SAGE like Forrest Gump

Lester Earnest (les at



The SAGE air defense system, which was initiated in the early 1950s by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) with funding from the U.S. Air Force, was a technological marvel that provided the first interactive computing system for multiple people, including the first point-and-click graphical user interface, and the first computer network, which spanned North America and provided the technological foundation for the Internet. Each of the 23 main vacuum tube computers occupied the area of a football field.


SAGE was also an operational fraud in that it didn't work against bombers that used radar jamming, which all did since World War II. However that and other major deficiencies were kept classified so that no one could talk about them publicly without risking jail time and this system was kept going for 25 years for the financial gain of AT&T, IBM, GE, Boeing, Convair, Lockheed and others, resulting in the biggest m Military-Industrial-Congressional fraud of the 20th Century, which nobody talks about now. Similar frauds are ongoing today such as the anti-ballistic missile systems being deployed around the world.


Typical SAGE Direction Center contained a vacuum tube computer system the size of a football field and over a hundred display consoles on a floor the same size.


I was recruited to help design SAGE after graduating from Caltech and completing three years service in the U.S. Navy as an Aviation Electronics Officer, doing computerized flight simulations for missiles and manned aircraft. I began work at MIT Lincoln Lab in late 1956 and was assigned to share an office with Paul Sinesi. When I asked what he did, he replied, in a proper Boston accent, “I work on rada’ dater.” I knew that SAGE was supposed to automatically track aircraft movements using radar data, so I asked “What do you do about electronic countermeasures?” “We don’t do that,” he said.


Having been trained as an aviation electronics officer I found that answer puzzling, since I knew that hostile bombers normally attempt to jam radars. Being new to the organization, however, I figured that I would later figure out how they dealt with this problem.


In fact, as I subsequently observed, they didn’t deal with it and carefully designed all tests and demonstrations to avoid it. Thus SAGE was a gigantic fraud on taxpayers in that it was a “peacetime defense system” that would malfunction in an actual attack, much like France’s Maginot Line did in World War II.


This presented a dilemma. I had come to MIT because it was a hotbed of advanced computer technology development but helping create a Military-Industrial-Congressional fraud was unethical. Nevertheless I continued to work on SAGE for a time and learned that it had other major defects.

Š      Though MIT had recommended that the SAGE computer facilities be placed in hardened underground facilities, so that they would be less vulnerable to nuclear attack, in order to save money the U.S. Defense Department decided not to do that. Nevertheless Canada decided to put their single Direction Center underground.

Š      MIT had also recommended that the SAGE computer facilities be located remotely, away from both cities and military bases, so that they would not be bonus targets. In choosing sites for the Direction Centers, however, the leadership of the Air Defense Command apparently looked for places with good golf courses and Officers Clubs. Since the Strategic Air Command (SAC) was being well funded in that Cold War era, they generally had the best facilities. As a result, a number of SAGE facilities were placed at SAC bases where they became bonus targets.

Š      Before the SAGE system was fully deployed, intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) superseded manned bombers as the primary strike threat from abroad, so since SAGE offered no defense against ICBMs it would be taken out by the first strike and so would be useless.


These problems were widely discussed in-house at the time but were kept secret from the public. Physicist Herman Kahn, who was then at RAND Corp., gave classified lectures on some of these matters. Thus SAGE had several things in common with the mythical Forrest Gump: it was very fast, financially successful, and incredibly stupid.


As you may recall, when President Eisenhower left office his final speech warned about the Military Industrial Complex. Here is an excerpt that makes this point.

In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.

We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes. We should take nothing for granted. Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals, so that security and liberty may prosper together.

Akin to, and largely responsible for the sweeping changes in our industrial-military posture, has been the technological revolution during recent decades.

In this revolution, research has become central; it also becomes more formalized, complex, and costly. A steadily increasing share is conducted for, by, or at the direction of, the Federal government.

Today, the solitary inventor, tinkering in his shop, has been overshadowed by task forces of scientists in laboratories and testing fields. In the same fashion, the free university, historically the fountainhead of free ideas and scientific discovery, has experienced a revolution in the conduct of research. Partly because of the huge costs involved, a government contract becomes virtually a substitute for intellectual curiosity. For every old blackboard there are now hundreds of new electronic computers.

The prospect of domination of the nation's scholars by Federal employment, project allocations, and the power of money is ever present and is gravely to be regarded.

Eisenhower was being discreet in two ways:

1.    He was talking mainly about SAGE but did not mention it by name,

2.    He did not mention that the financial arrangements were sustained by a form of legal bribery in which industrial organizations gave campaign donations to members of Congress.

Because of his discretion and the power of the capitalist crooks who managed that ongoing fraud on American taxpayers, no action was taken and SAGE continued operations until 1983, becoming the biggest military-industrial-Congressional fraud of the 20th Century, but no one talks about it.


That is because the crooks in charge use security classifications to prohibit whistleblowers from speaking out without going to jail, as Edward Snowden and others have learned. Big money also controls major media and will not allow stories to appear regarding the ongoing frauds such as the deployment of anti-ballistic missile systems that are being deployed around the world despite the fact that they do not work against real ICBMs (just imaginary ones).


Back to mythology.


SAGE display consoles. The circular CRTs displayed geographical information including landmarks as well as aircraft locations and identities. Each console came with an electric cigar lighter, like cars of that era.


Because I had come from a military aviation background I was assigned to do weapons integration for SAGE, which involved specifying intercept guidance calculations for various tactical approaches by manned interceptors and for direct interceptions by BOMARC missiles. I had to negotiate with several aircraft company’s engineering representatives regarding how the guidance commands would either be displayed to pilots or optionally coupled to their autopilots so that the pilot could focus on launching air-to-air missiles at bombers. I also designed the display console layout used by Intercept Directors to select tactics and oversee interceptions. I subsequently learned that MIT had tried hard to duck out of the responsibility for weapons integration on the grounds that it should be done by the Air Force, but for some reason the Air Force did not want to do that.


SAGE also had large screen displays for the Generals and their staffs and the entire area was illuminated by dim blue blue lights. After these impressive control rooms were shown to the media, Hollywood films began showing War Rooms with similar environments, a practice that continues today.


The weapons that were used initially by SAGE included manned interceptors such as the F-102 and F-106 made by Convair, the F-104 by Lockheed and BOMARC missiles (IM-99A), made by the Boeing.


F-102, a not very good interceptor made by Convair In 1968 George W. Bush, joined the Texas Air National Guard after graduating from Yale University with a bachelor's degree in history and, with the help of his politically powerful daddy, was stationed in Houston, Texas, safely out of the way of the ongoing war in Vietnam. There he flew under the control of the SAGE air defense system and, since I had specified the guidance calculations for it a decade earlier, in a sense I provided early guidance for a future President. Had I anticipated that I might have provided better guidance, such as straight down.


BOMARC Ground-to-Air Missile Launch. The author is embarrassed to admit that he led the study group that obtained permission to put nuclear warheads on these missiles, to be blown up in our own skies.


Each BOMARC missile used a rocket booster to get airborne and a ramjet to cruise at high altitude under SAGE control to the vicinity of its target. It then used its Doppler radar to locate the target aircraft more accurately so that it could dive at it and detonate. BOMARCs were based in hardened structures and, when given a launch command from SAGE, sent via land lines, the roof would roll back, the missile would erect, and if it had received a complete set of initial guidance commands, it would launch in the specified direction, then be controlled by a packet radio system.


It was clearly important to ensure that the electronic guidance systems in these missiles were working properly, so the Boeing engineers included a test feature that would generate a set of synthetic launch commands so that the missile electronics could be tested for correct operation. When in test mode, of course, the normal sequence of erecting and launching the missile was suppressed.


However when we reviewed the BOMARC launch control system, one of our engineers noticed a rather serious defect. If the launch command system was tested, each missile would be in a state of readiness for launch. If the "Test" switch was then returned to the "Operate" position without individually resetting the control systems in each missile that had been tested, they would all immediately erect and launch! Needless to say, that “feature” was modified soon after we mentioned it to Boeing. The fact that it had not been noticed by the manufacturer suggested that safety oversight of their engineering practices was inadequate.


Another problem showed up in the packet radio system used to guide both manned interceptors and missiles. The packet formats were carefully specified for each kind of command, principally heading, altitude and speed, and the creation of the ground transmitter and airborne receivers were assigned to two different contractors, but when the system was tested it didn’t work. It turned out that the specifications neglected to specify whether the high or low order bits were to be transmitted first and the two contractors made different assumptions. That too got fixed, at some expense.


Here is a 17 minute video of Bomarc launches and here is one on launch failures that talks about a 1960 incident in which a Bomarc with a nuclear warhead disintegrated and left contamination throughout the area. I am embarrassed to acknowledge that I enabled that fiasco by obtaining permission to use nukes as discussed below.


Inadvertent erection and another embarrassment. In 1960, I somehow was assigned the responsibility of leading a study group to get Federal Governmental approval for putting nuclear warheads on the second-generation BOMARC missiles. This involved proving to a nuclear safety board in Albuquerque, New Mexico that the probability of accidentally launching a missile on any given day as a result of system malfunctions was less than a certain very small number and that one person couldn't do it by himself. We did eventually get the approval but along the way discovered a scary problem. Unfortunately we also neglected to consider another one.


SAGE used land lines to transmit launch commands to the missile sites and, since these lines were duplexed, a black box at each missile site was set up to detect when the primary line went bad so that it could switch to the backup line. However on examination we noticed that if both lines went bad concurrently the system would remain connected to the backup line and the amplifiers would then pick up and amplify whatever noise was there and interpret it as a stream of random bits.


Jack Dominitz, a member of our team, did a Markov analysis to determine the expected time that it would take for a random bit stream to generate a Fire Command for one of the missiles. He found that it was a little over two minutes and, when such a command was received, the missile would erect and prepare to launch. However, unless the missile also received a full set of guidance commands during the launch window of about five minutes, it would automatically abort. Fortunately he was able to show that getting a complete set of acceptable guidance commands within this time frame was extremely improbable, so this failure mode did not present a safety threat, though it could be a bit frightening.


The official name of the first BOMARC model was IM-99A, so I wrote a short classified report about this problem titled "Inadvertent erection of the IM-99A." While that title raised a few eyebrows, it was destined to get much more attention than I expected because its prediction came true a couple of weeks after it was published. Both phone lines went bad at a site in New Jersey, which caused a missile to suddenly erect, start the launch sequence, and abort. Needless to say, that scared hell out of the site staff and a few other people but it was not publicly discussed at the time.


The Air Force was suitably impressed with our prediction and I was immediately appointed to head a multi-agency task group to fix the problem and we did. The fix was rather easy: just disconnect when both lines are bad. With good engineering practice, of course, this kind of problem wouldn't have happened. However, the world is an imperfect place.


Oops! Now with 55 years hindsight I realize that both our study group and the government nuclear safety committee overlooked other possibilities such as that a malevolent programmer might have been able to launch a missile all by himself. There was no certainty that such a scheme would have worked inasmuch as the SAGE software was reviewed by multiple people who might have questioned any odd-looking code. Nevertheless we should have considered that possibility and taken steps to ensure that it didn’t happen. The reason we didn’t was that there was no such thing as a malevolent programmer in that era (1950s and ‘60s) – we were all honest, upright, and altruistic, so the idea that a programmer might sneak in evil code was inconceivable. Later experiences on the Internet have revealed other possibilities.


Another thing that we neglected to think about was that if a bomber was flying at very low altitude the BOMARC would still dive to blow it up and, as a side effect would blow up any people on the ground below. But that was apparently okay with the Air Defense Command since their mission was to destroy bombers, so side effects could be overlooked.