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

Pierre Mounier-Kuhn mounier at msh-paris.fr
Sat Apr 24 11:58:19 PDT 2021

Bonjour Guy,
   For most of us, "living inside the MIT bubble" is more a dream than a cause for fear! By the way, do you know if Marvin Minsky's personal archives have been finally transferred from his family house to the MIT archives?
   As far as I know, the best references to put the work on Whirlwind into context with the rest of the world, in addition to those mentioned by Tom, are the books published by Bill Aspray, Martin Campbell-Kelly, Paul Ceruzzi and Tom Haigh – and of course my "Histoire illustree de l'informatique", co-authored with E. Lazard! 

   The Whirlwind can compete for the title of "first --- computer in history" – a familiar game for us historians requiring to fill the interval with qualificatives, here "- real-time, stored-program -". 

   As Mark Priestley said, the previous experience with analogue calculators (and, I would add, with servo-mechanisms R&D which is very interesting to study at the MIT archives) must have been key to conceive the idea of a real-time digital computer. It is also true of other teams which later designed real-time systems: Most of them were familiar with analogue machines, and often developed hybrid systems, particularly for flight simulation.

   Anecdotically, the records of the French Aeronautics Research Office contain a  meeting record from the late 1940s, mentioning a futuristic "Automated radar network". It was merely a daydream in the impoverished post-war France, but it confirms that the idea was thinkable among young engineers at that time. Such systems did not materialize there until ten years later *. 

   Similar delay in the USSR, where a SAGE-like project was launched in 1956-1957, leading to the "Earth" and "Uragan" systems. 


* in https://cnrs.academia.edu/PierreMounierKuhn
you may find a paper on Electronic_calculators_and_new_weapon_systems_Military_Industry_Academic_interactions_in_France_1946-1959_
confirming that continental Europe was 5 to 10 years behind the US in this field

----- Mail original -----
De: "Guy Fedorkow" <guy.fedorkow at gmail.com>
À: "Pierre Mounier-Kuhn" <mounier at msh-paris.fr>
Cc: "members" <members at sigcis.org>
Envoyé: Samedi 24 Avril 2021 02:50:33
Objet: Re: [SIGCIS-Members] whirlwind, radar and real-time tracking

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
> _______________________________________________
> This email is relayed from members at sigcis.org, the email discussion list of SHOT SIGCIS. Opinions expressed here are those of the member posting and are not reviewed, edited, or endorsed by SIGCIS. The list archives are at http://lists.sigcis.org/pipermail/members-sigcis.org/ and you can change your subscription options at http://lists.sigcis.org/listinfo.cgi/members-sigcis.org

More information about the Members mailing list