Biographical / Historical
Project Whirlwind was sponsored by the Special Devices Center of the Office of Naval Research from 1945 to 1952. The original objective of the project was the development of a device that would simulate airplanes in flight. As the project progressed, other applications of the computer evolved.
The project was centered in the Servomechanisms Laboratory of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (M.I.T.). In the course of the research, Whirlwind evolved from an aircraft simulator into a high speed digital computer and finally into a key element of the United States' early air defense system. In 1948, M.I.T., believing that it was inappropriate for an educational institution to be so heavily involved in air defense research, transferred Whirlwind responsibility to the new M.I.T. Lincoln Laboratory in 1952. There, under the direction of Jay Forrester, pioneering work was done on magnetic core memory. MITRE's Whirlwind group spun off from Lincoln Laboratory to the new MITRE Corporation in 1958. Whirlwind served SAGE (Semiautomatic Ground Environment) air defense activities until being retired in May of 1959.
Whirlwind I was of the high-speed electronic digital type, in which quantities were represented as discrete numbers, and complex problems were solved by the repeated use of fundamental arithmetic and logical operations. Computations were executed by fractional microsecond pulses in electronic circuits, of which the principal ones were the flip-flop, the gate coincidence circuit and the magnetic core memory. Whirlwind I used numbers of 16 binary digits; this length was selected to limit the machine to a practical size.
The Whirlwind I Computer was utilized by such projects as Navy Fire Control, Air Traffic Control, the Cape Cod System, Experimental SAGE Sector, and many others. Whirlwind I spawned two computers, the MTC (memory test computer) and TX O (transistor computer), both developed by ESS Installation Group 63.
The Whirlwind I Computer and its facilities were later leased to the Wolf Research and Development Corporation, West Concord, Massachusetts, under Navy Lease Contract Nonr 2956(00) in 1963. Kent C. Redmond and Thomas M. Smith wrote a history of the project, Project Whirlwind: Case History (Bedford, Massachusetts: The MITRE Corporation, l975).