The explosion of the first Soviet atomic bomb in August 1949, followed by the Soviet development of bombers that could traverse the Arctic Circle, created a significant new security threat to the United States. In response to this threat, the Department of Defense commissioned the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) to take a leadership role in addressing this problem. The result was the establishment of MIT Lincoln Laboratory in 1951 to design and develop the first air defense system for the United States. This system, designated the Semi-Automatic Ground Environment (SAGE), was pioneering in its complexity and required numerous inventions — including digital computers, magnetic-core memory, large-scale computer programs, modems, and interactive graphical user interfaces — in order to come into being.
SAGE became fully operational in 1963, with 24 direction centers and three combat centers spread across the United States, and was in operation until 1983. Well before SAGE’s decommissioning in 1983, the threat of Soviet bombers had been replaced by a new threat — intercontinental ballistic missiles — that required a new national focus, and a new set of technical breakthroughs and developments. As the first project undertaken by Lincoln Laboratory, SAGE established a systems approach to the development of complex, large-scale systems that is still very much part of the Laboratory culture today.
Following the development of SAGE, Lincoln Laboratory moved on to address other missions and technologies critical to national security, including the Whirlwind computer that provided real-time computational capability for SAGE. The greatest breakthrough in the development of Whirlwind was the invention of magnetic-core memory, a three-dimensional structure of cores that stored data. Magnetic-core memory enabled the widespread adoption of computers for industrial applications.
The Laboratory’s work on a reliable radar system to warn of attacks by intercontinental ballistic missiles resulted in the Ballistic Missile Early Warning System (BMEWS), which consisted of detection radars. BMEWS continues in operation today, with the original surveillance and tracking radars replaced by phased-array radar systems.
The Sketchpad system was the first computer-aided design (CAD) interface. It made it possible for a man and a computer to interact rapidly through the medium of line drawings. The Sketchpad system, by eliminating typed statements in favor of line drawings, opened up a new area of man-machine communication.
One of the few technologies specifically addressing runway incursions, the Runway Status Lights (RWSL) system provides the timeliest, most effective, and most highly automated technology to directly alert pilots and vehicle operators on the airport surface of potential incursions. The system turns on special red lights, embedded in the runway pavement, that are fully visible to pilots and nearby personnel. It serves as an independent backup to the clearances issued by air traffic controllers.
Since 1971, Lincoln Laboratory has supported the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) in the development of new technology for air traffic control. This work initially focused on aircraft surveillance and weather sensing, collision avoidance, and air-ground data link communication. The program has evolved to include safety applications, decision support services, and air traffic management automation tools. The current program is supporting the FAA’s Next Generation Air Transportation System (NextGen).
To expand intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) capabilities, Lincoln Laboratory conducts research and development in advanced sensing, signal and image processing, automatic target classification, decision support, and highperformance computing. By leveraging these disciplines, the Laboratory produces ISR system concepts for surface and airborne applications. Sensor technology for ISR includes passive and active electro-optical systems, surface surveillance radar, and radio frequency geolocation. Increasingly, the work extends from sensors and sensor platforms to include the processing, exploitation, and dissemination technologies that transform sensor data into the information and situational awareness needed by operational users.
The Laboratory develops and assesses integrated systems for defense against ballistic missiles, cruise missiles, and air and maritime platforms in tactical, regional, and homeland defense applications. Activities include development of advanced sensor and decision-support technologies, development of pathfinder prototype systems, extensive field measurements and data analysis, and the verification and assessment of deployed system capabilities. The Homeland Protection mission supports the nation’s security by innovating technology and architectures to help prevent terrorist attacks within the US, reduce the vulnerability of the nation to terrorism, minimize damage from terrorist attacks, and facilitate recovery from either manmade or natural disasters.
Lincoln Laboratory is working to enhance and protect the capabilities of the nation’s global defense networks. Emphasis is placed on developing component technologies, building and demonstrating end-to-end system prototypes, and then transferring this technology to industry for deployment in operational systems.
The Cyber Systems and Operations Group works closely with the nation’s cyber forces, intelligence community, and federal agencies to identify operational gaps, and analyze their current and planned systems and missions. Technological systems are developed that enhance battle management, and command and control of cyberspace, including network, host, embedded system, and electromagnetic-based cyber sensors and actuators, and human-computer interfaces and visualization.