Chapter 1 - The IdealistIf you are able to state a problem—any problem—and if it is important enough, then the problem can be solved. —Edwin Land
Just before 3:30 p.m. on April 18, 1954, an American diplomat stepped out onto the rooftop of the new, ten-story U.S. embassy in Moscow. He walked to the white parapet that skirted the perimeter of the roof and looked to the east, across the wide boulevards and rooftops, toward the onion domes and spires of Red Square. In the gray sky above the Kremlin, the dark outlines of dozens of Soviet jets resolved into view, moving like a synchronized flock of birds.
The pilots were practicing for the upcoming May Day Parade, the showy pageant of socialist pride and power held every spring. The highlight of the parade was always the unveiling of the latest breakthrough in Soviet military technology, and the aerial rehearsal gave the diplomat a sneak preview of this year’s biggest surprise. He concentrated on the shapes of the planes, counting them as they buzzed in and out of the dense cloud cover. Most of the planes—more than forty, according to his count—appeared to be “Beagles,” the Ilyushin Il-28 small bombers that were the workhorses of the Soviet air fleet. But he also spotted an unfamiliar outline among them, a plane that seemed much bigger than the others. To his eye, it looked a little like a Boeing B-52 Stratofortress.
But that surely couldn’t be right. The B-52 was an American invention, and although it had been flying test missions for two years, it wasn’t scheduled to go into active service for several months yet. The Americans believed they had produced the world’s only long-range jet bomber, the only one capable of carrying massive hydrogen bombs between the United States and Moscow. The B-52’s debut was expected to give America a clear, exploitable edge over the Soviets in the rapidly escalating Cold War. According to the best American intelligence, the Soviets wouldn’t be able to produce their own long-range bomber for at least another four years.
Yet as the diplomat—who was never identified by name in the secret cables and government reports—stared into the drab Moscow sky, a dispiriting realization sank in: the best American intelligence was wrong. For the next week or so, spotters from the U.S. Air Force were assigned stakeout duty on that same embassy roof, just in case the Soviets decided their pilots needed yet another rehearsal before the big show. When one of the huge Soviet bombers buzzed within a mile of the embassy roof, an air force sergeant aimed his camera at the plane and started snapping the shutter as fast as he could. When the prints were developed in an embassy darkroom, all that emerged was a dark blur, frustratingly indistinct. But he and the other spotters had no doubts about what they had seen, and more important they knew exactly what it meant: America’s advantage in nuclear strike capability was evaporating before their eyes.
The embassy cable that delivered that news to Washington hit the State Department the way that gasoline hits fire. It had already been a tense spring, with one major nuclear milestone and lots of smoldering anxieties. Just six weeks earlier, on the Pacific island of Bikini Atoll, the United States tested its new dry-fuel hydrogen bomb—the first hydrogen bomb that could be delivered by aircraft. The atomic bombs that had been dropped over Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the end of World War II were firecrackers in comparison to this colossus, which packed about a thousand times more explosive force, in terms of TNT equivalency, than each of those two bombs. Roughly one second after the test detonation on Bikini Atoll, the mushroom cloud that bloomed over the island measured four and a half miles in diameter. Less than ten minutes later, the cloud’s diameter had ballooned to more than sixty miles. The radiation from the blast ultimately contaminated more than seven thousand square miles of the Pacific, an area almost as big as New Jersey. The devastation shocked even the military commanders and nuclear physicists who oversaw the test. The bomb was twice as powerful as they had predicted.
It marked the blinding dawn of a new era. This was the instant—in the chilly spring of 1954—when Americans realized that nuclear weapons were capable of ending not just world wars but entire civilizations. On April Fools’ Day, The New York Times
ran a bold headline at the top of the front page that was anything but a joke: “H-Bomb Can Wipe Out Any City.” Inside the paper, the Times
reported that news of the test on Bikini Atoll had reduced all those who truly understood its implications to a state of mute awe. “It was symbolic,” the article stated, “that this awe—this fear of the tremendous forces that man has unleashed—was most pronounced in cities, in capital cities, which here and abroad are doomed to a common destruction if unlimited atomic war should come.” The article emphasized that if the Soviets ever developed the means to deliver such bombs to America, no one was safe. “For the plain truth is there is no 100 per cent defense against piloted enemy aircraft and submarines, much less against guided missiles.”
For the Russians, the nuclear race was a game of catch-up from the very beginning. The United States had gotten a head start during World War II, but by 1954 the Americans worried that the Soviets were rapidly gaining ground. Although the Soviets had resolved in 1940 to develop an atomic bomb, they hadn’t adopted a full-scale nuclear program until after they learned of the existence of the Manhattan Project, which produced the atomic bombs that were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. After the war, the Soviets implemented a fledgling nuclear program that was based almost solely on intelligence stolen from American and German physicists. In 1949, the Soviets tested their first atomic bomb, and by 1953 they’d improved the potency of those explosives tenfold. Now, a mere two weeks after the story in The New York Times
marveled at the unforeseen power of America’s latest H-bombs, the Soviets were spotted flying their own long-range bombers in the overcast skies of Moscow. If those planes were, in fact, equal to the bombers the United States had developed, and if the Soviets’ nuclear program continued to develop at its current pace, then the very idea of national security was a sham. New York, Washington, Chicago, Los Angeles—any of them could be vaporized in a matter of minutes.
President Eisenhower was on edge. The specter of a surprise nuclear attack had become, almost overnight, a genuine threat. He confessed his anxiety to a small group of scientific advisers during a breakfast at the White House days after the planes were spotted. One of those in attendance was James Killian, the president of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Killian suggested that Eisenhower privately enlist a team of the country’s top innovators to sketch out new technologies that might, somehow, eliminate the possibility of a surprise attack. The concept itself—a panel of scientists brainstorming on the government’s behalf—wasn’t exactly new. Before Eisenhower took office, Killian had been part of a scientific panel under President Truman called Project Lincoln—a group of science and technology experts, many of them pulled from university labs, that had produced a list of recommendations designed to strengthen America’s air defense systems. Killian suggested that a similar group of scientists, more narrowly focused on preventing a surprise attack, might come up with solutions that even the most creative military minds could never dream up.
Eisenhower thought about it for a few days and then invited Killianto assemble a small team of innovators—the “surprise attack panel,” as it was informally known—dedicated to bringing technological wizardry to national defense.
“I hope very much that you will find it possible to free yourself of your many other heavy responsibilities for a period long enough to undertake this important assignment,” Eisenhower wrote to Killian, “and that others whom you choose to be members of your staff will also be able to devote time to the work.”
Killian’s Rolodex was full of the names of the country’s best and brightest, and he quickly got down to work, grabbing the telephone. A good chunk of his recruitment could be done without placing a single long-distance call, because the Cambridge labs at MIT and Harvard were full of world-class innovators in nearly every relevant scientific field, from astronomy to nuclear physics. The man who would become Killian’s most prized recruit, however, had just left town, leaving an empty office across the railroad tracks from the MIT campus.
Edwin Land was the co-founder of Cambridge's Polaroid Corporation, and at forty-five he was probably the most celebrated inventor in America. As a boy, Land had grown fascinated with optical physics and the natural crystal formations that could polarize light waves. While still a teenager, he created a synthetic polarizing sheet of film that could filter out glare—an invention that he believed might be applied to the windshields of cars to save drivers from being blinded by oncoming headlights. As it happened, his technology had much broader applications, revolutionizing the field of optics and eventually finding its way onto camera lenses, sunglasses, binoculars, mirrors, and almost anything else that light might bounce off or pass through.
Had Land stopped with that one breakthrough, his career would have been considered an unqualified success. But his mind never stopped churning out ideas, and he was now on his way to amassing more U.S. patents than anyone except Thomas Edison and Elihu Thomson, another early trailblazer of electric light and power. Land’s most famous creation, instant photography, had stunned the world in 1947, and the commercial success of Polaroid’s line of Land Cameras, which could develop photographic prints in about a minute, had made him a household name.
That name really should have been Solomonovich. His father, Harry, was born in 1880 near Kiev, then part of imperial Russia. But the year after his birth, a wave of anti-Jewish riots swept through the city and the surrounding villages. Dozens of Jews were murdered, hundreds were raped, and thousands were beaten. The Solomonovich family, fearing for their lives, boarded a ship in Odessa bound for the United States, with young Harry in tow. According to family lore, Avram Solomonovich, Edwin’s grandfather, was told that the ship had “landed” at the Castle Garden immigration center in New York; much confusion ensued as he struggled to communicate with an impatient immigration clerk, who entered the patriarch’s name in the registry as “Abraham Land.”
Abraham, as he was now known, found work in an agricultural colony for Jewish refugees in Connecticut but eventually reinvented himself as a scrap metal dealer. Years later his son, Harry, followed him into the business. In May 1909, Harry and his wife, Matie, had the son that they named Edwin Herbert.
Edwin’s youth was quintessentially American. He was a naturally shy boy, but his parents encouraged him to mix with others and fight the instinct to retreat into himself. He joined the Boy Scouts, and after his bar mitzvah in the spring of 1922, he spent most of his summers at Camp Mooween, on the shores of Red Cedar Lake outside Norwich. It was there, between the swimming contests and campfires, that Land’s interest in physics took hold. The camp’s founder, Barney “Cap” Girden, could often be found inside an old shed—“the Engineering Building”—where he was endlessly tinkering on contraptions that he’d test on his campers (he’d later earn a patent for a snorkel with a periscope attachment, among other things). Girden recognized and kindled Land’s creative drive, encouraging him to read everything he could find about optics and giving him free run of the Engineering Building—a privilege other campers didn’t have. It was the beginning of a recurring pattern: Land’s high school teachers at Norwich Free Academy excused him from required courses so he could conduct experiments; a couple years later, the Harvard physics department granted Land, just an undergraduate, his own laboratory. Eventually, Land grew to associate problem solving with freedom and with America itself. “De Tocqueville enjoyed pointing out a particular characteristic of American democracy,” Land later said. “It solves the problems that occur, as they come along, in a new way.”
When Hitler’s specter loomed during World War II, Land turned himself into a scientific gun for hire, a freelance dreamer who could be called upon whenever America needed a good idea. When General George S. Patton complained that recoil shocks from Sherman tank guns were jamming the sights back into the eyes of his gunners, injuring them severely, Land and his team at Polaroid came up with a larger, fixed-focus lens that solved the problem. When the Coast Guard dogs that guarded the Allies’ beaches were plagued with eye problems caused by blowing sand, Land produced customized Polaroid goggles for canines. When American soldiers in the South Pacific began succumbing to malaria—a disease prevented by quinine, which was in critically short supply outside Japan—Land sponsored a team of chemists to search for an alternative. When he revealed the results of their work in 1944, the headline on the front page of The New York Times
announced, “Synthetic Quinine Produced, Ending Century Search.” Even after the atomic bombs in Japan sped the war’s end, Land continued to donate ideas to the U.S. military. His team at Polaroid adapted the concepts behind instant photography to create for the U.S. Army a new type of radiation “dosimeter”— a small metal cartridge, to be worn around the necks of soldiers, like a dog tag. The device contained strips of film that would turn a lighter color if exposed to dangerous levels of radiation.“The man is a whirlwind,” wrote W. Lewis Hyde, a physicist at Polaroid, in a letter to his parents shortly after he joined the company. “He has about three ideas a minute, and about two of them manage to get tried and tested.”
Now, in 1954, Land was back to focusing on his company, and Polaroid seemed perfectly positioned to take advantage of America’s renewed obsession with entertainment and leisure. Land decided to leave Cambridge, temporarily moving to the sunny frontier of America’s postwar boom, California.
By the time Killian began to assemble his surprise attack panel, it was too late. If he wanted to persuade Land to again put his career on hold for the government, he’d first have to lure him out of Hollywood.
Copyright © 2018 by Monte Reel. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.