December 5, 2022


General Evolution

A Black Computing Pioneer Can take His Place in Know-how Heritage at MIT

Joe Thompson (seated) and Jack Gilmore operated Whirlwind, the 1st digital computer system capable to operate in actual-time and the initial electronic laptop at MIT. Credit: MIT Museum

A temporary background of a 1950s picture featuring Joseph Thompson, a person of the original operators of MIT’s groundbreaking Whirlwind pc.

The caption on a black-and-white picture reads, in component: “In 1951, significant university graduate Joe Thompson, 18, was educated as one particular of the very first two computer system operators. The computer system was the Whirlwind, the prototype for the SAGE air defense process.”

MIT’s Whirlwind was 1 of the earliest superior-speed electronic computer systems, and Thompson played a important position in its procedure at the begin of his decades-lengthy career in computing. With assist from Deborah Douglas, director of collections at the MIT Museum, David Brock of the Computer Historical past Museum lately caught up with Thompson, the to start with particular person educated as a Whirlwind operator at the MIT Digital Laptop or computer Laboratory, to understand extra about his time with the venture and his subsequent decades as a chief in the computing market.

“They at MIT ended up searching for vivid, youthful children who were being not heading to faculty,” Thompson instructed Brock. “I was the to start with [operator] to see if it would operate, and I guess it labored well. … You had to learn the total system, and you’d get to the place wherever you fully grasp what they’re accomplishing.”

Also observed in the picture is program programmer John “Jack” Gilmore. In accordance to a publication from the Laptop or computer Heritage Museum, “It experienced been Jack Gilmore of the Whirlwind challenge, famous for his software program contributions, who had been important to bringing Joe Thompson into the challenge in an MIT thrust to meet the calls for for expert personnel by recruiting from community significant faculties those people pupils who ended up academically and socially remarkable, but for whom, for whichever explanations, university was inaccessible.”

Right after Whirlwind, Thompson accepted a job with RAND as a programmer doing the job on the SAGE air protection program computer software. He transferred to California with the firm, and his group inevitably spun off into the non-profit Method Improvement Company. Thompson retired in the 1990s just after 4 many years in computing.

Gilmore would go on to work in sophisticated computing study at MIT Lincoln Laboratory in advance of commencing his own company and spending the relaxation of his job in the computing business. He died in 2015.