Recalling the AUTODIN – Part III

Recalling the AUTODIN – Part III

March 6, 2012 11:14 pm 33 comments

We now conclude our series on the AUTOmatic DIgital Network.
(See Part I and Part II)

Tech Control

While the folks out on the computer floor were concerned with message switching operations, we in the technical control center were concerned with the data circuits that connected the switch to its tributary stations and other switching centers.

Autodin circuit facilities were built using the RED/BLACK concept, in which unencrypted data lines (the RED side) were kept physically separated from the encrypted circuits (the BLACK side). A typical data circuit was connected from the Accumulation and Distribution Unit to the RED side patch panel in tech control. From there the circuit went to the crypto center where it connected to a crypto machine. The encrypted output then came back to tech control where it was connected to the BLACK side patch panel, then on to a modem for transmission over an audio circuit.

Tech Control Console

Tech Control Console

Circuit access for troubleshooting purposes was made very convenient by banks of relays in the RED and BLACK patch panels. When the System Console operator reported a problem with a circuit (usually “no idles”) they reported it using the tech control jack number; that is, the number of the patch panel jack it appeared on. A tech controller merely had to punch the jack number into the tech control console to pull the circuit up for testing. You could view either the RED side signal or the BLACK side signal on an oscilloscope, and view the flow of control characters (on the RED side) using an integral character reader. If it was a teletype circuit, you could direct it to a teleprinter for monitoring, if required.

The synchronous crypto devices could be reset if they lost synchronization by pressing a button on the tech control console. This was the usual response to a loss of idle patterns. If a crypto unit failed, it could be replaced by plugging a patch cord into the RED patch panel to shunt the signal off to a crypto spare, plus a corresponding patch on the BLACK patch panel to connect the spare crypto unit back to the original modem.

Facility Ratings

Each tech control shift (24/7) had to have at least one person on staff who was technically qualified (demonstrated through a series of tests) to direct the telecom operations. Such a person was said to be “facility rated.” Again because of the Vietnam build up, communications personnel were being rotated on a frequent basis, so there was always a shortage of facility rated individuals to assign. Coming in with a computer background, I achieved full facility rating fairly quickly, which saved me from several hideous reassignments because of the lack of qualified personnel.

This led to a quirky work-around with dual shift supervisors. The individual with the highest rank was denoted the “military” supervisor for the shift, but if he (there were no female tech controllers in those days) wasn’t facility rated, another airman with a facility rating was denoted the “technical” shift supervisor and his word was binding when it came to determining what should be done to effect recovery of a failure.

I remember the confusion on the other end of the telephone when a controller at another facility, who had been speaking to sergeant such and so, asked for the shift supervisor and I answered, “Airman Ryals.” He said, “No, I wanted the shift supervisor.” I replied, “You’ve got him. What do you need?”

Training Tribulations

Because I had been facility rated for a while and generally understood the system, I was assigned to be the unit training supervisor. This didn’t sit too well with some of the troops who greatly out ranked me who were relegated to shift work while I got the cushy day job. My main task assignment was to rewrite the tech control training manual.

AUTODIN Training Manual

AUTODIN Training Manual

The two manuals used previously at Norton tech control were essentially just reprints of Western Union system documentation. They did a good job of explaining the various facets of the system, but they didn’t really tell you how to troubleshoot a failure and recover from it. I know many of the older controllers would have preferred to have a decision tree that they could follow, but there was insufficient time to develop one that would have been comprehensive. Instead, I opted for clear language explanations of how the parts worked, and hoped that coupling understanding of the system with controllers’ training and experience in trouble isolation would lead to a good result.

Long before word processing software was thought of, I was producing camera-ready pages for the manual by typing them on an electric typewriter. Neither of the two error-correcting methods I had available (white-out, and correction tape) produced a result that was clean enough for reproduction, so I had to type each page perfectly. One day my wife, who worked at the same facility (she was a WAF and operated the compound terminal), came by when I was away from my typewriter, and decided to “help” me by finishing the page that I had mostly completed. Instead, she wound up with a typo in the last line and I had to start the page all over. Thanks, dear.

Western Union

Modems and communication lines for Autodin were provided by Western Union, which had a direct connection to their national microwave radio system for the long haul circuits. They also had a fat cable to the local telephone company for use if their microwave system failed for any extended period of time. Whenever a tech controller determined that the problem was with a circuit, he handed it off to Western Union personnel for resolution.

Bomb Alarm

Western Union also had other government data circuits passing through their facilities, the most interesting of which was the bomb alarm. This was in the late 60’s, during the height of the Cold War, and NORAD had an elaborate matrix of low-speed data circuits connected to transponders mounted on telephone poles in various cities around the country. These transponders were polled every few minutes to see if they were still there. Because the location of the transponders and the route of the circuits were known, a computer at NORAD headquarters could figure out from which signals were missing what cities had been bombed in a nuclear attack. Pretty scary thought, isn’t it. We were aware of the bomb alarms because a bank of signal relays near our tech control console chattered in a distinctive pattern each time the transponders were polled. I am pleased to report that the bomb alarm system never saw any real use.

Forest Fire

Probably my most exciting time in tech control was related to a forest fire that burned through the microwave repeater connecting our site to the Western Union system. The heat was so intense that it melted antennas and waveguides off the tower.

I was working the tech control coordination position and as a result of the Norton site being essentially cut off from the rest of the world circuit-wise, I had to send out bunches of failure report messages and call all over the place. I had never before in my short military career had the occasion to speak with so many colonels and generals. Our switch served SAC bases, so Strategic Air Command headquarters was most interested in tracking our outage and attempts to recover from it. Likewise for the Tactical Air Command and a bunch of other headquarters.

Western Union personnel ordered up a boat load of circuits from the telephone company and restored as many connections as they could. Sometime in the middle of the night a Western Union microwave installation team miraculously managed to hang large microwave dishes on a 50-foot tower, while being buffeted by 60 mph winds flowing across the ridge and into the base of the fire. Twenty-four hours later all was back to normal.

Have a question for Phil Ryals on this subject? Leave a comment below!

For more information on the Autodin:


  • mike wendl

    I worked on the philco-ford switch at ft monmouth in 1971. Do you have any information on that version of autodin?

  • No, I never had the occasion to even visit one of the Philco-Ford switches.

    • Ben Wallace

      I worked at Korat ASC from 1972-1974 with a very extended TDY during that period to Clark ASC. I also worked at Camp Drake ASC from 1974 to 1977. I was in CommTech Maintenance. Great duty. Stayed 23 years in USAF (1970-1993). Hit it big with Qualcomm. Retired in 2009. Life is great. Live in San Diego.

      • Chester King

        Doing research on this subject, and would like to hear from you. Several questions relating to Thailand. I was at nkp

  • Barry Martin

    Phil, I worked at McClellan Autodin from 1977-1978. Your articles have sparked quite a few memories. Thanks for keeping history alive. Did our paths cross at Tymnet/Tymshare?

    • Pete Cooley


      If you worked at the ASC at McClellan, maybe you recall Mr Dean or Mr Eastlund. They were my civilian supervisors. Please contact me at my email address with a phone number where you can be reached. I would like to talk to you about your days at McClellan.

      • Shiloh Morris

        I was in one of the first wu classes in Camden and was at Norton before we came on line. Barry Martin was a very good friend of mine…I talked him from transferring from San Francisco to San Bernardino where he was an assistant to K.Leber the wu Site Supervisor. Anyway we lost contact…if you have a known address even if an old one please let me know
        Shiloh Morris

    • Shiloh Morris

      Looking for you for 30 years. Call me 775-629-1303 My address is 5560 Navajo Trail
      Stagecoach Nv near carson

  • John Scott

    It is always nice to see other people that have AUTODIN sites on the web. For many people working at an ASC was a big part of their military (and civilian) career.
    There are a couple of sites that you might want to look at:

    take care and hope you continue your site.

  • Pete Cooley

    I cross-trained into ASC Ops when I returned from Vietnam. My first assignment was at Tinker (Mar 72 – May 73) which is also where I went to Tech School. That was a plus because we got hands on experience with live traffic. From Tinker, I was assigned to McClellan (May 73 – Jul 74). After leaving McClellan, my last ASC assignment was to Croughton (Jul 74 – 79). My next and last assignment was to Andrews (Jul 79 – Jul 89) as a classified assignment. Thank you Phil for a great article on AUTODIN.

  • Bob Berry

    I worked in Tech Control at the Philco Ford Autodin
    on Guam from June 73 to late May 76 right after
    typhoon Pamela. Maybe someone you know worked

  • Warren Thomas

    I was stationed at Korat 1972-73 and McClellan 1973-74. Your photo of the Tech Control console really brought back memories. Thanks.

  • Great flashback. I was at RAF Croughton (England) from ’75 to ’77. They were swapping out the drum memory with disks (huge platters in those days). Incredible to work in a large lead lined communications building that wasn’t even equivalent in performance to a modern broadband router in your home :)

  • Hi there! This blog post couldn’t be written much better!
    Looking att this post reminds me of my previous roommate!
    He continually kept talking about this. I am going to forward this
    inforfmation to him. Fairly certain he will have a very good read.

    Many thanks for sharing!

  • Rob Havens

    I was trained as a switching center operator at Andrews in 1968 after a short stint as a technician at a torn tape weather relay housed in a Census Bureau building in Suitland, Md.

    Sent to Tan Son Nhut AFB Vietnam in 1970 as an operator in the PIACCS (pacific integrated automated command and control system) system operating an IBM 1130 terminal. Building housed redundant IBM 360/50 computers that massaged intelligence data and transmitted frag orders to 7th AF bases all over SE Asia. My job was route the messages to their appropriate destination.

    Site was shut down in Dec, 1970 when the link to the Autodin network was finally up and running.

    Was transferred back to Gentile AFS in Dayton until the end of my enlistment in 1971.

  • John Fountain

    I was a crypto accountant at the Futema Towers center on Okinawa in the early 70’s. I also worked at ECTC at Ft. Derrick, Md.

  • I worked on the BMEWS tracking radar in 1961. I did the programming on the IBM 7090 in Greenland.
    In 1962/63, I worked with 2 other “kids” (all 3 of us in our 20’s.) displaying the BMEWS data at Ent airforce base in Colorado Springs before the hardened site in Cheyenne Mountain. All of this before the Ford Philco installation at NORAD.
    Thank You for the information.
    Paul Galow

  • Chris Dammann

    Way cool, I was an autodin tech controller at Andrews AFB 78 and 79

  • W B Wilson

    I worked at the Frankfurt AMME in the mid-1980’s. We had Sperry equipment. The personnel mix was military and two Sperry contractors. Everyone was very sharp. I recall being surprised the equipment had only 128K of RAM as my Apple IIe had 128K as well. An amusing aspect of the operation was people with rank coming to the service window and demanding to be allowed entry into the facility. “Sorry Charlie !” They didn’t enjoy being told “no” by privates first class, heh.

  • george gross

    was stationed at wildwood afs ak 1970-71 autodin maint. will be at our wildwood reunion in Memphis tenn. june of 2016

  • jose rodriguez

    I was teletype maintenance (31j20) at Phu Lam autodin. not 100% sure but (memory ? after all these years, feburary 69 to august of 69. sp5

  • W. Deane Brimm

    Phil give me a break. Bomb Alarm! Helped set that up when I was a Wire Chief at WU in downtown LA. Ah the fire, Sierra Peak (Corona). A single point of failure (J station). I was on duty to my dismay. Called Belleville underground, invoked my secret code, and seized any and all civilian communications I could muster. In the process requested where the nearest portable MW equipment was available. Think the answer was somewhere in Colorado. Ordered immediate transfer to our area by military aircraft, ordered a chopper to drop it into place with two technicians at Sierra Peak. Got the main MW line up and running. Hell that was the good ole days.

  • Larry Woodie

    Working in the Crypto Maint. Dept at Norton Autodin from 1971 to 1973. Best job I have ever worked. Great people.

  • Conrad B. Myrick

    In November 1972 the 1st Signal Brigade was relocated to the Republic of Korea under the U.S. Army Strategic Communications Command.

    On 29 January 1973 the 1st Signal Brigade was reestablished by General Order 56 from HQ, USASTRATCOM. The brigade’s mission in South Korea was to provide communications support to the United Nations Command, U.S. Forces Korea and the Eight U.S. Army. The brigade was also given the mission of installing, maintaining and operating the Defense Communications System in South Korea.

    I became the OIC (around July 1973 through May 1974) of the newly established Taegu ASC, 1st Signal Brigade. The facility had been physically relocated from Wildwood, Alaska.

    The story went at the time that this was partially in response to the initial delayed message for help (delayed in the Taegu torn-tape relay), from the USS Pueblo when it was seized by the North Koreans. The Taegu ASC was to be an upgrade in state-of-the-art communications technology and reliability. I have never been able to vet the story of the “lost or delayed” message. Have you or anyone else heard such a story?

    It was a Philco Ford Site. Key members were Lt Joseph Chwalek and Cpt Samuel Buchanon, SSG.

  • Russ hueners


  • Phil Rockwell

    Looking for information on how close the AUTODIN Switching center was to the perimeter. I was an admin troop 1974 for SMSgt Roberts and then MSgt Bill Foster.

  • Joe Haughney

    I went to Autodin Switch Programming school at Keesler in 1967l The AF sent me to EurCom Area in Wiesbaden in 1968. From 68 through 72 I served as the AF European Program manager for DSTE installations, Weather Switch move, DSSCS/DIN, Mode V installation/moves and whatever else that mentioned a computer (e.g B3500/USAFE AF C&C computers IBM 360s and H600s etc.). Great job, Then Iwent to CCPC at Tinker where I headed up IBM AUTODIN terminal group followed by doing design for UNIVAC DCT 9000 systems. Moved to Hanscom where I worked on SATIN IV and other systems. Finally moved on to DCA(now DISA) where I was the ARPANET network manager. All of my jobs were great and I met a lot of good people. I still miss those times and the great things in computer communications that started back then and which are so common place now.

  • Gary Howell

    Retired from Western Union in 2001. Worked in Omaha at Offut in plan55, bomb alarm display , weather fax transmissions, and Autodin. 1962-1965.
    Then Eison AFB in Fairbanks as mntce for MTTE 1965-1966, then LaMacaza Quebec at RCAF Station, mntce on 12cpm outstation. 1966-1970.
    Wound up as shift supervisor at Syracuse – in Navy Com Center in
    Sage Building Hancock AFB 1970-1971.

  • Joe Gauna

    Geez, it was great to find this site! I was at McClellan din tech control from April 68 to March 69. E4 then E5. My boss was Fred Giroux, a great boss and a great family man. Everyone liked “girocks”. I was facility rated as an E4, with an E6 shift super, so did have a bit of friction on occasion. I got pretty good at running CSU troubles, too. As an E5, I was sent to Wildwood Station, in Kenai Alaska, to assist with the relocation of the Philco switch from Khorat. What a great bunch of Philco guys, all characters and all fun, but all business as well. Met Ernie Brooner, who taught me all about digital data switching. That helped me later, in Hawaii, when they installed an Auto Digital Weather Switch at Hickam, then later when I was station chief at Croughton. The din crew there was a great outfit, although I didn’t get to visit them very much. Too busy at the main tech control, where the first BBN packet switch was installed. Loved my 23 years, 63-85. You’ve all brought up names I remember and opened a flood gate of memories that have me teary eyed and boring my girlfriend with meaningless (to her) stories. She says she like to hear them, though. Thanks

  • Joe Gauna

    Oh, one more thing: my sign was “GA”

  • John Adams

    US Army trained at Ft. Monmouth, NJ as 32D, fixed station tech control. I stayed on after graduation for 32D2TH4, Autodin training.
    Great experience-!

  • Bruce Enter

    I was Stationed at Gentile AFS, Ohio as a 295 from February 1971 to August 1973. Great time to be there…lots of action….lots of pool games!

  • Jerry Ackaret

    I was “Juliet Alpha Tango at Norton Tech Control” during 1977. I sure said that a lot over the phones! It was lots of fun, and day shift all lived in the same apartment complex. Great article, which brought back a lot of memories.

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