This digital computer is a ‘Whirlwind’

April 2, 2021
by Mark Ollig

Nov. 18, 1951, CBS television in New York began broadcasting the Sunday documentary series, “See It Now,” hosted by CBS journalist and news reporter Edward R. Murrow.

During 1951, approximately 14 million television sets were inside American households, with most receiving three or four television stations.

Murrow began the Sunday, Dec. 16 “See It Now” broadcast, saying, “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.”

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

The CBS studio’s remote Line Monitor 2 television monitor (located on the wall behind Murrow) showed Forrester standing near a large mainframe computer.

A piece of electronics equipment with a 16-inch round CRT (cathode-ray tube) display screen called an oscilloscope is connected to the computer and sits on a test bench next to Forrester.

“Hello New York. This is Cambridge, and this is the oscilloscope of the Whirlwind electronic computer,” announced Forrester into the CBS microphone.

Television viewers saw a flashing white text message on the CRT displaying: HELLO MR. MURROW.

Forrester was seated next to tall, metal frames containing the electronic components, which was the Whirlwind digital computer.

The CBS remote television camera provided viewers with a close look at the Whirlwind with its flashing lights and hardware, while Forrester explained the digital computer’s operation.

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

Forrester told Murrow the computer could access information kept inside the storage tubes within 25 microseconds.

Whirlwind was the first computer able to process data in real-time at a rate of 50,000 operations a second.

It was also the first to use a physical magnetic-core memory to store the ones and zeros of binary data – allowing the computer instant access to its internal information and programming codes.

The Whirlwind computer is programmed using mechanical switches and inserting strips of perforated paper control tape with precisely-placed holes representing the bits and bytes of binary data the Whirlwind would read.

The computer used an electric typewriter that acted as a paper printer to read the computer’s output information, along with its CRT.

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

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

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

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

The Whirlwind computer worked the problem, and the results were graphically presented on its CRT display screen using white dots.

On the right side of the screen, a white dot represented the Viking rocket.

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

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

The CRT display shows, as the rocket rises, its remaining fuel lowers.

The rocket’s velocity noticeably drops when reaching the height of its trajectory.

Its velocity then quickly rises while falling to the ground.

Forrester then read the answers Whirlwind had computed for the questions asked by the admiral.

“How’s that?” a smiling Forrester said to Admiral Bolster.

“It looks very good to me,” replied the admiral.

Murrow then challenged the Whirlwind to calculate what $24 deposited in the year 1626 would be worth today [1951] if it earned a 6 percent yearly interest rate.

Forrester grinned as he entered the problem into the Whirlwind computer via a paper control tape.

The digital computer quickly solved the problem and printed the answer on the paper of the electric typewriter.

Forrester read the computer’s answer to Murrow, saying the $24 initial investment at the end of 325 years (1626 to 1951) would be worth “Four-billion, twenty-seven million, seven-hundred and twenty-thousand dollars, and some odd cents.”

“Do you think that would be a good investment?” asked Forrester.

“Thank you, sir. Very much indeed,” Murrow replied. “Someday, I’ll ask you to figure out whether that is before or after taxes,” he added with a smile.

In keeping with the holiday spirit, at the end of the interview, the Whirlwind digital computer electronically played the song, “Jingle Bells.”

In a 2011 New York Times interview, Forrester said, “More happened in percentage improvements in digital computers from 1946, when they didn’t exist, to 1956, when they came into the modern era. I might not have envisioned how much smaller and faster they’d be, but the fundamental logic hasn’t changed.”

Jay Wright Forrester died Nov. 16, 2016, at the age of 98.

Edward R. Murrow, born Egbert Roscoe Murrow, passed away April 27, 1965. He was 57.

Watch the Dec. 16, 1951, “See It Now,” six-minute Whirlwind digital computer segment, on MIT’s YouTube channel at https://bit.ly/31sXSXG.

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