The Untold Story of Everything Digital
“Know what Winston Churchill called the race for electronic superiority?” asked Robertson. “Wizard War,” he grinned,
quickly answering himself. “George, you and I are wizards in this new Wizard War.”
“I thought we were done with wars,” said Valley.
—Chapter One: Terror at the Pentagon Taxi Stand, The Untold Story of Everything Digital
The Untold Story of Everything Digital is the story of how our high-tech world came to be.
It’s digital technology’s genesis story. The amazing journey of Jay Forrester and his young team of feisty, brilliant engineers, who, in a single, white-hot decade of fantastical invention, built the first-ever, real-time digital computer.
It was the beginning that changed everything.
Terror at the Pentagon Taxi Stand
The Soviet Union surprises the world when it explodes its first atomic bomb in August of 1949; and North America has no air defense to guard against a Soviet sneak attack.
In September of 1949, George Valley, MIT physicist and WWII radar expert, is asked to build a continent-wide, early warning radar umbrella to defend against a possible Soviet nuclear air raid.
His plan is perfect except for one glaring unknown: how to instantaneously calculate bomber flight paths detected by radar and vector fighter jets to intercept them.
Valley and a colleague, John Marchetti, immediately begin a nationwide hunt for that calculating solution.
MIT servomechanisms engineer and electronics project leader, Jay Forrester, convinces the Office of Naval Research (ONR), as part of his ONR contract for a flight trainer, to fund his plan to build a first-ever electronic digital computer that calculates in real time.
They named the computer Whirlwind. When he drops the flight trainer to concentrate on the computer, he runs afoul of ONR expectations, and his contract is threatened with cancellation.
By the spring of 1949, in addition to contract problems, he also has a technical problem to overcome in devising fast and stable random-access memory (RAM).
Both problems loom menacingly throughout 1949, threatening completion of and any potential success for Whirlwind.
The Whistle Factory
In 1946 there were no digital computing conferences or trade shows, or college courses on the subject, no how-tos or journals to explain it, no computer shops, supply houses, or manufacturers of digital components anywhere in the world.
There was, however—a by-invitation-only summer of digital lectures—at the Moore School of Engineering, sponsored by the University of Pennsylvania and the U.S. military: The Theory and Techniques for the Design of Electronic Digital Computers.
It was digital computing’s coming-out party. Forrester and his colleague, Bob Everett, were invited along with 26 other soon-to-be-famous, new-age digerati, including very interested military code breakers, spies and security agents.
Forrester and Everett knew little about a digital computer, so this was a great first step in trying to build one.
From late 1946 through 1947, the Whirlwind computer was planned for and block diagrammed by a bright-boy crew lead by Bob Everett.
In 1948, they began to build their first-ever, real-time computing machine.
Whirlwind’s buildout was filled with problem solving, hard work, self-satisfaction and success, but also threats from the ONR for excessive costs, envy from academics for being no-name engineers undeserving of a fat, government contract; suspicion from electrical engineering departments that feared the rise of electronics, and meddling from government officials ignorant about the critical importance of Whirlwind.
And still technically elusive was Forrester’s quest for fast, stable random-access memory (RAM).
1949 was a year of extremes for Whirlwind. The giant computer worked, and got better as the year progressed. Best of all—and a world’s first—Whirlwind’s computations were done in real time. The no names were suddenly becoming famous.
However, the ONR announced that it would end all Whirlwind funding by 1951.
In addition, the federal government’s “Report on Electronic Digital Computers by the Consultants to the Chairman of the Research and Development Board,” concluded that Whirlwind had no government mission and therefore recommended no federal funding.
Valley and Marchetti, while scouring the U.S. for a defense computer from their offices in Cambridge, accidentally stumble upon Whirlwind, just around the corner at 211 Massachusetts Avenue.
Valley meets Forrester, who then introduces him to his behemoth digital computer, Whirlwind.
Island in the Stream
A most improbable convergence had come to pass. All the right pieces from all the right people find each their own way into the drab, old building on Massachusetts Avenue at exactly the right time.
Forrester, Everett and Whirlwind team up with Valley and Marchetti, and their need to create a continent-wide air defense umbrella.
Plans are put into place to use Whirlwind as a giant template for the assembly-line production of 48 clones of the machine, all backed with near-limitless funding from the United States Air Force.
But first, Whirlwind would be put to the test of rapidly assembling radar data on its computer monitor, tracking bombers, and vectoring interceptor jets to destroy them.
Into the Great Wide Open
Forrester, Everett, and their Whirlwind bright boys suddenly go from unknown, misfit engineers accused of wasting ONR money to designers of a national computer system that would rival in size the Manhattan Project.
And George Valley is the guy who makes it all happen; he has traveled light years from the back seat of a taxi with Bob Robertson.
Forrester and Everett, instead of beating the bushes from Cambridge to Washington, DC to find government funding or work contracts on which just to get by, were now the sole selection committee deciding which bidders from IBM to Remington Rand to Raytheon to Sylvania, would build billions of dollars’ worth of Whirlwind clones.
Voices in the Machine
In 1953 Forrester snapped the first frame of his magnetic-core memory into Whirlwind. Unreliable computer memory quickly became a thing of the past.
Programmers gained confidence that software routines would run properly; companies gained confidence that calculations of their all-important business data were stable.
For the next twenty years magnetic-core memory would become the standard RAM for all computers.
Forrester, Everett and their bright boy colleagues then taught IBM engineers how to build Whirlwind clones on an assembly line, which helped catapult IBM into the world’s most powerful computer company.
Whirlwind’s clones became known as the SAGE computer system, which not only served as air defense computers but also became the standard for both civilian and military air-traffic control worldwide.
Seemingly overnight, the world was quickly and irrevocably going digital…and was the better for it.