Semi Automatic Ground Environment

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The Semi-Automatic Ground Environment (SAGE) was an automated control system for tracking and intercepting enemy bomber aircraft used by NORAD from the late 1950s into the 1980s. In later versions, the system could automatically direct aircraft to an interception by sending instructions directly to the aircraft's autopilot.

By the time SAGE was completely operational, the Soviet bomber threat had been replaced by the Soviet missile threat, for which SAGE was entirely inadequate. Nevertheless, SAGE was extremely important; it led to great advances in online systems and interactive computing, real-time computing, and data communications using modems. It is generally considered to be one of the most advanced and successful large computer systems ever developed.

Both MIT and IBM supported the project as contractors. IBM's role in SAGE (the design and manufacture of the AN/FSQ-7 computer, a vacuum tube computer with ferrite core memory based on the never-built Whirlwind II) was an important factor leading to IBM's domination of the computer industry, accounting for more about 10% of IBM's income in the late 1950s.[1]

Contents

Background

Prior to the introduction of SAGE, the task of intercepting bombers was becoming increasingly difficult. This was the latest shift in a balance of power that had been see-sawing since the 1930s.

During the years just prior to World War II, it was widely believed that the bomber was essentially immune, at least in any practical sense. As speeds approached 200 mph (320 km/h) the time between seeing the bomber and its reaching its targets was becoming so brief that there was no time for interceptor aircraft to climb to altitude. Once the bombs were released the multi-engine bombers often had a performance advantage over the fighters, allowing them to escape with relative ease. The only apparent solution to this problem would be to keep fighters in the air on-station at all times, a practical impossibility because of the brief flight times of contemporary fighters. Thousands of fighters would be needed to keep enough of them in the air at any one time to defend against a raid of perhaps a hundred bombers. Most believed "the bomber will always get through".

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