Whirlwind (computer)

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The Whirlwind computer was developed at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. It is the first computer that operated in real time, used video displays for output, and the first that was not simply an electronic replacement of older mechanical systems. Its development led directly to the United States Air Force's Semi Automatic Ground Environment (SAGE) system, and indirectly to almost all business computers and minicomputers in the 1960s.



During World War II, the U.S. Navy approached MIT about the possibility of creating a computer to drive a flight simulator for training bomber crews. They envisioned a fairly simple system in which the computer would continually update a simulated instrument panel based on control inputs from the pilots. Unlike older systems like the Link Trainer, the system they envisioned would have a considerably more realistic aerodynamics model that could be adapted to any type of plane. This was an important consideration at the time, when many new designs were being introduced into service.

A short study by the MIT Servomechanisms Laboratory concluded that such a system was certainly possible. The Navy decided to fund development under Project Whirlwind, and the lab placed Jay Forrester in charge of the project. They soon built a large analog computer for the task, but found that it was inaccurate and inflexible. Solving these problems in a general way would require a much larger system, perhaps one so large as to be impossible to construct.

In 1945 Perry Crawford, another member of the MIT team, saw a demonstration of ENIAC and suggested that a digital computer was the solution. Such a machine would allow the accuracy of the simulation to be improved with the addition of more code in the computer program, as opposed to adding parts to the machine. As long as the machine was fast enough, there was no theoretical limit to the complexity of the simulation.

Up until this point all computers constructed were dedicated to single tasks, run in batch mode. A series of inputs were set up in advance and fed into the computer, which would work out the answers and print them. This was not appropriate for the Whirlwind system, which needed to operate continually on an ever-changing series of inputs. Speed became a major issue, whereas with other systems it simply meant waiting longer for the printout, with Whirlwind it meant seriously limiting the amount of complexity the simulation could include.

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