A Look Back At The USSR Computer Industry

According to [Asianometry], in 1986 the Soviet Union had about 10,000 computers. At the same time, the United States had 1.3 million! The USSR was hardly a backward country — they’d launched Sputnik and made many advances in science and mathematics. Why didn’t they have more computers? The story is interesting and you can see it in the video below.

Apparently when news of ENIAC reached the USSR, many dismissed it as fanciful propaganda. However, there were some who thought computing would be the future. Sergey Lebedev in Ukraine built a “small” machine around 1951. Small, of course, is relative since the machine had 6,000 tubes in it. It performed 250,000 calculations for artillery tables in about 2 and half hours.

The success of this computer led to two teams being asked to build two different machines. Although one of the machines was less capable, the better machine needed a part they could only get from the other team which they withheld, forcing them to use outdated — even then — mercury delay lines for storage.

The more sophisticated machine, the BESM-1, didn’t perform well thanks to this substitution and so the competitor, STRELA, was selected. However, it broke down frequently and was unable to handle certain computations. Finally, the BESM-1 was completed and was the fastest computer in Europe for several years starting in 1955.

By 1959, the Soviets produced $59 million worth of computer parts compared to the US’s output of around $1 billion.  There are many reasons for the limited supply and limited demand that you’ll hear about in the video. In particular, there was little commercial demand for computers in the Soviet Union. Nearly all the computer usage was in the military and academia.

Eventually, the Russians wound up buying and copying the IBM 360. Not all of the engineers thought this was a good idea, but it did have the advantage of allowing for existing software to run. The US government tried to forbid IBM from exporting key items, so ICL — a UK company — offered up their IBM 360-compatible system.

The Soviets have been known to borrow tech before. Not that the west didn’t do some borrowing, too, at least temporarily.

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VCF East: The Desktop ENIAC

The ENIAC, or Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer, is essentially the Great Great Grandfather of whatever device you’re currently reading these words on. Developed during World War II for what would be about $7 million USD today, it was designed to calculate artillery firing tables. Once word got out about its capabilities, it was also put to work on such heady tasks as assisting with John von Neumann’s research into the hydrogen bomb. The success of ENIAC lead directly into the development of EDVAC, which adopted some of the now standard computing concepts such as binary arithmetic and the idea of stored programs. The rest, as they say, is history.

But ENIAC wasn’t just hugely expensive and successful, it was also just plain huge. While it’s somewhat difficult for the modern mind to comprehend, ENIAC was approximately 100 feet long and weighed in at a whopping 27 tons. In its final configuration in 1956, it contained about 18,000 vacuum tubes, 7,000 diodes, 70,000 resistors, 10,000 capacitors, and 6,000 switches. All that hardware comes with a mighty thirst for power: the ENIAC could easily suck down 150 kW of electricity. At the time this all seemed perfectly reasonable for a machine that could perform 5,000 instructions per second, but today an Arduino would run circles around it.

This vast discrepancy between the power and size of modern hardware versus such primordial computers was on full display at the Vintage Computer Festival East, where Brian Stuart demonstrated his very impressive ENIAC emulator. Like any good vintage hardware emulator, his project not only accurately recreates the capabilities of the original hardware, but attempts to give the modern operator a taste of the unique experience of operating a machine that had its heyday when “computers” were still people with slide rules. Continue reading “VCF East: The Desktop ENIAC”

ENIAC: The Way We Were

When I first got interested in computers, it was all but impossible for an individual to own a computer outright. Even a “small” machine cost a fortune not to mention requiring specialized power, cooling, and maintenance. Then there started to be some rumblings of home computers (like the Mark 8 we recently saw a replica of) and the Altair 8800 burst on the scene. By today’s standards, these are hardly computers. Even an 8-bit Arduino can outperform these old machines.

As much disparity as there is between an Altair 8800 and a modern personal computer, looking even further back is fascinating. The differences between the original computers from the 1940s and anything even remotely “modern” like an Altair or a PC are astounding. If you are interested in that kind of history, you should read a paper entitled “Electronic Computing Circuits of the ENIAC” by [Arthur W. Burks].

These mid-century designers used tubes and were blazing new ground. Part of what makes the ENIAC so different is that it had a different design principle than a modern computer. It was less a general purpose stored-program computer and more of a collection of logic circuits that could be configured to solve problems — sort of a giant vacuum tube FPGA, if you will. It used some internal representations that proved to be suboptimal which also makes it seem strange. The EDSAC — a later device — was closer to what we think of as a computer. Yet the ENIAC was a major step in the direction of a practical digital computer.

Cost and Size

Programming the ENIAC in 1951 (±4 years)
[Image Source: Public Domain]
The size of ENIAC is hard to imagine. The device had about 18,000 tubes, 7,000 diodes, 70,000 resistors, 10,000 capacitors, and 6,000 switches. There were 5 million hand-soldered joints! ([Thomas Haigh] tells us that while this is widely reported, the real number was about 500,000.) Physically, it stood 10 feet tall, 3 feet deep, and 100 feet long. The tube filaments alone required 80 kW of power. Even the cooling system consumed 20 kW. In total, it took 150 kW to run the beast.

The cost of the machine was about $487,000. Almost a half-million dollars in 1946 is plenty. But that’s nearly seven million dollars in today’s money. What was worth that kind of expenditure? The military built firing tables for shell trajectories. From the [Burks] paper:

“A skilled computer with a desk machine can compute a 60-second trajectory in about twenty hours…”

Keep in mind that in 1946, a computer was a person. [Burks] goes on to say that a differential analyzer can do the same job in 15 minutes. ENIAC, on the other hand, could do it in 30 seconds and with a greater precision than the differential analyzer.

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