Project Whirlwind Collection
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Scope and Contents
The collection consists of laboratory research computation books, computer logbooks, memoranda, technical notes and reports. Materials were created by staff in the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Servomechanisms Laboratory, Digital Computer Laboratory, and Lincoln Laboratory, Division 6, who worked on the development of the Whirlwind I Computer, one of the first high-speed digial computers. Whirlwind I was tested and applied in the Navy Fire Control, Air Traffic Control, Cape Cod System, and SAGE continental air defense system planning and design projects.
Progress of daily research activities can be followed in the various chronologically numbered memoranda and notes. Memoranda are the most numerous and informal presentations of technical work. Classified research was conducted at Lincoln Laboratory, unclassified research in the Digital Computer Laboratory at MIT, each research group creating its own series of documents. Overall progress of research can be followed chronologically by consulting across series. Research staff numbered and dated reports, so that chronology of work is easy to follow. Summary reports were created to share information with other researchers and the government offices funding the research.
Some material is grouped by specific projects, which are represented by their own series in this collection. For example, Whirlwind I led to the development of two other computers, the MTC (memory test computer) and TX-O (transistor computer) by Group 63 of Lincoln Laboratory, Division 6. Memoranda from both MTC and TX-O are included in this collection, as series 10 and series 14.
During academic year 1952-1953 a series of seminars on magnetism was given by Arthur L. Loeb. Notes were taken by Norman Menyuk. “M” Memoranda on the subjects of “Classical Magnetism and Qualitative Discussion of the Solid State,” “Principles of Quantum Mechanics: Quantitative Explanation of Fermi and Exchange Energies,” and “Review of Some Recent Fundamental Research in Magnetism” can be found in series 7.
Records created during the development of the computer were transferred from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and MIT's Lincoln Laboratory to the MITRE Corporation when test projects were complete and Division 6, Lincoln Laboratory was phased out. Records were pulled for legal counsel defending the magnetic core patent. After the patent suit was settled those records were transferred to the Institute Archives (collection AC-0337). Jay Forrester's research notebook #47, which documents his initial notes on random-access, coincident-current magnetic storage for memory, is located in AC-0337, along with other computation notebooks and documents used to defend the patent lawsuit.
Another subset of documents were sent by MITRE to the Smithsonian in 1970, and are held by the Archives Center, National Museum of American History. Microfilm of those records can be found in series 16 of this collection, and digital copies of those documents can be found in DOME, the MIT Libraries digital repository. Photographs of Whirlwind I research are located at the MITRE Corporate Archives.
- Creation: 1944 - 1959
This collection is open.
Conditions Governing Use
Access to collections in the Department of Distinctive Collections is not authorization to publish. Please see the MIT Libraries Permissions Policy for permission information. Copyright of some items in this collection may be held by respective creators, not by the donor of the collection or MIT.
The development of Whirlwind I, one of the first large-scale high-speed computers, began during World War II as part of a research project to develop a universal flight trainer that would simulate flight (the Aircraft Stability and Control Analyzer project). It was initiated by the Office of Naval Research and began at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Servomechanisms Laboratory in 1944. Eventually the focus of the grant, a flight simulator (using an analog computer), changed to developing a high-speed digital computer. While building the computer, researcher Jay W. Forrester invented random-access, coincident-current magnetic storage, which became the standard memory device for digital computers. For this he was granted a patent in 1956. Prior to Forrester's discovery, electrostatic storage tubes were used. The introduction and change to magnetic core memory provided high levels of speed and of reliability.
A public announcement was made in late 1951 that the computer known as Whirlwind I was operational and available for scientific and military research. In 1951 Project Whirlwind was detached from the Servomechanisms Lab to become the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Digital Computer Laboratory. Unclassified research projects using the Whirlwind I computer were managed by the Digital Computer Lab staff on the MIT campus, where Whirlwind I occupied the Barta Building (N42), which had been acquired in 1947 to provide sufficient space for the computer as it was designed and constructed. In 1952 staff working on classified projects left to be part of the newly organized Lincoln Laboratory off campus, to form Division 6, Digital Computer Division. Although their projects were classified, the Whirlwind computer itself was not, and remained in the Barta Building. Jay Forrester served as director of both the Digital Computer Laboratory and Division 6, Lincoln Laboratory until 1956, when he became a member of the MIT faculty pursuing interests in system dynamics in management. Robert Everett served as associate director of both labs until he succeeded Forrester as director.
Division 6 – Digital Computer Division was initially comprised of six groups that were primarily concerned with Whirlwind I, Whirlwind II, Cape Cod System, Magnetic Materials, and Storage Tubes. The Division was eventually expanded to nine groups:
Group 60 – Administration and Services Group 61 – System Design Group 62 – ESS Installation Group 63 – Digital Comuter Development Group 64 – ESS Shakedown Testing Group 65 – Vacuum Tubes Group 66 – Special Studies Group 67 – Advance SAGE Program Development Group 68 – System Office
The U.S. Air Force provided substantial financial support for Whirlwind applications and it was a key component in the design of the Air Force's SAGE (Semi-Automatic Ground Environment) air defense system in the 1950s. Research projects at Lincoln Laboratory resulted in the further development of two additional computers, the MTC (memory test computer) and TX-0 (transistor computer), by Group 63 of Lincoln Lab, Division 6.
In July 1958 the MITRE Corporation was incorporated as a non-profit organization to continue classified research and development projects that had transitioned to an operational stage and needed to be phased out of Lincoln Laboratory. Robert Everett joined MITRE at that time as technical director, later serving as president of MITRE from 1969 to 1986.
As described in MIT's Tech Talk, "the Beast" of the Barta Building, the Whirlwind I computer, was shut down on May 29, 1959. It was leased by the Navy to the Wolf Research and Development Corporation of Massachusetts, and was disassembled and moved out of the Barta building in the spring of 1960. Computer artifacts from Whirlwind I and related Whirlwind projects are held by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Museum and the Computer History Museum, Mountain View, California.
3.9 Gigabytes (4035 MB in 1835 digital files in 31 folders)
56.3 Cubic Feet (189 boxes including 142 microfilm reels)
Language of Materials
The Whirlwind I computer was developed at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology between 1945 and 1952 in a project directed by Jay Forrester. The project was first carried out in the Servomechanisms Laboratory. Later it separated to become the Digital Computer Laboratory and Lincoln Laboratory, Division 6, and testing continued through 1958. Jay Forrester served as director of both laboratories until 1956, and Robert Everett as associate director, then director. A key part of the Whirlwind I design was the high-speed and highly reliable magnetic core memory for the computer storage system, replacing electrostatic storage tubes. Jay Forrester was issued a patent for the magnetic core memory, and it was used successfully and widely in large computers.
Materials are stored off site. Advance notice is required for use.
Whirlwind I Log Books were transferred from Lincoln Laboratory Division 6 to the MITRE Corporation on January 5, 1959 and were placed in the custody of the MITRE Library pending the creation of the MITRE Archives. These Logs were typed on bond paper and stored in ring binders. The whereabouts of the original hand-written log entries is unknown.
MITRE’s copies of the Whirlwind Log Books were water-damaged at some point, probably prior to the 1959 transfer date. Damage was so severe that the decision was made, with corporate approval, to photocopy the Log Books and then destroy the original water-damaged ones. Photocopying was done on archival quality paper, photocopies constitute series 2 of the Project Whirlwind Collection
The Division 6 Engineering Drawings (series 15) were transferred in hard copy form to MITRE when the corporation was formed in 1959. In 1960 the drawings were microfilmed and the original drawings destroyed. Two microfilm sets were made, one negative, one positive.
Digital objects in PDF format were created by MITRE staff from the microfilm (see series 16) and sent to the Archives on 8 CDs.
Source of Acquisition
Records in this collection were created at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Servomechanisms Laboratory, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Digital Computer Laboratory, and Lincoln Laboratory, Division 6 as part of research projects sponsored by the Office of Naval Research and the U.S. Air Force. They were brought to the MITRE Corporation by Robert Everett when MITRE was formed to continue the work of Lincoln Laboratory, Division 6, in 1958.
Materials in series 1-16 were assembled and arranged by the archives staff of the MITRE Corporation prior to transfer to MIT in 2008. Additional documents from the holdings of the MIT Department of Distinctive Collections (formerly the Institute Archives and Special Collections) technical reports were added to create series 17-24. Series 17, A memos, combines holdings from MITRE and existing reports holdings of the Department of Distinctive Collections (formerly the Institute Archives and Special Collections).
Digital versions of documents on microfilm were created by the MITRE Corporation and transferred as pdf files to the Department of Distinctive Collections (formerly the Institute Archives and Special Collections), then cataloged by staff of the MIT Libraries for deposit in MIT Libraries' digital repository, DOME.
Location of Originals
Originals of material on microfilm in series 16 of this collection are held at the Archives Center, National Museum of American History. They were donated in 1970 by the MITRE Corporation.
From the set of original Whirlwind records items were pulled for the use of legal counsel when MIT became a party to the litigation of the core memory patent. Those records were later transferred from the law firm to the Institute Archives and Special Collections and accessioned into the holdings as AC 337, Patent Litigation records.
Photographs created by Project Whirlwind staff are located at the MITRE Corporate Archives.
Location of Copies
Whirlwind Computer Collection records held in the Archives Center, National Museum of American History, were microfilmed by MITRE and the microfilm is (as of 2007) located in the Project Whirlwind Collection at the MIT Institute Archives (series 16 of MC 665).
Digital copies of selected material are located in DOME, the MIT Libraries digital repository.
- Redmond, Kent, and Thomas Smith. Project Whirlwind: The History of a Pioneer Computer. Bedford, MA: Digital Press, 1980.
- Everett, Robert R. A History of Computing in the Twentieth Century, chapter on Whirlwind. Academic Press, 1980.
- Wildes, Karl, and Nilo Lindgren. A Century of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science at MIT, 1882-1982, chapter 17 "From Whirlwind to SAGE,” 280-301. Cambridge: MIT Press, 1985, pages 280-301.
- Redmond, Kent, and Thomas Smith. From Whirlwind to MITRE, the R & D Story of the SAGE Air Defense Computer. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2000.
- Forrester, Jay W. (Person)
- Lincoln Laboratory. Division 6 (Organization)
- Mitre Corporation (Organization)
- Everett, Robert R. (Person)
- Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Servomechanisms Laboratory (Organization)
- Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Digital Computer Laboratory (Organization)
- Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Project Whirlwind (Organization)
- Guide to the Project Whirlwind Collection
- Elizabeth Andrews and Mikki Macdonald of the MIT Department of Distinctive Collections (formerly the Institute Archives and Special Collections). Descriptions for Series 1-16 were created by the staff of the MITRE Corporate Archives.
- Description rules
- Describing Archives: A Content Standard
- Language of description
- Script of description
- Items on microfilm in series 16 were digitized by MITRE Corpoation and transferred to the Department of Distinctive Collections, MIT Libraries.
- 2021 July 9: Edited by Lana Mason for compliance with DACS single-level optimum requirements.
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