The black pioneer of computer science is taking its place in the history of technology at MIT

Joe Thompson (seated) and Jack Gilmore operated Whirlwind, the first real-time digital computer and MIT’s first digital computer. Credit: MIT Museum

A brief history of 1950s photography featuring one of Joseph Thompson’s original operators WITH ONEThe pioneering whirlwind computer.

The title of a black-and-white photograph reads, in part, “In 1951, 18-year-old high school graduate Joe Thompson was trained as one of the first two computer operators. The computer was Whirlwind, a prototype of the SAGE air defense system.”

MIT’s Whirlwind was one of the first high-speed digital computers, and Thompson played a key role in its operation at the beginning of its decade-long computing career. Deborah Douglas, with the help of the director of collections at the MIT Museum, David Brock of the Computer History Museum recently met Thompson, the first person trained as a Whirlwind operator at the MIT Digital Computer Laboratory to learn more about his time. project and subsequent years as a leader in the computer industry.

“At MIT they were looking for bright kids and young people who wouldn’t go to college,” Thompson told Brock. “I was the first [operator] whether it would work, and I think it worked well. … You had to learn the whole system, and you would come to understand what they are doing. “

The photo also shows system programmer John “Jack” Gilmore. According to a publication in the Computer History Museum, “It was Jack Gilmore of the Whirlwind project, famous for his software contributions, who was key to joining the Joe Thompson project in a MIT push to meet the demands of skilled workers. hiring students who were academically and socially exceptional in local high schools, but in any case, it was impossible for them to get to college. ”

After Whirlwind, Thompson accepted work with RAND as a programmer working on SAGE air defense system software. He moved to California with the company, and eventually his team became a non-profit System Development Corporation. Thompson retired in the 1990s after four decades in computer science.

Gilmore worked in advanced computer science research at MIT Lincoln Laboratory before starting his own business and spending the rest of his career in the computer industry. He died in 2015.

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