[SIGCIS-Members] whirlwind, radar and real-time tracking

Guy Fedorkow guy.fedorkow at gmail.com
Fri Apr 23 17:50:33 PDT 2021

Bonjour Pierre,
   I sometimes fear that I live inside the MIT bubble, where Whirlwind's 
"obvious" status of launching real time computing is a given...  Do you 
know of a good reference to put the work into context with the rest of 
the world?
   I'll admit that as I wrote the words about innovation and vacuum, I 
was tempted to add "but Whirlwind was so astonishingly expensive that 
it's hard to believe there could have been competitors who weren't as 
   I can see that once the Whirlwind team had shown it could be done, 
and that there were a few more computers around, lots of teams would 
jump on the idea.
   Thanks for your advice!

On 4/23/2021 7:19 PM, Pierre Mounier-Kuhn wrote:
> Hello Guy,
> As you certainly know, Whirlwind is considered to be the first digital computer designed for real-time computing, particularly for radar tracking and interception guidance or assistance to tactical decision.
> I have studied air-defense systems in Europe, particularly in France: The first projects involving digital computers did not appear before the mid-1950s, at IBM France and in a small Paris company, SEA, which was also developing digital control devices for machine-tools. At that time, several similar digital computing projects were being developed, in the USA of course (at GE, in the US Navy with Univac, etc.) but also in Britain and in the USSR.
> It is true that "innovations like this rarely occur in a complete vacuum": The Whirlwind was built at MIT, one of the world's richest environments for innovation in electronics and defense systems, which had worked on a previous analogue calculator project for the US Navy. Air defense systems already existed, based on radars, telecom lines, control rooms and command centers: The idea to replace manual operators with a computer to process signals and make decisions faster "naturally" came to various people in the context of the Cold War. The Whirlwind was nevertheless a leap forward in technology, logical design and use.
> Hoping that these simple remarks help you.
> Best,
> Pierre Mounier-Kuhn
> CNRS & Sorbonne Université, Paris
> ----- Mail original -----
> De: "Guy Fedorkow" <guy.fedorkow at gmail.com>
> À: "members" <members at sigcis.org>
> Envoyé: Vendredi 23 Avril 2021 22:41:03
> Objet: [SIGCIS-Members] whirlwind, radar and real-time tracking
> Greetings Colleagues,
>     I've been working on restoring a 1951 Whirlwind program, written at
> MIT, used to demonstrate real-time tracking of aircraft with radar for
> the purposes of guiding an interception (the Cold War was in full flight
> in the 1950's).  This work ultimately led to the massive SAGE air
> defense network in the US.
>     You can see some rather informal preliminary notes on the work at
> https://www.historia-mollimercium.com/whirlwind/WW-Track-while-Scan-Draft-Notes-v1.pdf
>     The program does work in simulation; you can see a four-minute video
> of the simulator running an intercept at
> https://www.historia-mollimercium.com/whirlwind/Track-while-scan-Apr-23-2021.mp4
>     Spoiler alerts: The original really did display moving dots on a CRT,
> but the graphics are "spartan" to say the least.  And nothing in
> particular happens when the intercept actually happens.
>     Would anyone know of contemporaneous work involving digital computers
> for either radar tracking or real-time computing around 1951?  I think
> all the familiar digital computers from those years were used in
> applications where batch operation was perfectly acceptable, e.g.,
> computing ballistics tables.
>     Innovations like this rarely occur in a complete vacuum, but I don't
> see references to any similar digital computing projects.
>     If anyone has pointers, do let me know!
> Thanks
> Guy Fedorkow
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