Sep 9, 2021
The Soviet Union detonated their first nuclear bomb in 1949, releasing 20 kilotons worth of an explosion and sparking the nuclear arms race. A weather reconnaissance mission confirmed that the Soviets did so and Klaus Fuchs was arrested for espionage, after passing blueprints for the Fat Man bomb that had been dropped on Japan. A common name in the podcast is Vannevar Bush. At this point he was the president of the Carnegie Institute and put together a panel to verify the findings.
The Soviets were catching up to American science. Not only did they have a bomb but they also had new aircraft that were capable of dropping a bomb. People built bomb shelters, schools ran drills to teach students how to survive a nuclear blast and within a few years we’d moved on to the hydrogen bomb. And so the world lived in fear of nuclear fall-out.
Radar had come along during World War II and we’d developed Ground Control of Intercept, an early radar network. But that wouldn’t be enough to protect against this new threat. If one of these Soviet bombers, like the Tupolev 16 “Badger” were to come into American airspace, the prevailing thought was that we needed to shoot it down before the payload could be delivered.
The Department of Defense started simulating what a nuclear war would look like. And they asked the Air Force to develop an air defense system. Given the great work done at MIT, much under the careful eye of Vannevar Bush, they reached out to George Valley, a professor in the Physics Department who had studied nuclear weapons. He also sat on the Air Force Scientific Advisory Board, and toured some of the existing sites and took a survey of the US assets.
He sent his findings and they eventually made their way to General Vandenberg, who assigned General Fairchild to assemble a committee which would become the Valley Committee, or more officially the Air Defense Systems Engineering Committee, or ADSEC.
ADSEC dug in deeper and decided that we needed a large number of radar stations with a computer that could aggregate and then analyze data to detect enemy aircraft in real time. John Harrington had worked out how to convert radar into code and could send that over telephone lines. They just needed a computer that could crunch the data as it was received. And yet none of the computer companies at the time were able to do this kind of real time operation. We were still in a batch processing mainframe world.
Jay Forrester at MIT was working on the idea of real-time computing. Just one problem, the Servomechanisms lab where he was working on Project Whirlwind for the Navy for flight simulation was over budget and while they’d developed plenty of ground-breaking technology, they needed more funding. So Forrester was added to ADSEC and added the ability to process the digital radar information. By the end of 1950, the team was able to complete successful tests of sending radar information to Whirlwind over the phone lines.
Now it was time to get funding, which was proposed at $2 million a year to fund a lab. Given that Valley and Forrester were both at MIT, they decided it should be at MIT. Here, they saw a way to help push the electronics industry forward and the Navy’s Chief Scientist Louis Ridenour knew that wherever that lab was built would become a the next scientific hotspot. The president at MIT at the time, James Killian, wasn’t exactly jumping on the idea of MIT becoming an arm of the department of defense so put together 28 scientists to review the plans from ADSEC, which became Project Charles and threw their support to forming the new lab.
They had measured twice and were ready to cut. There were already projects being run by the military during the arms buildup named after other places surrounding MIT so they picked Project Lincoln for the name of the project to Project Lincoln. They appointed F Wheeler Loomis as the director with a mission to design a defense system. As with all big projects, they broke it up into five small projects, or divisions; things like digital computers, aircraft control and warning, and communications. A sixth did the business administration for the five technical divisions and another delivered technical services as needed.
They grew to over 300 people by the end of 1951 and over 1,300 in 1952. They moved offsite and built a new campus - thus establishing Lincoln Lab. By the end of 1953 they had written a memo called A Proposal for Air Defense System Evolution: The Technical Phase. This called for a net of radars to be set up that would track the trajectory of all aircraft in the US airspace and beyond. And to build communications to deploy the weapons that could destroy those aircraft.
The Manhattan project had brought in the nuclear age but this project grew to be larger as now we had to protect ourselves from the potential devastation we wrought. We were firmly in the Cold War with America testing the hydrogen bomb in 52 and the Soviets doing so in 55. That was the same year the prototype of the AN/FSQ-7 to replace Whirlwind.
To protect the nation from these bombs they would need 100s of radars, 24 centers to receive data, and 3 combat centers. They planned for direction centers to have a pair of AN/FSQ-7 computers, which were the Whirlwind evolved. That meant half a million lines of code which was by far the most ambitious software ever written. Forrester had developed magnetic-core memory for Whirlwind. That doubled the speed of the computer. They hired IBM to build the AN/FSQ-7 computers and from there we started to see commercial applications as well when IBM added it to the 704 mainframe in 1955.
Stalin was running labor camps and purges. An estimated nine million people died in Gulags or from hunger. Chairman Mao visited Moscow in 1957, sparking the Great Leap Forward policy that saw 45 million people die. All in the name of building a utopian paradise. Americans were scared. And Stalin was distrustful of computers for any applications beyond scientific computing for the arms race. By contrast, people like Ken Olsen from Lincoln Lab left to found Digital Equipment Corporation and sell modular mini-computers on the mass market, with DEC eventually rising to be the number two computing company in the world.
The project also needed software and so that was farmed out to Rand who would have over 500 programmers work on it. And a special display to watch planes as they were flying, which began as a Stromberg-Carlson Charactron cathode ray tube. IBM got to work building the 24 FSQ-7s, with each coming in at a whopping 250 tons and nearly 50,000 vacuum tubes - and of course that magnetic core memory.
All this wasn’t just theoretical. Given the proximity, they deployed the first net of around a dozen radars around Cape Cod as a prototype. They ran dedicated phone lines from Cambridge and built the first direction center, equipping it with an interactive display console that showed an x for each object being tracked, adding labels and then Robert Everett came up with the idea of a light gun that could be used as a pointing device, along with a keyboard, to control the computers from a terminal.
They tested the Cape Cod installation in 1953 and added long range radars in Maine and New York by the end of 1954, working out bugs as they went. The Suffolk County Airfield in Long Island was added so Strategic Air Command could start running exercises for response teams. By the end of 1955 they put the system to the test and it passed all requirements from the Air Force. The radars detected the aircraft and were able to then control manned antiaircraft operations.
By 1957 they were adding logic and capacity to the system, having fine tuned over a number of test runs until they got to a 100 percent interception rate. They were ready to build out the direction centers. The research and development phase was done - now it was time to produce an operational system. Western Electric built a network of radar and communication systems across Northern Canada that became known as the DEW line, short for Distant Early Warning.
They added increasingly complicated radar, layers of protection, like Buckminster Fuller joining for a bit to develop a geodesic dome to protect the radars using fiberglass. They added radar to what looked like oil rigs around Texas, experimented with radar on planes and ships, and how to connect those back to the main system. By the end of 1957 the system was ready to move into production and integration with live weapons into the code and connections.
This is where MIT was calling it done for their part of the program. Only problem is when the Air Force looked around for companies willing to take on such a large project, no one could. So MITRE corporation was spun out of Lincoln Labs pulling in people from a variety of other government contractors and continues on to this day working on national security, GPS, election integrity, and health care.
They took the McChord airfare online as DC-12 in 1957, then Syracuse New York in 1958 and started phasing in automated response. Andrews, Dobbins, Geiger Field, Los Angeles Air Defense Sector, and others went online over the course of the next few years. The DEW line went operational in 1962, extending from Iceland to the Aleutians. By 1963, NORAD had a Combined Operations Center where the war room became reality.
Burroughs eventually won a contract to deploy new D825 computers to form a system called BUIC II and with the rapidly changing release of new solid state technology those got replaced with a Hughes AN/TSQ-51. With the rise of Airborn Warning and Control Systems (AWACS), the ground systems started to slowly get dismantled in 1980, being phased out completely in 1984, the year after WarGames was released.
In WarGames, Matthew Broderick plays David Lightman, a young hacker who happens upon a game. One Jon Von Neumann himself might have written as he applied Game Theory to the nuclear threat. Lightman almost starts World War III when he tries to play Global Thermonuclear War. He raises the level of DEFCON and so inspires a generation of hackers who founded conferences like DEFCON and to this day war dial, or war drive, or war whatever.
The US spent countless tax money on advancing technology in the buildup for World War II and the years after. The Manhattan Project, Project Whirlwind, SAGE, and countless others saw increasing expenditures. Kennedy continued the trend in 1961 when he started the process of putting humans on the moon. And the unpopularity of the Vietnam war, which US soldiers had been dying in since 1959, caused a rollback of spending.
The legacy of these massive projects was huge spending to advance the sciences required to produce each. The need for these computers in SAGE and other critical infrastructure to withstand a nuclear war led to ARPANET, which over time evolved into the Internet. The subsequent privatization of these projects, the rapid advancement in making chips, and the drop in costs while frequent doubling of speeds based on findings from each discipline finding their way into others then gave us personal computing and the modern era of PCs then mobile devices. But it all goes back to projects like ENIAC, Whirlwind, and SAGE. Here, we can see generations of computing evolve with each project.
I’m frequently asked what’s next in our field. It’s impossible to know exactly. But we can look to mega projects, many of which are transportation related - and we can look at grants from the NSF. And DARPA and many major universities. Many of these produce new standards so we can also watch for new RFCs from the IETF. But the coolest tech is probably classified, so ask again in a few years!
And we can look to what inspires - sometimes that’s a perceived need, like thwarting nuclear war. Sometimes mapping human genomes isn’t a need until we need to rapidly develop a vaccine. And sometimes, well… sometimes it’s just returning to some sense of normalcy. Because we’re all about ready for that. That might mean not being afraid of nuclear war as a society any longer. Or not being afraid to leave our homes. Or whatever the world throws at us next.