of the MIT Servomechanisms Laboratory
1959-1974, director of the successor Electronic Systems Laboratory
Servomechanisms Laboratory was established at MIT in 1940 under
the direction of Gordon S. Brown, then assistant professor of electrical
engineering. The laboratory grew out of the Department of Electrical
Engineering’s increasing attention in the fall of 1939 to
servomechanisms, specifically fire control (gun-positioning instruments)
in response to a request from the U.S. Navy for a special course
for naval fire control officers assigned to MIT. Harold Hazen, head
of the department, was also Gordon Brown’s doctoral advisor
and asked him to develop the course. The 1939 MIT Course Bulletin
lists for the first time two elective classes (6.605 and 6.606)
titled Theory and Applications of Servo Mechanisms with Gordon S.
Brown as instructor.
World War II the laboratory’s teams of research scientists
and graduate students (who also produced thesis projects from their
work) undertook research and development of feedback control systems
for the U.S. government (Navy Ordnance, Army Ordnance, and the National
Defense Research Committee) as well as commercial contractors. Research
included servo-control systems for advanced radar used on U.S. Navy
ships. Laboratory director Gordon Brown served as a consultant to
the Sperry Gyroscope Company as well as to the War Department.
World War II ended in 1945, the laboratory’s newly created
dynamic analysis and control group, directed by Albert C. Hall,
continued to develop automated control systems for U.S. Navy guided
missiles. In 1946 this group separated to form the Dynamic Analysis
and Control Laboratory at MIT until closing in 1958.
laboratory research, originating in 1944 as the ASCA (Aircraft Stability
and Control Analyzer) project to develop a flight training simulator,
was directed by Jay W. Forrester with the assistance of Robert R.
Everett. The research focus was revised in 1946 to include the design
and construction of a high-speed digital computer, and the project
was renamed Project Whirlwind. In 1951 Project Whirlwind and its
staff were separated from the Servomechanisms Laboratory and assigned
to the newly created Digital Computer Laboratory, still under the
direction of Forrester. Eventually the Whirlwind group became division
6 of the newly formed Lincoln Laboratory and the Whirlwind technology
was applied to Lincoln Laboratory’s air defense system.
major postwar efforts of the Servomechanisms Laboratory included
the development of automatic controls for the reactor rods and instrumentation
system of the first peacetime nuclear reactor, constructed in the
late 1940s by the Atomic Energy Commission at the Brookhaven National
significant postwar project that began in 1949 and continued and
evolved through the 1950s was the work that led to numerical control
of machine tools. Under a contract with the Parsons Company of Michigan,
William M. Pease and James O. McDonough designed an experimental
numerically-controlled milling machine which received directions
through data on punched paper tape. The first working model of a
continuous-path numerically-controlled milling machine was demonstrated
in 1952. Further research was then carried out under the sponsorship
of the U.S. Air Force. Subsequently, the laboratory’s Computer
Application Group, led by Douglas T. Ross, developed the Automatically
Programmed Tool Language (APT), an easy-to-use, special purpose
programming language. Eventually, APT became the world standard
for programming computer-controlled machine tools. The Servomechanisms
Laboratory staff actively promoted the introduction and use of numerical
control for industrial processes. It sponsored conferences and summer
sessions aimed at industry personnel. The development of numerical
controls had a profound impact. The introduction of automated controls
revolutionized the machine tool industry. In 1958, further development
of the APT system was turned over to a coordinating group sponsored
by the Aircraft Industries Association.
activities of the Servomechanisms Laboratory broadened in the late
1950s, and a decision was made in 1959 to change the name of the
laboratory to the Electronic Systems Laboratory. The laboratory
continued to report to the Department of Electrical Engineering
until March 1978, when it became an inter-departmental laboratory
reporting to the provost. In September 1978 it was renamed the Laboratory
for Information and Decision Systems (LIDS).
detailed accounts of the research activities of the Servomechanisms
Laboratory can be found in the following publications:
John E. Q.E.D.: M.I.T. in World War II. New York:
J. Wiley, 1948.
J. Francis. Numerical Control: Making a New Technology,
by New York: Oxford University Press, 1991.
Karl L. A Century of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science
at MIT, 1882-1982. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1985. Chapter
by the Institute Archives, MIT Libraries