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Milestone-Proposal:Whirlwind Computer

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Docket #:

This Proposal has been approved, and is now a Milestone Nomination

This is a draft proposal, that has not yet been submitted. To submit this proposal, click on "Edit with form", check the "Submit this proposal for review" box at the bottom, and save the page.

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

Is the achievement you are proposing within IEEE’s fields of interest? (e.g. “the theory and practice of electrical, electronics, communications and computer engineering, as well as computer science, the allied branches of engineering and the related arts and sciences” – from the IEEE Constitution)

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 Electrical Engineering 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:

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):

IEEE Organizational Unit(s) arranging the dedication ceremony:

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

Milestone proposer(s):

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 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)?


A letter in English, or with English translation, from the site owner(s) giving permission to place IEEE milestone plaque on the property:

A letter or email from the appropriate Section Chair supporting the Milestone application:

What is the historical significance of the work (its technological, scientific, or social importance)?

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. ":Whirlwind Computer". 3. IEEE Global History Network "Magnetic-Core Memory".

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 and feeding in large words, often 48 or 60 bits in size, one bit at a time. This was simply not fast enough for their purposes, so Whirlwind included sixteen such math units, operating on a complete 16-bit word every cycle in "bit-parallel" mode. Ignoring memory speed, Whirlwind was essentially sixteen times as fast as other machines. Today almost all CPUs do arithmetic in "bit-parallel"; some CPUs extend the idea to larger 32- or 64-bit words. This helped the Whirlwind compute at an impressive speed. (2) Whirlwind's signature piece was its magnetic-core memory, first installed in August 1953 for the pre-SAGE project entitled the Cape Cod System. The topic of magnetic-core memory is addressed in an article in the IEEE Global History Network. (3) Extracts from this article follows next: "The magnetic-core, a wire mesh of ferrite rings and metal wire, created a location where binary information could be recorded and retrieved magnetically. The ability to pinpoint specific intersections or addresses within the core rings, from which information could be stored and then recalled at random, created an unparalleled innovation in computing. The computer’s central processing unit and its memory of stored data, procedures and programs, could now be operated interactively. This interactivity boiled down to one major innovative gain: speed. Random-access memory was born. "Although increased computing speed was always a goal, it was not terribly feasible in the early systems that relied on tape drives for memory access. Magnetic-core memory changed this technological bottleneck. . . . The system required real-time reaction and lightening-speed access to binary bits of stored memory. The Whirlwind computer became the first digital computer with a magnetic-core memory that could operate in real, interactive time."

"... But the greatest legacy that Whirlwind, Forrester and magnetic-core memory left lies in the conceptualization of random-access memory and the instantaneous speed of real-time processing. Where would we be today if we could not withdraw money from the ATM, buy gas, or have our checking accounts updated in real time? Or make a hotel or plane reservation? Or sit down with our laptops and work online while our personal computers encompass storage, memory, real time and networking all in one immediately gratifying package? Magnetic-core memory spawned the birth of the random-access era; its anniversary is one worth noting." (3)

References 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 citations to pages in scholarly books. At least one of the references must be from a scholarly book or journal article.

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.