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Smith Receives a Piece of Computer History

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When it was first introduced half a century ago, the Whirlwind computer, the first digital computer capable of displaying real-time text and graphics on a video terminal, ushered in a new era of technology and pioneered subsequent generations of computer evolution.

Thanks to a recent gift to Smith and the Picker Engineering Program, the college now owns a piece of the legendary computer. On March 27, Dr. Martin Faga, President of MITRE Corporation, presented to the Picker Program and to Smith a memento commemorating the original Whirlwind computer. The memento, which is on display in the engineering building, was presented to President Carol T. Christ during an event at her campus residence.

Whirlwind was developed at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology digital computer laboratory beginning in 1945, and publicly demonstrated in 1951. It was also the first computer to use random access magnetic-core memory, a storage method that flourished into the 1970s.

Like Whirlwind, the Picker Engineering Program, which began four years ago, is spearheading a new technological era, setting standards in engineering education and the integration of technology and the liberal arts, and specifically encouraging women to enter the field.

“In our view, Whirlwind and the Picker Engineering Program are both pioneers,” said Faga in the presentation of the Whirlwind component. “Whirlwind started with an idea, and was ultimately brought to life through the design, testing and integration of hundreds of thousands of electronic components. The result was testament to a quantum leap in advancing the state of technology, while at the same time affording new and exciting ways to share and communicate knowledge throughout all of humankind.

“The Picker Engineering Program is no less unique,” he continued. “It, too, started with an idea, to form a bridge that connects the basic sciences to the humanities and, in so doing, making engineering an integral part of the liberal arts environment. Just as computers have changed our way of life, so too will the Picker Engineering Program, the first engineering program at a women’s college, promote fundamental changes in the way engineers increase their roles and responsibilities in formulating public policy and societal assimilation of leading edge technologies.”

MITRE is a nonprofit organization that provides engineering, research and development resources and information technology support to the federal government. MITRE derived from MIT in 1958 and many of its founding members were key contributors to the Whirlwind project. Smith and MITRE Corporation have a relationship dating to the beginning of the Picker Program. Since the program’s inception, the corporation has employed Smith engineering majors as interns.

“I am delighted to have MITRE, one of the nation’s premier engineering firms, recognize our achievements and unique contributions to be as important to the field of engineering as the Whirlwind computer,” says Domenico Grasso, director of the Picker Engineering Program. “As did the engineers who designed the first Whirlwind, we in the Picker Program are trying to think well into the future and to structure our engineering program to lead engineering education into the next millennium.”

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