Building the Perfect Machine
March 1943-Dayton, Ohio
In a secure meeting room inside NCR's Building 26, while shotgun-toting Marines stood guard outside, chief engineer Joe Desch grew increasingly impatient as he listened to one staff member after another report on continuing glitches with the two prototypes of the U.S. Bombe, Adam and Eve. After enough bad news, Desch resorted to what was becoming an all-too-familiar motivational technique among his hard-pressed group of seventeen engineers and technicians. He jumped out of his seat and onto the meeting-room table and began pounding his fist into his hand with every word he shouted. "No more excuses! We've got to work harder, faster, smarter! Everybody's ass is on the line!"
What Desch couldn't tell his staff, and what had been pointed out to him repeatedly by his own Navy supervisors, was that too many ships were going down, too many men were dying at sea, while the team failed to produce a working codebusting machine that had been promised for delivery to the Navy three months before.
Because of the project's ironclad security, Desch's staff was not permitted to utter even among themselves the words "Enigma" or "Bombe" or the seemingly innocuous name for the top secret operation, "U.S. Naval Computing Machine Laboratory." The project was self-contained within NCR's former night-school building, constructed seven years before on a large, open tract that had once served as the city dump. Behind the building, on a lonely spur of railroad track, sat an empty baggage car with an overdue delivery date to Washington, D.C.-the Navy's not very subtle way of reminding the project's managers that the top brass was impatient for results.
But OP20G, the Navy unit in charge of analyzing and decoding enemy radio communications, may have been asking for the impossible. As late as August of 1942, the Americans still had high hopes that an all-electronic decoding machine-at least one hundred times faster than anything built before-would be able to crunch through more than four hundred thousand possible Enigma solutions in the unheard-of time of fifty-five seconds.
From those wildly optimistic expectations, the American team plummeted two months later into a misinformed pessimism. Desch then thought his best possible Bombe might take hours to complete a run of all the Enigma possibilities, not just a few seconds, and that the Navy would need 336 of the sophisticated machines to get the job done. A big part of the problem was that the Americans had still not mastered the information the British were supplying about all the challenges in the Shark system, nor did they know all of Bletchley Park's clever methods in attacking them.
For the Navy and Desch, the race was on, not only against the Germans and the U-boats in the Atlantic but in some ways against the British. The Americans knew that Bletchley Park was working on its own design for a four-wheel Bombe and that their careers, their nation's prestige, and the Navy's investment of millions of dollars and scores of highly skilled personnel were at risk if they failed to arrive first at a working machine.
The designing engineers in both countries were under enormous pressures: they were told that only a perfect machine-one that was fast enough, reliable enough, and could be produced in sufficient numbers quickly enough-would be able to turn the Battle of the Atlantic. What was needed was a high-speed machine that could complete each of its runs without a single mistake. The codebreaking method it embodied could not tolerate even one missed connection, one electrical spike, or a tiny slip of its gearing.
Navy theoreticians had envisioned an all-electronic machine, using thousands of Desch's fast-firing miniature tubes, that would leave the more mechanical British three-wheel design clanking far behind.
In the end, the weight of the Navy's demands-and the nation's-fell most heavily on one man's shoulders: those of thirty-five-year-old Joseph R. Desch, NCR's chief of electrical research.
from the front steps of Building 26, Desch could have looked out across South Patterson Boulevard to the steep, grassy banks of the Great Miami River, in which he had swum and fished as a child, and across the river to his roots in Edgemont, the working-class neighborhood where his German-immigrant mother, Augusta Stoermer Desch, and most of his relatives still lived. Desch's escape route to a new life had been the Stewart Street Bridge, the link from Edgemont to Dayton that crossed Patterson Boulevard just a few yards north of Building 26. As a college student living at home, he had crossed the bridge countless times on his beat-up Henderson motorcycle, traveling to and from classes at the University of Dayton campus, a mile farther east on Stewart Street, until the freezing winter morning he hit a patch of ice on the bridge, spun out of control, and crashed. Though not gravely injured, he never again mounted a motorcycle.
Like the machine he was charged with engineering in late 1942, Desch was complex and temperamental. He was a devout Catholic, a heavy after-hours drinker and a chain-smoker considerate enough to confine his habit to his own office. He loved to use his hands as much as his brain. He delighted in gardening, in chopping wood, and, even in his teen years, in designing and making his own glass-blown gas tubes for his many electronic exploits. He could be brash and irreverent and had a temper that, when triggered, could propel a torrent of harsh invective. But he also had a gentle side that shrank from physical violence-a trait that had kept him from seeing war as anything but "a damned, dirty business."
Although he passed his childhood days like an early twentieth-century Huck Finn, canoeing and camping and fishing along the banks of the Great Miami, he was never interested in hunting like the rest of his young friends. He couldn't bring himself to kill-not even, according to his daughter, Debbie Anderson, the rabbits his father had asked him to raise. "He loved taking care of the rabbits and building the hutch and all, but when it came time to do what he had to do with them, he couldn't do it," she said. "I don't know if he sold them or gave them away, but they ended up with a friend."
Born in 1907, four years after Orville and Wilbur Wright took their first flight and fewer than ten blocks from the bicycle shop where the brothers had built their first airplane, Desch was the only son of his mother and a Dayton wagon maker, Edward Frank Desch. On his days off from school, young Desch often visited his father at his wagon-making shop, which the Great Depression later forced into closure. His father was a quiet, modest man who never raised his voice with his son and two younger daughters. Desch's mother was the disciplinarian as well as the outgoing, social half of the couple, well-known and liked by everyone in the neighborhood, including the Italian family across the street who ran a bootleg winery during Prohibition and often stored their casks in the Desch basement whenever a police raid was imminent.
Desch would have been content to go to the local cooperative high school and, after graduation, enter a skilled trade like his father's. But his mother and his Marianist instructors at Emmanuel Elementary recognized his greater gifts and pushed him toward the preparatory school at the local Catholic college, the University of Dayton. The deciding factor, however, may have been the influence of his lifelong friend Mike Moran, who got Desch a job as an usher at the Victory Theatre when they were both sixteen. Desch's exposure to national touring acts at the Victory, including the Ziegfeld Follies, vaudevillians, and opera companies, opened his eyes to a much wider world.
Thanks to NCR and the vision of its eccentric founder and business pioneer, John H. Patterson, much of the world had come to Dayton in those years. Patterson had bought the rights to one of the first cash-register machines in 1884 and then set about persuading the entire business world it couldn't live without them. His determination to build NCR into a world-class industrial organization, dominant in manufacturing, marketing, and research, drew to Dayton the likes of Edward Deeds and automotive genius Charles F. "Boss" Kettering.
Patterson epitomized the bold thinking and odd quirks of the men whose leadership ushered America into the twentieth century. Growing up on his father's sprawling farm outside of Dayton, Patterson
was desperately eager to be a businessman, and almost as desperately ignorant of what businessmen did. He decided to follow his own best advice, creating thereby most of the forms of American merchandising-the trained salesman, the sales territory, the quota and the annual convention. . . . There may today be captains of industry who, like John Patterson, take four baths a day, wear underwear made from pool table felt and sleep with their heads hanging off the side of the bed so they may avoid rebreathing their just exhaled breath, but if there are, they keep pretty damn quiet about it.
Patterson also was an extremely visual man, perhaps ahead of his times. He was fanatical about recording every detail of his company's growth and operations. The NCR Archive in Dayton today contains some four million images from around the world, stretching back to the early 1900s.
Ironically, among the images of Dayton's early street life are two pictures of a young, barefoot Joe Desch-one of him shooting craps in an alleyway and another of him shimmying his hand up a baseball bat against another urchin to see whose team would take the field first in an overgrown sandlot. The pictures make clear that Desch had grown up in a rough-and-tumble neighborhood. But true to his mother's dreams, young Desch never neglected his schoolwork. He had been an altar boy and a straight-A student at Emmanuel, yet enough of a troublemaker to have punched and knocked down one of his instructors in a dispute over a math solution. Still, he managed to earn a scholarship from the Marianists to the university's preparatory high school. He went on to work his way through the university and graduate in 1929 with honors in electrical engineering.
His professional career began inauspiciously enough, running the tube-testing laboratory at Dayton Electric. He lost that job in 1933 in the midst of the Great Depression, after General Motors Radio bought out the company and consolidated its operations. Desch became a freelance inventor and engineer, working out of his parents' basement and turning into hardware mostly other people's ideas, some sillier than others, including a washing machine that generated sound waves to pulverize dirt from clothes. Unfortunately, the machine vibrated so much, its buttons kept falling off.
A chance encounter led to another important job. Desch was building a radio for a client in the basement of the client's home when Boss Kettering, the inventor of the automobile ignition system and the dean of American industrial engineers at the time, happened to walk in and observe him. Kettering didn't say a word as Desch worked, but the elder scientist was impressed enough with the young engineer to offer him a job at his Telecom Laboratories, where Desch later helped develop new radio and wire teletype equipment. But Desch lost that job, too, when the entire company was purchased by IBM in 1935.
Desch was officially unemployed, living off his meager savings, when he met and married Dorothy Brockman in the summer of 1935. They went off on their honeymoon, a car tour of the western United States with the obligatory stop at the Grand Canyon, knowing that Desch would have only a part-time teaching job at the university when they returned.
Desch's big break came later that same year when Harry M. Williams, chief of research at Frigidaire, hired Desch as a laboratory foreman. Williams, in turn, was later hired by Colonel Deeds to head the research division at NCR, where Desch followed and was given the task of launching the company's new electrical-research lab. Deeds and Williams gave Desch the freedom and the resources to be a true innovator. The year was 1938, and Desch was just thirty-one.
In the three years before the war, Desch built a national reputation for his work at NCR in designing miniature, fast-firing gas tubes no bigger than a thumbnail. These were the microchips of the 1940s and the basis for electronic calculators of the era. In the late 1930s and early 1940s, Desch and his staff designed and patented the first electronic accounting machine-capable of operating at one million pulses per second, at least one hundred times faster than any device had achieved before. Although it was not programmable and never went into production, the Desch calculator was on a par with the best work at IBM and was an important step toward the modern computer.
It was during this period, too, that Desch earned the admiration of MIT's Vannevar Bush, whom Deeds had retained as a research adviser for NCR. By the time the Navy had come to Desch with the Bombe project in August 1942, he had already contributed heavily to the war effort; unknown to him at the time, his electronic counter would be used in developing the first atom bomb. His inventions for Bush and the National Defense Research Committee included a remote detonator, a superfast "flash" communications system, and an electronic means of screening aircraft known as the IFF (Identity Friend or Foe) system. In a private letter to Desch in December 1942, Bush informed him of the success of one invention, perhaps the remote detonator: "It can now be told, within our own group, that new devices developed through the close collaboration between the services and the NDRC, have recently been used in combat with the enemy and have not been found wanting."
Unlike the Navy's theoretical engineers and mathematicians, who were mostly graduate students and professors at prestigious universities, Desch had earned his engineering and managerial stripes on the factory floor. He had become as savvy about front-office politics as he was knowledgeable about state-of-the-art electronics. Even the Navy's more academic engineers soon came to respect Desch's hard-nosed, practical advice, though they didn't entirely understand his factory milieu. In the late 1930s, when Desch took Dorothy to Cambridge to meet the MIT crowd, she was startled when graduate students at the welcoming cocktail party greeted her husband as "Dr. Desch." Desch made no effort to correct them, realizing that in academic circles it was incomprehensible that a man of his stature would not have a Ph.D.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from The Secret in Building 26 by Jim DeBrosse and Colin Burke. Copyright © 2004 by Jim DeBrosse and Colin Burke. Excerpted by permission of Random House, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.