Atomic Awesome

Good Use of Government Resources

You may remember the SAGE network from such posts as Expand Your Radar Horizons (Parts 1 and Duex), and possibly some other I am forgetting regarding missile defense during the Cold War years. SAGE stands for Semi-Automatic Ground Environment, and essentially was a network of radar installations coupled with what passed for serious computing power at the time, creating a system that combined live radar input with pre-established flight information from commercial airliners that would give operators a live picture of the air traffic in the airspace of the US and Canada. Anything that was out of place could quickly be isolated and intercepted. At the heart of all this was of course the computer, the AN/FSQ-7 (2 computers per SAGE center, 21 such centers around the US), “the largest computer system ever built, each of the 24 installed machines[7]:9 weighed 250 tons and had two computers.[8] The AN/FSQ-7 used a total of 60,000 vacuum tubes[8] (49,000 in the computers)[7]:9 and up to 3 megawatts of electricity, performing about 75,000 instructions per second for networking regional radars.” (Wikipedia)

So what do you do with such a powerful computer system, which also happens to be the second ever real-time computer with an electronic graphical display? Why you use the situation display console, a 19-inch cathode ray tube (CRT) display (which drew vector-based lines or alphanumeric characters on any portion of the screen) to display a more, say, entertaining image!

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Computers You Should Know

IBM, SAGE and the Cold War

Semi-Automatic Ground Environment (SAGE)

That there is a piece of the IBM AN/FSQ-7 computer that was the backbone of the US Air Force’s Semi-Automatic Ground Environment (SAGE) in use from the late 1950s to the 1980s. After WWII the new jet-powered bombers were becoming faster and faster. RADAR could pick them up and interceptors were capable of reaching the bombers, but it was everything in between that had to be done — determining direction, altitude and getting the necessary information to the necessary air bases — that posed a problem. So, the USAF decided the best way to reduce the time between “seeing” the bombers and scrambling the interceptors was to build a giant computer network capable of performing all the data crunching necessary in a semi-autonomous way. And by giant, I mean giant.
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