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

Bernard Geoghegan bernardgeoghegan2010 at u.northwestern.edu
Sat Apr 24 14:06:30 PDT 2021

Hi Colleagues,

This is quite fascinating—thanks Guy, and everyone else.

I worked a bit on the longer arc of vigilance and aerial defense WWI through Cold War, leaping from WW2 radar to digital SAGE (over/through Whirlwind) in the essay below. Taking cues from Mindell, I suggest that the continuity of the control priblem trumps the significance of analog/digital for some key concerns:

Bernard Dionysius Geoghegan, “An Ecology of Operations: Vigilance, Radar, and the Birth of the Computer Screen,” Representations 147, no. 1 (August 2019): 59–95, https://doi.org/10.1525/rep.2019.147.1.59.

I’m deeply indebted to Paul’s book, mentioned already. More generally, for situating these technologies in a wider network of technologies and protocols cutting across analog and digital, WW2 and Cold War talks and technologies, I also found helpful:

Sharon Ghamari-Tabrizi, “Cognitive and Perceptual Training in the Cold War Man-Machine System,” in Uncertain Empire: American History and the Idea of the Cold War, ed. Joel Isaac and Duncan Bell (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014), 267–93. (On the human element but the training was so thorough and rigorous, and the systems-design so pervasive, it’s hard to view “human factors” as not also a technical element, perhaps even a technology)

Christoph Borbach and Tristan Thielmann, “Über das Denken in Ko-Operationsketten. Arbeiten am Luftlagebild,” in Materialität der Kooperation, ed. Sebastian Gießmann, Tobias Röhl, and Ronja Trischler  (Wiesbaden: Springer Fachmedien, 2019), 115–67, https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-658-20805-9_5.

Thomas Parke Hughes, Rescuing Prometheus (New York: Pantheon Books, 1998). [Chapter 2 on SAGE, but I seem to recall discussions of Whirlwind, too]

Stephen B. Johnson, The United States Air Force and the Culture of Innovation, 1945-1965 (Washington, D.C.: Air Force History and Museums Program, 2002). (I think this may have something. Not sure)

For a philosophical and speculative take on these kinds of systems and their signifance, including fallout in gaming: Claus Pias, “The Game Player’s Duty: The User as the Gestalt of the Ports,” in Media Archaeology: Approaches, Applications, and Implications, ed. Erkki Huhtamo and Jussi Parikka (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2011), 164–83. [I think his book on computer games has relevant material too]

I’d be delighted to keep apprised of your continuing work on this topic Guy, thank you so much for sharing!

Best, b

From: Members <members-bounces at lists.sigcis.org> on behalf of Paul N. Edwards <pedwards at stanford.edu>
Date: Saturday, 24 April 2021 at 20:56
To: Guy Fedorkow <guy.fedorkow at gmail.com>
Cc: members <members at sigcis.org>
Subject: Re: [SIGCIS-Members] whirlwind, radar and real-time tracking
Guy, seconding Pierre’s good response and adding that in 1951, analog computers were still far faster than digital for most complex calculations, because they are inherently parallel processors. Digital machines were also prone to *very* frequent failure. Most sensors were analog, too, providing no numerical readouts. Few control engineers would have even considered a digital computer for any real-time application until the second half of that decade, and even then they were not the natural choice for most applications.

The early chapters of my book The Closed World: Computers and the Politics of Discourse in Cold War America (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1996) cover SAGE and the surrounding computing landscape of the 1940s-1950s.

Other resources on SAGE:

Everett, Robert R., Charles A. Zraket, and Herbert D. Benington. “Sage: A Data-Processing System for Air Defense.” Proceedings of the Eastern Joint Computer Conference (1957): 339–45.

Redmond, Kent C. and Thomas M. Smith. Project Whirlwind: The History of a Pioneer Computer. Boston: Digital Press, 1980.

Valley, George E., Jr. “How the Sage Development Began.” Annals of the History of Computing 7, no. 3 (1985): 196–226.

Redmond, Kent C. and Thomas M. Smith. From Whirlwind to Mitre: The R&d Story of the Sage Air Defense Computer. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2000.


Paul Edwards

On Apr 23, 2021, at 16:41, Guy Fedorkow <guy.fedorkow at gmail.com<mailto:guy.fedorkow at gmail.com>> wrote:

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
  The program does work in simulation; you can see a four-minute video of the simulator running an intercept at
  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!
Guy Fedorkow

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Paul N. Edwards<https://profiles.stanford.edu/paul-edwards>
Director, Program on Science, Technology & Society<http://sts.stanford.edu>
William J. Perry Fellow in International Security and Senior Research Scholar
Center for International Security and Cooperation<http://cisac.fsi.stanford.edu/>
Co-Director, Stanford Existential Risks Initiative<https://cisac.fsi.stanford.edu/stanford-existential-risks-initiative>
Stanford University

Professor of Information<http://www.si.umich.edu/> and History<http://www.lsa.umich.edu/history/> (Emeritus)
University of Michigan

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