A hummingbird with range

Les Earnest, IEEE Life Member

January 1, 2009

Published subsequently in the IEEE Life Members Newsletter


The radar atop Mt. Umunhum, south of San Jose, California, which was part of the SAGE air defense system, managed to get even with me in 1966 for badmouthing the crooked system in which it operated.

In late 1965 I came to Stanford University as Executive Officer of the Artificial Intelligence Lab. They had ordered a million dollar computer, a Digital Equipment Corporation PDP-6, but hadn’t found a place to put it yet. I eventually found space in an incomplete building that Stanford had acquired a few miles off-campus and arranged to convert what had been planned as the cafeteria into a room for both the large computer and experimental robotic equipment.

After the computer was installed we had difficulty getting it working. DEC had sent engineer Bob Clements to help but after a couple of weeks they were threatening to bring him home and were urging us to complete the acceptance tests. We decided to go for it on June 6 (i.e.
6/6/66) but that turned out to be a very hot day and our air conditioning system was not yet installed. Not to be deterred, we dispatched a couple of graduate students to get blocks of dry ice, to be placed under the false floor from where the computer cabinets drew cooling air, and put another two on the roof with water hoses to cool down the room. Happily this worked well enough to bring the room temperature within the acceptable range and we proceeded with the tests. Just for fun, at one point a student named David Poole got on top of the memory cabinets and performed an East European folk dance during memory tests. Happily the machine still passed.

All was well for a couple of weeks but the computer then started malfunctioning again. We eventually figured out that this was happening at 13 second intervals but didn’t understand why until someone happened to bring a portable radio into the computer room and it was noticed that the radio buzzed at the same instant that the computer malfunctioned.

We eventually figured out that the source of both effects was the air defense radar on top of Mt. Unumhum, about 20 miles away, and got the computer working again by fixing a ground wire connection on one cabinet. We also learned that “umunhum” is the Ohlone Indian word for “place of the humming bird”, which in this case was reaching out a long way to buzz us. Note that hummingbirds make a sound close to “umunhum”.

Mt. Umunhum radar was the same one that caused the “Two second burp” observed by Ken Crook (Dec. 2008 IEEE Life Member’s Newsletter). In a sense I was partly to blame since it was part of the SAGE air defense system that I helped design a decade earlier. While doing that I learned that SAGE was a gigantic fraud on taxpayers but that is another story. Perhaps that radar was trying to get back at me for badmouthing the system in which it operated.

Les Earnest, IEEE Life Member #00639575
Los Altos Hills, CA