For six days U-66 poked and prodded the gray water of the Atlantic
Ocean, frantically searching for a place to surface, but the
ships were always there. At any time of day or night the planes
and ships would close in, and the crew of the U-boat would flee
for their lives, hoping to find a safe haven.
Now they were surfacing again. Kapitänleutnant Gerhard Seehausen,
the U-boat's commander, would have preferred to come
up at another time, in another place, but he was running out of
options. Here in the mid Atlantic on the moonlit night of May 5,
1944, U-boat life was dangerous, but this was incredible. Everyplace
U-66 went, it was hounded. It could barely surface without
being stalked. Time was running out. Seehausen's U-boat could
go no further without running its power generators, which provided
electricity and light, and it needed to rendezvous with a refueling
With his U-boat at the water's surface off the Cape Verde Islands,
Seehausen quickly sent a message to the radio room. The
radio operator typed the message into a machine called Enigma,
which scrambled its text; then he broadcast it to Berlin by tapping
it out in Morse code: "Refueling impossible under constant stalking.
Mid Atlantic worse than the Bay of Biscay." The message included
the sub's location, a standard practice for all German U-boat
transmissions. Seehausen never worried that Allied forces
would intercept the message and crack the code during his hour
at the water's surface. If they found him, as he knew they might, it
would be by some means other than cracking the code. Never by
cracking the code. No one could crack the German Enigma code
* * *
Minutes after U-66 surfaced somewhere near the African coast, a
teletype clattered to life in a Washington, D.C., laboratory. The
machine rattled away, sending the lab's operators into a frenzy.
One grabbed the teletype's paper output and frantically keyed
its message onto punched paper tape. Another fed the tape into
a 7-foot-high, 5,000-pound calculating machine. Inside the machine,
primitive logic circuits examined U-66's message. Outside,
the lab's codebreakers anxiously awaited its response.
Seehausen could never have imagined the scenario taking
place halfway around the world. To think that someone was intercepting
his message, then sending it across the Atlantic, where a
5,000-pound machine was stripping away its encryption codes
would have been beyond the bounds of the most dedicated science
For that matter the activity in the Washington, D.C., laboratory
was beyond the imaginative scope of almost every U.S. government
official. Other than President Roosevelt, few knew of the effort,
mundanely titled Communications Supplementary ActivityWashington
(CSAW). The decryption activity was cloaked by such
secrecy that its highest ranking officials required Ultra Secret
clearancea security level even higher than that of the Manhattan
Roughly a thousand codebreakers worked at the navy's Nebraska
Avenue facilitya tidy, red brick, former girl's school located
in a quiet section of the city. These codebreakers were
about as diverse and unconventional as any task force ever marshalled
by the U.S. military. They had backgrounds in mathematics,
physics, engineering, astronomy, and just about any discipline
requiring intuitive pattern recognition. Some were chess experts,
bridge champions, and musicians. Many had Ph.D's; a few were
When the war began, they had decrypted messages like those
of U-66 without the benefit of machines. To do it, they had
quietly labored over volumes of coded messages, searching for patterns
that departed from pure randomness. When they had stumbled
upon a pattern, they had conferred, discussed, debated,
bickered, and fought among themselves until groups of them
had finally arrived at a consensus. Sometimes it had taken as long
as six hundred hours.
As the war progressed, they developed machines to do the job.
Following the lead of British scientists, a naval group in Dayton,
Ohio, struggled to construct the machines, which they called
Bombes. At first the Bombes were like 1930s adding machines,
which used little electrical relays that clicked and clacked as their
wheels spun furiously. By the end of 1943 the Bombes were far
faster and more complex than electromechanical adding machines.
By now they incorporated advanced circuits with more
than fifteen hundred vacuum tubes.
When technicians entered a coded message into its circuits, a
Bombe could buzz through a decryption in about the same time
as it took a thousand cryptanalytic clerks. It was uncanny. Somewhere
in the Atlantic a Nazi technician would tap the keys of the
Enigma machine and scramble a message in such a way that a
codebreaker would have to try millions of permutations to crack
it. And yet the machines could, in some cases, blaze through that
code in a few minutes.
Now the Bombes were cracking U-66's coded messageand it
was about time. Since early in the war U-66 had done more than
its share of damage. American intelligence blamed it for sinking
the Allan Jackson, a 435-foot oil tanker owned by Standard Oil of
New Jersey. They'd also blamed U-66 for sinking the Lady
Hawkins, an ocean liner with 212 passengers on board, mostly
civilians including women and children. Many sinkings were ugly:
Victims swam through thick black smoke and layers of floating
fuel, often burning to death alter the fuel was ignited by signal
But the tables were turning. The cryptologists at the Nebraska
Avenue lab had cracked the code of U-66's message: "Refueling
impossible under constant stalking. Mid Atlantic worse than
the Bay of Biscay." Then came the most important information:
"17 degrees, 17 minutes North; 32 degrees, 29 minutes West."
Through a series of channels, the cryptologists relayed their information
to the destroyer USS Buckley, which steamed through
the mid Atlantic toward Seehausen's U-boat.
Seehausen suspected that it was only a matter of time before
Allied carriers and destroyers found him. They had been hounding
him since April 29, and it was nearly midnight on May 5. Now
he could see the USS Buckley about twenty-five hundred yards
away. It was far too late to divean emergency dive could take as
long as twenty minutes. He would have to face the Buckley, and he
knew he had no chance of surviving.
Seehausen would never know the truth about his sub's sinking.
He would never hear about the red brick building or the cracking
of the Enigma code. And he would never suspect that his
sub's real nemesis was the ancestor of a machine that would one
day be called the digital computer.
* * *
During the last of his four years at the navy's Nebraska Avenue facility,
Lieutenant Commander William C. Norris started thinking
about other uses for the codebreaking machines. Surely, he
thought, there must be business applications for machines as fast
Bill Norris knew that the war would end soon and wondered
about his options after he left the service. Unlike some of the
other navy men, Norris had options. If he wanted, he could return
to his family's farm in southern Nebraska, or he could go
back to the Westinghouse Corporation in Chicago, where he had
worked before the war selling X-ray equipment. A more staid personality
might have done just that. After all, most of the country
dreamed of little more than settling back into their prewar lives.
But Norris wanted more, and he prided himself on his willingness
to take risks to get it. A genuine, callous-palmed, Dust Bowl farm
boy, he had traded his overalls for a slide rule thirteen years earlier,
and at age thirty-five he wasn't anxious to go backward.
At the red brick school Norris methodically worked his way up
in rank, despite being surrounded by some of the country's best
scientists. Unlike many of the other codebreakers, he didn't hail
from a posh eastern college or have a distinguished track record
of scientific achievement, but he was a quick study who was forceful
and direct, almost to the point of bluntness. With his wide face
and high cheekbones, he looked a little like the tough-talking
character actor Sheldon Leonard. Though he was an average-sized
man, he had an air of intimidation about him. When the occasion
called for it, Norris could, as the saying went, curse like a
Prior to joining the codebreakers, his crowning achievement
had been in cattle farming. He'd grown up on a grassy spread of
about a thousand acres along the Republican River in southern
Nebraska. His life was classic midwestern Americana: small towns,
rolling pasture lands, even a one-room schoolhouse.
He had been a bright student, but because he'd attended a
school with only seven or eight other children in the tiny town of
Inavale, Nebraska, it was difficult to know just how bright. Life on
the farm had made him practical, an improviser. He had a strong
mechanical aptitude and a passion for radio technology. His bedroom
was strewn with vacuum tubes and copper wire and he was
a ham radio aficionado. Alter he finished high school, Norris
went on to the University of Nebraska at Lincoln to study electrical
Decades later, after Norris had achieved overwhelming success,
the stories of his early years on his family's cattle farm would
still be recognized as his defining moments. He returned home
from the University of Nebraska in 1932, an electrical engineering
degree in hand, and was hit with three crushing blows at
once: His father had passed away a month earlier; the country
was mired in the depths of the Great Depression; and the Midwest
was wracked by the worst drought in the nation's history.
The soil was so thin that it was being whisked away by the wind,
and people in neighboring states were afraid to hang out laundry
for fear it would be coated with brown dust while it dried.
Cattle owners, too, were besieged by difficulties. Without
crops, they had no feed for cattle. The corn on the Norris
farmwhich had always been used to feed the animalswas coming up
in pathetic little stalks that rose about knee high and then wilted.
Most of the other cattle farmers faced the same problems. Livestock
buyers, recognizing the farmers' plight, were taking advantage
of the situation by doling out painfully low prices for cattle.
Norris refused to sell at distressed prices. The
twenty-two-year-old college graduate consulted his mother and
decided to feed the cattle Russian thistles. About eight inches
long, soft, and green, the Russian thistles were young versions of
tumbleweedthe kind that always seem to be blowing down the dusty
street of some Western movie set. But Russian thistles weren't
regarded as cattle food, and most farmers believed they would kill the
cattle or, at the very least, lead to the birth of deformed calves.
When Norris announced his plan to the neighbors, they as
much as said he was crazy, but he ignored them. When they refused
to help him stack the Russian thistle "crop" that covered his
land, Norris hired vagrants at the nearby Red Cloud, Nebraska,
railroad station to do it. And the cattle livedfor not one, but for
two more wintersbefore he sold them at higher prices.
Norris liked to repeat the story because he believed that it
demonstrated his willingness to take risks. More than that,
though, it showed that he was profoundly confident and had
good instincts. What may have looked like big risks to others
weren't risks at all in Norris's mind.
Having been educated as an engineer, however, Norris wanted
to try, his hand in the technical world. Alter two years on the
farm, he interviewed for engineering jobs. Westinghouse offered
him two positions: part-time engineer for $80 a month or full-time
salesman for twice that much. Having survived the Great Depression,
he opted for the logical choice and soon began working
out of a Chicago sales office, traveling to accounts in various parts
of Illinois, Iowa, and Nebraska, selling medical and industrial
Despite success in sales, his heart was still in engineering.
When the war broke out, Norris jumped at a chance to break into
a hardcore technical position. He took a job as a civil servant with
the Bureau of Ordnance, where he hunched over a drafting
board in a bullpen with about a hundred other engineers who
worked on fire control for antiaircraft guns. Eventually he signed
on with the Naval Reserve, ending up at the red brick school in
At the Nebraska Avenue analytical center Norris was in his element.
Though he wasn't in an intellectual league with the scientific
theoreticians, he was technically proficient, and his managerial
style was well suited for the navy: smart, gruff, and practical.
While working at the red brick school, he was promoted to lieutenant
At CSAW (pronounced "Seesaw" by the codebreakers) Norris
made more technical contributions than at any other stage of his
career. At one point he discovered a method for identifying the
source of German radio messages: Transmissions from each individual
U-boat, he said, had their own set of peculiar characteristics.
If he was rightand if they could identify the U-boat that was
sending the messagethey would crack the codes far faster. Scientists,
however, questioned Norris's unproven theories and
balked at the risks involved in using them. The characteristics,
they said, were peculiarities of the ionospherethe
weathernot the U-boat. When they questioned his idea, Norris simply bypassed
them and put the technique into effect. If he was wrong,
he said, they could call him on the carpet. He wasn't wrong.
Three years later when Norris again pursued a risky course, he
would change the face of technology. But at that time, the idea he
pursued seemed downright absurd.
* * *
No one was sure who first raised the concept of commercial applications
for the codebreaking machines. But Norris occasionally
found himself sitting around one of the research labs at the
Nebraska Avenue building, idly brainstorming with some of the
other technical people. During those sessions, they often wondered
aloud about other uses for their machines. In the beginning
it had seemed like a joke. He and Commander Howard Engstrom,
a former Yale University mathematics professor who
headed the research operation, lobbed ideas at each other and at
some of the other men in the lab. What about flight reservations?
Air traffic control? Guided missiles? Flight simulators? The old
Link Trainer, a flight simulator for military pilots, was stiff, slow,
and unrealistic. Digital electronics, they reasoned, could make
the Link Trainer smoother, faster, and more flexible.
But all of them knew that the new technology needed more development.
Sure, they could replace the electromechanical relays
in the Link Trainers with digital circuitry, but the cost of the system
would skyrocket. Same for air traffic control and flight reservations.
Even though digital technology offered the potential for
scorching speed, it wasn't yet economically viable.
Still, their pipedream grew. It started to appear so real that
they stopped thinking of it as a joke. One evening during their
ramblings Engstrom mused about the looming end to the war, "I,
for one, don't want to go back to Yale, so I'd like to think in terms
of something else."
Norris, Engstrom, and the others briefly considered continuing
their work in a government lab after the war, but they were
unanimous in their disapproval of that prospect. Next they discussed
setting up a private company and working for the navy on
a contract basis. A good idea, they all agreed, but it still wasn't
enough. Cost-plus-fixed-fee government work was hardly a road
to riches; in fact, it was barely a living. Someone proposed that
they find companies to sponsor or invest in their start-up.
Though their technology wasn't yet ready for industry, it could be
with enough capital for development. Their game plan evolved,
eventually calling for Norris, Engstrom, and the others to own
half of the proposed company, while outside investors owned the
In an extraordinary display of entrepreneurial wisdom, high-ranking
navy officials drummed up support for the idea. The
navy's rationale was simple self-preservation. The war's end was
looming and the Cold War was on the horizon. Cryptanalytic
work would be as crucial as ever, even after the war, yet navy officials
would be unable to order their codebreakers to remain at
the Nebraska Avenue facility. Most of the codebreakers had already
dismissed the idea of continuing their effort in civil service
positions, so the navy had little choice: Either keep the existing
group together or start again from scratch.
Convincing the captains of industry to buy into their proposal,
however, was another matter. In their own minds they could see
how the technology might give a boost to, say, an airline company.
A reservationist might talk to a business executive who
wanted to fly from Chicago to Omaha. By punching a few keys,
the reservationist could send the electrons zipping through bundles
of spaghetti wiring, jumping across vacuum tubes, speeding
through the logic circuits and electronic memory, where the information
on the Chicago-Omaha flight would be stored as little
magnetic bits of information. American Airlines at the time used
"card boys," who dashed around the reservations office with little
three-by-fives on which were scribbled the number of available
seats for a flight. Given the state of the art, the need for electronic
machines seemed obvious.
Still, it was a hard sell. Norris and Engstrom polished their
shoes and donned their aristocratic-looking white naval officer
uniforms with their shiny gold buttons. Through their navy contacts,
they managed to get audiences with presidents of companies
such as American Airlines and Western Union. But their
pitchreplete with references to electrons, logic circuits, and
bits of magnetic informationsounded like voodoo to the baffled
company executives. The executives sat politely and listened
and their ears perked up every now and then at the thought of
the potential corporate efficiency, but their answers were always
In the end it was simply too unrealistic. When it came to discussing
reliability or past experience, Norris and Engstrom were
handcuffed. They couldn't talk about past experience: All that information
was classified and it was a felony to discuss it. They
couldn't say how they'd used the machines, or for how long, or
what their reliability record was. One of the few things they could
say was that the machines existed.
Worse, Norris or Engstrom could offer no business savvy. They
were a mathematician and an engineer proposing an entry into a
foreign domain, and the time simply wasn't right for taking on
such a program. As the war drew to a close, most companies were
reorganizing and rethinking their business plans. One after
another the executives listened, then politely declined. It was a fine
idea, an idea with great potential, they said. But the war had just
ended, their company was reorganizing, funding was difficult to
come by, the risk was too great.
The navy, however, wouldn't let Norris and Engstrom quit. Determined
to keep their cryptological programs afloat, naval officials
arranged for the two to visit with James V. Forrestal, secretary
of the navy and former Wall Street financier. Forrestal helped set
up interviews with still more firms, including New York investment
banker Kuhn Loeb & Co. But even there they met with resistance.
Executives at Kuhn Loeb flatly concluded that there was
no commercial future for their ... electronic calculators.
* * *
Norris had never heard of Northwestern Aeronautical Corporation.
Northwestern, formed in conjunction with Twin Cities-based
Northwest Airlines, made wooden gliders for the war effort. Allied
forces used the unpowered gliders at the Normandy D-day invasion
and at other battles to silently carry troops into enemy territory.
The company assembled fifteen gliders a day in a huge plant
on Minnehaha Avenue in St. Paul, Minnesota.
Nor had Norris heard of John E. Parker, owner of Northwestern
Aeronautical. Parker was a Naval Academy graduate, a social
hobnobber, and an entrepreneur. A jovial, round-faced man with
an amazing recall for names and faces, he was universally liked.
Parker and his wife lived in Washington, D.C., about three
months a year and spent the other nine months at the Commodore
Hotel in St. Paul, a ritzy little hotel with a rich, dark wood
decor and big, luxurious rooms. Despite his apparent wealth,
John Parker was facing a potential financial crisis. As sole owner
of Northwestern Aeronautical and part-owner of the Toro Company,
much of his capital was tied up. Northwestern Aeronautical
had a dim future, because with the war's end there would be no
imaginable need for wooden gliders.
For Parker, the disintegration of Northwestern Aeronautical
would be a giant loss. He liked to claim that Northwestern was the
second- or third-largest contractor to the war effort, and now his
company was about to collapse with a suddenness that few
businessmen ever experience. Parker was desperately searching for a
solution to his problem when a high-ranking navy official called
him. Through channels, the official said, he had heard that the
navy was looking for an investor. He knew little about the opportunity
because the information was classified. Highly classified. He
told Parker to go back to Washington and to talk to naval officials
Parker did, and was stunned to find that the first naval official
they wanted him to meet was Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, former
commander of the Pacific Fleet. It was clear that the navy was
pulling out all the stops in its effort to find an investor. Parker was
escorted into Nimitz's office, where the admiral shook his hand
and jabbed a finger in his chest. "I've looked into your background
and there's a job that I'd like you to do," Nimitz told him,
"and it may be more important in peacetime than it is in
wartime." Nimitz then made a fleeting reference to a particular
naval group, saying that it was important to keep the group together.
And that was it.
Being an Academy graduate, Parker had the proper respect for
naval authority. "Aye, aye, sir," he said, though he had no idea
what he was agreeing to. Later Parker was ushered into the assistant
secretary of the navy's office and then into the office of the
judge advocate, who gave him legal advice on the matter. By the
time Parker finally met with Norris and Engstrom, he was only
aware that the navy thought that this proposed venture was vitally
important. Or at least he was aware that the navy was trotting out
its biggest names in an effort to woo him.
Norris and Engstrom made the same pitch to Parker that
they'd already made to a dozen other potential investors. They
told him that they'd been involved in highly classified work and
would like to continue it on a private basis, but that they needed
an investor to pick up half the tab for their new venture. They
promised at least three years of service and laid out a few of the
potential business applications for the technology.
After they finished, Parker still knew almost nothing about the
proposed venture. Nimitz hadn't given him a shred of information
about it, and had said only that it was of great importance to
the country. Norris and Engstrom had provided a little bit more,
but even their information was sketchy. They apologetically explained
that it would be a felony to reveal any more, and Parker
accepted their explanation. By the end of the fourth meeting
they still hadn't told Parker who his new customers would be.
Parker had grown wealthy as an entrepreneur and was far
shrewder than any of the navy men suspected. No, he didn't understand
digital electronics or vacuum tubes, and he couldn't assess
the technical capabilities of Norris and Engstrom. But he
could read between the lines. He implicitly understood that the
company's main customer would be the navythat was plain
enoughand he knew that the navy had already assessed the capabilities
of Norris and Engstrom. If Norris and Engstrom had
come up short in its estimation, he wouldn't be here. It was a
roundabout way of evaluating the situation, but it was all he had.
Parker liked to tell his friends that it was a little bit like taking on
a symphony orchestra without knowing a note of music, but that
didn't worry him.
Besides, there was this issue of Northwestern Aeronautical.
Parker had already declared the glider factory as war surplus and
had liquidated his inventory. The company was clearly on the
verge of collapsethat is, unless he could pull off a last-minute
miracle. And this new venture certainly fell into the category of a
last-minute miracle. If he could pull it off, he knew that the new
company could potentially offer jobs for his current employees.
Whatever machines the navy men planned to make, machinists
and assemblers would be needed to build them.
Parker considered everything: the fate of Northwestern, the
loss of jobs for all the machinists at his plant, the risk of investing
in a project he didn't understand. But one image kept coming
back to himNimitz jabbing a finger in his chest and saying,
"There's a job I'd like you to do." In 1945 most of the country still
felt a sense of common purpose and patriotism, and an order
from someone the stature of Admiral Nimitz was almost impossible
to resist, especially for a Naval Academy man. So Parker sold
his $300,000 stake in the Toro Company to fund the new venture.
Then he called together Norris, Engstrom, and Captain Ralph
Meader from the Naval Computing Machine Laboratory in Dayton,
Ohio. They and their wives met for dinnerin grand Parker
styleat the Metropolitan Club in Washington, D.C. The navy
men agreed to sign a contract binding themselves to three years
of service to the new company; Parker agreed to head a group
that would purchase a hundred thousand shares of the company
stock at ten cents each. Pooling their resources, the navy men
bought the other hundred thousand shares, and the deal was
complete. Parker then returned to the St. Paul glider factory and
announced to a band of cheering machinists that their jobs had
In January 1946 the group incorporated the new company, calling
it Engineering Research Associates (ERA). The navy men immediately
hired forty members of the "Seesaw" staff, and Parker
arranged for the new company to share his cavernous glider factory
with Northwestern Aeronautical. Sharing quarters with Northwestern
was critical because ERA wasn't yet qualified to carry out a
major government contract. Although most members of its staff
had worked for the navy during the war, ERA didn't have a corporate
track record. Northwestern Aeronautical, however, did have
a track record. So by setting up shop in the glider factory, ERA
could work on major contracts that had been officially awarded
to Northwestern Aeronautical.
As far as the navy brass was concerned, Parker had saved their
codebreaking operation. The machinists in St. Paul also considered
Parker a saviorhis last-minute heroics were responsible
for saving their jobs. Norris and Engstrom were the only ones
with an inkling of the business potential that could emerge from
the new enterprise, but even they had more personal concerns.
Parker's cash influx was helping free Engstrom from a life as a
Yale math professor, and Norris no longer faced a return to his
job as an X-ray machine salesman with Westinghouse.
Everyone was pleased. They had taken an obscure military
technology and transformed it into a private enterprise. They
wanted to congratulate themselves for their foresight and steadfast
determination, but Norris and Engstrom knew that their victory
was not born of their own resolve. The real reason for the
formation of Engineering Research Associates was that the U.S.
Navy wanted it that way, and had pushed the company into existence
through the bony finger of Admiral Chester W. Nimitz.