Tulsa TV Memories: Tulsa pop culture      

UNCLE, SAGE, SABRE, Strangelove & Tulsa: Connections

(Expanded from comments in GroupBlog 271) Mike Ransom said:

Neal Adams, a Tulsa Central High grad and colleague of mine on the SABRE airline reservations system, worked on NORAD's SAGE realtime computer system in the late 1960s.

SAGE (Semi-Automatic Ground Environment) was designed to track enemy bombers in the Cold War era. A SAGE-like tracking system was depicted in the 1964 Stanley Kubrick movie, "Dr. Strangelove".

When Neal showed me some photos of SAGE, I thought I recognized it from U.N.C.L.E. HQ's "Computer Alley" in the fourth season of "The Man From U.N.C.L.E."


U.N.C.L.E. Computer Alley
SAGE components on the left. MGM publicity photo from Jon Heitland's The Man From U.N.C.L.E. Book.


Sure enough, surplus sections of the SAGE system were seen in "Lost In Space", "The Time Tunnel", "The Man From U.N.C.L.E.", "Get Smart" and many other shows. Here is a site with screenshots of them: The AN/FSQ-7 on TV and in the Movies.

SABRE (Semi-Automated Business Research Environment), located in Tulsa since the early 70s, was based on SAGE concepts developed by IBM, MIT and the RAND Corp.

When SABRE first came online in 1960, it ran on an IBM 7090 computer, which was in essence a transistorized version of SAGE's massive vacuum tube-based AN/FSQ-7. A 7090 can be seen in the fictional Burpelson Air Force Base of  "Dr. Strangelove".


From "Dr. Strangelove"

Photo courtesy of Tech-For Everyone

Photo from "Programming Real-Time Systems" by James Martin

IBM 7090s. Upper left: Peter Sellers as Group Captain Mandrake getting some bad news in the Burpelson Air Force Base computer room; Upper right: Strategic Air Command (photo courtesy of Tech-For Everyone); Above: SABRE's twin 7090s in Briarcliff Manor, N.Y. pre-Tulsa (photo from "Programming Real-Time Systems" by James Martin, 1965). A former colleague, Chuck Anderson, told me that the fellow seen at the console in this publicity photo was Mike O'Flaherty.


One of the architects of SAGE was the colorful and brilliant mathematician, John von Neumann. A consultant to the RAND Corporation with an aggressive stance on the nascent Cold War and confined to a wheelchair later in life, he may have been one of director Stanley Kubrick's models for the character of  Dr. Strangelove, along with Herman Kahn, Wernher von Braun, and Edward Teller.

Other Kubrick/7090 connections: the song "Daisy, Daisy" was programmed as a demonstration for the 7090 in 1961. This robotic performance was the inspiration for HAL 9000's rendition in "2001: A Space Odyssey".  

I might also note that "HAL 9000" sounds like an advanced version of "IBM 7090", even to the detail that the letters H-A-L are just ahead of the letters I-B-M in alphabetical order. However, that detail was explicitly disavowed as a coincidence by "2001" co-writer Arthur C. Clarke.

SABRE's Strangelovian Tulsa underground bunker (called "the hole" by employees) was designed with a several-feet-thick shielded and reinforced concrete shell like its predecessor SAGE installations. The secure 3-acre complex could survive on its own air, water and power supplies for some time.

I worked down there for several years myself. Getting to my desk every day always reminded me of the down-the-rabbit-hole opening of "Get Smart" (an U.N.C.L.E. spoof).


TTM aStore: Dr. Strangelove



"Get Smart" opening sequence



IBM ad for SAGE



Innovative "Dr. Strangelove" trailer, created by Pablo Ferro



James Burke's "Connections" series: "Getting it Together". The first section is about the origin of SAGE & SABRE.



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