Whirlwind as a Social Liberator

Using and exchanging information is impossible
if all one has time to do is to make it.

The less than cheery scene above was an early corporate computing division where, as Henry David Thoreau might have remarked, "Men have become the tools of their tools."

The "huddled masses" sitting elbow to elbow in what appears to be a sweat shop of data pro-duction look slavish at their work. Although comparatively well-paid jobs for back then, these "computers", as they were called, look more like victims. And they weren't alone. Millions of others just like them sat at millions of other machines laboring over billions of documents and thousands of miles of calculator tapes. They were trapped, surrounded by a geared world of machines that was ignorant of a better way.

J.C.R. Licklieder (computer pioneer and author of the influential "Man-Machine Symbiosis") railed about the huge amounts of time he spent putting information together and how little time he had to consider or think about the information he had taken so long to assemble.

There had to be something better; an easier way to reverse the time spent on research. He found his savior in the basement of Lincoln Laboratory with a machine called the TX-0...the progeny of Whirl-wind's MTC (Memory Test Computer). A lightbulb lit up in Licklider's head: this machine, he happily realized, will change everything...and it did. But first, there was a geared world around him that needed some shaking up.

The Day the Gears Stopped

Not so very long ago information was lorded over by geared machinery. Mechanical typewriters, adding machines, calculators, comptometers, printing presses and all their clacking kind made the making of information into drudgery, except for masochists like insurance actuaries, the Census Bureau, and writers. Maybe it was the toil of making information that put everyone off from really caring about it. Strangely, however, this geared world was all displaced, seemingly overnight.

From the Moore School lectures to the Barta Building

Mother Whirlwind's DNA was everywhere. From 1950-1959 Whirlwind and her progeny and their combined technology inducted a generation of science and engineering students into the com-plexities and possibilities of electronic digital computing. They went on to seed the information revolution that was to follow, which, in turn, began the massive immigration from the geared world to the New Wold of electronic computing.

Whirlwind DNA produced a cavalcade of new technology: First comes Whirlwind. Whirlwind was engineered as a one-of-a-kind machine, and as such, impossible to mass produce. The assembly line reproduction version of Whirlwind (made to order by the bright boys and IBM engineers) was first called the XD-1, then by its military name the AN/FSQ-7, and then by its air defense name the SAGE computer.

A huskier version of the AN/FSQ-7 was also built, the AN/FSQ-32. There was also Whirlwind's little sister, built by the bright boys in the old Whittemore Shoe Polish factory around the corner on Vassar Street, which was called the Memory Test Computer or MTC, or sometimes referred to as Whirlwind 1 1/2. The MTC was built specifically to test Jay Forrester's magnetic core memory (see the free download of Chapter 6) before installing it in Whirlwind. Later, an all-transistor version (3,600 transistors) of the MTC was built, called the TX-0. In 1957, the 22,000 transistor TX-2 replaced the TX-0.

It was the TX-2, at the helm of which was Larry Roberts, that frist sent digital packets of information across the continent to another of the Whirlwind progeny (AN/FSQ-32) in California. That, of course, began Arpanet which lead to the Internet.

A Sage for the Age

By far the most inspirational and clearly articulated look at computers was delivered by Edmund Berkeley in his 1949 national bestseller Giant Brains, or Machines That Think. Berkeley was the first to introduce electronic computers and their potential use in business to a general audience.

Two modern reviews of Giant Brains, or Machines That Think are below:

“Berkeley…gave early expression to the idea of information as a ubiquitous presence in the natural and social worlds. He made the computer less threatening by presenting it as the latest and most powerful in a series of pieces of ‘physical equipment for handling information’ that included everything from nerve cells to human gestures.”

“In language that managed the delicate trick of being exquisitely clear and uncompromisingly evangelistic, Berkeley described how a computer works, step by step, instruction by instruction. Employing numerous diagrams, and painstakingly explaining every underlying concept (like “binary” or “register” or “input/output”) as if it had never been explained before, Berkeley demonstrated how it was possible to move digital information from one “place” to another—and how a set of on/off switches, if wired correctly, could perform operations on that information, handling such extraordinary feats as the addition of two plus two.”

In 1947 while working for the Prudential Life Insurance Company, Berkeley was the guy who engineered his company’s first computer purchase: a UNIVAC, which Presper Eckert and John Mauchly were unable to deliver before their company’s collapse.

 


 

The Apartment (1960)

Jack Lemon plays C.C. "Bud" Baxter

"My name is C.C. Baxter - C. for
Calvin, C. for Clifford -- however,
most people call me Bud.

"I work for an insurance company ---- Consolidated Life of New York. Our home office has 31,259 employees --which is more than the entire popula-tion of Natchez, Mississippi, or Gallup, New Mexico. My take- home pay is $94.70 a week.

"I work on the nineteenth floor --Ordinary Policy Department -
Premium Accounting Division -
Section W -- desk number 861."

 

In the dreary opening scene from The Apartment, Jack Lemon (as Bud Baxter) sits at a bare desk, desk number 861, with a toaster-sized comptometer in front of him. The huge chunk of metal with row on row of keys is his workday purgatory.

As the camera tilts up from 861, it reveals a massive scene. Surrounding him and stretching backwards for hundreds of feet is a sea of other bare desks with similar machines. Others like himself sit at those desks: an army of slavish workers punching num-bers into the metal monsters eight hours a day. The racket of clacking calculators and comptometers is deafening.

For movie audiences in 1960 nothing was odd or out of place in that scene. To them, Bud Baxter was working in a natural and realistic business setting. Unknown to Bud, his 31,259 other office mates at Consolidated Insurance, as well as the movie audi-ence, the din of the metal machines was soon to go quiet forever.

Unavoidably and inevitably, there would be many casualties brought on by the migration to electronics. Bud's girlfriend, for one.

Fran Kubelik, Bud's love interest in The Apartment, (played by Shirley MacLaine) was one of the many elevator operators in Consolidated Life's home office in Manhattan. In the 1950s, elevator operator was not a livelihood with any sort of future.

"That same year [1959] in New York City there were 200,000 elevator operators opening and closing ele-vator doors and whisking passengers up and down buildings large and small. But not for long. Within a single decade nearly all would be out of work from the kind of job that would never ever come again. Machines would be smoothing the leveling of elevators at every floor and machines would be warning passengers: “Watch your step.”

The original desktop machine