IBM System 360, the most successful mainframe
computer in history, with more than $100 billion in
sales, was a major beneficiary of SAGE. So too was
the MIT TX2, the precursor to Digital Equipment
Corporation’s PDP- 10, the first truly successful
computer for artificial intelligence research.
Project SAGE led to broader development of the
computing field and new applications of information technology. SAGE was the direct precursor to
the Ballistic Missile Early Warning System, BMEWS.
It also created modern air-traffic control; in fact,
for many years ATC terminals looked exactly like
SAGE terminals. Tracking for manned space vehicles was built on knowledge gained from SAGE. The
Semi-Automatic Business Research Environment,
or SABRE, came from SAGE and was used to create
one of the first successful computerized airline-reservation systems. The System Development
Corporation and IBM Corporation, working on
Project SAGE, arguably invented the profession of
computer programming. And the entire constellation of high-tech defense programs, including
Project SAGE, proved to be an incubator of systems
management and the concept of human organizations as systems that profoundly affected engineering and management education for decades.
Project SAGE touched thousands of people who
shaped the future of U.S. information technology.
One of these was Vinton Cerf, a co-creator of the
Internet, whose first experience with computers
was in 1958 at a Project SAGE facility at the System
Development Corporation in Santa Monica. He was
fascinated by the experience, took all the computer science courses he could find in college, and
then began his career at IBM. Project SAGE proved
beyond doubt that it is possible to build very large,
integrated systems linking geographically remote
(including offshore) sites with real-time computation to maintain 24/7 engagement with a highly
complicated task. This proof was instrumental in
many areas of large-scale socio-technical endeavor,
not the least of which was the U.S. Space Program
that successfully landed a human on the moon
within a decade of President John F. Kennedy’s
famous challenge of May 1961. Project SAGE never
received the fame of the space program. The program was kept quiet, and most citizens living near
the Sector Direction Centers never knew what they
were. Project SAGE was phased out in 1983, made
obsolete by other technologies and strategic strategies. It disappeared without a whimper.
Many lessons can be drawn from Project SAGE,
but three stand out. One is that enough smart
people and enough resources can make remarkable things happen—the old adage that you cannot
solve anything by throwing money at it simply is
not true. It is difficult to tell whether the Cold War
would have turned out any differently without
Project SAGE, but the Computer Age of the U.S.
would almost certainly have been different—and
less spectacular—without Project SAGE. Another
is that bold initiatives draw naysayers who, for
reasons that seem perfectly sensible at the time,
doubt that anything good will come from such
initiatives. In the late 1950s, computers were for
calculation. Who better to ask for an opinion than
mathematicians? Distinguished mathematicians
reviewing the proposal said Valley and Forrester
were not sufficiently sophisticated in mathematics
to create such a complicated system. Fortunately,
risk-takers won the day, but only because confidence in peer review was relaxed in the face of
pressing national need. Finally, the “multiplier”
effect of Moore’s Law had a profound effect on
the consequences of Project SAGE. Gordon Moore
described the law in 1965, well after SAGE was
launched. Few could imagine in 1950 that a revolution in materials, design, and manufacturing
would produce a multidecade era of increasingly
powerful and inexpensive computers that were far
more versatile and reliable than Whirlwind. Project
SAGE advanced technical aspects of computer-building, but perhaps the greatest effect of the
project was to show that large-scale, computer-assisted systems could be built and operated successfully as essential infrastructure. When SAGE
went live in the early 1960s, this was unknown;
when SAGE was finally shut down in the early
1980s, that knowledge was commonplace. Project
SAGE constructed a new reality.
Edwards, P. N.
The Closed World:
Computers and the
Politics of Discourse
in Cold War America.
Cambridge: MIT Press,
Green, T. Bright Boys.
A K Peters Ltd., 2010.
Hughes, T. Rescuing
that Changed the
Modern World. New
York: Pantheon Books,
Moore, G. E. “Cramming
More Components onto
Electronics, April 19,
You Tube; “SAGE - Semi
Environment ; Parts
1 and 2” http://www.
AbOut the AuthOr John Leslie King is W. W.
Warner Bishop Professor of Information and vice
provost at the University of Michigan. His research
is on the relationship between technical change
and social change, particularly focused at this time
on higher education. He is currently the liaison
between the Advisory Committee for Cyberinfrastructure and the
Advisory Committee for Social, Behavioral and Managerial
Sciences at the National Science Foundation, and a member of the
Council of the Computing Community Consortium.
September + October 2010
© 2010 ACM 1072-5220/10/0900 $10.00