Computers, the Cold War and the death of a science genius
How was the life of brilliant US scientist Dudley Buck cut short at 32 after a visit by Soviet counterparts? In his new book, Iain Dey reports
Rainclouds were hanging over Idlewild International Airport as the KLM flight from Amsterdam touched down on the runway. Sergey Lebedev peered out of the window, unimpressed. They had told him in Moscow that New York was at its best in April – bright and sunny, yet without the oppressive heat and humidity of summer. He had left his raincoat at home and advised the six Soviet computer experts joining him for the trip not to bother bringing theirs either. The propellers of the Lockheed Super Constellation were still winding down as the group got to the top of the plane’s steps. One by one they looked up at the gathering storm and realised their wardrobe error. Above the noise of the engines, Lebedev could hear the grumbling begin.
It was Sunday, April 19 1959. They had left Moscow two days earlier, and all were in need of sleep.
Each man carried a black leather briefcase. Some contained drawings and notes about the biggest and best computers in the Soviet Union – information they planned to present to the Americans. Others were carrying vodka and black caviar to treat their hosts during what was scheduled to be a two-week tour of the United States.
They had come for a rapprochement. The US government had agreed to let the Russians see inside America’s most secret computer labs; the Kremlin would offer the same courtesy in exchange.
Lebedev, at age 56 the Soviet Union’s top computer expert, had been tasked with leading the delegation himself. During the Second World War he had built a system to stabilise the sights of tank cannons. He then created the first computer in the Eastern bloc with a small group of researchers at the Ukrainian Academy of Sciences, which in turn led to him being hand-picked by Joseph Stalin to lead the USSR’S computer effort.
He had retained the role under the new premier, Nikita Khrushchev, and was finally starting to make progress.
Although the Soviet Union had caught up with Americans on the nuclear bomb, and had beaten the US into space with the launch of Sputnik some 15 months earlier, computer technology was one area where the Americans had a sizeable advantage.
Stalin was an obstacle to the development of Soviet computer technology. He had objected to the development of any machine that would replicate the human brain or replace a man on a factory production line; he saw it as a capitalist evil. That had forced Lebedev and his contemporaries to develop computers with very strictly defined military missions: for translation, weather forecasting and to calculate the firing range of missiles.
America, on the other hand, had burned billions of dollars on a sprawling mass of computer projects with undefined or moving objectives. Private companies were competing with universities and government departments for lucrative defence contracts to build computers for the army, the air force, the navy, or the newly created commercial honeypot that was Nasa, the American space agency. It was a creative hotbed that had spawned a booming industry, one that was inventing ever more advanced technologies at breakneck speed.
Lebedev had built an impressive machine in his lab in Moscow, but had not worked out how to mass-produce the device effectively. The Americans, meanwhile, were already rolling out reliable computers by the hundreds. American businesses were installing giant machines sold by the likes of IBM and RCA, which could be used to run their payrolls or settle their taxes. Programmes were under way to computerise air traffic control and US census data.
Both superpowers knew computer technology had the power to change the dynamics of the Cold War. There were clear economic benefits to be gained from the digitisation of the American economy.
Yet there were also more direct military uses for computing power. Both sides were developing nuclear missiles at great pace, and computers
‘The US government had agreed to let the Russians see inside America’s most secret computer labs’
‘Both superpowers knew computer technology had the power to change the dynamics of the Cold War’
were needed to guide those missiles and to identify and shoot down any incoming enemy threats. The American science community was bubbling with stories about one young scientist in particular.
Dudley Buck at MIT had been part of the team that built the first ever random-access memory (Ram) – used in the Project Whirlwind missile defence computer.
He had created an early version of the flash drive, as well as a primitive version of the light gun, such as the one used on the original Eighties Nintendo games console.
Although still just 32, he had won international fame for developing an ultra-fast computer with no moving parts that he repeatedly claimed would “fit in a man’s shirt pocket”. Given that the most advanced computers at that time occupied whole floors of office buildings, it was an attention-grabbing concept. Although the term had not yet been coined, he had invented a prototype microchip – which he named the Cryotron.
According to an article Lebedev had seen in magazine two years earlier, Buck’s tiny computer chip would be used as the guidance system for America’s new intercontinental ballistic missile. At the time the article was published, Buck’s prototype device was a long way from being capable of deployment with a nuclear warhead. In the intervening two years, however, a number of large research projects under the auspices of the US government had been created to drive forward Buck’s Cryotron technology. The US State Department had given Lebedev and his team permission to see inside Buck’s lab. Just three days after Lebedev and his team of scientists touched down in New York, they were scheduled to meet Buck – and to see his invention for themselves.
To his students, Buck was a gifted young professor who sang along to show tunes in his lab and loved a practical joke. When MIT received its first ever sample of superglue, Buck had used it to stick the janitor’s fingers together. Although a teetotaller himself, with a wife and three young children at home, he had turned a blind eye to an illicit gin still at the back of his lab. He also tolerated the snakes, frogs and scarecrows that turned up on his work benches as part of pranks played by his students.
While his students knew of his inventions, they knew nothing of his double life. As well as an MIT scientist, Buck was a government agent. For the previous nine years he had been working part-time for the National Security Agency and its predecessor organisations, playing roles large and small in classified defence projects – such as the Corona spy satellite programme, early attempts at artificial intelligence and countless schemes to build bigger and better computers for various branches of the military. Many of today’s “big data” computer systems rely on a memory that Buck created to solve one of these problems.
Buck had worked as a codebreaker in Washington, at Csaw – America’s equivalent to Bletchley Park. Diary entries show that he was familiar with many of the Manhattan Project scientists. He had even spent time seconded to one of the most infamous intelligence arms of the CIA, which took him behind enemy lines in Eastern Europe – where he appears to have been involved in attempts to persuade German computer scientist Konrad Zuse to defect to the US.
Throughout his time at MIT, Buck moonlighted as one of the NSA’S top troubleshooters – coming up with solutions to seemingly intractable problems. His Cryotron chip was now the centre of his military life, as well as scientific. Since the USSR had launched its Sputnik satellite
18 months earlier, building better computers had become an obsession of the White House and the Pentagon.
To build a better computer required finding a way to create a device that could switch from an “on” position to an “off ” position extremely quickly – from “1” to “0” in terms of the language of binary code upon which all computer programs depend.
While the earliest computers had used mechanical switches, scientists across the world were now racing to find better, quicker and more efficient electronic switches. For it was only once the switches got quicker that computers would be able to start fulfilling their potential by performing ever more complex tasks.
Buck’s design relied on superconductors – chemical elements that conduct electricity at ultralow temperatures below minus 148F. His experiments had to be suspended inside vats of liquid helium.
He had started by experimenting with cheap superconductors such as lead. Increasingly, however, he was turning to an assortment of rare earth metals that no one in the lab had ever seen before. His favourites were tantalum and niobium. One metal could be used to make the other flip between “1” and “0”.
The Cryotron had started as two small wires wound round one another by hand. As they had perfected their technique, however, Buck and his lab partner Ken Shoulders had developed a much more advanced technique. Using an electron gun, they would lay thin lines of the metals on to a plate – creating, in effect, one of the first integrated circuits – or microchips.
All over the world, scientists were competing to build the first microchip. Many avenues were being pursued, including the semiconducting silicon chip that eventually won the battle and drives most computers today. Yet, at the time, Buck was considered to have the scientific lead with his concept of the “superconducting” microchip. In spring 1959, it was still believed that a silicon chip would melt before it could switch at sufficient speed from one to zero.
Buck had not quite perfected the Cryotron. It still had flaws and was not living up to its potential. None the less, a steady stream of newspaper reporters had trickled through his spartan little office. A scriptwriter had come to interview him about turning the story of his invention into a prime-time drama. More to the point, a team of more than 100 physicists at IBM had been contracted by the NSA to turn the Cryotron into the bedrock of American computing power. Project Lightning, as it was code-named, was the focal point of a new, top-secret meeting of advisory an committee on supercomputers that had been created by president Dwight D Eisenhower and of which Buck was a member.
When Buck learnt that the USSR’S top computer experts would get to breeze through his lab, he was left with a sick feeling. The trip had been arranged months in advance. He had noted the date, writing “RUSSIANS 2PM” in bold capitals in his diary.
He chewed over how to deal with the situation. There was little point in being too precious with information. A paper he had published four months earlier explained the experiments he was working on in considerable detail.
If the KGB – the Soviet intelligence service – was anywhere near as good as it was thought to be, then Lebedev would surely have been given a copy before his trip.
Soviet agents had been aware of Buck and his connections to the US secret services since at least 1952, based on declassified CIA files. It seemed reasonable to assume they knew who it was they were meeting.
Just 29 days after Lebedev and his team came to visit MIT, Dudley Buck was dead.
‘Although the term had not yet been coined, he had invented a prototype microchip’
‘While his students knew of his inventions, they knew nothing of his double life’
Dudley Buck created an early version of the flash drive, as well as a primitive type of light gun. At just 32, he had won international fame
US missiles poised ready to launch during the Cuban crisis, a 1962 confrontation between the United States and the Soviet Union
The Cryotron Files by Iain Dey, with Douglas Buck, is published by Icon Books, priced £20