traveling Wave Tubes. They quickly went into production at Sylvania Electronic Defense Labs down the street in Mountain View and Hallicrafters in Chicago. Later versions would be built by numerous industry contractors and installed on the fleet of ELINT planes orbiting the Soviet Union. These traveling wave tubes would also become the heart of the panoramic receiver used on the B-52 by the electronic warfare officer to get the bomber through the Soviet Air Defense system.

Jammers built by the Stanford Applied Electronics Lab used the Stanford Backward Wave Oscillators to produce high power microwaves. Unlike the simple noise jammers used in World War II, Soviet radars were becoming more sophisticated and newer designs were fairly immune to noise. Instead the jamming signal needed to be much smarter and have a deep understanding of how the targeted radar worked. Taking the information gleaned from our ELINT aircraft, Stanford built prototypes of jammers modulated with two new deception jamming techniques – angle jamming and range-gate pull-off. Some form of these deception jammers would eventually find their way into most electronic warfare defense systems used in the Cold War; first in the U-2, A-12 and SR-71. (Ironically the B-52 bomber, which would become the airborne leg of our nuclear triad, would use dumb noise jammers for two more decades – the Air Force opting to put the smart jammers on the B-58 and B-70, high altitude supersonic bombers – one soon obsolete and other never made it into production.)

The last major area of research that the Applied Electronics Lab group investigated was how radio signals propagated within the earth’s ionosphere. Over the next fifteen years this Radio Science Laboratory would receive the most funding of all departments in the lab (from the CIA) to build a ground based ELINT system. They would build and deploy two Over The Horizon Radar (OTHR) systems to detect Soviet and Chinese ballistic missile tests using ground based radars.

Guards at the DoorStanford Joins the Cold War
In 1953 the Office of Naval Research told Terman that all military-funded projects (basic or applied, classified or not) needed to be in their own separate physical building. As a result Stanford moved the Applied work from the Electronics Research Lab into its own building.

In 1955, the pretense of keeping unclassified and classified work separate imposed too much of an administrative overhead and Stanford merged the Applied Electronics Lab and the Electronics Research Laboratory into the Systems Engineering Lab. The Applied Electronics portion of the lab was now the size of a small company.  It had 100 people, 18 of them full time faculty, 33 research associates and assistants and 33 other tube technicians, draftsman, machinists, etc. Over half this lab would hold clearances for military secrets. (Top Secret: Terman, Harris, McGhie, Secret: 44 others, Confidential: 8 others. Terman, Harris and Rambo also had Atomic Energy Commission “Q” clearances.)  Some students who were getting their engineering graduate degrees wrote masters and PhD thesis that were classified. Unless you had the proper clearances you couldn’t read them.  Terman and Stanford had just made a major bet on the cold war, and Stanford ranked sixth among university defense contractors.

A security guard was stationed at the door of the Applied Electronics Lab to ensure that only those with proper security clearance could enter. The law of unintended consequences meant that this most casual addition in front of a university building would result in the occupation and destruction of the lab (and its twin at MIT) and the end of the program 14 years later.  (More on this in a later post.)

Show and Tell – The Stanford ELINT and Electronic Warfare Contractors Meeting
During a typical year, the Applied Electronics Lab would host classified visits from military labs and defense contractors. By early 1950’s Stanford started holding a two day meeting for contractors and the military.

 

1955 Stanford Contractors Meeting

1955 Stanford Contractors Meeting

 

The 1955 attendee list gives you a feeling of the “who’s who” of the military/industrial establishment: RCA, GE, Motorola, AIL, Bendix, Convair, Mepar, Crosley, Westinghouse, McDonnell Aircraft, Douglas Aircraft, Boeing, Lockheed, Hughes Aircraft, North American, Bell Aircraft, Glen Martin, Ryan Aeronautics, Farnsworth, Sperry, Litton, Polarad, Hallicrafters, Varian, Emerson, Dumont, Maxson, Collins Radio.  Other universities doing classified ELINT and Electronic Warfare work attended including University of Michigan, Georgia Institute of Technology and Cornell. Over a hundred government contractors reviewed Stanford’s work on tubes and systems.

Stanford Contractors Meeting 1955 Attendees

Stanford Contractors Meeting 1955 Attendees

This was a classified conference at a university, the contractors not only got to hear the conference lectures, but also visited exhibits on the devices and systems the lab had built. The lab would repeat the conference the following week for government agencies doing military work.

Barely noticed at the 1955 conference, a year before the first transistor company opened in Silicon Valley, one of the sessions described how to use a new device called a“transistor” to build wide-band amplifiers. (Terman had sent faculty and graduate students to the University of Illinois in 1953 to learn transistor physics.)

The World Turned Upside Down
The Applied Electronics Lab solidified Stanford’s lead as one of, if not the place in the U.S. military for advanced thinking in ELINT and Electronic Warfare.  It would turn on its head the relationship of universities and corporations.

Traditionally universities chased corporations for funding and patronage, but the military’s dependence on Stanford’s and Fred Terman’s judgment turned that relationship on its head.  Now the military was listening to Terman’s advice about which military contractors should get the order for to mass produce the Stanford systems.  The contractors were now dependent on Stanford.

Terman the Rainmaker
During the 1950’s Fred Terman was an advisor to every major branch of the U.S. military. He was on the Army Signal Corps R&D Advisory Council, the Air Force Electronic Countermeasures Scientific Advisory board, a Trustee of the Institute of Defense Analysis, the Naval Research Advisory Committee, the Defense Science Board, and a consultant to the President’s Science Advisory Committee. His commercial activities had him on the board of directors of HP, Watkins-Johnson, Ampex, and Director and Vice Chairman of SRI.  It’s amazing this guy ever slept.  Terman was the ultimate networking machine for Stanford and its military contracts.

Stanford Industrial Park – Microwave Valley Booms
By the early 1950’s many of the corporations that attended the yearly Stanford Electronic Warfare conferences would establish research labs centered around Stanford for just this reason – to learn from Stanford’s basic and applied research and get a piece of the ELINT and Electronic Warfare contracting pie.

Stanford Industrial Park was the first technology office park set up to house local and out of state microwave and electronics startups. First occupied in 1953 it would include Varian, Watkins Johnson, Admiral, HP, General Electric, Kodak, Lockheed.  Other east coast companies which established branches in Microwave valley in the 1950’s included IBM, Sylvania, Philco, Zenith and ITT.

The Future is Clear – Microwave Valley Forever
By 1956 Fred Terman had every right to be pleased with what he had helped build in the last ten years in and around Stanford.  The Stanford Electronics Lab was now the center of ELINT and Electronic Warfare.

Startups were sprouting all over Microwave Valley delivering microwave tubes and complete military systems, slowiy replacing the orchards and fruit trees. Granger Associates was a 1956 startup founded by Bill Ayer, a graduate student in the Applied Electronics Radioscience Lab, and John Granger, a former RRL researcher, building ELINT and Electronic Warfare systems (the Granger jammer was carried on the U-2.) Four years later Ayer and another Granger engineer would leave Granger and found one of the preeminent electronic warfare and ELINT companies: Applied Technologies.

The future of the valley was clear – microwaves.

1956 – Change Everything
Yet in 1956 two events would change everything.  At the time neither appeared earthshaking or momentous. First, a Bell Labs researcher who had grown up in Palo Alto, had his own interesting World War II career, and recently served as a military advisor on cold war weapons systems, decided to follow Fred Terman’s advice to locate his semiconductor company near Stanford.

The second was when a Southern Californian aircraft company decided to break into the missiles and space field by partnering with Stanford electronics expertise. It moved its electronics research group from Burbank to the new Stanford Industrial Park and built its manufacturing facility in Sunnyvale.

Shockley Semiconductor Laboratory and Lockheed Missiles Systems Division would change everything. Read about it in Part XI of the Secret History of Silicon Valley here.

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.

terman

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.

The NSA and ELINT
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.

The Road Not Taken

At Zilog I was figuring out how to cope with job burnout.  And one of my conclusions was that I needed to pick one job not two. I had to decide what I wanted to do with my career – go back to ESL, try to work for the Customer, or stay at Zilog?

While it may seem like an easy choice, few people who love technology and who work on black projects leave.  These projects are incredibly seductive.  Let me explain why.

National Efforts
In World War II the U.S. put its resources behind a technical project that dwarfed anything every built – the atomic bomb.  From a standing start in 1942 the U.S. scaled up the production of U-235 and plutonium from micrograms to tens of kilograms by 1945. We built new cities in Hanford, Oak Ridge and Los Alamos and put 130,000 people to work on the project.

During the cold war, the U.S. government kept up the pace.  Hundreds of thousands of people worked on developing strategic weapons, bombers, our ICBM and SLBM missile programs, and the Apollo moon program. These programs dwarfed the size that any single commercial company could do by itself.  They were national efforts of hundreds of companies employing 10’s or 100’s of thousands of engineers.

ESL – National Technical Means of Verification
The project I was working on at ESL fit this category. The 1970’s and ‘80’s were the endgame of the cold war, and the U.S. military realized that our advantage over the Soviet Union was in silicon, software and systems. These technologies which allowed the U.S. to build sensors, stealth and smart weapons previously thought impossible or impractical, would give us a major military advantage.  Building these systems required resources way beyond the scope of a single company.  Imagine coming up with an idea that could work only if you had your own semiconductor fab and could dedicate its output to make specialized chips just for you.  Then imagine you’d have to get some rockets and put this reconnaissance system in space – no, make that several rockets. No one laughed when ESL proposed this class of project to “the customer.”

If you love technology, these projects are hard to walk away from.

The Road Not Taken
At first, I thought my choice was this: working on great technology at ESL or continuing to work on these toy-like microprocessors at Zilog.

But the more I thought about it, the choice wasn’t about the hardware or systems.  There was something about the energy and passion Zilog’s customers had as they kept doing the most unexpected things with our products.

While I couldn’t articulate at it at the time (it would take another 25 years) at ESL the company and the customer had a known problem and were executing to building a  known solution, with a set of desired specifications and PERT charts telling them what they needed to do and in what order to achieve the goal.  There was a ton of engineering innovation and coordination along the way, and the project could have failed at any point. But the insight and creativity occurred at the project’s beginning when the problem and solution was first being defined.  Given where I was in the hierarchy, I calculated that the odds of me being in on those decisions didn’t look high – ever.

In contrast, my customers at Zilog had nothing more than a set of visions, guesses and hallucinations about their customers; who they were, what they wanted to achieve and what was the right path to get there.  At these startups both the problem and solution were unknown.

Startups were not just smaller versions of a large company, they were about invention, innovation and iteration - of business model, product, customers and on and on. Startups were doing discovery of the problem and solution in real-time.  I could see myself doing that – soon.

Unbeknownst to me, I was facing a choice between becoming an entrepreneur or working for a large company.

I chose a path and never looked back.

——

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;
Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,
And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

Robert Frost – The Road Not Taken – 1916

Lessons Learned

  • There is no “right” choice for a career
  • There’s only the choice you make
  • Don’t let a “career” just happen to you
  • A startup is not a smaller version of a large company

Add to FacebookAdd to DiggAdd to Del.icio.usAdd to StumbleuponAdd to RedditAdd to BlinklistAdd to TwitterAdd to TechnoratiAdd to FurlAdd to Newsvine

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

popular-view-of-silicon-valley-history1

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?

the-real-story-of-silicon-valley1

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.

esl-badge

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.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 156,478 other followers