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Computing's Cradle, Hanscom Field, Escapes DoD's Knife

The Massachusetts Air Force base that fueled much of the computer and high-tech industry escaped unscathed in the military-base closings announced by the Defense Department on Friday.
Hanscom Air Force Base--the Bedford, Massachusetts facility that fueled much of the computer and high tech industry--escaped unscathed in the military base closings announcement by the Defense Department Friday.

Fears that the base would be targeted caused Massachusetts politicians and business groups as well as community organizations to mount a major and coordinated campaign to save Hanscom.

A strong bipartisan effort aided Hanscom's chances. Republican Governor Mitt Romney predicted Friday that the state will actually add jobs in the wake of the base closings announcement. Democratic Senator Ted Kennedy, in a press conference following the announcement, said hard work by supporters of the base paid off. "We have the best technology here in Massachusetts," he said, adding that supporters got that word out. "Hanscom is number one in the world in intelligence and . . . communications."

Hanscom and the research and development operations in nearby Lexington and Lincoln along the Rt. 128 corridor, have played key roles in the development of computing dating since the 1950s when Lincoln Laboratories--operated by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology--helped IBM get into the computer business. IBM's Tom Watson, Jr. said getting the contract for MIT-Lincoln Lab work was "the most important sale of my career."

The Hanscom complex has long been home to the Air Force's Electronic Systems Center, the government-funded Mitre Corp., and MIT's Lincoln Labs. And the Air Force's Hanscom Field has been considered the glue that holds the cluster together.

Digital Equipment Corp. spun off from the complex and, in turn, from Digital scores of other companies were created. The inventions and breakthroughs continued for years. A Harvard University student named Bill Gates wrote the BASIC software program on what was said to be a Digital Equipment PDP-10 timeshared to Harvard from the Hanscom complex.

Lincoln Labs' origins--and much of modern electronic digital computing--are tied to 1954, when the facility moved to the Hanscom complex to work on the Semiautomatic Ground Environment (SAGE) project. SAGE was an aircraft early-warning system and a real-time computer system was built for the system. Later, similar machines, much updated, formed the basis of the Digital Equipment Corp. Some historians even date the origins of the PC--with its real-time processor and dedicated CRT--back to the SAGE and Lincoln Labs computers.