Thursday, March 28, 2013

The largest computer ever built

While cold war jets are an old interest of mine, almost everything built to fight the cold war fascinates me. All ages are characterized by madness; only a few have that madness captured in physical objects. Consider the largest computer ever built: the “Semi-Automatic Ground Environment” or SAGE system.

The SAGE system was designed to solve a data fusion problem. Radar installations across North America kept watch against Soviet bombers. These needed to be networked together and coordinated with air defense missiles and interceptors. Seems simple, right? In the 1950s and 1960s, this was not simple. 

The country is big; hundreds of radar stations and sensors needed to be integrated. It wasn’t as easy as it was in England in WW-2, when enemy aircraft location was plotted by hand on maps as the radar data came in: North America is much larger, and the planes traveled much faster in the 50s and 60s. No group of people could really make the decisions in time to mount an effective defense. You needed some kind of computer to make the decisions.
These giant electric brains took up an acre or so of real estate, and were encased in huge windowless concrete pillboxes all over the country.


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