Jay W. Forrester Essay, Research Paper
of the pioneers of the digital computer industry, Jay W. Forrester invented
the Multicoordinate Digital Information Storage Device (Patent No. 2,736,880).
His invention became known as magnetic-core memory storage, a precursor
to today’s RAM technology, and was first used in Project Whirlwind,
a monster computer developed at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology
in the early 1950s as part of the United States’ strategic defense
against the Soviet Union.
During World War II, the U.S. Navy’s Bureau of Aeronautics commissioned
the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to build an aircraft flight
simulator that could be used both to train pilots and to simulate flight
characteristics for aircraft designers. The task of designing and building
the simulator fell to an MIT graduate student named Jay Forrester. He
would end up not building the system the Navy had in mind, but what he
did create would have a far greater impact on the evolution of the digital
Forrester came to MIT from his native Nebraska, where he was born on
a cattle ranch near Climax on July 14, 1918. After graduating from the
University of Nebraska in 1939 with a degree in electrical engineering,
Forrester began his graduate studies at MIT, working first as a research
assistant in MIT’s High-Voltage Laboratory.
In 1940, Forrester switched to MIT’s new Servomechanisms
Laboratory, founded by Gordon S. Brown as a division of the school’s
Electrical Engineering Department. In late 1944, the request came in from
the Navy for a flight simulator, and Brown assigned Forrester to the project.
Called the Airplane Stability and Control Analyzer (ASCA), its original
concept was based on analog techniques to simulate flight. The pilot would
operate actual controls and the simulated aircraft would respond to the
pilot’s commands in real time. However, Forrester soon realized that
a mechanical computer would be far too slow and cumbersome, certainly
not capable of providing the real-time response desired by the Navy.
In early 1946, Perry Crawford, one of Forrester’s colleagues, proposed
a possible solution to the problem. Crawford had written his master’s
thesis on using electronic digital computing devices for fire control.
He suggested the same approach for flight simulation to Forrester.
In April 1946 the ASCA contract was modified to reflect the project’s
new digital focus and the project became known as Whirlwind. The original
flight simulator Forrester was commissioned to design was never built,
but it would evolve into the Whirlwind project, which would create the
first digital computer to run in real time.
When completed and put into service in late 1949, Whirlwind was
a monster, with 3,300 electrostatic storage tubes and 8,900 crystal diodes.
A two-story building was required to house the large machine. Power supplies
occupied the basement, with storage and data communications housed on
the main floor. One floor up sat Whirlwind’s central processing unit,
console and CRT displays. The heat generated by Whirlwind’s tubes
and diodes was removed with specially designed air conditioning equipment
on the building’s roof.
Whirlwind’s electrostatic storage tubes, which Forrester
had modified to improve their performance, were far superior to the vacuum
tubes that were commonly in use at the time, but they still had their
problems. They had limited storage capacity, and even with Forrester’s
modifications, they lasted only a month or so. This made Whirlwind somewhat
slow and less than reliable, and Forrester decided to investigate more
powerful, faster, and reliable storage solutions.
He first worked on a cube-shaped device that contained neon cells. However,
the neon proved to be unreliable and slow, and he moved to Deltamax, a
nickel-iron alloy first developed by the Germans in World War II for magnetic
amplifiers in tanks and then being used in the U.S. as a core material
for magnetic amplifiers. Forrester discovered that rings made of Deltamax—when
charged with an electric current running in opposite directions—would
retain the original direction of each charge.
Deltamax proved Forrester’s theory, but it was too slow and sensitive
to be viable. Further experiments were necessary, and with the assistance
of MIT graduate student William Papian, Forrester tested several types
of magnetic cores, finally settling on a series of doughnut-shaped pieces
of magnetic ferrite held in place by a three-dimensional array of wires.
After testing them in a special computer, they were moved to the Whirlwind
computer in the summer of 1953.
Meanwhile, questions arose concerning Whirlwind’s future. It had
been a costly system for the Navy to build and its applications seemed
limited. Many wondered if the expense was worth the effort. The project
was nearly scrapped, but MIT’s long-standing government relationships
In August 1949, American intelligence had detected the detonation of
an atomic weapon in the U.S.S.R. Further, it was discovered that the Russians
had developed bombers capable of reaching the U.S. with nuclear weapons.
Military leaders realized the U.S. was woefully unprotected in the air,
and the decision was made to upgrade the existing air defense system quickly
while developing a longer-range solution.
George E. Valley, an MIT professor and member of the Air Force Scientific
Advisory committee, suggested the formation of a committee to address
the issue of air defense. The committee’s report, produced in 1950,
recommended the development of an automated air defense system, consisting
of radar monitoring stations strung across North America, that could track
and analyze the flight paths of all planes over or near the U.S. Such
a system would need large computers for information processing and communications,
and government officials looked at Forrester and his Whirlwind computer
with renewed interest.
The Air Force assured funding and Forrester became director of Project
SAGE (Semi-Automated Ground Environment). SAGE relied on a network of
Whirlwind computers that were manufactured for the project by IBM. When
fully implemented in 1963, it consisted of 23 direction centers spread
across North America, three combat centers, and one programming center.
It would continue to function until it was phased out in 1983.
Computers would continue to play a pivotal role in Forrester’s life
after his involvement with SAGE ended. In 1956, he made a career change
of sorts and joined the MIT Sloan School of Management, where he used
computers to model and analyze human social systems. His expertise in
this area helped to create a new discipline called system dynamics, which
today uses computer simulations to examine how corporations and social
systems interact and function.
Forrester directed the System Dynamics Program in the Sloan School until
1989 where he evaluated how alternative policies affect growth, stability,
fluctuation, and changing behavior in corporations, cities, and countries.
System dynamics utilized computer models to simulate social systems and
predict its implications. He applied his modeling system to global problems
and concluded that overpopulation and industrialization were largely responsible
for upsetting global equilibrium. In 1970, he developed a computer model
of projected world growth for the Club of Rome, an informal society
of business managers, academics and political leaders. The club was organized
to investigate what they called the world’s problematique humaine:
their feeling that world population, pollution, poverty levels, natural
resource depletion, crime, international terrorism, and youth rebellion
were all bound inexorably for crisis, and were somehow interrelated. The
computer model led to a book, The Limits to Growth, by Dana Meadows,
one of Forrester’s graduate students and researchers. The study received
considerable attention because it was one of the first such project to
study world growth problems and suggest solutions. However, some critics
in the academic and research communities who charged that it was not scientifically
based also discounted it.
In 1996, Jay Forrester was an inaugural member of the Monticello
Memoirs Program where he discussed his role in the digital revolution
and his vision of the future. This annual event is intended to recognize,
challenge and inspire individuals involved in the digital revolution and
to encourage others to follow in their footsteps.
As of late 1998, Forrester was Germeshausen Professor Emeritus of Management
and Senior Lecturer at the Sloan School of Management, Massachusetts Institute
of Technology. He is pursuing three main interests based on system dynamics:
the National Model, which generates observed forms of economic behavior;
corporate management education; and the System Dynamics in Education Project
(SDEP), a pre-college education cohesion, meaning and motivation model.
Detailed information may be obtained online at the System
Dynamics Group website.
In recognition of Forrester’s accomplishments, he has been inducted
into the Inventors
Hall of Fame, received eight honorary degrees from universities around
the world and been presented with numerous awards. His expertise lies
in economics, corporate strategy and policy, entrepreneurship/new ventures
and system dynamics. He has written several books and numerous papers,
which are available through the Jay
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