The mission of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) is "…to advance knowledge and educate students in science, technology, and other areas of scholarship that will best serve the nation and the world."  As part of this mission, MIT has a long-standing commitment to the furtherance of technology in support of national security. MIT Lincoln Laboratory is one manifestation of MIT's ongoing involvement in this area, and the origins and history of the Laboratory provide a case study of MIT leaning forward when required for the service of the nation.

Campus Building 22. Photo: MIT Museum
Campus Building 22. Photo: MIT Museum

Lincoln Laboratory was established in 1951 to build the nation's first air defense system. However, its roots date back to the MIT Radiation Laboratory, which was formed out of the Physics Department during World War II to develop radar for the Allied war effort. The Rad Lab, in collaboration with scientists from Great Britain, developed the fundamental principles, technologies, and engineering designs for the microwave radar systems that effectively countered the Nazi airborne and submarine threats to the Allied Forces. At its peak, the Rad Lab employed 4000 staff and was responsible for the development and fielding of approximately half of the radar systems used in the war effort.

Lincoln Laboratory in 1956.
Lincoln Laboratory in 1956.

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 MIT to take a leadership role in addressing this problem. The result was the establishment of MIT Lincoln Laboratory to design and develop the first air defense system for the United States. This system, designated the Semi-Automatic Ground Environment, or 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 3 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 Well before SAGE's decommissioning in 1983, the threat of Soviet bombers had been replaced by a new threat — intercontinental ballistic missiles — that required a new national focus and a new set of technical breakthroughs and developments.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. A detailed history of Lincoln Laboratory, including its many technical contributions over the years, can be found in the book "Lincoln Laboratory: Technology in Support of National Security."

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A History of Innovation

Throughout six decades of R&D, Lincoln Laboratory has helped shape the nation’s security, defense, and technology. Explore our innovations from 1951 to today.