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

The Sunday Telegraph - Money & Business - - Front page - Life

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

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