Session with:        Gene Peterson, Interviewee (“GP”)

By:                  Diane Sova, Author, Interviewer (“DS”)

Date:                March 29, 2008


DS: This is Gene Peterson, March 29, 2008, walking down memory lane. Gene when did you start at SBRC?
GP: I was a charter member of the group and I hired into Hughes Aircraft Company in December 1950.
DS: That was Hughes in Culver City?
GP: In Culver City, right. Went to work in the navigation section and the navigation section was headed by Custer Baum, and Jack Coon and Russell Hewlett were in the group, as was Jack Lansing and Stan Borer (sp). I can’t remember who all else. But anyway we were working on making a Daylight Star Tracker for the Air Force.
DS: That was a contract with Hughes?
GP: That was a contract Hughes had with the Air Force.   They were successful in making a workable device and they got a contract with North American to make a smaller version and deliver two models to them. At that time Ramo and Woolridge were running the operation at Hughes and they decided that there was no future in Star Trackers, and they told the Air Force that they didn’t want to renew the contract. So the Air Force people said well if you guys can make some arrangements to keep this thing going we’ll get you the contract.
DS: They told you guys on the side?
GP: Yes.   Custer Baum, Jack Coon and Russell Hewlett ran onto Dave Evans and he was getting kind of itchy about being in such an organized place as Hughes. He had more or less started the place.
DS: He started Hughes Aircraft?
GP: Yes.   He was a ham radio guy and he won some prizes in ham radio and got some notoriety from it and Howard Hughes noted it and hired him to be his radio contact for his round the world flight.
DS: I am amazed because my grandmother in Flint, Michigan was also a ham and she won some awards. Wouldn’t that be weird if she knew this guy? It is a small world back then.
GP: Could be.
DS: Isn’t that funny. I have to look up and find out. Howard Hughes hired him.
GP: As a radio operator.
DS: Personally, no company.
GP: Right.   He kept in touch for the round the world flight. Afterward, Howard put Dave to work in radio stuff there in Culver City. It sort of grew into Hughes Aircraft Company.
DS: Dave had other guys come in and work with him?
GP: Yes, after a while he started hiring people and so forth.
DS: I think you told me a story about Dave Evans and changing the oil in his car.   Was that you?
GP: No, I don’t think it was.
DS: I wonder if that was even Dave Evans?
GP: I know that Dave Evans, when we moved to the airport, he kept his car at the company place there and some of the company people worked on it. Mike Nagy in particular.
DS: So then, you were working in Culver city with those guys. Then the Air Force was talking to your group.
GP: Jack Coon, Custer Baum, and Russ Hewlett were the principal guy that were talking to the Air Force with Dave Evans and so Dave finds a backer that could give us some financial backing, and the group pulled out.
DS: Who was the backer, do you remember?
GP: It was Pacific Mercury Television Mfg. Company.
DS: How did that happen?
GP: I don’t know.
DS: He must have known somebody.
GP: Dave was kind of a wheeler dealer, he knew a lot of people, and talked a good line too. He found several backers before we were through.
DS: So he was kind of a front man. What were you doing then?
GP: I was a physicist and I hired in there working on the Star Tracker at Hughes.
DS: Who was your boss, or who hired you, do you remember?
GP: Custer Baum hired me.
DS: I think you wrote that down somewhere, or I have it from when we talked before.   So these guys all get together.
GP: And they formed a company.
DS: Why did they come up here?
GP: That is covered in here pretty well.
DS: O.k.
GP: That is because Dave Evans and his wife liked Santa Barbara.
DS: You were . . .
GP: I didn’t come with them immediately. They had this contract to deliver two units to North American, and I stayed down and finished that up. Bill Craven took over after Custer Baum left. I stayed until we delivered those units to North American. I started to work there in December of ’50 and we finished it in about July of ’51, and I came to Santa Barbara shortly after that.
DS: How was it even working a contract back then? Did you just work a few guys together and figure out what you were going to deliver? Or was it like now where they say this is what we need you to build? How was all that?
GP: I am not too clear on how they got started on this Daylight Star Tracker, but it had been going to quite a while at Hughes.
DS: The program.
GP: The program essentially got moved to Santa Barbara. Including a lot of government baled equipment and even an aircraft. We were going to do flight testing with an improved model.
DS: This was in 1950.
GP: Fifty-one.
DS: So even aviation was kind of beginning. It must have been an elite group for the technology. Close knit even the Air Force guys. The basic technology was there then when it moved up here with you.
GP: With the guys who developed it in the first place. The inventors were part of the group that moved up.
DS: So then you came up here. Were you down at the airport then?
GP: No, we started out up at the top of Mission Canyon. Actually, the group spent a month or two, maybe more than that in Van Nuys. They rented a place there and got started. The thing they did mostly when they were there was hire people away from Hughes to fill out the group. When I came up in July we were situated in that Los Feliz school up at the top of Mission Canyon, up above the botanic garden.
DS: What is up there now? The botanic garden. Are there any buildings up there still?
GP: I think the buildings are still there, I don’t know. I haven’t been up that way for a long time.
DS: I have to go check. So Mission Canyon goes up. Isn’t Scofield Park up there?
GP: Scofield Park is off to the east.
DS: Off to the side and then if you continue going up?
GP: You run into a dead end and that is where we were.
DS: I have got to go up there and see.
GP: It is just a short way above the botanic garden. There were several old buildings there. I think it started as a school for asthmatic children at one time.
DS: It was kind of camaraderie even then, because you guys were working together.
GP: A lot of them had already been working together, but there were some new ones hired too. There were about thirty people I think at the time when I arrived here in July of 1951.   It was a nice place to be but it wasn’t very practical.
DS: Up at Mission Canyon.
GP: They made a machine shop out of the garage. There was a park studio; they made that into a drafting facility. We had offices in probably a dormitory.   It didn’t have decent heat. As a matter of fact, we heated with fire places.
DS: What was the sense of excitement?
GP: It was exciting all right.
DS: Even now being involved with technology and changes and seeing what you guys come up with. But back then, it is hard to imagine because we didn’t have communication and we didn’t have computers and it just have been. . .
GP: It was pretty different all right.
DS: Was Dave Evans there and you guys all got together every day and invented great things?
GP: We were fairly well organized. Jack Coon ran the mechanical design operation and Russell Hewlett was the electronicer.(sp?) Using tubes not transistors.
DS: Just as an aside I remember my grandmother’s house the dining room had all these tubes. All their radio stuff. You said Jack Coon was the mechanical?
GP: He ran the mechanical engineering group.
DS: Packard.   Is that what you said, or Hewlett.   I am thinking Hewlett.
GP: No, Russell is H-u-l-e-t-t. He had invented quite a lot of the Star Tracker. He was the nearest thing to an electronics man that we had. Custer Baum was our director of research. As a matter of fact, we all worked for him and he worked for Dave Evans, essentially.
DS: So Dave was out getting more backers while you guys were doing the work.
GP: Yes.   He was around. He had a secretary and an assistant. Al Paul was his assistant. Oh gosh, I can’t remember the . .
DS: It was only fifty years ago.
GP: I think I list most of those people in here.
DS: Then you moved up here, got a place.
GP: Yes, I got a house over on Padre Street, between Delavina and Japala. I had a wife and two kids at that time.
DS: So you moved them all up here.
GP: Actually my wife came kicking and screaming, she didn’t want to come.
DS: Why, because she thought it was a hick town?
GP: She thought that the company looked pretty scary. And it did.
DS: How much did you make the first year? Do you remember?
GP: No.
DS: How did they pay you guys.
GP: We had a contract with the Air Force and we were getting paid alright. I guess I was getting something like five hundred dollars a month at that time.
DS: So it was good money.
GP: It was good money. It wasn’t bad. Similar to what I was getting at Hughes.
DS: So they matched it.
GP: Sort of.
DS: You moved your family up here. It was a smaller town back then. There wasn’t even an airport then. Was there?
GP: They built an airport during the war. The Marine Corps had a facility at the airport.
DS: They same area?
GP: That area became. Well when the Marine left they gave the airport to the city.
DS: Ok I have an article about that part. But you guys weren’t even down there yet.
GP: No we are still up on the hill. We were going along o.k. making progress with our device.
DS: That is the only thing you were working on.
GP: That is the only thing we were working on, yes. We got into something else soon. Dave Evans somehow or other dug up a German scientist who had a contract with the bureau of ships to make lead cellenoid for infra red detections.
DS: You wrote some papers about that, didn’t you?
GP: Tom Johnson did most of our development later. But this Ed Kutcher, they called him a paperclip scientist that was dragged out of Germany at the end of the war and he had been doing this sort of thing in Germany. And he came to work at Santa Barbara Research too. Actually, it wasn’t called Santa Barbara Research at that time.   It was Pacific Mercury Research.
DS: Still you had the one product and when he brought the cellenoid?
GP: That was just decided. He was trying to make lead cellenoid detectors.
DS: Detectors. How did you test the Star Trackers? You did the work right up in that area?
GP: Like I said, a lot of this equipment had been bailed to us by the Air Force which it had been at Hughes. We took it away from Hughes and brought it up here. When they switched the contract to us. We had some fairly good equipment. There were thirty people.
DS: They were pretty smart people.
GP: Yes.
DS: You wanted the brightest and best.
GP: Yes, it was a good bunch, a brainy bunch. We were very interested in what we were doing and making good progress and so forth. Dave got into financial problems with Pacific Mercury, and managed to get fired.
DS: Which means they cut off funding.
GP: No they didn’t, we still had the contract.
DS: Oh, so they just booted him out and you guys were still there.
GP: Right.   Jack Coon and Russell Hulett, they fired them too because they were principals in the group. Most of the rest of the engineers quit, including me.   The Air Force had sort of encouraged this because they were not happy with Pacific Mercury. I guess they had done some rather shady billing of the contract. I heard though I don’t know for sure that it is the truth, that they had bought a carload of window glass for their factory in Van Nuys on the contract.   But anyway, most of the engineers quit.
DS: So had you guys talked and said I’m going to quit?
GP: I guess so. There were a few that were very fond of their paychecks and really couldn’t afford to quit. But the Air Force had more or less encouraged it and indicated that if we pulled out and got some other backing they would shift the backing to us.   Because we were the ones that knew how to do this. But the Air Force people that we were talking to didn’t realize that Pacific Mercury had a friend in the Air Force too, and they were not able to do what they had planned, which was to shift the contract. So the contract stayed with Pacific Mercury and they hired a guy to run the place. Ex-general, Winkie Kratz.
DS: Was that his real name Winkie?
GP: I’m sure it wasn’t, I think it was Winston, but they called him Winkie.   He hired some people to try to finish this contract.
DS: Did he hire from previous guys, maybe?