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Tech

Manifest UAV

How San Diego's General Atomics launched the game of drones.

by Michael Arria
Jun 6 2012, 11:45am

William Anders was a Catholic before he was shot into space. After seeing the earth from the Apollo 8 and snapping what has become the definitive photograph of our world, Anders returned home a changed man. The specific beliefs and precepts of his faith were reduced to a mockery from the perspective of a different orbit.

The material world provided Anders with ample opportunities. After serving as executive secretary for the National Aeronautics and Space Council, being appointed to the Atomic Energy Commission, and doing a stint with General Electric, Anders became Vice Chairman, and then chairman and CEO, of General Dynamics in 1991, an aerospace and defense company."

General Dynamics was founded in 1952 to build the U.S. Navy’s first submarines. The firm carved out a definitive spot in the San Diego area, where it carried out most of its research and manufacturing. By 1961, 15 percent of San Diego County’s workforce was employed by General Dynamics. And no matter that Anders stepped in as the Cold War winded down – the company was still employing nearly 20,000 workers in San Diego through its Convair division. In his magisterial history of California, Kevin Starr wrote that General Dynamics had “ceased to be something private. It had become, rather, a bedrock of public identity.”

But in 1994, things started changing. Federal defense spending cuts had Anders reassessing the industry, electing to shift operations to Tucson and Denver. It was a move comparable to “General Motors [announcing] it was leaving Detroit," Starr said. As Anders explained in a rare interview with Fortune Magazine: “What I’m trying to do is get the whole industry to think. I’m very concerned that as we consolidate, we do it in a sensible way.”

Only the majority of San Diego’s residents really didn’t view Anders’ move as being sensible. In mid-November 1995, Starr wrote, "San Diego was treated to a most melancholy spectacle: the auctioning off of all machinery in the harbor side Convair factory. As the equipment was sold, crated, and shipped-the milling and turning machines, the grinders, borers, drillers, rooters, brakes, lathes, shears, fabricators, arc welders, hydraulic-feed reciprocating surface grinders, all of it, some it used since 1935-one era of San Diego came dramatically to a close."

The only remaining local reminder of General Dynamics’ former presence? A waning company called General Atomics. General Dynamics hatched the group in 1955 “for the purpose of harnessing the power of nuclear technologies for the benefit of mankind,” but it was failing to live up to its lofty purpose. It was sold off fifteen years later, changing hands between oil companies, before two brothers, Neal and Linden Blue, bought it in 1986 for $50 million.

With General Dynamics gone and the Berlin Wall smashed, the meager General Atomics operation seemed to represent a bygone era, destined for a bumpy road while navigating the End of History. Anders had sensed a seachange in the business, and he put his company in a position to survive. And then the Blue brothers made a leap of faith.

Read the rest over at Motherboard

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