Apollo Guidance Computer History Project
November 30, 2001
SANDY BROWN: This is Professor David Mindell, who is the principal investigator on this project. The reason we've got people here today is that this is part of a series of group oral histories where we're trying to get people together who were involved in the Apollo guidance project and get you to tell us a few of your stories, to tell us a little bit about your experiences, what you remember about working on this particular project.
This is part of a much larger project which breaks down into five units, of which we are one. We are studying the Apollo guidance computer. There are also projects that are studying the history of material science, on the rise of bio-informatics, on the dispute in physics about the process of normalization, and there is one other one--
DAVID MINDELL: Material science, Renormalisation, Bio-informatics, molecular evolution. A pretty broad coverage in the history of science, but we have the only engineering one.
SANDY BROWN: And this is part of a project that has a couple of aims. The first one is to figure out how to do research into very large projects in the recent history of science and technology. Historians tend to find that, the further back you go, the easier it is to manage your sources, sd there are a lot less things to deal with. Once you start to deal with projects in science and engineering after the Second World War, it starts to become a problem of how to manage the huge amount of information that you have access to, and the huge amount of information that might bear on your particular project.
So one of the things we're doing as a part of this exercise is really an investigation of how to tell the history of such a large-scale project like the Apollo Guidance Computer. And another thrust of the project is to figure out what use the World Wide Web is going to be in helping us with these kinds of things.
And, as you can see, and I know that some of you have seen this, we have put together s Web site, which is an ongoing project, which holds the information that we gather in the results of these kind of conferences, to make this available to us, to our research, and to other people in the historical community to do their research, and to people in the wider community.
You'd be surprised how much interest there is in the wider community since we put this Web site up. We get E-mails from members of the public on a regular basis, sort of either asking us about the Web site, telling us about information that's out there, asking questions about the information that's on there. There's a guy that was attempting to rebuild one of these machines, and he's had some communication with us.
ELDON HALL: Lots of luck.
DAVE BATES: Is he the guy in Venezuela?
ELDON HALL: No, this is a different guy.
SANDY BROWN: There's one trying to program one on a PC a kind of simulator program. He sent me a very brief E-mail saying, this is what I'm trying to do, but he hasn't sent the results yet. There's also a guy who actually, apparently--this is judging from the E-mail that he sent me, actually wants to rebuild the hardware, he wants to go from scratch.
__: He would never do that.
__: We don't even know how we did it.
DAVE HANLEY: When Eldon was on the Trident program, and he had to buy diodes, he went to Fairchild and he wanted diodes with specs for the Trident program, and they said they couldn't make them. Then Eldon pulled out of his pocket a whole bunch of Fairchild's diodes from the Apollo program, and all the specifications. These people just don't know how to make Apollo diodes anymore.
SANDY BROWN: I thought I'd just very briefly run you through the Web site and explain one or two things that we're doing here. We've already run a couple of conferences, and I know there are people here today who should have been at the first conference. So as we hold these conferences, we put these up on the Web, and we make the transcriptions of those conferences available. We're also gathering documents and scanning these and putting these on the Web, which are a complement to these accounts.
ELDON HALL: There's a whole bunch of them, on the Web. I mean, I assume NASA still has some documents.
DAVID MINDELL: NASA are actually very happy and very supportive of this product.
__: Down in Houston?
DAVID MINDELL: Not in Houston, in Washington. All the good's stuff's in Houston, and all the bureaucratic stuff's in Washington. But it turns out we have to get NASA to let Draper have us, to tell Draper to let us have access to a lot of things in the Draper archives as well. Even though NASA doesn't think so. But that's another story.
JACK POUNDSTONE: Has Draper still got all the drawings in the archives?
ELDON HALL: Im trying to find drawings, so I don't know yet. It seems like they should be there, someplace, but nobody there knows even if they were on their pilot program, so they don't know where the drawings are.
DAVE BATES: Well, it's the same problem with Raytheon. I tried to go in and find archives in Raytheon and they're worried about tomorrow, not yesterday.
JACK POUNDSTONE: But I do know the aperture cards were saved.
ELDON HALL: Well, they were, but where are those aperture cards?
JACK POUNDSTONE: They were shipped to NASA.
ELDON HALL: You think so?
JACK POUNDSTONE: Yes. It was a contract requirement.
ELDON HALL: Well, I would think so.
JACK POUNDSTONE: Then NASA must have it, someplace.
ELDON HALL: Yes. But I had a copy that I sent to the American Computer Museum, up in Boseman, Montana, and I can get those back, if necessary. It would be better to send those aperture cards.
JACK POUNDSTONE: You know, I went to--for some strange reason, going back to when I was working, I got picked to go to a conference in Washington that was held by the Smithsonian, and it had to do with archiving and maintaining the history of all kinds of aerospace projects, and they had representatives from Boeing and Grumman and Lockheed, and everybody in the country was there. And I learned about some of the details of how they do it and all the problems of storing documents and all that, but what you spoke of is a common problem in the whole aerospace industry, in that, although there are historians and archivists who'd just love to get a hold of this stuff, the companies could care less.
There's a few companies that do it. Boeing had done some on theirs. But most companies are just--you know. And when I went back to my company and tried to report there was a lot of interest in it, I got the same old "Who cares?"
DAVID MINDELL: That's why most history of technology ends up getting written about government projects.
JACK POUNDSTONE: But you can't make any money doing it, is the problem, and we're money making people. Its the same thing as I just said. I mean, they're worried about tomorrow, they're not worrying about yesterday, okay? And I couldn't even find any pictures or anything else like that. There is a retiree who's working up in Lexington who is actively trying to develop a museum of hardware and pictures. He's been on the phone with me several times, wanting me to produce stuff like this, which I never got around to until I got ready to come to this meeting. But I don't know if he ever got a hold of you or not. Hes a retiree who's not being paid. All the company ever did was give him a little space in a building they didn't know what else to do with. I forget his name.
DAVE BATES: Smith?
JACK POUNDSTONE: Smith, I think.
DAVE BATES: He's in Lexington.
JACK POUNDSTONE: But anyway, I think that's typical --the only reason it's happening is because the retiree is interested. The company could care less.
DAVID MINDELL: It's more often, companies actively--they worry a lot about liabilities, and they destroy as much as they can if that happens.
JACK POUNDSTONE: Well, then, of course, the government policies say you're supposed to do that anyway. You almost have to cheat to keep an old piece of hardware. Of course, that never bothered Draper. You guys used to do it all the time.
CLINE FRASIER: Actually, these guys at Delco managed to find all the pieces I think for a complete system, for one of the reunions they had, about three years ago. So at their reunion in Milwaukee they had laid out on the table all the major pieces--I think they had a computer too.
JACK POUNDSTONE: I remember one time somebody went to one of these junkyards and found a PIPA (Pulse Integrating Pendulous Accelerometer) and they picked it up for a dollar or two.
DAVE BATES: It was right over here, in the Back Bay area, he used to buy it by the pound.
HUGH BLAIR-SMITH: Eli Heffron, perhaps?
DAVE HANLEY: If you talk about old-type packaging, you remember Dmitri Grabee? He was the one that held the patent on multi-layered board technology.
JACK POUNDSTONE: Who did he work for?
DAVE HANLEY: Photocircuits at the time, but anyway, the only reason I mentioned it is that he has a fantastic museum, all types of factory stuff.
ELDON HALL: He walked out of the lab with the logic tray at block one. Now, how he got out of the lab I don't know.
JACK POUNDSTONE: Draper was never too particular about the rules.
ELDON HALL: I would have gladly walked out with one, if I could have.
SANDY BROWN: So, as I said, we're collecting documents. So I'll put out a plea at this point--if you guys have documents or photos or anything in your basement, or any memorabilia that you might have, we would love to see this, we'd like to scan it, put it on the Web, make it available for posterity.
JACK POUNDSTONE: Did you ever get a computer?
DAVE BATES: Jack wanted a display case with all the stuff that we had, so when you brought people in, you could show them what we had. And he had all this stuff from the standpoint of the integrated circuits and the diodes and everything else, those were all in plastic, that we got from the lines that we had there. But we also had an Apollo computer. And what happened with that Bob Zagrodnik should know, because he was the last program manager, I think.
ED BLONDIN: Is this a scientific endeavor or historical? Are you people historians or scientists?
DAVID MINDELL: Well, that's a good question. I'm actually both a control engineer and an historian, and so some of the background for this project comes from--I'm just publishing a book on the history of control engineering from 1915 to 1948. It's also before classical control theory really kind of gelled, and it has a lot of the early Draper stuff, during the second world war, with the Mark 14 gun sight and a lot of computing in a whole bunch of different ways. And basically, it turns out to be mostly anti-aircraft fire control and early radar, during the second world war. And that's been a seven or eight year project that I've been working on. And coming to the close of that project a couple of years ago sort of decided what's next, and I always thought that the right way to end that book would have been with Apollo, because it's a very logical, consistent set of progressions there--Cline's actually read the book.
CLINE FRASIER: I was going to say, I highly recommend the book when it comes out. I thoroughly enjoyed it. They gave it to me to read because I worked on one of the anti-aircraft fire control systems that he had in the book.
DAVID MINDELL: But if I'd gone all the way for Apollo, it would have been 1,000 pages instead of 500 page and nobody at all would have read it. And so what we're doing here is sort of we're going to skip a little bit, in the middle unfortunately, and then--
JACK POUNDSTONE: Your book is all analog?
DAVID MINDELL: It's actually about the role that control engineering played in the emergence of digital computing, and about how people began to think about the relationship between analog and digital, in the context of design and control systems.
CLINE FRASIER: A lot of history about Doc and Webb and the interaction with Sperry, too, that I found very interesting. I read Webb's book, the biography of Webb just before, and how it all fit together was quite--
DAVID MINDELL: And a big part of it is manufacturing, and one of my arguments in the book is you can't really understand this history until you look at the manufacturing issues that came up, because during the second world war a big reason that people started moving toward electronic analog computing had less to do with anything like accuracy or speed and it had everything to do with the problems of manufacturing mechanical computers and, at the time, the relative ease of people like Westinghouse building a computer instead of Chrysler.
So we've extended that basic approach into this project and we're saying that the Apollo computer is generally under-appreciated by historians of computing because all they tend to care about is architecture and they work out of this very abstracted framework. And we're looking at it saying we think the Apollo computer is important for several different reasons. Obviously, the integrated circuits aspect of it is important, the general manufacturing aspects, the human/machine interface, the control systems, etc.
So, in some way, this is the climactic chapter of what's a century long development of feedback control, computing, human/machine interface and advanced manufacturing techniques for control vehicles
ELDON HALL: Have you seen the latest Scientific American and their article about the history of the development of PCs? It's interesting, except they've completely ignored just what you said about the Apollo computer. I would think it was one of the first that really had human interaction with the visual computer, and they don't even mention it. But there's other interesting things in there that goes way back to Whirlwind.
JACK POUNDSTONE: From a manufacturing point of view, to talk about the evolution of Apollo, you really have to start with Polaris. It was the genesis of this, not only from a manufacturing technology, but from a people perspective. Most all of them worked on Polaris.
DAVID MINDELL: And one thing we're very interested in is the people side of it, actually, because there again, people tend to be far too simple, about looking at influences of technology. They say, "here's a computer, what was the influence?" And then they say, "what other computers did people design with that computer?" As opposed to saying, "here's a project, people built this project. What did those people learn from the project, and how did they carry on in the rest of their careers, or in starting a company, or in later projects they did?" When I was at NASA last week, they were very interested about this project, because they're always being pinged on to document their influence.
And they have this really dumb idea of spin-off, like the astronauts drink Tang and then everybody on the ground drinks Tang. And there are some of those, but they're not nearly as significant as the companies who got involved in Apollo. They did things in a new way, people learned things, and then they'd move on. And that's a lot harder to document, but it's a lot more meaningful, because you've got to follow the people around. And sometimes it's within the same company, and sometimes they move onto other companies, so they were very interested in that part of this project
So, as we go around we'll ask you to introduce yourselves and say something about both how you got to the Apollo project, but also where your career went afterward. And we may then interview you individually in more detail about this, because we're very interested in exactly those kinds of developments.
DAVE BATES: Well, they can't fire us or put us in jail now.
ELDON HALL: Don't be too sure.
DAVID MINDELL: So, the site is up on the Web. How many of you have seen the site already? So a good number of you. We'll send you the address. And it's about to be updated again.
What we'll do from today, you can see we're recording it. We're going to make a transcript, and we edit the transcript to make it a little more readable, just because conversation tends to be very verbose and we compress it a bit. And then we'll send it to you, by e-mail or however way you like, so that before anything goes on the Web that you've said you have a chance to review it, correct it, add to it if you choose, and then we recompile it and put it on the Web in this conversational format. Sometimes people remember things that they didn't remember when they were here and they'll go look something up.
What I think we'd like to do, to start, and it may take a whole lot of the morning, is just have people go around and tell your own version of the story, or, at least, say who you are, what your background was, how you got here, and we'll get into some of the detailed stuff later--where you worked, and for how long. We have Raytheon people here and Instrumentation Lab people here so at least everybody here gets a sense of who else is there. And then when we complete that we'll get into some specific questions. But usually that process itself generates a lot of interesting conversation.
Home: Conference 3