Apollo Guidance Computer Activities

AGC: Conference 4 - David Mindell's introduction

Apollo Guidance Computer History Project

Fourth conference

September 6, 2002


DAVID MINDELL: This project has two pedigrees. One of them is it fits into a larger project, larger by a factor of five, called the History of Recent Science and Technology on the Worldwide Web, and that's funded by the Sloan Foundation and by the Dibner Foundation. The Dibner Institute for the History of Science, two doors down, which is where this project is sort of headquartered.

And then off that project there are five sub-projects and we're one of them. It's a three-year project. We're in the third year of it now. And the overall idea behind the project is to investigate how best to use the Worldwide Web as a medium for collecting histories of participants for science and technology projects. We use the word "recent" which, for historians, means anything in the last 50 years.

The idea is, and this is certainly the case with Apollo, that modern technical projects are so large and complex. There's so many participants, which removes the usual situation where usually historians have a problem ferreting out and finding documentation, which graduate students are at first frustrated with and then gradually realize that that's a blessing, because when you have everything, you have too much. Modern projects are so big and they're so complicated they document themselves very well and the documentation is overwhelming. And the participants are really needed to serve as a guide, among other things, to what was really important and what the significant pieces were.

There are many participants for many of these projects, and certainly that's the case with Apollo. So there are five sub- projects, as I mentioned; we're one of them. There's one on some of the very fundamental ideas in nuclear physics in the post-war period. There's one on the idea of molecular evolution and the converging of molecular biology with evolutionary theory. There’s one on the science of material science and the emergence of that post-war, and bio-informatics and the emerging of molecular biology in computer science.

We're actually the only one that's a real engineering project, and there are some reasons for that. The other pedigree of this project is my background; I'm a historian of technology and also an electrical engineer. I've just written a book, which will be out this month on the history of feedback control and the theories of feedback control and the relationship between feedback control and digital computing from about 1916 through 1945 or 1948. And that includes Harold Black and a lot of the people here who did work in circle mechanisms and the whirlwind folks and all these sort of relationships. But, it stops pretty much at the end of the Second World War, since 1948 is when all those publications came out.

As I was finishing that book - it's been sort of an eight-year project—and looking around for what the next thing might be, I always thought that the logical end to the story was the Apollo project actually.

In the book right now, there's a lot of Draper's early work, that he did with Sperry gyroscope during the Second World War on fire control. A lot of the early gyroscopic work done in the navy during the First World War, some of the real roots to inertial guidance and also the digital parts of inertial guidance.

But, it's already a 500-page book and to go up through the end of Apollo, it's going to double the size of it and end my career and no one will finish it. So I stopped it in 1945 and in some ways, rather than doing a sequel or a follow-on volume, we're ending up doing the Apollo project and the Apollo--particularly guidance, navigation and control in Apollo. And then in the course of telling that story, we'll weave in a lot of the things that happened say between 1948 and 1960, which I'm sure you're very familiar with.

And the more we've been looking at this project, the more interesting it is for all the reasons we suspected it would be interesting. And I'm sure we don't have to convince this crowd of that.

So, over the course of the last two or three years, we've been holding a series of seminars like this, doing some interviews, and we've been scanning an awful lot of documents and posting them on the Web. We've been transcribing these mini conferences and putting them on the Web and there's also a fairly sophisticated system for the participants to log on and make comments about anything that we've posted, make comments about any of the discussions that were posted from the conferences or initiate your own threads of discussion.

And that's one of the things that we're really experimenting is how do you do that? How do you get people to log on? What are the ways you sustain the discussion? And what value is it ultimately for historians?

We've collected an awful lot of material of historical value. Eventually, I'll probably write a book on it. Sandy is working on his own graduate work on it. And we're really just talking about guidance navigation and control. We're not doing the whole Apollo project. This piece of it is plenty big enough.

But we're interested in the relationships to the local manufacturing industries here in New England. We're interested in project management issues. We're interested in software. We're interested in relations between the major project and private spinoffs, and anything else that you guys might tell us is worth looking at when we look at it.

So that's the broad overview. And if you haven't been to this website already, I encourage you to go there. Slava is helping out with that piece of it and is also adding a piece that has to do with the Soviet--the parallel story in the Soviet Union, although it probably wasn't exactly parallel. But, there's a lot of interesting issues. And it gives us some comparative data. There's only one Apollo project, was this really the only way to do it?

Slava Gerovitch's introduction