How The MIT Ideas Factory Revolutionised the Future

How The MIT Ideas Factory Revolutionised the Future

In Technology, Videos by Paul ShillitoLeave a Comment


It’s said that if the combined income of all the 120,000 MIT alumni, living and dead, were put together it would be equal to the 10th largest economy in the world, which as of today is Canada at about $2.2 trillion.

I did a video about Bell Labs a while back and how it created quite a lot of the key technologies that the modern world now runs and depends on. So I thought it would be good to look at another world-leading institution, MIT or the  Massachusetts Institute of Technology, that has collaborated with Bell Labs on many occasions and also gave the world a whole host of technological breakthroughs.

Going through all that MIT has been involved with would need a much, much longer video so this will be a whilst stop tour just to give you an idea and a couple of examples.

These include but is not limited to, Email, Touchscreen Technology, Global Positioning System, Magnetic Core Memory, Voice Recognition Technology, Robotics, and Inertial Guidance Systems to name but a few, and as of October 2023, 101 of their students and faculty professors have become Nobel prize winners.

But inventions and breakthrough technologies don’t invent or discover themselves and at the end of the day it’s the people who teach and the students of MIT who have created these and become the Nobel prize winners.

Probably the most famous person that most people will have heard of to have attended MIT is Buzz Aldrin, the second man to step foot on the moon with Apollo 11 in 1969, but he is just 1 of 38 astronaut MIT alumni.

But its when you go through the list of the more noticeable alumni, especially in the technology section it becomes almost a who’s who of some of the biggest and most influential businesses.

People like Robert Noyce, co-founder of Intel the processors that powers most of the world’s PCs and servers,  Morris Chang founder of TSMC the largest chip maker in the world, Ivan Getting co-inventor of the Global Positioning System or GPS, Amar Bose – founder and chairman of Bose Corporation, James McDonnell – co-founder of McDonnell Douglas, William R. Hewlett  – co-founder of Hewlett-Packard, Cecil H. Green – co-founder of Texas Instruments and Robert Metcalfe founder of 3Com and inventor of Ethernet to name but a very few of the most successful graduates.

Something that MIT has stuck to since its founder William Barton Rogers created the university in 1865 is that all MIT degrees are earned through academic achievement and that MIT has never awarded honorary degrees in any form.

MIT benefited greatly from the war effort in the 1940s after Vannevar Bush who had been the vice president of MIT and dean of the MIT School of Engineering became the head of the U.S. Office of Scientific Research and Development and authorized the equivalent today of billions of dollars of  research grants for just a few select universities including MIT which was instrumental in the development things like of radar for the war.

One of its most famous Nobel prize winners was Richard Feynman known for his work in theoretical physics. He worked on the development of the atomic bomb with the Manhattan Project and is credited with pioneering the field of quantum computing and introducing the concept of nanotechnology some 20 years before it became a practical possibility. He also worked on the committee looking into the cause of the Challenger shuttle disaster and demonstrated how the O-rings in the solid rocket boosters had failed due to the cold weather conditions, something that NASA managers had chosen to overlook even when they were warned about it by the booster engineers.

He was also known as a keen popularizer of physics through both books and lectures. In a 1999 survey conducted by the British journal Physics World, which polled 130 eminent physicists he was ranked the seventh-greatest physicist in history.

As a child, Feynman was heavily influenced by his father, who encouraged him to ask questions to challenge orthodox thinking and in the book The Idea Factory, the author Pepper White was told by his first professor that it didn’t matter what he learned at MIT but that MIT teach him how to think.

But as we have seen, you can be the smartest person on the planet but it’s what you do that defines you and you don’t have to have created a world-dominating business to have had a huge impact on the way people communicate and that is what Ray Tomlinson did.

Tomlinson was an American computer programmer who had entered the MIT to continue his electrical engineering education and in 1965 developed a hybrid analog-digital hybrid speech synthesizer as the subject of his thesis for the master’s degree in electrical engineering.

But that would be just a footnote in what he did later. In 1967 he joined BBN Technologies and worked on developing the TENEX operating system for the PDP-10 minicomputer.  BBN Technologies were involved with a number of LISP-based artificial intelligence projects for DARPA the US military defense and research agency and these minicomputers were connected by the ARPANET system, the precursor to the internet.

Tomlinson wrote a file transfer program called CPYNET that would transfer files through the ARPANET. At the time computers were large and very expensive so many users would work on one computer on a time-shared basis and messages could be sent from one user to another but only on the same computer.

Tomlinson was asked to change the messaging program called SNDMSG to work on the TENEX system which he did but he also made so that it could send a message to a different computer on the network, basically he created the first email program.

He did this by adding the @ sign that separated the username from the computer, although this was his idea and was not a directive of his employer, Tomlinson said later that he merely pursued it “because it seemed like a neat idea.”

When Tomlinson was inducted into the Internet Hall of Fame in 2012, the comment on his work said the following : “Tomlinson’s email program brought about a complete revolution, fundamentally changing the way people communicate.”

Tomlinson was also involved in the very first self-replicating program called Creeper which was designed to move around the ARPANET, basically a computer worm or virus that we would know of today. Although it caused no damage it would send a message to the teletype machine saying “I’M THE CREEPER : CATCH ME IF YOU CAN”.

He made Creeper self-replicating rather than just moving from one computer to another. He also wrote the very first anti-virus program called Reaper which was designed to find and delete Creeper.

Tomlinson is also credited with the invention of the TCP three-way handshake which underlies HTTP and many other key Internet protocols, all things that no one ever thinks about but is fundamental to our interconnected world of today.

Another behind-the-scenes MIT man was Jay Wright Forrester. Now he is not that well known but what he worked on affected the computers developed in formative years of the 1960s and 70s. He co-invented magnetic core memory, and whilst this is no longer used it was key to growth of computers and was used in the Space shuttle up until the late 1980s.

Much of this can the traced back to the Whirlwind computer that was developed at the MIT Servomechanisms Laboratory for the U.S. Navy from 1951. Whirlwind was the first computer to operate on Realtime problems with continuously changing inputs and use random access memory and a light pen to write data to the screen of a video display.

Although it was initially built for the US Navy, it would be taken over by the U.S Airforce and be used to unify multiple data streams from radar systems which transmitted the radar data over microwave links and telephone lines to the whirlwind computer at MIT to create an overall image of the airspace and track any intruders. The architecture of the whirlwind computer would go on to influence almost all the business computers of the 1960s and 70s.

One of the biggest bottle necks was the memory that was available at the time which were either mercury delay lines or electrostatic memory tubes, a form of vacuum tube. Both were slow, large, power-hungry and unreliable.

Jay Forrester oversaw the project but had also been looking at using magnetic cores, rings of hard magnetic material using usually a semi-hard ferrite which had wires pass through them. The value of the bit stored in a core is zero or one according to the direction of that core’s magnetization either clockwise or anti-clockwise. Electrical pulses sent through the wires would then set or reset the bit and read the value it was set to. This was the first reliable form of random access memory that did not lose its data when it was switched off similar to an SD card or memory stick which we use now.

Although others had been looking it at using magnetic cores for computer memory, MIT computer engineer Jay Forrester received the principal patent for his invention.

With increased miniaturization, by the end of the 1960s memory density of about 32 kilobits per cubic foot was achieved using magnetic memory cores. Although we might look at this being very primitive today, this tech bridged the gap between the valve and semiconductor era and they were also very reliable.

So much so that they were used in the Apollo guidance computer that was essential to NASA’s successful Moon landings and in the space shuttle. When the Challenger shuttle blew up on launch in January 1986 and the computers were recovered from the sea afterwards, the Magnetic core memory was still functioning and could be read with the last data that was stored in it.

This principle would be used for the architecture of semi-conductor memory which we still use today.

These are just a couple of examples of the thousands of ideas that have been developed by MIT not just in the computer sector but across almost all science, engineering, business, finance, biotech and others and although there may be other institutions that claim to be larger, MIT holds a unique position in the American psyche as the pre-eminent technical university not only of the USA but the world.

So thank for watching and I hope you enjoyed the video if you did then please thumb up share and subscribe and a big thanks go to our Patreons for their ongoing support.

Paul Shillito
Creator and presenter of Curious Droid Youtube channel and website

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