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The Cryotron Files: The Untold Story of Dudley Buck, Pioneer Computer Scientist and Cold War Government Agent

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The riveting true story of Dudley Buck―American scientist, government agent, and cold war hero―whose pioneering work with computer chips placed him firmly in the sights of the KGB Dr. Dudley Allen Buck was a brilliant young scientist on the cusp of fame and fortune when he died suddenly on May 21, 1959, at the age of 32. He was the star professor at MIT and had done stints The riveting true story of Dudley Buck―American scientist, government agent, and cold war hero―whose pioneering work with computer chips placed him firmly in the sights of the KGB Dr. Dudley Allen Buck was a brilliant young scientist on the cusp of fame and fortune when he died suddenly on May 21, 1959, at the age of 32. He was the star professor at MIT and had done stints with the NSA and Lockheed. His latest invention, the Cryotron―an early form of the microchip―was attracting attention all over the globe. It was thought that the Cryotron could guide a new generation of intercontinental ballistic missiles to their targets. Four weeks before Dudley Buck’s death, he was visited by a group of the Soviet Union’s top computer experts. On the same day that he died from a mysterious heart attack, his close colleague, Dr. Louis Ridenour, was also found dead from similar causes. Two top American computer scientists had unexpectedly died young on the same day. Were their deaths linked? Two years old when his father died, Douglas Buck was never satisfied with the explanation of his father’s death and has spent more than 20 years investigating it, acquiring his father’s lab books, diaries, correspondence, research papers and patent filings. Armed with this research, award-winning journalist Iain Dey tells, with compelling immediacy, the story of Dudley Buck’s life and groundbreaking work, starting from his unconventional beginnings in California through to his untimely death and beyond. The Cryotron Files is at once the gripping narrative history of America and its computer scientists during the Cold War and the dramatic personal story of rising MIT star Dudley Buck in the high-stakes days of spies, supercomputers, and the space and nuclear race.


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The riveting true story of Dudley Buck―American scientist, government agent, and cold war hero―whose pioneering work with computer chips placed him firmly in the sights of the KGB Dr. Dudley Allen Buck was a brilliant young scientist on the cusp of fame and fortune when he died suddenly on May 21, 1959, at the age of 32. He was the star professor at MIT and had done stints The riveting true story of Dudley Buck―American scientist, government agent, and cold war hero―whose pioneering work with computer chips placed him firmly in the sights of the KGB Dr. Dudley Allen Buck was a brilliant young scientist on the cusp of fame and fortune when he died suddenly on May 21, 1959, at the age of 32. He was the star professor at MIT and had done stints with the NSA and Lockheed. His latest invention, the Cryotron―an early form of the microchip―was attracting attention all over the globe. It was thought that the Cryotron could guide a new generation of intercontinental ballistic missiles to their targets. Four weeks before Dudley Buck’s death, he was visited by a group of the Soviet Union’s top computer experts. On the same day that he died from a mysterious heart attack, his close colleague, Dr. Louis Ridenour, was also found dead from similar causes. Two top American computer scientists had unexpectedly died young on the same day. Were their deaths linked? Two years old when his father died, Douglas Buck was never satisfied with the explanation of his father’s death and has spent more than 20 years investigating it, acquiring his father’s lab books, diaries, correspondence, research papers and patent filings. Armed with this research, award-winning journalist Iain Dey tells, with compelling immediacy, the story of Dudley Buck’s life and groundbreaking work, starting from his unconventional beginnings in California through to his untimely death and beyond. The Cryotron Files is at once the gripping narrative history of America and its computer scientists during the Cold War and the dramatic personal story of rising MIT star Dudley Buck in the high-stakes days of spies, supercomputers, and the space and nuclear race.

49 review for The Cryotron Files: The Untold Story of Dudley Buck, Pioneer Computer Scientist and Cold War Government Agent

  1. 4 out of 5

    Brian Clegg

    This is a rip-roaring tale of remarkable technological achievements, cold war spying and a suspicious death at a very early age that has inevitably fostered conspiracy theories. Dudley Buck, the subject of the biography, made three hugely important contributions to computer science - yet he's still not widely known. I've read many books on the history of computer science, and this is the first time I've ever heard of him. We start off with fairly familiar territory with Buck's background - it mig This is a rip-roaring tale of remarkable technological achievements, cold war spying and a suspicious death at a very early age that has inevitably fostered conspiracy theories. Dudley Buck, the subject of the biography, made three hugely important contributions to computer science - yet he's still not widely known. I've read many books on the history of computer science, and this is the first time I've ever heard of him. We start off with fairly familiar territory with Buck's background - it might feel a little dull - but once he's involved in computing, things get a whole lot more interesting. About the only aspect of the early biography that stands out is that Buck had an extremely unpleasant idea of what constitutes a prank, including electrocuting people and trying to build a bomb on campus. However, though he apparently continued as a practical joker when older, it seems his attempts, while still malicious, became less life-threatening. In terms of computing technology, Buck was a key figure in the development of the magnetic core memory that was the mainstay of computing in the 60s, was producing lithographic integrated circuits well before the famous names of the microchip world, and devised a ferroelectric memory that was impractical at the time, but has since become a real thing. And all this before dying at the tragically young age of 32. In fact, the ferroelectric memory was in masters dissertation, and he didn't get a doctorate until shockingly late, having already made huge contributions. Of itself, his computer engineering is impressive, but what makes the story far more intriguing is Buck's involvement in the shady world of 1960s espionage. He did a considerable amount of work for the NSA and was regularly sent off on missions, at least one to the Soviet Union, the details of which are sometimes still fuzzy, but making him a far more interesting character for a biography. And then there's his death. Buck died of a pulmonary condition. It was immediately after opening a package containing a wide range of chemical substances for use in his experimental work - and not long after the visit of a number of soviet scientists. At the time of writing this review, relatively soon after the Skripal affair, it's hard not to give at least some weight to the speculation that his death - working as he was on technology that could be used in guided missiles - was not accidental. There is, sadly, one real disappointment with this book. Authors Iain Dey (a business journalist) and Douglas Buck (Buck's son) used a researcher to dig up historical material. It's a shame they didn't also have a science consultant, because the science and technology part of the book is dire. Luckily, it's almost incidental to the way the story is presented - it's far more about people and history, but it's a real shame that it couldn't have been better. To give an example, the 'cryotron' in the title of the book (of which more in a moment) was a superconducting device. Early on we are told superconductors are 'chemical elements that only conduct electricity at ultralow temperatures.' Leaving aside that most modern superconductors aren't chemical elements, the specific elements mentioned through the book, and which later we are told 'naturally blocked an electric current at room temperature' are lead, tantalum and niobium - all reasonably good conductors at room temperature. If the authors think lead blocks an electric current, I hope they don't have cars that use lead-acid batteries. That's weak basic science, but even the computer science has problems. We're told that 'The acronym RAM soon stuck and is still used today as an indication of a computer's processing speed.' Really? But the biggest issue is the way the cryotron is handled. This was a potential replacement for valves and transistors (which at the time were typically as much as a centimetre across). The cryotron was a tiny device that could fulfil a similar role. Unfortunately it was a dead end. It was slower than transistors and crucially could only work if supercooled with liquid helium. It might have had niche applications, but the need to keep it at a couple of degrees above absolute zero would always prevent it from being mainstream. As it happens, within a few years transistors on microchips had left it way behind. Dey and Buck spoil the genuinely huge significance of Buck senior's work on magnetic cores, lithography and ferroelectric memory by overplaying the importance of the cryotron. At one point they say Dudley Buck 'had invented a whole new field of physics and electrical engineering.' There was no new physics here. Elsewhere they claim that the cryotron 'evolved into a device called a Josephson junction.' This is ludicrous. It's like saying a 13 amp plug 'evolved into a microchip' as they both carry electricity, involve metal junctions and work at room temperature. A Josephson junction was a totally new concept, derived from basic physics and to suggest that it had any relation to a cryotron is an insult to Brian Josephson. The authors even go so far as to suggest that a quantum computer 'runs on modified cryotrons.' No, it really doesn't. This is an attempt to over-inflate the importance of one of Buck's ideas that was a failure. It was good idea, but it happened not to work out. Technology development is like that. There is no doubt, then, that there are issues with this book, but I come back to the to key aspects that make it a great read. Buck was a genius - what he achieved in computer engineering in a short timescale (especially given the amount of time he spent on other things) was truly remarkable. And his life story, intwined as it was with Cold War politics and espionage, equally makes for a fascinating insight into unsettling times.

  2. 4 out of 5

    Bob Are

    A very detailed book about an inventive, enthusiastic electrical engineer with some brilliance and recklessness, who worked for the NSA, and developed a cryogenic switch that was outpaced by the integrated circuit after his untimely death, that may have been caused by his recklessness, or because of his NSA work, or just bad luck, it's a mystery the book can't pin down or let go of, you decide. Lots of references to WW 2 and cold war era tech projects funded by the US government. The primary aut A very detailed book about an inventive, enthusiastic electrical engineer with some brilliance and recklessness, who worked for the NSA, and developed a cryogenic switch that was outpaced by the integrated circuit after his untimely death, that may have been caused by his recklessness, or because of his NSA work, or just bad luck, it's a mystery the book can't pin down or let go of, you decide. Lots of references to WW 2 and cold war era tech projects funded by the US government. The primary author is a Brit, which is confirmed by the use of "second" as a verb, and also authored by Dudlay Buck's son.

  3. 4 out of 5

    Bryce Holt

    Beyond the quagmire of obsessively chronicled relationships that surrounded Dudley Buck and his cryotron invention(s), this is a fascinating man who history seemed to have forgotten. I've heard his name once or twice in the past (can't even remember where...maybe Simon Singh's work?), but his NSA history, his popularity in the scientific community, his unbelievable commitment to MIT, his contribution to science and humanity? It seems as if he was living 4 or 5 different lives. Buck reads like Ja Beyond the quagmire of obsessively chronicled relationships that surrounded Dudley Buck and his cryotron invention(s), this is a fascinating man who history seemed to have forgotten. I've heard his name once or twice in the past (can't even remember where...maybe Simon Singh's work?), but his NSA history, his popularity in the scientific community, his unbelievable commitment to MIT, his contribution to science and humanity? It seems as if he was living 4 or 5 different lives. Buck reads like Jack Reacher meets John Nash. Fascinating.

  4. 5 out of 5

    Geoff Walling

    A good story decently told. I had never heard of Dudley before reading the book - seems like a big loss for us.

  5. 4 out of 5

    David King

    Fascinating book

  6. 5 out of 5

    Ben Thompson

    Interesting bio of a forgotten inventor of now-defunct computer technologies, but too much about legal tussles and bureaucratic haggling...

  7. 5 out of 5

    Mrs J.A. Parsons

  8. 4 out of 5

    Bronwyn Baier

  9. 4 out of 5

    Miss

  10. 5 out of 5

    Donna McCulloch

  11. 4 out of 5

    Rehan Dominic

  12. 5 out of 5

    Overlook

  13. 5 out of 5

    Chelsea

  14. 5 out of 5

    Jake

  15. 5 out of 5

    Michelle

  16. 4 out of 5

    Max

  17. 5 out of 5

    Kristen Campbell

  18. 5 out of 5

    Linda

  19. 5 out of 5

    James

  20. 4 out of 5

    John

  21. 4 out of 5

    Justin Thomas

  22. 5 out of 5

    Ray

  23. 5 out of 5

    William Steagall Jr

  24. 5 out of 5

    Andrea Hays

  25. 5 out of 5

    Marlon Woodson

  26. 5 out of 5

    Kyle

  27. 4 out of 5

    Psagen

  28. 4 out of 5

    Jerome

  29. 5 out of 5

    Ross Maclean

  30. 5 out of 5

    Carol

  31. 4 out of 5

    Jo Carol

  32. 5 out of 5

    G

  33. 5 out of 5

    Tamara

  34. 4 out of 5

    Dustin

  35. 5 out of 5

    Matthew Royal

  36. 4 out of 5

    Ironide

  37. 4 out of 5

    Michael

  38. 5 out of 5

    Marcus Zelenski

  39. 5 out of 5

    Neverdust

  40. 4 out of 5

    Heath Hardigree

  41. 4 out of 5

    Marleah

  42. 4 out of 5

    Paige

  43. 4 out of 5

    Greg

  44. 4 out of 5

    Thomas

  45. 4 out of 5

    Simon

  46. 4 out of 5

    Manuel

  47. 5 out of 5

    Emma

  48. 4 out of 5

    Tine

  49. 5 out of 5

    Mei-Ling

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