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

Pierre Mounier-Kuhn mounier at msh-paris.fr
Sun Apr 25 00:29:20 PDT 2021

To complement the previous commentaries by Aristotle, Paul and Bernard, I would recommend reading Ronald R. Kline's chapter on "Inventing an Analog Past and a Digital Future" in " Exploring the Early Digital " (Thomas Haigh, ed.), a remarkable "historicization" of these categories. 
Let's add that Von Neumann's " The Computer and the Brain " (chapter 1) contain a convincing demonstration of the intrinsic superiority of the digital over the analogue for a large class of problems. 

NB: lesson: Never ask a simple question on this list, unless you want to be assigned with a year-long list of must-reads! 

De: "Aristotle Tympas" <tympas at phs.uoa.gr> 
À: "Bernard Dionysius Geoghegan" <bernardgeoghegan2010 at u.northwestern.edu> 
Cc: "members" <members at sigcis.org> 
Envoyé: Dimanche 25 Avril 2021 01:52:12 
Objet: Re: [SIGCIS-Members] whirlwind, radar and real-time tracking 

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 methods). 



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 | 
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 | 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 on behalf of Paul N. Edwards 
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, 2000. 


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. 
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 | 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 | 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! 
Guy Fedorkow 

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[ https://profiles.stanford.edu/paul-edwards | Paul N.
Edwards ] 

Director, [ http://sts.stanford.edu/ | Program on Science, Technology &
Society ] 

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

[ http://cisac.fsi.stanford.edu/ | Center for International Security and
Cooperation ] 

Co-Director, [ https://cisac.fsi.stanford.edu/stanford-existential-risks-initiative | Stanford Existential Risks Initiative ] 

Stanford University 

Professor of [ http://www.si.umich.edu/ | Information ] and [ http://www.lsa.umich.edu/history/ | History ] (Emeritus) 

University of Michigan 

Aristotle Tympas, [ https://en.uoa.gr/ | National
and Kapodistrian University of Athens ] 
Professor & Chair, [ http://www.phs.uoa.gr/ | Department of History and Philosophy of
Science ] 
Faculty, [ https://hpst.phs.uoa.gr/ | Graduate
Program ‘History and Philosophy of Science and
Technology’ ] 
Director, [ https://sts.phs.uoa.gr/ | Graduate
Program ‘Science, Technology, Society—Science, Technology,
Studies ] ’ 

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

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