The Police Radio Incident
Oct. 9, 2009
It's fall of 1964 and I'm involved in a revolution. I'm on campus at Berkeley, though I have no classes – it's the work phase of my work-study program and I'm employed as a lab helper working for Dr. Westheimer in the Physiological Optics lab. The revolution is the Free Speech Movement, a 3-month-long struggle to roll back new university rules that would have banned organizing civil rights protests on campus. It's serious because Freedom Summer has just concluded and some of the voting rights workers didn't come back alive.
You can learn the particulars at the website of the Free Speech Movement Archives (www.fsm-a.org). Revolutions generate lots of stories, and this one is just a snapshot from that time, though an important one to me. I feel justified in using the term because revolutions, 1) involve the actions of a large number of people, and 2) overthrow an existing order, in this case the order of “in loco parentis” by which the university arrogated to itself many rights of parenthood.
The FSM headquarters is in a small house in the South Campus student ghetto. Its occupants – major figures in the initial explosion of protest – have retreated to one or two rooms and dedicated the others to organizing the protest activity. The place is full pretty much 24 hours a day and even has a self-appointed housemother named Marilyn Noble directing people here and there. Marilyn is a grad student in sociology and her father is a mechanical engineer who worked on the original Douglas DC commercial planes in the 1930's.
I am hanging around trying to find some way to apply my skills, such as they are. I'm 19, a sophomore in EE, totally intimidated by all these brilliant grad students in fields I do not understand – sociology, psychology, political science – areas dealing with human behavior and relationships unknowable to me. Maybe some of these brilliant people will tell me what they need to have done, and I'll do it.
In the meantime, I gravitate toward the non-existent card file system and attempt to improve it. I want to try my hand at implementing McBee “keysort” cards. These are card with holes punched around the periphery. If you stack the deck square they all line up and you can put a knitting needle through the deck. If you pull up on the needle all the cards will come with it.
If you had punched out the cardboard from a hole to the edge then the card with the punch would not come with the needle when the deck is lifted by that hole. By clever definition of hole fields you could do binary sorting and have a very large sort space. But first you have to have the cards to punch.
I try my hand at taking a stack of index cards and using an electric drill to bore holes through. Don't try this – it only produces holes filled with wood pulp fuzz. The term “drill” is used with paper where the term “punch” ought to be used. You also have to take great care that the cards don't shift and put your holes out of alignment when you're making them.
Still, it keeps me occupied and there might be something more successful I can do. One evening there's a commotion - a group of students burst through the front door shouting about how the police have surrounded the campus. We all freeze – Berkeley's campus is very large and the logistics involved in surrounding it would be tremendous. Everyone wants to know what is actually happening.
Marilyn Noble takes the lead, turning to me. “Quick,” she says, “make us a police radio!”
At this point I enter a surreal space, somewhat at variance with the experience of everyone else. It seemed to me that everyone in the house had barked those words at me in unison. I immediately knew what they were talking about – 25 years earlier police radio was positioned on the spectrum immediately above the 530 – 1700 Khz AM broadcast band. It was possible to take the case off any AM radio, re-tune the local oscillator to a higher frequency and hear the police traffic.
However, 25 years has passed, and the police band has moved up to the 30 – 50 MHz range and gone to narrow-band FM – a totally different proposition. Modifying an FM receiver would be a real problem and require some redesign. I recall that there had been a construction article in one of the electronic hobbyist magazines with plans to build just such a receiver. But you couldn't just snap your fingers and create it.
I try to explain, with all eyes on me. What comes out is a stammering, “You..you don't understand...it takes time..” The crowd all seems to answer in unison again - “Never mind about that! Make us a police radio!”
At that instant two things happened in my mind. At the practical level, I started a project to build a police radio from that construction article. At a deeper, more visceral level, I was stunned to discover that my strategy of “waiting for orders” was fatally flawed. Those frighteningly sophisticated students, knowledgeable in the many ways people interacted, had turned out to be woefully ignorant of anything having to do with technology. If I were to put myself at their disposal it would be guaranteed that I would be working on the wrong thing, too little and too late.
The realization continued, crystallizing at the same instant - I would have to make my own decisions on what technology to pursue that would support the causes I hoped to assist. I would have to take the time required to gather the knowledge and skills, to design and build and test and re-design, to organize the best ways to get things made in the necessary quantities, all without the “leaders” understanding what I was doing. Then, when the demand arose, I would be able to respond, “Well, you can't have that but here's what you can have!”
Whether I wanted it or not, whether I felt qualified or not, I would have to take the lead in any work I did in developing technology for use in society. I could see the path I'd have to take, and it involved educating myself in many of the mysteries of human behavior along with the arcana of technology. It was daunting, but it was better than waiting for orders.
It turns out that revolutions have a third characteristic – they open previously unsuspected ranges of possibilities for their participants and others. The Free Speech Movement won on December 8, 1964 with a vote of the faculty senate that demolished the edifice of “in loco parentis” and demanded that the only authority over civil behavior on campus be the civil authorities, under the Constitution. The crowd of students waiting outside the hall where the senate met formed corridors and applauded the faculty as they emerged.
A few months later I heard a talk from one of the grad students commenting on what had happened that mobilized tens of thousands of students, who were otherwise strangers, to create a community focused around the protest. He said that “barriers to communication between students had come down”, and that anybody could talk to anybody else about the crisis without an excuse. I took that observation and began a long process of trying to find out how to make that an everyday situation, and what technology would be appropriate to that purpose.
If I hadn't had that surreal experience, evoking that instantaneous conclusion, I don't know what I would have become. For the participants, it seems, revolutions never really end.