IBM at 100: SAGE, The First National Air Defense Network
Updated: Feb 20
This week was a reminder of how technology can aid in our nation’s defense as we struck a major blow against terrorism. Most people don’t realize IBM contributed to our nation’s defense in the many ways it has. Here is just one example from 1949.
When the Soviet Union detonated their first atomic bomb on August 29, 1949, the United States government concluded that it needed a real-time, state-of-the-art air defense system. It turned to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), which in turn recruited companies and other organizations to design what would be an online system covering all of North America using many technologies, a number of which did not exist yet. Could it be done? It had to be done. Such a system had to observe, evaluate and communicate incoming threats much the way a modern air traffic control system monitors flights of aircraft.
Semi-Automatic Ground Environment (SAGE)
This marked the beginning of SAGE (Semi-Automatic Ground Environment), the national air defense system implemented by the United States to warn of and intercept airborne attacks during the Cold War. The heart of this digital system—the AN/FSQ-7 computer—was developed, built and maintained by IBM. SAGE was the largest computer project in the world during the 1950s and took IBM squarely into the new world of computing. Between 1952 and 1955, it generated 80 percent of IBM’s revenues from computers, and by 1958, more than 7000 IBMers were involved in the project. SAGE spun off a large number of technological innovations that IBM incorporated into other computer products.
IBM’s John McPherson led the early conversations with MIT, and senior management quickly realized that this could be one of the largest data processing opportunities since winning the Social Security bid in the mid-1930s. Thomas Watson, Jr., then lobbying his father and other senior executives to move into the computer market quickly, recalled in his memoirs that he wanted to “pull out all the stops” to be a central player in the project. “I worked harder to win that contract than I worked for any other sale in my life.” So did a lot of other IBMers: engineers designing components, then the computer; sales staff pricing the equipment and negotiating contracts; senior management persuading MIT that IBM was the company to work with; other employees collaborating with scores of companies, academics and military personnel to get the project up and running; and yet others who installed, ran and maintained the IBM systems for SAGE for a quarter-century.
Online Systems Are Born
The online features of the system demonstrated that a new world of computing was possible—and that, in the 1950s, IBM knew the most about this kind of data processing. As the ability to develop reliable online systems became a reality, other government agencies and private companies began talking to IBM about possible online systems for them. Some of those projects transpired in parallel, such as the development of the Semi-Automated Business Research Environment (Sabre), American Airlines’ online reservation system, also built using IBM staff located in Poughkeepsie, New York.
In 1952, MIT selected IBM to build the computer to be the heart of SAGE. MIT’s project leader, Jay W. Forrester, reported later that the company was chosen because “in the IBM organization we observed a much higher degree of purposefulness, integration and “esprit de corps” than in other firms, and “evidence of much closer ties between research, factory and field maintenance at IBM.” The technical skills to do the job were also there, thanks to prior experience building advanced electronics for the military.
IBM quickly ramped up, assigning about 300 full-time IBMers to the project by the end of 1953. Work was centered in IBM’s Poughkeepsie and Kingston, NY facilities and in Cambridge, Massachusetts, home of MIT. New memory systems were needed; MITRE and the Systems Development Corporation (part of RAND Corporation) wrote software, and other vendors supplied components. In June 1956, IBM delivered the prototype of the computer to be used in SAGE. The press release called it an “electronic brain.” It could automatically calculate the most effective use of missiles and aircraft to fend off attack while providing the military commander with a view of an air battle.
Although this seems routine in today’s world, it was an enormous leap forward in computing. When fully deployed in 1963, SAGE included 23 centers, each with its own AN/FSQ-7 system, which really consisted of two machines (one for backup), both operating in coordination. Ultimately, 54 systems were installed, all collaborating with each other. The SAGE system remained in service until January 1984, when it was replaced with a next-generation air defense network.
Its innovative technological contributions to IBM and the IT industry as a whole were significant. These included magnetic-core memories, which worked faster and held more data than earlier technologies; a real-time operating system (a first); highly disciplined programming methods; overlapping computing and I/O operations; real-time transmission of data over telephone lines; use of CRT terminals and light pens (a first); redundancy and backup methods and components; and the highest reliability of computer systems (uptime) of the day. It was the first geographically distributed, online, real-time application of digital computers in the world. Because many of the technological innovations spun off from this project were ported over to new IBM computers in the second half of the 1950s by the same engineers who had worked on SAGE, the company was quickly able to build on lessons learned in how to design, manufacture and maintain complex systems.
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