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Research Laboratory of Electronics marks 50th anniversary

(RLE is marking the occasion of its 50th anniversary with a symposium on November 1-2, an exhibit in the Compton Gallery, and this collection of photographs and articles written by RLE staff in recent years to record important historical milestones. See page 8 for details about the symposium schedule and gallery exhibit.)

From its inception, RLE's openness to new directions has led to an increasingly broad range of research. As this diversity grew and the success of the laboratory's interdisciplinary structure became evident, it was natural for some of its ideas and people to coalesce into new activities, within which there was (at least initially) a tighter focus than the set of interests evident in RLE's early years.

Given RLE's origins in MIT's wartime Radiation Laboratory, there was a continuing interest in military electronics from its inception, and members of the laboratory carried out many studies, often in the form of summer projects. In the first years of the Korean conflict, some of these results were applied in the areas of secure communications, tropospheric and ionospheric scattering, correlation and new radar techniques. From these studies, Lincoln Laboratory evolved and took on the role of an applied military laboratory in 1951. As these interests moved from RLE to Lincoln Laboratory, RLE turned completely to unclassified civilian projects without direct military applications.

Through its interaction with MIT's Acoustic Laboratory, several speech conferences were organized that led to the formation of RLE's Linguistics Group in 1950. An initial emphasis on the engineering aspects of speech communication grew to cover the entire field of linguistics, and eventually formed the linguistics section of MIT's Department of Modern Languages in 1961. In 1979, these interests joined with others in psychology, philosophy, and vision to form MIT's Cognitive Science Center.

Computation was a part of RLE from the start, and several of the early, important computers were set up and used in the laboratory (including the TX-0 and PDP-1). Many contributions were made through RLE's interaction with the MIT Computer Center, including the invention of the LISP programming language by Professor John McCarthy in 1958. There were also many experiments in time-sharing on the PDP-1 in RLE, as well as in the Computer Center, but a desire to pull these interests together around a common computational focus led to the formation of Project MAC in 1963.

The large MULTICS system was built there, and artificial intelligence, in turn, split off from Project MAC to form its own laboratory in 1969, thus demonstrating the continuing nature of new laboratory formation. In 1976, Project MAC took its current name, the Laboratory for Computer Science.


Early work on gaseous discharge tubes led to RLE's increased research activity in high-density plasmas, and in an interest in the use of plasmas for thermonuclear fusion to provide electrical energy. This vision led to the need to perform large mission-oriented experiments on both the tokamak and mirror machines. In 1976, the MIT Plasma Fusion Center was formed to support these efforts. Thus, a major part of RLE's effort in plasmas was moved to the Plasma Fusion Center, but a continuing emphasis on basic plasma theory and experiments has remained in RLE.

From these examples, one can see the occasional formation of new groups from RLE's parent body, and these activities, seeking their own identity, continue to grow as a biological process. Through it all, however, RLE continues to maintain its strong focus on all aspects of electronics while providing a home for new directions that stem from these core interests.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on October 30, 1996.

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