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Plenty of computing history in N42

Building N42, the new headquarters for much of Information Systems, will house premium computing hardware and personnel for the second time in its varied history.

The brick structure with its distinctive gargoyles was built (originally in an L shape) in 1904 for E&R Laundry, which did heavy-duty industrial cleaning. "It still surprises us that such a pretty building would be built as a laundry," said Stephen Perry of Perry and Radford Architects in Cambridge, which did the latest redesign for IS. Major renovations have been going on since shortly after the closure of Graphic Arts in August 1996.

Starting in 1948, the structure (then known as the Barta Building) housed Project Whirlwind, a first-generation digital computer that grew out of a wartime need for a flight simulator to train bomber crews. The project, led by Professor Emeritus Jay W. Forrester, eventually resulted in a general-purpose computer used as the prototype for a command-and-control center for air and missile defense in the Cold War era.

By 1954, the machine had more than 12,500 vacuum tubes and 23,800 crystal diodes, according to Project Whirlwind: The History of a Pioneer Computer by Kent C. Redmond and Thomas M. Smith, and Building N42--headquarters for MIT's Digital Computer Laboratory--required installation of special cooling equipment on the roof, Mr. Perry said.

Whirlwind was the first computer with random-access magnetic-core memory, and it could process 16 digits at a rate of 20,000 times a second. It also featured ground-breaking user interfaces: a CRT display with results plotted on airspace maps, and a "light pen" that operators could use to write data on the screen. MIT and Lincoln Laboratory stopped using the machine in 1959 but it was used by Wolf R&D in Concord, MA until the early 1970s. Parts were eventually given to the Smithsonian Institution and the Computer Museum in Boston.

When it reopens this month, Building N42 will have offices and work areas for 92 staff and 42 students in open space in the outer portions of each floor, with permanent full-height conference rooms around the inner core. This will make it easier to reconfigure offices and teams in I/S, and it also will give most workers some natural light from the windows, Mr. Perry explained.

With new elevators, bathrooms and handicapped access, the refitted building now complies with the Americans for Disabilities Act. The electrical system, ventilation and network wiring have also been brought up to date.

The outer appearance hasn't changed, aside from the absence of air-conditioning units hanging from windows--the new windows are aluminum replicas of the old ones, as are the exterior lights. "One of the things that was important to us was retaining the historical character of the outside of the building," he said. Landscaping will be done in the spring.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on January 14, 1998.

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