Thursday, March 4, 2010

Ride the Red Line, Reap the Whirlwind

It would be impossible to overstate the significance of MIT’s Whirlwind Computer on the history of technology, computer engineering, software and programming, venture capital, the development of 128 as “America’s Technology Highway”, and America’s success in the ”Cold War.”

Consequently, when Scott Kirsner asked for suggestions for “The Red Line Tour of Innovation in Boston,” I tried to reap the Whirlwind.

Eons ago, when IBM and DEC were the world’s largest computer companies, you could trace their technological successes directly back to Whirlwind.

In 1954, IBM won a contract to implement SAGE (air defense) for the United States Air Force using technology developed for Whirlwind, the world’s first real-time digital computer. IBM built fifty-six SAGE computers at the price of US$30 million each, and at the peak of the project devoted more than 7,000 employees (20% of its then workforce) to the project. This gave IBM insight and experience with computer technology advancements such as magnetic core memory, a large real-time operating system, an integrated video display, light guns, the first effective algebraic computer language, analog-to-digital and digital-to-analog conversion techniques, digital data transmission over telephone lines, duplexing, multiprocessing, and geographically distributed networks). By 1960, IBM was clearly the technological leader of the computer industry.

DEC’s connection was even more direct. DEC was founded in 1957 by Ken Olsen and Harlan Anderson, two Whirlwind engineers who wished to make small, transistorized computers (Whirlwind and SAGE used vacuum tubes). Harlan Anderson’s recently published autobiography provides substantial insight into these events: Learn, Earn, & Return, My Life as a Computer Pioneer. I very much enjoyed this book.

Venture capital of $70,000 was invested in DEC by Georges Doriot of American Research and Development Corporation. AR&D later sold its investment in Digital for approximately $450 million, certainly the best VC return ever to that point, which is why the DEC investment is considered the birth of the modern VC industry. Olsen, of course, stayed on at DEC, but Anderson moved on, investing on his own in new companies. Two people he helped get started were Bill Wolfson, who advised me when I left IBM to found Spartacus, and Dick Morely, who as co-founder of the Breakfast Club made a vast number of early stage investments and helped pave the way for today’s Angel Investors.

So Whirlwind led both to inventions and to capital to commercialize them. Programming as a profession started with SAGE, located in Lincoln MA, boosting “Americas Technology Highway.” SAGE continued in service until 1984.

MIT's Barta Building (now building N42) which housed Whirlwind during the project's lifetime is now home to MIT's campus-wide IT department, Information Services & Technology. Built in 1904, the building was restored to its original brick exterior with its distinctive gargoyles in 1997-8, It can be found at 211 Mass. Ave., Cambridge, directly across Windsor Street from the MIT Museum, which is on Kirsner’s Red Line Tour.

The information above comes courtesy of Jessica Holmes in the MIT News Office. Unfortunately, there is no public access to building N42 and I have been told that the interior has been so modified that it would no longer be recognizable.

So photograph the gargoyles with your iPhone, send us a copy, then cross the street to the MIT Museum, where Kate Porter says “We have a small display about Whirlwind here in our Mind & Hand gallery. These items will be on display through mid-June. Whirlwind will be featured in our MIT150 exhibit slated to open in January of 2011. Our archives here at MIT have plenty of materials on Whirlwind and you can access them online.”

If you would like to see more, you can find a YouTube video of Whirlwind here, and a SAGE video there.

Next stop: Where we invented time sharing and virtual machines.

1 comment:

  1. Isn't it amazing how one thing always leads to another in the tech biz?