Tikkun Olam in Silicon Valley
Q&A: Tech guru Steve Blank talks about Thailand, secret high-tech, and the Valley’s Jewish moment
So, all of a sudden there are three 40-foot vans full of electronics, and I have six weeks to produce a 10-week course. I don’t even know what a course is, other than I took a lot of them. Well, I did a damn good job, I was promoted to the manager training of education, and then I got to work on this project that took me to these special locations. The special locations happened to be the most secret Cold War project the U.S. ever had.
Talk about between the nexus between the intelligence community and Silicon Valley, and how that evolved.
During World War II there was a guy named Vannevar Bush, who was head of engineering at MIT, and he had a brilliant idea. He had some experience working with the Navy in World War I, and he said we have the military developing advanced weapons—but forget it, they’re clueless. So, why don’t we do something different? Why don’t we draft scientists and engineers, keep them in their own universities, and have the military task them, and let them develop the weapons there? No country had ever done this before: Let’s give the money to the universities and not to the military labs. Basically, they draft 10,000 scientists and engineers and keep them in non-uniform. One of the projects is called the Manhattan Project, which is run by Oppenheimer.
But the other things were they set up 15 separate divisions, radar, electronic warfare, rockets, etc., and they poured the equivalent of $5.5 billion into universities. MIT gets a billion and a half, Harvard and Columbia 350 million, and Stanford gets 6 million. One of the labs was set up at Harvard called the radio research lab, which was a fake code name for a new type of electronics called electronic warfare.
What happened was the Germans had decided to defend occupied Europe from American and British bomber attacks with radar. They deployed over 15,000 radar sets and they had this amazing electronic air-defense system, but we had no idea what that was. So, the first thing we had to develop in less than nine months was the entire electronic intelligence business. We fitted airplanes with receivers, and then we had to build mechanical and electronic devices to shut down the radars. The guy who ended up running this lab was named Fred Terman, and he was an electrical engineer out of Stanford.
And after the war, Terman goes back to Stanford and becomes dean of engineering, and he decides two things: First, Stanford will never get fucked out of military money again. Second, I just ran a war center and the U.S. is now in a cold war, so it will be good for the country to build electronic intelligence in Stanford. So, as the Korean War breaks out and the Cold War ramps up, Terman turns Stanford into a secret weapons lab for the CIA and the NSA. So, Stanford becomes the center of excellence for electronic warfare, which happens to be what I’m working on in Vietnam.
I didn’t realize any of this until later, of course, when I checked into my office at Stanford in the Terman Engineering Building.
So, NRO, CIA, were all working through cover organizations based in Silicon Valley in the 1960s and ’70s and helping to create what becomes the hub of the computer business and the software business.
ESL, Argo Systems, had all the overhead stuff. Back in the ’70s there maybe five or six companies in the valley. At 24 I was accidentally working in the company in charge of training and operations. And it gets even weirder.
Two stories. One, I’m now at this secret, secret, site that’s so secret they don’t even lock the safes because if you’re there, you already know. And because I’m curious and like to read and I love nighttime, I always worked the midnight to 8 shift. Instead of reading a novel, I started on one safe and started reading my way through, keeping a notebook of everything I was learning. I was the guy who did Wikileaks without Wikileaks, but I wasn’t leaking anything—I was writing it down for myself.
And this is when I get impressed with security: Back then I had a big Jew-fro, I swear I’m ¾ of the way through the safe, and I’m really learning a lot of interesting things. We were doing stuff you wouldn’t believe. To make a long story short, I get called in by the head of security for coffee. He said, “How are you?” I said, “Great.” He pulls out an envelope and goes tap, tap, tap, and three long black, curly hairs come out. He goes, “This was found in [name of manual you shouldn’t be reading]. Is this yours?” I said, “Oh yeah, I’ve been reading through all the manuals and keeping all these notes.” He said, “Where!” I said, “Oh, they’re in the bottom of the safe.” He was out of the room, into the vault. He brings back the notebook and starts looking at the code words and is like, “I can’t read this! And you can’t write this!” And I said, “Well, I did.” He said, “Why are you doing this?” I said, “Oh, it was great!” About a week later he said, “I want you to know how much trouble you caused. I have to have your word that you’re going to take up a new hobby.” I thought I was going to get in trouble, but instead they just asked me to take it down a notch.
The black world was completely segregated from commercial activities in the Valley. I think I’m one of the few refugees from the black world into the white world, only because I happened to have a roommate who was working at Control Data, and we knew other guys doing crazy stupid little Apple things and microprocessors. I mean they were a joke compared to what I was working on, but they were masters in their own fields.
For Sharon Kleinbaum—friend of Christine Quinn, partner to Randi Weingarten—the personal is political