Anthony J. Pennings, PhD


How IT Came to Rule the World, 1.4: SAGE and Early Electronic Computing

Posted on | March 28, 2010 | No Comments

This is the ninth post in the mini-series How IT Came to Rule the World

The expansion of Communism and a set of US policies to contain it strengthened the regime of containment capitalism. Growing fears of nuclear war provided the motivation and rationalization for massive investments in US defense initiatives. The National Security Act of 1947 signed by President Truman on July 26, 1947. It provided the legislation for an era of permanent war mobilization, extensive investment in new arms, and the growth of highly funded covert and overt activities to keep Communism in check and under constant surveillance.

The revolution in China and the detonation of the hydrogen bomb by Russia strengthened the resolve of the US to maintain its military might and capitalize on advances made in jet propulsion, rocketry, radar, and computing. Billions of US government dollars subsidized the creation of a computer and data communications infrastructure by funding the development of a hemispheric defense system to protect North America from Russian bombers.

The SAGE (Semi-Automatic Ground Environment) system conceived at MIT and built at IBM’s Poughkeepsie, New York facilities helped transform the computer from a bulky, slow, vacuum-tube switched numerical processor into a generalized, software-Defense Early Warning Linedriven, transistor-enabled, media-enhanced computer with an accompanying communications system able to send digital data over telephone lines. The IBM FSQ-7 computer combined data from remote radar sites into a rough, real-time representation of the horizon’s airspace. In cooperation with Canada, the US built a Defense Early Warning line (DEW) from Alaska through the Canadian Arctic down to Long Island, New York (Including an installation at Stewart Airport in Newburgh). Built primarily by the Bell System and combined with the IBM computers, the SAGE system was the precursor to the NORAD computer defense system that was built deep in Colorado’s Cheyenne Mountains.

But more importantly, SAGE was the foundation for the modern computer industry. It helped establish MIT’s expertise in computing, helped IBM’s transition to electronic computers, and allowed AT&T to set up long-distance data communications lines. It also helped create many new companies that would make important innovations. By the 1960s, IBM and the others, such as Burroughs and Honeywell, would establish electronic computing as a viable business and financial tool.


AnthonybwAnthony J. Pennings, PhD is a professor at the State University of New York, South Korea offering degrees from Stony Brook University and the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT). Previously, he taught at St. Edwards University in Austin, Texas and was on the faculty of New York University from 2002-2012. His PhD from the University of Hawaii was supported by the East-West Center.


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