US Government: SAGE (Semi-Automatic Ground Environment) 1963

US Government: SAGE (Semi-Automatic Ground Environment) 1963

1963 saw the culmination of a decade-long program to build an air-defense system to protect the North American continent against attack by bombers. SAGE was the first integrated national computer-telecoms system. It was designed to expedite communications between early-warning (DEWLINE) long-distance RADAR, air-observation units, strategic command head-quarters, and the fighter, anti-aircraft and missile defence resources around the USA and Alaska.

This elaborate, computer-controlled national network formed a major part of the MAD nuclear strategy (Mutually-Assured Destruction – the idea that any nuclear offensive would be met by an automatic nuclear retaliation.) These systems and this strategic policy were mercilessly and hilariously satirised in the Stanley Kubrick’s 1963 movie Dr Strangelove (Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb), and more seriously, and less successfully,  perhaps in Sidney Lumet’s Fail Safe (1964). However these integrated systems informed similar systems like the UK National Air-Traffic Control (1962), and arguably, the ARPANET-Internet (1969-77).

Ken Adam designed the Pentagon War Room set for Dr Strangelove – an amazing and prescient vision of how large projectors and computer-data visualisation might look in the near future. It looked so realistic that apparently the Russians were seriously worried by the apparent IT gap! And 30 years later, when Reagan got to be President, he was most disappointed that the War-Room looked nothing like Ken Adam’s vision.


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