Forrester's 'Whirlwind' televised 65 years ago this week
Dec. 12, 2016
by Mark Ollig

In 1951, CBS television in New York was broadcasting its new documentary series, “See It Now,” hosted by famed journalist and news reporter, Edward R. Murrow.

Approximately 13 million television sets were being used in this country at that time, with most having access to three or four channels.

“These are the days of mechanical and electronic marvels. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology has developed a new one for the Navy. It’s a Whirlwind electronic computer,” said Murrow at the start of the Sunday, Dec. 16, 1951 “See It Now” episode.

I recently watched this archived episode over the Internet.

Murrow, seated at his desk, picked up a telephone handset to speak with Jay Forrester, who was in charge of the Whirlwind computer project, located at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Digital Computer Lab in Cambridge, MA.

Forrester could be seen on the studio’s Line Monitor 2 television screen located on the wall, behind Murrow.

“Hello New York. Hello New York. This is Cambridge, and this is the oscilloscope [display screen] of the Whirlwind electronic computer,” said Forrester.

Television viewers saw the Whirlwind’s display screen create a continuously flashing white text message on a black background saying: HELLO MR. MURROW.

A remote television camera provided viewers with a look at the computer components presented by Forrester, who was seated next to tall, metal frames containing the electronic components which was the Whirlwind computer.

He described electronic “storage tubes” as being used for the Whirlwind’s memory.

Forrester stated the computer could access information inside a storage tube within 25 microseconds.

Whirlwind was also the first computer which could process data in real-time.

Programming information into the computer was by means of adjusting mechanical switches, and feeding strips of “punched” or perforated paper tape with precisely-placed holes representing binary data, into the computer.

Whirlwind was connected to a round, 16-inch graphic display screen, and an electric typewriter which acted as a paper printer for reading the computer’s output information.

Admiral Calvin Bolster, chief of Naval Research for the US Navy, who could be seen on the Line Monitor 1 television screen, asked a question of the Whirlwind computer regarding a Viking rocket launch.

Based on the rate of standard fuel consumption, Admiral Bolster wanted to see the Whirlwind computer trace the rocket’s flight path from liftoff.

He also wanted the Whirlwind to determine after 40 seconds had elapsed, the amount of fuel remaining, and the rocket’s velocity.

The Viking rocket at lift-off weighed 1,100 pounds, held 8,500 pounds of fuel, and would reach a maximum altitude of 135 miles.

This problem was setup in the Whirlwind computer, and the results were graphically presented on its display screen using white dots.

The far-left side of the Whirlwind’s screen showed television viewers a vertical line of white dots representing fuel.

At liftoff we see a single white dot (representing the Viking rocket) rising on the immediate right-side of the fuel representation dots.

A vertical scale of white dots on the far-right-hand side of the screen, represented the rocket’s velocity.

As the dots symbolizing the rocket rises, the vertical dots representing fuel consumption lowers.

The velocity line drops as the rocket reaches the height of its trajectory.

The velocity line then rises up again as the rocket speedily falls to the ground.

“How’s that?” asked a smiling Forrester.

“It looks very good to me,” replied Admiral Bolster.

For me, it was like watching the original Pong video game being played on a black and white television set.

A smiling Edward R. Murrow then challenged the Whirlwind to calculate what $24 deposited in the year 1626 would be worth “today” if it was earning a 6 percent interest rate.

Forrester entered the data to calculate into the Whirlwind’s memory via the “control tape” (perforated paper tape).

The computer then began to solve the problem, and within a few seconds the answer was automatically printed onto the paper of the electric typewriter.

Forrester told Murrow the Whirlwind computer calculated the $24 would be worth, at the end of 325 years (1626 – 1951), “Four-billion, twenty-seven million, seven-hundred and twenty-thousand dollars . . . and some odd cents.”

Yours truly, using a calculator accessible via the Internet, computed the base amount of $24 compounded yearly for 325 years, to be worth $4,023,626,581.92.

Of course, where today will I find a bank with a 6 percent annually compounded interest rate.

More importantly, where do I find a longevity potion to keep me around for 325 years.

Forrester ended the interview with Murrow by having the Whirlwind computer electronically play the song, “Jingle Bells.”

Not too long ago, Forrester addressed the modern era of digital computers, saying, “I might not have envisioned how much smaller and faster they’d be, but the fundamental logic hasn’t changed.”

In a 2011 New York Times interview, Forrester recalled speaking before an MIT engineering class, questioning whether they understood how a toilet’s water tank maintained the water level using the mechanical apparatus inside of it.

“How many of you have ever taken the lid off a toilet water tank to see how it works?” he recalls asking the class.

None of the engineering students could say they had.

“How do you get to MIT without having ever looked inside a toilet tank?” Forrester said in the interview.

Jay Wright Forrester was born July 14, 1918 near Anselmo, NE, and passed away Nov. 16, in Concord, MA, at the age of 98.

The Dec. 16, 1951 “See It Now” episode can be watched here: http://tinyurl.com/WhirlwindVideo.

Be sure to follow me on Twitter at @bitsandbytes.

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