Walter Dawson ’59 Looks Back on His Role Developing the Apollo Guidance Computer in the 1960s
By Katharine Webster
“The ad said Raytheon and the MIT Instrumentation Lab had a contract to design the Apollo guidance computer,” he says. “When I saw that, I said, ‘I’m gone!’”
Dawson joined Raytheon, where he worked on the design and development team for the twin computers that would guide Apollo 11’s command module and its moon-landing module. The project was a highlight in a career that has spanned the space race to his current work as an intellectual property lawyer.
“I wanted to design aerospace computers, and here was an exciting opportunity — going to the moon, which we’d never done before,” he says. “President Kennedy said we were going to reach it by the end of the ’60s, and we did. It was exciting to follow up on Kennedy’s vision.”
At the start of the Apollo project, engineers at MIT designed and built two identical prototype computers, one for themselves and one for Raytheon.
Dawson worked on testing and programming to get Raytheon’s computer up and running. It took more than a year to finalize the computer design.
“They didn’t have any software ready for me to use; I had to design my own software and use paper punched tape to run it,” he says.
Then, he and the Raytheon team had to shrink everything down from the prototype’s initial size — four electronics racks full of circuitry — into a unit the size of a large briefcase. The Apollo astronauts also needed a display screen and keyboard.
The computers had just 36,000 16-bit digital “words” of read-only memory for essential programs, encoded in plated wiring to protect it from bursts of electromagnetic radiation, and another 2,000 words of erasable random-access memory. Mission Control in Houston, Texas, radioed temporary programs to Apollo 11 for different stages of the mission, and the twin computers communicated with each other when the moon lander separated from the command capsule.
‘You Have to Do This Right’
During development, NASA sent astronauts to tour Raytheon and remind the engineers what was at stake besides beating the Soviet Union to the moon.
Dawson and his family watched with anticipation and pride on July 20, 1969, as Neil Armstrong became the first person to set foot on the moon.
“That computer took the astronauts to the moon, around the moon, landing on the moon and reuniting with the command capsule,” Dawson says. “That small computer did all that with a fraction of the computing power we all carry around today in our notebook computers and cellphones.”
Dawson says his education at UMass Lowell prepared him to work on the most ambitious and exciting technological project of the era, one that accelerated the development of integrated circuits. As a senior, he had signed up for a new class in the emerging field of transistors, microelectronics and computer programming.
“Before I graduated, I knew something about the new technologies that were evolving,” he says. “It really gave me and my classmates an edge over graduates of other engineering schools when we entered the workforce. We had lots of job offers.”
Dawson’s first job was with Sylvania in Needham, Massachusetts, working on a ballistic missile early warning system. After two years, he moved to RCA. While working at Raytheon on the Apollo computer, he earned a master’s degree in electrical engineering from Northeastern University in 1965.
Later, he helped design the computer guidance system for an experimental missile as well as the Raytheon RAC 251 computer, part of a radar landing system used by the Air Force at temporary airfields. Then he worked on the Trident missile system guidance computer, rising to the position of a principal engineer and project manager.
A Change of Career
In the meantime, inspired by an uncle who was a lawyer, Dawson spent four years putting himself through Suffolk University Law School at night, earning his law degree in 1976. He practiced real estate and probate law out of his home in Lowell on weekends.
In 1980, a Raytheon human resources employee updated Dawson’s personnel file with his law degree. A month later, the company offered him a job as a patent attorney.
“They needed someone with a lot of engineering experience who was also a lawyer,” he says.
He has practiced intellectual property law ever since, logging 15 years for Raytheon; a stretch at Pearson & Pearson in Lowell from 1995 to 2019, where he handled patents for UMass Lowell and other clients; and, for the past two years, at Maine, Cernota & Rardin in Nashua, New Hampshire. He served as president of the Boston Patent Law Association in 1999 and is also a member of the Greater Lowell Bar Association.
A native Lowellian, he loved meeting students from other countries, including India, Mexico and Turkey. “I’d never met anyone from outside Lowell, so it was an opportunity to learn about other countries and cultures — and to socialize,” he says.
He’s remained involved with the university since graduation, serving as vice president for the Board of Trustees in the 1980s and as a member of the university’s building authority. He’s now on the industry advisory board for the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering.
But his most enduring commitment is as a member and former president of the Independent University Alumni Association of Lowell, which provides grants and scholarships to UMass Lowell students. Dawson and his wife, Mary, have been generous donors.
As a first-generation college student whose father, a Boston police officer, died when he was a baby, Dawson knows how much a scholarship means. When he started college in 1955, tuition was about $75 a semester — a lot of money to his family.
Fortunately, he was able to get scholarships. He also worked part-time at a pharmacy during the school year and found a summer job at Raytheon’s plant in South Lowell, which made the Sparrow missile. The job dovetailed perfectly with his classes.
“I don’t think I could have gotten a better education anywhere else,” he says. “When I graduated, I figured I’d do whatever I could to help other kids get there.”