About Irving Stokes
Irving Stokes received his degree in engineering from the Newark College of Engineering (now the New Jersey Institute of Technology) in 1938. After briefly working for a radio tube manufacturer, he entered the civil service in August 1940, working of the Army. At Ft. Monmouth, he worked on radar development, focusing on radar receivers. He helped developed the American version of IFF (Identification Friend or Foe) and PPI (Plan Position Indicator). He collaborated with other radar labs, including the MIT Rad Lab and the Naval Research Lab. After the war, he joined RCA to work on ICBM early warning systems and the FPS 60. In 1959, he moved to Glendale, California to become chief engineer at Space Electronics Corporation. There he worked on survivable communications and cryptocoding techniques.
The interview begins with a brief description of his education and early work, then moves to his work with radar receivers at Ft. Monmouth. Stokes describes the early work on radar and collaboration with the British. He discusses the development of American IFF systems, based on the British IFF. He describes German attempts to thwart radar and discusses why the Germans never developed radar themselves. He then explains the relationships between the radar lab at Ft. Monmouth and other radar labs in the US. He also discusses the differences between the armed forces' goals in research. He describes American work on captured V2 rockets. He describes his decision to leave Ft Monmouth and move to RCA, where he worked on ICBM detection systems. He also describes his part in developing the trained radar system for Cape Canaveral. He then turns to uses of radar to detect mortars, and returns briefly to his work at RCA.
The interview then focuses on interactions between different research groups during the war and additional differences between the viewpoints of the armed forces. Stokes discusses the differences between automatic systems and human systems. He talks about his move to Space Electronics and his work there with survivable communications and cryptography. Finally, he turns to the nature of the evolution of technology.
About the Interview
IRVING STOKES: An Interview Conducted by William Aspray, IEEE History Center, June 21, 1993
Interview # 165 for the IEEE History Center, The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, Inc.
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It is recommended that this oral history be cited as follows:
Irving Stokes, an oral history conducted in 1993 by William Aspray, IEEE History Center, Piscataway, NJ, USA.
Interview: Irving Stokes
Interviewer: William Aspray
Place: Los Angeles, California
Date: June 21, 1993
This is an interview with Irving Stokes in Los Angeles, California. The date is 21 June, 1993 and the interviewer is William Aspray for the Center for the History of Electrical Engineering of the IEEE.
I got out of school at a very young age as most of us did. I was twenty years old when I got my degree for engineering from the what is now called the New Jersey Institute of Technology it was then called the Newark College of Engineering. It was 1938 and there was a deep recession. As a matter of fact, the president of our college was a graduate of MIT and he was a tough old bird. He got up at our graduation and said about the economy, “One consolation when you get out at the bottom: there is only way to go,” and it was that bad. For us to go out and get jobs at that time was rough. I was a very energetic, pushy kind of a guy and wrote letters all over the place. I did finally get a job with a radio tube manufacturing company.
You were trained in electrical?
Well we went into a school that was largely a power engineering outfit. But a group of us were not about to have that. So we were really instrumental in pushing the school very heavily and with a great lead into the electronic direction. I had already decided electronics was the way to go because to me as a kid, electronics was a way of having a small energy control large amounts of energy, which of course that’s what it was. So I got involved and went to a radio tube company for a couple of years.
Ft. Monmouth and Radar
Then I took a civil service job and was interviewed in Fort Monmouth by some people: one was Paul Watson. Another who was a captain or corporal, but later on became General, was Rex Van Dankler. He moved up through the war. They wouldn’t tell me exactly what they were working on. As a matter of fact, the secrecy was very high. This was about August, 1940. They sent me out to a desolate piece of land that was called Sandy Hook, you may have heard of it, it has Fort Hancock at the end. They were doing their work in some large shelters half way out on that seven mile spit of land with pillboxes at the entrance and guys with guns showing through and the rest of all that good stuff. It took us six months to even get a clearance high enough to even find out what we were working on. At that time it was not called Radar, it was called RPF (Radio Position Finding); it differentiated from Radio Direction Finding. There were a whole bunch of dedicated guys working there whom they were bringing in. There was a fairly heavy influx of some new people because of this sense of what was going on in Europe. After that, I got in. I was a young kid and I was a hands on engineer; I liked the soldering iron.
I got in initially on the radar receivers and we were developing two radars in there at the time, one was a radar called SCR100 which was a long range search radar. One of these detected the incoming raid at Pearl Harbor but it was totally ignored. And the other was a SCR268, which was labeled a search light radar. That was about at 200 megahertz and the other was at 100 megahertz. I was very active on the latter one more than the former, because the former would act on the latter. The method for using the SCR268 would be to pick up the airplanes at night and to lock the radar onto a search light through an already developed gun director which really performed the mathematical function of taking the data out of the radar, out of the range, and the angle data at the radar and aiming the search light in that direction. At the appropriate moment when they knew that the range was proper they would suddenly turn on the searchlight and I guess one of the things it did was illuminate the airplane and cause the pilot and have problems with vision at night. And the other is that they would then direct at the aircraft fire on it.
It was a very exciting time, and I had just come in after a very key action had taken place where some senators were invited in. The lab was asking for a lot of financial support from Congress. Some congressmen had come in to see this wonder. Remember no one knew what this was, this wasn’t demonstrated yet. As I remember, the story told to me was, as the congressmen were coming through the gate of the development site there, the radar failed. And of course there was a lot of screwing around and just at the last minute they got it going, then they tracked and they had one of the senators push the button on the searchlight. Lo and behold there was this airplane sitting in the center. I tell you this, the funding of radar development in this country was hanging on that kind of a thin thread. Which is kind of ridiculous. So that was sort of exciting.
Beyond that we were working at this place, and it was a rough place, and we were using a couple of targets to measure the effect of this radar. One was a Coney Island gas tank, which was across the water from there and the other was the Empire State Building. These were very well known points on the range scale of the oscilloscope and by looking at its magnitude, it’s signal to noise ratio we could tell whether the radar was tuned up properly or not. Initially Western Electric were manufacturing these and they would pack them up and ship them down to Sandy Hook, we would have to take them apart, get them going and then check that they were satisfactorily working — that was the production technique which was slow and cumbersome. Well I was fortunate; I was put in charge as time went on, of the radar receiver section (or whatever it was). We made a very significant change, a change in the receiver sensitivity to a marked degree, significant enough that every radar would pass if they made it; and they did make that change. From then on it was all manufactured and shipped right out.
What was that change?
It was just a change on the front end of the receiver. It was changing a component, I don't know what it was anymore, but it made the difference in the front end of the sensitivity of the receiver enough that from then on it was OK.
Growth During Wartime
About that time, we started getting an influx of a lot of people. I don't know if it was before or after Pearl Harbor. As you know it was probably right after it, because there was a peak in interest then. I was still a hands-on engineer and I was young, and I still felt that I had a way to go to develop my skills in the research and development, then, of the business. My bosses started putting a lot of people into my group, I started growing and I found that I was spending so much time on management and being pulled away from the technical stuff that I complained. I have actually had an argument with my boss, I said, "I want to be an engineer, I don't want to be a manager yet, and he said, "But you can do that." I remember talking to one of them, Jack Slattery, who is one of the names you may have heard in the field and I said, "I really don't like the business of having to correct my employees, to reprimand them, and to sometimes kick them out of the group." He said, "It really bothers you to do that, doesn't it?" I said, "Absolutely," and so he looks me right in the eye and said, "Would you rather I gave the job to someone who didn't give a damn?" And so from then on I started letting it grow and it grew and grew.
British Radar and Dr. Kenneth Button
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To skip a lot, we did many projects, some were ad hoc, and I was getting into things like that. One night I remember my boss handed me a pile of drawings and said, "This radar is coming in from England tomorrow morning, be ready to set it up and examine it." I didn't know it was coming with a scientist, I thought it was just coming. So I spent all night preparing myself for the next day. It turns out that it was the first British GCI set up, Ground Control Intercept, it also turned out fortunately that even though I had spent that time there were language differences. We speak about grounding our circuits and they say "earth," and we speak about shorting out the interlocks and they "forced" the interlocks. Well it turns out that they sent it with Dr. Kenneth G. Button, who was a don at Cambridge University at St. Johns. He is also well known in the field, and has written some outstanding books and propagation, and he is still functioning out of Cambridge. He came in and together we set this thing up in Lakehurst, New Jersey, and ran the tests. Together we proceeded to set up an American specification version of it and get it built. It was clearly a product of a country that had been suddenly thrown into a position of defending itself and had put together the set however it could. Dr. Button spoke of sealing wax and paper clips and what we were turning out obviously was a good old fashioned American version of manufacturing techniques. It was a key set in the British Defense Operation, in the sense that they were using this to direct the very limited fighter complement to the incoming German raids at night, very successfully by the way.
By the way it was crude, I won't describe here, if you want to I will, but it was crude beyond belief really, but anyway it worked. At one point the British would latch onto the German bombers and vector the fighters up within a couple of miles of the tail of the bomber. Then the fighter would have an airborne intercept radar called AIR, which they called The Instrument, and at the appropriate time code the guy at the ground would say "flash your instrument." When he turned it on, he would see the target on the radar which was displayed as a pair of wings on a vertical line with zero range at the bottom and the wings would slowly come down that line and get larger and larger. At some point he would gun his engine and at the last instant literally see the exhaust from the bomber and shoot them out of the sky. The Germans didn't know what was going on. I found out later they had not decided not to develop radar because of Hitler's edict. Anyway that was the way that thing worked and we did our own thing on that. Later on someone came over and once again I got tagged, I was getting tagged a lot because my boss had the idea that I was a pretty good engineer: I was energetic, cocky, aggressive.
Identification Friend or Foe System
So someone came over describing the British IFF system and all of this was for reasons for us to get in and begin to change their meager output to something a lot stronger. Don't forget we starting to come into the war too. He described the IFF system, Identification Friend or Foe. I ended up being the U.S. Army IFF man in the country, which meant that I had to do the development, get it manufactured and attach the design the interface between these and every radar that was around. It was a good trick, you had to know your radar, the IFF, how to display it, know where to get your sources of synchronization and so on so the pulses went out at the proper time and it would display properly with the radar and stay fixed not move around. Are you with me? You would have a PPI display, Plant Position Indicator, you would have an "A" type display, and have a "B" type display and all these different displays, in each case you had to decide what was the best way to identify the friendly target on all the targets on the screen. We were just doing things at ad hoc. It was an exciting time because everyday I would meet people. Paul Watson was head of the lab, and he said, "OK Stokes. What did you invent today?" And it wasn't that far-fetched because the chances are that we had discovered a new concept each day, it was moving that fast.
When I think about it we were doing work for airborne radar at that time, even this ground control intercept when the Germans decided that they were going to fox the British by bringing in a little ray in one direction, feign in one direction and then bring in the big ray in another direction. The operators on the radar determined that there was a distinct difference between the little rays and the big rays and they came up with some empirical formula that if you counted the number of peaks, multiplied by three you would end up with a pretty good estimate of the size of the ray. So they were not just going after the small ray, they were just going after the big ray. All of these were significant in the processed. If I may jump to the Germans after the war, I met one out here at Point Magoo, a German scientist, I said, "Tell me something." You know one's anger is out of the system at that point. "You guys were no slouches technically, why were you so far behind us in radar?" And he came out with an epithet and he said, "It was that guy Hitler who did it," because Hitler decided one, they were never going to fight a defensive war, and he was wrong; and two, that radar was only a defensive device and he was wrong there too. So the bulk of what scientific capability had was directed more toward things like the V2 and the V1 and so forth. We did get involved with that later on, because I was also advisor to Werner Von Braun when he was launching the satellite in this country on the radar.
Let's wait on that one.
OK, that's later.
Fort Monmouth and MIT Rad Lab
What was the relationship between Fort Monmouth and some of the other players in radar?
OK. I did get to be the head of radar at Fort Monmouth at one point, I was chief of radar branch. We interfaced fairly heavily with MIT with Rad Lab. It was good, friendly relationship. It was a friendly rivalry relationship; we didn't always agree but we could actually handle it on a rational basis. We could talk about it and come up with answers. We worked very well with them, I knew very many of them, I remember meeting Dr. I.I. Rabi and a few of this ilk. I worked more with people like Dr. Marcus O'Day who was in the IFF then, and I also got to be in charge of designing transponder beacons to go into missiles. Dr. Roberts was on transponders at Rad Lab and O'Day was on IFF at Rad Lab, and there were some of the radar types and so forth. We worked with them through a lot of years, even to the point where we were developing anti-aircraft defense systems, large systems. As I remember Baltimore and Washington have all radar all around it, have anti-aircraft missiles that you wanted to direct, you had to have early warnings and acquisition raiders, then you had to have missile and so forth. We worked with them on that. We had a basic difference in philosophy there but it was not destructive.
Can you characterize that difference?
Yes. It was a question whether it was going to be a point or an area defense approach to this defense mechanism. I just wanted to say Dr. George Valley was up there and Hill was the head and Valley was next. I remember it was terrain features of Hill, Valley and Forester! Forester was sort of their big computer guy. And they were going to solve all the problems with a massive computer capability. I really had trouble remembering whether we were thinking more to the point that it wasn't that important. The Valley was asked to talk to a bunch of generals and I give him so much credit for this. The generals were hanging on his every word, as you know, the oracle and he had a sense of responsibly when he got up, he said, "Gentlemen. Scientists, just like all the rest of the people, start out with their own personal scientific prejudice and then bring all the scientific facts to bear to prove it. We are in the same position here." Which immediately put them on notice that because they were talking to him or him or him, they still had a decision to make based on their knowledge of their particular field. You know he didn't have to do that, I thought it was a highly professional approach. Other people we dealt with, other outfits. . Well, of course the Naval Research Lab was involved.
Just one moment. What was the division labor or difference in mission between Rad Lab and Fort Monmouth?
I suppose it was the source. I have to pull back a little bit. Rad Lab would get their tasks from almost any one number of sources; it could be Air Force, Navy or Army and so forth. We were exclusively an Army facility, so we were tied in primarily with Army needs. So there were things that we worked on that Rad Lab never got to do. For instance, they were certainly not interested in personnel detection at the guard level, they weren't as interested as we were in identification of jeeps and tanks and so forth and countering tanks. I was involved in the navigation of tanks on desert land because we were doing a lot desert warfare, and tanks would get lost, and I had to develop a navigation system for tanks so that they wouldn't get lost that they could rendezvous. We in the Army had surveying problems that had to do with registering for guns and so forth, and missiles too, so they had a reference point from which they were shooting in connection with their mapping. Doing it by the old technique was too cumbersome and too dangerous. So we were developing and did develop some of the first electronic position measuring and range measuring and surveying devices in their records. The Army had already developed the facsimile machine that was being used to send map information from one point to the other. Now look at how they have proliferated. But those you had to carry in the tank practically because they were big and heavy and there was not the compact type that was developed later on. So the Rad Lab's mission came from several sources and they answered to a higher point in the government then the Army did. The Army went up through its generals up to the head of the Army and then ultimately up there, but Rad Lab was a collection of outstanding men, scientists who were not necessarily even electronics experts or even engineers at all.
I remember one of the outstanding developers of Radar range circuits was a biologist. He was terrifically good and I remember his name was Britton Chance, I think he later developed electronic methods for searching inside the body for heart defects and that stuff. So he went on to use it but a lot of the stuff he learned I believe in that process.
What about the staffing at Fort Monmouth? Did they bring in scientists and engineers from around the country the way that Rad Lab did?
Not as well. They were not as competitive because they had kept trying to up the pay scales. The pay scales were limited by congressional action. In those days it was just as hard to change the government as it is today. So that was one of the limitations. Initially, they were ahead because they were doing work that didn't require a profit motive. They were doing work because it was necessary, later on the various companies started getting in then it became a profit source. Rad Lab was created on a massive scale, almost like a Manhattan Project concept, and so they had the pick of the cream of the crop. We were in position of having to entice good people in on the basis that they would be able to work on things that they liked, that they would be able to learn in the process. By the way there was one thing that I can say quite definitely, at that point the government was ahead of many of the people industry. Good guys were in government and the ones they had gotten in there were enjoying doing the work. Of course, after the war, I left after that. I found I couldn't stay in the bureaucracy. As I said to the general, "I can't stand the day-to-day frustrations and the week-to-week frustrations, the month-to-month, year-to-year and decade-to-decade, so I quit and that's when I left and joined RCA. By the way, one of the key things that I feel very proud of and that is where Dave comes in...
Guided Missile Test Range Instrumentation
Dave Barton. I was in charge of range instrumentation. I was providing radar to the White Sands proving round; by the way the first V2s were assembled there from captured parts in Germany. And Werner Von Braun and his group were down there and I was bringing radar some track and this line was always providing some transponders to go into the missiles, so you just would have to skin track. You can get on a decent signal and we were developing safety devices too for being able to cut it out of the sky if we knew we were going in the wrong direction. You'll notice to this day there has been no real dangerous loss of missile in any of the sights that I know of. The reason being that the safety devices, the systems were very effective. Anyway it was somewhere along the way I decided that the range instrumentation of radars was inadequate, we were taking old gone lane radars, the SCR 584 developed the Rad Lab and modifying them for use in ranges in questions. There were a lot of modifications that were necessary like to make a skin track, as well as beacon track to be able to put other kinds of devices and there was a compact set, it was made to be mobile.
So I got together a group, which included David Barton and R. Lee Bailey from England. He was over on the exchange scientist basis, we sent one of our engineers over there and he came over here. Ozzie Covington was later involved on lunar projects, but was then involved with that and missile test ranges and a few others. I asked him to come up with a specification, no holds barred, of what is the best radar that you would design for guided missile test range instrumentation. In the laboratory, you want to have precision that is about ten times the accuracy of the device that you are testing, so we were really asking ourselves to do a real rough job because the missile guiding systems were pretty good. Anyway they came out with a specification for what later became known as the FPS 6. It called for accuracies in the order of one-tenth of mile, which if you know anything about radar was unheard of and it called for a lot of other features that I don't have go into here, you could probably find out what it was. Anyway we set it up and I was going to go ahead and develop it, and I had three vice-presidents telling me I couldn't do it. One was a vice president of Bell Labs, the other of GE, and the other was Sperry Gyroscope. They were nice guys, they were my friends. And I told you I was a banty rooster, a cocky guy, I said, "Well I am going to do it anyway."
Why did they say that you couldn't do it?
Well the guy from Sperry said you couldn't get the power out of the Sperry klystron. Well I talk to the klystron guys and they were going to give me the power and I know they had proven it. I think there was more politics more involved than anything else. And the other guys were not hands-on engineers, I think they had gone the route of becoming executives and they had gotten away from it. They didn't think I could do it and so forth.
Radar Work at RCA
It was on technical grounds presumably.
I think so, presumably. But obviously not thought out because we did go ahead and by the way I was becoming unenamored of being in the government. I had been there for fourteen years and I was really frustrated. Headhunters contacted me and it turned out that RCA in Morristown, missile and service radar, wanted me to come and work for them. Incidentally, they had won the contract for the development of this particular radar. They wanted me to come and head it. It was an agonizing thing because I had personal reasons why I didn't want move from where I was, but I decided to go. So I was the guy in charge of the development of the FPS60. Well to make a long story short, we met the tenth of the Mile. Dave Barton who I finally hired and brought down there too was on the systems part of it. We got a bunch of top notch engineers, absolutely tops. We came out with a set that actually achieved seven hundredths of a Mile when they got around.. Remember the British came down, they were looking for a couple sets for Australia, and at first they were sort of sneering, "How could you get that?" Later on, how do you know? Dave and I were there and we showed them some of our data and we proved that we had done it. They were going up to Canada apparently: they were doing a tour to decide whether they were going to buy these sets. They asked them to come back to RCA and talk to us and they did. When they came back, the attitude had changed one hundred and eighty degrees, it wasn't "how do you know" it was "how did you do that?" They ended up by buying two of them. I was selling about million dollars a throw and that was no small potatoes for them.
This was what year?
I would say around 1957 or 1958, around there. Two of them are now at a test range in Australia. Eleven of them are at Point Magoo.
Then we also developed, while I was still in the Signal Corps, we developed a trained radar system that we designed for Cape Canaveral. We put a radar in the mainland and then down on the island and we put others. We had to put an acquisition system and sent data down there so that each one could sequentially pick this thing up and track it and not lose it. I think we even had one on Ascension Island, which was way out there. I was the guy in charge of the Fort that was called the "joint long range proving ground". This was a common effort by the Army, Navy and Air Force. They decided to put the development of this thing in my lab up there at the Signal Corps. I got a bunch of guys in there from the Navy and the Air Force. We worked very well. I tended to try to avoid the attitude of "them and us." Maybe I was naive, but I sort of felt the thing to fight was the technical problem and not the personnel problem. It worked very well. That's one of the things that you could have seen. I was the sole civilian at one time with a bunch of military including the Chief Signal Officer. We went down to Cocoa Beach, we went in that area and kicked the sand and then went over to talk with her Majesty's governor of the Grand Bahamas Islands to get permission to put these things in and so forth. That was one of the things that got developed.
In the process I hasten to add, we developed ways in which we could do digital data processing. See a lot of people today say, "Well, gee. You didn't have digital computers at that time." Of course we did. When I was still a kid just out of school and making radio tubes, IBM came to us at Tung-Sol and asked us to develop a more reliable vacuum tube which would be reliable in the sense of being over-designed, so they wouldn't have as many as failures. So the digital computer was around, now I am talking about 1938 or 1939. We were using a lot of that during that time period, we were doing some unusual things. By the way we had an array of personnel detection radar that could detect the difference between a male and a female soldier. I hasten to add the reason for that is we had a reference frequency, we sent it out, it bounced off the target, came back, we mixed the two and listened to the difference. It turned out the swish of the skirt was very distinctive in the headset. That was pretty good; we wanted that to avoid infiltration by enemy soldiers. I am jumping around a little bit.
Anti-Mortar Radar Systems
The Korean War started up and we were told by the military that mortars were causing the greatest number of both fatalities and injuries. Could we develop a radar to counter the mortar threat? We did, we developed two of them and they effectively countered it because they became so good. You know firing a mortar you have to fire three shots. One is usually under or over, the other is over under, and then you fire for effect. We were detecting the location of that motor after the first shot, which meant we could now fire back. As soon as they knew that we were destroying their ability to do the three shots, they had to just fire and run. It worked. There were two types of sets, we had one which was a precision tracking set that would pick up the target at a low angle, track it for a short time, and then extrapolate back to the launch point. The other was a higher frequency dual beam that we swept back and forth and we would pick up the shell as it went through each beam and then do a straight line extrapolation because it's close enough to the ground.
The reason I raise this is that it drives me nuts to find that when we were fighting the Iraqi battle and they were fighting that dumb missile they were firing there, the same technique I believe would have worked. I never heard anybody talk about it or do it. What we did was we were firing at the thing after it had almost achieved its terminal velocity, at which point it is much harder to hit than to catch, and then knocking it out is no good because the pieces fall all over the place. To this day it is frustrating for guys who had been in it. We could have just gone and knocked them out, we really could have gone right back at the launcher immediately and why they didn't do it, I don't know. I am not even motivated to go knocking on doors anymore, you go crazy with this business, so I let it go. So these are the sorts of things that went on. We got involved with mine laying, helping with mining, and precision laying of mines in harbors. We got involved with anti-submarine detection of periscopes, when they stuck up.
These were things while you were at the Signal Corps?
ICBM Warning Systems
Yes. Once I left the Signal Corps, I was with RCA. I started out with the instrumentation for precision tracking ranges. It got to the point where RCA down there wanted a ballistic missile early warning system in the competition. They put all of the other projects in RCA under me, including the precision tracking radar for the ballistic missile early warnings. I got to be a big shot down there, right? It was a lot of work; we were doing some very exciting stuff as part of the many projects there, including a ship fire control system. It included a very high power transmitter for use in detecting incoming intercontinental ballistic missiles, including a down range anti-missile program which included equipping a ship with a lot of different detectors, going out in the ocean and detecting a purposely fired intercontinental ballistic missile to see if we could find one of the back scattering characteristics of the nose cone, plus any other thing that we might find, to be able to do a rapid counter attack. I don't know what else.
Well we were involved with the Rebecca Eureka system, which was a parachute reinforcement. The parachuters would go in and set this thing up, and we would come in and reinforce with people or send them supplies and so on.
May I ask you a few questions?
Wartime Work with Other Labs
I interrupted you before when you were telling me about the other groups that you interacted with during the war beside Rad Lab. What were some of the other ones?
The Naval Research Lab. We had a very friendly relationship. They had Dr. Claude Cleaton who was head of IFF over there. The head of lab, this escapes me now, who vied with Sir Watson Watt as being the inventor of radar. I have an attitude about that, by the way, I find that all inventions that I know of occur when all of the technology necessary to complete the invention is provided. Then you have a simultaneous set of....
Exactly. The NRL and the Army was doing early radar but I think that it is sterile to worry about who did it first. The question is, "What did you do with it and how fast did you do it?" I later became a consultant to NRL, in one of my later activities in radar. By the way a new IFF system was being developed that isn't even used that way anymore, it is now used as the Navigational Systems used at all of your airports. The omni range system and the distance measuring equipment. But it was under the aegis of the British and the Americans, and all of the military components: the Air Force, the Army, the Navy. This was located at NRL and that is what is being used right now. So much of the technology has at present come to light. Who else beside NRL and the Air Force, ARL (Airborne Research Lab) out in Dayton, Ohio was another interface. The British who were pretty heavily involved with the British all at levels. There was the scientific community in the United States in general. I remember giving a talk, I was head of radar and asked to give a talk on the marriage of infrared and radar. At the last minute someone came up to me and said that they has been a new member to the audience and it turned out it was Vannevar Bush. It was a bubbly time and it was time when anything could happen. I remember explaining radar to McCarthy and his lawyer, whatever his name was, who has since died. They were in our lab and they proceeded to wreck the lab because of their investigations but they came in. I was also heavily involved with universities. I remember University of Michigan, outstanding guys there: Kip Siegel went on to form his own company and get to be filthy rich, I think he has gone now. We dealt with the University of Illinois, Rad Lab of course, the University of Michigan, doing some work with Stanford.
Oh very heavily with Bell Labs, certainly, Whippany, Holmdel. There was a broad desire to get together on key problems. For example, when the intercontinental ballistic area time came up, I remember we attended a central conference, I was there, all the other people were there. The big problem was, "How do we solve this?" I did some work for the atomic energy commission and I didn't know who they were at that time but they wanted some work done which I think is not classified now, to precisely control the arrival at one point of two pulses. I could now put it together and I don't know for sure that this had to with driving critical masses together. So we did develop it and we were satisfied and I collected all of the papers that we had and if they could perform the frontal lobotomy, I think they would have done that. They went away and that was the last that we heard of them.
Was there anyone taking responsibility for trying to coordinate all these different centers of activity?
Not that they were that noticeable, if they did . . . I was at the working level, I was not that much at the policy level. But there were various Washington groups, for instance, there was a proliferation of radio tube types which was very bad because the differences were insignificant but to manufacture them, but to produce them was very cumbersome. They formed a research and development board. It was a facility and they had a panel on electronic tubes that finally got together and took some three hundred different types and it worked down beyond a very small number, which increased our efficiency. But the reasons for using the tubes were absolutely foolish, they were silly. We had various groups of the board; we had a radar group on the board, which was attended by all of the operators on it. If you are looking for the IRE in that or the American Institute of Electrical Engineers or the IEEE. You were in classified stuff and I think that was one of the inhibitors in that one. As you know they were central for advanced papers, advanced conceptions.
I would have expected it to be a government . . .
I think it was the same guys, the point that didn't change was that a creative guy was a creative guy. And whether he was doing his work under the name of IEEE or Research and Development Board or whatever it was, yes of course were these coordinations going on. I was member of some of them. And even within each of the subdivisions: Army, Navy, Air Force, had their own groups of get together and combine this technology. So there was a lot of that.
Differences among Armed Forces
Did the Navy see radar as one kind of thing that was useful in a particular way and did the Army see it as another?
Well one, obviously the problems were different. The things that had to be solved on a ship that is moving or a ship that is trying to work against a submarine or a ship that is trying to navigate using electronic navigation techniques is a different problem from a guy sloshing through the mud. Being earth bound and having to find his way and having to find the enemy and having to shoot the enemy effectively and so forth. The differences were in the types of problems that were being solved. Beyond that the interface was good enough that we would frequently get involved in each others work. I remember when I was in the early IFF and we were developing an Americanized IFF system which didn't come to fruition and I ended up being on the aircraft carrier Hornet with my Navy and Air Force colleagues because we were all interested in solving the same problem for all of the same services.
So there were common problems in that sense and they were recognized very quickly and by the way that particular aircraft carrier was the one used by Jimmy Doolittle in his B-25 raid on Tokyo. They sunk it not too long after that; there was a sister ship. I spent three or four days on that, in my effects I have a dismissal from Admiral Mark A. Mitcher, who was the commanding officer. I would say, I don't know why this was, but the colleagues that I dealt with was almost a brotherhood of people who were together to solve these problems of the military. I don't think any of us got into any political ramifications. As far as technical? Gee, if we had anything that would help somebody else of course, we opened it up to them and gave it to them. I don't think it was an organized thing.
As you know there's many points of view as there are people, especially if they're strong minded. I think for example, not in radar but in instrumentation of the strong handed role that Charles Draper took in saying, "Instrumentation is done this way and not that way."
Argument over IFF Radar Frequency
Was there that point of view in radar?
The biggest battle that way I remember was in the development of this combined IFF, Mark 5, Universal beaconry system. The British had picked a frequency that Rad Lab and the rest of the Americans felt was a bad frequency. It was in the "L" band somewhere in the 1,200 megahertz region, which was (if I may say so) a bastard frequency, it was too high for any common radio tube type. It wouldn't go for triodes and so forth. It was a little too low on frequency for magnetrons and klystrons because the structure was getting too big. We were trying to pitch X band to get up there in 10,000 megahertz region. Dr. O'Day, Dr. Cleaton and I were together on that and so forth. The British came in with a very strong political push and won. Sir Watson Watt got into the act and they may have had the King in there for all I know or the queen or whoever was there. The decision was made at a non-technical level and I kicked and screamed but that was the sort of thing was decided. Bing! And that's the way it went.
Automatic Systems vs. Stressed Humans
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Were there others? Yes. There were. This defense system, the point versus the area defense system was a case in point. The Navy had a point defense problem, they had to defend their ships or their fleet. Their approach later on when we got a lot more sophisticated, I think Bell Labs was in this thing fairly heavily too, because things were now happening so fast. You had jets and you had missiles and there was no longer the time to keep a man as a link of a system very much. That automaticity was picking up very heavily and I remember being at a demonstration at Bell Labs on a ship defense system. Now what's an Army scientist doing there, right? Because that's the way we were. It could be used all the way and then someone invited me, I don't remember how or where. But you got there and this man, very sharp guy was trying to describe how the system would make decisions on which target to engage. As he went, he says, "Then it will do thus and so," and it did something else, and he went back and said, "Of course, the system was right."
What came out of that was the fact that the human under stress, the group to talk to in this case, can make errors that a properly designed and built automatic system does not make. I remember talking to Stew something or other, anyway it doesn't matter, at Bell Labs and he said that they wanted to test their system, they wanted to test the concept of the system. This is very interesting. What they did was they had a central switchboard at Whippany, one of their lab centers. What they had was this call would come in and they would have a lady sitting there, taking the call, punching a plug into the proper thing and ringing that guy. Everything was fine orderly, so what they wanted to see was what this system did under super overload stress. They had a deal where at one point they would page a certain individual in the lab and that was a signal for everybody to go and pick up his phone at the same time. They wanted to see what the operator would do. Well, she's going along, someone was watching her and all of sudden the whole switchboard lit up, she took one look, grabbed her handbag, ran into the ladies room, broke down and cried. The reason he told that story, he says we want to design our systems so that they don't break down and cry. What that meant was, even under overload the system had to make decisions still and continue to attack those targets that were the greatest threat. The greatest threat had to do with the direction of the target relative to you, speed of the enemy relative to you, whether it was a bomber or a fighter made a big difference and so forth. So all of these things went into the hopper of the decision making process and the system would then decide, you have to engage it and kick out the missiles in that direction. That was going on then, and we were all there.
Recruitment to Space Electronics Corp.
We were all invited to these things. When Bell Labs announced the invention of the transistor, I was invited and I'd look around and who's who in science was sitting in there. This just kept going on, there was someone worrying about seeing that we all got to know about it. Who they were, I don't know. I didn't really get to or even want to be, I still wouldn't want to be at the level. It's useful, I am not denigrating by any stretch but I always wanted to be close to the hardware end. I had to stop being that because later on to continue my own deal, I stayed at RCA until 1959, and then had a chap walk in from... I had been providing radar to JPL for their sergeant and corporal missile program. I got to know a chap, a very outstanding guy from there, Frank Lehan, and he came to visit me at RCA. He wanted RCA to do a development because he was in a key position at Thomson Ramo Wooldridge. I had not been there long enough to have had my clearance transferred, so I wasn't in that meeting. Later on, I took him home, I knew him we had been on the advisory committee on the Hook missile, advisory to the Army chief of ordinance. We had worked together during that time, we got to know each other. So he came in and we were riding down to my house to have dinner. He looked at me and said, "Irv, we just started a new company in California. The president is James C. Fletcher." Whom I didn't know at that time because, as you know, he headed up NASA...
Frank was the executive vice-president. He said, "We need a chief engineer. Will you come?" I am taking a deep breath, I had been at RCA now a bit. He said, "We will double your salary and give you stock options." I tell you the truth, I didn't know what a stock option was. I was a naive guy. So I said, "Well, that's a big step, I'll have to talk to the family." We finally went out, we looked at it, and they had only been in business one year. I mentioned Fletcher, and I went out to be their chief engineer and that was in Glendale, California. So later on we got bought out by Aero Jet General and became Space General. That was Space Electronics Corporation, not Space General. I got to be vice-president of engineering there and we were doing some very exciting work. I would say that we had some of the geniuses of the country reporting to me in there. So we were into things like survivable communication, we were burying antennas below the earth, and launching radio wave from down below the earth so we can harden it. We were involved in telemetry systems that were much more sensitive than anything that developed before. We were involved in cryptographic coding techniques so that you could launch your massive retaliatory capability without the other guy being able to do it or keep you from doing it.
As a matter of fact, one guy was in there and he had an idea for a computer based on the model of the brain, where instead of connecting individual bits and pieces of devices, you actually tried to do more like the natural brain does, which is like cells that you bunch together in a container with a proper fluid and I won't go into all the details of it, and then you program this thing to behave in a certain way. This was really remarkable stuff, it was during that time period that I was involved with guys who were doing voice analysis, sound analysis, one of the things to worry about then was that if the president issued an order to launch the missiles that it was not under duress. So one of the things looked for was a change in the voice pattern whether he was under duress or not. You are looking quizzically at me.
No, it's just a little bit of sun.
No, so help me, this is the sort of thing. I remember saying, as a matter of fact, we don't know how to run the test on that, I won't tell you here but I told them what I thought would be a good test to see what is change in pattern under a stressful situation. What I guess I am trying to tell you, is it was an effervescent period in science. Someone recently asked me, whether I thought that the tremendous advances in science from the time we got into it in my period was something that was unique in terms of what will happen from here on out? And like all technical questions, there are many answers. I hesitated but fortunately I have a cousin who is a professor at Cal Tech, in the field of nuclear chemistry and is doing some massive work with large computers. He said, "Let Aaron answer that, he is closer to it, he is in it now." The answer I think came out, with the advent of things like the computers and things like the new technology well indeed advances will continue and everybody agreed that it was an "E" curve and that things are going up pretty rapidly. I have my own feeling that it is going to level off, not because of the limits of science but because of the limits of people and that's what I think is going to the limit. These people are going to get to the point where they'll say we don't want anymore, we can't stand it, we are too uncomfortable with it. We don't want all these better ways of communication, we don't want all these better ways of generating pieces of paper, we don't want books that have to be banged out of computers because the knowledge is changing so fast. I think there is going to be a rebellion just because people don't like step functions in their lives. Anyway I don't know if we had covered the sort of thing that you would want. Obviously there is a lot of detail I have skipped.
Foundational Achievements in Science
Maybe you can give me a larger picture in a way. We are writing a book on all of electrical technology since 1850 and so you have to make a lot of choices. There will be two or three chapters on radar in this book, probably. So what are the things that have to be in there?
Let me give you a general answer first, if I may. When I was in RCA I was in a little bit of a political battle with the people in one part of our company who developed transmitters. We were working on a particular type of transmitter, specifically useful for radar and radar systems. In order to bolster my argument to this very tough VP in another part of the operation, he was almost like executive VP, reporting way up top. I showed how certain things started in this organization small, whether it is radar or a transmitter or a receiver or whatever, and developed into a complete system and a whole line by building as building blocks on that base. In other words it turned out retrospect that that was a foundation block. Not many humans can look at something today and say that's going to be the foundation block into the future. You have the advantage in the historical sense of knowing which of those things developed into important blocks, I would say on the broad look of your history of science it may be nice to talk about those things that started and fell by the wayside and didn't do anybody any good, but I think for someone who is really interested in history, the nice thing is to show how little things started here and ended up in very important meaningful things to the human as a whole. So that's your help there.
In radar once again I would say the same thing, I don't care where the chips fall. All I think you have to pick out of that are those things that made the big difference in what happened to radar. Some of the things that happened to radar might say ended up by permitting you to be able to cook your food in the microwave oven. Part of that was the advent of the magnetron, which was a way of getting very high frequencies and high powers for the use in radar. At that time I got involved in sponsoring such a tube because the radar guys were rich and they were getting all of the money and the tube guys had trouble getting it and they would come and say, "Irv, this head of radar would respond," and sure. So these are the things that you want to look at. You want to look at the things, like the transistor everybody knows, solid state devices everybody knows, sensitive detection devices that would later end up. For instance of many of the things that they are using in medicine today. It started out with something that wasn't even involved with medicine. I am sure that if you go far enough and if you are wise enough in how you pick you will find out that leading to the DNA analysis came from the ability to be able to look at things in electron microscopes. So I think that's what you have to choose and I am not an historian, I wouldn't know how to do that. I would say, radar ended up with a series of threads.... One you touched on was the organizational concept, very important, and there you will get a description that will vary with each guy you talk to. I like to take a more general attitude and say that they were all essential because it kept you from getting into a rut at any one place. The fact that it was being applied in so many places ended up with technology that was applicable in other places, so that's the sort of thing that you have to do in picking your thread.
The fact that they developed the radar that detected the raid on Pearl Harbor may have some historical significance. The fact that Winston Churchill said it saved Britain is very exciting. I think you have to get that in because people do get excited by that. How these people started and put it together, how it first came about, how they first determined that a display of a certain type was going to give you your data in a way that the human can absorb most easily and respond most readily is I think important. Maybe the problem is that people reading this, and fortunately your audience will be sophisticated, people reading this will understand that but you can get yourself off in a direction of trying "to sex the thing up" for the general public. Or you can say, "Look at how interesting this was. We started out with something we had no way of knowing was going to lead there and look at where it lead to." What I would take in radar would be the fact that you started out first with the ability to just bounce signals off a target. You see originally, Dr. Taylor of NRL, that was the name I was trying to get. Originally as I understand the story, he had a transmitter on one side of the river and a receiver on the other. You know about that?
I know the story.
New Applications for Technology
And so here a ship came in and interfered. If you just left it at that, nothing would have happened. Someone decided to chase it enough, someone decided that they can bounce a signal off of a radar from one point and not have to use a multi-station thing and from there the whole thing developed. And it is going to be your creative process and I would do blocks and lines and so forth, and you can almost start with where we ended up and try on to come on back to where this hit. There was no question... Look I developed and had to have a patent for a duel trace rate display, horizontal display. I did it because one of the things I wanted to do was have radar on one horizontal display called an "A" display and below it in the other direction I wanted another one that would show the IFF signals, so the ones that didn't have it were enemies. Now everything was fine on that until I came to a radar that did not have a central synchronized source, they used a noise generator to kick off the synchronizing signals. If I had something that was independent of that so I developed something that just arbitrarily kick the two traces up and down and display one thing on one and another on another.
I later on found that as many years later, I went in for open heart surgery, and here was a double trace scan in a hospital and they were showing two patients on it. I checked and by that time the patent had run its course, I never made a penny out of it because it was really jointly owned by myself and government. I have patent in my files, but I didn't know I was going to be using it. What kind of civilian use for that? And someone developed a civilian use which is the ability to display a patient's vital signs on the same scope. So these are the sort of things, if you can pick those up, you can make, really, a history that would be a marvelous tome really. I think you would have to spend a lot of creative thought in trying to pick these out, there is just a plethora of information on this thing, just a lot of stuff, you know at one point they had a deal where I think it was University of Illinois came up with a way of bouncing signals off a car or a truck and they could tell whether the truck was on or not because you can actually here the truck shake in one mode versus another. They were doing actually television scan at a distance, they got the beam so narrow that they can scan back and forth and actually reproduce a silhouette of the device so you can tell what it was. I don't know if you want to put this in or not, but our number one big scientist and I won't give you his name because I was developing these little transponder beacons, wanted me to develop one that would change signal when a dog properly trained raised his leg against an enemy tank. Then they would hone in and shoot the tank, well I never did anything with that. But these are the crazy things that you went into.
Now you can tell those as little funny asides but the main point really this was a life saver, and I really believe one of the Germans biggest errors was that they did not push radar and as you know what has happened in post war periods, all of our navigation devices; the fact that we are still having collisions at sea is really operator error as far as the devices are concerned, there is no reason today why we shouldn't have a much better world in the sense of navigation, in the sense of collision avoidance, in the sense of life saving right across the board. In radar I don't know how to tell you there was a whole bunch of radars, I guess it is going to have to be your call on what you think would be like. There was a whole groups of radar that were in for, in the first place in missile guidance there were many different ways of doing that: detection of targets from long distances that were threatening you and taking counter action. I don't even know if we have even exhausted all the possibilities for it. Main divisions of radar are the lower frequencies and the higher frequencies. They are almost for different applications. In the narrow band, the most sophisticated radars came in much later instead of moving the beam around mechanically we were doing it with a phased array radar which was developed.
Once you do that, you now have what I call the most intelligent radar of all, the one who doesn't get blindly and stupidly look all around, but actually makes the decision on where to continue to look and put more of its energy when it gets a sense of a build up maybe at a target in a certain direction. Which now gets you into massive computer technology. I would say everything came together, all of the sciences came together and was used. We were like a sponge, we would get stuff from any direction that we could, Dr. Goleà who developed the infrared detection cell. I remember interfacing with him. He was in the lab there and his technique was just a wild technique but it worked and so I don't know how you would grab it. You are trying to cover a long period of time, you are trying to cover a whole development from electric light bulbs in on from there.
To me the real center thing that still interests me was my original kid concept. It was a case where you could use a little amount of energy and few electrons. For a man to be able to use his puny energy in a broader sense to do massive things, was the thing that excited me, we are still able to do that and we are doing in a more sophisticated sense. There are not many houses that do not have a digital computer in it or a fax machine or a copier. All of these are at the electronic level, it basically starts out with a charged surface and so on. You have an exciting job, I don't think I would want it but I can't give you a pat answer mostly, Bill, because I think if I gave you a pat answer I would trivialize it. It's not pat, it is something that you are going to probably do well and you are going have to think about a lot and I'll be glad if you have anything and you want me to look and comment at it, I will be glad to do that. I have been away from it too long to be, maybe that is good, I don't know.
Maybe it is.
Maybe in a way I have developed a little more objectivity about it. I see today there are problems that are easily solvable by our technology and I get impatient that people take ten, twenty, thirty, forty years to get to know that is what they have to do. I am getting use to that.
That sounds like a good stopping point. Thank you very much.
You are very welcome.
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