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

Aristotle Tympas tympas at phs.uoa.gr
Sat Apr 24 16:52:12 PDT 2021

Dear colleagues,

Following in what Bernard Geoghegan just wrote, regarding "the
continuity of the control problem [that] trumps the significance of
analog/digital" demarcation:

The history of the Whirlwind computer has so far been told as an
evolutionist history of leaving behind a problematic initial start with
the inferior analog computer in favor of the superior digital computer. We
have yet to have a story that acknowledges that this actually meant
leaving, initially, behind the analog only to find ahead, eventually, the
problem of software. The limits left behind by the digital independence of
the analog were actually transformed into limits due to the dependence of
the digital hardware by the digital software. With the software side of
computing, just like the analog side of computing, pointing to the
indispensability of skilled computing labor. The continuity of the problem
of the dependance on computing labor -to produce, initially, the computing
analogy, and eventually, the computing software- does, indeed, trump the
significance of the digital. To put it simply: Why should we continue with
a history of Whirlwind (and all the computers of this period) as an escape
from the limits of the analog and not, also, as an encounter with the
comparable limits of software. And, as we now very well know, the limits
of software have overdetermined the history of computing (we know it
through a series of arguments/works -from Mahoney to Ensmenger- on the
inability to control software production by taylorist-fordist production




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, 
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,
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
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!

From: Members on behalf of Paul N.
 Date: Saturday, 24 April 2021 at 20:56

To: Guy Fedorkow 
 Cc: members 

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,





Paul Edwards



On Apr 23, 2021, at 16:41, Guy Fedorkow
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.
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.

Director, Program on Science, Technology &

William J. Perry Fellow
in International Security and Senior Research Scholar

Center for International Security and

Co-Director, Stanford Existential Risks Initiative

Stanford University

 Professor of Information and History

University of


Aristotle Tympas, National
and Kapodistrian University of Athens
Professor & Chair, Department of History and Philosophy of
Faculty, Graduate
Program ‘History and Philosophy of Science and
Director, Graduate
Program ‘Science, Technology, Society—Science, Technology,

Publications (links-extracts): http://scholar.uoa.gr/tympas

Mail: P.O. Box 18310, Athens 11610, Greece, Email:
tympas at phs.uoa.gr

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