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The Cryptanalyst (Part 3) – Podcast #184

Previous installments of my interview with Marvin Lautzenheiser:

The Cryptanalyst – Part 1
The Cryptanalyst – Part 2

Please note that the text below is an automated transcription. As a result, it may contain errors.

Steve Silverman 00:01:02
Welcome back. As I mentioned, this is the third and final segment of my interview with Marvin. And in this first section, Marvin will talk a little bit more about his boss, Downing, then he’ll comment a bit more on the nickel case, and then he’s going to go on to discuss a different case. That’s the Brown-Green case that he was assigned to deal with. Now, the interesting thing about that one is that he should have never gotten it. As you’ll hear, it was just a little slip of the tongue by then FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover that made him have to deal with this. Now, this is not a significantly important case, but I included it just to give you a little bit of an insight into the power that Hoover wielded while he was in charge of the Bureau. So let’s listen in.

Steve Silverman 00:01:49
And what was Downing’s first name? Do you remember?

Marvin Lautzenheiser 00:01:51
Yes. Churchill.

Steve Silverman 00:01:54
That’s an unusual one.

Marvin Lautzenheiser 00:01:55
Yes. Churchill Downing. He had been divorced. His only life was the Bureau. And it didn’t matter that you had families. You were supposed to be like Hoover. Hoover was not married, and he thought your life should be only devoted to the FBI. Churchill Downing tried to emulate him, but overdid it even. In fact, in the Brown case, as you have already read, I think.

World War II Draft Card for Churchill Ferrier Downing.
World War II Draft Card for Churchill Ferrier Downing.

Steve Silverman 00:02:22
Well, I’ve read it, but of course, people who’ll be listening have no clue about it. So why don’t you just start from the beginning on how that came about? Right. It had to do with going into, not you going into Hoover’s office, but Downing doing that, right?

Marvin Lautzenheiser 00:02:35
Yes. Going into Hoover’s office was totally related to the taking tours. Once I became an agent, I would never go to his office again unless there was some special thing, which I think only happened once or twice. But anyway, Downing was on his own on this. When I came back as an agent, his attitude towards me changed. He had been pretty good to me. Difficult, but pretty good to me while I was doing the cryptanalysis studies, and up through the time I got to the Agents Academy, I didn’t have a lot to do with him. I dealt with Newpher most of the time. Woody Newpher was the old agent that I worked for all through my classes, my studies, and so on. He had a fantastic history. He had been in Spain during World War II, and he broke into the German embassy there, copied their code books, printed them on their printer, and left the place with a printout of their codebook. He had nerves of steel and one of the nicest persons in the world. His family and my family got to be close friends. And even through all my trouble with Downing, we still remained close friends. But anyway, I didn’t have a lot of close contact with Downing until I was an agent, and then I worked directly for him. And the Nickel case came maybe within the first week or two. Older agents had already worked on that at the time it was given to me, but they never told me their deductions. I didn’t realize enough to just say, Why didn’t you tell me this? But I started at the beginning, all my tests, but now I should run them on the computer, which they didn’t have before. When I got there, it was right after the computer was installed. So they didn’t have any help like that. It was all by hand. So we thought maybe with the help of the computer, I might do something. And I did everything over again that they had done by hand. And everything I could dream of. I would think at night, I would go to bed thinking, what did I not do yet on this thing? I was so determined I was going to break it. But of course, everything that was given to me I was determined I’m going to break this. Sometimes you did, sometimes you didn’t. But that was my attitude about it.

Marvin Lautzenheiser in 2005.
Marvin in 2005.

Steve Silverman 00:04:59
So let’s talk about the Brown-Green case. Just try to describe what happened, how Downing got involved, and then basically set you up and what you did about it.

Marvin Lautzenheiser 00:05:11
Well, I don’t know how Downing got it, because he shouldn’t have. It was an investigative problem. We had a Bureau investigative section and they were the ones that administered all the fields. They covered all the field offices and how they did things and everything. And here comes along something that was definitely one of their problems. And here I am, several degrees away in a cryptanalysis section being given this to come up and make up for Hoover’s slip of the tongue. It was nothing more than that.

Steve Silverman 00:05:44
So what did Hoover do? Why don’t you explain that?

Marvin Lautzenheiser 00:05:47
At the end of their weekly meetings on a Friday, he had a staff meeting with the assistant directors every Friday morning, and this Friday he was leaving to go out, I think to some of the field offices over the weekend, or maybe just vacation. But anyway, he wanted to get away early. So they finished everything else and they were all holding their breath about this because it was national headlines. And he said, “What’s going on with the Green case?” And they were all stunned because they expected him to say, ‘what’s going on with the Brown case?’ Of all the people in the world, they were the closest to him, assistant directors, and they would not say, ‘don’t you mean the Brown case?’

Steve Silverman 00:06:28
And what exactly was going on in the Brown case that they were concerned about it?

Marvin Lautzenheiser 00:06:33
Well, within the last week or two or three of the time that this happened, there was a fugitive named Brown. I don’t know if he was on the Ten Most Wanted, but he was way up on the need to catch. And so he was very upset. You do not arrest the wrong person. You just don’t do that. The FBI always gets them right.

Steve Silverman 00:06:53
So in other words, they arrested the wrong Brown.

Marvin Lautzenheiser 00:06:55
They arrested the wrong person. It wasn’t even Brown. Well, yes, it was Brown, but it wasn’t the same first name. It was the same model of car, except it was a two-door instead of a four-door, but same color, same year, everything. And his driver’s license didn’t match, so they should have known. But there was so much that it was in favor of him being the right guy. They figured he could have changed his driver’s license or something. But anyway, they arrested him and then it came out. Of course, he was not the right person and it hit the newspapers, the FBI arrest the wrong person and some kind of I guess he was already famous or something. But some of that is guesswork. I don’t know why he was so important, but he was. And they arrested the wrong guy and Hoover was very much upset about it. And so they were waiting for his wrath when that meeting was getting down to the end. And to their surprise, he says, “What’s happening in the Green case?” None of the assistant directors would say, ‘don’t you mean Brown?’ Don’t you think one of them should have been brave enough to say don’t you mean that? Well, anyway, because of that, the investigative people said they were in deep trouble already. They didn’t want to go any deeper. And so I guess, I have to guess from how it got to Downing. But Downing, I think, volunteered that he would take care of it. And of course, the investigations were so happy to get it off their hands because they knew whatever was written was going to be wrong. He would thunder, ‘What are you putting this stuff on my desk for?’ But anyway, I got off. I worried the whole weekend. Well, the whole weekend I was working, I worried through the night. Got into work and I was just waiting for the hammer to come down. What happened? Why did you do this? And I got off the hook because he just looked at the name on the thing. And he says, “Oh, I meant the Brown case,” and didn’t read all my

Steve Silverman 00:09:03
So basically this is on a Friday and you were given until Monday to find out whatever you could on Green?

Marvin Lautzenheiser 00:09:10
Yeah, till Monday morning at nine. I had to have it on Downing’s desk. Well, it was supposed to be on Hoover’s desk, I think by nine, and I’m not sure about whether Downings or his. But anyway, I had till Monday morning to have this on the desk. I arranged with Downing’s secretary. She would come in late Sunday for typing whatever I had to go. And I got volunteers from some of the other stenos to come in and read the Green case files. And my teamed volunteered for at least some time. And so I had a lot of people, there were eight or ten people working off and on through Saturday and Sunday. I stayed until late Friday night. I came in early Saturday morning, stayed late that night, came in Sunday morning. And finally, about mid-afternoon, I decided, well, this is the best I have. It’s not much.

Steve Silverman 00:10:04
So basically you had to find all the Green cases that were out there for the FBI and choose the best one.

Marvin Lautzenheiser 00:10:10
Yeah, I called the files and I had them send up all the Green cases that could be of interest currently throughout the whole country. And they had these carts that hauled files and they came in. Cartload after cartload of these things and they all had to be reviewed. And none of them were interesting. I really just had to pick the least bad and I wrote up a single-page memo for Mr. Hoover. Anyway, that’s what happened.

Steve Silverman 00:10:43
And in the end, it didn’t make any difference. You did your job and it went to his desk and he said, ‘I meant the Brown case.’ Right?

Marvin Lautzenheiser 00:10:51
Right, yeah, that’s actually what happened. If any of his assistant directors had said, ‘don’t you mean Brown,’ it would have been all over right then.

The Lautzenheiser family.
The Lautzenheiser family. Marvin is up front with their dog Trixie.

Steve Silverman 00:11:02
Next Marvin discusses why he decided to leave the FBI. As you’ll hear, his boss Downing did not treat him very well. You see, Downing was unrealistic in his expectations, and that included requiring Marvin to document that all computer equipment, which was crazy expensive back then, all computer equipment had to be in use 100% of the time. I mean, think about that. Is your computer printer or scanner in use all the time? Of course not. Yet Marvin had no choice but to fudge the machine usage logs and timesheets just to appease his boss Downing.

Marvin Lautzenheiser 00:11:41
I’d come to the conclusion that there was no way up for me and there was no way to stay.

Steve Silverman 00:11:47
And why is that?

Marvin Lautzenheiser 00:11:48
Well, because Downing was not going to let me work. He was going to just keep bothering me. For the whole year up until the NSA stuff, I had not had any problems with Downing with regard to my workers. Suddenly, after within a week or two after that, suddenly Dean Earnest’s desk drawer, the bottom left one, has a little dust in it and did not have a dust rag with a slight dusting on it. And please speak to Mr. Earnest about this and make sure it doesn’t happen again. So I had to write a memo saying that I had spoken to Ernest and I had done this and I had told him about how important it was to follow the FBI rules. Anyway, I had to demean myself into saying how bad I was because of that dust. And about six weeks later it would be Loren Guell. He was the other crypt person that worked with me. And it was a different desk drawer. It was something the same thing. One time there was a paper left. It was just a paper with nothing on it. But you’re not allowed to leave any papers in your desk. The only thing you could have in your desk was a tickler. Of course, you could not put anything secrecy in there. But you had a tickler every day. On one day was the tickler for so and so. One of the other has not been pulled for that day.

Steve Silverman 00:13:15
What is a tickler?

Marvin Lautzenheiser 00:13:16
You have a set of hanging files. I don’t know hanging or not hanging, but there’s 31 slots in 31 places where things, papers to be put in.

Steve Silverman 00:13:28

Marvin Lautzenheiser 00:13:29
It’s marked one, two, three through 31. Yesterday is the 7th of something. Immediately when you come into work, you pull all the papers out of the 7th and you take care of what you can. And the ones you can’t, you mark them for the eight or for the nine and you put them in a future folder. It was a rule that you should not leave work with anything in today’s folder, no matter how trivial. It couldn’t be important because it would be locked up in a safe if it had been. But anyway, that’s the way it was. Until one time it was that tickler hadn’t been pulled for the day. It was something about what the programming was. It was nothing important. But he hadn’t pulled his tickler. So I had to write a memo, how I talked to so and so. I don’t know if it was Earnest or Guell. Anyway, that’s the kind of thing he was doing. They picked on me on personal things about my shirt was out of style. My way of putting on my jacket in the evening was so awkward. How could I be so awkward? I didn’t get all through a week without some new thing about him.

Steve Silverman 00:14:37
And these are all tiny little things, right?

Marvin Lautzenheiser 00:14:39
Yeah, they’re just little irksome things. But he had made it clear that I was not going to go anywhere and I didn’t want to go anywhere. I wanted to do what I was doing. But it was just that I was going to get a transfer. I knew whenever the stuff about the machine usage came to light and the timesheets came to light. Those were two things that were no-noes and I knew when those came to light I would be transferred. I had little kids in school. I didn’t want to go to a place like New York or Chicago or someplace. Incidentally, I’ll skip forward. I’m out of the Bureau for about a year, and one of my friends there called me and said, “do you know what happened?” I said no. He said the inspectors came in and the guy that took over for me is now in Chicago on the field. He’s no longer a supervisor. So I thought that was coming for me. Sooner or later there’d be a snap inspection and I’d be criticized thoroughly for that and I’d be out in the field. I didn’t mind going to the field, but I didn’t want to go to Chicago or something. I would have been happy to go back to Charlotte.

Steve Silverman 00:15:53
Next Marvin discusses leaving the FBI and going to work for a company named Tech Ops, which is short for Technical Operations. They were designing a program to simulate various nuclear war situations, which was an incredibly complex thing to do back in the late 1950s. Now, as you listen to this section, once again envision how primitive computers were at this time. It’s hard to believe, but the new IBM 709 that this program was being designed for, it was built using vacuum tubes, not transistors or chips, and Marvin had to learn how to operate it without having any access to the machine itself.

IBM 709 computer.
IBM 709 computer. (Columbia University image.)

Marvin Lautzenheiser 00:16:31
I left in December of 58, but I had leave that took me over into January. So I always say I left at the end of December and I went to a place called Tech Ops. I’d never heard of them. They’re a company in Massachusetts, close to Boston where they had a specialty. They had a machine that went down in wells and to check the welds where the sections were welded together. They could photograph them in some sense and see if there were any weaknesses, any bubbles, or anything in the welds. So it should be fixed before they had pressure on it. And somehow they had weaseled a contract for a lot of money to set up an office in Washington to do an operation on the computer to simulate the war, the nuclear war. And it had been thought up by Rand Corporation. You must have heard of them?

Steve Silverman 00:16:31

Marvin Lautzenheiser 00:16:31
They had thought it up, but they didn’t want to build it. They gave that over to the division that was set up in Washington. And I was not thrilled, actually, by going to that. That didn’t sound like very interesting to me. Turns out it was more interesting than I could imagine. But anyway, I went there as a programmer and I got a good raise and I went in. They had about 30 people there, put most of them in, not too much older than I was on their teams. Anyway, I got there and I was given a desk with there were several people with dividers and I was getting some a program and some flowcharts.  I guess it hadn’t reached programs yet quite. But there were flowcharts, and I was to check those to see if they would work. Anyway, they gave me what somebody else had written up as the flow charts that would be programmed to do this. And it didn’t make any sense to me at all. But I kept studying them and I found out they had built a special operating system. You know, we didn’t have decent operating systems then. We were working on the 709, which actually didn’t exist yet for us. The Air Force hadn’t gotten theirs installed yet, but we were going to work on a 709 and we were to build this simulation of strategic nuclear warfare, as you just go in and obliterate everything. So I was reading through this of what somebody else had said would do the job. well first, the fact that they had their proprietary operating system meant that nothing else ever existed to tell you about it. And they had built it specially to do this job. And they had built it on the basis of running with tables for the data. We had tables for the fuel usage. And that meant at a certain altitude and a certain speed, you’re using so much and you can go so far on this many gallons of fuel. There would be another one for the radiation of what happened on the ground when the nuclear bomb went off. You had distances of damage, and especially the damage to the airfield, because if the airfield got hit, obviously the bomber couldn’t take off and so on. And each of these was given to a different so-called team. So the team I was on was a team of two, me and the man who had written the flowchart. So I studied through these and I finally was starting to get the feeling of how this new operating system worked. I finally just about mastered that and the boss told me, and I thought, uh-oh, I’m not doing very well. And he says, Lautzenheiser, I think you’re the only one in the whole bunch here that knows what’s going on. And he said, I want you to take on some more here and I want you to just get on with the bombers as fast as you can. So I was working on that. I finally got to where I could actually code. Turns out the fellow who wrote the flowchart had no idea how coding was done. He just had no idea. But his logic was pretty good. So we got in the same room finally. We just got a room to ourselves so we could discuss things really nicely. And after a week or two or three, I said, John, do you mind if I redo some of your logic here to make it fit the program and so on? He says, ‘Sure, go ahead.’ So we would discuss the changes. So anyway, about two or three months after I was there, one Friday, they came in and they handed me a book. It was a 709 operating system book. And they said, here they got the new machine in at the Air Force in the Pentagon. Monday morning, you go over there and go down to that computer and you run it. They don’t have anybody in the Air Force who can run the 709. I said, but wait a minute. They said, you’ve run the 650? I said, yes, but it was a

Steve Silverman 00:23:23
The new IBM 709 computer only had 32 kilobytes of word memory. That meant that at any one time it could only store 32,768 words, each of those words consisting of six alphanumerical characters in its memory. And with the operating system taking up half of that memory, that really didn’t leave much space for the program itself. And due to all these limited resources, the computers are incredibly slow also, let’s jump into our conversation where Marvin explains how long it took to run a single war simulation. And along the way, Marvin will tell you about his invention of paging. That’s the way the modern computers store and retrieve data from hard drives today.

Marvin Lautzenheiser 00:24:11
Anyway, we finally got the thing built and it ran. It took 80 hours for one replication of the world war. Well, after that model was running, the Air Force come back and said, we want you to build a model that will run in 40 hours. Half that. We can live with that, but we can’t live with 80 hours. So they said, we want you to build a half-time model and we want Lautzenheiser to be in charge. They didn’t like the one that was in charge at the time. Instead, they came to me and they said, we have an option. You take the job or we’ll have to go on the street and convince the Air Force that we can bring on somebody who’s expert. So I said, I’ll tell you tomorrow, and I come home. I thought I don’t want to work for somebody else. It’s been bad enough with the one that’s there. Somebody coming in cold, I’ll have to teach them. And by this time I was really handling just about all the different parts. The team was still there, but I was the one that fixed everything. So I said okay. So suddenly I had about 30 people working for me, and I was given the job of building this model that would run in half time. So I went down through the whole thing from beginning, what Rand had suggested, and figured out a way I thought would work. And so I redid it from scratch. I didn’t follow any of the old stuff. The old stuff had a tape with the operating system on it, and a tape with the data on it, and tape with the programs on it. And it just was cumbersome. And every part of the program was hinged on the next one, which was hinged on the next one. You got to the last one that came back to the first one. Every 15 minutes you put out a report of what the situation was, how many bombers had gotten off, how many fighters had gotten off, and so on. The idea was that they could cycle this thing around and everything was set up for another 15 minutes. I set up a different way of doing it. I told it Task List Drive. So each one that needed had something to be done by another section just called that one up. And I was so far ahead of myself, I never realized it until many years later. I had built paging, which didn’t come in until we had disks. We weren’t even close to disks in the 1950s, 1960s. Anyway, I didn’t know what I had.

Steve Silverman 00:26:44
So the program originally took 80 hours. They wanted it reduced to 40. In the end, how fast did you get it?

Marvin Lautzenheiser 00:26:52
3 hours.

Steve Silverman 00:26:54
3 hours. So you took it from 80 down to 3 hours?

Marvin Lautzenheiser 00:26:57
Yeah. And of course, they were very happy with me.

Steve Silverman 00:27:01
And you also mentioned to me when we spoke a few weeks ago that it changed two things in their war plans.

Marvin Lautzenheiser 00:27:07
Well, there are two things that made the public knowledge. I don’t know how many more things changed. But I think you must remember that we had rocket sites around our cities to defend us, and that turned out to be a mistake. Actually, the rocket sites were defending the military stuff. Every military base had rockets around it. But it was a mistake because the nuclear targeting wasn’t very accurate. But it didn’t matter. It was so big, it would get things anyway. But because of that, they would target a military base, like we have a base near Washington, but they’d miss it and hit the population. And so if they took away these sites that were defending the base, defending the cities, they wouldn’t target them anymore. The headline out says, this came out quite a while later, 100 million lives. And that was the number of people more who would die within the first day if they kept the sites here or they took them out. Just took them out, didn’t replace it with anything.

Steve Silverman 00:28:11
And this is the result of the program you ran?

Marvin Lautzenheiser 00:28:14
Yes, as a result of the program. They kept coming back saying how much was done, and finally it dawned on them to take out the defensive sites and the program popped up with 100 million difference.

Steve Silverman 00:28:14

Marvin Lautzenheiser (in rear, second from left) and his family.
Marvin (in rear, second from left) and his family.

Marvin Lautzenheiser 00:28:28
They did a lot of different studies. But of course, I didn’t see the real data. I saw sanitized data, so I don’t know. But I knew at the time about this because I saw the printouts of my stuff and I could see what the trend was. Anyway, that was one thing that was changed. The other one that made the publicity was that they used to have the bombers take off, say, at Washington, and they’d meet a tanker taking off from New York, which would meet one in Greenland somewhere, so they could refuel the bombers on the way. And then they were on their own for that last leg. And the program came back and said, every one of your bombers went down in the ocean. We have a program called Splash that put them down so they gave the location they went down.

Steve Silverman 00:29:16
And what was the reason that the bombers weren’t making their target?

Marvin Lautzenheiser 00:29:20
Because no tankers got out off base. The bases had been hit first, and so the tanker base would be closer to Russia and so they would be hit early. And the bombers got out there and nobody was there to meet them. And it was every bomber, it wasn’t just a few. Every bomber failed and the military was just up in the air, my program must be wrong. And so because we could run it in 3 hours, I said, just change the random number and do it again. And again, all the bombers went down. So anyway, that was one of the things that came up. They changed the way. They now have the buddy system. Instead of waiting for one tanker to meet you, they take off with two or three tankers with them. So you waste maybe half a dozen tankers to get the bomber to its target and that multiplies by every bomber you want to send.

Steve Silverman 00:30:17
Marvin stayed at Tech Ops for about three years. Then the group that built the operating system for Tech Ops, they split off and asked Marvin to join their new company and he agreed to do so. His assignment was to build a complete operating system for Bell Telephone, which he completed all by himself in less than a year. Then he received a phone call from an Air Force lieutenant colonel who he knew very well. And he explained that they had been unable to get a tactical nuclear program to work. Marvin picks up the story there.

Marvin Lautzenheiser 00:30:52
And he explained that they had called in experts from Michigan, some university in Michigan, and Princeton and both had declared, that this program could not work in the size of the machine for the size of the program. He said this all q.t. I’m not allowed to do this. He says, but I’ll give you a copy of the listing and you look at it and see if you can fix it. And if you can, we got $50,000 for you to set up a small company. We can get you the clearance you have to have and we’ll get you a contract. Well, first hour or two I looked at, I saw they had done the most stupid thing in the world. Have you ever heard of thrashing in a computer?

Steve Silverman 00:31:34
Yeah, I’ve heard of it.

Marvin Lautzenheiser 00:31:35
It means that the program keeps starting to do something that gets interrupted and goes back to do something else, but then it gets interrupted to do something else and it never gets done with the interruptions and it finally just conks out. That’s about what was happening here. They had thrashing. I don’t know why the people from the so-called experts wouldn’t have realized this. It took me about a week to fix it and test it.

Steve Silverman 00:32:02
At this point, since you were successful at this, you went off and founded your own company, is that correct?

Marvin Lautzenheiser 00:32:07
Well, they asked me to. And Chauncey Seefeldt from the FBI coincidentally had run into things there and he did not want to stay there. So he came out at the same time that they were asking me. He said, ‘Why don’t we set up a company?’ And coincidentally, it was right at the time they were saying, why don’t you set up a company? So we did. A two-man company. Actually, we got a secretary. So it made three people. We rented a small space in an office near where I live in Springfield, and we were off and running. Not very well. We were limping because the $50,000 didn’t go very far. Even then, it was a lot of money, but when you have office rent and so on, it was going to run us maybe a year. And his job, Chauncey’s job, was to go out and find other work, which he couldn’t. After that went out, we got a new contract for doing some more work for them and then another one. Each year we got a new contract just scarcely enough to keep us running.

Steve Silverman 00:33:13
After three or four years, another company came along and offered to buy Marvin and Chauncey out. And they agreed. They still did what they wanted to do, but now new work was being sent their way. And in the meantime, the Joint Chiefs of Staff took over the modeling stuff from the Air Force.

Marvin Lautzenheiser 00:33:30
When the Joint Chiefs of Staff came and took over, then I had to go and talk to them, meet them, and we have 20 or so generals and bird colonels in the room. All of them asking me questions at the same time. Can you do this? How do you do that? Why does this work? Those, by definition, aren’t necessarily very polite people. I just state that as an observation. They wanted quick answers, but they wouldn’t let me answer until somebody else butted in. So this was on until 1970, 1972, I think. Well, in the early 70s Eventually I dropped the military, and maybe they dropped me. It was mutual. Anyway, I had run through my time.

Steve Silverman 00:34:21
Marvin may no longer be working with the Pentagon to design programs to evaluate war plans, but he still had plenty of work to do. His focus turned to smaller contracts that the company who bought him out was sending his way. And these were all service bureau type jobs, basically data processing services. So let’s listen in.

Marvin Lautzenheiser 00:34:41
And the service bureau portion was specializing in labels for charities and nonprofits. Anybody who needed a lot of mailing labels would come to them with a mailing list. They’d punch it up and run it through their program. But their program was less than decent. It was awful. So I wrote a new program for doing the labels. In the process of doing that, I discovered that this is not the way to do it. I’ll build a program that keeps you from building programs. Because we had not only make labels, they wanted reports from this. How many people in this district or with this zip code and so on. And then you had to print out a report. Well, there was a special program for each of those reports. And we had files coming in that weren’t in the system that we used. So I had to build programs to convert that data into our files. I had to look at the layout of the data, figure out how to take that, and put it into our layout. Anyway, I always did it, but it was tiresome. So I started out by building a converter that you could tell it the old layout and the new file layout, and it would automatically just take the data through and do it.

Steve Silverman 00:35:55
Not only did Marvin build a converter to import all the data, he also did the same thing with the reports and the mailing labels. And what would take other companies a week to do, he could do the same in 20 or 30 minutes. And this gave his company a big leg up when the 1980 presidential elections came about.

Marvin Lautzenheiser 00:36:16
Okay, well, anyway, the Democratic Party came to us first. No, they split off from it, and I can’t remember his name. He was a nice person. And they brought their stuff to us, and I gave them back within a couple of days the reports, and they were so thrilled that they called the Democratic Party leaders and told them to bring their stuff to us. So I was doing all the financing reports for those two campaigns. They were so thrilled because they had gone to a big company who gave them an estimate. It would take them three weeks or six weeks or some long time, and it’ll cost you $10,000. After this is all over, of course, the champagne was over. That was the end of that. But we still had a lot of other people that were using us. Chauncey and I were at work one day on a Saturday. Nobody else was there. And a man walked into our office, and we were confused. Why would somebody come in our office on Saturday? And he said, I’m with such and such a company, and we wanted to see who took that contract away from us. He said, we just couldn’t believe that anybody could underbid us. We bid low already. It was only $10,000 in three or four, six weeks. I don’t know the number. He said, we just had to see who took it away from us. And we told him we were the ones. And he couldn’t believe that this little company could do it. And he said, how could you possibly program it? I said, we didn’t program. We have a program, a system that we built. It was called the Accufile system, incidentally, the whole combination. And we have this Accufile system that we have built, and we just take your data descriptions and report descriptions, and we’re done. He just couldn’t believe us.

Steve Silverman 00:37:58
And in the final chapter of Marvin’s career, the company he’d been working for was absorbed by the Zitel Corporation. And they had an office in Tysons Corner, Virginia. The company specialized in solid state memory, which they built out in California. The starting price was about $15,000 to $16,000 for the memory, and it went way up into the half-million dollar range. And at that price, they weren’t selling much, at least until Marvin rescued them.

Marvin Lautzenheiser 00:38:31
They weren’t selling very many. In fact, they closed the office here. I started working here on this stuff. They closed that office and asked me to go to California. They said, you have a job in California. And I said, okay, I’ll be there. They didn’t expect me when I get out there. And I worked on this. I built a simulator to simulate the operations on a given computer.  They could run a trace and know what happened, but they couldn’t fix it. So I would take the traces and run it through my simulator, and it would tell me what was wrong. It would tell me exactly how much memory, solid state memory would do the most good for them. They were trying to oversell. They were selling twice or three times as much or four times as needed for a given place. But I looked at the trace from that same place, and I would draw a graph, and it would go out and be a big place where a big drop-off started, and it would suddenly drop off. Anymore you put on does not help anything. They were able to sell eight megabytes or 16 instead of 64, and they started selling two or three a week. I was so popular with our marketing group that come the Christmas party, which was financed by all these sales, they had marketing people all come in, and they gave out awards. And they had given out awards for most sales and awards for other things. And they got down, there was one left, and they said, this one goes to Lautzenheiser for his method of telling how much needed to be sold. And the marketing group all jumped up and started yelling. So they appreciated it. I’d saved the company.

Advertisement for the Zitel Corporation
Advertisement for the Zitel Corporation that appeared on page 6 of the February 1988 issue of Computer Magazine.

Steve Silverman 00:40:17
Another problem Marvin had to deal with was the slowness of accessing data from disks. He was able to cut the time of the CPU – that’s the brain of the computer – the time the CPU sat around waiting for data. He cut it from 30 to 50 milliseconds, down to 50 microseconds at a time. And for his work, he was awarded five US patents. Amazingly, his creation is still in use today. It’s used in your computer right now. And as you’re about to hear, Zitel sat on the idea for two years.

Marvin Lautzenheiser 00:40:51
So they were getting responses in 50 milliseconds. So I would be sending back data within 50 microseconds. I showed them how, and they said, well, it’ll eat our lunch. Of course it will because somebody else is going to eat it if you don’t. Tech stuff goes fast. But anyway, two years later, they’ve realized what they’ve done, and they built it, and it was just a wonderful thing for them. They got a contract from IBM for royalty on my patents that they were paying $2 to $3 million a month to Zitel. So anyway, I got my patents, and eventually I figured out I’m 65. They brought in a bunch of younger people who knew how to do everything, and I was 65. It was time for me to go, so I retired, but they didn’t let me retire. I came back here, and I got another patent just on the stuff I worked on when I come back, except they didn’t pay the final fee. They went broke. That was when the IBM money run out, and they had spent up all the surplus they had built up. And it’s because they did not test their stuff. The programmers just refused to test. I used to say 5% of your time is writing and 95% is everything else it takes. Writing code is 5%. That’s the dessert on the meal.

Steve Silverman 00:42:13
And now we’re going to totally change the topic from work to play. You see, Marvin once owned a giant theater organ. It was so large that he had to build an extension onto his house, and it was nearly identical in size to the original house itself.

Steve Silverman 00:42:31
So this is a massive theater organ that came out of a real theater, right?

Marvin Lautzenheiser 00:42:37
Oh, yes. It came out of 3500 seat theater.

Steve Silverman 00:42:41
And where was it located?

Marvin Lautzenheiser 00:42:43
It was in New York City. Well, actually in Queens. Triboro Theater was the name of it. T-R-I-B-O-R-O-U-G-H. They had built a Triborough Bridge, and Loew’s thought that because of that bridge, people would flock out to this new theater, which was right near the end of the bridge.

Loews Triboro Theater in Queens, NY
Loews Triboro Theater in Queens, NY. (Motion Picture Herald, April 11, 1931, p31.)

Steve Silverman 00:43:03

Marvin Lautzenheiser 00:43:03
The people never came, so the theater didn’t do well. By the time I got this organ, there was a contact I had in New York City who was deep into finding organs in theaters that were going to be destroyed or weren’t used. And he found this one for me. He got quite a fee for his finders, but I didn’t care. I paid him $3,700. And I don’t know what he gave the theaters. He may have gotten it for free for all I know.

Steve Silverman 00:43:33
And what year was this?

Marvin Lautzenheiser 00:43:35
It was 62, I think.

Steve Silverman 00:43:35

Marvin Lautzenheiser 00:43:35
Yes, it was 62. My nephew and I went up. We made eight trips to New York City. He had a pickup truck and a trailer that we used to go up, and the trailer was full every time, except once we didn’t take it. When we got the console, we only took the truck itself. The union in New York is pretty strong. I could not move the console out of the theater. I was able to take the pipes out and all the mechanism, but when it came to take the console out, the console and the orchestra had been on elevators, separate elevators, and they had run those down some years ago and put in steel beams over top of them and put floors in. So they could crowd in a few more seats that were going to be empty anyway. So anyway, I had to go down in the basement of the theater, crawl through a little door, and there sat the console on its elevator. They had piled junk on top of it. So I took all of the junk out that was there. And the labor union came in with a crew to chop out the floor above it and we could bring the elevator up and they took it out. There were six of them came and they took it up the aisle and out to the truck and put it on the truck for us. For a fee. Anyway, the organ had two chambers, one on each side of the front for the pipes. One would be way up on the left side and the other way up on the right side. And they had shutters in front that rotated to let the sound out softer or louder. So, anyway, after I had bought the thing, I had six weeks to get it out of the theater. We had pipes all through the house, in the basement. I had dug a basement under the house and I just finished that basement and I bought the pipe organ. So I set them up down there. The shorter pipes could set up and the chest. So I set that up down there. The bigger pipes had to go everywhere else. The garage was full, except the one end of the garage is where we put the console. There was no building for it at this point.

Marvin standing in front of the control system for his Wurlizter Theater Organ.
Marvin standing in front of the control system for his Wurlizter Theater Organ. This image is from an article titled Playerless Organ Programmed with ‘Personality.’ (Computerworld, June 29, 1975, page 26.)

Steve Silverman 00:45:51
So let me ask you a question. So how did you get an interest in this?

Marvin Lautzenheiser 00:45:56
I was always interested. I got in the Theater Organ Society in 1958. I guess I should go clear back to when I was a kid. When I was about eight years old, nine, my brother lived in Canton, Ohio, and I went to visit him and stayed for a week. And he took me to this big theater in Canton, Ohio. And the movie was interesting. It was a Joe E. Brown movie. It was a comedy. But the main thing to me is they played this wonderful music in between shows. They had about 15 minutes of this music. And that was the most important thing to me. And I always dreamed of playing one or having one. And lo and behold, eventually it happened. That was my interest in it. And dad always talked about how these were not really organs, they were orchestra. And that was right, because he had all the different pipes of an orchestra. This is not to be confused with a church organ. They’re very different. This is a theater organ. (Click here to see a list of all that Marvin’s theater organ could do.) They play oboes and tubas, flutes, a lot of the orchestra instruments. And of course, we had the marimba and the xylophone and the bells, the chimes, drums, snare drum, bass drum, just everything you could think of for an orchestra. And it was to play, of course, that was the purpose was to play along with the screen, and the organist would watch the screen and play appropriate things. If there was a horse running, he had horse hooves that would gallop and everything that was happening. If the doorbell was being rung, he could ring the doorbell. If a car was honking the horn, he had an old Ooga horn that would play. So he was in command of the sound effects for the movie. So I got all that stuff. But here I am with a house full of all this stuff and no place for it to be built. But I already planned the building. I knew that I could build a building the same size as the house on the opposite side of the garage.

Marvin’s Wurlitzer’s Opus 1699 keyboard installed in his home. Note the copy of his LP record sitting to the right of the bench. Click here for complete information on it.

Steve Silverman 00:48:06
And that’s exactly what Marvin did. Well, I’m not going to reveal his street address, I did check out his house on Google Maps, in Street View mode, of course, and one would be hard-pressed to determine which half of the building was his house and which half of the building housed the theater organ. Marvin and his nephew built the building themselves, and that included cutting and pre-drilling all the rafters and pieces in his basement. And, of course, with Marvin being a mathematician, it should come as no surprise that the assembly went smoothly and everything fit together perfectly. The new building measured 42 by 28ft, which is 12.8 x 8.5 meters. It would take them two years to complete the project. But the theater organ, when it was done, had one significant limitation, and that is a human being is limited to just ten fingers. So no one person could play every part of an orchestral piece. But Marvin had a perfect solution for this. He would install a computer. Now, keep in mind, this is the late 1960s/early 1970s. Of course, this is simpler said than done. You can’t just install a computer. Marvin needed to install the wiring, the circuit boards, relays, electromagnets and so on. And they needed to control each and every pipe in that giant theater organ. The theater organ took up half of the building. And while far too detailed for this podcast, Marvin did explain to me how it all worked and how he could operate 40 different things at one time. He did send me a CD of a record he recorded with his first wife, Jean, back in 1974. It is titled Two Loves Have I, Jean and the GENII Computer. And I’ll play Marvin’s favorite song at the end of the podcast. But just for comparison, let’s hear a sample of Jean, his first wife, playing. And then I’ll follow with a song played by the computer. So, first up, we have A Man Without Love and this is played by his ex-wife Jean. And next up, we have a sampling of 76 Trombones, which is played by GENII, the computer. Now, a computerized theater organ was unheard of back then, so the American Theatre Organ Society asked Marvin to write an article about it. Simply titled GENII, the article appeared in the October 1972 publication of their journal, Theater Organ. (Click to download a pdf copy of the article.) So I asked Marvin if anyone had ever computerized a theater organ prior to him doing so.

Marvin’s LP Two Loves Have I.

Marvin Lautzenheiser 00:51:05
No, I don’t think there was anybody else.

Steve Silverman 00:51:07
So you were the first?

Marvin Lautzenheiser 00:51:09
I have no proof of that, but nobody else did it, to my knowledge. In fact, I never came up with anybody since who has done exact, but I haven’t kept up with it the last ten years or so. I haven’t paid much attention to the Theater Organ Society. I’m still a member, but it’s just to support them.

Steve Silverman 00:51:28
So what happened to the organ? Why don’t you explain that?

Marvin Lautzenheiser 00:51:31
Well, now you come to one of my biggest disappointments in the world. When we had this organ here, we had kids coming and playing it, and the grownups coming and playing it. Later on, they were in a group in Baltimore called the Free State Theater Organ Society, and they had an agreement with an auditorium where they had a workshop and the use of the auditorium for programs, and they were about to install an organ there. They had a makeshift organ there, and they came to me in 2009, October, and they said, we’d like to put your organ in this auditorium. Well, these are the people I had known from times they were kids. And I thought, well, I can’t take care of it much longer, and it’s friends, it’ll be in a nice auditorium. I’d heard the makeshift organ there. It was okay, but it wasn’t really much of an organ. So they came up with an agreement that they would move it and it had to be set up within two years so I could play it. At the time I thought, my days are getting numbered. And they said, we’ll have it set up in a year. Well, after I signed the thing and gave it to them, a year went by, they hadn’t even moved it out yet. Two years went by, they hadn’t moved it out yet. They were busy figuring out the chambers, and they just didn’t do what they said they would, but all the time they were moving it, they kept saying, we’ll have this playing in a year or two. So time went on and eventually it just sits up there in pieces. They threw away the, I found out they threw away the relays, which was a wonderful item of interest, but they threw them away. They were going to put in all solid-state stuff. They cut up the console into pieces, and they had promised they would take it out in one piece, but instead they cut all the cables off with a hacksaw, and had it taken out in little pieces. Keyboards were separate, the pedals were separate, everything was gone. It couldn’t have even reassembled it. So I haven’t spoken to them in years, but the organ was destroyed. I still have the computer, but of course it’s meaningless, there’s nothing hooked onto it. I kept it. So I still have it sitting out here in the room, which has turned into a work room, and storage room, and nothing. So anyway, that’s the story of the organ, and that’s one of my grievous things in my life and I regret it every time I think about it.

Marvin Lautzenheiser with GENII in 1972.
Marvin with GENII in 1972.

Steve Silverman 00:54:10
It is very sad to make that promise and then do nothing. Do you think they lost interest or do you think it was a money problem or a time problem?

Marvin Lautzenheiser 00:54:20
It was a combination of things. One is they were getting on in years, and by the time they actually got around to this, some of the men that were working on it were my age. They were not in better shape to do it than I was, but they had some people in their forties and fifties, and I just fell for their story. I think they believed their story, but it just didn’t happen.

Steve Silverman 00:54:43
Yeah, they may have had good intentions, but they really didn’t have the mechanism to see it through.

Marvin Lautzenheiser 00:54:49
That’s what happened. I should have advertised the organ with computer and seen if I should get somebody to take it. I would have taken any price as long as they were good. I actually gave it to this group, but I wanted somebody I could depend on. I thought, who can I trust better than these people that I’ve known all their lives? So that was one of the saddest things I’ve ever done in my life.

Steve Silverman 00:55:17
Now, my original intention was to end the interview after discussing the theater organ, but honestly, I didn’t want to end it on a down note. And we did talk for a bit after this, and I questioned Marvin as to how he met his second wife Paula, and it’s definitely far more upbeat than the loss of his beloved theater organ. And I figured that’s a good place to bring his life story to a close. So let’s listen to that.

Steve Silverman 00:55:43
How did the two of you meet?

Marvin Lautzenheiser 00:55:46
Well, after I got out of the FBI, I still had friends in the FBI, some pretty close, and one of them said I had somebody. After my wife moved out and the divorce was finished, he said, I have somebody I want you to meet. And so he got tickets for a musical here in Washington. And he said, I’ll make a date, she comes with you, and we’ll go out to the musical and we’ll double date. I said okay, because I knew at this time, I thought at this time I was moving to California. So I told him, I don’t want to get serious with anybody, I’m moving away. He says, well, come on, anyway, I want you to meet her. So we met and we hit it off pretty well. She had been divorced. A bad divorce. I had a bad divorce. So we went out, we had our little meal and went to the show. Well, I still had a month, I thought, before I moved, and so we dated. I had dated somebody else, but it wasn’t serious either, and I knew when I moved out was the end of that. So, well, I’ll meet her, too. So I went to meet her. We went out and had some dinners and whatever, get-togethers, and got kind of serious. But I told her I was moving and I have to stop then. I’d be gone. Well, she called me out in California, and it became a ritual. If not every night, every other night she called, and we sort of grew together by the phone. I went out in 1987, and she came out that summer. I got reservations in Yosemite for a week in a tent. Anyway, she came out, and we traveled all over Yosemite. We walked as much as we could, and the next year we were going to do it again, and she came out and just stayed. And we got married a little over a year later. We got married in 90, so I know how long I’ve been married, because it was 90. So we’ve been married now 32 years.

Steve Silverman 00:57:56
So, Marvin, I just wanted to thank you so much for being on the podcast. It’s really been a pleasure.

Marvin Lautzenheiser 00:58:01
Well, I can’t tell you how much of a pleasure it is to me, because all my relatives kept saying, get this recorded. Maybe I can sic ’em on this, or this will help them. And I’m so pleased. I think for a farm kid in Ohio, I’ve had an interesting life.

Steve Silverman 00:58:20
Yeah, I have to say that is true.

Marvin Lautzenheiser 00:58:22
So as a person, I would say that about myself anyway. But I think everything, the patents and the things I’ve been through, I think it has some interesting points.

Steve Silverman 00:58:22
Yeah, it’s really been a pleasure, and I wish you the best.

Marvin Lautzenheiser 00:58:38
And the same to you. Thank you again. Bye.

Steve Silverman 00:58:38

Steve Silverman 00:58:46
Well, I hope you enjoyed this three-part interview with Marvin. I know that I certainly did, and it’ll be an experience that I’ll cherish for the rest of my life. I mentioned this before in the first segment, but if you’d like to send a message to Marvin, just send it my way and I’ll forward it on to him. My email address is steve@uselessinformation.org. You can use the contact form on my website, or you can send a message through Facebook’s messenger. I will post a script for this episode on my website. That’s uselessinformation.org. And I’ll also include some photos of Marvin throughout his lifetime. He sent me a book that he wrote in 2006. It’s titled Marvin’s World: The Early Years, How I Became Me. And in it, he discusses his family history. He generously gave a copy to every family member that attended a reunion at the time. I have to tell you, there were points in this book where I burst out laughing. His sense of humor, it really came through. I should also mention, if anyone would like a copy of the summary that Marvin sent to me of his involvement with the Hollow Nickel case, just let me know, and I can forward that on to you. Anyway, I’ll bring this to a close, and I want to wish everyone was about to celebrate the holiday a happy Thanksgiving. And as promised, I’ll play Marvin’s favorite track from his 1974 LP. It’s the classic song Fascination.

Well, take care, everyone.


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