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Dr. Willard H. (Bill) Wattenburg

Bill Wattenburg
Bill Wattenburg

Dr. Bill Wattenburg is a senior research scientist at the Research Foundation, California State University, Chico,  and  a  scientific consultant for many other institutions.  Earlier, he  was a  nuclear weapons designer at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory; a  member of the US Air Force Scientific Advisory Board; and a  UC Berkeley professor of electrical engineering.   He  was co-founder of Berkeley Scientific Laboratories with Dr.  Donald Glaser (Nobel  Prize,  Physics, 1960).    


May 2004

Background Report and
Major Public Service Contributions  by
Dr. Willard Harvey (Bill)  Wattenburg
Research Scientist,  Research Foundation
California State University, Chico,

A.  National Security Problems Solved
B.  Overview
C.  Technical  Descriptions of Major Projects
D.  Background
E.  Publications

    Very few scientists in the U.S  have contributed more to public service and national security than W.H. (Bill)  Wattenburg has done in the form of simple, sometimes bizarre,  but very workable  solutions to major national security and public problems.  The  published reports of his technical creations are listed below.  

A.  Major National Security Problems Solved

1.   Measuring the yield of underground nuclear  explosions.
One of his most important contributions to the world was his invention of the nuclear  test ban verification technology known as CORTEX.   CORTEX  allowed  either side to measure the yield,  the explosive force, of a nuclear weapon that is tested deep underground without having to put sophisticated measurement devices  (called detectors)  down the shaft with the  nuclear device – and, most important, without knowing how deep the nuclear device was buried underground.    For a long time, one side (the U.S. or the Soviet Union)  would not allow the other side to place standard  detectors underground  with a warhead being tested because such detectors could  tell the other side a great deal about the warhead  design.    As a consequence,  many nuclear scientists and political leaders  on each side  opposed a test ban because it was not possible to verify the yield of a weapon detonated underground without  placing detectors underground with the warhead.  Neither side would allow such intrusion.  Wattenburg’s invention of  the  incredibly simple CORTEX scheme  overcame that problem.  CORTEX allowed the measurement of the size of a nuclear warhead without using intrusive underground detectors – and no matter how deep the warhead was buried.   Bill  Wattenburg devised the original  CORTEX experiment in 1962  at the Nevada   Nuclear Test Site while he helped conduct the underground  testing of a nuclear warhead on which he had worked  at the Lawrence Livermore  National Laboratory.  The CORTEX experiment is described in a still partially classified report at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory:  
Performance of Coaxial Cable in the Vicinity of a Nuclear Explosion (1962),
U.C. Radiation Laboratory Report UCRL-7164, 1962 (Classified). 

2.  Stopping the Waste of Blood Collected by Blood Banks (1965).  
Wattenburg’s system is credited with saving  more than one third of the blood collected before it becomes outdated and  cannot be used.   His system was adopted by blood banks all over the world,  as reported in the Journal of the American Medical Association. 

3.   Fixing the BART Train Control System for the State of California (1971-73)
(These improvements were also used the Washington, D.C.  METRO system).

4.   Proving major vulnerabilities  in  the first magnetic stripe  bank and credit cards (1973). 

5.  The Plan for putting out the  Oil Well Fires in Kuwait (1991).

6.   Rapid Clearing of Minefields with Helicopters (1990-91).

7.   Dropping Food Packages to Refugees Without Parachutes (1993) -- Used in Afghanistan, now standard operating procedure for the Pentagon.

8.  Designing Temporary Freeway Bridges for Rapid Earthquake Repair

9.  Protecting Suspension Bridges from Terrorist Attacks  after 9/11 (2001).

10. A Practical truck stopping device to allow Police to stop speeding hijacked trucks on the highways (2001).

B.  Overview:

    The public and press know Bill Wattenburg best for his impressive and often  bizarre  solutions to highly publicized  problems in our society.   He typically does basic experiments on his own (often at his own expense)  to prove that his ideas are feasible before he presents them to government agencies and the press.   For example,  he did the first experiments in 1991 to prove that food packages could be dropped to refugees from high altitude without using  parachutes.  It took him three years to convince the Pentagon to try the scheme.  Once they did  (as described below),  they immediately adopted this as “standard procedure.”   Thousands of lives have been saved since then because food could be dropped to refugees in dangerous areas. 
    He actually built a section of a four-lane freeway bridge out of steel modules  from surplus railroad flatcar decks in less than a week using common  construction equipment to prove that four-lane freeway bridges could be replaced  very quickly after earthquakes (one or two days) with an exceedingly strong  temporary bridge that he had designed.  The California Dept. of Transportation used his design in 1995  to open the  major I-5  freeway after a flood had washed out a four lane bridge.   His public demonstrations often irritate  bureaucracies that are left with no excuse to ignore his ideas when the public and the national  press  already know  that they are workable.   In turn, he has demonstrated a profound  impatience with slow-moving government agencies. 

    Dozens of scientific journal articles and major newspaper stories listed herein chronicle his exploits and accomplishments over the past thirty years.  Most often, government agencies  failed to solve a major problem after spending  enormous sums of money and time before  Bill Wattenburg was asked to step in by top state or  federal officials.  His clever creations have saved many thousands of lives and untold amounts of public resources.  Some of his better-known accomplishments are summarized below. 

C.  Technical Descriptions of Major Projects

Measuring the Performance of Underground Nuclear Tests:

R.E Duff and W.H. Wattenburg,  U.C. Lawrence Radiation Laboratory Report UCRL-7164-7164, December 1962  (Classified)

    While working at the Nevada Nuclear Test Site in 1962,  Bill Wattenburg invented a  particularly simple and inexpensive way to measure the performance of nuclear weapons  detonated underground.  He devised a simple experiment that he “piggybacked” at the last minute onto one of the nuclear tests that was being conducted.   His experiment was a success beyond everyone’s expectations.   This technology quickly provided a very inexpensive way to measure the performance of underground  nuclear detonations.   It was given the name  CORTEX..   It became an important part of our  underground nuclear test ban treaties.   The details of how this invention works are still classified.

Putting Out the Oil Well Fires in Kuwait:

Wall Street Journal Europe, 5-6 April 1991, page 8. “Scientists Present New Ways to Snuff Kuwait Oil Fires.”

    Months before the  Gulf War  invasion started,  Bill Wattenburg along with some other scientists at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory volunteered to conduct experiments over live minefields at the Yuma  Army Proving Grounds to find ways to clear minefields in desert terrain.   Their  work  provided the military with other options for rapidly clearing minefields over large areas in  front of advancing troops.   The helicopter mine sweeper and the unique  chain matrix that Wattenburg designed  were widely publicized.   The chain matrix design is the prototype for most motorized  mine sweeping equipment  in use  today. 

One week after the Gulf War ended in  February 1991, Dr. Richard Garwin, a world   renowned  scientist and an IBM Fellow in the IBM Research Division, began organizing top U.S. scientists and oil industry representatives to help the Kuwaiti government in putting out the 500 or more oil well fires that were raging in Kuwait after the Gulf War.  The scientific  group met in Washington, DC,  April 2-3, 1991.  The meeting was  chaired by Dr. Garwin and Dr. Henry Kendall, MIT, President of the Union of Concerned Scientists  (UCS).    Top officials  and engineers from the Kuwaiti Oil Company  (KOC) attended the meeting.    The meeting was supported by UCS with funds from the MacArthur Foundation.  (Dr. Richard Garwin, ).
    Bill Wattenburg was invited as one of several Lawrence Livermore National  Laboratory  scientists in attendance.  At the conclusion of the meeting,  the conference co-chairmen asked Bill Wattenburg to travel to London with the Kuwait representatives to help them implement many of the technical ideas that came from the two-day scientific meeting in Washington.  He flew directly to London that day to assist the Kuwaiti Government and Kuwaiti Oil Company (KOC) engineers (Scientists Present New Ways to Snuff Kuwait Oil Fires, Wall Street Journal Europe, 5-6 April 1991, page 8).
    Over the next three weeks,  Bill Wattenburg helped formulate the plans and procedures that  resulted in the fires being extinguished in the totally unexpected short time of seven months (well known oil well fire specialists on the scene in February 1991  were predicting  five years). 
    The plans that Wattenburg helped formulate for extinguishing the fires are documented in the many reports that he transmitted to the U.S.  Department of Energy and the university during his day and night meetings with the Kuwaiti government chiefs in London.   Some of his ideas  were very controversial, as reported in the press.
    In his first memo to the Kuwaiti leaders, Wattenburg suggested that they announce certain requirements to the many  contractors in the world who were vying to do the  work of putting out the fires.  He insisted that putting out the fires was not the major problem.  The major requirement was that contractors had to be able to cap the wells and stop the flow of raw oil very quickly after they snuffed out the flames.   Many would-be contractors sending proposals to Kuwait had assumed that all they had to do was extinguish the fires at the well heads and the rest would be easy.  Wattenburg also insisted  that dozens of  damaged wells that were not on fire had to be re-ignited as soon as possible because they were spewing   thousands of barrels of  crude oil over the desert floor which would make it impossible to reach the wells later.   The Kuwaiti engineers published these requirements  immediately and sent teams to re-ignite the wells that were pouring raw oil on the desert floor. 
    Wattenburg’s next plan became the most controversial -- and the most successful.    In around the clock meetings in the London headquarters of the Kuwaiti Oil Company, Wattenburg and the  Kuwaiti engineers worked out a plan to divide the burning Kuwaiti oil fields into many working zones.  Each qualified contractor from the many nations who wanted to send fire fighting crews would be assigned a zone.   The contractors would be paid a handsome fixed  price for each flaming oil well successfully capped (like $500,000), with a bonus for accelerated performance.   Failure to perform within two months would disqualify a contractor.   Its zone would be assigned to others.  Two famous oil well fire-fighting  contractors from the U.S. and Canada complained loudly because they were already on the scene and assumed that they would get most of the work (which they had stated would take five  years to complete).   Nevertheless, the Kuwaiti government leaders approved Wattenburg’s plan.
    The rest is history.  The last oil well fire in Kuwait was extinguished just seven months later in November 1991. 
    Bill Wattenburg’s reports from London and newspaper articles document another  interesting event.  Wattenburg declined offers of substantial payment from the Kuwait government.  Then the  Kuwaiti chiefs asked Wattenburg before he left London if he could suggest something appropriate that the Kuwaiti government could do to express its appreciation to the British people for their help in the Gulf War.   At that time,  the newspapers were  reporting that the famous London Zoo, the first in the world,   was in great financial trouble and might have to be closed.    In his last memo to the Kuwaiti leaders,  Wattenburg suggested that they might rescue the London Zoo as a “thank you” to the British people.   A few weeks later,  The London Times reported that the government of Kuwait had donated over $10,000,000 to the London Zoo.  
    Wattenburg accepted no payment from Kuwait other than his travel and living expenses during his stay in London.    He was quoted in the press as saying  that he was paid a salary by the university and he had agreed to go  help the Kuwaitis as a representative of the U.S.  Wattenburg’s daily reports on his activities and meetings with the Kuwaiti engineers and Kuwaiti royalty in London are on file with the U.S. Department of Energy.  

Dropping Food Packages to Refugees Without Parachutes (1991-93)

Science, 2 April 1993, page 27.   San Francisco Chronicle, 23 March 1993, front page).   
    During the first months of the attack on Afghanistan in the fall of 2001,  there were daily news reports about how the U.S. was dropping millions of  food packages to the Afghan refugees who could not be safely reached by relief agencies on the ground.  Bill Wattenburg was the one who first did the experiments (1991) that proved that our military could and should drop food packages to refugees from high altitude without parachutes when the refugees are in hostile areas.    This is now standard operating procedure for the U.S. military.     
A video of the  TRIAD  food delivery  system subsequently developed by the U.S. Army as used in  Afghanistan can be seen at

    In 1991,  Bill Wattenburg was the first person to demonstrate that small food packages can be safely dropped by cargo planes at high altitude, as is now being done to fed the refugees  in Afghanistan.   (see "Dropping food packages to refugees without  using parachutes," Science, 2 April 1993, page 27.   Also  San Francisco Chronicle, 23 March 1993, front page).   This  eliminates  the great expense of parachutes and the danger to our flight crews when they  must fly at low altitude to drop large food pallets by parachute over hostile areas.   But relief officials and the U.S.  military would not try his idea for several years -- until a fortunate sequence of events took place.  
    Bill Wattenburg was asked by the U.S. Government in April 1991 to be the U.S.  scientific  advisor to the Kuwaiti Government and help them put out the 500 oil well fires in Kuwait.  In the course of this effort,  he received daily reports on the continuing conflict in northern Iraq and  saw films of the Kurdish refugees in northern Iraq being machine gunned by Iraqi soldiers when the refugees flocked to the large food pallets that U.S forces were dropping by parachute in remote areas.   
    Wattenburg insisted that small food packages could be dropped from high altitude without the packages breaking up when they hit the ground.  (See San Francisco Chronicle article above.)   He proved that air resistance would limit  the dropping velocity to the same limiting velocity no matter how high the  altitude of the airplane.  Dropping individual packages from  high altitude would also scatter the food over larger areas so that refugees would not be easy targets for hostile soldiers who could target parachutes as they dropped.  Records show that he did his first experiments at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in May 1991 by dropping supermarket  food packages from a small plane flying at 5000 ft. altitude (Granola Bars,  cereal boxes,  and plastic wrapped items of all sorts). 
    Relief officials would not try his idea in northern Iraq.    But he pestered the Pentagon for the next two years.   In 1993,  our military began dropping food by parachute on large  pallets to refugees in  the war in Bosnia.   Again, our cargo planes had to fly dangerously low over hostile territory.  Hostile  forces were targeting the refugees on the ground when they flocked to the food pallets, or the hostile forces would simply take the food.   Bill Wattenburg told Dr. Jane Hull in the White House National Security Office about his experiments and how well they worked.   She immediately called the Joint Chiefs of Staff’s Office in the Pentagon (see Science article above).
    The Joint Chiefs of Staff ordered the Air Force to try Wattenburg’s idea as soon as possible over Bosnia by dropping thousands of regular military “Meals Ready to Eat”  (MRE’s) packages from high altitude without parachutes by just kicking them out the back of a cargo plane flying at  5,000 feet.    Quaker Oats Company quickly contributed 100,000 sealed granola bars to go along with the MRE’s.   The procedure was an instant success for all.    As Bill predicted,  most of the packages dropped without parachutes were unbroken and the food was scattered over a wide area so that all refugees had an equal chance of picking up the food.   The kids in particular were most successful (as one would expect in any Easter Egg hunt).   
    The Pentagon soon announced that this would be the new military standard operating procedure for dropping food to refugees over hostile areas.  (Of course, a Pentagon spokesperson soon  suggested to the press that the military  had been thinking about this idea  for many years.)   
    Thousands  of starving refugees can be thankful that Bill Wattenburg took the time to test  one of his seemingly silly ideas one afternoon from a light plane at 5000 ft. over a farmer’s field near Livermore.  

Protecting Suspension Bridges from Terrorist Attacks (2001)
New York Times, 6 Nov 2001, San Francisco Chronicle, San Jose Mercury News, 4 Nov 2001

    Since September 11, 2001, Bill Wattenburg has been helping state and federal agencies   reduce our national vulnerability to terrorism.   In early October 2001, he and another scientist at the Livermore Laboratory, Dr. David McCallen,  found a very dangerous vulnerability in the suspension bridges of the Bay Area.   The problem was that the suspension cable anchor points at each end of a bridge were very vulnerable to attack.   Any terrorist with a small amount of explosives or common cutting tools could easily sever one of the  main suspension cables and cause the entire bridge to  collapse.   They immediately reported this to the California Highway Patrol and the governor’s office.   McCallen and Wattenburg worked with  state engineers in an around-the-clock, three-week construction project to harden the  sites where a terrorist could easily have damaged the anchor points of the suspension cables of the Bay Bridge or the Golden Gate Bridge.  The media and public were informed on November 1, 2001,  only  after the work had been completed and other states had been notified to check their bridges (see San Jose Mercury News, 4 Nov 2001,  New York Times, 6 Nov 2001, and San Francisco Chronicle stories below).

Hijacked Truck Stopping Device for Police (2001)

New York Times, 18 Nov 2001
Video at
    In   December 2001,  the California Governor’s office and The California Highway Patrol asked Bill Wattenburg if he could devise some way to allow police to stop runaway or hijacked trucks on the highways.    Hijacked trucks are one of the major terrorist vulnerabilities that the nation faces  today.   A fuel tanker truck in the hands of a terrorist can be as dangerous as the airplanes that  were crashed into the World Trade Center.  However,  law enforcement has had no means  or procedures to stop hijacked large trucks other than to attempt to shoot the driver or the tires on the truck.   Even when it is possible to shoot either the driver or the tires,  these actions can still lead to great damage when the truck goes out of control or continues for miles on deflated tires.     
    On November 6, 2001, Bill Wattenburg demonstrated a simple device that can be installed on the back of any large truck that will allow any police patrol car to stop the moving truck on the highway– and stop it quickly and safely.   And the truck driver is helpless to avoid the stop. 

A video of the extensive tests done with the California Highway Patrol at the Nevada Test Site in 2002 can be seen at

    Wattenburg found a simple mechanical way to let a pursuing policeman realize his dream of being able to jump into a speeding truck and step on the brakes.   But the policeman does not have to risk his life.  He only has to push or tap the rear bumper of the  truck or trailer with his police car.   This is something that is usually easy and safe for a police car  to do because the rear of a speeding truck-trailer  can not be swerved dangerously by the truck driver without the truck  going out of control.  In fact, hijacked trucks are usually followed for hours by scores of police cars that are essentially helpless to stop the truck, even when they attempt dangerous collisions with the truck.   Wattenburg’s solution requires much less than that.   
    The California Highway Patrol has successfully tested Wattenburg’s “Truck Stopping Device” at their CHP Academy test track (see New York Times, 18 Nov 2001,  story above).  This is the first workable solution to this major  problem that has frustrated law enforcement agencies for decades.  His solution requires no new equipment be installed in police cars.  It does not require  electronic devices be installed in trucks.   It is simply mechanical.   It costs no more than $500 installed on any large truck.
    The Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and the CHP extensively tested the Wattenburg truck stopping device at the U.S Department of Energy Nevada Test Site during 2002.   The truck stopping devices are now being field tested on commercial fuel tanker trucks operating on the highways of  California.  The California Highway Patrol has submitted draft legislation to the California State Legislature that would require all trucks carrying dangerous loads to be equipped with  apparatus      that will allow law enforcement officers to safely stop the trucks on California highways. 

Stopping the Waste of Blood From Blood Banks (1965)

Journal of the American Medical Association, Nov 8, 1965,  pp583-586.

    Bill Wattenburg’s first reported public service project began when he was a young professor at U.C. Berkeley in the Electrical Engineering Department.   In 1964,  he and his graduate students at Berkeley were designing and building a special purpose computer.   Up to 64  teletype remote data terminals could be hooked up over telephone lines to their  special purpose computer which could then feed remote data  to and from larger  mainframe computers of that era such as the IBM 709/7090.   NASA and its contractor, Lockheed Missiles and Space Company, were interested in using Wattenburg’s telecommunication computer for their space programs.
    Two doctors at  Alta Bates Hospital, Berkeley, Dr. David Singman and Dr. William Palmer,   approached Bill Wattenburg with a serious problem.   They were members of the Alameda-Contra Costa Blood Bank advisory board.    They explained that blood banks around the world were losing a lot of the blood they collected because many  bottles of blood became outdated while they  sat on the shelves in various hospitals.  
    Up until 1964, the shelf life for whole blood was about 30 days.   After that, the blood had to be thrown away.    The problem was that a bottle of blood would be sent from a central blood bank to a hospital to be cross matched and reserved  for a particular patient.    But there was no way for the blood bank to learn on a timely basis whether the bottle of blood was actually used for that patient.    So, this unused bottle of blood could sit on the shelf in one hospital until it became outdated, while other hospitals were asking  for the same type of blood.    At the best,   someone might occasionally  notice that the blood was unused and send it back to the blood bank.   But, by that time,  the blood was getting old.   Hospitals and doctors prefer to have the freshest blood available for their patients.   So, old blood that was returned to the central blood bank   would not be sent back out to another hospital  unless there was a shortage of new blood of the same type.    Hence, even the returned blood  was most often discarded. 
    The blood bank wanted to be able to send an unused bottle of blood sitting at one hospital directly to the next hospital that requested the same type of blood  -- before the blood became outdated.  But, the blood bank and the hospitals were not willing to assign personnel to do the bookkeeping manually.   And there was another problem:  the hospitals often jealously guarded the unused blood they had on hand in case they needed it for  an emergency.  
    Bill Wattenburg  told the doctors how they could   build a remote data collection system to solve their problem.  The difficulty was  that the blood bank could not afford the computer and the special  programs that were needed to do this. 
    Lockheed Missiles and Space Company in Sunnyvale, California, wanted a copy of the remote communication computer that Wattenburg and his graduate students were building at Berkeley.  Lockheed  wanted to use it as soon as possible for a contract they had in the NASA Apollo program.  As a senior executive at Lockheed later reported,  Wattenburg approached Lockheed officials with an offer.   He would help the Lockheed engineers build a copy of his remote data communication computer.   However,  in return,  he wanted  Lockheed to contribute a few minutes of  time on their IBM 709 mainframe computer each evening.  This computer time would be used by the  Alameda-Contra Costa Blood Bank so that they could collect data on the  blood inventory at hospitals in their  region.   
    The rest is history.  Wattenburg instructed the blood bank to buy inexpensive teletype machines for all the hospitals they served.   He wrote a computer  program for the blood bank that let each hospital use its teletype machine to send into the Lockheed computer the I.D number and type of  each unused bottle  of blood that the hospital had on the shelf at the end of each day.    The Lockheed computer then matched the inventory of unused blood on the shelves in the hospitals with the orders for new blood that the blood bank had  received from all hospitals that day.   The computer at Lockheed then made up a delivery list for which bottles of unused blood at each hospital  should be sent directly to another  hospital requesting the same blood type for the next day.   Each night, the computer-generated blood delivery reports were sent back to each hospital and the blood bank over the teletype machines.   Thereafter,  new blood was sent out from the blood bank only when there was no unused blood at  another hospital that could be utilized.  
    Within three months the system was working smoothly.   The result  was an  immediate savings of thirty percent of the blood that was previously  thrown away because it became outdated on hospital shelves.  This meant that there was in fact an instant thirty percent increase in available blood,   with no increase in blood collections.   But equally  important from a medical standpoint,   there was also a decrease in the average age of blood being transfused into sick  patients  because blood was not aging as it set on hospital shelves unused.
    Both Lockheed and NASA soon recognized the tremendous public health benefit of the blood bank inventory  system that Wattenburg had designed.    For the very small amount of computer time required,  there was an enormous improvement in the efficiency and quality of  blood delivered to the public.   Lockheed  soon assigned a full time staff of engineers and programmers to expand the system for blood banks across the country.   The Red Cross   adopted the system for its operations around the world, as did other blood banks around the country.   
    The history and results of this project were reported in the Journal of the American Medical Association, Nov 8, 1965,  pp583-586.   All staff members at  Lockheed who sold and operated  the system after Bill Wattenburg designed it were listed as authors along with W.H.(Bill)Wattenburg.

    Bill Wattenburg was presented with an award by the Red Cross several years later for his public service in designing the first blood bank inventory control system.    The presenter of the award from the Red Cross noted that Wattenburg  had given his substantial  commercial and patent rights to this very marketable design to the  public by assigning his rights to the U.S. Government.  (Lockheed built a substantial commercial business providing the computer system to blood banks around the country for  many years thereafter.)

UC Scientist Proves How Easy it is to Counterfeit the New Magnetic Stripe Credit Cards  (1973)

Business Week , August 11, 1973, page 120.  
San Francisco Chronicle, June 4, 1973, page 22

The following story comes from a private investigative report on Bill Wattenburg requested by  a major TV network  that was interested in hiring him at the time. 

Bill Wattenburg’s Background:

Magnetic Credit Cards

In  1973,  banks and financial institutions around the world were about to release their new magnetic credit cards (so familiar to everyone  today).    The  Banks and the vendors who supplied the cards had announced that  very expensive and sophisticated equipment would be required to copy or counterfeit the magnetic stripe on the credit cards.    The Bay Area Rapid Transit district was planning to use the same magnetic cards in their modern fare machines.   One day, an  enterprising reporter from the San Francisco Chronicle approached  Bill Wattenburg in his laboratory at the University of California, Berkeley.   He asked Wattenburg if he could counterfeit one of the BART cards.  Wattenburg had never heard the claims that it would be difficult to copy one of the magnetic cards.    Bill Wattenburg was able to copy and “boost”  the value of a card in a matter of a few hours.   He evidently did not realize the impact of what he had done – or he was just too busy with other projects.    He taught the reporter how to demonstrate the simple scheme on his own to shocked BART and IBM officials.  

We believe that this event lends some insight into Wattenburg’s integrity in honoring contractual commitments and confidentiality agreements.

The San Francisco Chronicle reported another of Wattenburg’s startling technical tricks during the BART controversy in 1973.   A subsequent story in Business Week (August 11, 1973, page 120) stunned and sobered the nation’s banking and credit card industry which was planning to convert all credit cards to the same magnetic stripe system used in the new BART cards. Chronicle reporter Michael Harris approached Wattenburg in his Berkeley laboratory and asked Wattenburg whether it was possible to counterfeit the new multi-million dollar, “fool-proof” BART ticket magnetic stripe designed by IBM. This system was the first to use a magnetic stripe to record the value of a transit rider’s ticket. BART officials, IBM, and the nation’s banks had all said that “anyone would need at least $500,000 worth of specialized electronic equipment to copy the magnetic stripe and fool their reading machines.” (Anyone but Bill Wattenburg, as it turned out.)

We located one of the IBM engineers, now retired, who was on the scene in 1973 in order to verify a couple of minor items about Wattenburg’s financial involvement in this event. We got a lot more than we expected. We were able to get some of “the rest of the story” at this late date that was not available to the press in 1973.

Here is the story from press reports:

On June 4, 1973, in the San Francisco Chronicle (page 22), reporter Michael Harris described how he was able to “boost” a 5-cent BART ticket to any value he wanted using an inexpensive scheme that Wattenburg had invented in a few hours. Worse yet, Wattenburg devised a simple scheme that any housewife could do in her kitchen! Harris described how the idea came to Wattenburg, and how he, reporter Harris, was later able to give startled officials a private demonstration at the Chronicle offices. The banking industry was about to issue the first of millions of credit cards that could have been counterfeited “by any high school kid”, according to Wattenburg. IBM and the banks went back to the drawing board for another year before they came up with a better scheme (that Wattenburg said he couldn’t easily beat—see story below).

When Wattenburg was later asked by the press and angry government officials how he could so easily defeat the efforts of this country’s best engineers, he  sent them the following statement:   “It’s not my fault. When engineers have too much money, they usually think only of the most sophisticated ways they can spend it. No one asks them to play devil’s advocate and think of the obvious until it’s too late. I never would have bothered to think about the subject. It was none of my business. Hell, I didn’t know that BART and banks all over the country were really planning to use this silly scheme.”

He continued:

“All that happened is that a San Francisco Chronicle  reporter,  Michael Harris, who is a very clever guy by the way, came along and bet me that I couldn’t find an easy way to copy this funny-looking BART ticket with a magnetic stripe. I thought it was just someone’s prototype idea. But he said that IBM had bragged that no one could do it for less than a half-million dollars. Now, that kind of gets a scientist’s juices flowing. I mean I didn’t interrupt my serious scientific work at Berkeley, but his challenge was on my mind for a few hours.  “Suddenly, I remembered an obscure little thing about the physics of magnetic materials that most scientists don’t bother with very often. This phenomenon had given me fits in an experiment that I had done as a graduate student. Even my professor at the time didn’t believe it until I showed it to him. I thought, ‘Oh my God, the IBM guys couldn’t possibly have overlooked that! They’re the world’s experts on magnetic recording.’

“I did a quick experiment with some magnetic material that I had in the laboratory, and damned if I wasn’t able to make a good copy of the BART ticket magnetic stripe that Harris had left with me to play with. I didn’t even have time to go to a BART station and see if my counterfeit ticket worked. When Harris came back the next day, I gave him the materials he would need and showed him how to make a copy in his kitchen at home.   He then checked his counterfeit card at a BART station.  Well, you know the rest of the story…”

Wattenburg recently told us that he believed that the 1973 Business Week story contained some half-truths to steer thieves in the wrong direction. The press reports show him copying a credit card with another piece of magnetic tape. But the stories don’t explain that this was no ordinary piece of magnetic tape. He said that the 22 other ways discovered by Cal Tech students were all too clumsy or unreliable to be any threat. He believed that IBM and the banks didn’t really care if thieves concentrated on these. He said that he believed that the banks wanted the Business Week story written that way. He agreed to go along with the story for the sake of all the innocent people who could have lost their money, but it wasn’t pleasing to him to know all the things that were not disclosed to the press.

He told us ruefully:
“At least I didn’t say anything dishonest to Business Week. They came around to see how I did it and I showed them the mechanics of how it could be done, They didn’t ask the right questions and I didn’t volunteer anything more. I hoped they would go out and try to copy a card with a piece of ordinary iron oxide magnetic tape, the way Michael Harris did. They would have discovered in a hurry that the scheme required something else special. But they didn’t. I was really surprised that they wrote the story without checking that… . That was the last time I ever took money to keep my mouth shut. I needed money at the time to do a lot of important scientific experiments that were on my mind, and I had a lot of good graduate students who needed support. The bankers were the big boys. Who was I to tell them what was ethical? But you know, when I asked them to provide a few scholarships, they turned me down. That is why it eventually cost them a hell of a lot more than a few scholarships.”

One of Wattenburg’s scientist colleagues whom we interviewed in August 1990 told us what he thinks happened with the magnetic stripe. He said that obviously the whole thing was hushed up very quickly because of the potential losses due to thieves learning how to copy the magnetic stripe on the new bank credit cards. He said the rumor was that the banks paid Wattenburg a very handsome sum to help them devise a better scheme. He said that one of Wattenburg’s former Berkeley students who worked at IBM was asked to approach Wattenburg and that Wattenburg agreed to help them under the condition that he work only through his former student.
This IBM engineer, Wattenburg’s former student, later went to work at Livermore. We were told that he took great joy in telling the funny stories that happened when the banking association attorneys tried to negotiate a deal with Wattenburg. He said they offered Wattenburg a very large amount of money if he would help them design a new scheme that couldn’t be counterfeited by anyone who did not have at least a hundred-thousand dollars of specialized equipment which they itemized in the agreement.  And Wattenburg had to agree to never again talk about or disclose to anyone how he had copied the BART card or anything about new schemes that would be developed. He said that Wattenburg agreed that the payment they offered seemed quite fair, provided there were a few minor changes. One change Wattenburg made to the agreement he sent back was “by anyone other than Wattenburg” in the clause “couldn’t be counterfeited by anyone.” The attorneys saw no problem with this because if he helped develop a new scheme, obviously he would be one of the few who would know how to beat it as well. They accepted the agreement.

But then the bankers realized that Wattenburg could collect his money by only proving that “other people” could not copy some new magnetic stripe that he helped them develop. They protested that they already had a scheme that “other people” could not easily copy. They had paid large sums to universities and major consulting firms to have it tested and no one could copy it easily and reliably until Wattenburg came along.
They demanded that Wattenburg change the language of the agreement. Wattenburg responded: “Well, tell me how much it is worth to you if I take it out.” Before it was over with, they had tripled the amount they first agreed to pay him. The former student said that Wattenburg succeeded in beating the next two magnetic stripe recording schemes that they proposed until they finally came up with one that he said he couldn’t beat without expensive equipment.

Our contact laughed when he recalled what the former student often told his Livermore friends about Wattenburg’s assurance that he couldn’t beat the latest magnetic stripe scheme that is now used worldwide. He said: “I’ll bet that Wattenburg just got tired of fooling around with this business and told them it was ok. But, do you want to bet what will happen if Wattenburg is ever broke and he gets a hold of your credit card for a few hours?”

(Editor’s note:   Having listened to his radio shows  since the mid 1980’s, corresponded with him since 1996, and having known him personally since the end of 1999, I really doubt that this former student’s perspective is accurate. He simply cares too deeply about helping the “little guy” to give up so easily. Besides, the point is moot since forgers now have the means to copy the mag stripes easily, as the special hardware is much cheaper and more common than before. This is the practice known as “skimming.”)

We later learned that some of the 1973 press stories were probably encouraged for public consumption, and that maybe even Wattenburg left out a little of the story he told us—for a proper reason.

Since this was the only episode in Wattenburg’s public exploits for which he admitted taking payment for his services, we decided to investigate it more deeply. In particular, we thought this would be a good situation in which to explore how he handled the confidentiality of his dealings with those who paid him in return for the same. We were able to locate the “Wattenburg’s former student” mentioned above.   Now retired, he was willing to tell us almost all of “the rest of the story” since he felt that there was no danger at this late date.  The information below comes from him. 

All of the above story is mostly true, as far as it goes. But there was more that the public was not told, and for good reason.  Our contact  said that in the contract that Wattenburg signed with the banks, he refused to disclose, even to the banks, the nature of the magnetic material he used to copy the BART and bank cards.  Wattenburg had made some magnetic strips that looked like the ordinary Mylar-backed audio magnetic tape with the usual iron oxide magnetic surface, but it really had been coated with another special material.   Wattenburg gave the reporter Michael Harris enough of this special magnetic tape to do his experiment at the BART ticket machines and for Harris to later give another demonstration to various officials at the Chronicle offices. They never knew for sure what the material was.

He further explained that, unknown to Wattenburg,  the banks and others had deliberately arranged a  competition with Cal Tech students to see who could counterfeit the BART cards.   But, the BART cards didn’t include all the coding safeguards that were used in the scheme that was designed for bank credit cards. He says he believes that  they knew that most anyone could use simple magnetic tape reading equipment to read a BART card magnetic stripe and make a copy, as the Cal Tech students and others quickly proved. But, they were confident that no one could counterfeit the more valuable bank cards the same way because ordinary magnetic reading equipment could not read the special magnetic coding that they intended to use on the bank cards.

He said that Wattenburg refused to tell IBM or the bankers what the material was that he had used to make his special magnetic tape that could capture an image of their magnetic stripes—and could be accomplished in the kitchen. This was the real sticking point in the agreement that they wanted with him.   Wattenburg insisted that if they  used their heads they would soon figure it our on their own. He felt that he didn’t want to be the one who gave license to thieves by being the first one to disclose it. He felt that the university would get a bad name. They finally settled on an agreement with him to help them anyway. And, they had to pay him handsomely to take out the “anyone other than Wattenburg” clause.

Our contact was working at IBM at the time.   He said that it became an obsession at IBM San Jose for the next year to figure out what Wattenburg had done. He remembers engineers and scientists meeting at lunch time to compare notes on their latest ideas and experiments. They even hired a guy from Livermore who had worked with Wattenburg to help them as a consultant. They found all sorts of new ways, but none of them could be accomplished with something so simple as a clothes iron in the kitchen. He said that the bank  attorneys got very angry with Wattenburg.  They essentially accused Wattenburg of being a fraud and demanded that he disclose the answer or they would recommend that his future payments due under their contract be stopped.   Our contact says that he had to take these communications to Wattenburg at the university.   Wattenburg’s answer to the attorneys was that they should   be very happy that their engineers were discovering so many new ways on their own that they never would have considered if they had not been trying to discover his way. He offered to demonstrate his scheme again anytime they would like.
He says that he never heard whether they figured it out on their own or whether Wattenburg eventually told them.   All he knows is that they eventually came up with a new scheme that Wattenburg said he could not  easily counterfeit, so he said.

Our  contact  told us that he was impressed that, for ten years, Wattenburg would never tell even his best friends at Livermore who insisted that he could tell them his method under the strict security rules that prevailed at this nuclear weapons laboratory.   He heard one senior laboratory official jokingly promise Wattenburg that he would personally stamp the document “classified” if Wattenburg would write it down for them. He said that Wattenburg would not even confirm what the answer was long after it had became generally known to scientists and engineers what the special material was that he had used.
Our contact said that he always respected Wattenburg for never violating the agreement that he knew Wattenburg had signed with the bankers. But then he added: “If you knew how much they paid him in real dollars today, you would not have taken a chance on losing it either by opening your mouth just to show off.”


Wattenburg’s two-year running battle with the BART agency appears to be the first time he publicly confronted a government agency as a scientist. We found over fifty-five press reports with his name involved with this subject during the period 1972 to 1974.   Most of the stories were in the San Francisco Chronicle during this period, written by reporter Michael Harris.   Some of the history we summarize below comes from a U.S. Dept. of Transportation (DOT) confidential  internal report we obtained from a congressional staff member. DOT was evidently funding BART and concerned about Wattenburg’s highly publicized criticisms of BART management.

The State of California asked Wattenburg to fix the electronic train control problems that plagued the new Bay Area Rapid Transit System (BART).   BART and Westinghouse Corp. engineers who designed the system for BART insisted that there were no problems and essentially told the State of California safety officials to go to hell. BART claimed that the state safety officials were needlessly preventing Bay Area commuters from getting full benefit of the BART system.

With the encouragement of exasperated state officials, Wattenburg, acting only as a taxpayer, confronted the local BART managers at their bi-weekly public meetings for two years running while many of his public predictions of safety problems came true. BART management was eventually fired, and the State demanded that Wattenburg’s clever design modifications be installed before the BART system could run full service. The press confirmed that Wattenburg refused all payment from BART and the State for his efforts.

During this nationally publicized battle, Wattenburg first described many of his design improvements for BART to the press and over KGO Radio, San Francisco,   in terms that the lay public could understand. It became a popular game for his KGO  listeners to know more—and sooner—about BART design problems than the BART engineers. He generated press headlines the next day for months on end. His radio shows and the subsequent press stories each week carried his predictions of the next problem or accident that would occur on BART—and they invariably happened on schedule.

Here is a summary of events as reported in press stories in the San Francisco Chronicle and the Oakland Tribune:

BART as an independent agency experienced some early safety problems with a new electronic train control system built by Westinghouse Corp. One train ran away during trial runs of the new BART system. BART and Westinghouse engineers insisted that this was a “one in a hundred-million failure that could never happen again.” BART would not cooperate with state agencies that wanted to investigate these problems before giving BART approval to operate the trains.

The noted California legislative analyst, A. Alan Post, enlisted U. C. Berkeley Professor Bill Wattenburg to evaluate the design of the BART automated train control system designed by Westinghouse. Wattenburg subsequently testified at a state senate committee hearing that he had found some serious design flaws in the Westinghouse design and warned that the system was unsafe to operate. Westinghouse and BART both protested vehemently that Wattenburg was unqualified in the field and that he was “just a headline grabbing radio talk-show host and only a junior faculty member at Berkeley looking to impress his students.”

Wattenburg was the sole expert witness for the state. Seven senior Westinghouse and BART executives told the confused state senators that Wattenburg was wrong.

A flurry of press stories report that Wattenburg then responded by offering a list of the most probable dangerous failures that would occur in the BART system that could lead to collisions between high-speed trains. He even estimated the time periods for when these failures would likely occur. BART and Westinghouse engineers were furious. They denied that any of these failures could ever happen. Both BART and Westinghouse threatened to “take legal action against Wattenburg if he persisted in making inflammatory statements that destroyed the public’s confidence in the BART system.”

Wattenburg’s answer to the BART threats was to give a quote to Herb Caen, the most widely read columnist on the west coast. The item appeared the next day in the San Francisco Chronicle. Wattenburg said that if the BART train control system was not fixed, it would be “the world’s most expensive, computer-controlled, track-mounted pinball machine.” The battle lines were drawn. Bay Area readers who were riding BART were shocked by the front-page stories that appeared the next day.

Predicted Failures Happen

The first of Wattenburg’s predictions actually occurred the following week as the California Public Utilities Commission (PUC) inspectors were monitoring the BART operation. They discovered that trains disappeared at certain times from the master control panel. Central controllers didn’t know where some trains were on the tracks for several minutes at a time. This meant that the automated train control system could be telling one train to speed right into another train parked ahead—a train that it didn’t know about. This is the most dangerous situation that can happen on any railroad.

Naturally, the PUC and the press swarmed all over Wattenburg to explain why he was able to predict that this would happen. He told them he could only show them with “a little experiment,” and that BART would have to cooperate to let him demonstrate the cause of the problem. BART objected. The PUC threatened to shut BART down completely unless BART could identify the problem or prove it was corrected immediately. BART allowed Wattenburg to do his experiment.

Wattenburg led everyone to a section of unused BART track early on a foggy morning. He pointed to the rusty surface on the normally shiny track. He motioned for a waiting train to move forward. He told a PUC inspector to call his colleagues waiting at BART central. Wattenburg said: “I’ll bet they can’t see that train right now.” The reporters watched the PUC inspector get the word from BART central and then nod that Wattenburg was right.

Next, Wattenburg ordered the train to run back and forth over this stretch of track several times. He announced: “Now they can see the train.” The PUC inspector on the portable phone confirmed that he was right again. Then Wattenburg gave them the answer and how he was able to predict the problem.

He explained that he had first noticed that the Westinghouse designers had used very low-voltage (less than one volt) to shunt a current across the rails through the steel wheels and axle of a train. This shunt signal is what tells central control that a train is at a given location. Standard train control systems use a much higher voltage, like 15 volts. He explained how this low-voltage scheme probably worked very well in the nice, clean Westinghouse factory where they tested their new design. But it doesn’t rain inside the factory. When it rains, or there is heavy fog, the shiny steel rails take on a thin layer of rust very quickly. The rusty surface has a much higher electrical resistance that clean rails. The low voltage cannot drive a current through the rusty surface on the rails. Hence, there is no signal of where the train is on the tracks.

Then, according to the press reports, he made another seemingly arrogant prediction. He told them that a train would only disappear when:

1. The track had not been used for several hours during rain or heavy fog, and

2. The missing train would be the first or second train to use the track after the unused period during which the track had been exposed to rain or fog.

“Other than that,” he said, “the BART system was marginally safe and riders shouldn’t worry.”

The PUC inspectors rushed to check their records of past missing trains. BART public relations issued a press release saying that Wattenburg was trying to “dazzle the press with scientific hocus-pocus.” The Bay Area papers all included the BART accusation in their stories.

The PUC confirmed that Wattenburg was right two days later. Trains had only disappeared on the BART tracks in the early mornings after it had rained or been very foggy the night before, and it was almost always the first or second train over the tracks. But, there was one case in which a third train had been missing for short intervals as well.

BART public relations next tried to suggest that everything that Wattenburg said shouldn’t be believed because he had not been accurate about how many trains were required to clean the tracks so that BART could run safely. When the press asked Wattenburg for his comments on this, he said: “Well, I guess I screwed up on that third train. I’ll have to take back what I said. The system is not as safe as I thought it was.”

BART soon announced that it had solved the missing train problem by installing special “scrubbers” on its trains. (The scrubbers were nothing more than pieces of metal dragged along the track to scrape off the rust.) BART would run special “pilot” trains every morning to make sure the tracks were clean before passenger trains moved onto the tracks. Their press release stated that no one could have predicted this problem because “the special rails that they had ordered for this futuristic system had never before been tested.”

Wattenburg countered with his usual stinging sarcasm: “This is really a futuristic system, alright. I wonder if anyone ever reminded them that in the eighteen-hundreds the cities used to hire boys to walk along behind horse-drawn carriages to scoop up the horse manure so it wouldn’t blow in the citizens’ faces?”

He then announced his next challenge. He said that he had had his electrical engineering students at Berkeley design a simple battery-powered electronic package that any BART rider could carry along with him on the train to make sure that the train control system knew where the train was at all times. “I mean these are my undergraduate students. They don’t know enough yet to design anything fancy. So, it’s cheap and it works great. Just ask the PUC inspectors. I’ll bet they were wondering why train number 102 never disappeared this morning even though it rained last night.”

A reporter hinted that one of Wattenburg’s students had been on that train. The story reported that the device his students had built was nothing more than a radio frequency noise generator that messed up the normal train control signals in the track immediately below the train wherever it went. This caused the train control error detection circuits to report a problem at that location. This created a moving problem indicator with the train number on it to appear on the central control screen. Hence, the error indicator told central control where the train was at all times.

Westinghouse engineers immediately complained that this scheme would disable their error detection circuits and endanger the whole BART system. Wattenburg countered with: “Why in the hell do you need error detection electronics when you know the whole damn system is broken down all the time anyway without even asking? Why not put these unemployed circuits to work so that we can get some people to work for a change?”

The PUC wanted to test the device immediately. BART threatened to have Wattenburg arrested if he took any electronic device on a train that interfered with the train control system. Wattenburg offered the press an estimate of how long it would be before the BART track scrubbers would cut so much metal off the rails that they would have to be replaced. A later story suggested that the PUC did test Wattenburg’s device and BART agreed to use it so long as the PUC ordered BART to do so and Wattenburg agreed to say no more about it. However, Westinghouse notified BART that all its warranties would be voided if any foreign device was installed or used without their permission. It’s not clear what happened thereafter, but the missing train problem did suddenly disappear—at least from the press coverage.

After this episode, the press evidently began to believe that Wattenburg was for real. The stories that followed looked into both his background and the qualifications of the Westinghouse designers.

A reporter discovered that NASA had hired Wattenburg in 1963 to 1967 to do extensive design work on the electronic control and computer systems for the Apollo man-to-the moon project. Westinghouse and BART had earlier claimed that their engineers had worked on the Apollo project to support their claims to the state senate committee that they were “the world’s experts on advanced automated control systems of this nature and that no one else was qualified to evaluate the BART train control design.” Press stories verified that the Westinghouse engineers who were later assigned to the BART project had actually worked several levels below Wattenburg’s design responsibility in NASA. (Evidently, Legislative Analyst A. Alan Post had known this when he first contacted Wattenburg for help.)

When one irritated reporter asked Wattenburg why he had not told the press for months about his NASA experience, he answered: “You should have asked me. I noticed that you print every handout that the BART bullshitters give you, so why should I bother to tell you the truth.” This newspaper later ran an editorial which indirectly apologized to Wattenburg for some of the snide stories about him that their reporter had filed after Bill Wattenburg first challenged BART engineers before the state senate committee.

After the dramatic sequence of events described above, the PUC refused permission for BART to operate their trains at designed speeds until all of Wattenburg’s technical objections were investigated. More state senate hearings were called. Wattenburg appeared at the next hearing with alarming data from some more experiments that he had done on his own. BART and Westinghouse again protested that he had interfered without their permission. Wattenburg described how he had given his engineering students who ride BART some simple instruments that measured BART train control signals without interfering with the operation in any way. Then he described several more design changes that should be made to the train control electronics to make the system safer.

At this dramatic hearing, he gave his new design documents to the state senate committee and the Legislative Analyst and asked them to hand these documents to the irate BART General Manager, Billy Stokes, who was sitting in the hearing room with a group of Westinghouse executives. One story reported that Wattenburg turned to Billy Stokes and announced: “Here’s a present for you. Be my guest. That’ll fix the hundred million dollar screw job you guys have given the taxpayers.”

The public standoff escalated when the BART District Directors were told by their General Manager that Wattenburg was part of a political conspiracy to discredit the District and this was the only reason he was trying to embarrass the BART and Westinghouse engineers. This made headlines. Wattenburg appeared at the next public BART board meeting and requested to speak as a taxpayer. One group of concerned BART directors demanded that he be allowed to speak at all meetings as a public representative and rebut anything he felt was not accurate in what the general manager and the BART engineers were telling the directors.

The state officials could not direct BART to take any specific action to correct the alleged problems, but through the California PUC they could and did withhold permission for BART to operate their trains at full speed until the safety problems were resolved. A majority of the BART directors refused to allow Wattenburg to test his ideas or order Westinghouse to make the simple changes that Wattenburg had specified. The argument was that this would violate the warranties in the Westinghouse contract and open up BART to lawsuits from both Westinghouse and the taxpayers. Almost weekly front-page stories in the San Francisco Chronicle and other Bay Area papers detail how BART was forced to operate their new trains under severe restrictions that guaranteed that trains could not collide if the train control system malfunctioned.

More serious problems and near accidents did occur over the next six months. These were witnessed by PUC inspectors stationed in BART central control. Some of these were on the list that Wattenburg had originally given to the state senate committee and A. Alan Post. Wattenburg appeared at every BART board meeting and battled with the BART and Westinghouse engineers. Wattenburg challenged the credentials of three successive chief engineers at BART. All of them left or were fired. These confrontations became the media event of the week for the press as the controversy raged.

The matter finally came to a head when BART ran out of money and had to appeal to the state for financial assistance to operate the system. The State Senate Transportation Committee headed by Senator Alfred Alquist demanded that Billy Stokes be fired as a condition for approval of any state funds. Wattenburg was in attendance. A story reports that he stood up and announced to Mr. Stokes: “I told you that the truth would catch up with you, you lying bastard.” (Wattenburg had earlier called Stokes a liar at several public BART meetings when Stokes and his chief engineers gave engineering reports to the board members that Wattenburg proved were false or incomplete. Stokes had been forced to apologize for these “oversights”. The chief engineers were replaced shortly thereafter.)

The state legislature finally passed a law that required elected board members for BART as a condition for state financial assistance. All the Billy Stokes supporters on the BART board were replaced in the election. Wattenburg refused requests that he run for the board or agree to be the new general manager (two papers editorialized that he should serve). The new board immediately ordered BART engineers to incorporate Wattenburg’s design changes into the train control system. Wattenburg recommended that BART hire the University of California Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory to supervise the design modifications. BART hired Hewlett-Packard Corporation to build and install the equipment.

Wattenburg issued a press release in which he stated that he had done all he could and that he wanted nothing more to do with BART other than ride the trains when they could “safely move faster that he could walk.”

Hewlett-Packard and Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory were paid over two million dollars for their work over the next two years which consisted mostly of installing improved versions of the train control design changes that Wattenburg had originally specified. There were press reports that Hewlett Packard engineers later insisted that all the new design changes were their own ideas and that this created some friction between them and Lawrence Berkeley scientists who claimed otherwise. Wattenburg refused to get into the argument or comment to the press. His only comment was that he “never wanted to hear about BART again.”

The new BART board filed suit against Westinghouse after the design changes proved to solve the missing train problem and other safety problems. The PUC allowed them to run trains at design speeds for the first time in five years. Wattenburg agreed to testify for BART if requested. Westinghouse settled the suit for a reported sixteen million dollars.

When the press inquired whether Wattenburg had received any payment for his services over two years, he gave them the following statement: “Hell, if I had even asked for a free ride on their silly trains somebody would have claimed that I did it just to get a handout. The taxpayers of the State of California gave me a great education. All I want is for them to know that I paid them back in full.”

Some BART directors suggested offering Wattenburg $50,000 for his services after his solution to the BART train control problem was adopted. He declined, saying that he might have to criticize them again in the future if they didn’t do their job.

A U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) internal report points out that another real beneficiary of Wattenburg’s efforts is the Washington D.C. Metro system. All of Wattenburg’s design improvements were incorporated into the Metro system before it was opened. As a consequence, the Metro did not suffer the long delays and safety problems that BART suffered. The author of this report notes the curious fact that Westinghouse had to have been making some of these changes in the Metro equipment they delivered to Washington even while they were still insisting that Wattenburg’s changes were not necessary in the BART system. Otherwise, there would have been long delays in starting operation in Washington. The writer suggests that DOT might consider some sort of recognition to Wattenburg for his contribution to the mass transit industry in the U.S.

It is not surprising that such recognition never came. We talked to a long-time BART employee who was on the scene at the time all this happened. He said that the new general manager selected for BART was none other than the former Secretary of Transportation who had given some support to Billy Stokes during his battles with Wattenburg, and that Billy Stokes himself moved upstairs as the new Director of the Urban Mass Transit Association (UMTA) representing such companies as Westinghouse. The UMTA and DOT officials work very closely together.

During our visits to this KGO radio show in October 1990, several callers to his show wanted to talk about the most recent problems with the BART system. He absolutely refused to discuss the subject on his show. He said to one caller, “I’ll tell you what though, why don’t you ask me about my first wife?”

D.   Background:

    Bill Wattenburg grew up in the logging and cattle ranching areas of northeastern  California and western Nevada.   He worked with his father in the logging and road building industries  before he was given a scholarship to U.C. Berkeley.  He was appointed to the faculty at the University of California, Berkeley,  at the completion of his Ph.D. in electrical engineering and nuclear physics at the age of 25.  He specialized in the design of digital computers for computations in nuclear physics.   He took a leave of absence from the Berkeley faculty in 1962 to join  the  nuclear weapons  design  “A Division” at  the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory  where he worked on the  design and underground testing of some of the nuclear weapons in the U.S. inventory today.   He spent a year at the Nevada Nuclear Test Site where he tested  various  warhead designs.   There he  helped  develop and improve underground nuclear testing technology.   He continued working at Livermore part-time after he returned to teaching at Berkeley in 1964.  He has continued as an unpaid consultant to the Livermore Laboratory since 1975.  In turn, the Livermore Laboratory has provided equipment and resources for  many of  Wattenburg’s scientific experiments described herein.  Along with Dr. Donald Glaser  (Nobel Prize, Physics, 1960),  Bill Wattenburg was the co-founder in 1965 of Berkeley Scientific Laboratories.   Wattenburg served as  president of the very successful company until it was sold in 1970.   Thereafter,  he returned to university teaching and research.

    Beginning in 1972,  the national media recognized his communication talents after he appeared on major radio and television shows as an expert on nuclear technology.  For the last thirty years, he has had a second profession as one  of the most popular and controversial night-time radio talk show hosts in the western United States.   His weekly six-hour broadcasts of  “The Open Line to the West Coast”  from  San Francisco  reached millions in eleven western states.
    It is significant that since he left the faculty at U.C. Berkeley forty  years ago,  Bill Wattenburg has never charged government agencies for his public  service activities.   He has assigned his most significant patents to the university.  His often stated position is that the public gave him a free education at two great universities, California State University, Chico, and the University of California, Berkeley.   He has said that he can well afford to return a little of the good fortune that the public provided to him.

    He does most of his work today as a research scientist at the Research Foundation,  California State University, Chico,  and as an unpaid consultant for the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.   Many times over the last 25 years he has teamed up with top scientists and engineers at the Livermore Laboratory to test and develop his solutions  to national security   problems.   Dr. Wattenburg is still one of the most active scientists  conducting major national defense experiments at the former Nevada Nuclear Test Site.

E.  Scientific journal publications on simple solutions to formally very expensive problems by Dr. Bill Wattenburg working with the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory:


Bounds on the transient response of ladder networks

Thesis (M.S. in Electrical Engineering)—University of California, Berkeley, Jan. 1959.

Transform Methods and Time-Varying Systems

Electronics Research Laboratory, University of California, Berkeley Series No. 60, Issue No. 321, September 23, 1960


R.E. Duff, W.H. Wattenburg, Performance of Coaxial Cable in the Vicinity of a Nuclear Explosion, U.C. Lawrence Radiation Laboratory Report UCRL-7164-7164, December 1962 (Classified),


D.A. Glaser, W.H. Wattenburg, An Automated System For The Growth and Analysis of Large Numbers of Bacterial Colonies Using an Environmental Chamber and a Computer Controlled Flying-Spot Scanner, Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences,
New York Academy of Sciences Conference on Axenic Cultures and Defined Media, October 9, 1965.

W.H. Wattenburg, et al, Computerized Blood Bank Control, Journal of the American Medical Association, November 8, 1965 v194 n6.

W.H. Wattenburg, A Note on the Formation of Polar Bodies During O÷genesis,

ACTA CYTOLOGIA, Vol. 14, No. 8, 1970


Fourier and Laplace Transforms

Encyclopedia of Electronics
McGraw Hill, 1962


Generalized compiling techniques

Thesis (Ph. D. in Electrical Engineering)—University of California, Berkeley, Jan. 1961.

Compiling Techniques for Boolean Expressions and Conditional Statements in ALGOL 60

(with H. D. Huskey)
Communications of the ACM
January 1961

A Basic Compiler for Arithmetic Expressions

Communications of the ACM
(Association for Computing Machinery)
Vol. 4 No. 1, pp. 3–9 (1961)

A NELIAC Generated 7090-1401 Compiler

(with J. B. Watt)
Communications of the Association of Computing Machinery
February, 1962
Also presented at the 16th National Meeting of the ACM, Los Angeles, September 1961

On the Efficient Construction of Automatic Programming Systems

A report on the experimental results of the NELIAC Compiler project at U.C. during 1961–1962
Association for Computing Machinery, National Convention Abstracts, 1962, Syracuse, New York, August 1962

The Programming Problem in Command and Control

September 1962

Techniques for Automating the Construction of Translators for Programming Languages

Electronics Research Laboratory, Report No. 64-45
University of California, January 13, 1964

Design Automation For Computer Software

IEEE Transactions on Electronic Computers
Vol. EC-15, No. 3, June 1966

Scientific journal publications on simple solutions to formally difficult and/or unsolved problems by Dr. Willard H. (Bill) Wattenburg working with the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory:

  1. "A Modular Steel Freeway Bridge: Design Concept and Earthquake Resistance,”Science, v268, pp. 261-262, 279-281, 14 April 1995; Science, v 264, p 27, 1 April 1994.
  2. "Robot Mine Detector," Science, v270, p 1929, 22 December 1995.
  3. "Dropping food packages to refugees without using parachutes," Science, 2 April 1993, page 27. (also San Francisco Chronicle, 23 March 1993, front page).
  4. Fluorescent Barriers to Infiltration,” Science, v 265, pp 1184-1185, 26 August 1994; and Science, v 266, p 1461, 2 December 1994 (letter).
  5. "Oil and Gas Journal," 21 February 1994, p19 (editorial)
  6. "The Spiral Tube Robot," Discover Magazine, July 1997, p 56, finalist, Inventions of the Year Award
  7. "Plastic Buckets for Refugee Sanitation," Science, v 284, p409, 16 April 1999.
  8. The Burning of Yellowstone -- Another Perspective,” Letter, Science, 6 Nov 99, p1051.
  9. "It's All Gas," Science News, v157, p355, 3 June 2000 (Scientists report that MTBE or ethanol in reformulated gasoline is a fraud and leads to environmental damage and consumer robbery)
  10. Terrorist Vehicle Barrier Successfully Tested by Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, San Jose Mercury News, 8 October 1998, front page.
  11. Clearing land mines by Helicopter, San Francisco Chronicle, 8 March 1991, front page.
  12. Scientists Present New Ways to Snuff Kuwait Oil Fires, Wall Street Journal Europe,5-6 April 1991, page 8.

Press Reports on Solutions to Major Problems

Bay Bridge Vulnerability Corrected, San Jose Mercury News, front page, Nov 4, 2001,

and The New York Times, Nov 6, 2001.

Urgent Efforts to Bar Use of Stolen Trucks as Bombs,
The New York Times, p B8, Nov 18, 2001

Stopping the Waste of Blood from Blood Banks:
Journal of the American Medical Association, Nov 8, 1965, pp583-586.

Stopping the Counterfeiting of Magnetic Stripe Credit Cards:
San Francisco Chronicle, June 4, 1973, p22.
Business Week, Aug 11, 1973, p120.

Drop Money not Bombs
SF Chronicle Tues Sept 19, 1972

Fixing the BART Train Control System:
Dozens of articles in the San Francisco Chronicle, 1971-1973.

Clearing Mine Fields with Helicopters:
San Francisco Chronicle, March 8, 1991, p 1.