One of the earliest digital computer projects started out as an attempt to build a better flight trainer in 1944—but ended up as the heart of the first strategic defense network in the 1950s.
Up to the 1940s, mechanical—or analog—computers were incorporated in a number of calculating devices, most especially in military equipment such as naval fire control systems on warships. Project Whirlwind began as an effort to create a universal flight trainer using analog computers that would be able to simulate a wide range of test aircraft. Early on, however, it became clear that analog systems would be unable to accurately portray the precise movements of modern aircraft. Project managers began exploring the possibility of using faster digital computers to control the system—but they would have to build their own computer from scratch.
Project Whirlwind created one of the first digital computers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in the late 1940s.
(Photo courtesy of MIT)
Beginning at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in late 1944, Whirlwind became one of the earliest projects of the Navy’s Office of Research and Inventions—what would soon become the Office of Naval Research (ONR). While the more famous “first” computers—such as the nondigital Harvard Mark I and the digital ENIAC—were designed to solve a wide range of complex mathematical problems, everything from creating firing tables for artillery to making calculations for the Manhattan Project, Whirlwind was among the first attempts to apply digital computing directly to the operation and integration of mechanical and electronic devices. The complexity of digital computing was such that by 1948 the segment of the project dedicated to building a cockpit for the simulator was dropped—and Whirlwind’s mission became simply to build an advanced digital computer.
Faced with the prospect of developing a computer without an apparent mission, ONR’s support for Whirlwind began to decrease in 1949. The Air Force, however, found a use for Whirlwind as the centerpiece of the Semi-Automatic Ground Environment system, or SAGE, which would become by the end of the 1950s the world’s first strategic defense network. SAGE integrated global early warning radar data into a single system, becoming the digital heart of NORAD based at Cheyenne Mountain, Colorado.
Whirlwind advanced the state of the art of digital computers so far in the 1950s and 1960s that much of current digital computing owes a debt to this early project.