Milestone-Proposal:Whirlwind Computer

From IEEE Milestones Wiki

To see comments, or add a comment to this discussion, click here.

Docket #:2010-11

This is a draft proposal, that has not yet been submitted. To submit this proposal, click on the edit button in toolbar above, indicated by an icon displaying a pencil on paper. At the bottom of the form, check the box that says "Submit this proposal to the IEEE History Committee for review. Only check this when the proposal is finished" and save the page.

To the proposer’s knowledge, is this achievement subject to litigation?

Is the achievement you are proposing more than 25 years old?

Is the achievement you are proposing within IEEE’s designated fields as defined by IEEE Bylaw I-104.11, namely: Engineering, Computer Sciences and Information Technology, Physical Sciences, Biological and Medical Sciences, Mathematics, Technical Communications, Education, Management, and Law and Policy.

Did the achievement provide a meaningful benefit for humanity?

Was it of at least regional importance?

Has an IEEE Organizational Unit agreed to pay for the milestone plaque(s)?

Has an IEEE Organizational Unit agreed to arrange the dedication ceremony?

Has the IEEE Section in which the milestone is located agreed to take responsibility for the plaque after it is dedicated?

Has the owner of the site agreed to have it designated as an IEEE Milestone? Yes

Year or range of years in which the achievement occurred:

1944 to 1959

Title of the proposed milestone:

Whirlwind Computer

Plaque citation summarizing the achievement and its significance:

200-250 word abstract describing the significance of the technical achievement being proposed, the person(s) involved, historical context, humanitarian and social impact, as well as any possible controversies the advocate might need to review.

IEEE technical societies and technical councils within whose fields of interest the Milestone proposal resides.

In what IEEE section(s) does it reside?

Boston Section

IEEE Organizational Unit(s) which have agreed to sponsor the Milestone:

IEEE Organizational Unit(s) paying for milestone plaque(s):

Unit: Boston Section
Senior Officer Name: Robert Alongi

IEEE Organizational Unit(s) arranging the dedication ceremony:

Unit: Boston Section
Senior Officer Name: Robert Alongi

IEEE section(s) monitoring the plaque(s):

IEEE Section: Boston Section
IEEE Section Chair name: Bruce Hecht

Milestone proposer(s):

Proposer name: Gilmore Cooke
Proposer email: Proposer's email masked to public

Please note: your email address and contact information will be masked on the website for privacy reasons. Only IEEE History Center Staff will be able to view the email address.

Street address(es) and GPS coordinates in decimal form of the intended milestone plaque site(s):

Cambridge MA

Describe briefly the intended site(s) of the milestone plaque(s). The intended site(s) must have a direct connection with the achievement (e.g. where developed, invented, tested, demonstrated, installed, or operated, etc.). A museum where a device or example of the technology is displayed, or the university where the inventor studied, are not, in themselves, sufficient connection for a milestone plaque.

Please give the address(es) of the plaque site(s) (GPS coordinates if you have them). Also please give the details of the mounting, i.e. on the outside of the building, in the ground floor entrance hall, on a plinth on the grounds, etc. If visitors to the plaque site will need to go through security, or make an appointment, please give the contact information visitors will need. Whirlwind was built and operated in MIT's Barta Building at 211 Massachusetts Avenue, Cambridge. The computer operated and remained at that location throughout its lifetime. The building is now MIT building N42. The Section will seek approval from MIT's President's Office to mount this milestone plaque on that building, alongside other IEEE plaques that may be awarded.

Are the original buildings extant?


Details of the plaque mounting:

How is the site protected/secured, and in what ways is it accessible to the public?

The original building where Whirlwind was housed is located at 211 Massachusetts Avenue, Cambridge. The plaque would be readily visible to pedestrians walking on the public sidewalk along this major street in Cambridge.

Who is the present owner of the site(s)?


What is the historical significance of the work (its technological, scientific, or social importance)? If personal names are included in citation, include justification here. (see section 6 of Milestone Guidelines)

ABSTRACT The Whirlwind I computer was developed at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) between 1945 and 1952 in a project directed by Jay Forrester. The project was first carried out in the Servomechanisms Laboratory. Later it separated to become the Digital Computer Laboratory and Lincoln Laboratory, Division 6, and testing continued through 1958. Jay Forrester served as director of both laboratories until 1956, and Robert Everett as associate director, then director. A key part of the Whirlwind I design was the high-speed and highly reliable magnetic core memory for the computer storage system, replacing electrostatic storage tubes. Jay Forrester was issued a patent for the magnetic core memory, and it was used successfully and widely in large computers. (1) HISTORICAL NOTES The development of Whirlwind, one of the first large-scale high-speed computers, began during World War II as part of a research project to develop a universal flight trainer that would simulate flight (the Aircraft Stability and Control Analyzer project). It was initiated by the Office of Naval Research and began at the MIT Servomechanisms Laboratory in 1944. Eventually the focus of the grant, a flight simulator, using an analog computer, changed to developing a high-speed digital computer. While building the computer, researcher Jay W. Forrester invented random-access, coincident-current magnetic storage, which became the standard memory device for digital computers. Prior to Forrester's discovery, electrostatic storage tubes were used. The introduction and change to magnetic core memory provided high levels of speed and of reliability. By late 1951, the computer Whirlwind was operational and made available for scientific and military research. Unclassified research projects using the Whirlwind computer were managed by the Digital Computer Lab staff on the MIT campus, where Whirlwind occupied the Barta Building (N42), which had been acquired in 1947 to provide sufficient space for the computer as it was designed and constructed. In 1952 staff working on classified projects left to be part of the newly organized Lincoln Laboratory off campus, to form Division 6, Digital Computer Division. Although their projects were classified, the Whirlwind computer itself was not, and remained in the Barta Building. Jay Forrester served as director of both the Digital Computer Laboratory and Division 6, Lincoln Laboratory until 1956, when he became a member of the MIT faculty pursuing interests in system dynamics in management. Robert Everett served as associate director of both labs until he succeeded Forrester as director. The U.S. Air Force provided substantial financial support for Whirlwind applications and it was a key component in the design of the Air Force's SAGE (Semi-Automatic Ground Environment) air defense system in the 1950s. Whirlwind computer was shut down on May 29, 1959. It was disassembled and moved out of the Barta building in the spring of 1960. (1) REFERENCES or SOURCES USED 1. Project Whirlwind Collection, MC 665, box _. Institute Archives and Special Collections, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, Massachusetts. 2. Wikipedia.

What obstacles (technical, political, geographic) needed to be overcome?

The Whirlwind computer project was well funded, had great leaders, and was manned by a staff of great scientists, technicians, software and hardware engineers. Obstacles were encountered and resolved during Whirlwind's first live-on-stage performance when the Cape Cod System came into being. The Cape Cod System is considered a landmark electrical project, worthy of its own IEEE Milestone. This is covered elsewhere.

What features set this work apart from similar achievements?

By 1947, Forrester and collaborator Robert Everett completed the design of a high-speed stored-program computer for the project. Most computers of the era operated in bit-serial mode, using single-bit arithmetic.

Supporting texts and citations to establish the dates, location, and importance of the achievement: Minimum of five (5), but as many as needed to support the milestone, such as patents, contemporary newspaper articles, journal articles, or chapters in scholarly books. 'Scholarly' is defined as peer-reviewed, with references, and published. You must supply the texts or excerpts themselves, not just the references. At least one of the references must be from a scholarly book or journal article. All supporting materials must be in English, or accompanied by an English translation.

Supporting materials (supported formats: GIF, JPEG, PNG, PDF, DOC): All supporting materials must be in English, or if not in English, accompanied by an English translation. You must supply the texts or excerpts themselves, not just the references. For documents that are copyright-encumbered, or which you do not have rights to post, email the documents themselves to Please see the Milestone Program Guidelines for more information.

Please email a jpeg or PDF a letter in English, or with English translation, from the site owner(s) giving permission to place IEEE milestone plaque on the property, and a letter (or forwarded email) from the appropriate Section Chair supporting the Milestone application to with the subject line "Attention: Milestone Administrator." Note that there are multiple texts of the letter depending on whether an IEEE organizational unit other than the section will be paying for the plaque(s).

Please recommend reviewers by emailing their names and email addresses to Please include the docket number and brief title of your proposal in the subject line of all emails.