Second Sight: A Meditation on Silicon Valley and 9-11

Written by Sean Murphy. Posted in Silicon Valley, skmurphy

Michael S. Malone wrote “Second Sight” for the Dec-3-2001 issue of Forbes ASAP (a great quarterly magazine put out by Forbes and edited by Malone that no longer seems to be available on-line).  It’s also collected in his book “The Valley of Heart’s Delight: A Silicon Valley Notebook 1963-2001” as Chapter 3. It’s a meditation on Silicon Valley and 9-11. Writing in the aftermath 9-11 he reflects on the roots of Silicon Valley in the Cold War and World War 2.  What follows are excerpts with subtitles and hyperlinks added, intermixed with commentary

Second Sight: Seen Through A Relic, A Haunting New Vision

I bought it on eBay as a lark, in the days when we all felt rich enough to do such flippant things. I don’t even remember my winning bid, which says something as well.

It came in a 3-foot-square cardboard box, which I opened on the driveway to minimize the mess, as workmen behind me sanded and hammered away while restoring my house. It was wrapped in a black foam sheet encased in wadded pages of the Connecticut Post. One headline read: “Gates Tells Congress to Trust High Tech.”

I knew what I’d find when I pulled away the sheet: a Norden bombsight. But I was still taken aback by its presence. It was black as anthracite, with dust in every corner and curve. The dust of an English runway, perhaps? Or sand from North Africa? Or just the cobwebs of the garage in which it had sat for the past half century.

Malcolm Gladwell did a TED Talk on the “Strange Tale of the Norden Bombsight” in July 2011 where he asserted that the development of the Norden cost 1.5 billion dollars in 1940 dollars, about half the cost of the Manhattan Project.

Less Menacing Than Coldly Malign: A Relic Weapon

It seemed less menacing than coldly malign, in the way only a relic weapon could. Twenty pounds, not much bigger than a football, with a cylinder at one end, a sphere at the other. It was seeded with knurled knobs and toothed gears and dials. From one side hung an old cloth-insulated wire terminating in a plug. Underneath, it held a small pane of glass the size of a cigarette pack. On top, a second pane opened like a porthole into the sphere. And at the center, covered with a rotting rubber eye protector, was a lens.

I set the contraption atop the recycling bin and stepped back to regard it. On that bright Northern California day, my prize seemed like a dark emissary from a forgotten time. From one angle it looked like a clock mechanism, from another an automobile transmission, from yet another a bomb.

It was, in fact, all three. Mounted in the nose of a B-17 bomber, attached with gyroscopes and rotating mirrors and cables to the airplane around it, and manipulated by a deft bombardier, the Norden was the most dangerous weapon in the world in the early years of World War II. Once it was set on a target and adjusted for airspeed and other variables, the Norden literally took over for the pilot, flying the plane on a strict approach path and telling the bombardier when to push the button to release the ton of bombs or incendiaries from their racks 10 feet behind him.

So technologically innovative and important was the Norden–neither the Germans nor the Japanese had anything close–that bombardiers were sworn to do whatever was necessary to keep one from falling into enemy hands. If the bomber was going down, they were to pull out their .45-caliber automatic and shoot it or pull a switch that ignited an explosive mounted inside the device. Or, if all else failed, they were to obey orders to ride the plane right down into oblivion in the German soil.

“Neither the Germans nor the Japanese had anything close” is not quite correct. A German spy ring stole the plans for the Norden before the war: they were used to implement the Lotfernrohr 7 that saw wide use by the Germans.

My Father Used a Norden Bombsight in the Nose of a B-17

My father sat at just such a Norden bombsight on a rickety seat in the Plexiglas nose of the “Badland Bat,” a B-17 in the 615th Squadron of the 401st Bomb Group of the 8th Air Force. As the barrels of the twin .50-caliber machine guns overheated from his futile attempts to shoot attacking German fighters, as flak burst just beyond the glass and dying men in planes around him screamed into his headset, and as his heart pounded and his hands shook from the fear and the adrenaline, he would bow his head as though in prayer and bring his eye against the frozen eyepiece. Twisting one knob, then another, he would align the reticulated crosshairs on the target. Then, so freighted with helplessness and horror that the passing seconds seemed like days, he would hit the switch that surrendered control of his life and those of the seven men around him to that little black machine.

The target itself had been identified that morning at a pre-dawn briefing in a Quonset hut thick with the smell of cigarettes and coffee. The target always had a name–Schweinfurt, Cologne, Berlin–and a title: ball bearing factory, pillboxes, industrial district. But on the map and in the crosshairs, it was merely an image of a bridge or a crossroads, or the shape of a building. There were no people in sight; just the abstract shapes of targets and then the sudden blooming of explosions as the Badland Bat left a swath of fire across miles of German farms, villages, and towns.

Thirty times over Germany and France between January and June 1944, my father bowed to his bombsight. Looking back, he would tell me that for all the terrors of being fired on by antiaircraft guns and being strafed by German fighters as his bomber flew into and out of target zones, the worst moments were always those seconds when he handed his life over to the Norden–the long moments as he waited for it to tell him to rain death over the countryside.

My father was a young man of intelligence and imagination, and those combat experiences made him brazen. He sneaked off the base the night before D day to meet a girl in a local pub. They also made him cold-hearted. When a rookie crew arrived to replace his hut mates who had died in an earlier raid, my father teased them, saying they’d taken the doomed side of the shelter; they died the next day on their very first mission. But, after four months and 25 missions, the experience began to break his mind. In letters home, the cocky young man who’d circumvented the censors by disguising his number of raids as his birthday (“I am 21 years old today”) found himself toward the end struggling to compose a single coherent sentence (“I can’t seem to keep my mind on one thought anymore.”).

Unlike every second man in the 8th Air Force, my father made it home alive and unhurt. Five years later, he was back overseas, this time on a Pacific island and with a new job in Air Force intelligence. Through another lens–this one shielding his eye with a smoky black filter–he watched purple lightning crackle across the mushroom clouds rising from Eniwetok atoll.

Eighth Air Force  suffered more than 47,000 casualties and more than 26,000 dead in WW2. It’s hard to appreciate the willingness required to “press that attack” and take the losses that WW2 American flyers suffered. Even in the age of drone warfare we may face those days again if our enemies prove as dedicated to their cause as the WW2 Germans and Japanese.

Cold War Baby

My father returned to Germany, and I was a Cold War baby, born in Munich, then a city of vacant lots scraped smooth of the rubble of a once thriving metropolis. It had become a Norden world, with all of us hurtling forward on autopilot over a menacing landscape. Only a few people, like my father as he took the .32-caliber automatic out of the closet and headed for the Czech border, still felt they had some control of their fate.

But soon he lost even that. At the end of the decade we came home. My father found himself closing his military career in Washington, D.C., shuttling back and forth as liaison officer between the war rooms of the Pentagon and the White House, and between the CIA and the FBI. It was a position of enormous responsibility but little control. My father began to sit alone at lunch in the garden of the Hirshhorn Museum to calm himself; on Friday nights he would drink to fend off his sense of the inevitable.

A Nadir in October 1962

He reached his nadir in October 1962. On duty nights, my mother would awaken me at midnight, and we would drive from Falls Church, Virginia, into D.C., me in pajamas and wrapped in a blanket in the back seat. It was usually so lonely and dark that I would sleep the whole way. But this night was unlike any other. Every light in every building on Pennsylvania Avenue and along the Capitol Mall seemed to be on. Yet the streets were eerily empty.

We picked up my father. He usually drove us home, but on this night he was incapable of holding the steering wheel. His voice had a tone I’d never heard before–a tone it probably hadn’t taken in almost 20 years. The Cuban Missile Crisis had begun. Until we arrived, my father had sat alone, in the basement of the Office of Special Investigations before a bank of Teletype code machines, reading with growing horror as they spit out the beginning of the end of the world. The ICBMs armed, Strategic Air Command at fail-safe, airborne divisions kneeling beside runways. He had known as much as anybody on earth about what was unfolding, but he could do nothing about it. The bombsight had taken over. And for hours he sat helpless at ground zero, waiting to die, knowing his family would die as well.

Silicon Valley Had Been Born of War

Suddenly, it was over. Everything seemed to change. Although it was still a Norden world, the target had receded for the moment. My father had almost been a victim. A heart attack a few weeks later nearly killed him. But he survived, retired from the military with honor, and took a job with NASA, heading west with his family to California.

We arrived in Silicon Valley just in time to join the illusion. The Valley had been born of war. Military contracts had built Hewlett-Packard and Varian; the nuclear age had given birth to the Valley’s largest employer, Lockheed Missile and Space. So, too, had defense orders underwritten the success of the Valley’s first modern company, Fairchild Semiconductor. All had grown rich building successive generations of weaponry; they would grow richer yet.

Harry Truman once observed “the only surprises are the history you don’t know.”  Malone recounts some facts that are hiding in plain sight about the origins of Silicon Valley. Radar, radio, and countermeasures–both mechanical and electronic–underwent a rapid evolution to become what was called “electronic warfare.” Starting with World War II efforts and continuing with the Cold War, military R&D funded a considerable amount of engineering effort in Universities and private firms in Silicon Valley.

Valley Turns Away From War, Toward The Department Store

About the time we arrived, in an event all but forgotten even by historians of technology, the Federal Communications Commission announced that all future televisions would offer not only VHF tuners but UHF tuners as well. It was a little event of immeasurable consequences. Chasing million-unit orders, the chip industry for the first time turned away from the bombsight business and toward the department store.

It has never turned back. I remember the day my father brought home a Hewlett-Packard 35 calculatorand pronounced it a miracle. I remember standing in line, with the boys who would later create the personal computer revolution, in the lobby of a NASA building waiting my turn to play Lunar Lander on a computer terminal. I saw the first Atari video game in the hallway of a comedy club down the street from my house. And I walked with my father through a trade show in San Francisco and saw the Apple I, built by two of my neighbors.

America no longer seemed a Norden nation. Our fate was no longer on autopilot. Sometimes we even imagined we were flying the plane. My father cheated death for a quarter century. Each time his heart would fail, some new technology appeared on the scene to save him. He traveled the world, programmed his computer, drank beer, and gave his time to charitable work, acting as though death couldn’t catch him. And when he did die–from a fall off a ladder, not from his scarred old heart–even his death seemed an act of will, not helplessness.

The HP-35 was Hewlett-Packard’s first pocket calculator; it exceeded the numerical accuracy of most mainframe computers available and fit in a shirt pocket.

The Alchemy of Technology and Desire Would Deliver To Us  Of Our Dreams

It was now a willful world, as though an alchemy of technology and desire would deliver to us all of our dreams. Our enemies were less defeated than enlisted into a cybernetic common cause. The autopilot retreated so far into memory that two generations forgot it. We replaced it with nostalgia for the future: the aching desire for that distant, more perfect place we could already imagine, promised to us by our technologies. Our perpetual unhappiness was that we were not there yet, a there that raced ahead from calculators and PCs to bioengineering and nanomachines.

Somewhere, no doubt just ahead, lay the fulfillment of all our desires. The beauty of it was that now, it seemed, anyone could plot his own flight path and pilot his own life.

Modern civilization will require continued sacrifice to prevail. Lee Harris wrote about this in detail in “Civilization and Its Enemies“Forgetfulness occurs when those who have been long accustomed to civilized order can no longer remember a time in which they had to wonder whether their crops would grow to maturity without being stolen or their children sold into slavery by a victorious foe . […] They forget that in time of danger, in the face of the enemy, they must trust and confide in each other, or perish. […] They forget, in short, that there has ever been a category of human experience called the enemy.”

That Prelapsarian Time, Just Ended Yet Long Ago

It was in that prelapsarian time, just ended yet long ago, that I carried the Norden bombsight out to the sunny driveway, past the workmen and the new Jaguar, all of them paid for with overvalued stock options. I set it atop the recycling bin, filled with newspaper headlines about the latest stock market record high: “eBay’s Whitman America’s Richest Woman CEO.” I looked through the eyepiece…and saw nothing. Nothing except a mirror reflection of the brilliant day before me.

Disappointed, I put the device back in its box, another bauble from the bubble, and returned it to the garage, between the old, unread art books and the new, unused porcelain–an evil old black toad forgotten in the shadows.

Late on a Mid-September Afternoon

Then late on a mid-September afternoon I took the box out again. Our family had just returned from church, where we had, with other Silicon Valleyites in the pews around us, wept and prayed for the thousands murdered by terrorists. As I bowed my head, I felt the distant mechanical shudder of the autopilot kicking in once more. Driving home, I could see my neighbors putting out American flags and glancing up nervously at any sound overhead. We put out a flag of our own. Then, without thinking, I went into the garage and brought out the Norden.

I did the same as before, though the day was overcast, and the papers in the new recycling bin carried headlines proclaiming “WAR.” The Norden was dustier and darker than ever. The eyepiece seemed harder and more brittle. Once again, I bowed and put my face to it. Looking through the lens I saw this time what I had missed before. What my father had seen before me.

Silicon Valley and 9-11

I saw my family and home caught squarely in the bombsight’s crosshairs.

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