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The Origins of Lincoln Laboratory

Eyeing the Unfriendly Skies” (July/August 2011) omitted some important history. In the late 1940s the MIT Digital Computer Laboratory, which I directed, received financial support from the Special Devices Center of the U.S. Navy to develop Whirlwind. Navy technical officer Perry ­Crawford ‘39 encouraged us to think about digital computers as military combat information controllers. In 1948, associate director Robert Everett, SM ‘43, and I wrote a report for MIT president Karl Compton that included a 15-year forecast for military applications of computers; it predicted that a computer-­controlled air defense system would be built by 1963.

When George Valley appeared at the laboratory, we were prepared to propose what the U.S. Air Force saw as a radical, futuristic solution to air defense. It dared not embark on such a program without political support. So researchers from the United States, England, and Canada (including Leslie Groves of atomic-energy fame) assembled for Project Charles, which examined the air defense challenge. To support our proposition, Valley, Everett, and I organized demonstrations of Whirlwind conducting aircraft interceptions. With only 4,096 bytes of memory and efficient programming, Whirlwind was able to track two airplanes from radar data and could control interceptions. The demonstrations justified launching a major laboratory.

This story is part of the September/October 2011 Issue of the MIT News Magazine
See the rest of the issue

The Digital Computer Laboratory became Division Six, the largest in Lincoln Laboratory, and designed computers for the SAGE system. After installing SAGE, Division Six was spun off to become the Mitre Corporation.
Jay Forrester, SM ‘45
Concord, Massachusetts

Two Wiener Moments

The Original Absent-Minded Professor” (July/August 2011) reminded me of two paradigmatic Norbert Wiener moments from my first graduate year at MIT. The first took place in Professor Harold Freeman’s class in statistics for economists. Professor Wiener appeared at the classroom door, and Professor Freeman, an old friend, said, “Hello, Norbert! This is my first-year class in statistics. Is there anything you want to tell them?” Professor Wiener then delivered a short talk. At that time, though I could understand the words, I was in no position to evaluate the speech. Some years later, when I knew a lot more, I could appreciate that it was a neat, well-­formulated argument for using the methods of stochastic processes in prediction problems.

The second “moment” contained no words. I was in Building 2, heading to the Dewey Library, when I spied Wiener ambling toward me, right hand touching the wall. Just as he neared the door to the office of the mathematics department, out stepped a beautiful Chinese woman, who I assume worked there. She saw a man approaching from her left and, just in time, snatched her head back—barely avoiding Professor Wiener’s right hand, which would have got her right on the nose. She stood for a few seconds in the door and went on her way down the hall ahead of me. Norbert Wiener never knew she had been there!
Mitchell Harwitz, PhD ‘59
North Andover, Massachusetts

The Measured Life

With pleasure I read the neat article by Emily Singer on yet another basic man-machine interface (“The Measured Life,” July/August 2011). Such interfaces occupied much of the scientific and philosophical attention of my great teacher Norbert Wiener and his many colleagues at MIT. May I suggest the following complementary philosophical aphorism? The unmeasured life is not worth living!
Albert A. Mullin, SM ‘57
Madison, Alabama

Influential Conversations

We read with interest the piece on Alex Pentland’s research at the Human Dynamics Lab (“Social Studies,” November/December 2010). One of Professor Pentland’s conclusions is that “unstructured face-to-face conversation—not formal meetings—seems to be a highly efficient means of propagating information that can increase worker productivity.”

Would it not enhance worker productivity further still if workers could be trained in terms of the Bales Interaction Process Analysis published in 1951? It recommends following this process when attempting to influence another worker: (1) Ask for suggestions, possible ways of action; (2) ask for opinion, evaluation, analysis; (3) ask for orientation, confirmation; (4) give orientation, confirmation; (5) give opinion, evaluation, analysis; (6) give suggestion, direction.
Frederick L. Wolf, SM ‘71, and Ian Daniel
Tzaneen Limpopo, South Africa

Professor Pentland responds:

Each Bales interaction type is accompanied by its own social signaling, a communication modality that humans have inherited from our ape ancestors. These social signals include overall activity level, mimicry, timing of turn-taking (also called influence), and fluidity (consistency). You can learn more about this from my book Honest Signals.

People who are more aware of social signals are indeed more productive, as reported in our recent Science paper. I am not aware, however, of any studies showing that learning the rather complex Bales taxonomy improves productivity. My findings show that even without training, increased informal communication produces major gains in productivity because it gives people more opportunities to learn tacit and procedural knowledge

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