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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And they were not only building Polaris missiles.

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

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

7 Responses

  1. Fascinating stuff. The most interesting part is seeing how many different iterations the valley has gone through. Puts the current consumer internet rush in perspective.

  2. So why is East Palo Alto a ghetto now?

    Why didn’t all the business there cause it to flourish like the rest of the peninsula towns?

    • East Palo Alto suffered from real estate “block-busting” in the 1950’s followed by “white flight”. Next, the state routing of Highway 101 destroyed 48 of the then 53 commercial businesses. The Highway also set up a boundary between rich and poor school districts. As it was an unincorporated part of the county, auto wrecking dumps and chemical industries ended up there. It was pretty dismal until the late 1990’s.

      The city has undergone somewhat of a transformation since then. The Four Seasons and three office towers opened (albeit on the west side of the highway), and the Gateway 101 Shopping Center (which included an Ikea and Home Depot.) Both projects substantially added to the city’s tax base.

  3. Interesting. I grew up in Sunnyvale during the 50’summer and 60’s. My father was a physicist for Lockheed Skunk Works. We only knew that, whatever he worked on, it was top secret. He is in his 90’s now. And leaks a word or 2 every now and then. It all sounds strangely familiar. How the hell do you find all this out?

    • I started my career in electronic warfare during the Vietnam war. My first startup in Silicon Valley- ESL was the pioneer in electronic intelligence. (Its CEO Bill perry eventually became secretary of defense).

      I realized no one had told the story mostly because they lacked in the black-world context.

  4. I worked at LMSC more than a decade, but never on a missile. We also developed and produced 3 versions of fixed-wing Quiet Thruster Aircraft – the worlds quietest! The QT-2 was produced explicitly to demonstrate quiet (70dB SPL) flight. Doing so, it was converted to a tactical observation aircraft and “Took the night away from Charlie” in the Vietnam War – it was, arguably, the 1st STEALTH Airplane. It was succeeded by the YO-3A which was also deployed to Vietnam. Later, we produced “Aquila” Remotely Piloted Vehicles. We incorporated Day/Night Sensors and Laser Target Designators in most of them. “Missiles & Space” was not a sufficient description for what we actually did. There was much more: We were Skunk Works, North (established by Jim Plummer); but we few know that. It was a great place!
    Thanks to Steve Blank I know more about what we accomplished

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