First-Hand:Project Lamplight narrative corrections


I take issue with many of Captain Boslaugh’s assertions in his narrative of Project Lamplight.  

I am in possession of the entire declassified four-volume final report of Project Lamplight dated 15 March 1955, and in that report all the dates and participants in the study are cited.

Captain Boslaugh seems to have his dates grossly incorrect.  In his narrative, he states that Captain Rawson Bennett was promoted to Rear Admiral and made Chief of Naval Research in 1952.  Admiral Bennett did indeed become Chief of Naval Research, not in 1952 but in 1956, long after the Lamplight project was concluded.  He was preceded by Rear Admiral Frederick R Furth, who held that office from 1953 to 1956, at the time of the Lamplight project. Admiral Furth’s predecessor was Rear Admiral Calvin Matthews Bolster, who was Chief of Naval Research from 1951 to 1953.

There is no mention of Admiral Bennett in any of the Lamplight documents for the simple reason that he did not assume command of the Office of Naval Research until 1956.

On 7 April 1954 the Secretary of the Navy issued a directive to the Chief of Naval Research, Admiral Furth, to form a study group for the purpose of examining the integration of the Air Force SAGE system with a Navy system.  Accordingly, on 12 May 1954 Admiral Furth wrote a letter to Dr. J.R. Killian, President of Massachusetts Institute of Technology requesting participation of MIT and Lincoln Laboratory in a study of  

…the engineering problems associated with the compatibility of the Lincoln transition system with the naval forces extending it seaward and the related mechanization of data handling, and the adequacy of the research and development program to determine whether new elements in technology can be brought to bear on these very difficult problems.

In the third paragraph of Capt. Boslaugh’s report, he claimed that “…in mid 1954 he (Captain Rawson Bennett, at the time commander of the Navy Electronics Lab in San Diego) requested NEL to temporarily reassign Lieutenant Commander Irvin McNally to the Office of Naval Research to serve as the Navy Lamplight project officer.”  The timing of this request is problematic: in mid-1954 (presumably June) the Under-secretary of Defense was just holding preliminary meetings with MIT and ONR to formulate an outline for the proposed study group. Captain Bennett’s request was either rejected or never occurred.  The Lamplight project officer was a senior commander, Gould Hunter, who by the end of the project was promoted to the rank of captain.   McNally’s promotion to full commander would have made him the most junior commander in the navy at the time.  The choice of a junior commander over a widely-respected senior with extensive knowledge of naval radars would have made no sense.  Further reason for the choice of Commander Hunter was that he had been involved from the outset of the project.  He was a member of the Steering Committee that held its initial meeting at MIT on 23 July 1954; he participated in another meeting on 5 and 6 August when the general outline of the project was laid out.  He was chosen for his appointment because of his extensive knowledge and experience in naval radars and related electronics.  Other members of the Steering Committee were senior scientists from MIT, Lincoln Laboratory and the Air Force, as well as others on the scientific staff at ONR/NRL

Much is made in Capt. Boslaugh’s report of Commander McNally’s contribution to the Lamplight project.  The truth is that he was a member of only one of eleven working groups, his being that of data processing.  His other role was as Assistant Project Manager, reporting directly to Commander Hunter.  Other groups studied such massive topics as radar, communications, navigation, counter-countermeasures, aircraft and weapons.  Although a very important aspect of the overall project, data processing was only one segment.  It may well be that Commander McNally made a significant contribution to the data processing discipline as part of the Lamplight project, it was only a part.  Lamplight’s mission was to integrate the Air Force’s SAGE system with a new Navy system to extend the defense of North America seaward, and all the study groups were focused on achieving that goal.  The objective of Lamplight was to integrate radars with data processing to form a cohesive whole with the SAGE system for the defense of North America.  There were many disciplines that contributed to that whole, not least of which were considerations of the military aspects of carrying out what the Final Report refers to as the Remote Air Battle and the Contiguous Air Battle.

In the fourth paragraph, Captain Boslaugh reports that McNally claimed that in September 1954 (at the commencement of the study groups) that “…McNally listened to briefings mainly on SAGE and advanced radar system developments; but very little on radar data automation and virtually no discussion of extending SAGE concepts to sea”. This statement is ludicrous on the face of it.  The core purpose of the Lamplight project was to extend the reach of SAGE to seaward by installing advanced automated radars on ships at sea and aircraft patrolling the Canadian arctic and North Atlantic Ocean.  One of the major study groups was dedicated to radars.  Volume IV, Chapter 16 of the Lamplight Final Report contains the following statement: “By the end of 1953, planning in the Department of Defense had advanced to a stage where the role of the Navy in extending the shore-based air defense capability into the ocean areas had begun to crystallize.”  This makes clear that the fundamental function of a study of the airborne threat of a Soviet attack would be in developing advanced radars in conjunction with digital computers, the latter of which were yet to be realized.  Lamplight made it a point that these were the key components of the defense system to be considered.  For Commander McNally to have minimized the discussion of radars shows that he was ignorant of what was going on in study groups other than his own, that of data processing.

There is yet another potential error in the sub-paragraph titled OPNAV Says: “Tell Us More”. Commander McNally had written a paper that he presented to one of MIT’s senior science representatives, Dr. Jerrold Zacharias, about his concept of downsizing computers aboard ships by use of transistors.  This would be a major change in fundamental architecture from the long-existing use of vacuum tubes, before the advent of magnetic core memory that predominated from about 1955 until semiconductors came into use after about 1975.

The potential error in Captain Boslaugh’s report is that the date of McNally’s paper is not given.  If it was presented to Dr. Zacharias at the time of Lamplight, the Chief of Naval Research could not have been RADM Bennett as Boslaugh asserts.  If the Chief of Naval Research was indeed RADM Bennett, the date would have to have been in 1956 or later.