MIDAC: Digital Computing in the 1950s

Michigan Digital Automatic Computer

Exhibit Under Construction

In 1951, under collaborative sponsorship from the Wright Air Development Center and the United States Air Force, the Willow Run Research Center of the Engineer­ing Research Institute, University of Michigan began development of the Michigan Digital Automatic Computer (MIDAC) with the intention of producing a machine to assist with “the solution of certain complex military problems.” MIDAC was the sixth such digital automatic computer at a research university, and the first computer of its kind in the Midwest. Using the MIDAC was no simple task—a team of scientists and researchers were required to determine if a problem could be solved using the MIDAC. Perhaps the most strik­ing feature of the MIDAC was its shear size and mechanical components. The MIDAC required 12 tons of refrigeration equipment to cool its 500,000 connections and tubes. Additionally, its main memory storage device was a rotating magnetic “drum,” which could store just 6,000 “words,” or short segments of data. The MIDAC became functional in 1953, and was operated by Willow Run’s Digital Computation Department under the leadership of John Carr III until 1958 when the Air Force removed the equipment.

Virtual Media

The goals of the MIDAC exhibit are to feature the computer’s physical presence, it’s functionality, and to provide information on its use in the University environment. In order to accommodate these goals, a multidimensional approach to exhibiting MIDAC has been developed. The main exhibit feature will be a 3D virtual reprodution of elements of the MIDAC in the Cave Automatic Virtual Environment (CAVE), the virtual reality studio in the Duderstadt Center. The virtual recreation of MIDAC will be supplemented by a webbased exhibit component, which will host more thorough textbased narration than the CAVE experience. The website will feature 3D renderings of MIDAC components which can be manipulated at 360 degrees by site visitors.

Finally, the MIDAC exhibit will make use of the chunk of the ENIAC currently on display in the foyer to the Computer Science and Engineering Building on North Campus. Because the ENIAC rack already has some interpretive text as part of the display, material relating ENIAC to the MIDAC will be supplemented, along with information directing visitors to the webbased and CAVEbased exhibit components. More information about each component of the MIDAC exhibit can be found in the links on the right.

CAVE Simulation

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Because the MIDAC itself no longer exists, we're hoping to recreate the impact of its massive size with a virtual reality experience

MIDAC Online

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While the MIDAC itself wasn't particularly unique, its presence at Michigan was. We're working to create an online component, highlighting documentation, components, and operator/user experiences.

ENIAC Display

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While many know of the ENIAC, few know that a piece of it exists at Michigan. This exhibit component will serve as a reference point for discovering the early days of digital computing at the University of Michigan.

Contribute to the Exhibit


Do you remember the MIDAC or other early digital computers? Or were you part of the MIDAC development team? Add your story to the Wiki, to be included in the exhibit.

Exhibit Manual

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Describes the approach to the MIDAC Exhibit, and provides more logistical details.

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