Interviewee: Mr. James E. Webb

Interviewers: Drs. David DeVorkin, Allan Needell,
and Joseph Tatarewicz

Date: March 29, 1985*


DR. DEVORKIN: Allan and, of course, all of us have had a chance to review the interviews that you've given us so far. Allan has had some questions and general comments about the period during the war, and would like to talk to you about that.

DR. NEEDELL: I was especially interested in the discussion you had concerning the importance of obtaining the capability to organize and bring university groups, industry groups and government agencies to work together. I have worked a bit with Lloyd Berkner's papers and with the history of reorganizations during the war and after the war, and with Vannevar Bush. My basic question is, how much of this realization that the capabilities that the country needed or the world needed, in the period of your public career, grew out of the specific experience with the war? Or do you think that some people, like Berkner and yourself, were already coming to the conclusionthat greater organizational abilities and technological capabilities were going to be needed in the modern world? How much of this was directly related to the wartime experience?

MR. WEBB: Well, first of all, Berkner had spent a lot of time in Associated Universities Inc. and in Johns Hopkins, and in Carnegie Institution. He had also, being a very forward rangingman, been with Byrd at the South Pole. He got to know a lot of people like Pat Hagerty of Texas Instruments, and Cecil Green and the group down there. He was elected to the board down there somewhere in this period. But he carried with him the feeling (* See Appendix 2) that there was a vitality in the new developing areas like Texas, Colorado and so forth that ought to be fostered, because it was going to be easier for them to make the transition into the 21st century than it would be for an old city like Boston. Now, at what point that came, I'm not sure. But we talked of this many times.

In my own case, I think it was mostly the war. I've always been interested in education. I took a degree in education. In my time in the Bureau of the Budget, I worked very closely with the research and development forces. I combined the total range of activities of the United States Government in one summary in the Budget Document, so that people could look at it. That is what led on to the Science Foundation.

Now, when I went out to Oklahoma, which was about 1952 or so, I was sort of looked at askance as a newcomer for a while. Then at some point the people began to say, he's a businessman, he's running his business, paying his debts, and paying off his notes at the bank and so forth.

The banks knew I had taken over a very badly run down company to rehabilitate, and the only way I could rehabilitate it was to expand our sales. At that same time, the Eisenhower administration was beginning to look for a businessman Democrat who lived West of the Mississippi River, for things like the Cancer Council, Oak Ridge Institute of Nuclear Studies. Somehow they got a hold of my name and appointed me to about five different things of that kind; Strategic and Critical Stockpile Committee, the Medical Research Committee, the so-called Bahn-Jones Committee. Dr. Bahn-Jones was a very outstanding, well-known doctor.

In carrying out my responsibilities in these various places I had to travel. Just as I would go up to Topeka, Kansas, for a meeting of the Federal Home Loan Bank Board of Topeka, to which President Eisenhower's administration had appointed me, I'd go down to Arkansas, to Oak Ridge. I was director of the Institute for Nuclear Studies.

In the process of assimilating this -- going into new country, picking up these activities that people expected me to make a contribution to since I'd been Director of the Budget and Under Secretary of the State -- I made it a practice to stop at the universities. If I'd go to Topeka to a Home Loan Bank meeting, I'd take a plane and fly into Lawrence and arrange to meet maybe the chief economist there or the dean of the liberal arts school. I got to be reasonably well known by the deans of the liberal arts schools, and most every year they asked me to come to their regional meetings to make one of the talks, which I did.

I think it was this combination of traveling and going to the universities and seeing what they were like, right on the spot, that whetted the appetite of the university people. They'd say, "Who is this fellow that drops in when he's going to a meeting, just wants to stop and visit with us for a while?"

So in a sense, I began to know and be known by university groups. I was discussing with Berkner and others the problems of how you could bring the research strength of the country that existed in the universities into the pattern of making its greatest contribution.

I was introduced to Jim McDonnell soon after I got out of the government, and he was really fighting for business against Douglas, Boeing, Lockheed, and all the big people. He had a simple theory that what you needed to do was to take the biggest engine with the smallest frontal area and put the smallest airplane you could around it, and it will go fast and perform.

He was very interested in the universities. He was very interested in the St. Louis Country Day School, in St. Louis. He encouraged me to go around and spend some time with his people. He himself made a speech down at Rolla, Missouri -- I don't know if you saw my talk at Colorado College when they gave me an honorary degree -- I pointed out at Colorado College, quoting Jim McDonnell that in so many years we'd be around the moon, in so many years around Mars, and that it would cost about so much. He was talking about I think 20 years, but it turned out that five years after I made that speech at Colorado College, he had built the Mercury and I had become the administrator of NASA!

So I had this intellectual interest. I've always been interested in how the liberal arts and the specialties fit together. I had a very strong feeling that the universities as set up were not going to get enough money from the government, from tuition, or from charitable gifts to do the job of higher education. We had to find a way for them to get somehow a proper connection with the profit-making stream of American business.

NEEDELL: That's exactly the question I wanted to pursue, just very quickly. I know that when Berkner got back from the Byrd expedition he was originally working for the National Bureau of Standards, and he had a very ambitious research plan. But he realized that government in the thirties didn't have the funds to support that kind of development. He went to Carnegie, and I think he probably believed that maybe the immense fortunes that some of these philanthropic organizations had built, might be the way one could support that kind of research. And then of course the war -- '39 -- came. He was of course involved in the development of radar. He was the chief of the Electronic and Materiel Division and was familiar with what an organization like the Radiation Laboratory in its association with MIT could do.     

    Then, you're right, he got involved with AUI that interested him as well as the domestic side.

    Gerald Tape suggested that one of the interests that led Lloyd down to Texas was, again that he felt being totally dependent on either the Atomic Energy Commission or the National Science Foundation, not being able to raise their own seed money, was really handicapping the ability of these organizations to get into the business. Somehow in Texas the opportunity to tap into larger sources of capital without the accounting, without the specific goal-oriented nature, must have been very appealing.

WEBB: I think so. I talked this over with him many times. When I was president of Frontiers of Science Foundation of Oklahoma he would stop by on his way to Dallas and we'd spend an hour or two at the airport talking, or he'd spend the night. Whenever I went to New York, I'd call him up and go see him.

NEEDELL: It seems that Lloyd was already looking for ways of tapping resources for science and technological development, even before the war, as a progression.

WEBB: I think that's true.

NEEDELL: The question is, for you and your work at Sperry, when is it that you realized that the structure that existed -- that is boards of directors and single corporations competing with one another, universities more or less separate -- was inadequate and that one needed somehow to bring these together? Was it your experience at Sperry during the war?

WEBB: No, I don't think so. Sort of a glimmer of a beginning came when, as treasurer of Sperry, I was expected to provide X million dollars to a research department that they had. I think something from seven to eleven senior research directors met every month in a house near the Lake Success plant, a nice candle-lit atmosphere, with cocktails and dinner, and then discussed the money. And they had to satisfy each other.

This was my first acquaintance with what we later called at NASA the "Buy-off Conference." Each month every guy would have to say what he was doing, how much money he required to do it, and whether he was going to be able to get the job done with the money. He was begging his colleagues to give him what he needed, or he was volunteering to them something that they needed, and this was very interesting.

I used to go sit in the corner of the room, so to speak. I wanted to see what these people were doing.

Out of this came in my mind a recognition of the value of the idea of a control gyro. I didn't know which led to the development of the idea, but I could understand that early autopilots would make a correction dependent on the displacement of the wing. In rough air, there were cases where the wings were shed by the airplane. I saw why the engineers thought we had to put a control gyro in the loop so that the force applied was proportional to the distance yet to travel, so you didn't overshoot. I was trying to understand how as Treasurer I could justify the expense.

Now, it was this kind of thinking that made me realize the importance of theoretical constructs. The people who had these theoretical constructs were different than the run of the mill engineers.

NEEDELL: These people worked for Sperry?

WEBB: That's right, the people that I was working with when that crossed my mind were at Sperry.

NEEDELL: So it wasn't yet that you realized there were experts either in universities or somewhere who really could come in and do a service.

WEBB: That came later. I guess in the Marine Corps, you see, you had a lot of airplanes and fighter pilots, some of them on carriers. They were just beginning to really learn how to use radar. We had one of the first ground-controlled approach systems down at the Air Warning Group. We had an Air Warning Group of 2000 men who were working with the night fighters, and managing in a sense the process by which you use these airplanes. The Marine Corps had a second AWG on the West Coast. I. Fred Solomon, who was General Council of the Federal Reserve after the war had the one on the West Coast, I had the one of the East Coast. But this is a different kind of thing from the ordinary airplane squadron, if you know what I mean.

NEEDELL: What made it different?

WEBB: Well, they were using radar to control fighters and manage the air battle. The problem was this: you went in and you took an island. You could be bombed out the first night unless you had some fighters up there. If you tried to control them from the carrier, the direction finders of the Japanese would locate the ship right away, and they'd go up there and bomb the carrier. So you had to be able to get fighters over an island that you had just taken, and you couldn't control the airplanes from the ship.

So what did you do? You worked whatever way you could to get radar that you could take ashore. We worked very hard to get rid of the early radars, that were in great big vans. We developed the theoretical concept that you could control with two small ANTPS -B radars, made by Western Electric. It was small enough so that you could break it into about four parts, and one man could carry one-fourth of that radar ashore through the waves. Then you could set it up, but your couldn't control with it because it was an early warning radar. The theoretical side of it came when our fellows realized that if you took a second one ashore and mounted it on an eleven foot tower, you could have enough pattern to control. Then you had to have a remote reading scope to show the coverage of both radars.

But the point was, what we were trying to do was to prevent being bombed out. No one had conceived that you could use the early warning radar for close control of fighters at night, until we learned that you could use a second one -- in those days, you didn't worry about finding a second radar.

So it was a theoretical construct that permitted us to control with this small radar that we could carry ashore with our bags.

NEEDELL: Now what I wonder is, when did it occur to you that this kind of creative thinking -- realizing that the problem is complex and needs theoretical thought -- was needed? When did it occur to you that the existing structures, the existing companies and laboratories over here, were not sufficient to solve these problems? I remember on one of the tapes you sort of dismissed that General Electric came to you when you were at NASA and said, "Give us the contract and we'll put a man on the moon."

WEBB: They said they could do the whole job.

NEEDELL: You obviously dismissed that. This was a problem which was either beyond their capability, or even if they could do it.

WEBB: Even if they could do it, you couldn't give that contract to one company! The government can't surrender the control of a major project like this if you're going to keep it funded and keep it supported.

Now, I guess this was more of a slowly emerging kind of thing. Remember, in the Bureau of the Budget, Harold Smith, who was my predecessor, had brought a lot of very able theoretical people into the government in various places. He worked very hard on the question of organization and administration. We had a strong organization and administration group. They were centered in places like Syracuse University for their strength, places like this. So there was this concept in the Bureau of the Budget that you needed to liven up what you could do in industry or in a government department with people from the university. Also we were studying things like this: I remember the first study I saw was in Blue Earth County Minnesota, of all the different governmental units -- irrigation districts, school districts. It showed that a citizen out there had to live under something like 100 different governmental units. We were very driving and aggressive in trying to find better ways to do things.

You wouldn't normally think the Director of the Budget is going to read a study about Blue Earth County, Minnesota. But our people were reaching out to find inquiring minds that were doing that. We were in close touch with the University of Pennsylvania because they had a very strong group up there that was working with local government.

DEVORKIN: Was it in the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, that sort of group?

WEBB: Yes, but I think the Wharton School was mostly economics.

DEVORKIN: I'd be interested to ask you to expand on the emergence of this idea of the gyro. Was this a direct result of your sitting around the Sperry engineer and research managers meeting, what you call the "Buy-off Conference?"

WEBB: I was the chief financial officer of a company that had grown a volume of five million dollars a year to 500 million dollars a year. We were, instead of occupying part of one building, occupying 46 buildings in Brooklyn. There was labor in that city and there was no labor elsewhere so we had to expand our operation in New York City, although it wasn't a terribly desirable place to do business. I was looking every way I could to find a way for this company to do the kind of job that was needed.

DEVORKIN: Was Stark Draper involved at that time? I know he worked at Sperry.

WEBB: Yes. He had developed many of the ideas that you see in his later work. He did work with our engineers in developing quite a bit of apparatus, especially for World War II: the MK 14 gunsight was his, the one you could shoot down the kamikazes with; also the computing gunsights for the daylight bombers over Europe were his.


WEBB: But this is the basic idea of feedback, which we tried to put into administrative purposes until after I left Sperry.

DR. TATAREWICZ: I was wondering because you had mentioned during one of the previous interviews that the existing reporting systems and information systems that you had available to you at Sperry during this period of dramatic growth were not adequate to the job. In fact, you mentioned that you implemented some of the first computerized production control systems. Did this coincide with your ....

WEBB: I can't say. I mean, these ideas come to you. You see, you've got to remember that during the time I was in the Reserve, and when I was on active duty particularly, I was studying the Marine Corps Manual and the system of organization of the military, the G 1, 2, 3, and 4, which is as good a single form of organization as you can find anywhere. But I was always looking for ways to improve it, to make it better, to have it.

NEEDELL: Most of my experience has been in scientists' papers or science administrators' papers. Of course when they came out of the war for the first time, taken out of their universities and thrust into a metallurgical laboratory or radiation laboratory, they not only had to work under hierarchical structures, but had to work with the DuPont Company, had to learn to work together. Now, they all remember that of course during the war there was this overriding goal of the winning the war; one would tolerate putting aside one's own interests much more. But we're struck that many of them came out of the war realizing that, by God, we got a lot done, even though we're not going to be working toward winning the war. Did you feel that in industry the same kinds of lessons were learned?

WEBB: See, I didn't go back. Having helped to build up Sperry,I didn't want to go back and tear it down. I wanted to have some time free to work with universities particularly. I wanted to personally get involved with university people.

NEEDELL: Did you think that it was necessary that the corporations like Sperry after the war would go back to business as usual and wouldn't be changed by that experience, wouldn't be as open to working together with other corporations, the government or universities?

WEBB: Well, I had one basic input to my thinking, which came from Sperry's experience after World War I. After World War I Sperry put all their expertise on trying to make something new -- power scissors that would shear tin or heavy gauge metal -- all kinds of things. They found they couldn't make any money at it, and they found as soon as they abandoned that and went back to doing research for the military, a field they knew, they became a prosperous company again. This sort of stuck in my mind as being pretty important: They had the capability of doing something that was very important to be done, but they couldn't necessarily succeed at all things, like power shears to cut metal.

Well, I guess I started with that from the standpoint of what people could do in the post-war world. I wasn't really trying to think in so much terms of Sperry.

NEEDELL: Among the managers, of let's say, the aviation and technology industries before the war, there were instances when they realized that they had acted as a group. That was important -- they had visions that went beyond the fortunes of a single company. I think you talked about instances of the contract with the government for mail delivery, and various times that the industry as a whole was forward-looking. Do you think that that was changed by the war at all?

WEBB: Oh yes. You see, the sequence, as I remember it, is this: In about 1916, the NACA was set up by a rider to the Navy Appropriation Bill. That was because they realized that you couldn't buy or order aviation equipment like you buy shoes or irons or something. You had to have some research developed. I don't know exactly how the sequence came about, but along about 1920, '21, they began to have that percolate into the structure of government. There were several different commissions studying the question of how the aviation industry should be run. Dwight Morrow was the head of one along about 1926 or so, that set up a law called the Morrow Act. This law said that you have design competition, and the one who wins the design competition will get the contract. If you want you can negotiate with another contractor to have a parallel producer.

But here was the first recognition in law; this is about 1926 or so. It wouldn't hurt you to go back and read the Congressional Record where the discussion of this took place. They were basically working on this idea -- how does the government avoid an arsenal-type of development, and how does it get advanced research development done? This led on into the question of exempting certain complicated parts of equipment from profit control.

NEEDELL: So the mechanisms for dealing with this or how this should be dealt with had already been done before the war (World War II).

WEBB: They had been dealt with but there weren't many people who had intellectual interest or had thought of it. Most of the people who came with the idea they wanted to get something done and put pressure on the government didn't have the first thought about what I've described to you. There were only a few people, that I knew, who had really delved into this and had looked at the history and had realized that if we wanted to build up our strength in aviation in the thirties -- which was what made it possible for the aviation industry to produce, what, 50,000 planes a year or whatever it was -- that you had to approach the question of eliminating profit control from equipment for communication, navigation, target detection and fire control, so that you could get the input of effort. With the same profit limitation on that kind of equipment that you had on the frame of the airplane and the engine, you simply wouldn't get the application of effort. There was an organization called the Scientific Apparatus Manufacturers Association that took quite an interest in this. But there weren't very many people who saw it in this fundamental light. Most of them said, "Give me the money and I'll produce the airplane."

NEEDELL: What was it that led to the more enlightened approach that you find later on? Was it the work of people like yourself, or the influence of people like Dr. Draper?

WEBB: Yes, they had a part, but it was also due to some very enlightened people in the military, particularly in the Navy. The Navy has been very, very forward looking in most periods of time; in naval ordnance, for instance, fire control. It's really quite a job to properly direct a 16 inch gun. They didn't had a lot of fire power; and in a ship, if you get hit by somebody else, you're really in trouble.

So there were very fine naval officers in the service who were committed to get something done about that. They were working hard at it.

Tatarewicz: Where in the Navy would these people have been?

WEBB: Naval Ordnance was one place.

Tatarewicz: What was it in particular about the Navy that you think allowed this kind of an ability to develop?

WEBB: They didn't want to get sunk. They wanted to sink the other fellow. If you're on a ship and you're out on the ocean you're fighting, you focus your mind pretty fast on how to be accurate in your gunnery. That means you have to be accurate inside the equipment that controls the gun and that measures the distance to the target, temperature, all the other factors that go into the trajectory of a shell.

NEEDELL: I have one question regarding your work in the government beginning in the Truman Administration and then later on in NASA. I know that there are theoretical, or intellectual sides to what people do and yet there's also the practical side of running your office and fulfilling responsibilities on a day to day basis. Did you often have the chance to step back and think about long range implications? Was there a group of people in the Kennedy Administration or in the Truman Administration which actually talked about secondary implications of doing something this way or doing it that way?

WEBB: Well, in NASA we took quite an interest in this. We got Ray Bauer, of Harvard Business School you remember, to write the story of the railroad industry, to see what we could learn from the development of the transcontinental railroad.

NEEDELL: He was at Cornell?

WEBB: He was at The Harvard Business School when he did this work. Also, he did the book on social indicators. We financed the first coherent volume on social indicators, to try to figure out what happens in the areas where you go with a large installation like Apollo. We were very anxious to get people to thinking about this.

NEEDELL: Was it a small group of people from various agencies, just brought together by intellectual interests? Or were you charged by Kennedy to develop this?

WEBB: We were not charged by anybody. You find a person, you spark an interest with him and talk with him, like Berkner. You think about something and call him up on the long distance telephone the next day, and say, "About your idea, I think there's something to it." It was self-generated interest.

NEEDELL: Do you think at the higher levels of government they were aware and glad that there was this activity going on? Or do you think they were just interested in getting the job done?

WEBB: I think they didn't really know too much about what we were doing. Of course, people like Berkner would wait until they had a matured idea, and then go to somebody who needed it and say, "Look, I've got something here that will help you get your job done."

NEEDELL: Do you know why Berkner didn't take the directorship of the National Science Foundation?

WEBB: My guess is that he didn't want to be constrained within that kind of a framework. He was a free roaming spirit, and he really wanted to work with the people he wanted to work with. I think the thing ought to be compared to the basic ability of industry to build missiles, which slowly matured. As the government units had money and found they needed something, they began to reach for people to do it. These people stuck their heads up.

NEEDELL: Why wasn't the push for a civilian nuclear power industry, or for the nuclear industry, enough to bring this necessity to the forefront?

WEBB: I don't think people knew a lot about it. The people who knew about it were specialized people who saw opportunities that ordinary people didn't see. They were doing all they could to get the government to go along with them. Quite a few people like Rickover and others, Westinghouse Company, just worked hard and got some contracts and got to work.

Let me ask, what have you found on this subject? Have you found anybody who could tell you how this thing arose? I haven't found anybody.

NEEDELL: No. I think that it's an area on which we have to do a lot more research.

WEBB: Hugh Dryden would talk a lot about what you could do, who could help you do it, how you could get them interested in something that will push this forward.

DEVORKIN: But it does seem as you indicated before that after your years at Sperry and when you were going and visiting all these universities, you were developing a general feeling that universities could be brought into the national purpose a little more. Is that a correct assessment?

WEBB: I don't think it was quite that narrow. I think it was more a feeling on my part that universities were important, that they were developing new knowledge and teaching the young. I wanted some kind of intellectual contact with whatever ferment was there among the people at the universities, as well as those in the banking and commercial worlds.

DEVORKIN: In one of the essays that you asked us to read, Stark Draper criticized the kinds of education one finds in the universities as being too textbook oriented.

WEBB: I'm perfectly aware of that. I talked to everybody on the top side of MIT from time to time when I was president of Educational Services. They were very well aware of the inadequacies of the institutions, particularly the engineering. They had done as much as they knew how to do at MIT to move it along in the direction of improving it. But even there, they felt that the way engineering was taught was not the best for the students or the country.

DEVORKIN: This was post-Sputnik. Was there a pre-Sputnik feeling about it when you were in Oklahoma?

WEBB: Yes, I think so.

DEVORKIN: Thanks very much for this session.

Webb 4 || WEBB 6

Rev. 09/06/96

© 1996 National Air and Space Musuem