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MITRE's Project Whirlwind Computer Collection Transferred to MIT
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE:
Karina H. Wright
Eryn L. Gallagher
BEDFORD, Mass., July 1, 2009 — The MITRE Corporation and the MIT Libraries are pleased to announce the transfer of the Project Whirlwind Computer collection to MIT. The compilation of pioneering digital computing research conducted in the 1940s and 1950s is now available for research use to the public through the MIT Libraries & Institute Archives. In addition, key documents from the collection have been digitized and are available online through the MIT Libraries' digital repository.
Project Whirlwind began in 1944, when the U.S. Navy contracted with MIT to develop a computer for a flight simulator used to study aircraft stability and control problems. When the initial analog computer proved too slow and inaccurate for the Navy's purposes, a research team led by Mr. Jay W. Forrester, then director of MIT's Digital Computer Laboratory, and Mr. Robert R. Everett, associate director, set out to design a high-speed computer—one that could produce fast-changing, reliable, and realistic simulations.
"Whirlwind I," the first digital computer at MIT and the fastest of its time, was completed in 1951. It took up 3,300 square feet within a two-story building. The precursor to modern day computers, Whirlwind's fingerprints are evident in today's software and hardware, including parallel digit processing, random-access, magnetic core memory—which made the initial launching of commercial computers possible—and the interactive visual computer display. Its groundbreaking design also laid the foundation for simulation and real-time technology.
"The aircraft simulator was never constructed because Perry Crawford, an MIT graduate working for the Navy, introduced the vision of digital computers serving as combat information centers," said Forrester, who became a professor of management at MIT, where he has pioneered the field of system dynamics. "We demonstrated Whirlwind controlling aircraft interceptions for Project Charles, which was established to recommend an air defense system." Those demonstrations led to MIT's Lincoln Laboratory, the U.S. Air Force's Semi-Automatic Ground Environment (SAGE) air defense system, and later to MITRE. Whirlwind and SAGE served as the cornerstones of the nation's Air Traffic Control system.
"It was a rare opportunity to be on the ground floor of an amazing development," said Everett, an honorary member of MITRE's Board of Trustees, the company's first technical director, and president and chief executive officer from 1969 to 1986. He attributed the success of the 70-member Whirlwind team to enthusiasm and youth. "They were a remarkable group of people. Most were young and had been through the war. It was a fascinating set of problems, and we were the first to solve them."
MITRE assumed custody of the Whirlwind collection in 1958, upon Everett's and other Whirlwind researchers' transfer from Lincoln Laboratory to MITRE—then a newly established not-for-profit corporation formed to provide the Air Force with ongoing systems engineering support for North America's air defense. With input from Everett, MITRE's Corporate Archives office digitized 1,800 Whirlwind memos and summary reports from microfilm to PDF format. The documents, along with several notebooks, represent a subset of the collection. The company had transferred select components to the Smithsonian Museum of American History in Washington, D.C., in 1971.
"Making the Whirlwind collection available to the public is in keeping with our mission to serve in the public interest," said MITRE President and Chief Executive Officer Mr. Alfred Grasso, speaking at a reunion of the Project Whirlwind team held on June 30 in Cambridge, Mass. "It's also a fitting tribute—particularly after celebrating our 50th anniversary last year—to return this significant piece of history to the academic home of MITRE's roots." MIT President Dr. Susan Hockfield and Dr. Andrew Gerber, associate division head of Air and Missile Defense Technology at Lincoln Lab, also attended the event, during which the collectionís website was demonstrated.
Commenting on the transfer, MIT Director of Libraries Ms. Ann Wolpert said, "The Whirlwind materials, so important to the development of early computing and to the history of MIT, embody MIT's spirit of discovery. We're grateful to MITRE for their stewardship of these materials and we're pleased to make the collection available in the Institute Archives, where they may be studied along with other notable collections, including the papers of Jay Forrester and collections from MITís Digital Computer Laboratory and Servomechanisms Laboratory."
For more information about the Project Whirlwind Computer collection, contact the Institute Archives at email@example.com or (617) 253-5690.
About The MITRE Corporation
The MITRE Corporation (www.mitre.org) is a not-for-profit national resource that provides systems engineering, research and development, and information technology support to the government. It operates federally funded research and development centers for the Department of Defense, the Federal Aviation Administration, the Internal Revenue Service and Department of Veterans Affairs, and the Department of Homeland Security, with principal locations in Bedford, Mass., and McLean, Va.
About the MIT Libraries & Institute Archives
The Institute Archives and Special Collections, a department of the MIT Libraries, contains many of MIT's founding documents, rare materials, theses, and the personal papers of noted faculty. It also serves as the "memory" of the Institute and documents the history of 20th century science and technology.
The MIT Libraries support the Institute's programs of study and research. Five major subject libraries, for Architecture and Planning, Engineering, Humanities, Science, Management and Social Science, as well as four branch libraries serving specialized fields, offer access to over five million items in the collections. The extensive print and multimedia holdings include books, journals, microforms, maps, images, musical scores, sound recordings, and videotapes.
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