MIT Institute Archives & Special Collections

Project Whirlwind


Project Whirlwind report R-209
Report R-209

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 design a universal flight trainer that would simulate flight (the Aircraft Stability and Control Analyzer project). Initiated by the Office of Naval Research, the project 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 the development of a high-speed digital computer. While building the computer, Jay W. Forrester invented random-access, coincident-current magnetic storage, which became the standard memory device for digital computers, replacing electrostatic tubes. For this he was granted a patent in 1956. The change to magnetic core memory provided high levels of speed and reliability.

Researchers at Whirlwind I test control
Stephen Dodd, Jay Forrester, Robert Everett, and Ramona Ferenz at Whirlwind I test control. 1950

Whirlwind I was completed in 1951, and Project Whirlwind was detached from the Servomechanisms Lab to become the MIT Digital Computer Laboratory. In 1952 staff working on classified projects left to form Division 6, Digital Computer Division, at the newly organized Lincoln Laboratory off campus. Jay Forrester served as director of both the Digital Computer Laboratory and Division 6, Lincoln Laboratory, until 1956. Robert Everett, the associate director of both labs, succeeded Forrester as director.

Page from Forrester's notebook
From Jay Forrester's notebook, June 13, 1949

In 1958 the MITRE Corporation was formed as a not-for-profit corporation to develop new technologies for United States government projects, in particular Semi-Automated Ground Environment (SAGE). Division 6 of Lincoln Laboratory was closed and many of the division research staff moved to MITRE.

In 2008 the Project Whirlwind records were transferred from the MITRE Corporation to the MIT Archives. The records of Project Whirlwind (MC 665), the Servomechanisms Laboratory (AC 151), the Digital Computer Laboratory (AC 362), and the MIT Magnetic Core Memory Patent Litigation (AC 337), as well as the papers of Jay W. Forrester (MC 439) are among the materials available for research on Project Whirlwind in the MIT Institute Archives and Special Collections, 14N-118. Digital copies of selected material in the Project Whirlwind collection are in DOME, the MIT Libraries’ digital repository.

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Object of the Month: July 2009

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