Tuesday, February 22, 2005


A Career in Defense Work

The First Years

For 43 years I was a systems engineer and project manager in the defense industry. This spanned 1957 to 2000, which was the most exciting period of engineering for the military I am certain that ever existed. There was so much going on in the development of weapons systems, intelligence collection and processing systems, and communications. The space efforts of the military were accelerating rapidly, both for missiles and for collection of raw data about the Soviets, because of the scarcity of solid information about their military capabilities and intentions.

Then, too, the ground forces were initiating their own efforts to instrument and communicate on the battlefield. With the advent of phased-array radar, both massive and miniature versions of such systems were being developed, for naval warships and aircraft respectively. And on and on it goes, for every service and every combat and support requirement of the military.

My very first engineering assignment in 1957, just fresh out of University, was daunting. I was given the task of studying the need for a CRT-based geographic display that would portray the collected radar intercepts from a recce aircraft mission in true form. In effect, this meant that the CRT screen was to have a map projection on it that was the same as the maps used for navigation and plotting of intercepts by hand. This entailed calculating the screen position of the aircraft, and the intercept line of the radar it was receiving at the proper azimuth.

While I was learning how to do the calculation of Lambert Conformal Conic Projections onto a screen in x and y coordinates, other engineers were developing a set of digital, transistor building-block modules to be used in designing the huge, 80-rack, 10 console system we were developing.

The basic idea was to be able to display the recce mission take for an operator, who would then identify points of convergence of the intercepts from various radar. This in turn would narrow down the most probable location of the emitter. Together with such other data that was collected, such as frequency of operation, pulse period, and pulse width, this information would allow Air Force mission planners to find paths through the enemy airspace that had a minimum of radar coverage.

When my study was finished, and the calculations were ready, I was assigned to design the console, and especially the computer and its program. I was given a team of technicians to help with the layout of the console and computer. It only took a few months to do the layout, and assemble the computer for testing. It worked the first time it was turned on for a “smoke test”. The heart of the system was a 24-bit parallel arithmetic unit, and when measured, it ran at speeds up to 6 megahertz. This was in 1958-9, way long before the PC had been engineered. When completed, the console system had eight full racks of modules behind it! My information is that that system was in use by the Air Force for about 15 years, until replaced by more advanced gear.

Following this task, I was assigned to design a plotting table computer with the same mathematics as for the CRT console. So I laid out a serial-arithmetic drum computer that could stand alone beside the very large plotter. It was big enough to hold sheet maps of the Jet Navigation, and World Aeronautical Chart types. This little system design was turned over to a newly organized engineering group to build and test, while I was moved on to design yet another program for a CRT console using the same 24-bit computer design as before that would calculate and display a more intricate analysis of the intercepts pulse by pulse.

My first year or two as an engineer covered a lot of ground, as you might imagine. The recce systems my firm was building, the missions being flown, the mission tapes brought back, together with the navigation tapes that told us where the aircraft was when an intercept occurred were all part of the knowledge I had to grasp. Then I had to understand the various types of radar and their signatures, and how the data from them would be used.

I had to learn how to use the modules we had designed to make a computer and all of its ancillary buffers, and controls. The “programmer” was a series of staged logic modules that drove the data and arithmetic unit, and it had to be programmed by hand, bit by bit. Time-driven, module-limited Boolean logic became my main tool. Finally, I was initiated into the testing and debugging process for the eight racks of the first system.

Fortunately, I was needed to do other front-end designs more than supervising the layout, building, and testing of each system, because I really didn’t want to spend my whole career with a soldering iron and test meter in my hands, and an oscilloscope staring back at me. A least for one time I had been responsible from conception to on-the-floor working of a relatively complex unit.

Looking back, I shudder at the enormous size and power needs of that eight-rack CRT Console system, and the very few, inflexible, built-in programs it ran back in 1959. Today, 40 or so years later, a laptop could be set up to perform these tasks in a few days, and at an extremely low cost. In fact, the entire 80-rack system could now be collapsed into a few--maybe 10 or 12--clustered, modern, high-end laptops, mostly to provide the operator stations!

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