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Oral-History:Jack Kern

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About Jack Kern

Jack Kern was born in Dayton, Ohio, March the 1st, 1918. In 1936, Kern started his first job as an errand boy in the Engineering Model Shop at N.C.R. He took interest and had experience in electricity, so eventually he moved to the Research Department in late 1940 from the Engineering Department. Kern worked on the development of off-on tubes and ran the Tube Lab at N.C.R. In 1947, Jack Kern developed the very first prototype of a printed circuit. While at N.C.R., he pursued higher education by attending the University of Dayton, Ohio, at night and working eight hours a day at N.C.R. During the wartime, he made an electronic counter for Aberdeen Proving Grounds and participated in the Bombe project, ULTRA, a secret Navy project. Kern and others had to move to another building to carry out the job and deal with strict security measures. There, Kern took care of various duties, including start-ups and Tape Punch job.


After the war, the department at N.C.R. planned expansion, and Kern got the job of laying out the department in two different areas and organizing the move. However, N.C.R. cut the budget instead, and Kern quit N.C.R in 1950 to run a television/appliance store he had started a year before. After spending five years in the television business, Kern began a new career at Monarch Marking Systems as the first R&D person and remained there until his retirement in 1980.


In the interview, Jack Kern discusses his experiences in N.C.R. and Monarch Marking Systems and development processes of various devices in which he was involved. Kern also shares his thoughts on N.C.R.’s position on patent and technology development. The two figures from N.C.R.—Joe Desch and Bob Mumma—are frequently referred to in the interview as well. At the end of the interview, Kern returns to activities at N.C.R. to talk about the Navy projects and the time he learned of what he had been doing during the war.


About the Interview

JACK KERN: An Interview Conducted by Frederik Nebeker, IEEE History Center, 14 September 1995


Interview # 276 for the IEEE History Center, The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, Inc., and Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey



Copyright Statement

This manuscript is being made available for research purposes only. All literary rights in the manuscript, including the right to publish, are reserved to the IEEE History Center. No part of the manuscript may be quoted for publication without the written permission of the Director of IEEE History Center.


Request for permission to quote for publication should be addressed to the IEEE History Center Oral History Program, Rutgers - the State University, 39 Union Street, New Brunswick, NJ 08901-8538 USA. It should include identification of the specific passages to be quoted, anticipated use of the passages, and identification of the user.

It is recommended that this oral history be cited as follows:
Jack Kern, an oral history conducted in 1995 by Frederik Nebeker, IEEE History Center, Rutgers University, New Brunswick, NJ, USA.


Interview

INTERVIEW: Jack Kern
INTERVIEWER: Frederik Nebeker
DATE: 14 September 1995
LOCATION: Dayton, OH, USA


Family, education, early NCR employment

Nebeker:
This is the 14th of September, 1995, I’m with Jack Kern in Kettering, Ohio. This is Rik Nebeker.


Can you tell me when and where you were born, and a little bit about your family?


Kern:
Well, I was born here in Dayton, Ohio, March the 1st, 1918. My father worked at N.C.R.


Nebeker:
In what capacity?


Kern:
He was an assembler. At first he rose to the rank of job foreman in the Assembly department. Then, for some reason or other, he quit to go west to string power lines through the Montana mountains. He worked at this for a few years until he came down with smallpox. He ran out of money, came home, got married, and went back to N.C.R. In those years thereafter, he assembled cash registers and never rose above this position.


I was born in 1918 and, growing up in the Depression, in a relatively poor family, had no prospect of college. So with father’s history, I went to work at N.C.R. I started out as an errand boy in the Engineering Model Shop.


Nebeker:
The model shop was a kind of what?


Kern:
In the Engineering Department it was a shop that made mechanical model parts for cash registers.


Nebeker:
For new machines?


Kern:
For developments. New developments.


I left that department after about a year in order to go into the factory so that I could make more money and go to college. Through a reduction in force, I got laid off. A month later I was offered another job back in the Engineering Model Shop--if I would stay there [laughter] so I took the offer.


NCR Electrical Engineering Department, Electrical Research Department

Kern:

Of course, my ambition was to get into the Electrical Research or the Electrical Engineering Department.


We had an Electrical Engineering Department that engineered electric motors and a telephone credit system for department stores and--


Nebeker:
What was that system? Can you describe that?


Kern:
That was called the OK Credit system. It was a telephone at the cash register that communicated with the credit department upstairs.


Nebeker:
I see. It was simply a telephone connection?


Kern:
Just a telephone connection. It was all their own equipment and it wasn’t tied to the public lines.


Nebeker:
I see.


Kern:
A dedicated system.



I then discovered that we had an Electrical Research Department which was more interesting to me, and since I was the only one in the model shop that had experience in electricity, it fell upon me to make their parts for them.


Nebeker:
How did you have experience in electricity?


Kern:
Well that was my hobby and my prime interest from the day I was born, I guess.


Nebeker:
Hmm . . . wiring systems?


Kern:
So, I had studied--


Nebeker:
. . . telegraph?


Kern:
Yes, everything, radio, telegraph, the whole bit. And I had studied towards that end after school, you see. I studied on my own, because I only had a high school degree. So, in the Model Shop I made the parts for Electrical Research. All kinds of things--electromagnets, electromagnetic decoding devices . . .


Nebeker:
What were they used for?


Kern:
Well, they were trying to come up with a means of electronic cash--a means to make an electronic cash register, way back then. This was 1938 when they hired Joe Desch. And Joe Desch in 1938 had drawn up the first electronic counting circuit in the world. I’ll tell you a bit about that later on. But in any event, they were making their own vacuum tubes then--this was in 1940--to do electronic counting. A fellow named Cone was hired to make the tubes. He was an alcoholic from Chicago and a very high-strung individual. He got mad about something and quit.


I wanted so badly to get into that Research Department but the Engineering Department wouldn’t let me go--remember my promise when I was rehired--so they transferred me to Electrical Engineering, hoping to placate my feelings. They transferred me to the Electrical Engineering Department where I did dynamometer tests on motors.


Joe Desch, NCR research and development

Kern:

I really didn’t have much to do so I would slip down the hall to the Research Department. The Company had a “no smoking” policy, but since the Research Department was secret and was behind closed doors, one could smoke there. I did this once in the morning and again in the afternoon, and while I was there I would do various bits of work for them, so it wasn’t a total waste. One day Joe told me “Hell, you’re down here all of the time, I might as well put you on my payroll.” I said “That’s what I’ve been asking for all of this time.” [laughter] So he had me transferred.


Nebeker:
And what year was that?


Kern:
And that was late 1940. And it made my boss in the Engineering Department rather unhappy.


Nebeker:
Now that was Joe’s group in Electronics?


Kern:
Well, they were called Electrical Research. We didn’t talk electronics before the war. So it was the Electrical Research Department. It was somewhat divorced from the Engineering Department.


Nebeker:
That was the only R & D department of N.C.R.?


Kern:
No, there was a Chemical Research and a Metallurgical Research Department.


Nebeker:
But they didn’t have any other research work in electromechanical?


Kern:
No, no.


Nebeker:
Electro-motors or anything?


Kern:
I answered too quickly. Obviously, the motors were engineered, designed, and tested in Electrical Engineering. Mechanical devices, and the cash registers themselves were created by the Mechanical Design Engineering group.

NCR tube laboratory

Kern:

So, after I had been transferred into Joe’s department, this fellow running the tube laboratory quit. Joe put a--


Nebeker:
That was under Joe? the tube laboratory?


Kern:
Yes--the tube laboratory was part of the Electrical Research Department. Their goal was, of course, electronic counting which they were doing remarkably well.


The tubes, however, that they made were unreliable.


Nebeker:
Why didn’t they just buy some--


Kern:
You couldn’t buy tubes that did this. These were specialized tubes, for our applications only, and you couldn’t buy this type of tube.


Nebeker:
And there were no other--


Kern:
They were miniature gas-filled thyratrons. Not actually filled but they had a prescribed amount of argon in them that could conduct or not conduct to provide “on” and “off” states with no partial state in-between.


Nebeker:
Were there other applications for off-on tubes at the time?


Kern:
Yes. They had mercury-vapor-argon and mercury-vapor thyratrons with power handling capabilities.


Nebeker:
Well I know they did some of that for rectifying--


Kern:
Yes, for rectification.


Nebeker:
As far as a switch, you don’t know of--


Kern:
Well, they made them in switches--we had a big--


Nebeker:
Oh, right.


Kern:
--we had a big research arc-welder in the Model Shop that was controlled with thyratrons. It was a bridge circuit with mercury-vapor rectifiers in two legs and thyratrons in the other two legs.


Nebeker:
I see, and that was a switch?


Kern:
Yes, and you could turn on the power for, like, a quarter of a cycle.


Nebeker:
I see. And the thyratrons were good in that they had a larger current carrying capacity than other [tubes].


Kern:
And these were large tubes, like a foot high, and they carried the primary current to the welder, so that the current wasn’t high. The voltage was high, of course, but the current wasn’t. And so there thyratrons in existence but not miniatures.


Nebeker:
Not the type that you needed--


Kern:
Not for this, where you could put a hundred of them in a rack and count to ten decades.


Nebeker:
And there weren’t other vacuum--or other electron tubes that were suited to this job? I mean, a radio had plenty of small tubes.


Kern:
There was a circuit called a conjugate pair, which was an ancient version of a flip-flop, and it used vacuum tubes (a pair of vacuum tubes) and a multivibrator circuit that was on or off, but you counted binary with it, and it was difficult to decode that into the decimal system at that time.


Nebeker:
Do you know where that developed? those conjugate pairs?


Kern:
Eccles-Jordan [sic] are the names that I remember, out East someplace.


Nebeker:
Maybe that was for this counting of radioactivity or something like that?


Kern:
Yes, it could have been.


Nebeker:
I know that was one area that developed counting circuits.


Kern:
Our group developed (I was just in on the tail end of it) a one-megahertz counter to be used by the Aberdeen Proving Ground to time the flights of projectiles. The first decade was the conjugate pair flip-flop type of counting that was decoded into decimal. Its output was followed by our own slower miniature thyratron counters.


Nebeker:
Your thyratrons weren’t fast enough to do a . . . ?


Kern:
No, they’d only go up to about 300 kilohertz. The ionization and deionization times were great factors.


Nebeker:
But you preferred the thyratron because it was what? Less expensive than having this--


Kern:
They were small.


Nebeker:
Smaller than the conjugate pair?


Kern:
Yeah, they were a miniature type of tube and it only required one per count.


Nebeker:
And that was something developed at N.C.R.?


Kern:
Yes. Joe Desch had developed this tube. So when this fellow (I digress a moment) left, Joe put a Mechanical Engineer in to run the Tube Lab. That poor guy lasted about two weeks, and he quit--he couldn't take it--and Joe asked me if I’d like the job and I said “Absolutely.” This was a step up for me and so I was given the job.


Nebeker:
How large was this tube effort?


Kern:
Well, at our best we could make 32 tubes a day.


Nebeker:
How many people?


Kern:
Well, I finally got three girls and a fellow. And with that complement we could turn out 32 tubes a day. This was really a limitation of the vacuum system. It could process eight tubes at a time and we could cycle it four times a day.


Nebeker:
Can you describe the process briefly? Blowing the envelopes individually?


Kern:
We had to make all the glass parts. We bought cathodes but they were un-coated. You see, these were just raw materials and we had to put them all together. We had to spray the cathodes with emissive material.


Nebeker:
What, putting some thorium or something on it?


Kern:
Yes, barium and cesium carbonates. If you did it right you would heat the cathode, in the assembled tube on the vacuum system. The carbon dioxide is driven off leaving barium and cesium oxides. These are the thermionic emissive materials. So, anyway, one of the secrets was to get very good cathodes and everything else would have to be made in house.


Nebeker:
Were the raw cathodes made by RCA or some major tube company?


Kern:
No, by an independent tube parts company. They were just tiny nickel tubing with a cap on one end and a little tab on the other. You placed them on wires sticking up out of a board and sprayed them with the emissive material.



Before that all of the metal parts that went into a tube were baked in a hydrogen atmosphere of 1500° Fahrenheit.


Nebeker:
Is that something you would do?


Kern:
Yes. It was done in a hydrogen atmosphere furnace. Now that was fun, because you had hydrogen and it was escaping from this quartz heating chamber that was at 1500° and you had to light both ends exactly right or you had an explosion. You see, that was a fun part of a day.



Baking the raw cathodes and other metal parts caused them to absorb hydrogen. The parts were almost pure nickel and once you got them into a good vacuum they could be heated, driving out the hydrogen and taking any oxygen with it. An induction heating coil was used for this.


Nebeker:
This is after you’ve got them in the glass?


Kern:
Yes, with its great affinity for oxygen, oxygen is released too. The tube assemblies are then baked, with vacuum, at 500° to drive all the residual gasses out of the glass.


Nebeker:
Are you buying some standard bases that you’re putting these--


Kern:
No.


Nebeker:
You made a base?


Kern:
Yes, these were made in the factory. We did not make them in the tube lab.


Nebeker:
I can imagine that this was a tricky operation to--


Kern:
Oh it was. The tiny spot-welding of the metal parts, making the glass envelopes--we brought a wire out of the top of the envelope, the flares that made the bottom, the bottom wire seals, a tubulation [sic] to connection to the vacuum system, and a four-pin base.


Nebeker:
And you learned this all on the job?


Kern:
Well, Joe taught me. He was good at this stuff. Boy, he was good. I did manage to do a few of my own things, but not much. A lot of it comes naturally.


Nebeker:
How did he learn the tube business?


Kern:
I don’t know, except a lot of it was by just doing it. We had visitors from all over the country coming to see this operation. It was the showplace of technology at N.C.R..


Nebeker:
So this was well known?


Kern:
Well, our techniques were well known. People knew that we were making tubes but they didn’t know what we were doing with them. We had university personnel from all over the country come to see us. Col. E. A. Deeds, the chairman of our board, and his very close friend, Charles F. Kettering, frequently came to see us, and I got to know them very well because they came so often. Yes, it was a showplace at N.C.R..


Nebeker:
So you were making these miniature thyratrons for counting? Is that a diode, triode or what?


Kern:
It’s a triode. It’s like an SCR. You know what an SCR is?


Nebeker:
No.


Kern:
O.K. The silicon controlled rectifier today does the same thing that these tubes did back then. That is a little over simplified.


Nebeker:
And what was the actual size of these tubes?


Kern:
They were about 2 or 2 1/2 inches long. I imagine that there us one here in Joe’s memorabilia. We had a black bakelite base on it that was made at N.C.R. and a cap on top that was the anode connection. We wanted to buy the miniature 7-pin base that was becoming popular about that time for radio tubes, and the company that made these parts would have been glad to sell them to us. However, they wanted us to buy a million at a time (laughter) and we didn’t even have a room big enough to store all that material.



The raw envelope was about twice as long as the finished one. The reason for that was that it needed the weight so that when it was heated it would pull itself down and off at the flare to provide the proper length and diameter.


Nebeker:
Are these standard tube-making machines that were available at the time?


Kern:
Oh yes, but they were laboratory types and required a lot of hand work. We weren’t automated like the tube companies were. They had tube makers that were like rotary bottling machines. We made them one at a time.


Nebeker:
But at least you had a machine that did the sealing operation?


Kern:
Yes, if you did it right.


Nebeker:
And was Joe working on the design of the tube at the time you were there, or had he pretty much fixed how it . . .


Kern:
He had it pretty well designed when I came in there. Except for one problem that was purely technical. We don’t have time to discuss it here, but he and I worked out that problem and wound up with some extremely reliable tubes. They were really good. They were the best tubes that he had ever seen. We really had some quality and we went to war with that quality.


Nebeker:
Was the principle problem the life-time of the tube or its characteristics?


Kern:
Lifetime can be affected in many ways. The worst thing that happened to these tubes was that they would develop cathode-to-grid or grid-to-anode leakage (electrical). When you heat the cathode some barium and cesium would boil off and condense on the mica pieces that located the components of the tube. Since it was metallic, it created a conductive path between the elements, which impeded their function.



Joe had figured out a way to eliminate the problem and I worked out a way to implement it.


Nebeker:
Now, that mica is there not only to position the elements but also to prevent convection, isn’t that right? Something like that? We were reading about that.


Kern:
No, it’s there to locate the components within the tube and, yes, you do have convection and yes, you could probably favor the design to make the convection less of a problem to the life of the tube.



In the earlier television sets there was a tube used as an IF amplifier called a 6CK5. It went on for ten or more years with this same problem of cathode-to-grid leakage, and they never did correct it. I think that the tube companies felt that they had a winner so why change it [laughter]. They sold a lot of tubes, but those tubes were a real pain in the neck.


Nebeker:
How many different types of tubes were you working on during those first years?


Kern:
Really only two. We made a tube wherein all ten tubes were in one envelope with a common anode. It was made more or less experimentally, never in production quantities. During the war, in some off moments, I designed a ten-in-one tube with a common cathode. There again, they were only made on an experimental basis.


Nebeker:
Why is that?


Kern:
Our own tube was being made by Sylvania incorporating our leakage prevention scheme These were excellent tubes, on a standard 7-pin button base. They were given a type number 6D4.


Nebeker:
I see. Did you approach Sylvania to manufacture these?


Kern:
Yes, Joe and our Purchasing Agent, Harold Rice, talked to Sylvania, and they manufactured them. As it turned out, some other products in the war used the tube. One of the most popular uses for it was as a noise generator (I hate this) in radar jamming equipment. When a thyratron fires, it turns on rather quickly and creates random pulses throughout much of the radio spectrum, thus jamming the enemy’s radar.


Nebeker:
Is this a characteristic of all thyratrons, but these were miniature ones and they were good for--


Kern:
Yes, it was characteristic of all of them, [but ours] because they were small, could be used in aircraft where size and weight are so important. Interesting.


Nebeker:
Do you have any idea how many of these tubes Sylvania probably made?


Kern:
No, I don’t. We used them to drive relays because they could handle quite a bit of current. A small input pulse can turn on a relay. That was a good job for that tube.

Working environment, supplies at NCR

Nebeker:
How many were there in the research group just before the Op-20-G work started?


Kern:
There were 15 to 17 people including everybody.


Nebeker:
That’s everybody?


Kern:
The secretary and the whole works.


Nebeker:
What was the atmosphere like in that group?


Kern:
We had great atmosphere.


Nebeker:
What were the facilities?


Kern:
I’m not sure I understand your question.


Nebeker:
I mean, was it one large room?


Kern:
Oh, no. no. Each engineer had his own cubicle which was, I guess, about 8 feet wide by maybe 14 feet long. Something like that. In there the engineer had a desk, a drafting table, assorted chairs, and a work bench. N.C.R. made most of the furniture. They were completely self-contained or self--


Nebeker:
Self supplying?


Kern:
Yes, it was a remarkable company, and they were great people to work for.



One of the most convenient things about N.C.R. was that they had almost everything that you wanted. In stock! As an example, there was sheet steel in .001 inch increments of thickness, from about .004 inch to .125 inch in soft, quarter-hard, half-hard, three-quarter-hard and full hard [temper]. They had brass, tin, copper, beryllium copper, zinc, lead, solder, German silver, stainless steel, you name it, they had it. Rubber, leather, and cork. The list could go on and on.



Since I had started as a messenger boy in the Engineering Model Shop, I learned where all of these materials were kept, and I also knew all of the people in charge. This caused me to be quite an asset to the Research Department because I not only knew just what was available, but I could also get things done in the factory with equal ease.


Nebeker:
So you’d been at N.C.R. for how long?


Kern:
I came to them in 1936 and joined the Research Group in the fall of 1940.


Nebeker:
But since the Electrical Research was so small, the resources of electronic parts must have been limited.


Kern:
Yes, we had to buy those, of course, but if you wanted to make something that had electrical contacts or something, for instance, the materials were there. After the war I had two separate projects that provided readable information from digital electronic states and display it on wheel or whatever.


Nebeker:
Lights maybe, or--


Kern:
These happened, in both cases, to be wheels with numbers on their periphery.


Printed circuit development

Kern:

In one of them, I think I had the first circuit, very much like a printed circuit, except that the conductors were buried in plastic. These were the commutators that were sensed to control the position of the wheel. They were made of real thin castings that were put into a mold and liquid plastic was poured over them. There was a center ring that was continuous with a single finger extended, and then there was an outer ring that was divided into ten sectors each with its own finger. Those eleven fingers were brought out to one edge of the commutator which became the connector for the assembly. This assembly looked a whole lot like the printed circuit board of today and this was 1947.


Nebeker:
This was something you developed?


Kern:
Yes, this was something that I did and I got a patent on it.


Nebeker:
And it was done by placing those metal parts onto a plastic base?


Kern:
Yes, to place them into a mold and pour plastic around them. The rings stuck up so that they could be sawn into ten segments and yet were held in place.


Nebeker:
I see. And, was that used--


Kern:
It was used in a model but I can’t remember just what model.


Patents and corporate competition

Kern:

These are my own thoughts, and off the record, but all of this work we did, before and after the war, was merely to get patents in order to keep the competition from using these ideas to build products. N.C.R. wanted to build mechanical cash registers and that was their downfall.


Nebeker:
But they wanted to protect themselves against competitors using these techniques--


Kern:
Yes, yes. There’s a little after note. The electronic counter circuit that Joe Desch drew up when he first came here in 1938 went through a patent litigation in 1947 versus IBM. Well, it was the very basis of computers. Joe came to me with this sketch out of his notebook, and he said “If you can make this work,” he said, “We can beat IBM on this patent.”



And this circuit had ten cold-cathode triodes, type OA3, and they were arranged to count in a ring. There were no resistor or capacitor values shown. These could be calculated first and then adjusted for optimum values. The big problem was an iron-core transformer that was called for. At this moment I am not sure whether it completed the ring or whether it was part of the pulse-forming network that it counted. (After all it has been almost 50 years). I could tell you that any transformer that I could lay my hands on had way too much iron in it. I removed iron until it was down to one lamination, and it worked!



They took it to the trial in Washington and beat IBM on the very basic patents for electronic counting, and never did anything with it!


Nebeker:
Do you think that was N.C.R.’s position all along?


Kern:
Yes, yes, I think so.


Nebeker:
They were going to protect themselves against electronic techniques but not really develop them?


Kern:
Yes, I think so, but that’s just my opinion.


Nebeker:
This is very interesting.


Kern:
Well, it sure looked that way. Everything we did went the same route.


Desch management style

Nebeker:
To return to this period just before the war, or just before the Navy work. Was there good spirit within that Research Department? What was Joe’s style as a manager?


Kern:
Simon Legree. [laughter] I’m not joking about that.



Everyone was friendly. Take Joe as an example. Harry Sheeler was my old boss in the Model Shop, and he came in to see Joe about something. This was after I had transferred to the Research Department. When we met I addressed him as “Mr. Sheeler.” When he had left Joe asked me “Why do you call him Mr. Sheeler and you call me Joe?” I told him that their ages had a lot to do with it.



That was the attitude. Everybody called him “Joe.” He and I had worked in the tube lab, alone, for many months to get things started. We usually worked in our shirt sleeves, but in the summertime it was in our underwear shirts. We couldn’t have the windows open because the gas flames would blow away from our work. So, we had some pretty intimate conditions for many months, and developed a personal acquaintance at the same time.



About once a month, first thing on a Monday morning, Joe would have a general meeting in his office and really chew people out. “Why haven’t you solved your problem? Do you think that I’m going to give you another job if you can’t do this one?” Each one, in his turn, got the treatment. Accolades were rare.


Nebeker:
He wasn’t like that everyday?


Kern:
No. This is after the war, and was just Joe. It is an example of his psyche. These things had to come out, and lucky for us, it didn’t happen. Here’s an example of how it worked: my cubicle then was in the back, and next to our own little Model Shop. We had two model makers and it was right after the meeting. I walked in there with a piece of wire insulation that comes in 3 foot lengths and is called spaghetti. I was swinging this like a whip and I said “All right you bastards #*@!!&*!” All of a sudden they are looking at me with changed expressions. I turned to face Joe. “You got the message, didn’t you?” [laughter] That was all that was said.



I have to say the spirits were very good.



I always said that Joe was the hardest person in the world to work for. I told him this and he wanted to know, why?. So I told him that he knew everything about every project that was going on. In fact, it looks like to me as if you know more about every project than the man that’s doing the project. This was true, because for patent reasons, we all wrote daily reports in a notebook with non-removable pages, in ink, and witnessed. So I told him that under these conditions he was the hardest man in the world to work for.


Nebeker:
He kept up on your work by reading your notebooks?


Kern:
Yes. Also by looking over your shoulder once or twice a day, and suggesting things. He wouldn’t say “Hey, you’re doing it wrong.” That wasn’t his way. He would tell you in a nice way that “You know, there’s something else here that might help.” You would listen to his advice, so it was quite a treat to work for him. He was a one of a kind.


Bob Mumma

Nebeker:
What about Bob Mumma?


Kern:
Well, Bob sort of fell into his position. He was second-in-command, though not officially. Now again, this is my impression, but during the Joe had a--well, in those days we called them nervous breakdowns--and Bob had to take over.


Nebeker:
When was this, do you recall?


Kern:
I think this was in 1945.


Nebeker:
Right at the end of the war.


Kern:
No, when he came back Bob was still running things, and Bob did this clear through the end of the war.


Nebeker:
Oh, so Joe was out for only a short while?


Kern:
No, Joe was there but Bob was running things.


Nebeker:
Right, but I mean how long was he actually out of the offices?


Kern:
I don't’ remember so I really can’t say. It might have been a month or two that he was gone from there and when he did return, he took it very easy. Bob officiated through the end of the war.


Draft board, stress

Kern:

After Joe returned in late ‘45 or early ‘46, I had a somewhat milder form on the same thing. The draft board had been breathing down my neck all this time. Every six months they were pounding on me. For some reason or other they wanted to get me into the armed forces.


Nebeker:
Even in 1946?


Kern:
Yes! and Joe was fighting this. The man in charge of selective service in Ohio was a Navy Officer and he came down to see the situation and the local people would not listen to him. I don’t know whether that was the cause or whether it was just project pressure, but anyway--I hate to belabor this, but I got to tell you--I went through Friday, Saturday, and Sunday nights with eyes wide open the full time. I went to work at eight on Monday, not feeling too well. By nine I was breaking out with hives. By 9:30 my eyes were almost swollen shut, my feet were swollen and I was just about swollen all over. I hadn’t eaten anything for two or three days so it couldn’t have been an allergic reaction. My doctor saw me right away. They didn’t have cortisone then so he gave me a shot of adrenaline and said to get home as fast as I can, when this adrenaline starts taking over, I may be in worse trouble. It will stop the hives but I’ll be in other trouble. It wasn’t more than an hour later that he stopped by the house and gave me a shot of Demerol that put me to sleep.



I was off a week and had lost 20 pounds. That is no exaggeration. I had been going to the University of Dayton at night, working a minimum of eight hours a day at N.C.R., and fighting the draft board. I guess it was too much for me.



So, after a week or two, I got settled down. Since we weren’t making tubes, I had another room and another project. The tube lab was still mine. My desk, telephone, and personal belongings, everything was there, so if I wished I could go down there to relax a bit. Only Joe and I had keys to that room. One day I got a call from Joe and he wanted to meet me in the tube lab so I met him there. We sat down and he told me that he was going to teach me how to loaf. “That’s your problem. I learned the hard way and now I’m going to teach you. You come down here every morning at nine o’clock and we’ll shoot the bull for a half an hour.” Well, that went on for two days.



Bob Mumma came into the project room and asked “Where’s Jack?” and the guys told him that I was in the tube lab and he said “Well, what in the hell is he doing down there?” He phoned the tube lab and I answered the phone. He said “I’ve been looking for you.” I said “What’s the problem?” and he asked “Well, what are you doing down there?” So I told him that I was with Joe. He wanted to know what I was doing with Joe. I broke down and told him that Joe was teaching me how to loaf. [laughter]


Nebeker:
Wrong answer!


Kern:
Boy, did he hit the ceiling! He was madder than a wet hen! Joe wasn’t upset though, it didn’t bother him at all.



That’s the kind of a guy Joe was. I think those two little stories, that one and the one before it, in a small way put together the psyche of Joe Desch.


Pre-WWII Research Group projects

Nebeker:
O.K. To return to this Research Group before the Navy work. You were working on those tubes for that counting circuit.


Kern:
Yes, but the war was imminent and we had a couple of pre-war projects. We made an electronic counter for Aberdeen Proving Grounds. N.C.R. had a contract for clock-work timers used in 75 mm. projectiles and we made a testing fixture to check the arming device of those. The arming device had to operate within certain limits to pass inspection. There were other projects too but they escape my memory at this moment.


Nebeker:
That contract with Aberdeen--they had no satisfactory way of measuring muzzle velocity?


Kern:
No extremely accurate way ‘til they had this.


Nebeker:
You had to use vacuum tubes because your thyratrons were not fast enough? Was that a standard vacuum tube that you could buy?


Kern:
Yes.


Nebeker:
But the same kind of counting circuit, or something similar?


Kern:
No, it was a conjugate pair system where one of the pair was conducting and the other was not. There were four stages, two tubes per stage, which counted in the binary system and had to be converted to the decimal system. Only the first decade used these tubes. The succeeding decade was only counting at one tenth the rate which was no problem for the thyratrons.


Nebeker:
Yes, and what you’re doing is timing between two pulses?


Kern:
They had two electromagnetic coils, spaced at a known distance, that they would fire the artillery shells through. By knowing that distance and measuring the time, one could easily determine the velocity of the projectile.


Nebeker:
And what kind of a readout did you get from the counter?


Kern:
Lights.


Nebeker:
They were just lights?


Kern:
Just lights.


Nebeker:
Indicators of how many cycles had elapsed?


Kern:
Yes. You could reset and fire again. Reset, read, etc.


Nebeker:
And was that whole device built at N.C.R.?


Kern:
No, all we built was the counter. And here again, this counter was absolutely secret. My part was making it transient immune so that it would operate in spite of interference from external things and its own relays, of course.


Nebeker:
That would mess up the counter?


Kern:
Yes. Because it was counting very short pulses that could be even be picked out of the air. Almost every machine in the place generated pulses. My job was to make it immune to these transient pulses. That was my involvement in the project.



I suggested that we put “N.C.R.” on the counter. Joe said “We can’t do that. This is secret, you can’t put N.C.R.’s name on it.” It wasn’t but a short time later that in the Proceedings of the IRE [there] was a feature article about GE and [that was] showing a picture of the counter, built into a console with a big electric clock that said “GE” on the front of it. The text told how they had made this for measuring the velocities of shells at the Aberdeen Proving Ground. [laughter]


Nebeker:
And they got away with that even though it was supposed to be secret?


Kern:
Well, I think that we were a little overcautious. In those days you couldn’t be too sure of anything. Even so, before the declaration of war, our department got a citation from the Office of Scientific Research and Development, signed by Vannevar Bush, for our efforts along these lines.


Bombe project

Nebeker:
What’s your first recollection of the Bombe project, ULTRA?


Kern:
The day we were told we had to move. We weren’t told anything about it except that we were going to work on it, and [to] keep our mouths shut. It was a secret Navy project, and anybody that talked about it would be shot at sunrise.


Nebeker:
You had to move?


Kern:
There were mainly two good reasons for moving. The first was that we needed a lot more space. Secondly, security was difficult to implement in the office building.



We were currently on the third floor of Building 10, the office building, in a small wing facing South Main Street. We were given Building 26 at the corner of Stewart Street and Patterson Boulevard. This had been N.C.R.’s night school. N.C.R. was big on education so they provided a facility for after hours schooling. An interesting sidelight of this discussion was that this building was air-conditioned, and meant to be used at night. The main controls should be set on “night” because a “day” setting was the off-duty or standby setting. You would be surprised at how many people, with access to those controls, would switch it over to “day” if the slightest trouble occurred.



So, we took over the entire building. It was a big building, and a good building and the classrooms provided privacy. The projects were broken up into units, and where necessary, assigned to different rooms. Each room had a solid door with a lock and your name would be posted on the door if you were permitted in that room, and that’s how the secrecy was kept. And many people didn’t get in many rooms.


Nebeker:
So everyone had to have security clearance at that time?


Kern:
Oh yes, everybody’s security was checked. I think that we were even fingerprinted.


Nebeker:
So you were suddenly taken off what you were working on, and you were moved into this other building.


Kern:
Yes.


Nebeker:
And what were your first duties?


Kern:
I still had the tube thing, but we couldn’t make them fast enough so we had to give that up very quickly.


Nebeker:
These were special tubes?


Kern:
Yes.


Nebeker:
The thyratrons?


Kern:
Yes. You see, I was not an engineer, so this kind of set me apart from many things. But I knew N.C.R., electricity, and mechanics. It made me very handy to have around. One of the first things they used me for was to start new operations. For instance, they needed a small department to machine the rings that form the commutators. The mechanical engineers bought the machinery. Then I got everything operating and then turned it over to production people to operate.


Nebeker:
Oh, you were the start-up guy?


Kern:
Yes, I was the start-up guy, and I started up all sorts of things. We had mechanical parts being made in 31 different shops on the outside. They all disliked us because we had a “Triple A” priority that took precedence over any other work that they were doing, so, I created an expediting office to establish good relationships with these companies and gain their cooperation. When that was running smoothly, I trained someone else, and he took over. I was, however, liaison with our plastic molder, to the end of the war.



I also ran tests on commutators. I was alone in a room with a Bombe for two or more weeks--incidentally it is “Bombe,” a German word. I was the only one of sub-engineer status with the clearance to qualify for this work.


Nebeker:
I don’t know the origin of that word.


Kern:
Well, it is a German word “Bombe” which translates to Bomb.



Then they sent in this little machine from England with four or five removable wheels on it, each engraved with the alphabet.


Nebeker:
These rotors, yes.


Kern:
This was a dead give-away.


Nebeker:
You mean, until this you didn’t know that this was code-breaking?


Kern:
Well, you know, but you don’t talk to anybody about it. Neither did we know anything about the ‘Enigma.’ We never saw an ‘Enigma.’



So, that was an Enigma. (laughter)



Anyway, this little English machine needed short jumper wires with a brass connector tip on each end. So, I made a drawing and took it to the Sheffield Gauge Company to have them manufactured.


Nebeker:
Where was the Sheffield Company?


Kern:
In Dayton. They had some Swiss screw machines that could turn out these brass tips very rapidly. I went to see them and got that job running. Remember, I was the guy that got things done. You needed someone like that.


Nebeker:
Do you recall when the move was made to Building 26, when the Bombe project started?


Kern:
My guess is that it was January or February of ‘42, because it was after Pearl Harbor.


Nebeker:
But shortly after.


Kern:
Yes, shortly after.


Nebeker:
And suddenly the group was expanded drastically?


Kern:
Yes, and from the beginning to the very end, through experience and education, I made a lot of progress. In the last year I had my own project, my own people, in my own room. That project was probably never used. It provided a different way (I’ve been trying to put this diplomatically) of doing this thing, rather than using the Bombe. It involved a 70-mm. tape with 25 holes punched across it in rows, and you matched--


Nebeker:
Photographic-type tape?


Kern:
No, it was black, opaque, movie-style tape, except that our machine punched the sprocket holes, as well as the data holes.


Nebeker:
Was it read with wires? By feeling the holes?


Kern:
No, no. It was read by light. And there again, they couldn’t find anybody that could put the reader together properly. I’m not going into the details of how it was put together, it’s too long a story. I’m not going into the details of how it was put together, it’s too long of a story. It was in the room where the Bombes were built so I was put in there to get this thing going. So, when it was all figured out, and someone was trained to assemble it, I was given the Tape Punch job.



The tape punches were driven by IBM electric typewriters. So we had IBM typewriters, reading punched paper tape, punching our 70 mm. tape.


Nebeker:
So you were taking the punched paper tape and putting it on this other tape. Which had the higher density?


Kern:
At 25 holes per line, you could do the alphabet. One hole for each of 25 [letters] and the absence of a hole would make the 26th.


Nebeker:
So, one hole was punched if any given letter--


Kern:
Ah, no. There’d be lots of holes punched and it would be matched with another tape in the reader.


Nebeker:
Oh, this would be looking for those coincidences--


Kern:
Same thing as the Bombe was doing. Looking for coincidences.


Nebeker:
I see. And you were working on that at the end of the war?


Kern:
Yes, my last project was building those punches, and I had a very good crew of seven or eight people working on this job.


Nebeker:
Was this a matter of modifying some existing punch?


Kern:
No, there was no punch in the world that was of this configuration. We had the dies made in N.C.R.’s tool room and they just about had a fit. They said that they couldn’t do it because the holes were .025” in diameter and there were 25 of them in a straight line plus the two sprocket holes. The die also had to be heat treated. The tool room was going crazy and they were mad at us because we were taking up their time, and so I went over and held their hands, figuratively, of course, and helped to talk them though it until they learned how. N.C.R. could do anything if they were properly approached. They hated to make those little bitty holes but they learned. They learned to grind them with diamond-charged wires in a jig-grinding machine, which is real precision. But, you know that when you give them a job and they tell you “We can’t do that, we can’t do that,” it will take some doing. But, they made them, and boy, they were good.



There’s an interesting sidelight to all of this. How are we for time?


Nebeker:
I have plenty. You tell me when you need to stop.


Kern:
The Navy had an interesting means to encourage people to complete their projects as quickly as possible. They would park a baggage car on the siding, there at N.C.R., and tell you it is going to be coupled to a locomotive and leave for Washington on a certain date, and that your project’s got to be on it!


Nebeker:
It’s leaving whether it’s on it or not?


Kern:
That’s right. They added: If your project isn’t finished, you are going to be on that baggage car, working on it all the way to Washington.


Nebeker:
Oh!


Kern:
And it worked. [laughter]


Nebeker:
How did you all react to the high security measures--you accepted them?


Kern:
We just plain accepted them.


Nebeker:
I gather from the little bit I heard from some other people that you really respected those--and not talked about your work [to anybody] outside.


Kern:
Oh my God, it’s unbelievable. You didn’t even talk to anyone inside! I don’t want you to publish this but since it is all out in the open I don’t know what difference that it makes. There were two words that we were absolutely forbidden to use. You never, never, never uttered either of these two words. When I spoke them at our first committee meeting on this reunion, Bob Mumma almost fainted in his chair. [laughter] “You can’t say those words!” he said.


Nebeker:
And what were those two words?


Kern:
Imagine, to this day, people still have this feeling! And it comes so naturally, that’s what is hard to believe.


Nebeker:
Ahah.


Kern:
The two words are “crib” and “hit.”


Nebeker:
Hmm . . .


Kern:
“Crib” was the encoded message, and “hit” was any letter that you got right. Since those were key words in cryptology, you could never use them because we didn’t want anybody to know that we were working on anything cryptographic.


Nebeker:
But you used those words internally?


Kern:
Oh, no, no. We never used those words! We were told--that is some of us were told--some people never heard the words in the first place, or were never told anything about it. Since I had been in most of the rooms, they thought it best that I knew.


Nebeker:
But, I mean it would be understandable if you all talked, speculating about what those things were. Did that go on?


Kern:
No. Nobody speculated.


Nebeker:
You just accepted that this was secret, you shouldn’t--


Kern:
We were told and I don’t remember those details, but if enough people speculated, someone could put it all together. Since everybody was doing something a little different on the projects, and you never talked about what you were doing, you couldn’t put it together.


Nebeker:
And that was respected, that people didn’t get together and try to figure out--


Kern:
Nobody said a word.



I had people from N.C.R. proper say, “I know that you guys are doing down there.” They said “I’ve been told all about it.” I just let them talk. They didn’t know what we were doing.


Nebeker:
You said something already about this technique used by the Navy to get projects delivered on time, but can you speak more generally about the pace of work there. Were you working, what eight hour days or--


Kern:
Well, that was the standard but it wasn’t the norm. [laughter] I know of more than one fellow who worked 24 hours on Sunday and got paid double-time.


Nebeker:
You would get paid for overtime, is that right?


Kern:
Yes. You were paid time-and-a-half for all over forty hours, and double-time for Sunday.


Nebeker:
I see. But Saturday was usually off, is that right?


Kern:
Saturday and Sunday were supposed to be off, yes, but we usually worked on Saturday.


Nebeker:
What about the pace of work itself? You felt, in both of these projects, that you had to be working fast, is that right?


Kern:
Yes, you had that feeling, but if you are doing something mental, trying to overcome a problem or something, you can’t work fast, like you could if you were putting something together.


Nebeker:
Yes.


Kern:
You know that if you were assembling something, like many people were doing in that building, then you could work fast, and you’d be encouraged to do so. But if you’re trying to solve problems, boy, you can’t do it much faster.


Nebeker:
How much contact did you have with Joe Desch, once this project got going?


Kern:
I would see and talk to him almost every day. When he and I were loafing, I would see him everyday. [laughter]


Nebeker:
That was after the war, is that right?


Kern:
No, it was in 1946, during the war. Joe had his breakdown in ‘45.


Nebeker:
Could you see that coming? Was the pressure really intense on him?


Kern:
Yes, but we didn’t fully expect it and yet you could see that it was having its effect on him. He would more frequently get mad in meetings. Of course, getting mad was his way of getting things done--I guess that I should not have said it that way--getting angry in a meeting was his way of increasing your enthusiasm for you to get your work done. We all noticed that he complained more about things. We would have a meeting probably once a month when the engineering staff would get together, a lot like we did in the pre-war days, except that there were differences which were noticeable. In fact, there were some pretty wild times there but we don’t want those on record.


Nebeker:
Was that more at the top only, or were a lot of people in that group under great stress at that time?


Kern:
Oh, I think it was more at the top. Most were not bothered by the draft because they had degrees, but since I didn’t, they were after me all of the time.


University of Dayton studies, IRE

Nebeker:
Were you, at this period, going to night school?


Kern:
Yes. University of Dayton.


Nebeker:
Working on your degree?


Kern:
I worked towards it and had to give up. The Navy took a lot of time and there was no way to do everything.



I think that one of our biggest emotional outlets was the area IRE (Institute of Radio Engineers) meetings, which were enjoyed by all.


Nebeker:
Where were these meetings?


Kern:
They were held at the Engineer’s Club in Dayton and Cincinnati.


Nebeker:
I see.


Kern:
So those were pretty good times. Well, we were learning. Of course, I am learning all of my life. I started an Electronics Engineering Department at Monarch Systems and had a great career at Monarch.


Post-WWII NCR projects

Nebeker:
Can you briefly sketch out the rest of your career after the war years?


Kern:
Until I left in January of 1950, I had six major projects: the very first was an analysis of the tones of the bells in the Deeds’ Carillon; second and third were television document readers (one used an Image-orthicon and the other was a flying-spot scanner); fourth and fifth were electronic-to-mechanical readouts, and sixth was a desktop, electronic calculator.



After the war we were to expand our department at N.C.R. There again, I’m the guy that gets things done, so I was given the job of laying out the department in two different areas and organizing the move. I ordered all the new equipment: desks, cabinets, whatever it took. I did the whole thing.



We were all set to move in January of 1949. Material was coming in including lab equipment and anything else that you can imagine. The Receiving Department had assigned a holding area to us, and best of all, I was promised a promotion. On the morning of December 9th, 1948, Joe and Mumma called me into the office and told me, “We’ve got bad news. We are not moving.” and I said “Oh for crying out loud, all this work--” and they said, “it’s worse than that, we’ve got to lay off people. They have cut our budget instead of increasing it.” This is less than two weeks before Christmas. Approximately 7 people must be laid off. I, personally, am losing a promotion and the best project that I ever had. I felt that this was a perfect example of bad management at the top which was becoming typical at N.C.R.


Television and appliance store

Kern:

I was better off than most. I had the most seniority of anyone in the department. A friend and I had started a television/appliance store about a year before and were going to move into a larger storeroom late in January. So I asked them: If I could stay on till we opened the new store, could someone else keep his job? They agreed and I stayed on until about the 20th of January, 1949.


Nebeker:
This was a television business you were doing on the side?


Kern:
Yes, I wasn’t going to quit N.C.R., but in light of all this and the fact that someone could keep his job, I thought it was the right thing to do. I spent five years in this television business.


Monarch Marking Systems

Kern:

Monarch Marking Systems asked me to come to work for them. They wanted to get into electronic developments. I had two patents with N.C.R., and was still going to school.



So I went to work and started an Electronics Engineering Department at Monarch in 1955 and retired in 1980.



Pitney Bowes bought us out in 1969 wanted to get some of the old management people out of their positions so they could run things the way they wanted to. They wanted me out of management, but thought that I was an asset to the company, so they offered me a position in engineering as a consultant. I asked about pay and was told that I would be paid the same as before except that I wouldn’t have any responsibility. I would just be a consultant. So, I took the job and stayed 10 years.


Nebeker:
Ahah.


Kern:
So, that wasn’t too bad.


Nebeker:
Can you describe the Monarch business when you joined it?


Kern:
Monarch was a ticket, tag, and label business. It was called Monarch Marking Systems because they provided a retailer with a system for marking his merchandise and keeping track of it. They would literally provide him with a system to do that. A machine to print the labels, tags, or labels, and apply them to the merchandise and then--


Nebeker:
You would take the tag off when you sold it?


Kern:
More or less, they wanted to improve or automate this scheme by using tickets that were machine-readable as well as people-readable, using punched holes, magnetic stripes, or whatever.


Nebeker:
What was the machine-readable code at that time?


Kern:
It was a punched code.


Nebeker:
A punched card?


Kern:
At the time there were two of those systems. There was Dennison and I can’t remember the name of the other at the moment. The second used the old paper tape format, so I took the job with that in mind. However, when I saw just how outdated their production was they thought that it was more important for me to automate some of their production machinery. For five years, that’s all I did, and finished with five to ten times their previous output. They were thrilled to death with that.


Nebeker:
This is making tags or something?


Kern:
Yeah, making tags, or pressure-sensitive labels.


Nebeker:
What does that mean?


Kern:
Self-sticking.


Nebeker:
I see.


Kern:
Pressure-sensitive was their name for the product and that machinery was the first that I automated. I had a little crew to do the work for me.


They had never gotten anyone to do R & D before, and so, the Board of Directors hired me. (Of all things, here’s this little fart from almost no place, and he is hired by the Board of Directors.) The day I came to work, they called in all of the supervisors, from Job Foreman up. They introduced me to all of them, and I told them what I might be up to. The Board wanted them to know who I was, so if I came into their department, that I would be no stranger, and that I was there to help them. I got in there and did things and they were very pleased.


Self-sufficient production at NCR

Nebeker:
At N.C.R. things had become pretty self-sufficient?


Kern:
Yes. The department became a miniature factory. We did most of our own processing.


Nebeker:
This was all in Building 26?


Kern:
Most all in Building 26. Except that we had a lot of metal and plastic parts made outside.


Nebeker:
By N.C.R.?


Kern:
By N.C.R. and others. Remember, we had about 30 job shops around town making metal parts for us.


Nebeker:
I see.


Kern:
Our commutators were made on the outside as were the brush-holders that held the brushes against the commutators, plus some miscellaneous parts. I was liaison for that company in addition to my project work.


Nebeker:
Were there companies out there who had done similar work?


Kern:
Oh yes.


Nebeker:
Similar to these?


Kern:
Well, the plastic molders company made distributor heads for air craft engines.


Nebeker:
I see.


Kern:
There we go. We are commutating again, aren’t we? But anyway, we got things set up. We had our own blueprint machines and people to run them, blueprint storage vaults, and our own inspection department. We did commutator ring machining and commutator finishing, there on the premises. We would make the rings, have them molded into place, brought back, machined and segmented. The WAVES would then wire them on the backside.


Let’s see what else was going on. We had our own Model Shop and quite a number of people in there who did all the special kinds of things that were required.


Participants in NCR Navy work

Nebeker:
How many people, roughly, were working in Building 26 at the peak?


Kern:
My memories tell me that there were 300 WAVES. The newspapers, and others, came up with the number 600. I talked to the WAVES yesterday about it and my 300 is closer to the truth than 600.


Nebeker:
You also say about 85 civilians, 20 Navy officers, 20 enlisted men, and the Security Marine Detachment.


Kern:
They Navy wanted to send us enlisted men and we really needed machinist mates. So, of the first small group, one was a sergeant, I mean a Chief Petty Officer. (They don’t have sergeants in the Navy!) He had served 20 years in the submarine service and he didn’t do anything except try to prove his tolerance to alcohol, so he was a total loss. Another guy was conscientious and a real hard worker, but he was a carpenter from a Distillery near Cincinnati. Another was a merchant seaman from the Coast Guard up Boston way, and one ran a pleasure boat off the North Carolina coast.


Nebeker:
Are these Navy people?


Kern:
These are Navy people.


Nebeker:
Navy reservists who had been--?


Kern:
No, no. These were draftees. We had asked for machinist mates, and this is what we got. There were a couple more and I don’t know what the one did, but he is coming to the reunion. Of this group we got one good one. A real machinist who could read a micrometer. A pretty sharp fellow. That was it.


Nebeker:
So you had a lot of training to do.


Kern:
Yeah, and I laugh at Bob Hope, you know. He said he interviewed a guy in the Medical Corps in Africa and asked him how he had been drafted and become a Medic. He said that he had worked for “Dr. Pepper.” [laughter] This couldn’t have been more apropos.


They were a good crew though. Everybody pitched in and tried to do his best. The sailors were the hardest to control because they didn’t want to take, well, they wouldn’t take orders from a civilian and yet they were given to us to use. This made for a rather sticky situation. There were no Naval Officers in charge, they were all upstairs running Bombes. We had some Bombes running on the second floor. They were problem-solving, testing, and doing whatever one does behind closed doors in their situation. I think that only Joe Desch and perhaps Bob Mumma ever got in there. The Navy had direct wire connections to Washington and were actually transacting business.


Project secrecy

Nebeker:
What, were you involved in the production of these Bombes?


Kern:
No, only in the details that I have described, and I set up departments to do many things. As I said, the only real project that I had was that punch near the end of the war.


Nebeker:
So you never had occasion to go to Washington to look at the machines?


Kern:
No. In fact, there was only one man I know of who did that, and that was Louis Sandor. His health isn’t too good. He’s going to be here on Sunday for the banquet, but he was the only one I knew of that was sent to Washington.



There was another project that they affectionately called The Mattress. It was as big as a mattress and was solid with relays. I think that it was Vince Gulden’s project and Louis Sandor and Roger Hull worked with him. All they would say was that it was a mattress, but I got to see it.


Nebeker:
Hundreds of relays in there?


Kern:
Yes. That was the whole thing. Each relay was about a two inch cube and this thing was solid relays.


Nebeker:
Wow.


Kern:
So there were many parallel efforts going on, which made good sense. If you could come up with something better, you’d better do it.


Nebeker:
Yeah, it was certainly hard to foresee what, where the problems would be and what would work.


Kern:
One of the other interesting things was that we never heard of Op-20-G, Bombe, Enigma, or N.C.R. Navy Computing Machine Laboratory.


Nebeker:
And when did it come out after the war that--when did you learn what you’d been doing?


Kern:
I think it was about 1970, or shortly after 1970 when it was released, then came the Privacy Act and--


Nebeker:
Freedom of Information Act.


Kern:
Thank you, that was what I was trying to say. That Act opened things up, but people didn’t do anything with it until 1988 or 1989.


Nebeker:
Yes, I’m glad that Colin Burke has written his book to get a lot of the story out.


Kern:
Yes, and it is a good story.