Anthony J. Pennings, PhD


The MAD Origins of the Computer Age

Posted on | April 11, 2016 | No Comments

It was the “missile gap” that would impregnate Silicon Valley with the purpose and capital to grow to its famed stature as the center of computer innovation in the world. During the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, when Robert S. McNamara was Secretary of Defense, the US undertook an enormous military buildup, with the intercontinental missile as its centerpiece. The policy of “Mutually Assured Destruction” (MAD) and specifically the advancements in the Minute Man II missile led to the development and refinement of silicon integrated circuits and ultimately the microprocessor “chip.”

The computing and network revolutions were powered by successive developments in information processing capabilities that were subsidized by extensive government spending and increasingly centralized in California’s “Valley of Heart’s Delight,” later known as “Silicon Valley.”

At the center of this transformation was an innovation developed by the telecommunications monopoly, AT&T. The government-regulated monopoly developed the first transistor in the 1940s at its New Jersey-based Bell Labs. This electronic switching technology would orchestrate the amazing machinations of the 1s and Os of the emerging digital age. William Shockley, who won a Nobel-prize for the AT&T sponsored invention, soon decided to return to his California home to set up a semiconductor company.

Shockley had been recruited back to the area by Frederick Terman, the Dean of the Engineering School at Stanford University. Terman was a protégé of Vannevar Bush, the major science and technology director of the New Deal and World War II, including the Manhattan Project that invented the atomic bomb. Terman designed a program of study and research at Stanford in electronics and spearheaded the creation of Stanford Research Park that leased land to high-tech firms. In the early 1950s, Lockheed set up its missile and aerospace subsidiary in the area. IBM also set up facilities for studying data storage during that time.

Shockley’s company did not achieve the success it desired, and some of the employees left and started up companies such as Fairchild Semiconductor (Later Intel), National Semiconductor, Advanced Micro Devices, and Signetics. Luckily, history was on their side as the Sputnik satellite crisis almost immediately resulted in several government programs that targeted guidance miniaturization as a crucial component of the new rocketry programs. Transistors became the centerpiece of a set of technologies that would guide rocket-powered missiles, but also provide the processing power for modern computers.

The Minuteman intercontinental missile project was originally approved on February 27, 1958, about six weeks after Eisenhower requested funds to start ARPA. Both were in response to the previous autumn’s successful flights that delivered two USSR Sputnik satellites into space. The Soviets had captured many German V-2 rocket scientists after the World War II and quickly built up a viable space program. Meanwhile, they denoted an atomic bomb in August 1949 and in 1954 they successfully tested a hydrogen bomb, thousands of times more powerful than the atomic device. While the second of the Sputnik launches had only placed a small dog into space, the fear spread that the USSR could place a nuclear warhead on their rocket. Such a combination could rain a lethal force of radiation upon the US and its allies, killing millions within minutes.

About a year before, in late January 1957, the US had finally reached success with its own space program, using a modified Jupiter C rocket to carry the first satellite into space. Still, the 10.5-pound satellite was in no way capable of lifting the massive weight of a hydrogen warhead, not to mention guiding it to a specific target a half a world away. Sensing the momentousness of the task, Eisenhower started NASA later that year to garner additional support for the development of rocket technology by stirring the imagination of humans being launched into space.

The Minuteman was conceived as an intercontinental ballistic missile system (ICBM) capable of delivering a thermonuclear explosion thousands of miles from its origination. It was meant to be a mass-produced, quick-reacting response to the “perceived” Russia nuclear threat. Named after the American Revolutionary War’s volunteer militia who were ready to take up arms “at a minute’s notice”, the missile was a revolutionary military idea, using new advances in guidance and propulsion to deliver its deadly ordinance.

    Eisenhower left plans for a force of about 40 Atlas missiles and six Polarises at sea; in less than a year Kennedy and McNamara planned 1,900 missiles, consisting primarily of the 1,200 Minuteman missiles and 656 Polarises. Counting the bombers, the United States would have 3,455 warheads ready to fire on the Soviet Union by 1967, according to McNamara’s secret Draft Presidential Memorandum on strategic forces of September.[2]

McNamara was an intense intellectual and considered one of the “Whiz Kids” brought in by Kennedy as part of the promise of the new administration to recruit the “best and the brightest.” He was extremely good with statistics and steeped in management accounting at Harvard. During World War II, he left a position at Harvard to work in the Statistical Control Office of the Army Air Corps where he successfully planned bombing raids with mathematical techniques used in operations research (OR).

After the war, McNamara and other members of his office went to work at Ford Motor Company. Using these OR techniques, he achieved considerable success at the automobile company, ultimately rising to its top.[3] When McNamara was offered the job of Secretary of Treasury by the new Kennedy administration, it is reported that he replied he had more influence on interest rates at his current job as President of Ford. He later took a job as Secretary of Defense. Just a few months into his tenure, he ordered a major buildup of nuclear forces. This resolve came in spite of the fact that intelligence reports indicated that Soviet forces had been overestimated, the so-called “missile gap.”

McNamara was originally from Oakland, just a few miles northeast of the famed “Silicon Valley” and set out to transform US military strategy. In response to a RAND report that US bombers were vulnerable to a Communist first strike, he ordered the retirement of “most of the 1,292 old B-47 bombers and the 19 old B-58s, leaving ‘only’ 500 B-52s, to the surprise and anger of the Air Force.” He stopped production of the B-70 bomber that was estimated to cost $20 billion over the next ten years. Instead, he pushed the Minuteman intercontinental ballistic missile project and continued to refine the notion of “massive retaliation” coined by Eisenhower’s Secretary of State John Foster Dulles in 1954.

The Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962 seriously challenged this notion when the USSR began installing theatre-size SS-4, SS-5, and R-12 missiles on the Caribbean island in response to the deployment of US missiles in Turkey by the Eisenhower administration. When US surveillance revealed the missile sites, President Kennedy announced that any attack on the US from Cuba would be considered an attack by the USSR and would be responded to accordingly. He also ordered a blockade of the island nation, using the language of “quarantine” outlined by Roosevelt in 1937 in response to Nazi aggression.

On Oct 24, the Strategic Air Command elevated its alert status to Defense Condition 2 (DEF-CON 2), and as the USSR responded in kind, the world teetered on the brink of World War III. Last minute negotiations averted the catastrophe on October 28 when Premier Khrushchev agreed to remove their missiles from Cuba. Kennedy had offered in a secret deal to remove US missiles from Turkey. Perhaps not incidentally, the US Minuteman I program went operational on the same day.

The brains of the Minuteman I missile guidance system was the D-17B, a specialized computer designed by Autonetics. It contained an array of thousands of transistors, diodes, capacitors, and resistors designed to guide the warhead to its target. Guidance software was provided by TRW while the Strategic Air Command provided the actual targeting. Some 800 Minuteman-I missiles were manufactured and delivered by the time Lyndon B. Johnson was sworn in as President in 1965. As the Vietnam War increased tensions between the US and its Communist rivals, research was initiated on new models of the Minuteman missile. While the first Minuteman ICBM program used older transistors for its guidance systems, the later Minuteman II used integrated circuits (ICs) that continued to miniaturize the guidance and other intelligent aspects of the missile by reducing the number of electronic parts.[4]

Submarines carrying nuclear missiles became an extraordinarily lethal force using the new guidance technology. The first successful launch of a guided Polaris missile took place July 20, 1960 from a submerged George Washington class submarine. The USS George Washington was the first fleet ballistic missile submarine, carrying sixteen missiles. President John F. Kennedy came on board 16 November to observe a Polaris A1 launch. He subsequently ordered 40 more subs. These submarine-based missiles required even more sophisticated guidance technology because they had to be launched from one of a multitude of geographical positions. Submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs) like the Poseidon and Trident eventually developed capabilities that could destroy entire countries.

McNamara started the buildup under Kennedy, but President Johnson urged him to keep up the missile program, arguing that it was the Eisenhower and Republicans who had left the US in weak military position. McNamara himself felt that nuclear missiles had no military purpose, except to “deter one’s opponent from using them,” but he pressed for their development.[1] The missiles required a complex guidance system, however, one that drew on the trajectory of the transistor and then integrated circuits research. As the military philosophy of “Mutually Assured Destruction” (MAD) emerged, the result was a prolonged support of the semiconductor industry leading ultimately to the information technologies of the computer and the Internet.

Minuteman-II production and deployment began with the Johnson administration as it embraced the “Assured Destruction” policy advocated by McNamara. The new model could go farther, pack more deadly force, and pinpoint its targets more accurately. Consequently, it could be aimed at more targets from its silos in the upper Midwest, primarily Missouri, Montana, Wyoming, as well as South and North Dakota. Nicknamed “MAD” for Mutually Assured Destruction, the policy recognized the colossal destructive capabilities of even a single thermonuclear warhead. A second strike could inflict serious damage on the attacker even if only a few warheads survived a first strike. Furthermore, the attempts at both a first and second strike could initiate a nuclear winter, bringing eventual destruction to the entire planet.

Consequently, the defensive strategy changed to building as many warheads as possible and putting them in a variety of positions, both fixed and mobile. Minuteman II production increased dramatically, providing a boost to the new IC technology and the companies that produced them. The D-37C computer installed in the missile was built in the mid-1960s using both the established transistor technology used in the first model as well as small scale integrated circuits recently introduced. Minuteman II consumption of ICs provided the incentive to create volume production lines needed for the 4,000 ICs needed weekly for the MAD missile deployment.[5]

The Minuteman intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) and Apollo space programs soon gave Silicon Valley a “liftoff,” as they required thousands of transistors and then integrated circuits. The transition occurred as NASA’s manned and satellite space program demanded the highest quality computing components for its spacecraft. It actively subsidized integrated circuits, a risky new technology where transistors were incorporated into a single wafer or “chip.” By the time Neil Armstrong first stepped on the Moon, more than a million ICs had been purchased by NASA alone.[6] These would become integral to the minicomputer revolution that rocked Wall Street and other industries in the late 1960s.

Citation APA (7th Edition)

Pennings, A.J. (2016, April 11). The MAD Origins of the Computer Age.


[1] Robert McNamara quoted in Deborah Shapley’s (1993) Promise and Power: a Biography of the Secretary of Defense. published by Little, Brown and Company.
[2] Shapley, D. (1993) Promise and Power. Boston, MA: Little, Brown and Company. p. 108.
[3] Information on McNamara’s past from Paul Ewards, The Closed World.
[4] Information on Minuteman missiles provided by Dirk Hanson in The New Alchemists. p. 99.
[5] IC production lines from Ceruzzi, P.E. (2003) A History of Modern Computing. Second Edition. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. p. 187.
[6] Reid, T.R., (2001) The Chip. NY: Random House. P. 150.



AnthonybwAnthony J. Pennings, PhD is Professor at the Department of Technology and Society, State University of New York, Korea. Before joining SUNY, he taught at Hannam University in South Korea and from 2002-2012 was on the faculty of New York University. Previously, he taught at St. Edwards University in Austin, Texas, Marist College in New York, and Victoria University in New Zealand. He has also spent time as a Fellow at the East-West Center in Honolulu, Hawaii.


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