IT History Society Blog

When Computing History Meets … on the Other Side of the Curtain

July 24th, 2009 by Sandra Mols

bme-k-epulet-este-2Next week the International Congress for the History of Science is taking place in Budapest. The congress includes a panel on computing history. The day-long session, scheduled on Tuesday 28th of July, is entitled “Iron Curtains and Immaterial Instruments – The Circulation of Software and Computer Science in Cold War Europe” (Session S58) and is organised by Gerard Alberts, Maria Bardosova, Helena Durnova, and Tom Misa.

ichs_logoThere are two reasons why I rejoice at this panel at the Budapest conference. One is that this means the field of the history of computing actually starts to get in as a regular topic in traditional history of science conferences. I remember early days in my research when I kept frustratingly being the only one or almost to propose something related to computing. Let us not speak about organising a coordinated panel.

mesmThe second reason is with the topic of the panel, which is devoted to computing history in Cold War Europe, with a focus on Eastern European issues too. The fact is rare enough to be noted. Most of the traditional computing history to be found in books has been written in the West, with perspectives severely affected by this origin. While Western developments have been routinely described to the details, COMECON developments have been barely touched on, with few mentions, if none, of Polish, Czech, Hungarian or even Russian computers. Even basic machines such as the Russian MESM (inset) remain barely known nowadays as a consequence. Over the last few years however, things have changed with the publication of several books setting up the basis for critical narratives on computing history in the COMECON, Slava Gerovitch’s From Newspeak to Cyberspeak for instance.

logpcThe thing had always seemed odd to me on two grounds. One is that cybernetics and computing seemed to me – well if I was to believe Soljenitsyn – central to the functioning of a highly bureaucratic society massively relying on paper work and statistics to sustain itself. Then I read on cybernetics’ initial dismissal under the Stalinist regime, its later revival and flourishing [1]. I also heard about the Soviet habit of taking on Western model and make clones, the infamous IBM clones, sign and symbol supposedly of the COMECON inability to produce forefront technologies, and only catastrophic ones at that, as with Chernobyl.chernobyl21 Gradually information was becoming thicker. I heard about Polish analogue computers like the AKAT-1 (inset) and machines in other countries too, everywhere in fact: Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Russia, Poland, Romania, Bulgaria… Briefly, my computer-free zone was getting pretty much filled up.

Secondly, in my view, computing history is not only about large-scale computers but about the tracking of the history of calculational acts, whatever the technology involved. On that issue, I was struck early on how the COMECON area was packed up with calculational skills and advanced mathematics, leading the field in fact in some ways with journals as Russian Mathematics [2]. Also most of the Eastern-European people I later met in Belgium but also Poland, baffled me with their skills in mathematics and ironcurtainunat calculating on even the more remote equipment, such as pen and paper.

For all this I cannot but be happy to at last see computing history happening on the other side of what was the Iron Curtain.

[1] Gerovitch, S. (2001), ‘Mathematical Machines’ of the Cold War. Soviet Computing, American Cybernetics and Iedological Disputes in the Early 1950s, Social Studies of Science, 31(2), 253-287; Mindell, D., J. Segal, S. Gerovitch (2003), Cybernetics and Information Theory on the United States, France and the Soviet Union, in Walker, M. (ed.)(2003), Science and Ideology: A Comparative History (London: Routledge), 66-95.

[2] (1977) The Great October Revolution and Soviet Mathematics, Ukrainian Mathematical Journal, 29(5), 435-436; Vucinich, A. (2002), Soviet Mathematics and Dialectics in the Post-Stalin Ear: New Horizons, Historia Mathematica, 29(1), 13-39; Akhundov, M. (2005), Social Influence on Physics and Mathematics. Local or Attributive?, Journal for General Philosophy of Science, 36(1), 135-149.

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