Dudley Buck was a brilliant scientist who developed or invented several early pieces of now-common technology (e.g. microchips, flash drives)in the 1950s. Like his Nobel-winning colleagues, he might have benefitted from them greatly, had he not died aged 32 of a mysterious heart attack, just after a high-profile group of Soviet scientists visited his lab on a cold war-era tour of the USA. Buck was not the only scientist to expire that day – his colleague Dr Ridenour, chief scientist at Lockheed, also died of an unexplained heart attack. Both deaths are consistent with KGB contact-poison hits. Recently discovered papers reveal Buck's extensive career in clandestine government work, that had led to his contact with Russia's top computer scientists. His work was filed away and rediscovered in the 1980s when it was used in research projects by NASA. A fascinating narrative history of Cold War era computer and tech research, combining social historical elements to produce a brilliant portrait of America in the mid-20th century.
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The strange death of a pioneering Cold War computer scientist
IAIN DEY & DOUGLAS BUCK
WITH RESEARCH BY ALAN DEWEY
To my mother, who was left to raise three small children as a widow.
To Bobbie. To my brother David, who, together, kept digging for information.
To Carla, for her endless support. To Allegra, for always making me smile.
To Anne & Charley, for everything. And to Cristina, for always nudging me to put my hand up.
RAINCLOUDS WERE HANGING OVER IDLEWILD INTERNATIONAL Airport as the KLM flight from Amsterdam touched down on the tarmac. 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 realized 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 fifty-six the Soviet Union’s top computer expert, had been tasked with leading the delegation himself. During World War II he had built a system to stabilize the sights of tank cannons. He then created the first computer in the Eastern bloc with a small group of researchers at the University of Kiev, which in turn led to him being handpicked 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 with his inventions.
Although the Soviet Union had caught up with America on the nuclear bomb and had beaten the Americans into space with the launch of Sputnik some fifteen months earlier, computer technology was one area where the Americans had a sizable 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 defense 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. Programs were under way to computerize air traffic control and US census data.
Both superpowers knew that computer technology had the power to change the dynamics of the Cold War. There were clear economic benefits to be gained from the digitization 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 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 developed an ultrafast computer with no moving parts that would fit inside 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. Buck had been touring America to educate academics and business leaders about his work. Although the term had not yet been coined, he had invented a prototype microchip named the Cryotron.
The Soviet Union was years behind on this technology, and that posed a serious problem for Lebedev. According to an article Lebedev had seen in Life 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 period, however, a number of large research projects under the auspices of the US government had been set to drive forward Buck’s Cryotron technology. Yet it was still not quite perfected.
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.
DUDLEY BUCK WAS working late in his lab yet again. Although he had a wife and three young children, including an infant who was only a few weeks old, he was rarely home before 8:00 p.m. those days. Especially just then, when he was so close to cracking the problem.
He had an apparatus mounted on a workbench that looked a bit like a glass television tube placed on a table with its screen down. Some chemicals were inside it—substances he had only ever seen before on the Periodic Table. On the opposite bench, large metal probes attached to electrical wires disappeared into bulky steel canisters filled with liquid helium.
The two sets of equipment held the key to his great experiment. Inside the glass tube he was trying to create computer chips. His design relied on superconductors: chemical elements that only conduct electricity at ultralow temperatures. Helium only liquefies at temperatures of 4 Kelvins, or –269 degrees centigrade, ranking it as one of the coldest substances on earth that can be procured relatively easily. The steel vats of helium on the workbenches were being used to create a cryogenic environment.
Plumes of evaporation clouds would fill the room as the experiments were changed over. Buck knew that there were others out there trying to do the same thing: to invent an integrated computer circuit small enough and cheap enough to bring to the masses. The basic task was to find 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 to perform this task, 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.
There were many different avenues 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. He had already won international acclaim for an earlier version of this microchip, which was manufactured using just two bits of wire wound around each other and suspended in the helium canister. Even that crude version of the device promised to become the fastest computer ever—potentially hundreds of times faster than anything commercially available at the time. But only if certain issues could be resolved. Now he was working on a more technically-advanced version.
A steady stream of newspaper reporters had trickled through his spartan little office under the dome in the main building at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). A scriptwriter had come to interview him about turning the story of his invention into a prime-time drama. Buck and his wife had been invited to Paris for a conference that summer. MIT officialdom was also excited. A cryotron, with accompanying notes on use, was buried in a time capsule on campus in 1957 at the behest of James Killian, the president of the university, and Dr. Harold Edgerton, the world-renowned inventor of strobe lighting who built underwater cameras for Jacques Cousteau.
Yet it was in Washington, DC, that the greatest level of interest had been generated for Dudley Buck’s invention. A few weeks after the Russian visit, he was due to attend a top-secret meeting of a new advisory committee for President Dwight D. Eisenhower. The agenda for the meeting was the creation of the first generation of supercomputers for the American defense and intelligence community.
Hundreds of scientists across America were already working on the scheme, code-named Project Lightning. One of the key goals was to make Buck’s new chip function. Computer scientists at NASA thought it could be useful in space. Lockheed Missile Systems and Boeing both thought it could be used as a guidance system for the newest nuclear missiles being designed.
The second incarnation of Buck’s cryotron, that he was then trying to perfect, was a much more advanced device. Rather than winding wires around each other by hand, he was laying thin lines of the metals alongside each other using an electron gun. A team of more than a hundred physicists at IBM was working on Project Lightning, under contract to the National Security Agency (NSA), the newest and most obscure of America’s intelligence agencies. Buck wanted to solve the remaining problems himself, however, ideally in time for his big meeting in Washington, and so he was putting in long hours. Not everyone around him grasped why he was devoted to the work.
To his students Buck was a gifted, prank-playing young professor. He was an incredible teacher who had helped out a number of less-affluent students on campus by giving them jobs in his lab to help them fund their studies. They knew he had been part of the MIT team that had designed the first computer random-access memory (RAM), an invention that helped turn computers from a curiosity into a useful tool. The full extent of his groundbreaking work was unknown to them, however.
As well as an MIT scientist, Buck was a government agent. For the previous nine years he had been working part-time for the NSA, playing roles large and small in classified defense projects such as the Corona spy satellite program, assorted missile programs, and countless schemes to build bigger and better computers for various branches of the military. He had worked as a codebreaker in Washington. 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.
Throughout his time at MIT, Buck moonlighted as one of the NSA’s top troubleshooters. He was all too aware of the importance of his Cryotron chip to his superiors at NSA headquarters at Fort George G. Meade, Maryland. Since the USSR had launched its Sputnik satellite eighteen months earlier, building better computers had become an obsession of both the White House and the Pentagon.
The idea that the USSR’s top computer experts would get to breeze through his lab left Buck with a sick feeling in the pit of his stomach. He was a laid-back character, an optimist. He had always been free with his ideas, telling anyone who would listen about his newest discoveries—even before they were properly patented. It had even gotten him into trouble in the past. Nonetheless, the idea of telling the Russians about his work seemed a step too far.
The trip had been arranged months in advance. He had made note of the date, writing “RUSSIANS 2 PM” in bold capitals in his diary. At the back of his mind, 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. The paper had created quite a stir.
“The day is rapidly drawing near when digital computers will no longer be made by assembling thousands of individually manufactured parts,” Buck had written in the introduction. “Instead an entire computer, or a large part of a computer, will be made in a single process.”
The comment about making computers “in a single process” is a reference to the upgraded cryotron that he was making with an electron gun. What Buck was manufacturing was one of the first integrated circuits.
Lebedev and his group of Soviet scientists were originally invited to attend the conference where Buck unveiled his work, but bilateral negotiations to arrange the trip became bogged down in complications. Technical problems ensured that the first few exchanges by wire transmission were difficult for the Americans to translate. Cyrillic characters had been converted into English ones, resulting in messages that did not quite make sense. There were also transmission errors that added an extra layer of complexity. Yet the bigger problem was that the Soviet negotiators took such a long time to agree to a return visit. A year passed between the first invitation letter from the US National Joint Computer Committee and the trip taking place. The final itinerary agreed by both governments included a trip to Buck’s lab at MIT.
Although Buck knew the trip had been sanctioned by the highest levels of government, he appeared a little reticent about the exchange of information. When Lebedev and his six colleagues stepped into Buck’s lab on the third floor at MIT, they discovered that the demonstration they had been promised would not happen. Buck had instructed a couple of his students to remove the helium canisters and have them refilled. He explained away the problem as a badly timed piece of routine maintenance. Buck was polite and courteous, and explained to Lebedev the general principles of his work, but the Russians left with little more than what they’d known beforehand.
But Lebedev did not make a scene. In his first two days he had already gleaned more about the American computer industry than any foreigner ever had, having been given a guided tour of the IBM factory. He and his six colleagues left Logan Airport in Boston to carry on their tour, flying to Philadelphia, then Washington, and back to New York before heading home.
A few weeks after they flew back to Moscow, Dudley Buck was dead.
IT WAS A COLD CLEAR NIGHT IN SANTA BARBARA, CALIFORNIA, IN the summer of 1944. Two teenage boys had set up camp on the floor of the Shell gas station at the corner of Carrillo and De La Vina Streets.
Young Dudley Buck and his best friend Lee Meadows were determined to catch a thief. Repeated attempts had been made to break into Dan’s Radio Den, a well-stocked shop selling amplifiers, speakers, and all the other radio equipment of the day.
It was only a small shop, about thirty feet long by twenty feet wide, tucked in the corner of the gas station, but the equipment inside was state-of-the-art.
Dan Foote, who owned the shop, was a close friend of the two boys. He specialized in car radios, equipping the local highway patrol cars, among others. He was one of several local electronics experts who helped and encouraged the two young radio hams—offering discounts on parts and equipment as well as weekend work in his shop. Buck and Meadows wanted to help him out; they laid a trap for any would-be thief using their radio gear.
A small speaker was bolted to the shop door, where two previous break-in attempts had been made. They had switched the wiring around to turn the speaker into a microphone, and with a long cable that ran across the forecourt hooked up an amplifier in their hideout at the opposite side. The volume was turned up high to magnify any sounds coming from the door of the shop.
As the two boys settled down for the night, they put on their heavy, Bakelite headphones and listened in. It was their second stakeout of Dan’s Radio Den. The weekend before, they had climbed onto the roof of the garage and set up a listening post there. Not only was it too cold on the roof, but there were logistical issues: even if they heard the thief, they would not be able to clamber back down in time to catch him.
The new plan was much better. The sleeping bags solved the problem of the cold. Buck had somehow procured a twelve-gauge pump-action shotgun that lay by his side as they slept on the hard concrete floor. Shortly after they drifted off, a loud crackle blasted into their headphones. The trap had been sprung.
Buck reached for the gun and darted for the door of Dan’s Radio Den. A man was standing with his back to the boys, carefully cutting a four-inch hole in the door with a hand drill. It would be just big enough to get his hand inside to spring the lock—and he was almost finished.
“Drop everything and put your hands up,” barked the gun-wielding teenager.
The burglar jumped. He spun around to find himself staring down the gun’s long barrel. As his eyes traced up to the young face whose hand held the gun, he cracked a smile. “You won’t have the guts to pull the trigger, kid,” he laughed, trying to call Buck’s bluff.
“Yes I will!” snapped Buck. He pumped the gun to load the cartridge shell. Somehow the cartridge jumped out of the breach and dropped to the ground.
“Okay, okay, I’ll go,” said the burglar, picking up his tools and gradually walking toward his car, parked by the side of the building. The battered vehicle had been there for hours. It later emerged that the burglar worked Saturday nights at the Greyhound bus depot across the street and regularly parked around the back of Dan’s Radio Den. The boys had not heard a car pull up, as it had been there all along.
Buck made a fresh attempt to load the gun, all the time keeping his sights trained on the bumbling burglar. Again the cartridge slipped from the gun and dropped to the ground.
“Watch what you’re doing, Dud,” warned Lee Meadows as he made a dash for the garage telephone and dialed the operator. “Burglary in process,” he said into the receiver, repeating the line he had rehearsed as part of the plan. “Dan’s Radio Den, corner of Carrillo and De La Vina.”
The burglar opened the trunk of the car and threw the tool bag in the back as Buck pumped the shotgun for a third time. For a third time, the cartridge dropped out. On the other side of De La Vina Street, two off-duty marines were walking home. Meadows spotted them as he ran back from the phone and yelled for help.
They charged across the road toward the burglar. Suddenly his face fell, realizing that the game was up. As the two marines limbered up to dish out their own version of justice, a police car screeched to a halt and arrested the foiled intruder. Buck and Meadows’ plan had worked, without firing a shot—or even loading the gun successfully. The two boys were sent home by the police with a pat on the back of congratulations and a warning about handling weapons.
The next day, Dudley Buck and Lee Meadows, the two young vigilantes, made the headlines of the local paper, the Santa Barbara News-Press. It was not the first time that Buck had made a name for himself in the local community; nor was it the first time that he had caught the eye of the authorities.
DUDLEY ALLEN BUCK was born in San Francisco on April 25, 1927, to Edna and Allen Buck. Two years later, his sister Virginia was born, and two years after that they were joined by baby brother Frank.
The family lived in an apartment at 1260 California Street, a block or so below the summit of Nob Hill—in the shadow of Grace Cathedral, the imposing neo-Gothic landmark built with money from the California gold rush. From their elevated spot the family had panoramic views of the city and San Francisco Bay; there was a park nearby where Dudley would play with his sister and baby brother. But most of the time he just wanted to build things. Every Christmas he would ask for another Meccano erector set—allowing him to build ever more complex creations.
When he wasn’t building things, Dudley would take to wandering the streets—straying much farther than his mother ever realized. When he was as young as six he would take his sister Virginia down to the building site of the Golden Gate Bridge; they would stand for hours watching the thousands of men from the Bethlehem Steel Corporation bolt girders together and raise them into place, day after day, year after year. By the time the bridge towers reached their full height of 746 feet, and the bridge opened with a parade of 200,000 people on foot or roller skates, Dudley was ten years old.
Around the same time, he got a job selling magazines door to door, which gave him not only the pocket money he needed to buy more parts for his erector sets but also an excuse to keep wandering the streets. One of his favorite spots was the cable car power station at the junction of Mason and Washington Streets, one of many that kept the famous San Francisco cable car system moving. He would watch the huge cogs revolve as they pulled the loops of thick steel cable in and out of the building and under the street.
Life was good for Dudley and his younger siblings until Edna, their young Irish mother, suffered a bizarre, tragic accident. One day, at home in the kitchen, she stumbled and fell into the stove. She hit her head with such force that it caused a giant brain hemorrhage. Edna Buck was never the same again. She needed a lot of care and wasn’t able to look after her family anymore. Dudley was twelve at the time.
Allen Buck spent a few months trying to juggle holding down a full-time job with looking after his wife and raising the kids on his own. He was a college-educated man with a polite turn of phrase who had an office job with the US Postal Service. Adding three children and a seriously ill wife to his workload was too much for him to handle.
The two older children, Dudley and Virginia, were sent to live with their paternal grandmother, Delia Buck, a few hours away in Santa Barbara. The decision was sudden; just a few days after they were told of the plan, Dudley and Virginia found themselves packed on the bus with their suitcases, waving out the window to Frank, their younger brother, who was left behind.
Delia Buck was a formidable woman, with a small neat frame and a piercing stare. She was of Swedish stock—the Peterson family had made their way from Göteborg to a farm in Looking Glass, Nebraska. Delia had become a schoolteacher and traveled every day to her one-room schoolhouse on horseback.
She then married Martin H. Buck, also a schoolteacher; he was a very bright man who “read for the law.” They migrated to California, eventually settling in Santa Barbara. No one knows if Martin ever formally attended a law school of any kind, but he passed all the state law exams and was certified by the District Court of Los Angeles on May 13, 1905. He opened a law practice on State Street in Santa Barbara, and the family began to flourish.
They set up home in a large California-style bungalow at 1215 De La Vina Street, which runs parallel to State Street, the main business thoroughfare of Santa Barbara. The house was built in a Spanish Moorish style that was popular at the time. It had views of the Montecito Hills from the front veranda, and there was a park across the street.
Martin Buck died young, at the age of forty-nine, leaving Delia with five children (a sixth child, Hazel, had died in infancy), and the sprawling house, to look after. She had learned to do things for herself.
Delia was soft-spoken and intelligent; whenever she offered an opinion, her words were clear and unambiguous. (Many of those opinions were about the perils of alcohol—Grandma Delia led the local temperance movement.) Everyone listened to her.
By the time Dudley and Virginia were sent to live with Grandma Delia she was already sixty-two years old, and long accustomed to life as a widow. She had learned to paint, and churned out canvases relentlessly. Each member of the family had at least one Grandma Delia original hanging on his or her wall.
If work needed to be done around the house, it was Delia who would pick up a hammer and nails and set to the work herself.
Behind the main house there was a garden with lemon, fig, and avocado trees. Then there were two small houses: a tiny guesthouse and a playhouse for the kids. A driveway ran down the middle of the yard, with garages lining either side—two dozen garages in total, butted one against the other in two parallel rows.
The garages were Grandma Delia’s business. The motorcar was increasingly common in prosperous Santa Barbara, so downtown parking space came at a premium. Grandma Delia kept the family going by renting out the garages.
No sooner had Dudley stepped off the bus from San Francisco than he laid claim to one of the garages for himself. Garage number 1—nearest to the house—happened to be vacant at the time. It became Dudley’s laboratory.
The windowless steel structure had a power supply but not much else. Dudley would trawl around town picking up any potential equipment he could find and drag it back to his lab. To make it clear that garage number 1 was off-limits to any visitors, he electrified the door handle.
Dudley and Virginia soon settled into the local school and got used to life without their parents, living under the rule of Grandma Delia. Their world was about to be tipped on end once again, however.
Delia, Dudley, and Virginia were in church on Sunday, December 7, 1941, when they heard that the Japanese had bombed the naval base at Pearl Harbor, forcing America into World War II. The house at 1215 De La Vina street was about to get a lot busier.
All of Dudley’s uncles signed up for active duty straightaway and were shipped overseas. Their wives—Dudley’s aunts Grace, Gladys, and Ruth—came home to Santa Barbara to live with their mother for the duration of the war, where they all found jobs locally.
The onset of war came amid other struggles for the family. Burt Peterson, one of Grandma Delia’s farming brothers back in Nebraska, had been driven out of business. A biblical combination of severe drought, dust storms, and a plague of grasshoppers had wiped out what had once been a very prosperous farm.
Burt had grown corn, wheat, and some oats, and had reared cattle and bred horses. The Petersons were the first farmers in their county to buy a rubber-tired tractor; they also bought a big generator to supply electricity to the barn and outbuildings.
His four children had already lost their mother. After the dust covered the fence posts of the farm, the Peterson children were told to pick their most treasured possessions and jump in the car, and Burt’s family also came to live with Delia in Santa Barbara. The two older sons had signed up to join the war effort, but Burt’s daughter, Doris, and his younger boy, Dean, were still of school age. With Burt and his two youngest kids added to the fold, Grandma Delia’s household expanded to nine. Then Uncle Ed, another of Delia’s farming brothers from Nebraska, also saw his farm struck by drought; he too joined the family at 1215 De La Vina while he tried to find work.
For young Dudley, life with Grandma Delia had transformed from an existence dominated by church and school into a bubbling chaos of cousins, aunts, and uncles, all living on top of one another.
The Petersons (Burt, Ed, Dean, and Doris) blended in seamlessly with the Bucks (Dudley, Grace, Gladys, Ruth, and Virginia). At some point Dudley’s parents moved down to Santa Barbara from San Francisco to join the rest of the family. Edna was still in bad condition. Allen and Edna rented their own small apartment nearby, but Dudley and Virginia continued to live with Grandma Delia, and their younger brother Frank was sent to join them.
Miraculously, Delia managed to fit everyone in. There had been an open veranda on three sides of the house, but she had glassed in two sides to create extra bedrooms. It was a full house, but a happy one.
Young Dudley was left largely to his own devices, spending much of his time in garage number 1 working on his next experiment. The small lab was primarily dedicated to the creation of pranks. One such prank was to set up a hidden microphone in his sister Virginia’s bedroom, which was wired back to his garage lair; he used it to listen in on the girly teenage conversations between Virginia and her best friend Amy. Dudley had a thing for Amy. His aunts were also targeted. Early one Saturday morning he rigged a speaker just below the window of the bedroom his aunts shared. Using his amplifier, he simulated the sound of a hissing snake. The family’s old dog Paddy was known to have a particular hatred of snakes. As soon as the dog heard the noise, he bounded into the bedroom, barked ferociously, and caused general mayhem. Given that Saturday morning was the only day in the week that the hardworking aunts were able to sleep in, this didn’t make Dudley too popular.
The local church was also a victim of Dudley’s practical jokes. Grandma Delia was a very strict fundamentalist Baptist. As soon as the Buck children arrived in Santa Barbara, they were signed up for Sunday school, where each of them had perfect attendance records year after year. They were also sent to Bible camp every summer.
One year all of the children who had attended Bible camp were asked to share something with the congregation that they had learned. Many of the little girls recited an important Bible verse. Most of the boys held up wooden crosses they had whittled. Others had created an object or figure for the board used to tell Bible stories. Dudley, however, hauled some of his lab equipment into the sanctuary and proceeded to make a stink bomb.
As coughing fits erupted around the room and handkerchiefs were pulled from pockets to cover noses and mouths, Grandma Delia sat motionless, stunned by what had just happened.
There were dozens of other such incidents, all motivated by mischief rather than malice.
Young Dudley was a hard worker. By the time he was fourteen, he had a paper route and a job in the herb garden at the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden; he awarded himself the rather grand title of “assistant curator of the herbarium,” even though his job was just to pull the weeds.
Dudley and his older cousin Dean also made money by collecting wrappers from bread and hamburger buns. One of the local bakeries offered one cent for every wrapper, so they would spend hours gathering them, earning enough to pay the forty-cent ticket price for the matinee showings at the local Granada Theater.
Dudley was an exemplary student at La Cumbre Junior High School, winning prizes and awards for everything. Virginia called Dudley Wonder Boy, and he was a hard act to follow; Virginia and Frank were known by the teachers and the principal as “Dudley Buck’s sister” and “Dudley Buck’s brother.”
It was tough for Frank, who had a harder time with school and often fell on the wrong side of Grandma Delia’s iron rule. Frank referred to Dudley as Little Jesus, even though Dudley always came to his defense.
On one occasion Dudley doctored the year’s final report card that was sent home with Frank to Grandma—turning all the fails into passes by amending each F into a P with a flick of the pen. Under the section reserved for “remarks by teachers,” Dudley penned, “Frank’s work is a true inspiration to the whole class and his work compares with a college senior. I believe, however, that he is far too hum-drummed at home. He should be given his own way more often as this encourages individualism. Sincerely, Wm. J. Kircher.”
Dudley became an Eagle Scout. He also started evening classes on radio operation at the local high school, which is where he met Lee Meadows.
The two boys were perfect foils for each other. Meadows too had been forced by circumstances to move to Santa Barbara. His family came from Danville, Illinois, where his father had owned a Studebaker and Nash car dealership. The business went bust at the tail end of the Great Depression, forcing the family west to California for a new start.
Lee Meadows was the same age as Dudley. He was also knowledgeable about radios and electronics, and had designed an amplifier for a public address system while still in the eighth grade. In his spare time he was helping one of their high-school radio instructors build a similar system for use in the school.
They took evening classes together in radio electronics, which was how they came to know Dan Foote and other local enthusiasts. Dudley and Lee realized they made a good team. Dudley was the brighter of the two, and more creative, but Lee was better with his hands. They decided to set up a business together, using their electrical skills to make money.
And so Santa Barbara Sound Laboratories Unlimited was created—one of the first mobile disc jockey businesses in California, Meadows claims. “We called ourselves Santa Barbara Sound, but we weren’t licensed or anything,” he recalls.
The two boys bought what little equipment they could afford and scrounged the rest. From Val Shannon at Channel Radio Supply, the instructor for their evening classes, the boys acquired a Bell fifteen-watt amplifier on a rent-to-buy basis. They cobbled together the cash to buy two twelve-inch speakers, and built two more from parts borrowed from other local radio shop owners that they had met in their class. They had two microphones—one Electrolux and one Shure. Thanks to a little ingenuity, the two boys were able to cram all this equipment into Lee’s Graham-Paige coupe.
It was late 1942. World War II was in full force, but it was all happening too far away to completely disrupt the flow of life in central California.
As the only two boys in school who knew anything about radios and sound systems, they soon became popular. They would set up their sound system for school dances. As word started to get out about the two young entrepreneurs, they picked up jobs providing the public address system for ballgames, dances, and just about any other event.
Then they got regular gigs at the Montecito Country Club, amplifying the bands for their Saturday night dances. According to the detailed books the two boys kept, they would get paid $13.25 for their evening’s work—about $190 in today’s terms.
Thanks to those high-profile jobs, Dudley and Lee were then hired by local socialite Pearl Chase to provide sound systems for her regular social events and fund-raisers. Chase was one of Santa Barbara’s community pillars; the campaign to protect the town’s architecture and heritage carries on in her name today.
If anyone in the area needed a sound system, they would turn to Santa Barbara Sound Laboratories. The young company was even touched by stardom: when Nat King Cole came to play the Santa Barbara Bowl, it was Dudley and Lee who provided the sound, Meadows claims. The King Cole Trio, as it was known then, had already earned a degree of fame and was about to sign to Capitol Records.
A steady income was coming from the sound business. It was not all about the cash and the glamour, however. Every time the two boys set up their equipment they learned a little bit more about the vagaries of electromagnetic fields and transformers. It led to them designing their own microphone cables to reduce the magnetic humming noise produced by their equipment.
Shortly after his fifteenth birthday, in 1942, Dudley got a part-time job with Val Shannon repairing radio receivers. Six months later he moved on to a job as a radio serviceman at Feliz Radio and Appliance at 30 East Carrillo Street.
Along the way, he studied for his radio licences. In June 1943 Dudley passed exams set by the Federal Communications Commission that saw him earn a first-class commercial radio license. Although he was still just sixteen, he was hired by the local radio station KTMS the day after he passed his test to work weekends. For his twenty hours a week, Dudley earned a salary of one hundred dollars a month—about thirteen hundred dollars in today’s terms.
The significant sums of cash being earned by young Dudley were mostly squirreled away for the future. He did not drink or smoke; Grandma Delia had distilled the spirit of temperance in him from a young age. He went on trips to the movies with Lee, his sister Virginia, and her best friend Amy, but Dudley got most of his kicks from his experiments.
As he started working professionally with bigger and better pieces of radio equipment, the experiments in Grandma Delia’s garage became more elaborate. He built a system that allowed him to listen to his records from any room in Grandma Delia’s house. It was based on a small AM radio transmitter created using a single vacuum tube. He could hook it up to his record player and broadcast the songs on a chosen AM frequency, allowing it to be picked up from a normal radio receiver. To put it in a twenty-first-century context, it was a bit like streaming music over a wireless Internet connection.
His little brother Frank and the neighbors were big fans of Dudley’s self-built radio station. Though it worked very well, he kept it small and low-powered—and with good reason; it was illegal.
Amateur radio operations had been mostly shut down since the outbreak of World War II. It was part of a plot to track down spies: if the amateur signals were cut out of the equation, any signal that was not produced by the military or an official commercial broadcaster would most probably be a spy trying to communicate with his or her handlers. That was the theory, anyway.
Dudley’s wireless system had attracted some unexpected attention. Pilots at the nearby air base had been disrupted on their training missions by radio broadcasts of the latest swing and big band hits. Although Dudley had been careful to avoid the frequencies used by the US Air Force, his transmitter had been unwittingly broadcasting signals on other frequencies.
The sixteen-year-old knew nothing about the flaw in his device until Grandma Delia opened the door to two agents from the Federal Communications Commission.
They dismantled the contraption in Dudley’s garage laboratory, took note of his name, and gave him a stern warning about the dangers of interfering with the work of the US Department of Defense.
A few months later Dudley was plucked out of high school and sent on a fast-track training scheme for America’s best and brightest.
VICE ADMIRAL RANDALL JACOBS HAD COME UP WITH THE solution to a colossal problem.
The war was taking its toll on America. Many of the nation’s doctors and engineers had been sent to the front line, where their numbers had been depleted. A shortage of skills was starting to hinder the war effort.
Worse than that, the production line for replacement doctors and engineers was grinding to a halt. The conscription age had been dropped from twenty-one to eighteen immediately after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, marking America’s entry into the war. The young men who would ordinarily have gone on to a college education were being drafted into service before they had a chance to enroll, and those who had started their education before the war had been whisked off soon afterward, before completing their studies. The only skilled graduates now emerging from America’s educational establishments were those who had already been excused from active service, mainly for medical reasons.
The shortage of students in the system created another worrying problem, with potentially lasting impact. The drop in enrollment at US colleges had been so steep that many institutions faced bankruptcy. A large part of the whole academic system was on the cusp of closing down, creating a secondary headache for the American government.
The US Navy came up with a neat solution, which it called the V-12 program. As the chief of naval personnel, it fell to Vice Admiral Jacobs to reveal the project at a specially arranged conference of 131 colleges and navy top brass held at Columbia University on May 14–15, 1943.
It was a fast-track officer-training scheme that would mix undergraduate study in a few chosen disciplines with the rigors of naval training. Empty college dormitories would be turned into improvised barracks to house this new elite force, and college quadrangles would be transformed into parade grounds.
Under the program, the US Navy would filter the best of the best of America’s high-school students through a nationwide testing system. These students would then be mixed with battle-hardened marines and seasoned sailors who had been singled out for promotion to officer class but needed to improve their education.
Those accepted to the course were to be offered tuition at top academic institutions paid for by the navy, along with a salary of fifty dollars a month and a trainee officer’s posting upon completion. They would study medicine, dentistry, engineering, mathematics, or more specialized subjects such as electrical engineering. There were even courses in theology, designed to increase the dwindling ranks of navy chaplains.
Unlike other students, the V-12 classes would be in uniform at all times, wake up at 6:00 a.m., and be confined to their quarters at 7:00 p.m. They would also study for twelve months of the year, rather than nine, in order to push through their degree course in record time.
All of America’s academic giants, including Ivy League colleges like Harvard, Princeton, and Yale, signed up to take part. High school teachers across America pushed their brightest pupils to take the test, not least because it offered the chance to delay being sent to Germany or the Pacific.
“Gentlemen, we are about to embark on an education program that will have important effects on American colleges, on the navy and most important of all, on the lives of thousands of this nation’s finest young men,” Vice Admiral Jacobs told the assembled crowd at the start of the conference. “We must educate and train these men well so that they may serve their country with distinction, both in war and in peace.”
The V-12 program lived up to that lofty billing. More than a hundred thousand young men were pushed through the course—allowing colleges to rebuild their finances and the navy to build up its skills base.
The scheme’s output was prolific. Its graduates included everyone from future senator Robert F. Kennedy to Johnny Carson, who would go on to become America’s most famous TV star. The actor Jack Lemmon and the film director Sam Peckinpah both passed through V-12, along with Warren Christopher, who would become US secretary of state. Paul Newman passed the V-12 tests but had to drop out after the navy doctors found him to be color-blind.
The V-12 project was not without its controversies. There were suspicions about whether everyone who caught on to it as a draft-dodging ploy had passed the test, or if there was a possibility that some families had used influence to keep their offspring from the front line. Its proponents argued that it was a thoroughly meritocratic affair. Whatever the truth of the situation, it unquestionably provided a route to a future for many youngsters from less affluent backgrounds who were blessed with sufficient brainpower.
Dudley Buck took the V-12 test in January 1944 and passed it easily. Five months later, right after graduating from high school, he was put on a train from Santa Barbara to Seattle. He had been assigned to study electrical engineering at the University of Washington.
Buck left charge of the Santa Barbara Sound Laboratories to Lee Meadows, who would run the business for one more year before he too signed up for a navy training course, followed by a lengthy career with defense contractor Raytheon.
By the time the train got to San Francisco, Buck had already made his first new friend. Ed Barneich had qualified for a separate training program, to become a navy pilot. After a long overnight ride on the hard train seats they arrived in Seattle to discover that they were to be roommates: the navy arranged its men alphabetically so Barneich and Buck were thrown in together.
They were posted to what had been the university’s women’s dormitory before the war. They were lucky; most of the other teenagers were also forced to share rooms with battle-hardened sailors.
“The navy had a sense of humor,” explains Lynn Huff, one of Buck’s classmates in the V-12 program. “The group there was made up half of guys coming out of high school like Dudley, myself, and the other half made of guys in from the fleet. They paired us up as roommates, the green seventeen-year-olds with the old salts. I refer to that as the education of the innocent. It was an interesting time; we grew up in a hurry.”
Although the navy kept a steady eye on the curriculum for the V-12 students, the whole point of the program was that it should represent a full college education—the participating institutions were under orders that they were “expected to keep academic standards high.”
Buck soon got bored of classes, however. Thanks to his extracurricular dabbling with radio back home in Santa Barbara, he already knew most of what he was being taught. He spent a lot of time helping out others, such as Barneich, who were struggling with the workload. With his spare time he soon renewed his love of practical jokes.
As part of its efforts to groom future leaders, the navy required its V-12 candidates to take courses in public speaking. Often their speeches would be recorded on 78 rpm records using a machine that cut the groove in the record right as the young students spoke. The cutting process left a long thin trail of vinyl strips. Buck realized the strips were flammable, and stored up a bagful of them. Once he had gathered a few handfuls he stuffed them into a floor lamp belonging to one of the students down the corridor. Not long after study hours began, the lamp started smoking. Buck was lucky to escape unscathed—not from the fire, but from the angry classmate who had been his victim.
That was by no means a one-off incident. Buck was forced to do five hours of drill after being caught making fudge in his room on an improvised hot plate made with some electrical wire. Undeterred, he then concocted a strange goopy compound that would create a small explosion when someone sat in it.
“He’d place a tiny drop of it on the chair of an unsuspecting person, who would then sit on it,” explains Ken Lowthian, another V-12 student. “After a few minutes of body heat it would go off like a cap gun. It didn’t cause any damage, but it sounded like a cap gun. Buck never gave up his secret. He was always a source of amusement to the rest of us.”
While other students were working eighteen or nineteen hours a day, Buck could concentrate on trying to wind up one Lieutenant Durando, the officer tasked with prowling the halls to make sure everyone was studying.
Don Balmer, one of Buck’s closest student friends, claims that one particular practical joke became the talk of campus:
We were not supposed to have any sound during study hours. Dudley thought it would be fun to take his room apart and conceal wires behind the molding. He put a radio way back in the overhead of the closet and he had it rigged so if you turned the doorknob the radio turned off.
The students standing watch were in on the gag. Dudley had his radio loud enough to wake the dead. Lieutenant Durando was prowling the halls one evening. He stopped the student officer of the watch and asked, “How come you haven’t gone after that radio?”
“What radio, sir? I hear nothing, sir.” Durando grabbed him and they went down and stood in the hall outside of Dudley’s room. Other students had their doors cracked, waiting to see what would happen as the radio was blaring away. Durando asked the officer of the watch, “You don’t hear that sound?” “No sir, I hear no sound, sir.”
Durando grabbed the doorknob and turned it; the radio instantly was quiet. Dudley was sitting at the desk doing his homework. He lumbered to his feet and said, “Yes sir, Lieutenant Durando. Is there anything I can do for you sir?” It drove Durando nuts. Later on he asked Dudley, “Just tell me how you did that.”
“Did what, sir?” That was typical of Dudley; he was always doing something special.
The war that they were being trained for raged on, but the V-12 students were reasonably isolated from it. In between their long days of study, there was sufficient leave to allow time for hiking trips up some of the biggest mountains in Washington, including many glacier-capped peaks over ten thousand feet high. They also went on sailing trips around the inlets of Puget Sound.
In their first few months at college, in the summer of 1944, the Soviet Union had yet to declare war on Japan. Buck and some of the other young navy cadets would canoe out to the fleet of Soviet icebreakers docked in the bay, where they would try to strike up conversations before the sailors headed back to Vladivostok.
When the V-12 students signed out of their dorms in the evening to go to the university library, it was often just to chat up girls. The life led by this elite group was a relatively charmed one—certainly when compared to that of their high-school friends, who were now mostly in active service. The brutality of what was going on farther west in the Pacific was only evidenced by the occasional return to port of a battered aircraft carrier or destroyer, sent to the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard in nearby Bremerton for repair.
Thanks to the work of a group of pioneering scientists more than fourteen hundred miles away in Los Alamos, New Mexico, Buck and most of his classmates never experienced the horrors of World War II. The Manhattan Project scientists were nearing their first test detonation of an atomic bomb. On July 16, 1945, in the middle of the New Mexico desert, the first nuclear explosion was secretly initiated. Ten days later, Britain, China, and the United States warned Japan that it faced imminent destruction unless it surrendered soon.
For Dudley Buck, official confirmation of the nuclear technology meant just one thing: he had to try to make a bomb for himself. In between planning his practical jokes, Buck had been staying up late into the night reading what little there was to read on nuclear physics; there was only one book on the topic in the university library.
He had been telling his classmates for some time that with even a small amount of uranium it would be possible to “blow up the state of Nebraska.” With hydrogen he reckoned he could make “a bigger boom.” Somehow he persuaded his classmate Don Balmer to break into the university lab with him to test the theory. As Balmer remembers,
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