In 1967, the CIA saw fit to warn President Lyndon B. Johnson of a singing computer in China. A “huge transistorized universal computer,” it performed a communist anthem.
“The East is red, the sun is rising,” the song began, “China has produced a man called Mao Tse-tung.” But someone at the CIA wryly noted the computer was meant for more than entertainment.
“Later, the computer will be put to work on more mundane tasks such as the problems of the national economy and advanced weapons development,” the memo’s author wrote.
President Lyndon B. Johnson speaks at the MSFC Michoud Assembly Facility — where NASA designed and assembled large space vehicles — on December 13, 1967. NASA/Science Faction/Corbis
The note is part of a cache of top-secret daily briefing memos prepared by the CIA for Johnson and his predecessor, President John F. Kennedy. The trove, made public on Thursday, is made up of 19,000 pages that describe everything the CIA thought Kennedy and Johnson needed to know about international events from the Cuban Missile Crisis to the building of the Berlin Wall. It represents a time capsule from an age when the US was focused on the computing prowess of China and the displays of Soviet might.
In other words, not much has changed.
A search of the documents about tech — telephones, satellites, computers and moon landings — didn’t turn up much about early gadgets. The focus instead was on what Russia and China were up to.
It’s possible that the CIA was having a joke at the expense of China when it came to the singing computer. Dag Spicer, a senior curator for the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, California, said China didn’t have the semiconductor technology necessary to build much of a machine.
“It is unlikely China could have built a reliable high-performance computer system that would hold its own against Western models at this time,” Spicer said in an email.
Johnson’s interest in what is now the Russian Federation was centered on the space program, an area where the US had a clear upper hand despite the Soviets’ early successes. The USSR flew the first satellite, Sputnik, in 1957 and the first manned spacecraft in 1961.
Granular updates on the USSR’s attempts at orbiting and landing on the moon, as well as learning to move astronauts from one ship to another while orbiting the Earth, crossed the president’s desk in the mid 1960s.
“Satellite photography shows that the new space launch complex at Tyuratam is nearing the end of construction. This is the launch center for the Soviet programs to land a man on the moon and to place a large manned space station into orbit around the earth,” one CIA memo informed Johnson. “We do not, however, expect an attempt at a manned lunar landing before mid-1971, nor the orbiting of the space station before the mid-1970s.”
The Wall Street Journal has a searchable database of the memos available on their website.
The CIA was right, and American astronauts landed on the moon in 1969. The memos, alas, make no mention of the Soviet government’s reaction.