How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Computer

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Computer

In the 1950s, the United States was worried about the threat of a Russian nuclear attack. But an Air Force computer helped allay those fears.


My last post about oscilloscopes mentioned the Semi-Automatic Ground Environment (SAGE), which was the technological savior of its time. SAGE was a system built in the 1950s to warn of incoming Russian bombers with nuclear bombs.

SAGE was composed of over 24 computers, and each contained a primary and backup CPU to provide a 99.6% reliability rate. But you have to keep in mind that each CPU took up 10,000 square feet. They were spread across the US plus one in Canada and connected by the first modems tied to standard AT&T phone lines.

In 1959, IBM created the 7090, a faster and smaller solid-state enhancement of the work done with the SAGE system. This computer appeared in the 1964 movie Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. The movie would have been more realistic with the original SAGE system, but it was in use protecting the country.

Peter Sellers as Captain Lionel Mandrake surrounded by an IBM 7090

Computing Innovators

SAGE kicked computer research and the creation of programming methods into high gear. This machine was responsible for creating multiple companies and was the starting point for researchers who went on to create the forerunner of the Internet.

The info graphic below shows one branch of the tree that leads to present day companies that continue to provide research and development in the computer industry today.

Legacy of US Government Funded-Computer Industry (IBM, MITRE, Noblis, L-3 Communications, Lockheed Martin, Unisys, and MIT Lincoln Laboratory are all trademarks of their respective companies)

More Problems…More Innovation

Of course, it was not that easy to deter the Russians. Unfortunately, once the entire network of SAGE sites were in place around 1964, the threat of attack by bombers had been replaced by the threat of intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM). But the SAGE system was not fast enough to track incoming missiles from space. In fact, the system was not even fast enough to prevent a large-scale attack against radar jamming technologies that were in use. (A recently declassified Air Force training video confirms this.)

These new threats pushed the Air Force to continue building computers using successive generations of computer and software companies. These companies and their knowledge have spawned an increasing array of computers, software, and networks that are in use today.

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