This is the story of the early (American) pioneers of supersonic flight (breaking the sound barrier) and the space race. And it is astounding.
Early on the book tries to nail what it was in the personalities of the men – test pilots from the Navy and Air Force – who risked their lives to go faster or higher than the others, to prove to the world that they were one of the special few at the top of their game. They had the skills, the ego, the guts… the right stuff.
As the book progresses it changes from expressing the concepts and ideas as to what constitutes the Right Stuff to a very character-driven history, and it definitely gets better as it goes along. The first few chapters are written very much in the Tom Wolfe style – with lots of exclamation! – and quite a lot of repetition. The repetition used for stylistic effect works well. The repetition to ram an idea down your throat, not so much.
But then the story starts to blossom, the forcefulness of the writing style fades into the background and you get enveloped in the feel of the events. It is like you are being given privileged access to a special time and place; you are invited to participate in the thrill of being on the cutting edge. You are getting insight into achievements that will change history and the way that people look at the world.
The narrative focuses very much on the people involved but undeniably the two stars are ace pilot Chuck Yeager and the astronaut John Glenn. It was amazing how little I knew about the rest of the people, in particular the other 6 astronauts chosen to take part in the early space missions. I kept myself away from Wikipedia so that their stories were new to me, but these are names that have faded in the collective memory. How?
By the end of the book I was enthralled, and when I finished I had to spend a little time just thinking about the scale of the achievements involved and the sheer joyous ride I had been on. I’m sure there are several excellent and more conventional histories of the space race, but Tom Wolfe has pulled off something very special here. He has managed to bring out the emotion and the pure magic of the events.
I came across this article whilst listening to an episode of the Esquire Classics podcast. I had never heard of Robert Noyce so I located the article and was instantly enthralled. Noyce was the (joint) inventor of the integrated circuit (“microchip”) and one of the founders of Intel. I’ve heard of Gordon Moore and Andy Grove so I’m not sure why Noyce is not mentioned along with his colleagues. His invention changed the world yet his is not a household name. Why?
The article is by Tom Wolfe (author of The Bonfire of the Vanities) and is from the December 1983 issue of Esquire magazine. The full title of the piece adds “How the Sun Rose on the Silicon Valley”.
I’ve read a couple of Tom Wolfe’s books and I’m a fan of his writing style. This style is evident here, particularly in the exquisite use of the exclamation mark!
It’s very interesting to look back at history (the 1950s – 1970s) from another point in history (1983). What is clear is that many things that we see happening today in the technology field are not the modern-day innovations we think they are, such as:
• big breakthroughs that will underpin future revolutions
• extremely rich tech entrepreneurs
• company startup culture / working crazy hours / stock options etc
• businesses trying to remove the traditional management structure
This has been going on for over half a century at this point.
The biggest technological breakthrough I could think of was the internet, which is starting to underpin everything we do today. It truly is / will be revolutionary. But without the invention of the integrated circuit in 1959 there would be no internet.
The microchip allowed people to fly to the moon within a decade of its introduction.
Even the introduction to the article – published over 30 years ago – could have been written now:
America is today in the midst of a great technological revolution. With the advent of the silicon chip, information processing, communications, and the national economy have been strikingly altered. The new technology is changing how we live, how we work, how we think.
Today we hear about ARM chips, data science and mobile. It is the same stuff as before – it’s just that the technology has evolved over time. People refine and combine technologies to create something new. Noyce did the same, but he built upon the transistor and the vacuum tube.
The article benefits from having Tom Wolfe as the author – the piece rises above what could have been a dry history and a tangle of techno-babble. The wit and wordplay shine as the author portrays the people and the scene…
… maybe he would drop in at the Wagon Wheel for a drink before he went home. Every year there was some place, the Wagon Wheel, Chez Yvonne, Rickey’s, the Roundhouse, where members of this esoteric fraternity, the young men and women of the semiconductor industry, would head after work to have a drink and gossip and brag and trade war stories about phase jitters, phantom circuits, bubble memories, pulse trains, bounceless contacts, burst modes, leapfrog tests, p-n junctions, sleeping-sickness modes, slow-death episodes, RAMs, NAKs, MOSes, PCMs, PROMs, PROM blowers, PROM burners, PROM blasters, and teramagnitudes, meaning multiples of a million millions. So then he wouldn’t get home until nine, and the baby was asleep, and dinner was cold, and the wife was frosted off, and he would stand there and cup his hands as if making an imaginary snowball and try to explain to her… while his mind trailed off to other matters, LSIs, VLSIs, alpha flux, de-rezzing, forward biases, parasitic signals, and that terasexy little cookie from Signetics he had met at the Wagon Wheel, who understood such things.
… and contrasts the business practices between the east and west coasts of America:
Nobody had ever seen a limousine and a chauffeur out there before. But that wasn’t what fixed the day in everybody’s memory. It was the fact that the driver stayed out there for almost eight hours, doing nothing. He stayed out there in his uniform, with his visored hat on, in the front seat of the limousine, all day, doing nothing but waiting for a man who was somewhere inside. John Carter was inside having a terrific chief executive officer’s time for himself. He took a tour of the plant, he held conferences, he looked at figures, he nodded with satisfaction, he beamed his urbane Fifty-seventh Street Biggie CEO charm. And the driver sat out there all day engaged in the task of supporting a visored cap with his head. People started leaving their workbenches and going to the front windows just to take a look at this phenomenon. It seemed that bizarre. Here was a serf who did nothing all day but wait outside a door in order to be at the service of the haunches of his master instantly, whenever those haunches and the paunch and the jowls might decide to reappear. It wasn’t merely that this little peek at the New York-style corporate high life was unusual out here in the brown hills of the Santa Clara Valley. It was that it seemed terribly wrong.
Articles are just not written like this any more. I absolutely recommend it – it is long but it is worth taking your time and reading.
• Article: The Tinkerings of Robert Noyce
• The Esquire Classics podcast: The Tinkerings of Robert Noyce