The Cache Flush Episode 11: The Closed World

The Cache Flush
The Cache Flush
The Cache Flush Episode 11: The Closed World

In this episode, selections from Chapter 2 of The Closed World: Computers and the Politics of Discourse in Cold War America.



This is the Cache Flush, a programmer’s audio scrapbook. This is episode 11, recorded Sunday, April 30th, 2023.

Today I have some selections from chapter two of the Closed World Computers and the Politics of Discourse in Cold War America by Paul N. Edwards.

For two decades, from the early 1940s until the early 1960s, the armed forces of the United States were the single most important driver of digital computer development. Though most of the research work would take place at universities and in commercial firms, military research organizations such as the Office of Naval Research, the communications security group, and the air comptroller’s office paid for it.

Military users became the proving ground for initial concepts and prototype machines. As the commercial computer industry began to take shape, the armed forces and the defense industry served as the major marketplace.

Most historical accounts recognize the financial importance of this backing in early work on computers. But few to date have grasped the deeper significance of this military involvement.

I will argue that military support for computer research was rarely benign or disinterested as many historians taking at face value, the public postures of funding agencies and the reports of project leaders have assumed. Instead, practical military objectives, guided technological development down particular channels increased its speed and helped shape the structure of the emerging computer industry.

I will also argue, however, that the social relations between military agencies and civilian researchers were by no means one-sided. More often than not, it was civilians, not military planners who pushed the application of computers to military problems. Together in the context of the Cold War, they enrolled computers as supports for a far-reaching discourse of centralized command and control as an enabling infrastructural technology for the closed world political vision. Contracts with universities varied, but under most of them, the university provided laboratory space management and some of the scientific personnel for large multidisciplinary efforts. The radio research laboratory at Harvard employed 600 people, more of them from California institutions than from Harvard itself.

MIT’s Radiation laboratory, the largest of the university research programs. Ultimately employed about 4,000 people from 69 different academic institutions. Academic scientists went to work for industrial and military research groups, industrial scientists, assisted universities, the military’s weapons and logistics experts and liaison officers were frequent visitors to every laboratory. The war effort thus brought about the most radical disciplinary, mixing, administrative centralization, and social reorganization of science and engineering ever attempted in the United States.

It would be almost impossible to overstate the long-term effects of this enormous undertaking on American science and engineering. The vast interdisciplinary effort, profoundly restructured scientific research communities. It solidified the trend to science-based industry already entrenched in the inter-war years, but it added the new ingredient of massive government funding and military direction.

M I t, for example, emerged from the war with a staff twice as large as it had before the war, a budget in current dollars, four times as large, and a research budget 10 times as large, 85% from the military services and their nuclear weaponeer, the AEC.

Eisenhower famously named this new form the military industrial complex. The nexus of institutions is better captured by the concept of the iron triangle of self-perpetuating academic, industrial, and military collaboration.

Almost as important as the institutional restructuring was the creation of an unprecedented experience of community among scientists and engineers. Boundaries between scientific and engineering disciplines were routinely transgressed in the wartime labs, and scientists found the chance to apply their abilities to create useful devices profoundly exciting.

Connections formed during the war became the basis, as we will see over and over again for enduring relationships between individuals, institutions, and intellectual areas.

With the war’s end, some corporate funding became available for computer research. A few of the wartime computer pioneers such as ENIAC engineers, Mauchly and Eckert, raised commercial banners. The company they formed developed the BINAC, the first American stored program, electronic computer, and then the univac, the first American commercial computer.

But military agencies continued in one way or another to provide the majority of support.

How much military money went to post-war computer development? Because budgets did not yet contain categories for computing, an exact accounting is nearly impossible. Kenneth Flamm has nevertheless managed to calculate rough comparative figures for the scale of corporate and military support.

Flamm estimates that in 1950, the federal government provided between 15 and 20 million current per year, while industry contributed less than 5 million, 20 to 25% of the total. The vast bulk of federal research funds at that time came from military agencies. In the early 1950s, the company funded share of r and d began to rise to about 15 million by 1954.

But between 1949 and 1959, the major corporations developing computer equipment, ibm General Electric, bell Telephone, Sperry Rand, Raytheon, and RCA still received an average of 59% of their funding from the government. Again, primarily from military sources. The first commercial production computer, Remington Rand’s UNIVAC I embodied the knowledge Eckart and Mauchly had gained from working on the military funded ENIAC and later on their BINAC, which had been built as a guidance computer for Northrop Aircraft’s Snark Missile.

Though much of the funding for Eckart and Mauchley’s project was channeled through the census department, which purchased the first UNIVAC one, the funds were transferred to census from the Army.

Flam also concludes that even when R&D support came primarily from company sources, it was often the expectation of military procurements that provided the incentive to invest. For instance, IBM’s first production computer, the 7 0 1, also known as the Defense Calculator, first sold in 1953, was developed at IBM’s expense, but only with letters of intent in hand from 18 Department of Defense customers.

Despite the extraordinary vitality of commercial r and d after the early 1960s, the Pentagon continued to dominate research funding in certain areas. For example, almost half of the cost of semiconductor R&D between the late 1950s and the early 1970s was paid by military sources. Another instance was the nurturance of artificial intelligence by the Advanced Research Projects Agency arpa, later called darpa, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, which extended from the early 1960s until the end of the Cold War. AI for over two decades, almost exclusively a pure research area of no immediate commercial interest received as much as 80% of its total annual funding from arpa.

ARPA also supported such other important innovations as time sharing and computer networking. In 1983, with its strategic computing initiative, DARPA led a concerted Pentagon effort to guide certain critical fields of leading edge computer research, such as artificial intelligence, semiconductor manufacturer, and parallel processing architectures in particular directions favorable to military goals. The automation theory alone explains neither the urgency, the magnitude, nor the specific direction of the US military effort in computing. Rather than explain how contests over the nature and potential of computers were resolved, the utilitarian view writes history backwards using the results of those contests to account for their origins.

Nor does the utilitarian view explain the pervasive military fascination with computers epitomized by general Westmoreland’s speech in the aftermath of Vietnam.

“I see “, he proclaimed, “an army built into and around an integrated area control system that exploits the advanced technology of communications, sensors, fire direction, and the required automatic data processing, a system that is sensitive to the dynamics of the ever changing battlefield. A system that materially assists the tactical commander in making sound and timely decisions.”

This is the language of vision and technological utopia, not practical necessity. It represents a dream of victory that is bloodless for the victor of battle by remote control of speed, approaching the instantaneous and of certainty in decision making and command.

It is a vision of a closed world, a chaotic and dangerous space rendered orderly and controllable by the powers of rationality and technology.

Again, that was from the Closed World Computers and the Politics of Discourse in Cold War America by Paul and Edwards. This has been the Cache Flush. Thanks for listening. You can find the show online at And if you’d like to support this project, you can find my Patreon, or get yourself a membership.

You can get two weeks free by using the coupon code cash flush. Once again, thanks for listening and don’t forget to flush.

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