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The Big Red vs. Big Blue

Who: Nikita Khrushchev and IBM's 305 Ramac


When: September 21, 1959


Where: IBM, 5600 Cottle Road, San Jose

The motorcade heading south on the Nimitz Freeway carried one of the more terrifying CEOs ever to call on Silicon Valley. Touring Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev ruled a Communist superpower that had girdled the heavens with Sputniks and shot rockets to the moon. Meanwhile, back on Earth engineers in the West labored like those at IBM with their Random Access Method of Accounting and Control (RAMAC) computers. What a bore. Building giant adding machines for profit and loss statements was no where near as sexy as hurling satellites into space.

This porky, combustible Russian in the bad beige suit, "K" to headline writers, could turn San Jose into radioactive slag with just one phone call. Many feared he would. Two days earlier in L.A., a speech by Mayor Norris Poulson had offended the Soviet's politics, while Hollywood had assaulted his sense of decency. Invited to the set of the movie Can-Can, the priggish K, 65, had been jolted by a flash of Shirley MacLaine's panties. He threatened to bolt for Vladivostok immediately. "Is our plane ready?" he roared.

Cooler heads prevailed, however, and the following day, K boarded his Southern Pacific express as scheduled. He was in a mecurial mood again - hectoring his hosts about the decadence of frilly underwear. "A woman's face is always more interesting than her backside," he said, continuing his rant on morals. Protocol officers on both sides, knowing full well San Franciscos dissolute reputation, steeled themselves. But the hilly city charmed the old Cold Warrior: 10,000 cheered as he and Mrs. Khrushchev pulled up to the Mark Hopkins hotel, and the next morning, a beaming K took an unplanned Nob Hill walkabout before his sightseeing tour of the Valley.

IBM's new San Jose computer plant was America's midcentury-modern, high-tech, can-do showcase set in the new frontier of fruit orchards just north of the drowsy city. IBM Chairman Thomas J. Watson Jr. ushered the Soviets into the cafeteria. Here His Red Excellency dined with the proletariat, devouring the 49 fried chicken and fruit cup after viewing a 305 RAMAC: the world's first computer with a magnetic hard disk and only $10,000 a megabyte.

Khrushchev, eyeball-to-eyeball with the vanguard of a revolution that would one day topple his own, blinked, thanked the help, and left. Roaring back to San Francisco, the motorcade blew off a Stanford Research Institute appointment to invade a Stonestown Plaza supermarket, where K, ever the farmers son, pinched the cantaloupe.

At a Bay Area A-list dinner that evening, he admitted his bafflement with technology. "I saw the machines but, of course, I dont understand the actual substance of the matter," he said. K departed for Iowa the next morning. He was excited. Corn was something he knew about.

Andrew Nelson lives and writes in San Francisco.

Copyright 2001 - 2002 Andrew T. Nelson. All rights reserved.