Eyeing the Unfriendly Skies
How MIT Lincoln Laboratory got its start
The story behind Lincoln Laboratory’s founding began, quite literally, with a bang. On September 23, 1949, President Truman announced that the Soviet Union had secretly exploded its first atomic bomb. The U.S. military, aware that the Russians were expanding the range of their aircraft, believed that a Soviet bomber capable of reaching the United States was “imminent.”
George Valley ‘35, an associate professor of physics at MIT and a member of the Air Force Scientific Advisory Board (AFSAB), was worried—but in a position to act.
Having visited a radar station meant to direct Air Force interceptors, Valley had firsthand knowledge of the shortcomings of the U.S. air defense, which relied on obsolete World War II radar systems and on high-frequency radios that would be compromised by a nuclear explosion. In hopes of improving this system, he persuaded General Hoyt Vandenberg, the Air Force chief of staff, to convene the Air Defense Systems Engineering Committee (ADSEC), a group of eight experts in aeronautics, radar, physics, meteorology, and mechanical engineering that Valley chaired. Working under the assumption that a Soviet bomber would be likely to fly over the Arctic at high altitude and then descend beneath the range of radar beams as it approached its target, the Valley committee concluded that the widely spaced U.S. radar network on the ground provided no real protection; a low-flying plane could find a path to almost any U.S. city.
The committee proposed installing a “fence” of radar sensors along the northern U.S. border. A digital relay device would convert their analog signals to digital code that could be sent over telephone wires to computers fast enough to aggregate and analyze vast amounts of data in real time. The resulting information would be used to identify approaching aircraft and direct U.S. fighter aircraft if interception was necessary.
When Valley asked several manufacturers for use of a computer to test this idea, they considered his request laughable: in 1950, real-time computing was inconceivable. But a serendipitous encounter with Jerome Wiesner, then associate director of MIT’s Research Laboratory of Electronics, revealed that MIT’s Servomechanisms Laboratory was developing just such a computer. Whirlwind, as it was called, was nearby—and the U.S. Navy, which had been funding the computer, had lost interest in the project.
Eager to demonstrate the feasibility of its concept, ADSEC financed the adaptation of Whirlwind to this new application. In September 1950, while military observers watched, radar signals were converted into digital signals and transmitted by a phone line to Whirlwind, which successfully processed them. The Air Force was impressed.
Air Force chief scientist Louis Ridenour urged a substantial laboratory effort to develop the idea. And in a letter to MIT president James Killian that he and Valley drafted, he called MIT “almost uniquely qualified” to run it. Beyond Valley’s ADSEC work and the Institute’s “demonstrated competence in this sort of activity,” MIT had experience in managing the Radiation Lab (a World War II research lab), and the Air Force’s Cambridge Research Lab was nearby.
With MIT’s wartime projects just wrapping up, Killian was reluctant to commit to another military research lab, so he had the Air Force enlist 28 scientists, 11 from MIT, to evaluate the idea. Their study concluded in favor, and Killian agreed. MIT would operate a lab sponsored by the Army, Navy, and Air Force to develop the air defense system. The effort was dubbed Project Lincoln, after one of the towns bordering the proposed site.
Work kicked off in lab space on campus, and in 1951, construction began on a facility in Lexington. The project was expected to last about five years; new personnel were told it would be a short-term assignment. But by 1953, Lincoln Laboratory (as it was renamed in 1952) had a staff of about 1,800 and an annual budget of some $18 million, far outstripping Ridenour’s initial projections of 100 workers and $2 million.
The lab developed and demonstrated a prototype of the proposed air defense system known as the Semi-Automatic Ground Environment (SAGE). Ultimately, the Air Force implemented the SAGE system with hundreds of radars, three combat centers, and 24 direction centers that housed computers descended from Whirlwind; each center was connected to hundreds of airfields and surface-to-air missile sites. With its original mission accomplished, Lincoln Laboratory sought other challenges, evolving to add research in fields as diverse as satellite communications, ballistic-missile defense, and laser systems. Now, the air defense laboratory that George Valley proposed is celebrating its 60th anniversary—and a rich legacy of national-security research and development.
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