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Harry Place ’51 and the Secret Phone

“Cryptology is a secret world. Success, if it is to endure, must be hidden. The actors in the drama, like deep cover agents, normally remain anonymous.”

So reads the opening Web page of the National Cryptologic Museum, located in Fort Meade, Md. Operated by the National Security Agency, the museum is home to many of the secrets of the history of American cryptology. Displays feature the people who devoted their lives to cryptology and national defense, the machines they built, the techniques they used, and more.

One exhibit features a project that involved the work of Harry Place ’51. Place was a key designer of the “STU II” — the second-generation secure telephone unit, used for highly classified conversations by civilian and government contractors, the military — even the White House.

“This was a very interesting project that started in the 1970s as a civilian (versus military) product for civilian agencies of the government,” Place explains. It later became the CIVIL/ESVN (Executive Secure Voice Network) project. “Translated, this meant the White House,” he says.

Secure transmissions, whether telephone conversations, facsimile (fax) copies, or automated information systems (AIS) communications, have long been possible through encryption, but for many years the equipment was bulky, complex, and expensive. Place, who spent more than 43 years as an engineer at ITT Defense Communications Division, was an operator of STU I. “It looked like a two-drawer file cabinet,” he recalls.

Part of the challenge in developing the second generation of the unit was to make it smaller. STU II was a large desktop unit, although Place “battled to make it a device that could go under a shelf or conference table.”

Place, who earned both a bachelor’s and master’s in electrical engineering from Rensselaer, was involved with everything from picking out the particular telephone model to helping to install the units in countries around the world. “There are so many stories behind this development, and the field service problems we encountered in foreign countries,” Place says.

Perhaps the most famous moment for STU II, which had its heyday in the 1980s, came with a November 1989 issue of Newsweek magazine. The cover featured a photo of President Ronald Reagan using STU II. “I personally picked out that phone,” Place says with a laugh.

Place worked on many interesting projects during his career. He was involved with the development of a jam-proof radio used by ground forces during Desert Storm. “It was the only radio the Iraqis couldn’t jam,” Place says.

Today he is retired, but keeps busy with volunteer work and consulting near his home in Ridgewood, N.J. He says he lives by the 11th Commandment: “Thou shalt not take thyself too seriously.” --TL

Rensselaer Magazine: Winter 2003
President's View Your Mail From the Archives Hawk Talk Class Notes Features
Front Page At Rensselaer Milestones
In Memoriam Making a Difference Staying Connected
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