Making Electrons Count

In the early eighties, I worked for Bob Goldstein at the Eye Research Institute of Retina Foundation. On a visit to the Computer Museum, we were intrigued by a continuously-running video loop about Project Whirlwind which mentioned the Retina Foundation. Bob contacted the MIT Museum, located the original film, and had videocassette transfers made. It is a fascinating document which deserves a wider audience.

This Web edition includes:

--about 100 frame images and a transcript of the narration, organized in a format which works well with graphic browers and 28.8 kbps connections. The format resembles a storyboard or "Fotonovela" and tries to gives a fairly detailed impression of the original. Total size, 11 HTML files and all graphics, is about 600K.

--a "transcript" version of the text, with individual links to the images which can be followed one at a time, for text browsers or slow connections

--a 200K RealAudio file giving about three minutes of the sound track

--a 2.8 MB QuickDraw clip of the portion of the film in which Steve Dodd takes a short tour of Whirlwind, walking through and around its equipment racks.

Credits and Notice:

The MIT Museum has kindly granted permission for me to reproduce these extracts from the 1953 film on MIT Project Whirlwind,"Making Electrons Count." The permission is governed by an agreement between Daniel P. B. Smith and the MIT Museum, and covers publication at this Web site only. Individuals may view this material at this Web site, Any other use requires permission from the MIT Museum, 265 Massachusetts Avenue, Cambridge, Massachusetts 02139-4307.

The original film credits contain no date or copyright notice and read, in full:

The Digital Computer Laboratory of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Presents "Making Electrons Count: Solving a Problem on M.I.T.'s Electronic Digital Computer 'Whirlwind I.' Sponsored by: Office of Naval Research. Physicist played by Dean N. Arden. Script by Edwin S. Kopley. Photographed and Directed by Lloyd G. Sanford.

--Daniel P. B. Smith,

About Whirlwind

Throughout the project, Whirlwind was constantly being improved and expanded. As described in the film, it had two stacks of sixteen planes of 32 x 32 cores. One 16-bit "word" could be read or written in "eight millionths of a second." In modern language: it had 4K bytes RAM and an 0.125 megahertz clock.

It had a 24K magnetic drum, and a number of tape drives (about 1 megabyte each)

Hardcopy output was produced either on a Flexowriter (true letter quality, upper and lower case, 10 characters per second) or displayed on a CRT at 200 character per second.

Since it took ten seconds to display one screen, this output could not be viewed directly, but was photographed. According to the film, the physicist can see that his run was successful at 4 a.m. in the morning, but doesn't get to view his results until the next afternoon. When he proudly shows his results to his colleagues at the Retina Foundation, they are in the form of columns of numbers on an 8 by 10 glossy.

As an MIT undergraduate in the mid-sixties, I once used a similar method myself. Like Whirlwind, the PDP-1 on the second floor of Building 26 had no high-speed printer. It had a 10 character-per-second typewriter and a CRT screen. So I, too, took photographs of the screen with a 35 mm. camera which I processed in my dormitory's darkroom. Of course, in the same building, there was an IBM 7094 with plenty of 1200 line-a-minute chain printers--but the PDP-1 was more readily available, and, frankly, a lot more fun.

Date of the Film

It is not clear when the film was made. No date appears in the credits and no date is ever mentioned in the narration. I think it must be 1953 or possibly somewhat later.

(The permission agreement from the MIT museum describes it as 1951, but that seems wrong, maybe even a typo).

The label on the video cassette, which was made by the MIT museum some years ago, and might conceivably reflect a label on the original film canister, reads "Making Electrons Count (Whirlwind) 1953."

A calendar appears in the movie in a staged, conventional passage-of-time cutaway shot. It depicts dates in July, 1953, and the movie seems be set in "the present," or the very recent past.

Other clues could help to establish the date of the film. The movie frequently uses the term "Whirlwind I," implying that there was a "Whirlwind II." According to Redmond and Smith, p. 210, the design team for a computer "first thought of as Whirlwind II,' then it becamse the 'XD-1' and finally the 'FSQ-7'" was assembled in January 1952.

According to the narrator, "the computer can read or write a number in this memory in eight millionths of a second. The planes are stacked in pancake fashion, sixteen planes in each of the two memory units." According to Redmond and Smith, "On August 8, 1953, the first bank of core storage was wired into Whirlwind. A second bank of cores went in on September 5. The computer's access time dropped from twenty-five microsecond for tube storage to nine microseconds for the magnetic cores."

Further Reading

I only know one detailed book about Whirlwind. It is a good place to look if you want larger, clearer pictures than those shown here.

It mentions neither the film "Making Electrons Count" nor the Retina Foundation. It also has very little information on what might be called the social or cultural history of Whirlwind. It has a great deal to say about project history, Forrester's negotiations with the Air Force, MIT, and so forth. It has a good deal of technical and engineering detail.

But it says very little about how Whirlwind was used or was run on a daily basis as a working facility. Making Electrons Count shows both "batch-like" and "hands-on interactive-like" use of the machine. I'd love to know what the balance really was and how much "hacker-like" activity there was.

Redmond, Kent C. and Thomas M. Smith (1980) Project Whirlwind: The History of a Pioneer Computer Digital Press, History of Computing Series, Digital Press, Bedford, MA. ISBN 0-932376-09-6
Whirlwind apparently had no direct keyboard input until 1956! A long article by Douglas T. Ross describes how this was done at his instigation. He also describes the development of the "light cannon" (a pointing device which literally followed a user's fingertip).
Ross, Douglas T. (1988). A Personal View of the Personal Workstation--Some First in the Fifties. In A History of Personal Workstations, ed. Adele Goldberg. ACM Press History Series, ACM Press, New York. ISBN 0-201-11259-0.

The Schepens Eye Research Institute ("Retina Foundation")

In "Making Electrons Count" (frame #201), the "main character" of the movie introduces himself as "a physicist for the Retina Foundation in the Massachusetts General Hospital." However, (frame #332) , the movie later shows an institutional nameplate reading "Retina Foundation, Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary."

The Retina Foundation is currently known as the Schepens Eye Research Institute and is currently a research center affiliated with Harvard Medical School. It was originally founded in the fifties by Belgian-born ophthalmologist Charles L. Schepens, M. D. It has been known at various times as:

Dr. Charles L. Schepens is both for his contributions to retinal surgery, and design of optical instruments for ophthalmology. In fact, in one shot in Making Electrons Count (frame #127), an opthalmologist is shown using a "Schepens indirect binocular opthalmoscope." At the time when Bob Goldstein found the movie, around 1985, he showed it to various long-time members of the Eye Research Institute to see if anyone could identify the unnamed "physicist" or give more details about the project. He was unsuccessful. The film credits do not identify the physicist or the project except to say that the physicist is "played by Dean N. Arden." The people sitting around the conference table (frame #333) were not recognized and do not appear to include Dr. Schepens, so I suspect that this is may be a staged scene. In general, the description of the project is strongly reminiscent of the work of physicist Oleg Pomerantzeff, long associated with Schepens and the Institute, who designed many important optical devices for ophthalmology. Furthermore, Pomerantzeff is known to have done some work using Project Whirlwind. However, Pomerantzeff did not come to the United States until after 1953, the year in which this film is thought to have been made.

The Schepens Eye Research Institute
20 Staniford Street
Boston, MA 02114
Telephone: (617) 723-6078
Email, general information requests:
Web site:

Text-only version (about 35K)

This is a full transcript of the sound track, with my annotations. It is intended for use with text browsers such as LYNX.

"Fotonovela" version (about 600K total, split into three 200K parts)

Full annotated transcript of the sound track, accompanied by about 100 small frame captures that give a visual "storyboard-like" impression of the film.

The division into three parts is mine, to allow downloading in pieces, although it follows the natural structure of the film.

Part 1: Gee whiz, computers are gonna be wonderful.

MIT; the Barta building; main credits. Electronic digital computers "yield the solutions to problems in three rather different areas of interest." Footage of airports accompanying description of air traffic control and other real-time applications. Footage of large-scale clerical operations (a wall of file cabinets with women continuously crossing the aisle between it and their desks). Footage of MIT geology department doing seismic prospecting, and MIT's numerically-controlled milling machine.

Part 2: Tour of Whirlwind.

Begins the story of an unnamed physicist from the Retina Foundation who uses Whirlwind for an optical design problem. "The Whirlwind facility requires that potential users do their own programming for the solution of their problems." (This "hands-on" philosophy is one of the reasons I see Whirlwind as the ancestor the minicomputer and PC cultures). Somewhat clumsily, one of the "suggested texts" just happens to begin with a history of computers. (A "history of computers" in 1953!) "Let me read a few excerpts from it." Obligatory homage to the abacus and Babbage precede a tour of Whirlwind, walking through and around its 2500 square feet. Peripherals are shown in operation and explained.

Part 3: The drama of debugging.

This part is absolutely wonderful: 1953 debugging experience from the point of view of a user.

"My consultant notices and corrects several logical programming errors. I express my confidence that the program is now ready to run. On the basis of his experience with other programmers, my consultant feels that my confidence is unfounded."

"Apparently there is a mistake in my program. I suppose this is not unusual for new programmers."

"Invariably, programmers attribute the initial unsuccessful performances of their programs to tape errors or to computer malfunctions. Sometimes they are right, but usually I can assure them that the tape contains no typographical errors."

And the conclusion, as the music rises to a Mahler-like crescendo:

"We have told you the story of one problem recently solved on one digital computer. Multiply this by hundreds of problems being handled routinely by a hundred such computers and you have an idea of the current importance of the digital computer as a new tool to help scale some of the HITHERTO INSURMOUNTABLE PEAKS WHICH SPAN THE DOMAIN OF MAN'S ACTIVITIES!"

Edited audio, summarizing third part of film. (about 200K, 3 minutes) Highly compressed with RealAudio; some loss of audio quality.

I edited this, combining short clips from the third part of the film. I tried to tell what I see as "the main story," include samples of all three voices heard in the film (physicist, tape librarian, narrator), and give the sample of the tone of voice, narrative style, and background music of the original.

Video clip from second part of film. (about 3 MB, 1 minute)

Follows man identified as "Steve Dodd, Whirlwind's chief engineer" as he walks from main control room, down long corridor with racks of equipment, past a wall of electronics, around the end and down another corridor full of gear, arriving at a stack of "thirty-two planes of magnetic cores. The computer can read or write a number in this memory in 8 millionths of a second." Dodd picks up and displays a single plane in closeup.

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