Monday, April 26, 2010

'Captain Al' Hubbard: An Appreciation

The benefits of hallucinogens as healing tools are much in the news these days. Captain Al Hubbard could have told you that 60 years ago. This post was originally published in October 2009.

Alfred "Captain Al" Hubbard led a life that didn't just border on the surreal, it was surreal. He was a onetime shyster inventor and brilliant if uneducated scientist. He was considered a demigod by some and a lunatic by others, and had innumerable brushes with the law. He was virtually unknown in his lifetime and remains so today although he was one of the most influential individuals in determining the course of American culture and innovation in the second half of the 20th century.

This is because it was Hubbard and not author Ken Kesey and psychologist Timothy Leary who first introduced LSD to America.

The up-and-coming hackers in the computer world of the late 1950s believed that computers had enormous potential beyond processing bank checks and other mundane tasks, but they were divided into two camps. The mechanists were engineers interested in artificial intelligence; that is, building computers that could mimic the human mind, while the holy grail of the engineers who were humanists was developing small computers that would expand the mind. Among Hubbard's adherents were key members of the latter group, and they succeeded in their goal through the sheer force of their personalities, brilliance and ingenuity, as well as the insights they gleaned from using LSD.

In fact, these men, numbering about 30 in all, were to invent virtually all of the key components of the personal computer or laptop on which you are reading this post, from microswitches to microprocessors to multimedia, as well as the mouse you probably are using, and even ARPAnet, the precursor to the World Wide Web that has brought you and I together for these few minutes.

Ironically, the humanists who rode the first wave of the psychedelic movement received much of their funding from the Pentagon and NASA, branches of a federal government that in a few short years would attempt to crush that movement.

It also is ironic that most of the innovations in computing that we take for granted today came not from the then dominant players like IBM, Burroughs, Electronic Data and Texas Instruments, where engineers were discouraged from thinking big about going small, but from start-ups in what would become known as Silicon Valley. These included Adobe, Cisco, Intel, and of course Apple, fledgling companies where engineers believed that not even the sky was the limit.

* * * * *
The story of Al Hubbard's life is full of holes, contradictions and cul de sacs, as well as unverifiable claims that he worked with the Manhattan Project as a black-market uranium supplier and in a CIA mind-control program called MK-ULTRA as a psychotherapist. This short, stocky man with buzz-cut hair, a warm smile and twinkling eyes was known as "Cappy" by his friends and lived much of his life in the shadows by choice. One would never guess from what is known about his early years that he would become known as the "Johnny Appleseed of LSD."

Hubbard was born in 1901 in Kentucky, but little is known about his childhood. Although he had no scientific training, at age 18 he invented the Hubbard Energy Transformer. This radioactive battery-powered device could not be explained by the technology of the day. This is because it was not the perpetual motion machine that he claimed it to be and hadn't actually propelled a ship around Portico Bay in Seattle nonstop for three days, as press accounts claimed.

A Pittsburgh company bought 50 percent rights to the patent for $75,000, but nothing more was heard of the device.

Hubbard's next job was as a taxi driver in Seattle during Prohibition. The pay was lousy, but he made a bundle off of an ingenious sideline -- a sophisticated ship-to-shore communications system hidden in the trunk of his cab that he used to steer rum runners past the U.S. and Canadian coast guards. He was eventually arrested by the FBI and went to prison for 18 months.

What Hubbard did during the 1930s remains a mystery, but during World War II scouts for Allen Dulles, director of the Office of Strategic Services, the forerunner of the CIA, were attracted to him because of his knowledge of electronic communications. As an OSS captain, Hubbard became involved in a scheme to ship heavy armaments from San Diego to Canada for transhipment to England, but when the possibly illegal operation became the subject of a Congressional investigation, he moved to Vancouver in British Columbia and became a Canadian citizen to escape indictment.

It was there that Hubbard founded a charter boat company, later became scientific director of a uranium mining company and later still owner of several uranium businesses. By age 50, he had realized his dream of becoming a millionaire, owned a fleet of aircraft, a 100-foot yacht and an island off of Vancouver. But he was miserable.

"Al was desperately searching for meaning in his life," according to a friend quoted by Todd Brendan Fahey in an essay on Hubbard. The friend claimed that an angel appeared to Hubbard during a hike and "told Al that something tremendously important to the future of mankind would be coming soon, and that he could play a role in it if he wanted to.

"But he hadn't the faintest clue what he was supposed to be looking for."

That important something became evident in 1951 when Hubbard stumbled across an article in a scientific quarterly about the behavior of rats who were given LSD. Hubbard tracked down the person who had done the experiment, obtained some LSD from him and became a true believer after his first trip.

* * * * *
It is claimed that Hubbard gave LSD to 6,000 people beginning in the early 1950s until it was outlawed in 1967.

That is unverifiable, but it is known that among the people who tripped on his acid were Bill Wilson, the co-founder of Alcoholics Anonymous, who experimented with the drug as a way to cure alcoholism, Aldous Huxley, the celebrated writer, parapsychologist and advocate of psychedelics, and actors Cary Grant, James Coburn and Jack Nicholson, novelist Anaïs Nin and filmmaker Stanley Kubrick, among other celebrities who were turned on by Beverly Hills psychiatrists supplied by Hubbard.

But it is Hubbard's connection to those Silicon Valley whiz kids that we are focusing on here, and that brings us to Myron Stolaroff.

Stolaroff was an assistant to the president for long-range planning at Ampex Corporation, which was a leading maker of magnetic reel-to-reel tape recorders and an incubator for pioneering engineers. Like Hubbard a few years earlier, Stolaroff felt that there was no spiritual center to his life.

It was through an acquaintance that Stolaroff learned of a new drug called LSD and an unusual man from Canada who was administering the substance to Huxley and others. Stolaroff was skeptical, but then one day in 1956 he looked up from his desk at Ampex to see Hubbard standing in the doorway.

Several weeks later, Stolaroff took 66 micrograms (a moderately heavy dose) of LSD-25 in Hubbard's Vancouver apartment that had been manufactured by Sandoz, the Swiss firm where Albert Hoffman had stumbled upon the drug's psychoactive properties in 1943.

Stolaroff found his first trip to be a deeply religious event that took him far into his own unconscious mind and he returned to California an LSD zealot. Among the first people he turned on were engineers from Ampex and Hewlitt-Packard, and in the next few years the circle widened to include those 30 or so engineers, who included Apple co-founder Steve Jobs.

Jobs has been circumspect about his use of LSD. But John Markoff, author of the fascinating What the Dormouse Said: How the Sixties Counterculture Shaped the Personal Computer Industry, recalls interviewing the notoriously prickly engineer-executive back in 2001 on the day that Apple had introduced its now ubiquitous iTunes media player.

Jobs was in an especially bad mood, Markoff writes, but at the end of the interview he turned to a Mac and brought up onto the screen what is now known as the Classic iTunes view, a visualization feature that conjures up dancing color patterns that pulse in concert with the beats of the music.

"It reminds me of my youth," Jobs said with a slight smile.

* * * * *
Hubbard left behind his uranium empire and for the next decade traveled the world as a sort of psychedelic missionary.

"Al's dream was to open up a worldwide chain of clinics as training grounds for other LSD researchers," recalls Stolaroff. His first stop was at Sandoz where he purchased a gram (roughly 10,000 doses) of Delysid, the company's brand name for LSD-25, and began shipping it around the world.

In 1957, Captain Hubbard became Doctor Hubbard after he procured a PhD in biopsychology from a diploma mill. He set up a wing at Hollywood Hospital in New Westminster, British Columbia for the study of psychedelic therapy for alcoholics, and obtained the first Investigational New Drug permit from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

Hubbard left Hollywood after a dispute with the hospital director but landed on his feet when he was hired by the Stanford Research Institute of Stanford University, where has was assigned to the Alternative Futures Project, and later with the International Foundation for Advanced Study, Stolaroff's project for research into the uses of LSD.

Beginning in 1961, four years or so before LSD would percolate up the peninsula to San Francisco, the foundation supervised about 350 trips. Among the travelers were Stewart Brand, the author and founder of the influential countercultural Whole Earth Catalog.

Some of Hubbard's ideas were far out, and included the grandiose idea that if he could provide a psychedelic experience to the executives of Fortune 500 companies, he would change the whole of society. In one such effort, he persuaded a ranking Ampex executive to make his the first psychedelic corporation.

But as Jay Stevens writes in the edifying Storming Heaven: LSD and the American Dream, that things did not go well:

"Although Myron Stolaroff had laid the groundwork perfectly, persuading Ampex's new general manager to overlook Al's flaws and give LSD a chance, the result was disastrous. The general manager was Jewish. The last thing he wanted to do was to look at pictures of Jesus Christ, but that's what Hubbard kept waving at him."

Captain Al nevertheless recognized the potential psychic dangers of LSD as well as its benefits and he believed that acid should be administered and monitored by trained professionals.

Despite the amazing story of the Silicon Valley whiz kids, there is some question about whether LSD indeed enhances creativity. That was the case even before its widespread use and one reason that Hubbard was seen as a charlatan by some of the people he encountered. Indeed, the debate continues today over whether any chemical substances can do that.

John Markoff writes in What the Dormouse Said that Kary Mullis, winner of the 1993 Nobel Prize in chemistry for the polymerase chain reaction, which he said came to him on one of his numerous LSD trips, is one of the few scientists to have explored the effect of psychedelic drug use.

"Possibly the question is so cloudy because the psychic costs are potentially high," writes Markoff. "Despite intriguing evidence of positive effects in the first years of LSD experimentation, there were also incidents of psychotic outcomes as well."

Hubbard refused the temptation to become a psychedelic philosopher king like Timothy Leary, who along with the possibly LSD-related suicide of Diane Linkletter, the daughter of media celebrity Art Linkletter, probably did more to prompt the feds to outlaw LSD than anyone else.

A Drug Control Amendment signed by President Johnson in 1967 declared LSD a Schedule I substance and even possession was a felony punishable by 15 years in prison.

The FDA ordered the confiscation of all psychedelic stocks at laboratories and institutions, including Stolaroff's foundation, and legend has it that Hubbard buried most of his own stash in Death Valley, California. Only five researchers eventually were permitted to continue their research, none of them associated with Hubbard and none using human subjects.

In 1968, his finances in ruin, Hubbard was forced to sell his island for a pittance and in 1974 the Stanford Research Institute canceled his contract.

Hubbard's later efforts to get another Investigational New Drug Contract from the FDA failed although he had two decades of clinical documentation. His own health failing because of an enlarged heart, he went into semiretirement.

"He knew his work was done," said a friend.

On August 31, 1982, Al Hubbard took his last trip, departing this mortal coil from the trailer park where he lived in Casa Grande, Arizona.

PHOTOGRAPHS (From top to bottom): Ken Kesey; Timothy Leary; Early personal computer; ARPANet laboratory; Bill Wilson; Aldous Huxley; Stewart Brand; Myron Stolaroff; Steve Jobs; Diane Linkletter; Death Valley; Hubbard at home of Silicon Valley friend.

1 comment:

Ron Beasley said...

You forgot one Shaun - Hiro Moriyasu