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Valentyn Stetsyuk (Lviv, Ukraine)

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The Thoughts about a Lost Profession

By the will of fate I had to learn a profession which eventually turned out to be useless. Moreover, it has not gained even a common name. However shortly before it was to go into oblivion, we, those skilled in this art, became known in the narrow circles as "systems engineers" by analogy with systems programmers, because we need to know programming and, especially in recent years, work of computer operating system. It is clear that we are talking about professionals involved in maintenance of the first computers. These "machines" (we named them just so) were so unreliable that require constant repair and preventive measures that could perform only well-trained professionals. Meanwhile, the machines were very complicated and the training of specialists and their gaining the necessary experience required a great time. I had to work on three generations of computers, and each time I had to master almost completely new technique, although general principles of its operation remained the same. The head was clogged by knowledge that a few years, along with waste generation of computer, becomes completely unnecessary, and instead of them my head needed to be filled with new ones again for a very short time. Gradually the reliability of machines was increasing, then it has grown almost abruptly, and now modern computers hardly fail. If they do something seriously broken, they are simply replaced with new devices. The result of this process was the disappearance of one branch of technical knowledge, which in I had the misfortune to become an expert. Only the attempts to think logically remained from past experience, as well as memories, which are partly found time to write and to which I now introduce the kind reader.

On the question of "how it started"

Around the early 70s at the NII-4 (SRI-4) of the Ministry of Defence of the USSR, where I served, a museum of the institute began to be created and the cells (in other words – "blocks") of the first computers in service in the Computer Center (CC) should have been submitted as exhibits. However, it appeared that a single tube or a cell from an M-20 or from M-50 (the kinds the Soniet tube compuers) did not survive – all have been destroyed, it is unknown for some reason. Of course, there were also any photos. That's in the formative years of computer technology people involved in this work did not realize the importance of historical documents. The question with cells is unimportant, however, significant. The creators of the first computers just casually treated to preserving for the history events and circumstances of their work which in the beginning was truly selfless. On the other hand, when at last it came to memory, it was found that much forgotten, but about something was impossible to write at that time.

As you know, the first computer in the Soviet Union was a small electronic computing machine, set up in Kiev under the direction of S. A Lebedev. His aides, L.N. Dashevsky (who, incidentally, was a reviewer of my graduation project) and E.A. Shkabara published in 1981 the book "How it began" about the history of this computer. In the final part of the book we can read: "In late 1956 SECM was dismantled and handed over as a trainer in the Kiev Polytechnic Institute (KPI), which began to produce computer scientists at that time". Here the authors make definitely a mistake. In 1959 I graduated from KPI and just in the spring of that year participated in the dismantling of the Small Electronic Computer Machine (SECM). Since graduation year stands at the diploma, I can not go wrong. Also KPI would not release professional computer engineering in 1956. I began to learn this wisdom one and a half year before that, when corresponding subject was introduced only in the fourth year. I learned a specialty "Automation and Remote Control" but the students of the first two groups of the specialty "Counting Machines" were taken only in 1958. This discrepancy of the authors can seem inconsequential, but it characterizes the underestimation of the importance of computer technique, which then took place in the Soviet Union. The dominant ideology at this time announced cybernetics as "pseudoscience", and computer science was just the part of it.

This fact was remained silent by the authors of memoirs, but it just played a fateful role in the development of computer technology in the Soviet Union. Backlog of America for eight years has never been overcome. Describing the circumstances of their work in the building of an abandoned monastery in Theophania near Kiev, the authors mention several times about its "secrecy". However, this was not a state secrecy but the secret of S.A. Lebedev and his inner circle, so as not to be accused of improper activity or even criminal one. During the dismantling of the SECM staff agency, which stayed yet there, told us that Lebedev began to work at your own risk and this work was not included in plans of the Institute of Electrical where he employed. Theophania was chosen not for nothing – there were in Kiev enough rooms for all, especially for the "secret" works. Just Lebedev wanted to work run away from human eye and possible commissions supervising the work of scientific institutions. Scanty funding of work carried out by "left" way for the expense of money just allocated for another program. Often, radio components were bought almost on their own money on "flea market", no wonder the existence of it in "Yevbaz" ("Jewish" Bazaar in Kiev) was mentioned by the authors in their memoirs.

Meanwhile somebody out of the Centrel Kommitee of the Kommunistic Party (of Bolsheviks) somehow found out that some "smart" machines are working in America producing complex calculations including on military issues. Immediately the leadership of the Academy of Sciences was caused "on the carpet" in order to keep the response on the causes of backwardness of Soviet science. It could be ended in failure for academics, but some of them by "a little bird told" that something in this regard was doing in Kiev. For academics it was salvation. Hearing that work is being done, but delayed due to lack of funding (academics were also politicians!), the Party leadership had ordered to allocate sufficient funds and complete the work as soon as possible. When this was learned in Kiev, it was seriously scared. Lebedev had no the thought to create computing machine, but only its model. When it was received strict order and the necessary funding, escape routes were cut off. The people with excitement and fear was waiting for the completion of works, but when the machine, to their surprise, began to make accurate calculation, they realized that the venture was happily over.

So or so we were told by involved in this case people about the circumstances of creating the first computer in the Soviet Union. Of course, something in their story was glossed over, something was dramatized, but the main thing is undeniable – the creation of SECM was the result of private initiative of a small group of people, inspired by the S.A. Lebedev.

Becoming the Computer Unified System

Becoming the Unified System (ES) of computers and related events are crucial in the history of Soviet computing, that's why debates about whether its introduction still continues to this day. Was there a particular need to copy an American original IBM 360? Did this damage the original path of development of Soviet computers, successfully produced in different parts of the country? V.V. Przyjalkowski and V.K. Levin gave online their point of view and along the way a history of the complex process of development of ES in Virtual Computer Museum (see Historical Overview of the Unified Family of ES Computers and the sketch of a united system of computers ). But it's true to say "a look from the inside", so to speak, the parties concerned.

Without going into technical details, I will try to give my assessment, considering the problem widely. The Soviet computer technology began to develop seven or eight years later after American one and the reasons why are well known for the older generation, and for the young one only, I give a quote from the Concise Dictionary of Philosophy, edited by M. Rosenthal and P. Yudin (fourth edition, enlarged and corrected, 1954 .) Without going into technical details, I will try to give my assessment, considering the problem widely. The Soviet computer technology began to develop seven or eight years later after American one and the reasons why are well known for the older generation, but, for the young one only, I give a quote from the Concise Dictionary of Philosophy, edited by M. Rosenthal and P. Yudin (fourth edition, enlarged and corrected, 1954 .) Despite the corrections and additions, and going full speed the development of computers in the Soviet Union exactly such definition stood in the dictionary:

Cybernetics – a reactionary pseudo-science that emerged in the U.S… Cybernetics expresses one of the main features of the bourgeois world – its brutality, the desire to turn the workers into an appendage of the machine, tool and manufacture a weapon of war

It seems that the definition was even more humbling in the first edition of the dictionary. However, in subsequent years the production of computers increased in the Soviet Union successfully. However, despite all efforts, the gap between America due to belated attention to the "Cybernetics", could not overcome. Performance of American machines was better and if we can be said about some parity, it was only because the Soviet virtuoso programmers who are squeezed out of the "iron" more than one hundred percent of their capacity. However, over time it became clear that at the absence of a common ideology America will not be caught by chaotic efforts of many developers. And now it's time to make a short excursion into the past.

In the late 18th century in England it was very difficult to find two similar screws and corresponding nuts assembling machine tools or replacing their damages parts by new ones. Screws made by hand had arbitrary threads. What was needed was Mawdsley's genius who improved the lathe so as to achieve at least a partial standardization of threads for screws and nuts. Later his idea was developed and finally the first screw standards was worked out. Understanding that at mass production they should aim for maximum standardization of parts and components was deeply rooted in the minds of industrialists of the West, and standardization was used wherever possible, including the production of computers. The same instruction set and the standard eight-bit byte was allowed to use the same program on different computers, and block structure with a standard interface simplified the replacement of obsolete units with new ones. As a result, there has been saving a lot of money that could be added to the financing of new developments.

In the 60s of last century the situation in the Soviet computer science was similar to that which prevailed in England mechanical engineering in the 17th century. It's amazing that in a country with a single social ideology such freedom was allowed as the great variety of types of computers, which was also accompanied by great diversity of used command systems and codes, digit grids, input and output devices. We used seven-, six-, and seems three-bit bytes. The connecting cables between individual devices used in each computer were different, the concept of a standard interface was completely missing. In such a situation any software compatibility of computers (even of the same developer) could was impossible. But the idea of standardization in the socialist mode of production had not occurred to even the brightest minds until they see it implemented in the IBM 360. If the Institute of Precise Mechanics and Computer Science(ITM and VT) under the leadership of S.A. Lebedev used the principle of standardization in the design of individual devices, if the command system of the M-20, M-40 and M-50 was the same and had continued in BESM series machines, then it would not have a question about a possible copying the IBM 360.

However, the lag in computer technology was also associated with the existing low level of production culture. If the precision equipment of computer began to be produced by factories of household hardware and plumbing, having no historical tradition and experience, sufficient production spaces and adequate sanitation in the shops, where workers used industrial alcohol, and even glue 88 "for other purposes", it was hard to expect the emergence of machines of world standard in the USSR. Much was depended on the components. Insufficient purity raw materials entailed a large variation of parameters, and this did increasing in size as the elements themselves, also the working voltage, and for this the size of computers. This problem existed in the pharmaceutical and photographic and film industry. For example, made by the same prescription ointment like "prednisolone" in the Soviet Union and Czechoslovakia were different, as different heaven and earth. The reason was the same – lack of cleanliness of the components did not allow to achieve a homogeneous structure of the emulsion. The consequence was the curdling of ointments like sour milk after two to three months after manufacture. Soviet photography and film did not provide a large field for the same reason of the lack of the required purity of the components. In the west, technology for pure substances goes out of the Middle Ages, ie, at the time of alchemy and developed organically, keeping the acquired experience and tradition. The traditions of tsarist Russia for the Soviet Union proved to be inadequate.

Thus, the reason why the whole idea of copying IBM 360 in ES did not allowed to catch up with America was in the absence of satisfactory components. But, nevertheless, the positive effect of this action was, and not only in large quantities of high-performance and software-compatible computer, but in the experience gained in large-scale production of high technology.

In 1974, Colonel Mark T. Kobzar was appointed the chief engineer of the CC, who had a wide experience of practical and managerial work on the M-20. He became an active initiator upgrade machinery of the CC. Then the machine ES-1020 already worked in the CC and experience with it confirmed the promise of a computers of ES. Kobzar persuaded the commanders of NII-4 in the need to acquire the ES-1050, then the latest model of the "Row-system" (others ES). However, the belated filing of an application for the purchase of machinery from the factory VEM (Penza) meant that the institute had to stand in a common queue, where at that time several reputable organizations of the defense industry already stood. To pass out of turn was impossible. Meanwhile, none of the dozen computers, issued by the factory and purchased by customers, until that time had not been put into operation, many of them were even in their original packaging. The reasons for this were different – often the customers did not provide the necessary room of 100 square meters. m. or refrigeration. However, even where the machine was installed, there were serious problems – the reliability and functionality of the ES-1050 fell far short of its specifications.

Stakeholders (in other words, the "competitors") began to spread rumors that the project "Row" was unsuccessful and this result that the prestige of the computer fell dramatically. In this situation, one of the organizations refused to buy the ordered computer ordered, and the plant could sell it for the NII-4, but only until the end of 1975. would institute if it does not take the time, then the machine came under a new allocation for 1976. Thus, NII -4 was interested to get the machine just before the end of this year. On the other hand, a developer of computer (NICEVT) to save the reputation as the manufacturer (Director Stukalov) to avoid problems with sales, it was absolutely necessary that at least one of the frozen ES-1050 has earned as soon as possible. Not without reason alone, and others believed that the CC of the Research Institute has all the capabilities to quickly launch an ES 1050 in operation – and enough room, and finished refrigerators, and most importantly – skilled professionals and competent leadership. Thus, due to circumstances formed the trio of interested organizations with a common purpose – to launch the ES-1050 in the near future. It is true that in the upcoming game was supposed to participate is another side – the military delivery office (customer representative at the factory) commanded by Colonel Pitikov. It had a completely different purpose – to ensure that the machine is fully consistent with the requirements of the letter W, regardless of the interests of other parties. Such a position of acceptance almost became fatal for the NII-4.

Throwing all current affairs specialists NICEVT undertook earlier unfinished work. As it turned out the analysis of the situation, the computer really does not work reliably, it had significant flaws, and some provided by TU operation were not performed. These were mainly control operations, as well as other less important (for example, to record the state of computers in the memory at fault memory). Experts have developed schemes to NICEVT American originals, but in an effort to reduce the size of the machine and for the speedy completion of throwing the "extra", as it seemed to nodes. Among them were precisely control units. But the dimensions of the machine had to be reduced due to the fact that it required cooling. The Soviet chips operate at a higher cell voltages than American ones. For example, if the U.S. demanded the integral power supply 1.8 V, then the Soviet – 5V, hence more heat and, consequently, the occurrence of problems with cooling. Only when the machine was ready, experts from NICEVT finally understand the features of the original, but the time for adjustment has already been lost. The main contribution in launching the machine belonged to the work, of course, NICEVT. Its specialists carried out finishing and commissioning of the prototype at its manufacturing area around the clock.

At the same time in the course of this work were trained engineers from the Research Computing Center-4. In May 1975 a prototype was ready. By this time the developer has become clear that we can fix what is not. Necessary improvements and changes to the specifications are sent to the factory, and in summer there were all the necessary formalities with the documentation and started setting up the machine, which had, by the way, the serial number 13. Since the beginning of September on the plant to control the course of production and training in setting up a specialist team comes from the NII-4 and is included in the work. The last months of the year were very tight – the factory had to work with specialists spare no effort, however, and with the knowledge that the production of machinery and plant is also in their interests. Nevertheless, justice requires to pay tribute to the chief departments of the factory Kruchinin, engineers Goncharik, Paholkov factory workers and many others whose names have faded into memory for the prescription of years. On the part of NII-4 control and coordination of organizations to Colonel Kobzar. He has provided effective assistance to the management of the plant in its relations with the military acceptance by higher authorities

This assistance was indeed very necessary, because in the course of the work it became clear that the military office was not interested in the quick delivery of the computer. Its workers often exhibit unnecessary formalism, insisting on compliance with the requirements specification, a completely unnecessary. They didn't worry about NII-4's interests, but they tried not to show this clearly. When Colonel Pitikov December 27 made in his speech at a meeting of military representatives it clear that the computer cannot be provided to the VC of NII-4 until the end of the year because of the deadline, I immediately rang up about the possible failure of the operation to Colonel Kobzar. He began to act vigorously in his own way – connected with the right people from the top management of the military delivery, contacted with the Minister of Radio-Electronic industry Aleksandr Shokin, in the night he sat down on the train "Sura" and in the morning was at Pitikov's office. He decisively took over the proceedings in his hands, gave the work of military representatives, giving them to understand that the question of the immediate delivery of the computer to NII-4 has already been resolved. Distraught Pitikov not even have time to say a word. While he was on the phone to deal with his superiors, the department was already given the order: "Cut cables between devices!". Immediately began its performance and and packaging individual devices of machine in boxes. Just had to pack no more, nor less as 232 large and small boxes and send them all to the end of the day on December 31, 1974. To surprise all happened very quickly, without delay. In the evening came the very first car, booked just two or three hours ago, and in the darkness began loading all that has already been done by then.