My Life as a Cog

By Les Earnest

October 2012

Partly published in Matrix News, January 2000


Perspectives on advancing technology and evolving culture are presented here as a collection of anecdotes. The burgeoning Internet as well as amazing developments in biotechnology and space exploration convince many people that science and technology are advancing today at a rate never seen before.  Similar views prevailed when I was born on December 17, 1930. The only notable person I who shares my exact birthday seems to be Bob Guccione, the famous American pornographer.


 After all, that was just 40 years after bicycles first came into widespread use, 27 years to the day after the first powered flight by the Wright Brothers, 22 years after the appearance of the Model T Ford and 10 years after the beginning of radio broadcasting.  Technology of the 1930s may look a bit quaint now, but I expect that our current technology will look equally quaint 70 years from now.


It has been fun to be part of this process, though I expect that human leadership in science and technology will be overtaken by what we now think of as artificial life forms by 2100 at the latest, provided that we don’t destroy our planet in the meantime. With any luck there will still be humans around, but they won’t be running things.  Let us hope that our descendents receive better treatment than the life forms that currently reside in zoos.


I’ve had a pretty good life though I somehow acquired an FBI record by age 12 then went on to help spawn an industry that has wasted many billions of dollars of U.S. taxpayers’ money and is still going strong. Among other things I also created the first spelling checker, the first cursive handwriting recognizer, helped start an experimental computer network that became the Internet and, in 1975, wrote the first social networking program, which also let people post what are now called personal blogs.


I’ve also been an avid bicyclist for most of my life and have spent more than 30 years trying to reform bike racing governance in the U.S. Unfortunately this sport is still under the control of crooks but I am still after them.

California Upstart


I arrived on this planet inauspiciously in San Diego at about the same time as the onset of the Great Depression.  My parents had lived through some remarkable technological advances already, having begun their lives on the prairie in a horse-powered world without automobiles, electrical power or indoor plumbing.  In fact, my father was born in a sod farmhouse with a dirt floor.  They have seen quite a lot since then and are still going strong today in their 90s.


My father was a self-taught electronic (mostly radio) engineer who had gotten into it as a teenager and went on to become general manager of a manufacturing plant, then a municipal administrator, where he initiated the development of San Diego’s rather elegant Mission Bay Park. My mother had been a popular actress in local theatrical productions but turned down an invitation to go to Hollywood and chose instead to become a teacher and mother of two while earning a Ph.D. in her “spare time,” then become a college professor.


My father was working in the arcane field of radio installation and repair and my mother was a schoolteacher.  My uncle Lon, who lived nearby, was an engineer at Ryan and had helped build the Spirit of St. Louis.  My father soon moved to Solar Aircraft, where he became a leading expert in the developing field of spot welding.  My mother went on to get a Ph.D. in her “spare time,” while raising two kids and working full time, with some help from a housekeeper, then became a college professor and head of her speech department.


My earliest memory involved what appeared to me to be advanced technology.  At age two I was taken to a hospital to see my mother and new baby sister, but I was more interested in something out in the hallway: a water fountain with a dispenser that provided conical paper cups on demand.  I was so intrigued that I drank cup after cup, taking a new cup each time.  My father eventually managed to drag me away after the cup supply was exhausted.


Thirty years later, my younger son, Ian, experienced a similar epiphany when we stopped at a roadside restaurant on the Ohio Turnpike and he went into the men’s room, seemingly never to return.  I eventually went in and found him conducting physics experiments.  He had discovered that there was a photocell and light source on each urinal that was set up so that when someone stepped back it automatically flushed.  He was running up and down the line of fifteen or so urinals and waving a hand so as to break all the beams, which had a Niagara-like effect.  I managed to drag him out of there before local water supplies were exhausted, but for months afterward he kept dreaming up new applications for electric eyes.


I achieved mobility on my birthday at age six when I was given a bicycle with fat tires, cowhorn handlebars and an electric buzzer to warn pedestrians of my impending arrival.  It would now be called a mountain bike, though that term did not come into use until about 40 years later.  After mastering urban travel I began making solo day trips of 60 miles into the backcountry to visit relatives on a farm in Escondido.  At age nine I rode to Los Angeles with my mother, about 130 miles, and have been an avid cyclist ever since.


The second piece of advanced technology that I acquired was my own radio, with mysteriously glowing vacuum tubes.  This enabled me to listen to a series of 15 minute kids’ programs every afternoon, such as “Magic Island” and “Jack Armstrong, the All American Boy.” 


One branch of technology that evidently reached its zenith in the 1930s was the electric toaster.  Early on, my parents had a toaster with spring-loaded doors that toasted just one side at a time and had no timing mechanism.  Around 1937 they replaced it with a streamlined, chrome-plated, automatic Toastmaster with a long power cord.  It did a much better job and they used it for about 25 years before foolishly giving it away, only to discover that toaster technology had since declined.  My wife’s family had purchased the same toaster model and had a similar experience.


My wife and I have purchased at least a dozen toasters since 1955, including a couple of Toastmasters, without finding anything as good as that old model.  One problem is that government regulations foolishly require that short power cords be used, but there also have been many problems with uneven toasting and other malfunctions.  The most expensive models have often been the worst.  So much for the myth of ever-advancing technology.


How I got an FBI record as a result of dabbling in cryptography



Naval Maneuver


I landed a great summer job in 1949, working with several other students as a “guinea pig” at the Naval Electronics Laboratory in San Diego.  Our first assignment was to listen to digitized speech samples in experiments designed to determine the sampling rates and resolution needed to reproduce intelligible speech.  This very far-sighted experiment was initiated and conducted by JCR Licklider, who was a most enjoyable person to work for.  As luck would have it, our lives would intersect three more times during the next thirty years.

The second project that our group of guinea pigs worked on involved listening to sonar recordings in order to assess the detectability of submarines.  I needed to get a security clearance for this work and one of the questions on the application form was “Have you ever been investigated by the FBI.”  Naturally, I checked “Yes.”  The next line said something like, “If so, describe the purpose.”  There was very little space on the form, so I answered simply and honestly, “I was suspected of being a Japanese spy.”


When I handed in the form to the Lab’s security officer, he scanned it quickly, looked me over slowly, then said, “Explain this” -- pointing at the FBI question. It took me a few minutes to describe what had happened and as I did so the security officer seemed to get progressively more agitated. He finally picked up my form, tore it in pieces, and threw it in a waste basket, then got out a blank form and handed it to me, saying “Here, fill it out again and don't mention that.  If you do, I'll make sure that you never get a security clearance.”


I did as he directed and was shortly granted the clearance. I never again disclosed that sordid incident on security clearance applications.


Analog Minds and Digital Manipulation


When I returned to Caltech in 1950, a required course in physical chemistry convinced me that I didn’t want to be either a chemist or a geologist, the latter having been another interest of mine until then.  Having recently constructed a Theramin (basically, an electronic musical saw) and having enjoyed dabbling with other electronic devices, I decided to change my major to EE.


What I didn’t realize at the time was that Caltech’s EE faculty was composed entirely of electrical power experts and none of them knew much about electronics.  My classmates and I learned a lot about power transformers as well as synchronous and induction motors but there was only one course offered in electronics, which was taught by a physics professor. 


I learned how to design vacuum tube circuits and got a chance to dabble with an electronic analog computer shortly before graduating, but my training was doomed to rapid obsolescence inasmuch as the invention of the transistor had been announced the year I started college, but did not find its way into academia until years later.  Several years after I graduated, some fellow engineers and I acquired bumper stickers saying “HELP STAMP OUT TRANSISTORS,” but it didn’t work.


As an EE student I initially emulated my classmates by carrying a 12 inch slide rule in a leather scabbard hung from my belt.  However, even though most homework and examination problems were set up to be solved with such a device, I preferred digital computation and often worked things out using pencil-and-paper arithmetic.  To speed things up I eventually acquired an abacus at a local Chinese market and slung it from my belt in place of the slide rule, as a show of independence.  This was regarded by my classmates as aberrant behavior and some claimed that they were distracted during exams by my clicking beads.  I figured that they were just jealous. 


Atomic Vision


Sometime around 1951 an article appeared in the Los Angeles Times saying that a A-bomb test was scheduled for 6:00 am the next morning at the Yucca Flat test site, just north of Las Vegas.  During discussions over dinner at Blacker House, several of us decided that we would like to see it, so we headed off later that night by car.  We drove all night, getting to Vegas in the wee small hours, then had breakfast and headed north to a mountain that reportedly overlooked the test site.


We knew that we were in the right area when we started seeing U.S. Government signs on side roads saying “KEEP OUT.”  We were running a bit late, so we plunged ahead without hesitation.  Heading off on one of the dirt roads, we kept seeing warning signs and eventually came to a windswept ridge overlooking the wide desert area below, with just 30 seconds to spare before the planned air burst.  We leaped out of our car and saw that there were two other cars full of outlaws nearby, but at the appointed time nothing happened.


We had no eye protection, so we planned not to look at the time the bomb went off, then look at the resulting mushroom cloud. We hung around, hoping that the air burst had simply been postponed a bit, but as the minutes went by our hopes faded.  I could see some kind of tower structure out in the desert that I supposed held the bomb, so I kept watching it to see if anything was going on.  After five or ten minutes I suddenly saw rockets go up on all sides of the site, so I yelled “Look!” to my friends, not realizing that these devices were probably carrying instrumentation to monitor the blast.  Before anyone else could look, the detonation occurred.  My eyes slammed shut but I could still see the intense image through my eyelids.


After the light dimmed a bit I reopened my eyes, only to discover that the central part of my field of vision was missing.  I could see the mushroom cloud in my peripheral vision but was unable to see anything in detail, which was a substantial disappointment.  Happily, my vision slowly returned some hours later, but I have never felt the need to wear sunglasses since then!


Merry Meltdown


Back in school, things were not going so well.  I had managed to get through high school with very little work and never learned to study consistently in college, but whereas my high school grades had been A’s and B’s, my college marks were relatively miserable.  Given that class attendance and most homework was optional at Caltech, I went only to classes that I found interesting and, being a night person, never made it to 8:00 am classes other than for midterms and final exams.  I did study hard for midterms and finals but otherwise goofed off.  It was fortunate that Caltech divided the school year into quarters, which caused me to learn about half again as much each year as I would have under a semester system.


In my “spare time” I played on the non-illustrious football team.  Our home field was the Rose Bowl, where our fans were sometimes able to fill a couple of rows on the 50 yard line. I also managed the basketball team for a time, sang in the glee club, appeared in plays put on by the drama club, was elected to various offices and became a door-to-door ice cream salesman in Blacker House during the evening in order to pick up some spare change.  I also flunked out at the end of my Junior year.


A brilliant but equally disorganized classmate named Ed Fredkin also flunked out at that time and we both applied for reinstatement.  Our requests were approved and I went on to get my degree, but Ed decided instead to join the Air Force, but our lives intersected several more times after that.  Even though Ed never got a degree he became successively a technician, computer scientist, entrepreneur, owner of a Caribbean Island with a hotel on it, owner of a Boston television station, full professor at MIT and visiting professor at Caltech, but that is another story.


Summer Renewals


I had summer jobs in 1950 and 1951 working for the County of San Diego as a chainman in a surveying crew.  That involved staking out roads, parks and beaches and testing sewer lines.  We spent some time at a prison camp in the Laguna Mountains, laying out roads for them to build, and it appeared to me that a lot of cooks must get in trouble with the law because the food there, prepared by the prisoners, was wonderful.  However, living with the guards was not so pleasant – they were a very strange bunch of dudes.  I decided to try to steer clear of such places.


The sewer testing work was particularly challenging for a couple of reasons.  There was blasting going on for the construction of nearby sewers and when they used too large a charge we were sometimes pelted with rocks of various sizes.  We had no hard helmets, so I learned to look up after each blast and leap out of the way of any large pieces coming down. 


Also, as the junior member of the surveying crew I had a special responsibility.  We started each test at the top end of a sewer line by putting a plug in the upstream side of a manhole, then filled the upper segment with water and measured how fast the water level decreased, to determine leakage rate.  It was then my responsibility to put a plug in the next downstream segment, tie a rope on the upstream plug and loosen it, then climb part way up the ladder, pull it out and scramble up the ladder before the manhole filled with water.  Of course, if I didn’t loosen the plug enough it would not release and if I loosened it too much I would be inundated and would have to swim out, which happened all too often.


In 1952 I got a dryer summer job at the Naval Electronics Lab as an electronics technician, working on submarine detection systems using passive listening devices.  I got to go out in a submarine a couple of times, which was good fun, but I also was assigned on another occasion to a round-bottomed boat with hydrophones underneath to try to detect the sub as it came through submerged.  As soon as we left San Diego harbor I became utterly useless as I hung over the side, deathly seasick.


We also spent some time listening through submarine cables to hydrophones mounted on tripods resting on the sea bottom.  We managed to detect the submarine just once that way – when it ran into one of the hydrophones, making a very loud “Thunk!”.  I concluded that submarine quieting efforts had surpassed World War II passive detection technology.


Feeling a Draft


Given that the Korean War was in full swing, I knew that military service loomed ahead.  As a result of a clerical error by my draft board, my student deferment had been removed in 1950 and I was reclassified 1A.  Each time I pointed out this error to them they promised to fix it promptly, but that somehow never happened.  In my senior year, just before Christmas, I received notification that I had been drafted into the Army and was to report to the Greyhound Bus Depot in San Diego on January 2, 1953, to go off to boot camp.


Though draft boards were not supposed to respond to political pressure, my father raised enough of a ruckus to get my induction deferred to the end of the school year.  I then began looking seriously into ways to avoid the Army.


I discovered that the Navy had a Restricted Line Officer program, the qualifications for which were an engineering degree and poor eyesight – those with good eyesight were considered only for the regular Line Officer program and would likely end up at sea.  The Restricted Line program looked perfect for me, so I joined. But that is another story.


Some other publications of Les Earnest