Whirlwind (SAGE) Computer Paperweight - First "Personal" Computer - Resistor


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About this Artwork

Created in 1953, the Whirlwind I was the first large-scale digital computer able to operate in real-time. One cannot overstate the importance of the experimental one-of-a-kind Whirlwind computer to the development of computer technology and architecture: it was the first to use magnetic core memory; the first to operate with a direct keyboard interface; the first to use video displays for output; and the first to generate an animated interactive computer graphic. Moreover, Whirlwind was, at the time, the only computer in the world that allowed a person to interact with it individually.

It’s not easy to imagine a computer that you couldn’t interact with. The first computers did “batch” processing. The work that the computer would be asked to do would be typed on a keypunch machine to create punched cards with data for the computer. The stack of cards would be read into the computer, the computer would process the data, and the computer would print the results on sheets of paper, with no personal interaction with the computer itself. The Whirlwind created a new model for interaction with computers. The Whirlwind used a keyboard and a lightpen to get input from the user and then displayed the results on a screen in realtime. This was a new concept.

The Whirlwind became the prototype for SAGE (Semi-Automatic Ground Environment), our first NORAD system. The Whirlwind’s technology was repackaged to be more reliable and maintainable. The SAGE logic module, pictured on the front side at the top, took chunks of the Whirlwind processor logic and restructured it so these modules could be easily isolated and removed if a problem occurred. Also, the Whirlwind/SAGE computers used core memory as their primary working memory. Each ferrite core (see the picture to the right) could be quickly magnetized to represent binary ones and zeros.

The paperweight on the front of the artwork preserves a resistor hand-soldered between two terminals, sectioned from a larger piece of one of the Whirlwind's circuit boards, and is inscribed "A Piece of the Whirlwind Computer MIT 1946-1959". It was distributed as a memento at the reunion of the original Project Whirlwind team, held at Le Meridien Hotel in Cambridge, MA, on June 30th, 2009. The reunion marked both the 50th anniversary of the date that Whirlwind was shut down and the formal transfer of Whirlwind research documents from MITRE to MIT. Each paperweight made was somewhat unique due to the uniqueness of parts used to make them. Approximately 50 of the 70 original members were present, including guests of honor Jay Forrester, the head of the Project and a pioneer in the field of system dynamics, and Robert Everett, MITRE's first technical director and later president from 1969 to 1986. This Lucite paperweight is approximately 3” x 3” x 1.5”.


    The artwork is framed in an 11"x14"x3" black shadow box frame, with glass. All framing materials are acid-free. A narrative about the artwork that includes the artist’s signature is placed on the back of the artwork.