Bolo Ties and Railguns (and Nazis)


This from 2004:

I’ve been buying up vintage bolo ties on EBay. The cohort that liked them is dying and there’s very little interest in them since they’re so out now, so you can get nice ones in silver and stone for $15 or so.

In 1982 I did a series of short-term jobs to fill time before returning to school. One of them was at an odd little company near MIT called Electromagnetic Launch Research, where I was in charge of their little CP/M network.

The company’s emeritus intellect was Henry Kolm, in his 60s at the time, an old coot of the best kind. Henry had done a lot of work on electromagnetic propulsion — rail guns, mass drivers, maglev trains. He dressed in western shirts and bolo ties — very much a character out of middle Heinlein. Among the many stories I heard from Henry were his demonstration of the safety of the Xerox toner he had helped invent — he ate quite a bit in front of some fearful secretaries. Which is of course no guarantee it’s safe to breathe, which was the real concern, but he was so annoyed at the FUD of the time about it that he felt a public display was necessary.

[Ed: I did not realize at the time I wrote this that Henry had been the American intelligence officer in charge of Operation Paperclip, which secretly resettled Nazi scientists in the US to take advantage of their brainpower in the coming struggle with the USSR. At the time I knew him, of course, these were still Top Secrets.]

I probably got that job because I had lots of connections to railguns. A railgun is a device to rapidly accelerate a projectile via magnetic force; the projectile is on a rail or magnetically suspended, and coils along the line of propulsion are pulsed to accelerate the projectile as it travels along until it is released at terminal speed. In high school I had built a cheesy version which launched nails a few yards — the “control system” was a progressively-spaced set of electrical contacts on a board. You launched the nail by stroking the power wire across the contacts at a steady rate! Not the most reliable system, but it usually worked. This was inspired entirely by Heinlein’s The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, where lunar rebels use linear induction railguns to bombard the Earth in their effort to rebel against UN authority. Today’s systems, of course, use sophisticated sensors and computer control.

At MIT I had taken a seminar in space colonization with Gerard K. O’Neill, the L5 Society saint. My project was a study of gentle redirection of Oort cloud comets for terraforming purposes. Railguns were one of the means suggested for nudging the comets, and millions of them would have to be redirected to deliver enough volatiles to, say, Mars. Henry loved that idea.

None of the space colonization ideas were ever funded — though we do have an albatross of a space station which is next to useless, leaking, and cost upwards of $100 billion. Henry is gone now, but at least lived to see a few Maglev trains built and railguns incorporated into US military plans. They are being installed on Navy ships in large numbers now.

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