Artifact Details


Thompson, Joe oral history

Catalog Number





Joseph “Joe” Thompson is a software engineer and project administrator known as the first operator of the Whirlwind computer. In this oral history with David C. Brock, Thompson recounts his upbringing in Baltimore, Maryland, and Roxbury, Massachusetts, his work on the Whirlwind computer at MIT, his recruitment by RAND corporation, and his involvement at RAND, System Development Corporation and Unisys in the management of large computer projects for U.S. national defense.

Born in 1933, Thompson begins by describing his early upbringing in Baltimore, Maryland. Following the passing of his mother, a nurse, Thompson moved to Roxbury, Massachusetts, where he was raised by his aunt and uncle. He recalls working at his uncle’s barbershop and his success in school, including voracious reading, ancient history and German. Thompson discusses being interviewed by MIT, through a program that sought out adept students who weren’t enrolling in college. Thompson would become Whirlwind’s first operator and the only African-American employee in the project’s early years.

Thompson describes working on Whirlwind as his first exposure to computers. He notes the ways he learned to troubleshoot the system, by both sight and sound, and recounts the coding experiments and in-person interactions he would engage in in order to learn how the computer operated. He charts the rhythm of his days during his four-and-a-half-year tenure working on Whirlwind, in which he attended evening classes at MIT, then went to work on Whirlwind through the night before commuting back to Roxbury in the early morning.

As Whirlwind was developed into SAGE, Thompson recounts his recruitment as a programmer to RAND’s Santa Monica, California, office. He charts his tenure as RAND Corporation became SDC, Unisys, and then Burroughs corporation, and his growth in the company as he moved from programmer to unit head, section head, group head, and then branch head. He describes the generally supportive working environment there and his experiences with management and fellow employees. Thompson, who had high level security clearance, describes his close interactions with the military in support of these national defense projects.

In 1991, Thompson took medical retirement. He explains his lasting connections to the organizations and their employees in the years that followed. Thompson concludes by describing his community involvement and current activities, including a teen mentorship program he was involved with at RAND and participation with his local neighborhood council in Carson, California.




Brock, David C., Interviewer
Plutte, Max, Camera person
Thompson, Joe, Interviewee


Computer History Museum

Place of Publication

Carson, CA, USA


38 p.






SAGE (Semi-Automatic Ground Environment); Whirlwind computer; MIT; RAND; System Development Corporation [SDC]; UNISYS Corporation; Burroughs Corporation; Software engineering; Spotlight asset

Collection Title

CHM Oral History Collection


Computer History Museum

Lot Number


Related Records

102738732 Thompson, Joe oral history