Computers and the A-bomb

[Working backward from the year 2000 toward America’s beginnings.]


We tend to forget that before the world was changed by personal computers, the world was changed by mainframes. Computers were invented for gunnery control (if you were going to aim your cannons in fast-moving situations, or from fast-moving platforms, you had to make too many computations too fast to do it by hand). Like other things – like air conditioning, like airplanes, like so many other things, as we’ll see — the technology matured rapidly as money was poured into development, and as it moved from the military to the civilian sphere.

The first computers were electronic, but they were also mechanical. The computations themselves took place as fast as the electrons could hustle, but which paths they followed – what operations they performed, in what order, depended upon hard-wired boards that had to be switched out, one after another, in the correct order, to get the job done. It was a big breakthrough, the day someone figured out how to tell the machine to (in effect) change its own wiring, task by task. Enter the programmable computer. Now all the figuring out was done in advance. Instructions were fed into the machine via decks of punched IBM cards the size of the pre-war dollar bill. The machine read the deck card by card, executed each instruction one by one, and, if the programming was right, went from operation to operation at electronic, rather than at manual, speed.

Initially the machines were so expensive, that IBM president Thomas Watson estimated that worldwide demand for computers might be as high as six, an estimate that wasn’t spectacularly accurate.

At first they were programmed in what is called machine language, a binary digital language consisting of groups of zeros and ones. Machine language is also called microcode:  hence, Microcode Software – Microsoft. You can imagine how difficult it is to program. Then someone invented Assembler, which made matters easier. (If you’re interested, Then came FORmula TRANslation (FORTRAN) for scientific and mathematical calculations, and COBOL (COmmon Business-Oriented Language) for the relatively simple manipulation of massive amounts of data. These languages turned the computer into a practical way to automate many more real-world applications. COBOL for instance started to replace payroll calculations and bank statements.

This created a huge market, and IBM and other companies learned how to fill it. The IBM 360 and 370, particularly, poured into the business world in great numbers, creating large profits which could be, and were, poured back into further research and development.

By the 1960s, they were everywhere in business and government. (The space race wouldn’t have gone very far without them.) Less visibly, they were transforming military applications, as well. But the mainframe computer was never going to make its way into the home or small office, so the personal computer was a revolution built upon a revolution, which is practically shorthand for the story of technology in the 20th century.


The atom in war and peace

I think it’s safe to say that we mostly look upon the atom as a curse, but there was a time when it looked like the bright shining hope for a better future for everybody, and a time before that when it looked like our one great hope for survival, and a time before that when we were in a deadly race, or thought we were, to create an atomic bomb before the Nazis did.

To work our way backward. Eisenhower in the 1950s announced Atoms For Peace, an attempt to harness the phenomenal power of atomic fission (and, perhaps one day,  the even more phenomenal power of atomic fusion) for peaceful purposes. At the time it was fantasized that atomic plants would provide clean electric power “too cheap to meter,” freeing industrial countries from dependence upon foreign oil and offering the possibility that underdeveloped countries could leapfrog the entire development cycle, beginning where we were winding up. among the unintended results was that of giving access to nuclear materials and know-how to countries that might have had a more difficult time, otherwise, developing their own bombs. Not England, Russia, France, or China, and not Israel, but perhaps India and Pakistan, anyway. And if it had not been for the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, one shudders to think how much farther the plague would have spread, because it became ever easier, ever cheaper, to develop atomic bombs. What cost the United States a terrific effort could now be done by dime-store countries with spare change. Lucky us.

Before Atoms for Peace came the balance of terror, in which the United States and then the Soviet Union raced to further develop the damned things, building more and more of them, testing them, deploying them, and finding ever more efficient delivery systems, so that what started out as a single bomb in the desert in June, 1945, then two bombs delivered in August by B-29s,  became collections of bombs, with entire fleet wings devoted to their delivery at a moment’s notice; became fleets of bombers some of which were in the air at all times, lest a sneak attack take out the fleets on the ground. (The fliers were required to wear a black patch over one eye at all times when in the air, in case they happened to be facing a blinding nuclear blast. The idea was that they would then switch the patch to the now-blinded eye and proceed with their mission. To quote Dave Barry: I am not making this up.)

The fleets of bombers were joined by missile-carrying submarines, and eventually by surface ships carrying nuclear-warhead-tipped cruise missiles. And these were joined by groupings of Intermediate Range Ballistic Missiles (IRBMs) deployed around the Russian heartland, and by Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs) which could destroy the Soviet Union from bases in our country on the other side of the world.

It got to the point that the Soviets and the Americans between them had deployed so much megatonnage that if a war actually had erupted, we know for sure who would have lost the war. Everybody. Maybe the earth would have survived. Maybe humanity would have survived. It is impossible to see how civilization would have. Albert Einstein once said, he didn’t know the weapons World War III would be fought with, but World War IV would be fought with rocks.

Well, it didn’t happen, though it did nearly happen, by accident, at least three times that we know of, as automated systems malfunctioned, or people’s judgment wavered. For all we know, it was only the nuclear balance of terror that kept us from fighting World War III, just as some games theorists said. But that still doesn’t tell us how to get the genie back into the bottle.

The genie got out because of the Manhattan Project, and the project was undertaken because several émigré physicists feared that Nazi Germany was trying to develop an atomic bomb. (And so it was, but it was on hopelessly the wrong path.) The physicists got Albert Einstein to write a letter to President Roosevelt, outlining what they thought could be done. Einstein’s immense scientific prestige was enough to carry the day. The Manhattan Project resulted, a totally top secret project involving thousands of people in many states, a project proving once for all that governments can indeed keep a secret when they are motivated to do so.

In those war years, Senator Harry Truman ran a commission investigating waste and fraud in wartime industrial contracts. His staffers saw all this money going into this project and nothing coming out, and he determined to find out what was what. The White House told him, hands off, and he loyally kept hands off, and only found out what was going on when he himself became president in April, 1945, three months before the first and only test, and four months before the first two times (so far, the only time) they were used in anger.

Ironically, if the United States had not proved that it could be done, probably no one ever would have, because of  the immense scientific and industrial and monetary resources that had to be invested without any guarantees of success. And the bomb was developed not primarily because some scientists thought it could be done, but because they thought it could be done and Germany was doing it. For the next 40 years, the world lived on the edge of destruction. Hitler’s last legacy.


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