Whirlwind Computer (1949)

Whirlwind was a large scale, general purpose digital computer begun at the Servomechanisms Laboratory of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1946. It was operational in 1949.

The project originated with a contract from the U.S. Navy for MIT to develop an "aircraft stability and control analyzer" (ASCA). MIT took on the ASCA project in 1944, with Jay Forrester as its director.

In April 1946, it was decided that a digital computer would be required, rather than an analog computer as originally envisioned. The program to build the digital computer, called the Whirlwind, was officially launched. Project Whirlwind was sponsored by the Special Devices Division of the Office of Research and Inventions of the U.S. Navy. The plans called for using the Whirlwind to investigate the problems associated with aircraft stability and control using flight simulation. Jay Forester was the Whirlwind Project director, Robert Everett was associate director.

Forester and the Whirlwind computer research group soon split away from MIT's Servomechanisms Laboratory and formed the Digital Computer Laboratory. The group became involved with Project Lincoln and became Division VI of the Lincoln Laboratory. Lincoln Labs were formed at MIT in 1951 with F. Wheeler Loomis as director. Division VI of Lincoln Labs also did research on the Whirlwind II (FSQ-7) computer. Jack Gilmore wrote the first assembler program for the Whirlwind in 1951.

The Whirlwind itself took up 3,300 square feet within a two-story building. The drum storage system and data communications interface was located on the ground floor. The CPU, control console and CRT displays were located on the second floor. Power supplies were located in the building's basement and the roof was covered with air conditioning equipment to cool down the system. Power generation was approximately 150 KW.

The Whirlwind contained 12,500 tubes, 23,803 crystal rectifiers, 1,800 relays, magnetic drum, magnetic tape. Used for real-time control problems, also general-purpose calculations.

The computer was a 16-bit parallel, single-address, binary computer. Instructions and data occupied 16 bit words in memory. The Whirlwind utilized magnetic tape and magnetic drum for auxiliary storage. Forester used iron core memory for main computer memory storage. The Whirlwind was in operation until 1959.

Components of the Whirlwind are now located at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. and in the Digital Computer Museum in Marlboro, Massachusetts. Jay Forester left Lincoln Labs in 1956 and took a teaching position at MIT. Robert Everett and others eventually left Lincoln Labs in 1959 to form the MITRE Corporation.

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