Empty Space and Air Power
The great plains, stretching almost without feature from Manitoba to Texas, are deceptively placid. The endless vistas, across which no activity ever leaves more than a trail of dust, have been the setting for countless desperate combats. None of these, however brutal and deadly, have amounted to more than pinpricks in time and space.
In the year with which we are concerned, 1957, there had finally arisen a force which could have produced more than a pinprick.
Since the beginning of aviation, the plains have provided an ideal setting for airfields and aviation of every description. It was natural for the Strategic Air Command of the United States Air Force to disperse its bases over their largely empty surface. These bases immediately become the best and most probable targets for a surprise nuclear attack by the Soviet Union. To the extent that such an attack failed, SAC would launch a massive and annihilating counter- strike.
On an early morning in June one such base lay placidly in the prairie as butterflies dipped and swirled over the tall grass hiding the runways. Amid the sweet nose-tickling smells drifting past, and without any visible connection to anything, there stood a great silver aircraft. Like an isolated dinosaur forgotten by the world, it was entirely immobile and looked hardly alive.
Finally, after the rising sun had sufficiently warmed its cold blood, the three-bladed propellor of one of the six pusher engines began to twitch spastically. It made two complete revolutions in that fashion before there was a bright flash of flame, and then a startling eruption of smoke. The blades soon blurred, driven by one of the largest internal combustion engines ever built, and the resulting draft blew the smoke astern.
By the time that the port outboard engine had begun to rev up, the next engine was catching. The explosive sounds of its exhausts contrasted with the smoothening roar of the outboard engine, and then the other engines, one by one, added their distinct sounds to the uproar.
The B-36 had been standing on alert with the crew aboard, and no chocks under the wheels. As it began to roll ponderously forward, the wash from the propellors flattened the grass and the screaming violence of the engines obliterated the faint delicate sounds of the prairie. With strange pterodactyl-like wings and a tiny glass bubble like the head a brontosaurus atop its fuselage, the biggest and most destructive bomber ever built moved its slanting shadow toward the main runway.
Other B-36s, some dispersed so far away as to have been practically invisible, began to converge. They then followed one another in their takeoff runs so closely that a single mishap would have produced a whole chain of exploding wrecks.
At first, it hardly looked as if any of the aircraft would get off the ground. With hundreds of thousands of pounds of fuel and bombs aboard, and engines straining in seeming futility, the acceleration was alarmingly slow, something more to be expected from the brontosaurus than the pterodactyl. It was only in the mirage-strewn distance that the awkward angular shapes picked up speed, struggled off the ground, and banked in a slow spiral climb.
All over the great plains, and in many other parts of the world, more bombers were climbing to join forces which the Strategic Air Command had kept continuously in the air. In total, the aircraft carried nuclear explosives equivalent to billions of tons of TNT. The people of the Soviet Union had no idea what was headed toward them. Equally, the people of the United States had no notion of the strike that might be coming their way.
The Defence Research Institute in Bethesda, Maryland was a quasi-academic organization, not a command center. But the research concerned nuclear war, and the output from its computer simulation would be relevant to such a war while it was still going on. The model had to be continuously up- dated, according to the latest reports of friendly and enemy forces in the air, and, in order to minimize delay, these reports came in directly from the various commands. They were then entered into the computer, and the results were interpreted by the staff and communicated to the pentagon.
On that day, June seventh, something had triggered the alarms of the Distant Early Warning system in northern Canada. While false alarms were quite possible, and had occurred, it was part of the institutional memory of the American defence establishment that the radar warnings of the Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor had been dismissed and ignored.
Tom Williams, a tall young man who looked even younger than his twenty three years, sat quietly in a corner of the War Gaming Room and watched the reports from the Dakotas as they were posted on a board. It was only his third day on the job. That job, and the whole organization, was totally unlike anything he had ever experienced.
Tom didn't think of himself as having led a sheltered life. There had been many outdoor adventures, some fairly dangerous, but the fear had been of an exciting and uplifting sort. This was a different sort of fear, depressing and degrading. It was one which, instead of prompting action, made action more difficult. Sitting in a relaxed posture with one leg on a nearby stool, he tried to look casual about the possibility of an imminent Soviet attack. He wanted very much to make the right impression.
It was when the estimated time for the arrival of the Soviet bombers over Washington was posted that Bruce Hammond, one of the programmers, joked,
"Let's go stand next to the computer. If they get that, we won't be worth anything anyway."
There were constant jokes of that sort, and Tom laughed at them as heartily as anyone. But he was much younger than the others, and it seemed to him quite possible that they were no longer bothered when the DEW line was triggered. After a while, he gave in to his desire to ask Bruce whether he thought a real attack was in progress. Bruce replied,
"Probably not. The Soviets will sometimes send just one or two aircraft to trigger the DEW line. They like to see how we'll respond. They get some information out of that, but you can also look on it as a sort of joke."
"Sure. Don't you suppose they get a kick out of seeing all of SAC take to the air for nothing?"
"It seems kind of dangerous."
"They may also hope to find holes in the DEW line."
"Would it still be a joke if they did?"
"Well, that might lead to another kind of joke, a practical one. Or at least the nuclear analogue of a practical joke."
Just then, it was announced that there was no attack coming in. Even Bruce looked a little relieved. He said,
"That was just a minor false alarm. Our strike forces have only been gone for something like a half hour. Sometimes they get much farther than that."
Tom supposed that he would eventually acquire the professional cool of the others, perhaps even reaching the point at which he wouldn't feel a sudden inner alarm when the air-raid sirens were tested every Friday at noon.
Although more than half of the staff members were civilians, nominally working for a university, the work all came from the Department of Defense. In DRI's various brochures it was always mentioned that it had advised the army to racially integrate itself, and had helped with the details. Behind that, and a few other facades, DRI's main job was to use the computer, one of the largest and fastest in existence, to simulate a "hypothetical nuclear exchange between the United States and the USSR."
The military officers at DRI had been carefully chosen to avoid ones who were allergic to computers, and the civilians had been chosen to avoid ones who hated the military on principle. Both groups were inclined to admit that no one really knew what the next war would be like. When Albert Einstein was questioned on that subject, he had replied,
"I don't know about the next war, but I know about the one after it. It'll be fought with sticks and stones."
It seemed likely that no one who lived and worked as close to Washington as Bethesda would later be wielding the sticks or throwing the stones.
The whole process which had moved Tom from his mother's house in a western suburb of Boston to DRI had been sudden and unexpected. As a graduate student in philosophy at the University of Michigan, he had returned home for the summer with the idea of relaxing for a bit before taking up his usual summer job. That consisted in cutting grass and collecting the trash for his old prep school. Although the job paid only ninety cents an hour, he enjoyed throwing the cans full of coal clinkers and ash into the old dump-truck, driving it heavily-laden along the little lanes, and then dumping it, with a satisfying rumble and roar, into the swamp. He was just thinking of negotiating a raise of five cents an hour when he returned home from golf one day to hear his mother say,
"A man called from Washington this afternoon. He said your job application had gotten lost, and they'd just found it. He was very excited, and asked if you'd taken another job. He wants you to go to Washington immediately."
Tom had forgotten that he had ever applied, but it sounded, at the very least, like an interesting opportunity.
The background for that sudden offer consisted in a little story in itself, and it began with the war-time invention of the ENIAC, the first electronic computer. The ENIAC was, in fact, more important than Henry Ford's first car, or Ford himself, and was instead comparable to the Wright brothers' first airplane and the first atomic explosion at Alamagordo.
The people responsible for the conception and development of the first computers were a gloriously mixed lot, and included John von Neumann and Alan Turing, the greatest mathematicians of their time. Included in the ENIAC team was a very young electrical engineer named Arthur Burks. Burks, while remaining a computer man always, also became a professional philosopher. This wasn't so surprising since the ENIAC people had always been at least half philosophers to begin with. But it was an accident that, as a professor at the University of Michigan, Art Burks was Tom's teacher and the man he looked to for advice of all sorts.
Burks had recommended Tom for the job at DRI, and, in computer circles, his recommendations were universally followed. It was no wonder that the man at DRI was so embarrassed at having lost the application form.
Two days later, Tom, in unaccustomed coat and tie, had presented himself at an establishment that looked rather like a country club in suburban Washington. There were no signs anywhere, but a receptionist at the clubhouse assured him that he had come to the right place. She also told him that the personnel director, Weston Harrison, was anxiously waiting to see him.
Harrison's headquarters consisted in a cottage near the main building. Next to the cottage was an old Cadillac convertible which was mostly rusted through, and which was parked crazily, one front wheel having passed over the curb to come to rest near a rose bush in a small garden.
The man matched the car, and it wasn't surprising that he lost the occasional job application. Weston Harrison was tall and strikingly handsome, but attired in dirty khaki shorts, a tattered bush hat, what appeared to be an old boy scout shirt, and enormous hiking boots. Since he was lounging back in his swivel chair with his feet on the desk in front of him, a visitor had the sensation of meeting, first the boots, and then Mr. Harrison himself.
Harrison was really very pleasant and welcoming. There also turned out to be a method in his madness. DRI was trying to recruit people from universities who were predisposed to think that any sort of government work would be tight-assed and stuffy, full of rules, regulations, and restrictions. Tom had himself been uneasy on that score, but one look at Harrison was more informative than any number of words could have been. Concerning Tom's home town, Harrison remarked,
"I was born in the next town, Weston. My parents liked it so well they named me for it."
After they had talked a little more, he said,
"Since Arthur Burks sent you, you'll be happiest as near the computer as you can get. Let's assign you to Complab."
Tom was happy with that. He had mainly worked with Burks in areas of philosophy that had little connection with computers, but he had taken a good deal of symbolic logic and thought himself well positioned to learn whatever was required.
When he was in the outer office, filling out forms with the pretty secretaries, Tom was given a letter of appointment which said that his salary was four hundred and twenty five dollars a month. Since this worked out to a great deal more than ninety cents an hour, he asked, extremely quietly, if some mistake had been made. The young lady immediately replied,
"Oh, if that's not enough, you should go right in and speak to Weston! I'm sure he'll ...."
Tom managed to stop her before she mounted a protest on his behalf, and, when he explained the situation, she replied,
"Well, we're going to treat you as a real person, not as a student."
Complab was a couple of miles away, and was anonymous in a different way. A nondescript building in a district of warehouses, machine shops, and small foundries, it looked even less military than the main building. Still less did it look as if it housed anything very advanced or modern. It turned out to be crammed with civilian academics who had found their universities boring and military officers with a taste for nuclear weaponry.
In the few days between his arrival at Complab and that first alert, Tom had already learned something about programming. The favored teaching method was to give the new recruit two large binders stuffed with pages, one an engineering description of the machine and the other a programming manual. They said to him,
"Go get confused, and then ask us questions."
The engineering manual made no sense at all to anyone not versed in flip-flop switches and magnetic drums, but the programming manual was intelligible in places. Tom had already asked plenty of questions, and, in the relaxed atmosphere that followed the alert, he asked Bruce Hammond,
"How do the programs that run the input devices get into the machine in the first place?"
"They're put in by hand. The operator can pull any register in the machine up on the console, and then set it, one little switch for each bit, to anything you want."
The machine, together with its air conditioning, took up most of the ground floor of the warehouse, and, from where they were standing, they could see the control position. There were thousands of little switches and lights, and the fingers of the operator were, at that moment, flying over them. It looked as if he would, indeed, be able to enter a fair-sized program in a matter of minutes.
There were seats at the control position for the programmer and one other person in addition to the operator. At the moment, the leader of the group and his assistant were standing behind them, occasionally giving instructions. All five people were intent on their mission and oblivious to all else. The attack might have been aborted, but there still seemed to be a great deal to be done.
On account of its size, the control position was more like a ship's bridge than an aircraft cockpit. Tom supposed that he would, in due course, be one of those people on the bridge. At the moment, he couldn't imagine being able to make the right moves in the very scant time that seemed to be allowed.
A little later, the group at the console was replaced by a different set of people, sliding into the seats the moment they were vacated. One of the men coming off watch came over to Tom and Bruce and said,
"Another Soviet attack foiled! I think I'll go across the street and have a shot of vodka."
The part about the foiled attack was presumably a joke, but the man did seem about to leave the premises. After he left, Tom asked Bruce,
"Is he really going out for a drink?"
"Knowing Jacky, it's quite possible. But he might have trouble finding vodka this early."
Tom had been told by Weston Harrison that there were no set working hours anywhere in the organization. One man worked almost entirely at night, and even that wasn't held against him. According to Harrison, people were judged only on what they produced. Tom asked Bruce about it, and the latter replied,
"We can come and go when we want, but most of us work something pretty close to a nine to five day. We're so happy to get the freedom that we don't bother to exercise it."
During the remainder of the day, Tom alternated between studying the manual and asking questions. The eleven members of Complab so loved programming for its own sake that they actually seemed pleased when he came to them. He adopted the practice of going from one to another so as not to over- burden any one person, but that practice worked only partially. Since any conversation about programming tended to draw people from the corridor, and from neighboring offices, the result was generally a lively exchange in which Tom's various tutors often disagreed with one another. That added to the helpful confusion in which he had been told to immerse himself.
All these conversations took place virtually in the shadow of the computer, and, since its large air-conditioning units had to cool many thousands of vacuum tubes, it felt like the engine-room of a large ship steaming hard. While different people associated different images with the computer, all were on personal terms with it, often standing with one hand on the vibrating casing, as if to take its pulse.
A couple of months previously, the machine had been sick to the extent that blue smoke had come pouring out of its innards. The smoke had stopped when they turned off the power, but, just in case, fire extinguishers were now provided. It wasn't hard to imagine dedicated programmers, extinguishers in hand, battling flames and trying to keep the whole machine from melting down.
While IBM was pushing its newly invented FORTRAN programming language, the Complab machine was from Remington Rand. DRI was therefore deeply suspicious of anything that came from IBM, and the programmers used machine language exclusively. Part of the quarrel with IBM was prosaic. FORTRAN, or any similar abomination, took up too much memory space which they needed for other things.
The rest of the quarrel concerned aesthetics. IBM machines were hexadecimal in the sense that the sixteen- numeral hexadecimal system was used to represent the sixteen and thirty two bit binary registers. The numerals were zero through nine, plus the letters 'a' through 'f.' What, it was asked at DRI, could be uglier than a number like 'e23ad93d'?
The Rem Rand was an octal machine, which meant the ordinary numerals with the exception of eight and nine. Since the program instructions were all the same length, and each was divided into three parts, a program written in octal had a certain visual elegance which IBM could never match.
It was a feature of these programs that some of the instructions altered others in the course of the execution of a program. At many installations, programmers were taught never to write such a program. It was considered dangerous. If something went wrong, it could be virtually impossible to find out what had happened. Moreover, when done on a large scale, it meant that no one but the person who wrote the program would ever be able to understand it. If he or she left the organization, no one else would ever be able to modify the program to meet new needs and conditions.
On the other hand, the complexity of the problems at DRI virtually demanded the use of every programming trick which might save space and time. The programmers were virtuosi who spun logical webs of impressive complexity. Whenever one of them did leave, someone else had to start from scratch.
Tom soon discovered that it was easier to write programs himself than to try to decipher even fairly simple ones written by others. He hadn't reached the point of being allowed to run his programs on the machine, but, on that third day, he did succeed in writing a program for calculating compound interest which, he was assured by Bruce, would run. It was a small victory, but it put nuclear war out of his mind for the time being.
After work that day, it seemed to Tom that it was time to move out of his motel and find a proper place to live. As a graduate student, he was used to having friends who might arrive at any hour of the night and conduct themselves in ways that would get him evicted the next morning. He had gotten very good at finding places to live at the drop of a hat, and, since he had no friends in the area, he expected to find something that would last the whole summer. With that in mind, he set out north along Wisconsin Avenue.
Turning on to the first residential street, Tom found a room-for-rent sign almost immediately. An older lady with a pronounced Italian accent opened the door and gestured for him to come into her living room. She evidently judged her surname too difficult for Americans to pronounce, and said,
"Everyone calls me 'Mrs. T' or 'Mama T'. My husband, he died justa last year, he was head tailor at the biggest department store in town."
She then indicated a little table by the window with framed family photographs. The tailor looked highly respectable, probably in one of his own suits, as he cast a suspicious eye at the camera. Mrs. T waggled her finger at the photograph and said confidentially to Tom,
"He was a nobody's fool."
She then pointed to the next photograph and indicated that it was of her daughter. Since the young lady in the picture had a sash saying "First Place" over her bathing suit, she appeared to have just won a beauty contest. Tom was beginning to wonder whether she might be on the premises when Mrs. T said,
"She's a married now."
She gestured to another picture, evidently of the same woman. The daughter now appeared to weigh something on the order of three hundred pounds. Mrs. T explained casually,
"She's a real good cook."
Since Mrs. T was herself quite rotund, Tom wondered if it was normal for the women in the family to be beautiful enough to marry advantageously, to cook well, and to expand, in that order. In any case, Mrs. T was soon back to business. Leading Tom upstairs to see the room, she threw open the door with a theatric gesture. It was almost as if there had been, behind the door, a daughter who had not yet learned to cook. The room was, however, stripped to the barest essentials. Tom felt the bed, and, finding it reasonably firm, he gave Mrs. T a month's rent.