Lincoln Laboratory Origins (part 2)

Project Charles

MIT President James Killian had serious reservations about MIT starting up a new laboratory because MIT had "devoted itself so intensively to the conduct of the Radiation Laboratory and other large war projects."

Photo of James KillianJames Killian, President of MIT. Photograph courtesy of the MIT Museum.

Louis Ridenour, chief scientist of the U.S. Air Force, provided President Killian with a reason for setting up a laboratory that, although unrelated to national defense, was particularly persuasive. Ridenour suggested that a laboratory to address air defense problems would serve as a stimulus for the nation's small electronics industry. He predicted that the state that became the home of the new laboratory would emerge as a center for the electronics industry. Ridenour's words were prophetic, as evidenced by the growth of the electronics and computer industry along Route 128, the circumferential highway around Boston.

Because Killian was not eager for MIT to become involved in air defense, he asked the Air Force if MIT could first conduct a study to evaluate the need for a new laboratory and to determine its scope. Killian's proposal was approved, and a study named Project Charles (for the river that flows past MIT) was carried out between February and August 1951.

Project Charles was conducted by a group of 28 scientists, 11 of whom were associated with MIT. The director was F. Wheeler Loomis, the University of Illinois professor who subsequently became Lincoln Laboratory's first director. Albert Hill and Carl Overhage, also members of the study, became the Laboratory's second and fourth directors, respectively. Most of the other members of Project Charles also went on to join the Laboratory.

Photo of F. Wheeler LoomisF. Wheeler Loomis. Photograph courtesy of the MIT Museum.

The Final Report of Project Charles stated that the United States needed an improved air defense system and that Valley had developed the correct plan: "We endorse the concept of a centralized system as proposed by the Air Defense Systems Engineering Committee, and we agree that the central coordinating apparatus of this system should be a high-speed electronic digital computer."

Project Charles came out unequivocally in support of the formation of a laboratory dedicated to air defense problems:
"Experimental work on certain of these problems is planned in a laboratory to be operated by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology jointly for the Army, the Navy, and the Air Force, to be known as PROJECT LINCOLN."1

This statement was the approval by a technically trained panel that President Killian had wanted. The decision to found the new laboratory, with the unusual support of all three services, became final.

Project Lincoln

The Charter for the Operation of Project Lincoln stated that the Air Force was to build a laboratory where the Massachusetts towns of Bedford, Lexington, and Lincoln meet. Why the name Lincoln? There had already been a Project Bedford (on antisubmarine warfare) and a Project Lexington (on nuclear propulsion of aircraft), so Major General Putt, who was in charge of drafting the Charter, decided to name the project for the town of Lincoln.

F. Wheeler Loomis took over as director of Project Lincoln. He had a small staff, unsure funding, and a promise to construct a laboratory. Moreover, he faced an immense challenge—to design a reliable air defense system for the continent of North America. Before Loomis could begin to hire the staff for Project Lincoln, he had to set up a structure for the organization. For this, he drew upon a model originated by the Radiation Laboratory in 1942. The organizational structure he followed consisted of a director's office, a steering committee, and a staff divided into divisions and groups. Each division was in charge of developing a system, and each group designed a component of that system. The concept of divisions and groups proved effective and efficient. Its simplicity enabled Project Lincoln to operate with far fewer managers and with far less internal politics than many other organizations. In fact, the structure worked so well that it has remained in use in Lincoln Laboratory to this day.

Project Lincoln was divided into five technical divisions: aircraft control and warning, communications and components, weapons, special systems, and digital computers. It also had two service divisions: business administration and technical services. The divisions were divided into one to six groups. Each division examined one aspect of the continental air defense problem; each group looked at one element of its division's task.

By September 1951, Project Lincoln had more than 300 employees. Within a year, it employed 1300. One year later, Lincoln Laboratory had grown to 1800 personnel, a level that would remain fixed for several years.

With staff coming on board and the funding secure, Loomis now turned his attention to the construction of buildings. The space on the MIT campus was already inadequate, and hundreds of employees were joining the project. The sole site available on campus for classified work was Building 22.

Building 22Campus Building 22. Photograph courtesy of the MIT Museum.

Unclassified research was carried out in Building 20, and administrative offices of Project Lincoln were located in the Sloan Building at MIT. Temporary housing for the motor pool, the electronics shops, and the publications office was found in a two-story commercial building on Vassar Street. Although the MIT Digital Computer Laboratory (originally part of the Servomechanisms Laboratory) became part of Project Lincoln, work on Whirlwind continued to be carried out in the Barta Building on Massachusetts Avenue and in the Whittemore Building on Albany Street.

Barta BuildingBarta Building, home of the Servomechanisms Laboratory. Photograph courtesy of the MIT Museum.

Space was not the only issue. President Killian believed that MIT should not be carrying out classified research on the Cambridge campus. He thought that MIT had an obligation to disseminate its research results throughout the academic community and that classified research was inherently incompatible with this obligation. Therefore, Killian wanted MIT to maintain its integrity by conducting Project Lincoln off campus. The Bedford-Lincoln-Lexington area mentioned in the Charter for the Operation of Project Lincoln had space for new construction, and it was a comfortable distance from Cambridge.

This site was the Laurence G. Hanscom Field, now Hanscom Air Force Base and still the home of Lincoln Laboratory. Hanscom Field became a Commonwealth of Massachusetts facility in May 1941, when the state legislature acquired 509 acres for the construction of an airport. It was located in part in each of the towns of Concord, Lincoln, Lexington, and Bedford, on a flat area between the Concord and Shawsheen rivers. The official groundbreaking ceremony for the airfield, then known simply as the Boston Auxiliary Airport at Bedford, was held on June 26, 1941.

Lincoln Laboratory

Groundbreaking for Project Lincoln began in 1951 at the foot of Katahdin Hill in Lexington. The site lay directly below 47 acres of farmland that had been acquired by MIT in 1948 as a site for cosmic-ray research. Twenty-six acres were transferred to the Army, and the remaining 21 acres were assigned to Project Lincoln.

The new buildings were laid out in an open-wing configuration, with alternate wings along a central axis. The plans called for four wings (Buildings A, B, C, and D) plus a concrete block utility structure (Building E).

The Boston firm of Cram and Ferguson was chosen as the architect. Although the firm was among the oldest and largest of its kind in the United States, it was not generally associated with laboratory construction. In fact, the firm was better known for Gothic and art deco architecture, such as the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City and the 1948 John Hancock Building in Boston.

Cram and Ferguson came up with a modular design for the buildings, with each staff member allotted 9 × 9 sq ft. The main corridor of each building was 400 ft long, which yielded 44 modules along each side. Supporting columns were spaced 18 ft apart, and movable partitions were used for the internal walls.

Lincoln Laboratory under construction in 1952Initial construction of Lincoln Laboratory, October 1952.

Buildings were 60 ft wide, with 15 ft wide corridors. Because laboratories required more space than offices, modules were 18 ft deep on one side of the corridor and 27 ft deep on the other. Buildings B and C each had four stories, three above and one below ground level. Buildings A and D had three stories, and the lowest levels were only partially below ground. Building E had a single story and a small basement. It held the receiving room, stockroom, storage area, shops, and garage.

Building B was completed barely two years after the first meeting of ADSEC and less than a year after the Project Charles Final Report. The scientists and engineers working on Project Lincoln were talented indeed, as are so many working at Lincoln Laboratory today. But the MIT Radiation Laboratory had instituted procedures that were remarkably free of red tape, and this was its legacy to Project Lincoln.

Lincoln Laboratory in 1956Lincoln Laboratory in 1956.

Fear of nuclear holocaust pervaded the thinking of Americans in the 1950s, and the government of the United States was committed to protecting the country against this threat. Because Project Lincoln's mission was vital to the security of the nation, red tape was eliminated at all stages.

The Air Force had put its resources at the disposal of Project Lincoln. Now, the staff had only one more problem to solve: they had to deliver a reliable air defense system for North America.

Lincoln Laboratory Origins (part 1)


Adapted from E.C. Freeman, ed., Technology in the National Interest, Lexington, Mass.: MIT Lincoln Laboratory, 1995.

1 Problems of Air Defense: Final Report of Project Charles, Vol. I. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT, 1951, p. x.

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