Stephen Budiansky

Stephen Budiansky

Fellow: Awarded 2011
Field of Study: General Nonfiction

Competition: US & Canada

Noted for his thorough research, highly readable prose, and ability to make the esoteric accessible to the general reader while adding to even experts’ knowledge of his subjects, Stephen Budiansky has written on topics ranging from cryptology, to the domestication of animals, military history, espionage, and environmental issues and from the Elizabethan era to the war in Iraq. During his Guggenheim Fellowship term, he will be exploring yet another field, writing a biography of the eccentric and quintessentially American composer Charles Ives.

After earning degrees in chemistry from Yale (B.S., summa cum laude, 1978) and applied mathematics from Harvard (S.M., 1979), Mr. Budiansky first worked as a science writer and editor for the American Chemical Society’s publication Environmental Science & Technology and later as writer and producer for the Society’s radio show Man and Molecules. In 1982 he joined the staff of the internationally known science journal Nature as Washington correspondent; two years later he became its Washington editor.

He received a Congressional Fellowship from the United States Congress Office of Technology Assessment in 1985, and during his term there coauthored a classified study of advanced conventional weapons technologies and their application to NATO defenses in Europe. When his fellowship ended, he accepted a position at U.S. News & World Report. During his twelve years there, he advanced from staff writer to science editor, foreign editor, national-security correspondent, and finally Deputy Director. He recalled that “U.S. News was a great and thoroughly crazy experience that gave me a wonderful education in the art of fast writing and even faster rewriting; an entrée into the world of politics and business and human nature; and a burning desire to do something more intellectually substantial, enduring, and purposeful.”

So in 1998, tiring of “the assembly-line pace of weekly journalism” and having several well-received books already to his credit—The Covenant of the Wild: Why Animals Choose Domestication (1992) and Nature’s Keepers: The New Science of Nature Management (1995), both of which were short-listed for Britain’s Rhone Poulenc Prize for science books; The Nature of Horses: Exploring Equine Evolution, Intelligence, and Behavior (1997); and If a Lion Could Talk: Animal Thinking and the Evolution of Consciousness (1998)—he decided to become an independent scholar and writer.

Since then he has not only contributed dozens of articles, book reviews, and op-eds to The Atlantic Monthly, New York Times, Washington Post, and Economist as well as to such specialized publications as World War II, U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, Cerebrum, and Journal of the World Association of Symphonic Bands and Ensembles, but has also written eight monographs. All are products of his abiding interests, which he describes as “the interrelationship between science and its social context, especially in war; and the evolution of the relationship between human beings and the natural world, and the continuities and discontinuities between human and animal cognitive experience.” The World According to Horses (2000); his essay on fox hunting, “Sport: Tally Ho and Tribulation,” in The Atlantic Monthly (September 2000); The Character of Cats (2002); and The Truth About Dogs (2000), which was the subject of a cover story of the same name in The Atlantic Monthly (July 1999), are illustrations of the latter.

But Mr. Budiansky’s works on military history, intelligence gathering, and cryptology have drawn the most attention. In the summer of 2000 American Heritage of Invention and Technology published his article “The Code War,” which dealt with World War II code-breaking machines. His book Battle of Wits: The Complete Story of Codebreaking in World War II was issued by the Free Press that fall. In it he described the rapid advances in cryptology the British and Americans made during the first half of the twentieth century, from President Wilson using his own rudimentary (and almost transparent) codes to breakthroughs in World War II that allowed the Allies to decipher the Germans’ “unbreakable” Enigma code and stymie the Axis’ plans again and again. Kirkus Reviews praised it as a “terrific read” and a “marvelous history, full of color, drama, conflict, and tragedy.” His article “America’s Unknown Intelligence Czar” in American Heritage (2004) on a different kind of intelligence gathering won the Army Historical Foundation’s Distinguished Writing Award in 2004. In it he profiled George H. Sharpe, the director of the Bureau of Military Information for the Union’s Army of the Potomac, whose careful marshalling and interpreting of the voluminous data from his network of informants proved critical to the defeat of the confederacy.

Air Power: The Men, Machines, and Ideas that Revolutionized War, from Kitty Hawk to Gulf War II (Viking, 2004) followed, and again garnered stellar reviews. Writing in Foreign Affairs (March/April 2005), Lawrence D. Freedman admired Mr. Budiansky’s ability to compress the history of air power in a way that was “never less than entertaining, with lively writing and well-chosen examples, drawing on film and literature as well as technical manuals. No attempt is made to present this as a work of reference,” he continued, “yet it will be a natural place to turn for the essentials of key themes and events, and a sense of context.” Apparently the U.S. military agreed, as copies of Air Power were spied on the desks of many Air Force generals in the Pentagon.

Mr. Budiansky next turned to a biography of one of the fathers of intelligence gathering. Her Majesty’s Spymaster: Elizabeth I, Sir Francis Walsingham, and the Birth of Modern Espionage (Viking, 2005) revealed the brilliance of Walsingham, who without such “essentials” of modern-day intelligence work such as bugs, spy satellites, and electronic marvels, managed to build a system of undercover agents that would be considered sophisticated by any modern measure, to manipulate England’s enemies with plants of false intelligence, and to thwart the many attempts on Elizabeth’s life in an age of political assassinations. Booklist gave it a starred review, and Publishers Weekly (August 22, 2005) recommended it, noting that “Even readers who are already versed in Elizabeth’s reign will find Budiansky’s new angles on a much-examined era enlightening.”

In The Bloody Shirt: Terror After Appomattox (Viking, 2008), Mr. Budiansky presented what William Grimes described in his review in the New York Times (January 30, 2008) as “an inspiring yet profoundly dispiriting story” of Southern resistance to Reconstruction. Using correspondence and newspaper editorials, he brings the violence and bitterness of that time into sharp relief through profiles of five courageous men who futilely fought Southern racism and Northern apathy in an effort to secure for the newly freed slaves the political and civil rights the Civil War supposedly secured for them. A Caroline D. Bain scholar-in-residence fellowship at Smith College supported his writing of that book.

His most recent book is Perilous Fight: America’s Intrepid War with Britain on the High Seas, 1812-1815 (Knopf, 2011). Detailing the war that finally established American sovereignty and secured the country’s sea trade, Perilous Fight was described by Evan Thomas in The Washington Post (January 21, 2011) as a “rousing story,” and Vice Admiral Robert F. Dunn praised it effusively in The Washington Times (February 18, 2011): “As the story unfolds, the reader is almost mesmerized by the awesome detail and clear prose. This book is a joy to read for the interested reader of history, the amateur historian, and at the same time a worthy reference for scholars.”

Mr. Budiansky has also written a number of articles and opinion pieces on what he terms his “extracurricular” interests, ranging from the computer language-translation software, Fourth Amendment jurisprudence, the science of traffic jams, as well as music and music education, to name a few of his topics. A musician himself, he built his own harpsichord as well as one for Yale’s Trumbull College. He is on the editorial board of Cryptology, the scholarly journal of codes, codebreaking, and intelligence history, and is a member of the Usage Panel of The American Heritage Dictionary.


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