Informatics Day in Russia, computers then and now

December 4, 1948 is considered the birthday of computer science in Russia. It is this date that is in the inventor’s certificate No. 10475 – a patent for the invention of Isaac Brook and Bashir Rameev. And this invention was a computer, or, more precisely, an automatic digital computer (“Automatic digital computer”). This name did not catch on, but the invention gave rise to the development of computers in the USSR and aroused interest in the topic of automated data processing, which does not disappear even today.

70 years ago, everything was different: technical capabilities, volumes of information, cultural and social life. But inventors and scientists of the past and present are united by a keen curiosity, continuous self-education and striving for the future. The same qualities are in demand in the modern IT field, which we know firsthand.

Therefore, today we will remember the people and machines with which the era of informatics began in our country.

Thinking machines as a necessity

After graduating from university in 1925, the Soviet scientist Isaac Brook participated in the development of a new series of induction motors, and then conducted research on electric motors and powerful power lines. And since it is impossible to experiment with such objects, he was faced with the need to model power systems. Brook wrote: “At the present time, such” thinking “machines have become an urgent need, and technology has everything needed to implement them.”

The first step towards a digital computer was a mechanical integrator, which helps to solve differential equations up to the 6th order. The device occupied an area of ​​60 m2 and was unique in the USSR; analogues existed at that time in the USA and England.

The task was really difficult: the integrator included more than 1000 gears, and it took at least 2-3 days to get the task (that is, to install the gears in certain places). The war interrupted the research of computers, but Brook stubbornly walked towards the goal. And the breakthrough happened when he began to cooperate with engineer Bashir Rameev.

The joint project of Brook and Rameev’s digital computer in 1948 consisted of drawings and descriptions of the principles of operation and design of the machine. The inventors gave a schematic diagram of the device, defined arithmetic operations in the binary number system, and proposed a way to convert data from the binary system to the decimal one and vice versa. Unfortunately, it was not possible to implement the project in practice at that time due to the lack of a technical base. However, the car became the first in a number of such devices. In total, Brook and Rameev have submitted more than 50 applications for copyright certificates for various nodes of the digital computer.

Small Electronic Machine

Brook and Rameev were not the only scientists who worked on computers. In 1947-1948, the development of the Small Electronic Counting Machine (MESM) began in Kiev. It had a record for those times productivity of 3000 operations per minute. Academician S. A. Lebedev supervised the development.

Unlike the digital computer, the device was built and tested. The machine was designed on the basis of electronic tubes, occupied a significant area in the room, had a power consumption of 25 kW and a clock frequency of 5 kHz. The data was loaded into the machine on punched cards or manually using a plug-in switch. The calculation results were printed on paper or on photographic film.

MESM performed arithmetic operations (subtraction, addition, division, multiplication, addition and subtraction of absolute numbers), a number of logical operations (such as comparing numbers with and without regard to the sign) and some others, only 13. The machine was operated until 1957, and then some time was an educational exhibit of the Kiev Polytechnic Institute.


What came before?

The ideas of automatic computation were not new in the middle of the 20th century. Before that, there were at least two attempts to work in the same direction.

Babbage’s Analytical Engine

The inventor Charles Babbage was captured by the idea of ​​creating a device that would solve various computational problems for engineers and mathematicians. In 1819, he began the construction of the so-called small difference machine, operating on the finite difference method. She automatically calculated mathematical and astronomical tables. The device operated with 18-bit numbers accurate to 8 decimal places.

Later, the need to simplify the arithmetic unit of the machine led him to the development of a second device – an analytical machine.

It had the following elements:

  1. “Warehouse” – a block for storing the values ​​of the variables involved in the calculations, and the results of operations. Today such blocks are called memory.

  2. “Mill” is an arithmetic device that performs calculations involving variables.

  3. Control unit for one or another sequence of operations.

  4. Block for inputting initial data and outputting calculation results.

The machine was controlled using perforated cards that transferred information from one block to another.

Detail of Babbage's Analytical Engine,
Detail of Babbage’s Analytical Engine,

Herman Hollerith’s statistical tabulator

In the 19th century, the population census was an extremely important task for developed countries. It was carried out every 10 years, and its results could be processed manually for up to several years by a huge number of employees. Inventor Herman Hollerith worked for the statistics office of the US Department of the Interior and decided to simplify the process of processing the results. The key idea was to put data about one person on a punched card in the form of punches, and then load them into a tabulator that will automatically count the holes.

Hollerith’s electromechanical statistical machine was powered by electrical batteries and consisted of a card punch, a sorting machine, and a tabulator itself. The tabulator could process 1000 cards per hour, which was significantly faster than manual processing.

Hollerith started his own calculating machine company, which, after undergoing a series of mergers and acquisitions, became known as International Business Machines (IBM).

Electromechanical tabulator from the collection of the Polytechnic Museum,
Electromechanical tabulator from the collection of the Polytechnic Museum,

Subsequently, the developments of Babbage and Hollerith inspired many domestic and foreign scientists for inventions.

Of course, this is only a small part of the history of computing. If you are interested in this topic, let me know in the comments – we’ll tell you more.

Mainframes today: Christofari supercomputers

For 73 years, the field of automated data processing has undergone tremendous changes: from simple calculation operations to photo recognition and speech synthesis, from analyzing statistical data to training neural networks on hundreds of thousands of objects.

Knowing what computers were like before, it is doubly interesting to talk about modern devices. Our coolest computers today are supercomputers Christofari and Christofari neo on the SberCloud ML Space platform. Sberbank runs the processes that require the highest productivity (for example, work with AI and ML development). Seamless switching is implemented between computers, so they work as a single unit.

The total computing power of SberCloud ML Space after the launch of Christofari Neo is 18.62 petaflops (18.62 x 10 ^ 15 flops). For comparison: the Ural-1 computer, designed by Rameev in 1954–55, had a peak performance of about 100 flops, and the American ENIAC computer from the 1940s – about 500 flops. Few? Very little by modern standards. However, at that time, these machines were advanced. The performance of computers grows along with the amount of information being processed, so sometime they might say “little” about Christofari and Сhristofari Neo. But we will not wait for this moment: we closely monitor the needs of the users of our supercomputers and improve the machines.

In the middle of the 20th century, several kilobytes of RAM were enough for computational operations. Today, the Christofari Neo alone has over 600 Nvidia A100 GPUs with 80GB of memory each. And all this is available within the convenient platform for the full cycle of ML development SberCloud ML Space.

Without the inventions of the past, there would be no future. Without an interest in computing, generations of people in love with computers would not have appeared. Finally, without experimenters and inventors, there would be no scientific and technological progress. We believe that the inventive spirit lives on in Sberbank’s specialists, who develop, test and implement new technologies every day.

Happy Holidays!

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