Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Servomechanisms Laboratory records
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Scope and Contents of the Collection
World War II
The Servomechanisms Laboratory’s beginning years, 1940-1945, coincide with World War II and are partially documented in Series 1, files collected by staff member Robert Everett. Memos, graphs, drawings, and final reports relating to research about and application of feedback control to automate navy and army gun control systems, and development of servo-controls for advanced radar systems are the focus of the series. Also included in Series 1 are reports and writings of George Newton, Donald Campbell, H. Tyler Marcy, and other research staff. The mixture of basic research and war-time applications is also represented in a fuller set of memos, technical reports, and writings in the first five boxes of Series 2. Researchers interested in war-time laboratory projects should check both Series 1 and Series 2. Laboratory computation books contain research notes for war-time projects; as books are arranged alphabetically, check the list for dates 1941-1945 and projects numbered 6409 or lower.
Operational Flight Trainer/Project Whirlwind
Records covering the time span 1947-1954 document one of the laboratory’s major postwar projects, which was directed by Jay Forrester assisted by Robert Everett (project 6345).
The project, originally called the Aircraft Stability and Control Analyzer Project (ASCA) and also known as the “operational flight trainer,” was in development for the Bureau of Aeronautics, U.S. Navy. As the project research moved ahead, its focus moved from the simulator to the development of digital computing and the production of one of the first high-speed digital computers. The project was renamed “Whirlwind.” Many Whirlwind engineering notes, memos, and summary reports are found in boxes 5-10 of Series 2. A useful list, January 1945-April 1952 of R-series, M-series, E-series, and C-series project documents, is located in box 10 of Series 2. Other records relating to Whirlwind can be found in two archival collections, the MIT Digital Computer Laboratory, AC 362, and Project Whirlwind Collection, MC 665.
Brookhaven Nuclear Reactor
Researchers interested in the history of nuclear reactors will also find the Servomechanisms Laboratory collection useful. An important postwar project well represented in Series 2 project files is the Brookhaven Nuclear Reactor Project (#6546) headed by William Pease and Truman Gray. The Servomechanisms Laboratory designed and built controls for the reactor rods and instrumentation of the Brookhaven reactor, the first peacetime nuclear reactor. Principal documents are engineering memos and reports dating from 1947 to 1949. Series 3, computation books, also contains laboratory notes for project 6546.
Numerical Control of Machine Tools
The development of numerical control systems (1949-1959, contract numbers 6694 and 6873) revolutionized the machine tool industry. Research on numerical control development and applications has by far the most extensive and richest documentation in the collection, totaling 30 boxes of reports, computation books, engineering reports, and memos, as well as 5 boxes of technical drawings. Researchers should check Series 2, boxes 26-27 and 52-53, for computation books relating to project 6694, numerical control. Information about the first demonstration of the numerically-controlled milling machine held in September 1952 can be found in Series 2, box 37.
Numerical control research was first sponsored by Parsons Corporation, Michigan (project 6694), then, starting in 1952, by the U.S. Air Force, Air Material Command (project 6873). Numerical control research information is in the following boxes of Series 2: boxes 26-28, 38, 64, and 81-85. Because Series 2 is arranged by project number, information about numerical control research is separated within the list, so both project numbers should be checked. Within the subset of project 6873, files are arranged alphabetically by title. It is advisable to browse all file titles numbered 6873 to understand the full complement of research activities. A summary, project statements, and history can be found in boxes 43 and 48, and the final report in box 85.
Automatic Programming Systems
The later phase of numerical control research in the middle 1950s was done by the laboratory’s Computer Application Group, led by Douglas T. Ross, to develop the Automatically Programmed Tool Language (APT) for the introduction of the APT manufacturing system. APT programming manuals and development reports are located in Series 2, boxes 32-35.
Much of the research in the Servomechanisms Laboratory was carried out by graduate students as part of their thesis work. A list of graduate theses covering the years 1937-1950, located in Series 2, box 80, offers information about thesis projects, and the computation books constituting Series 3 contain data for many different thesis projects. The Institute Archives retains a copy of all master and doctoral degree theses, accessible by name of student or advisor by searching the MIT Libraries’ online catalog.
Economic evaluations of the potential application of research products is located in box 38, Series 2, and texts and documents about the summer course for industry personnel (1954-1955) are in Series 2, boxes 41 and 42. Patents can be found in box 45 of Series 2.
- Creation: 1940 - 1959
This collection is open.
Digital Access Note
Some parts of this collection are available online. Links to specific online digital items are found within their entry in this finding aid.
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 Servomechanisms Laboratory was established at MIT in 1940 under the direction of Gordon S. Brown, then assistant professor of electrical engineering. The laboratory grew out of the Department of Electrical Engineering’s increasing attention in the fall of 1939 to servomechanisms, specifically fire control (gun-positioning instruments) in response to a request from the U.S. Navy for a special course for naval fire control officers assigned to MIT. Harold Hazen, head of the department, was also Gordon Brown’s doctoral advisor and asked him to develop the course. The 1939 MIT Course Bulletin lists for the first time two elective classes (6.605 and 6.606) titled Theory and Applications of Servo Mechanisms with Gordon S. Brown as instructor.
During World War II the laboratory’s teams of research scientists and graduate students (who also produced thesis projects from their work) undertook research and development of feedback control systems for the U.S. government (Navy Ordnance, Army Ordnance, and the National Defense Research Committee) as well as commercial contractors. Research included servo-control systems for advanced radar used on U.S. Navy ships. Laboratory director Gordon Brown served as a consultant to the Sperry Gyroscope Company as well as to the War Department.
After World War II ended in 1945, the laboratory’s newly created dynamic analysis and control group, directed by Albert C. Hall, continued to develop automated control systems for U.S. Navy guided missiles. In 1946 this group separated to form the Dynamic Analysis and Control Laboratory at MIT, which closed in 1958.
Early laboratory research, originating in 1944 as the ASCA (Aircraft Stability and Control Analyzer) project to develop a flight training simulator, was directed by Jay W. Forrester with the assistance of Robert R. Everett. The research focus was revised in 1946 to include the design and construction of a high-speed digital computer, and the project was renamed Project Whirlwind. In 1951 Project Whirlwind and its staff were separated from the Servomechanisms Laboratory and assigned to the newly created Digital Computer Laboratory, still under the direction of Forrester. Classified research related to development and use of Whirlwind in research projects was simultaneously carried out in Division 6 of the newly formed Lincoln Laboratory. Jay Forrester was director of both the Digital Computer Laboratory and Division 6, and Robert Everett served in both as assistant director.
Other major postwar efforts of the Servomechanisms Laboratory included the development of automatic controls for the reactor rods and instrumentation system of the first peacetime nuclear reactor, constructed in the late 1940s by the Atomic Energy Commission at the Brookhaven National Laboratory.
A significant postwar project that began in 1949 and continued and evolved through the 1950s was the work that led to numerical control of machine tools. Under a contract with the Parsons Company of Michigan, William M. Pease and James O. McDonough designed an experimental numerically-controlled milling machine which received directions through data on punched paper tape. The first working model of a continuous-path numerically-controlled milling machine was demonstrated in 1952. Further research was then carried out under the sponsorship of the U.S. Air Force. Subsequently, the laboratory’s Computer Application Group, led by Douglas T. Ross, developed the Automatically Programmed Tool Language (APT), an easy-to-use, special purpose programming language. Eventually, APT became the world standard for programming computer-controlled machine tools. The Servomechanisms Laboratory staff actively promoted the introduction and use of numerical control for industrial processes. It sponsored conferences and summer sessions aimed at industry personnel. The development of numerical controls had a profound impact on industry as with the introduction of automated controls it revolutionized the machine tool industry. In 1958, further development of the APT system was turned over to a coordinating group sponsored by the Aircraft Industries Association.
Research activities of the Servomechanisms Laboratory broadened in the late 1950s, and a decision was made in 1959 to change the name of the laboratory to the Electronic Systems Laboratory. The laboratory continued to report to the Department of Electrical Engineering until March 1978, when it became an inter-departmental laboratory reporting to the provost. In September 1978 it was renamed the Laboratory for Information and Decision Systems (LIDS).
Directors of the Servomechanisms Laboratory:
Gordon S. Brown, 1939-1952
William M. Pease, 1952-1953
J. Francis Reintjes, 1953-1959 (1959-1974, director of the successor Electronic Systems Laboratory)
More detailed accounts of the research activities of the Servomechanisms Laboratory can be found in the following publications:
A Century of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science at MIT, 1882-1982, by Karl L. Wildes. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1985. Chapters 14 and 17.
Numerical Control: Making a New Technology, by J. Francis Reintjes. New York: Oxford University Press, 1991.
Q.E.D.: M.I.T. in World War II, by John E. Burchard. New York: J. Wiley, 1948.
59 Cubic Feet (179 manuscript boxes, 5 oversized flat boxes)
Language of Materials
Project reports can be found in both Series 1 and 2. Files kept by Robert R. Everett and transferred to the Institute Archives from MITRE Corporation in 1979 were kept together as Series 1. Other project files, transferred from Laboratory for Information Systems and Design in 2002, are designated as Series 2.
Project files in Series 2 are arranged in the order in which they were kept by the laboratory, by project number assigned by the MIT Division of Industrial Cooperation (DIC). Numbers are assigned chronologically campus-wide as grant contracts are signed, so Series 2 files are roughly in chronological order.
Detailed engineering drawings and wiring diagrams compiled for research project reports are located in Series 2, boxes 28, and 81-85, and can be matched to reports by project number.
A large set of laboratory computation books created by graduate students and laboratory staff was transferred to the Archives in 1980. Books dated from 1940 to 1959 constitute Series 3 of this collection. The original alphabetical arrangement by author, existing at transfer, has been maintained. A small number of computation books relating to the numerical control project were not transferred in 1980 but were part of the transfer of files in 2002. Therefore, researchers should check Series 2, boxes 26-27 and 52-53, for computation books relating to project 6694, numerical control, that were transferred in 2002.
Technical reports and memoranda are located in Series 4, and are arranged by call number and report number.
Materials are stored off-site. Advance notice is required for use.
- Burchard, John E. Q.E.D.: M.I.T. in World War II. New York: J. Wiley, 1948. MIT Libraries.
- Reintjes, J. Francis. Numerical Control: Making a New Technology. New York: Oxford University Press, 1991. MIT Libraries.
- Wildes, Karl L. A Century of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science at MIT, 1882-1982. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1985. MIT Libraries.
- Guttag, John, editor. The Electron and the Bit: EECS at MIT, 1902-2002. MIT, Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, 2005.
- Ross, Douglas T. (Person)
- Forrester, Jay W. (Person)
- Everett, Robert R. (Person)
- Brown, Gordon Stanley, 1907-1996 (Person)
- Reintjes, J. Francis (Person)
- Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Servomechanisms Laboratory (Organization)
- Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Project Whirlwind (Organization)
- Guide to the Records of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Servomechanisms Laboratory, 1940-1959
- Elizabeth Andrews, Judith Janec, Denis Meadows
- (1987, 2002-2004)
- Description rules
- Describing Archives: A Content Standard
- Language of description
- Script of description
- 2020 December 2: Reports added to the collection.
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