Project MAC:

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Project MAC, later the MIT Laboratory for Computer Science (LCS), was a research laboratory at MIT. Project MAC would become famous for groundbreaking research in operating systems, artificial intelligence, and the theory of computation. Its contemporaries included Project Genie at Berkeley, the Stanford Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, and (somewhat later) USC's Information Sciences Institute.

The acronym "MAC" is glossed variously as Multiple Access Computer, Machine Aided Cognition, Man And Computer, and in later years Minsky Against Corby (a joke based on two of the principal figures of two semi-competing research groups in the lab).



Project MAC was started on July 1, 1963 with initial funding from a two-million-dollar DARPA grant. Project MAC's original director was Robert Fano of MIT's Research Laboratory of Electronics (RLE). The program manager responsible for the DARPA grant was J.C.R. Licklider, who had previously been at MIT conducting research in RLE, and would later succeed Fano as director of Project MAC. Project MAC was principally funded by DARPA and the National Science Foundation. (Fano decided to call MAC a "project" rather than a "laboratory" for reasons of internal MIT politics -- if MAC had been called a laboratory, then it would have been more difficult to raid other MIT departments for research staff.)

Project MAC's founders -- Fano, Fernando J. Corbato, and Marvin Minsky (with inspiration from former colleague John McCarthy), among others -- envisioned the creation of a "computer utility", which would be as reliable a source of computational power as the electric utility was a source of electrical power. To this end, Corbató brought the first computer time-sharing system, CTSS, with him from the MIT Computation Center, using the DARPA funding to purchase an IBM 7094 for research use. One of the early focuses of Project MAC would be the development of a successor to CTSS, Multics, which was to be the first high availability computer system, developed as a part of an industry consortium including General Electric and Bell Laboratories.

In 1966, Scientific American featured Project MAC in the September thematic issue devoted computer science, which was later published in book form. At the time, the system was described as having approximately 100 TTY terminals, mostly on campus but with a few in private homes. Only 30 users could be logged in at the same time.

In the late 1960s, Minsky's artificial intelligence group was seeking more space, and was unable to get satisfaction from project director Licklider. University space-allocation politics being what it is, Minsky found that although Project MAC as a single entity could not get the additional space he wanted, he could split off to form his own lab and then be entitled to more office space. As a result, the MIT AI Lab was formed in 1970, and many of Minsky's AI colleagues left Project MAC to join him in the new lab, while most of the remaining members went on to form the Laboratory for Computer Science. Two professors, Hal Abelson and Gerald Jay Sussman, chose to remain neutral --- their group was referred to variously as Switzerland and Project MAC for the next 30 years, until the two labs ultimately re-merged as CSAIL.

In later technical work, the Lisp dialect Maclisp was developed by Project MAC.

The portion of Project MAC that was renamed the Laboratory for Computer Science (LCS), went on to do further ground-breaking work, including a significant role in the development of the Internet. It was generally significantly larger but less glamorous than the AI lab.

On the fortieth anniversary of Project MAC's establishment, July 1, 2003, LCS re-merged with the AI Lab to form the MIT Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, or CSAIL. This merger created the largest laboratory (over 600 personnel) on the MIT campus and was regarded as a reuniting of the diversified elements of Project MAC.

Notable alumni

Several Project MAC alumni went on to further revolutionize the computer industry.

Directors of Project MAC

Directors of the Laboratory for Computer Science


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