Lit­tle-known Cold War sci­en­tist’s death a mys­tery


DUD­LEY Buck broke en­emy codes in the Sec­ond World War, trav­elled to post­war Europe for the CIA and be­came a well-known MIT re­searcher work­ing on Cold War-era projects re­lated to nu­clear mis­sile guid­ance and the space war be­fore dy­ing in sus­pi­cious cir­cum­stances.

Yet the gen­eral pub­lic is just learn­ing about him now.

Buck was the nerdy kid al­ways build­ing some­thing elec­tri­cal from parts he found or begged, yet while his projects were sci­en­tific in na­ture, he very of­ten turned them into prac­ti­cal jokes.

That kid be­came a bril­liant sci­en­tist and MIT pro­fes­sor, do­ing work for his uni­ver­sity, pri­vate busi­ness, the U.S. navy and gov­ern­ment or­ga­ni­za­tions such as the Na­tional Se­cu­rity Agency (NSA) and CIA.

He was the quin­tes­sen­tial Cold War sci­en­tist/re­searcher who in­vented the cry­otron, an early form of mi­crochip that, it was hoped, could guide the new nu­clear in­ter­con­ti­nen­tal bal­lis­tic mis­siles to their tar­gets in the event of war with the U.S.S.R.

So, why isn’t Dr. Dud­ley Allen Buck bet­ter known? His story has the mak­ings of a great Cold War thriller and his in­ven­tions should have made his name in the bur­geon­ing com­puter world. This was a man who has de­vel­oped an ul­tra-fast com­puter that could fit in a pocket in­stead of on sev­eral floors of a build­ing.

Well, Buck died at 32 (in 1959), a sud­den, un­ex­plained death that the au­thors sug­gest was ac­tu­ally a KGB hit — one that came on the same day an­other noted sci­en­tist with NSA con­nec­tions also died sud­denly.

Iain Dey, busi­ness edi­tor of the Sun­day Times, and Dou­glas Buck, only a tod­dler when his fa­ther died, com­bined forces to pro­duce the first bi­og­ra­phy of the ob­scure (and un­de­servedly so) com­put­ing pi­o­neer. They use Dud­ley Buck’s lab books, diaries, cor­re­spon­dence, re­search pa­pers, patent fil­ings and other re­cently dis­cov­ered pa­pers col­lected by his son to build their ac­count.

Buck seemed like an af­fa­ble, work­driven re­searcher and pro­fes­sor will­ing to share his knowl­edge far and wide, but his stu­dents and as­sis­tants didn’t know he was a for­mer code breaker for the navy, had been on covert mis­sions in east­ern Europe for the CIA and served as a con­sul­tant to the NSA on top se­cret projects such as spy satel­lites, mis­sile de­fence sys­tems and early space race projects.

Those aca­demic and mil­i­tary lives started to col­lide with the in­ven­tion of the cry­otron. The aim of his re­search was to cre­ate an elec­tronic switch that could flip be­tween on and off very quickly, cre­at­ing the ones and ze­ros that form the bi­nary code, or core lan­guage of com­put­ers.

Other ideas were be­ing pur­sued as well, in­clud­ing the semi­con­duct­ing sil­i­con chip that even­tu­ally won the race and that drives most com­put­ers to­day. But Buck was con­sid­ered to have the edge at the time.

Gen­eral Elec­tric, IBM, RCA and the U.S. mil­i­tary all mounted ma­jor cry­otron-re­search pro­grams in the late 1950s and early 1960s be­fore shift­ing fo­cus to sil­i­con mi­crochips. Still, the cry­otron is at the root of ef­forts at IBM and else­where to make su­per­con­duct­ing quan­tum bits — qubits — in pur­suit of quan­tum com­put­ing.

Buck had been on the radar of the Sovi­ets for years as his work on the cry­otron was well-known, even if it was not even near be­ing used in a mis­sile guid­ance sys­tem, as the Sovi­ets feared.

Aca­demic, gov­ern­ment and pri­vate com­puter de­vel­op­ers shared re­search in those times, and Buck was a fre­quent speaker at sci­en­tific con­ven­tions, so the aim of his work was clear to the Sovi­ets as well.

About a month af­ter a del­e­ga­tion of Soviet sci­en­tists vis­ited the U.S., Buck re­ceived a ship­ment of chem­i­cals he hoped would push his ex­per­i­ments for­ward.

Chuck Craw­ford, one of the stu­dents who ran Buck’s ex­per­i­ments, was with him as he opened the pack­age and re­counts: “He didn’t eat any of them, he might have stuck a fin­ger in a bot­tle. We paid no at­ten­tion what­so­ever to the po­ten­tial hazard of tak­ing a bunch of or­ganic chem­i­cals that hadn’t re­ally been stud­ied that care­fully and mess­ing around with them. The thought hadn’t en­tered our heads.”

Buck died within a cou­ple of days. The book over­reaches in its fi­nal chap­ter with its the­ory that Buck’s death was a KGB as­sas­si­na­tion by poi­son. Of­fi­cial records do of­fer con­flict­ing ac­counts and men­tions of his death in archives are heav­ily redacted, so there is enough to war­rant news­pa­per head­lines and in­ter­net the­o­ries. But no au­topsy was ever per­formed, and the hy­poth­e­sis by Dey and Dou­glas Buck is un­prov­able.

Their book, how­ever, is a fas­ci­nat­ing story of a bright young sci­en­tist in the pres­sure cooker world of Cold War re­search, a tale of how much he ac­com­plished in a short life and an in­di­ca­tion of how much more he un­doubt­edly would have done. The Cry­otron Files:

The Un­told Story of Dud­ley Buck, Cold War Com­puter Sci­en­tist and Mi­crochip Pi­o­neer By Iain Dey and Dou­glas Buck

Over­look Press, 288 pages, $39

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