Remembering Sputnik: Charles A. Fowler (Part 1)

In preparing our package of interviews recalling the significance of the launch of the Sputnik satellite a half century ago, we had to leave one account on the cutting-room floor. In "Sputnik: 50 Years Later", we focused on three early leaders in the field of space exploration who happened to be in exactly the same place at the same time in the days after the world's first artificial object was launched into orbit.

Sir Arthur C. Clarke was the past-president of the British Interplanetary Society. Frederick C. Durant III was the past-president of the International Astronautics Federation. And Ernst Stuhlinger was the representative of the U.S. rocketry team led by Wernher von Braun. They all were in Barcelona, Spain, on 5 October 1957, for the 8th International Astronautics Congress when news of Sputnik struck the world like a comet. We found this remarkable coincidence to be so compelling that we had to concentrate on their mutually shared experience.

Originally, though, we had planned on scanning for recollections from many people in the world of high-tech affected by the event; but we quickly learned that three of the first we contacted unexpectedly had something in common. That changed our approach. One of the folks we asked for a comment early on has been a contributor to Spectrum Online in the past, and it seems only fitting that we let him have his say in this Web portion of our publication.

IEEE Fellow Charles A. "Bert" Fowler, now semi-retired, served in many capacities over the years in research and development in the defense sector. Born in Centralia, Illinois, in 1921, he received a degree in engineering physics from the University of Illinois in 1942. During World War II, he worked for the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Radiation Laboratory, where he served on a team that developed a radar landing system for the Royal Air Force in England. As a technical observer in uniform, he helped install and operate the system in Europe until the end of the war. Fowler then returned to the Radiation Lab as a project engineer, working on developing the first radar air-traffic control system.

From 1946 to 1966, Fowler worked for the Airborne Instruments Laboratory (later AIL Systems Inc.) in Deer Park, N.Y., where he was involved in air traffic control and played a lead role in bringing about the use of radar for control of civil air traffic. From 1966 to 1970, he served as the Deputy Director of Defense Research and Engineering for Tactical Systems in the Office of the Secretary of Defense, with responsibility for all tactical aircraft, helicopters, ships, combat vehicles, weapons, and sensors. In 1970, he accepted an offer from the Raytheon Co. to work as its vice president and manager of its Equipment Development Laboratories. In 1976, he moved to the MITRE Corp., where he served as its senior vice president and general manager of the company's Bedford (Mass.) Operations.

Fowler opened his own consulting firm, C. A. Fowler Associates, in Sudbury, Mass., in 1986, advising corporate clients on aspects of electronics, with specialties in radar; command, control, and communications (C3); counter-C3; intelligence; and military systems. He has served as a member of the Defense Science Board (Chair 1984-1988) and the Defense Intelligence Agency, Science and Technology Advisory Board (Chair 1976-1982); and is a member of the National Academy of Engineering.

In recent years, he has penned a number of essays for IEEE Spectrum, some on the serious side (such as "Asymmetric Warfare: A Primer") and some on the lighter side (such as "The Indefatigable Inventor").

In early October of 1957, he was "trying to run the Radar Department at AIL [Systems], doing radar R&D, mainly advanced signal processing and phased array technology," he told us. He heard the news about the launch of Sputnik on the weekend at his Long Island home.

Tomorrow, on the 50th anniversary of the launch of Sputnik, we'll share his thoughts on what Sputnik meant to him and to the United States (particularly in the field of education).

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