Image of Numerically Controlled Milling Machine Numerically Controlled Milling Machine
Numerically Controlled Milling Machine, MIT Servomechanisms Lab, 1950s

This simple aluminum ashtray represents a revolution in the machine tool industry. It was produced in 1959 as part of a demonstration of a milling machine controlled by a computer punch tape instead of a human operator. The development of this machine was more than a decade in the making and the result of a complex story about competing visions for this technology. After World War II, the U.S. Air Force gave several contracts to the Parsons Corporation to develop further the numerically control machining innovations made by its founder John Parsons. Interested in experiments being conducted at the MIT Servomechanisms Laboratory, Parsons proposed in 1949 that MIT become a project subcontractor to provide expertise on automatic control. Over the next 10 years, MIT gained control over the entire project as the Servomechanisms Laboratory vision of “three-axis continuous path control” supplanted the original Parsons conception of “plunge-cutting positioning.” Conflict always shapes technology but this particular story, chronicled by historian David Noble, has become a significant object lesson in the history of technology.

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  • [...] A funny thing happened on the way to our supposedly 3D-printed future: A simpler, older, but no less revolutionary technology made its way into every automated factory on earth, and now it’s coming to a garage near you. If you haven’t heard of it, it’s mostly because it has a completely unbankable name—CNC routing (or CNC milling.) Also, unlike the usurper technology 3D printing, which has only lately become popular, CNC milling has been around since MIT pioneered the technology starting in the 1950s. [...]

  • [...] become popular, CNC milling has been around since MIT pioneered the technology starting in the 1950s. CNC routing is basically the inverse of 3D printing. Instead of using a computer to control a [...]

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