Massachusetts institute of technology. Servomechanisms laboratory

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Project Whirlwind was centered in the Servomechanics Laboratory at Massachusetts Institute of Technology with its original objective being the development of a device that would simulate airplanes in flight. In the course of the research, Whirlwind eventually evolved into a key element of the U.S.'s early air defense system. Since M.I.T. did not view this as an appropriate action for an educational institution to take part in, it transferred the entire project to the MITRE Corp.

From the description of Whirlwind Computer Collection, 1945-1949. (Unknown). WorldCat record id: 83660340

The Servomechanisms Laboratory was established at MIT in 1940 under the direction of Gordon S. Brown, then assistant professor of electrical engineering. The laboratory grew out of the Department of Electrical Engineering’s increasing attention in the fall of 1939 to servomechanisms, specifically fire control (gun-positioning instruments) in response to a request from the U.S. Navy for a special course for naval fire control officers assigned to MIT. Harold Hazen, head of the department, was also Gordon Brown’s doctoral advisor and asked him to develop the course. The 1939 MIT Course Bulletin lists for the first time two elective classes (6.605 and 6.606) titled Theory and Applications of Servo Mechanisms with Gordon S. Brown as instructor.

During World War II the laboratory’s teams of research scientists and graduate students (who also produced thesis projects from their work) undertook research and development of feedback control systems for the U.S. government (Navy Ordnance, Army Ordnance, and the National Defense Research Committee) as well as commercial contractors. Research included servo-control systems for advanced radar used on U.S. Navy ships. Laboratory director Gordon Brown served as a consultant to the Sperry Gyroscope Company as well as to the War Department.

After World War II ended in 1945, the laboratory’s newly created dynamic analysis and control group, directed by Albert C. Hall, continued to develop automated control systems for U.S. Navy guided missiles. In 1946 this group separated to form the Dynamic Analysis and Control Laboratory at MIT until closing in 1958.

Early laboratory research, originating in 1944 as the ASCA (Aircraft Stability and Control Analyzer) project to develop a flight training simulator, was directed by Jay W. Forrester with the assistance of Robert R. Everett. The research focus was revised in 1946 to include the design and construction of a high-speed digital computer, and the project was renamed Project Whirlwind. In 1951 Project Whirlwind and its staff were separated from the Servomechanisms Laboratory and assigned to the newly created Digital Computer Laboratory, still under the direction of Forrester. Classified research related to development and use of Whirlwind in research projects was simultaneously carried out in Division 6 of the newly formed Lincoln Laboratory. Jay Forrester was director of both the Digital Computer Laboratory and Division 6, and Robert Everett served in both as assistant director.

Other major postwar efforts of the Servomechanisms Laboratory included the development of automatic controls for the reactor rods and instrumentation system of the first peacetime nuclear reactor, constructed in the late 1940s by the Atomic Energy Commission at the Brookhaven National Laboratory.

A significant postwar project that began in 1949 and continued and evolved through the 1950s was the work that led to numerical control of machine tools. Under a contract with the Parsons Company of Michigan, William M. Pease and James O. McDonough designed an experimental numerically-controlled milling machine which received directions through data on punched paper tape. The first working model of a continuous-path numerically-controlled milling machine was demonstrated in 1952. Further research was then carried out under the sponsorship of the U.S. Air Force. Subsequently, the laboratory’s Computer Application Group, led by Douglas T. Ross, developed the Automatically Programmed Tool Language (APT), an easy-to-use, special purpose programming language. Eventually, APT became the world standard for programming computer-controlled machine tools. The Servomechanisms Laboratory staff actively promoted the introduction and use of numerical control for industrial processes. It sponsored conferences and summer sessions aimed at industry personnel. The development of numerical controls had a profound impact on industry as with the introduction of automated controls it revolutionized the machine tool industry. In 1958, further development of the APT system was turned over to a coordinating group sponsored by the Aircraft Industries Association.

Research activities of the Servomechanisms Laboratory broadened in the late 1950s, and a decision was made in 1959 to change the name of the laboratory to the Electronic Systems Laboratory. The laboratory continued to report to the Department of Electrical Engineering until March 1978, when it became an inter-departmental laboratory reporting to the provost. In September 1978 it was renamed the Laboratory for Information and Decision Systems (LIDS).

Directors of the Servomechanisms Laboratory:

Gordon S. Brown, 1939-1952

William M. Pease, 1952-1953

J. Francis Reintjes, 1953-1959 (1959-1974, director of the successor Electronic Systems Laboratory)

More detailed accounts of the research activities of the Servomechanisms Laboratory can be found in the following publications:

A Century of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science at MIT, 1882-1982, by Karl L. Wildes. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1985. Chapters 14 and 17.

Numerical Control: Making a New Technology, by J. Francis Reintjes. New York: Oxford University Press, 1991.

Q.E.D.: M.I.T. in World War II, by John E. Burchard. New York: J. Wiley, 1948.

From the guide to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Servomechanisms Laboratory records, 1940-1959, (Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Institute Archives and Special Collections)

Archival Resources
Role Title Holding Repository
creatorOf Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Servomechanisms Laboratory records Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Libraries
referencedIn Project Whirlwind Collection Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Libraries
referencedIn Brown Instrument Company. Records, 1925-1960. Hagley Museum & Library
referencedIn Ross, Douglas T.,. Oral history interview with Douglas T. Ross, 1984 Feb. 21. University of Minnesota, Minneapolis
creatorOf Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Servomechanisms Laboratory. Whirlwind Computer Collection, 1945-1949. American Institute of Physics, Niels Bohr Library
referencedIn Forrester, Jay Wright. Oral history interview with Jay Wright Forrester, 1975. University of Minnesota, Minneapolis
Role Title Holding Repository
Relation Name
associatedWith Brown, Gordon Stanley, 1907-1996 person
associatedWith Brown Instrument Company. corporateBody
associatedWith Everett, Robert R. person
associatedWith Forrester, Jay Wright person
associatedWith Forrester, Jay Wright person
associatedWith Massachusetts Institute of Technology corporateBody
associatedWith Mitre Corporation corporateBody
associatedWith Reintjes, J. Francis person
associatedWith Ross, Douglas T., person
associatedWith Ross, D. T. (Douglas Taylor) person
Place Name Admin Code Country
United States
Aeronautics, Military
Air defenses
Computer science
DIC 6345
Electronic digital computers
Fire control (Aerial gunnery)
Fire control (Gunnery)
Flight simulators
Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Project Whirlwind
Whirlwind computer

Corporate Body

Active 1945

Active 1949



Ark ID: w62p1jjh

SNAC ID: 50308561