A Seaman's Journey

Adventures of a Lifetime


Weapons of Mass Destruction

My life was first affected by the atomic bomb seven years before I was born.  My father participated in a military exercise at the Nevada test side, where soldiers marched across ground -zero immediately after a nuclear bomb was set off.  It is a miracle that I was even born. Almost thirty years later I would have an opportunity to revisit this same place. 

During college I studied electrical engineering and was excited to build a career doing interesting things.  I wanted to have adventures and interesting stories to tell as every other 20 year-old would. With three years of engineering training, I was itching for a summer internship. One of my professors helped me secure a position at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.

Jimmy Carter was president and the world was filled with opportunities.  The Apple II was the best computer on the market and it would still be another four years before the Apple Macintosh was introduced.  Computers were mostly located in large air conditioned data centers where priests in white lab coats would do the rituals.

The Lab (as we called LLNL) was where Edward Teller created the Hydrogen bomb.  While at the Lab I had an opportunity to attend a lecture on pulsars by Dr. Teller, who was then an old man.  The Lab was run by the Department of Energy and was heavily invested in energy research as well as nuclear weapons. 

This was during the height of the Cold War and there were great concerns about beating the Russians in the race to build weapons of mass destruction.  In those days we thought that the world would be safe if we could build weapons that were so destructive that war would be unthinkable.  In reality we had enough weapons already stockpiled to destroy the world population several times over.  But the madness of the day called for even more weapons innovation.

The summer internship was a dream come true.  Imagine being chosen to work at a secret government facility designing weapons of mass destruction!   I've always loved comic books and superheroes and this seemed as close as I could get.  As you would expect, the reality was not nearly so exciting as my fantasy.

To do anything at the Lab requires a government clearance.  After I accepted the position the background check began.  An FBI agent was dispatched to talk to all of my teachers (from college, high school, and middle school) and all my employers (as an electrician and a bus boy).  They wanted to know about middle school years of debauchery and drug use.  I tried to assure them that those days were far behind me.

When I got to the Lab my background check had not been completed.   It typically takes about three months.  The internship would only be three months long so I would have to start my work in The Cooler.   These were a series of modular buildings (trailers) that were set up outside the defensive perimeter for non-trusted individuals to "cool their heels" while the background check was being completed.  I spent about half my summer in The Cooler working on the non-classified part of the project.

Once I got my clearance I was permitted to enter the secured area.   Heavily armed guards would meet you at the gate and physically take your badge to check it. In some cases there was a plexiglass booth that you would stand in while waiting for admittance.  Our badges contained a dosimeter to measure the radiation that we were exposed to.   These badges were read about once a month, as I recall.  After the incident with Bruce Banner they had implemented many additional safety protocols  ;-)

This was my first truly adult job.  I was like a kid in a candy store or a Texan at a BBQ.  My job was to design and build a computer board that would plug into the backplane of a DEC PDP 11 computer.  The computer would record data off of the board and save data to some kind of permanent storage.  I can't remember how the data was stored, and it is all quite laughable compared to current technology.

During this time the US was still doing live testing of nuclear bombs.  They would drill down into the ground and detonate the bomb underground.   At various distances from the bomb, sensors would be placed to register the shock wave, temperature, pressure, and radiation, etc..  Some sensors would be destroyed within milliseconds of the detonation, while others were placed to survive.  Many miles of cables would be laid to connect to the data recording systems located in nearby bunkers.

My board was going to plug into one of these data recorders and take measurements during the test.  I don't think I knew what kind of data was being measured as it did not matter to the design.  As I recall, the data came into the board as analog voltages on multiple channels.  My board converted the analog readings to digital readings that were sampled on a time interval.  I wrote software that ran on the computer to save the samples for analysis.

Designing something is one thing, but building it is the real challenge.  Any design can look good on paper but it is only when you apply power to it that you can prove the quality of the work.  In those days prototypes were built with wire wrap technology.   The design had around 20-30 chips (each with 16-32 pins).  The individual wires had to be connected properly to all the pins.  I don't know how I got it to work but I did.

Wire Wrap Board

This was a real engineering job and I was so proud of the work that I did in just a few weeks.  This is one of only two circuit boards that I designed during my whole career.   They say, you never forget your first - and  I haven't.   Here's to the Lab and my brief time working on building America's nuclear arsenal.