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Where Are We Going, Phi Morse? Changing Agendas and the Rhetoric of Obviousness in the Transformation of Computing at MIT, 1939-1957

IP.com Disclosure Number: IPCOM000129966D
Original Publication Date: 1996-Dec-31
Included in the Prior Art Database: 2005-Oct-07
Document File: 11 page(s) / 49K

Publishing Venue

Software Patent Institute

Related People

LARRY OWENS: AUTHOR [+2]

Abstract

In 1957, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) threw the switches on a newly installed IBM 704 that signaled both the inauguration of its new Computation Center under the leadership of Philip Morse and a commitment to leadership in the dynamic field of computing. Yet this was not the first time MIT had made such a commitment. In the 1930s, MIT had embarked on a similar effort, one that seemed on the verge of fulfillment when the Carnegie Corporation agreed to fund the Department of Electrical Engineering's pioneering Center of Analysis. With $45,000 for two years, the center had planned

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THIS DOCUMENT IS AN APPROXIMATE REPRESENTATION OF THE ORIGINAL.

Copyright ©; 1996 by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, Inc. All rights reserved. Used with permission.

Where Are We Going, Phi Morse? Changing Agendas and the Rhetoric of Obviousness in the Transformation of Computing at MIT, 1939-1957

LARRY OWENS

This paper discusses the failure of the attempt to establish a computational center at MIT in me 1930s and the effect it had on the subsequent shift from analog to digital computing during the 1950s.

Introduction

In 1957, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) threw the switches on a newly installed IBM 704 that signaled both the inauguration of its new Computation Center under the leadership of Philip Morse and a commitment to leadership in the dynamic field of computing. Yet this was not the first time MIT had made such a commitment. In the 1930s, MIT had embarked on a similar effort, one that seemed on the verge of fulfillment when the Carnegie Corporation agreed to fund the Department of Electrical Engineering's pioneering Center of Analysis. With $45,000 for two years, the center had planned

-- to capitalize on MIT's growing reputation in machine computation, based on Vannevar Bush's 1931 differential analyzer, -- to take advantage of an updated, electronicized replacement then being built with Rockefeller money, and -- to make MIT a world center for the study of mathematical machines, digital as well as analog."40

This earlier effort collapsed shortly after World War II and has remained in the shadows, virtually forgotten, ever since. We need to understand that failure, both to appreciate the real character of Morse's later success and to gain insight into the oftentimes complicated causes of traumatic technological change. The story, I will suggest, pits an older against a younger generation in a period of profound disciplinary and institutional change at MIT. It also pits the analog against the digital computer, but in such a way as to suggest that the "victory" of the one over the other was due as much to cultural change and shifting interests as to inherent and unproblematic mechanical superiority.

A Tale of Two Centers

The timing for the center was inauspicious. Bush's creativity and dynamic drive were lost to the institute when he left MIT to go to Washington to become the Carnegie Institution's president. Shortly after that, the outbreak of World War n preoccupied both the center's staff and its new machine, which was quickly put to work computing ballistics tables behind the veils of wartime secrecy. Nevertheless, with the war's end, the effort was back on track with plans for an expanded stable of machinery to complement the Bush analyzers and revitalized ambitions to become a world center for the study of computation. While the center faced new and aggressive rivals both within and without MIT (notably in the Whirlwind project in the Servomechanisms Laboratory and in the ENIAC d...