News Highlights: Scene at MIT: A Black Computing Pioneer Takes His Place in Technology History | MIT News
The caption on a black and white photo reads in part: “In 1951, Joe Thompson, 18, high school graduate, was trained as one of the first two computer operators. The computer was the Whirlwind, the prototype for the SAGE air defense system. “
MIT’s Whirlwind was one of the first high-speed digital computers, and Thompson was instrumental in its operation at the beginning of his decades-long career in the computing world. With help from Deborah Douglas, collections director at the MIT Museum, David Brock of the Computer History Museum recently caught up with Thompson, the first person to be trained as a Whirlwind operator at MIT Digital Computer Laboratory, to learn more about his time on the project and his subsequent years as a leader in the computer industry.
“They at MIT were looking for bright young kids who weren’t going to college,” Thompson told Brock. ‘I was the first [operator] to see if it would work, and I think it worked fine. … You had to learn the whole system, and you’d get to the point where you understand what they do. “
Also seen in the photo is system programmer John “Jack” Gilmore. According to a Computer History Museum publication, “It was Jack Gilmore of the Whirlwind project, famous for his software contributions, who had been key in bringing Joe Thompson into the project in an MIT push to meet the demand for skilled staff by recruiting students from local high schools who were academically and socially exceptional, but for whom, for whatever reason, the university was out of reach. “
After Whirlwind, Thompson accepted a job at RAND as a programmer working on the SAGE air defense system software. He transferred with the company to California and his group eventually became the non-profit System Development Corporation. Thompson retired in the 1990s after four decades in computer science.
Gilmore would go on to work in advanced computer research at MIT Lincoln Laboratory before starting his own company and spending the rest of his career in the computer industry. He died in 2015.
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