"How Bing Crosby and the Nazis Helped to Create Silicon Valley"
May 13th, 2013
The New Yorker
The nineteen-forties Bing Crosby hit “White Christmas” is a key part of the national emotional regression that occurs every Christmas. Between Christmases, Crosby is most often remembered as a sometimes-brutal father, thanks to a memoir by his son Gary. Less remarked upon is Crosby’s role as a popularizer of jazz, first with Paul Whiteman’s orchestra, and later as a collaborator with, disciple to, and champion of Louis Armstrong. Hardly remarked upon at all is that Crosby, by accident, is a grandfather to the computer hard drive and an angel investor in one of the firms that created Silicon Valley.
If today’s youth make up the first digital generation, Crosby’s was the first recorded-music generation. Born in 1903, Crosby grew up in Spokane, Washington, where he spent his latter adolescence haunting record stores and learning the drums, and his twenties on the road as a drummer and singer. He landed in Paul Whiteman’s legendary dance band, touring the country. Vaudeville was fading, as was the belting projection of singers like Al Jolson; jazz, talkies, and the radio were ascendant, with Crosby in the wave.
As Crosby left Spokane, writes Gary Giddins in “Bing Crosby: A Pocketful of Dreams,” acoustical reproduction (yelling into a megaphone so that the sound might be recorded directly onto wax) was giving way to electrical reproduction of music. “That innovation, which dominated the industry for more than two decades (until the introduction of tape), would help bring Bing’s strengths into the spotlight, leading directly to the advancement of his true instrument, the microphone.”
Microphones changed everything. Rather than spraying the balcony with emotion (or using a simple megaphone for amplification) the act of performance became more intimate, the singer more vulnerable. In time, the tinnier carbon microphones (as in the telephone) gave way to condenser microphones. Far more vocal subtlety could be transmitted. The dynamics of entertainment allowed for quiet. A different sort of voice found its place on stage and in recordings: the crooner.
From “The Coming of the Crooners,” by Ian Whitcomb:
The press had a field day disseminating the attacks on the “crooning boom” by moral authorities. In January 1932 they quoted Cardinal O’Connell of Boston: “Crooning is a degenerate form of singing…. No true American would practice this base art. I cannot turn the dial without getting these whiners and bleaters defiling the air and crying vapid words to impossible tunes.” The New York Singing Teachers Association chimed in, “Crooning corrupts the minds and ideals of the younger generation.” Lee DeForest, one of radio’s inventors, regretted that his hopes for the medium as a dispenser of “golden argosies of tome” had become “a continual drivel of sickening crooning by ‘sax’ players interlaced with blatant sales talk.”
Rudy Vallee was the first famous crooner, and the foremost, but Crosby held his own. In the nineteen-thirties he recorded “Learn to Croon”.
All hopes for the abolition of crooning were dashed by the rise of radio, a crooner’s medium. Crosby became a radio megastar. The other greats—like Bob Hope, Fred Allen, and Jack Benny—each came up in vaudeville, and their pacing reveals their early stage training; they project. Crosby did stints in the vaudeville-circuit theatres, too, but the bemused, pipe-smoking, golfing fellow who drifted in and out of song was born of the possibilities of the microphone.
Fast-forward into the mid-nineteen-forties. The Second World War had just ended. Americans were picking over the technological remains of German industry. One of the things they discovered was magnetic tape; the Nazis had been using tape recording to broadcast propaganda across time zones. It was a remarkable invention. Previous sound-recording technologies had used wax cylinders or discs, or delicate wires. But magnetic tape was remarkably fungible: it could be recorded over, cut and spliced together. Plus it sounded better.
Radio shows, however, were supposed to be live. Radio inherited its forms from vaudeville, from variety shows, and it was assumed that the artifice of pre-recording would diminish the audience’s connection, at great risk to the sponsors. Crosby—a master of artifice—didn’t buy that, according to “Bing Crosby: Crooner of the Century,” by Richard Grudens. In 1946 he used his industry power—by then he was on top, one of the world’s richest, most famous and intensely beloved celebrities—to step away from live broadcast by choosing a sponsor and network that would let him use large, wax discs. “Philco Radio Hour” débuted in 1946 on ABC, at thirty-thousand dollars a week. Bob Hope was his first guest.
Meanwhile, engineers interested in tape, having learned what they could from what the Nazis left behind, made their way to Crosby and showed him what the new magnetic technology could do. His interest was more than piqued; he handed fifty thousand dollars to the men from the Ampex corporation, which at that time was just a half-dozen people. The machines they delivered went into use in 1947, and a new Crosby show, edited by tape splicing, was broadcast—the first radio show to use the new technology. Suddenly audio—recorded media—was flexible. It could be cut and pasted, rearranged, and edited.
The Ampex sign still stands over Redwood City; it’s a Silicon Valley landmark. And Ampex still exists as a smaller company focussed on various kinds of recording. But the company is not what it was; for some time, it was a major manufacturer of equipment in America, a key player in early Valley history: as tape recording caught on, along came computers with stored programs. Magnetic tape was an improvement, in many regards, over punched cards or paper tape; it could more readily store data and programs and play them back. From the roots put down through Ampex came a revolution in data storage.
Tapes were still awkward beasts, however—a tape is essentially a long piece of string. If a piece of data is at the end of the string, you have to spin the tape until you get to the end. As anyone who grew up on old machines that used cassettes to store programs knows, with tape the basics of computing—storage, retrieval—take what, to modern sensitivities, feels like an eternity.
In the nineteen-fifties I.B.M. developed a research project to create the RAMAC, for Random Access Method of Accounting and Control. Roughly the size of a washing machine (and that was just the disk), RAMAC was a set of platters that held about five megabytes of data—about as much data as is in a single longish MP3 today. Behold the glory of this majestic device:
This was, of course, the first hard drive, and in “Magnetic Disk Storage: A Personal Memoir,” a man named Albert S. Hoagland, who worked on the RAMAC, cites the Crosby connection—how the singer’s unusual professional needs led to tape recording. There is a direct link in the Silicon Valley understanding between Bing Crosby’s crooning and the rise of the hard drive, which was designed as an improvement over magnetic tape. Or, to put it into an equation: microphones + crooning + Nazis + radio + fifty thousand dollars = Silicon Valley.
RAMAC was victorious, for although you’ll still find tape for data storage, the world belongs to the hard drive. But only for now. S.S.D.s—solid state disks, banks of memory—are taking over. The link to the Nazis and magnetic tape is slowly breaking apart.
Crosby’s career was built on technology, and he used technology to become a master of artifice: to sing as if he were sitting next to you, even if he were in California and you were in New York. He was an investor with a clear motive—a desire to stop recording live—but the ancillary benefits of tape, which could be rearranged with a razor blade, were useful to him as well. It was a pattern of his life: he also invested in fast-freezing technology, and hence became chairman of the board and chief promoter of Minute Maid. When the company went public, he rang the bell at the Stock Exchange. “White Christmas” and orange juice and bad parenting are the memories he left, along with countless songs.
His artifice was a means to an end. Perhaps this is apocryphal, but once while editing his show on tape he asked for a joke to get a different reaction—for a past laugh to be spliced in. Thus, in addition to setting in motion the technologies that brought about the information revolution, he also indirectly created the laugh track.