Add to bookbag
Author: David Price
Title: Kent Redmond and Thomas M. Smith's From Whirlwind to MITRE: The R&D Story of the SAGE Air Defense Computer
Publication info: Ann Arbor, MI: MPublishing, University of Michigan Library
November 2001

This work is protected by copyright and may be linked to without seeking permission. Permission must be received for subsequent distribution in print or electronically. Please contact for more information.

Source: Kent Redmond and Thomas M. Smith's From Whirlwind to MITRE: The R&D Story of the SAGE Air Defense Computer
David Price

vol. 4, no. 3, November 2001
Article Type: Book Review

Kent Redmond and Thomas M. Smith's From Whirlwind to MITRE: The R&D Story of the SAGE Air Defense Computer

David Price

Kent Redmond and Thomas M. Smith. From Whirlwind to MITRE: The R&D Story of the SAGE Air Defense Computer. Cambridge, MA: M.I.T. Press. 2000. 535 pages.

From Whirlwind to MITRE is an exhaustive, and often exhausting, account of the creation of America's preliminary air defense system during the 1950s. It touches on several historically significant topics, including the making of national defense policy, the dynamics of the military-industrial complex and higher education's place in it, and, of course, the role of the military and national security establishment in the evolution of computer technology. Unfortunately, much of what the authors say about these important issues is obscured by pedantic accounts of the minutiae of the bureaucratic processes involved in constructing the country's first automated air defense system.

The book, which is extremely well organized and thoroughly researched, opens with a fairly dramatic account of a successful test of the tracking and intercept relay system that was a key component in the air defense system. A very well done, but brief, overview of the history of America's air defenses before the cold war follows. Then the pace slows significantly as the reader is bombarded with blow-by-blow accounts and overly detailed analysis of what seem to be endless committee meetings, progress reports, and memoranda relating to the myriad of projects that eventually led to the construction of the country's first nationwide air defense system. The SAGE air defense computer receives the most attention of these projects.

Three basic questions underlie the authors' examination of the creation of the SAGE system. The most straightforward of these is why the U.S. felt the need to create a nationwide system of air defense. The authors do a good job tying cold war developments from the Soviet development of atomic weapons to Sputnik to changes in government and military thinking about air defense.

The other two questions involve the technical and administrative aspects of building an effective, automated air defense system. In some ways, these are more interesting questions because they have been the subject of much less previous scholarship than the "why" of creating an air defense system. An effective air defense system had to be able to identify, track, and guide interceptors to enemy aircraft. Radar was obviously the first technological step in this process. Beyond that, however, new technology had to be created because consolidating and distributing the information collected by radar was beyond the ability of human users. Several scientists involved with the project saw promise in using computers to do these more complex tasks. They picked the Whirlwind computer at M.I.T., already involved in a Navy project of using computers to facilitate air traffic control, as the best option to modify for the tasks of air defense.

Several changes in computer design were necessary to make Whirlwind capable of the tasks called for by the air defense project. Transistors would have to replace vacuum tubes in the circuitry of the machine to increase speed and reliability. Data storage capacity would have to be expanded. The scientists working on these problems decided that storing data magnetically would be more effective than existing methods. Both of these changes proved to be critical improvements in computer design. A good deal of the early work on these innovations was done by the M.I.T. staff as they tried to make M.I.T's Whirlwind computer perform the tasks they needed to create an effective air defense. The authors also show the bridge between this work and its introduction to commercial computers by a famous private sector subcontractor on the project, IBM.

Much of the book is devoted to analyzing the administrative and managerial issues involved in coordinating the activities of the various military, business, and educational institutions working on the project. Managing this project required a constant balancing of the need to have united, focused approach to pursue the project efficiently, with the desire of each institution to maintain their individual identities and keep focus on their original primary mission, i.e. education for universities, profit for private sector business. Just as many other studies of other government funded scientific research and development project have shown, there was tension between the military and scientists because of the stifling atmosphere scientists feel rigid military bureaucracy and protocol created.

There are some other very interesting historical points that one can sift out of the book. For example, from an economic history perspective, the authors do a good job explaining how this project laid the basis for a thriving military-industrial research and development economic sector to develop in the Cambridge-Boston area, which by the 1970s made that area the exception to the "rustbelt" rule of northern industrial America's economic decline. On the major themes of the book, however, the authors leave readers wanting more. They repeatedly state that the SAGE computer revolutionized ideas of military command and control, yet they do not thoroughly explain the significance of this. Ultimately, they conclude that the SAGE air defense system marked "the dawn of a new era … [that] would fundamentally transform the ways in which the business of government, industry, agriculture, medicine, education, and most activities in the adjoining realms of the arts and sciences would be carried on." (431) Unfortunately, it is not easy to discern from their discussion exactly how this is so.

Redmond and Smith clearly demonstrate the significance of their topic and the account they provide is an important addition to the historical record of cold war national security policy and the evolution of computer technology. This particular addition, however, would seem to have more utility as an official history of limited distribution. Many readers would probably find a more condensed account of the process with expanded analysis of its importance to larger issues of military history and the history of technology more satisfying.

David Price

Santa Fe Community College, Gainesville, FL