When Douglas S. Mackiernan ‘36 dropped out of MIT, his last words, “I don’t want to waste time studying what I already know,” might have been seen as the failing freshman’s parting shot. Unless you knew Mackiernan, his professor’s assessment-that he needed remedial work to be able to continue his studies-might have promoted a jaundiced view of his abilities as a scientist. But that would have been wrong. His research on long-range radio-wave propagation in the upper atmosphere and his scientific intelligence work in atomic detection ultimately provided President Harry S. Truman with information regarding the location and size of Joseph Stalin’s first atomic test, an achievement comparable to that of Mackiernan’s MIT cohort, who helped build radar and the atomic bomb.
Like many other MIT alumni, Mackiernan helped establish the United States as the world’s first superpower through superior technical means. Radar and the atomic bomb are the most famous aspects of this scientific effort. Less well known is the early growth of the field of “national technical means,” which developed the technical abilities to detect atomic bombs and other threats to the security of the United States at great distance-spying without spies as these techniques have been so aptly described. It was a new era, and Douglas Mackiernan shines as a U.S. hero in these efforts.
The Foundations of a Spy
From his youth, Mackiernan’s scientific interests were wide ranging. By the time he was 10 years old, he was an avid ham-radio operator, and by the age of 15 he was building his own radios. After meetings with Robert H. Goddard, father of the modern rocket, Mackiernan tested rocket engines as a hobby in a converted chicken shed behind his family’s home in Stoughton, MA. By the time his classmates were graduating from MIT, Mackiernan had already been hired as a research assistant at the Institute and was serving on a joint MIT-U.S. Weather Bureau team in Cuba that was studying hurricanes with “radio beacons” on balloons sent into the path of storms.
The lack of degree was no barrier for this technically talented man. His fieldwork in Cuba brought Mackiernan to the attention of H. T. Stetson of MIT’s Cosmic Terrestrial Research Laboratory, which focused on advanced radio research. Stetson hired Mackiernan as an assistant in his lab, the second MIT position for the young scientist. By 1942 Stetson and Mackiernan had coauthored a groundbreaking article for Transactions of the American Geophysical Radio Union on the long-range propagation of radio waves and the impact of weather conditions on those signals. That same year, Mackiernan intercepted encoded Russian weather broadcasts using his own gear, and he single-handedly decoded the transmissions. When he brought the resulting intelligence to the attention of the U.S. Army Air Force, he was recruited for its cryptanalysis section in Washington, DC. By 1943 he had become chief of the section, which was responsible for deciphering encoded intelligence messages from around the world.