In addition to its financial and marketing dilemmas, J. Presper Eckert and John Mauchly’s company had another, much more insidious problem – the FBI and military intelligence suspected that the firm was infiltrated by Communists and Communist sympathizers. In early 1948, the firm, then called the Electronic Control Company, was disqualified from receiving classified material. As a result, the outfit couldn’t be considered for several sizable military contracts that might have enabled it to stay afloat, including a $2 million deal to build a computer for the Navy’s Pacific Missile Test Center at Point Mugu in Southern California. The firm fell deeper into debt, and Eckert and Mauchly eventually had to sell out to Remington Rand.
It is common knowledge among historians that Eckert and Mauchly’s company, and Mauchly in particular, had serious security problems, yet the exact nature of those problems has been obscure. Documents were scarce and memories vague. In February 1984, however, I applied for Mauchly’s FBI dossier under the Freedom of Information Act, and the file – about 125 pages altogether- was released in May. It was heavily censored, primarily to conceal the identities of other people. Nevertheless, it is full of revealing information. Along with twelve letters from Mauchly’s private papers, loaned to me by his widow, Kathleen Mauchly, and interviews with Eckert and Mrs. Mauchly, the file provides a compelling portrait of a company – the first computer company – caught in the treacherous crosswinds of the Cold War.
The following is a summary of Mauchly’s security problems and the investigations that caused them.
In 1947 and 1948, Eckert and Mauchly’s little firm had two military contracts. One was a subcontract from Northrop Aircraft Company for the construction of BINAC; the other was a small contract from the Army Signal Corps for electronic cryptographic equipment for the Army Security Agency. Both projects were top secret, but Eckert, Mauchly, and their engineers, most of whom had also worked on ENIAC, were given the necessary security clearances. (The clearance hierarchy runs from confidential to restricted to secret to top secret, with a few even more exclusive realms beyond that.) Those clearances apparently were temporary – Mauchly’s dossier doesn’t say who granted them and Eckert doesn’t remember – pending a security investigation by the appropriate military and civilian agencies.
In early 1948, the Army’s Intelligence Division investigated Eckert and Mauchly’s firm, and it didn’t like what it found. The company had applied for clearances for nine people, including Eckert and Mauchly, and the Army concluded that five of them Mauchly; his secretary, Dorothy K. Shisler; and three engineers, Albert A. Auerbach, Robert F. Shaw, and Charles B. Sheppard had “subversive tendencies or connections.” And what were those tendencies or connections? All information relating to Shisler and the engineers was censored from Mauchly’s dossier, but the Army had this to say about Mauchly:
Mauchly was a member of the Philadelphia branch of the American Association of Scientific Workers, an organization formed by the Communist Party as a front to influence legislation restricting the free exchange of information relative to atomic energy. [Three lines censored.] Mauchly was legally married and the father of two children. In August 1946, Mauchly’s wife was mysteriously drowned while both were moonlight bathing in Wildwood, N.J.
In the eyes of the Army, this was damning stuff. As one of the FBI documents in Mauchly’s dossier explained, the Association of Scientific Workers “was cited by the California Committee of Un-American Activities [sic] as an organization ‘included among the Communist Fronts reported’ at the WIN-THE-PEACE CONFERENCE in Washington, D.C., from April 5 through 7, 1946.” Bad enough but, the Army insinuated, Mauchly also may have been involved in the death of his first wife – a farfetched suggestion that never again appears in the dossier. Mary Mauchly’s drowning was a tragic accident, and no one, including the New Jersey police, suspected foul play.
The Army’s investigation had two consequences. First, in February or March 1948 the Air Force ordered Northrop to withhold classified material from the company, a decision that had little or no effect on the BINAC project, which was already well underway. Second, on 6 October Army Intelligence asked the FBI to conduct “a complaint type investigation” of Mauchly and other suspects. It’s not clear why the Army believed that an additional
In any event, the FBI, acting on the Army’s request for an investigation, went to work. On 17 October, the FBI ordered the agency’s Philadelphia bureau to investigate Mauchly, Shisler, and the engineers. The FBI was in a hurry, and the bureau was given a month to submit a report. Other bureaus – in New York City; Baltimore; Newark; and Norfolk, Virginia – were also enlisted in the effort. Two Philadelphia agents were assigned to the case fulltime, interviewing Mauchly’s colleagues, friends, and neighbors. Their fifteen-page report, submitted to Washington on 18 November, cleared Mauchly of misconduct or disloyalty. The report describes many responses similar to the one given by a former colleague at Ursinus College in Collegeville, Pennsylvania.
DR. MAUCHLY was described by [censored] as being very eccentric. However, [censored] declared he knew of no subversive tendencies, connections or activities on the part of DR. MAUCHLY, whom he had always regarded as a loyal and patriotic individual. He knew of no reason why he should not be allowed to handle matters of trust for the government.
There was only one suspicious bit of information (although other material may have been censored):
In May, 1947, [censored], of known reliability, advised that the name of JOHN W. MAUCHLY, Moore School, University of Pennsylvania, appeared on a list of individuals who signed a petition distributed by the ASSOCIATION OF PHILADELPHIA SCIENTISTS, urging the President and the House and Senate Military Affairs Committee to adopt laws which would provide for the civilian control of atomic energy and the elimination of military control.
The agent hadn’t seen the petition, which had been signed by about 980 scientists, but was only passing on the words of an informant “of known reliability.” Nevertheless, the disclosure was regarded as a sign of Mauchly’s untrustworthiness. (The Association of Philadelphia Scientists was affiliated with the American Association of Scientific Workers, and both organizations were affiliated with the American Association for the Advancement of Science.) On 31 January 1950, the Army’s Philadelphia Ordnance District sent a terse letter to the Eckert-Mauchly Computer Corporation, as it was now called, informing it “that the Department of the Army has denied security clearance for your firm and particularly the two individuals John W. Mauchly and Robert Findley Shaw.” If the company wished, the Ordnance District said, it could appeal to the Industrial Employment Review Board in Washington, D.C.
The letter was opened by George V. Eltgroth, the company’s corporate counsel. By that time, the Northrop and Signal Corps projects had been completed, the firm wasn’t doing any classified work, and Eckert and Mauchly were busy trying to keep the company afloat. Eltgroth didn’t bother to tell Mauchly about the letter, and Mauchly didn’t learn about the denial of clearance until late August. By then, the company had been bought by Remington Rand, the Korean War had begun, and the firm was hoping to sell computers to the military. So Mauchly wrote to the Industrial Employment Review Board on 15 September, asking for an explanation for the denial and requesting an appeal. On 27 November, the board responded,
You were denied access to classified military information because reports of investigation purport to show that:
a. You have held membership in organizations alleged to be Communist-dominated and Communist front organizations.
b. You have been closely and sympathetically associated with a known member of the Communist Party.
On 8 January 1951, Mauchly and his attorney, Frank C. Sterck, an assistant general counsel at Remington Rand, traveled to Washington for a hearing before the review board. Mauchly and Sterck thought they had an open-and-shut case and didn’t bring any witnesses or introduce any evidence. Why? On 8 August 1949, Mauchly had received a letter from the Provost Marshal of the Air Force, in Dayton, Ohio, granting him a top secret clearance – a clearance that, the Provost Marshal wrote, also applied to all Army and Navy contracts. Mauchly and Sterck assumed that because of a bureaucratic mix-up the Philadelphia Ordnance District, which had sent the clearance denial notice, simply had not been informed of the Provost Marshal’s action. Since the Provost Marshal’s office outranked the Ordnance District, Mauchly and his attorney were confident that the review board would rule in their favor.
But the panel upheld the denial. At the suggestion of Remington Rand, Mauchly resigned as president of his company on 8 March 1951. He withdrew from the firm’s activities – it was building UNIVAC at the time – and spent the next two years working at a Remington Rand office in another part of Philadelphia, as director of programming research. Except for official ceremonies, such as the unveiling of UNIVAC in March 1951, he stayed away from the computer company’s offices. Despite his retreat, he and Eckert consulted with each other frequently, and Mauchly accepted his tribulations with fortitude and resignation. He left the matter to his lawyers and went about his work and life as usual, rarely mentioning his security problem. Most of his associates were quite sympathetic.
In the spring of 1951, while Mauchly was appealing the ruling, the FBI decided to investigate him again. In a 3 May memo from the Philadelphia bureau to FBI headquarters, an agent writes:
[Censored] related that the captioned individuals, all of whom are presently or have been working on this Computer as electronic engineers, are believed to be Communistically inclined. [Censored] could offer no specific facts to substantiate this statement…
In view of the information supplied by [censored; apparently the informant mentioned above] as well as the background of the captioned individuals, and their detailed knowledge of the Computer Project, it is felt that additional investigation should be conducted, bringing their activities up to date, to determine if they should be considered for inclusion in the Security Index.
Washington agreed, and the investigation was reopened. I went slowly; its priority apparently was low. On 5 February 1952 an FBI agent interviewed Mauchly for fifty-five minutes. Mauchly according to the agent’s report, filed six days later, was “cooperative throughout.” First, he defended his colleagues, saying
that he did not believe any of the four persons mentioned above [apparently Shisler and the three engineers] were Communists or that they would be intentionally disloyal to this country. He said he regards them as “intellectually honest,” that is, that they say what they believe, even though that is the same thing the Communists are preaching.
Then Mauchly defended himself:
MAUCHLY volunteered the information that he felt he had been an unfortunate victim of circumstances in his own trouble of security clearance. He said the Employees [sic] Review Boar confronted him with the assertion that he once signed a petition distributed by the Association of Philadelphia Scientists local council of the American Association of Scientific Workers urging civilian control of atomic energy. The Board also told him that he was regarded as being a member of that organization. Dr. MAUCHLY explained that he once attended a scientific meeting, sponsorship not recalled and, desiring certain scientific pamphlets, had signed a card indicating this desire. He does not recall actually turning in the $1 he believes was required to get these pamphlets. This act, nevertheless, according to MAUCHLY, evidently made him a member of the Association of Philadelphia Scientists in the minds of the officials of the organization, if not in his own mind.
MAUCHLY also related that he had once been a member of Consumers’ Research in the early 1940s when one faction within this organization broke off to form Consumers’ Union. He, MAUCHLY, went with Consumers’ Union and remained a member until an Army officer friend warned him the organization was Communist infiltrated. He then withdrew.
It is noted that the Consumers’ Union was cited as a Communist front organization by the House Committee on Un-American Activities in its report of 3/29/44…
Not surprisingly, the FBI’s second investigation failed to turn up new revelations. Meanwhile, Mauchly continued to press for his vindication. On 3 December 1952, the Industrial Employment Review Board reconsidered its ruling and granted him a restricted clearance. Six years later, the Secretary of the Army, on behalf of all the services, upgraded his clearance to secret. After an eight-year ordeal, Mauchly, an innocent victim of anti-Communist hysteria, had finally been restored to a position of trust.