King David and the Supercomputers

by Stephen Bryen

Presented by SDB Partners LLC


In the Book of Samuel we read: “Now there was no smith to be found throughout all the land of Israel; for the Philistines said, ‘lest the Hebrews make themselves swords or spears,’ but every one of the Israelites went down to the Philistines to sharpen his plowshare, his mattock, his ax, or his sickle.”


The emergence of a united Israel under King David is difficult to explain, particularly given the backwardness of the Israelite economy and what seems a lack of incentives for integration.  While we do not know all the reasons, it seems the military emergence of Saul first and David after can be explained by the transfer of critical iron making technology to the Hebrew tribes in Judah.


Saul and David emerge as the first national leaders after Israel adopted the Kingship model to consolidate power and to defeat its enemies.  But the Kingship model, while centralizing power and creating an administrative system for taxation and military organization, is not enough to explain the great change that swept over ancient Israel.


The southern part, Judah, was mountainous and hilly with little in the way of exploitable resources.  In the context of the times, it was agriculturally poor, lacking in settled cultivation, and supported itself through animal herding and aggressive raids on its neighbors. Saul and David are both formidable adversaries against their primarily non-Hebrew neighbors.


But the biblical text makes clear that some of their neighbors had superior military capability, particularly the Philistines who controlled the coastal lowlands. In Judges 1:19 we read: “And the LORD was with Judah; and he drove out the inhabitants of the mountain; but could not drive out the inhabitants of the valley, because they had chariots of iron.”


The chariots seem to have been able to operate even in relatively rough terrain because their wheels were strengthened and improved with iron, scythes were attached to the chariot to cut down opposing foot soldiers, and the charioteers were protected by iron armor covering the “basket” from which they operated the chariot and fired or threw weapons (arrows and spears, javelins and axes respectively).  We know from the Bible that once David became King, one of his major military preoccupations was the acquisition of “iron chariots” in order to dominate his enemies. References to the manufacture of large quantities of iron nails and fittings used in construction in Jerusalem also make clear the importance of iron in the period by linking the production directly to King David.


Until then, the Philistines* absolutely controlled iron production – both the forging of iron and the smiths who worked the iron either into weapons or for agriculture (plow shares, axes) and construction (nails, fastenings, brackets, pins). Archaeological evidence shows that the technology was found in Philistine border towns and the Biblical text points us to David’s presence in there.


David had been pushed out of the Hebrew-controlled areas by a jealous Saul. When he heard that Ahimelech, a leading priest, had sheltered David and given him food, Saul had Ahimelech and some 85 priests at Nob killed. He then destroyed the town, slaying the women, children and infants and with them the oxen, donkeys and sheep. David and his men were in a dangerous and exposed position as they fled into Philistine territory, outnumbered by and inferior to Saul’s forces. David and his men stayed under Philistine protection and David was hired out to the Philistine King, Achish.


It seems likely that the transfer of iron technology took place during this time.


Iron technology had immediate military significance, since the dominant weapons and armor protection then in Hebrew hands were bronze and copper, and replacement supplies were very hard to come by because of raw material supply problems. The Biblical commentary notes the lack of weapons in the hands of David and his men. The entire region, wherever possible, was learning to substitute iron for copper and bronze.


Iron spears and iron tipped javelins, and iron swords as well as iron armor layered onto shields, conferred almost immediate military superiority. One can recall that it was the huge, iron-tipped spear of Goliath, and his iron sword, as well as his huge size, that frightened off all challengers, except David.


Iron production in the ancient period was a combination of technology for properly operating the furnaces and the manner in which the furnaces were heated but not over-heated (which would result in brittle wrought iron or an iron that was too soft to be of use), and how the materials was worked (through a hammering and quenching process).** Learning the technique would have taken time. According to the texts, David and his men were with the Philistines for sixteen months – sufficient time to learn.




If iron production and the technology and know-how helped ensure the first united Kingdom of Israel, a fact still celebrated today, what can we say about supercomputers 3,000 years later? Why is the linkage of any conceivable relevance?


U.S. military superiority, what has been called the Revolution in Military Affairs (RMA), comes from microelectronics and computers. America’s ability to not only field “smart weapons” but also to design advanced equipment, means a strong base of dedicated high speed computers.


An important reason why the United States “won” the Cold War was superiority in electronics and computers. Massive investments by the Soviet Union were unable to compensate for the growth of American military superiority based on a “qualitative edge,” of which a good part was due to computers and electronics.


Another key benefit of computers and electronics is that fast computers can crack enemy codes. The supercomputer was largely an American invention pioneered by major companies such as IBM and by scientists such as Seymour Cray, Gene Amdahl and Steve Chen (born in Taiwan).


The United States, therefore, has spent uncountable sums on a massive infrastructure of supercomputers to crack encryption codes and for related intelligence tasks. On top of what already has been invested, next year the U.S. will open NSA’s new Utah Data Center in Bluffdale. According to Wired News, “This is more than just a data center,” says one senior intelligence official … [which is] critical, he says, for breaking codes. And code-breaking is crucial, because much of the data that the center will handle—financial information, stock transactions, business deals, foreign military and diplomatic secrets, legal documents, confidential personal communications—will be heavily encrypted. According to another top official also involved with the program, the NSA made an enormous breakthrough several years ago in its ability to cryptanalyze, or break, unfathomably complex encryption systems employed by not only governments around the world but also many average computer users in the US.


The U.S., therefore, depends on supercomputers for designing and building military equipment, for code breaking, and also for designing and “testing” nuclear weapons.


And for years U.S. supercomputers have been the target of potential adversaries, particularly the Soviet Union (now Russia) and China.So far as is known, Russia does not have supercomputers.  But China does, and the number and capability is growing.  How did this come about?


Like King David’s sojourn to Gaza and his time with King Achish, the United States decided to allow China to purchase from the U.S. increasingly sophisticated supercomputers, and permitted the transfer of the underlying know how and the algorithms essential for modern supercomputers.


The transfer of supercomputer technology to China from the United States started in the 1990’s and continues to this day. Apace with it is the access Chinese scientists have to America’s supercomputing industry and scientific community. While Chinese scientists are not invited to visit NSA, they do visit U.S. supercomputer centers and visits are reciprocated by top U.S. scientists going to China, such as the Lawrence Livermore Laboratory visits to their supercomputer counterparts in China. Today China claims to have the world’s fastest supercomputer, and has a very large installed base of supercomputer machines now used for both scientific, commercial, military and intelligence work.


A recent article in The Wall Street Journal (“China’s Not-So-Super Computers”, March 23, 2012) tries to argue that China is not getting much value out of its supercomputers and that the country lags behind the U.S.


The article is based on wishful thinking; on the order of King Achish believing that David’s stay in Philistine territory and the help David gave to the Philistine Army in battling their enemies was benign.  David had a strategic objective and so do the Chinese.


The truth is the majority of China’s supercomputer program, which is probably analog to the U.S., is not in plain view to outside observers.  What we do see is growing Chinese aggressiveness represented in part by highly successful computer hacking against highly secret U.S. programs (such as the Joint Strike Fighter), with the supercomputers behind the effort in allowing the Chinese to hack encrypted as well as open networks and systems.


We know the result. King David, with access to iron-making, took control over the Hebrew tribes, created a singular state, and pushed back the Philistines. His success was based on trust given him by King Achish.


The U.S. Government, over multiple administrations, must have a unique trust relationship with China, since the effusive transfers of technology, especially the case of supercomputers, is hard to explain otherwise.


So it seems there is a linkage between King David and Supercomputers. The question that still remains is whether the net result for the United States will be to end up as did the Philistines.




*The Philistines are thought to have acquired Iron-making technology from Cyprus and/or Greece. The notion of an “iron chariot” is not a chariot composed of iron, but a chariot with key parts using iron for strengthening. This may include parts of the axle, particularly the hubs, wheel struts and the wheel “tire” which may have been strapped with iron. Some experts also speculate that the term “iron chariot” the the Bible also concerns the iron military equipment in the hands of the Philistines. Egypt, it appears, got its chariot technology from the Canaanites, and chariots first appear in Egypt in the Hyksos period. Roughly 1600 B.C. Hyksos were probably of Canaanite origin and Egyptian technical terms of the chariot and its components are all borrowed Caananite words. Along with the chariot the Hyksos introduced the composite bow, greatly improving the range and lethality of archers. The Egyptian chariots precede the Iron-age period and did not use iron in their construction. (King David died around 970 B.C. ). Iron making developed because of severe shortages of copper and tin, a crumbling geopolitical situation that made trade and commerce in this particular period extremely hazardous, meaning copper and tin could not be imported reliably. Recent discoveries in Tel Beth Shemesh in Israel (probably then a Philistine controlled town) of an iron smithy, and in Jordan at Tel Hammeh of an iron foundry dating from around the time of the death of King David (both using almost identical technology), demonstrates the accuracy of the Biblical claims in the Book of Samuel regarding iron making.

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One thought on “King David and the Supercomputers

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