Computing Profession

In Pursuit of an International Computation Center in Europe

Herbert Bruderer

The tedious UNESCO project for the founding of an international computation center in Europe after the Second World War (International Computation Centre, Centre International de Calcul Mécanique, later the Centre International des Mathématiques Appliquées and the Centro Internazionale di Calcolo) was largely a failure. Harlow Shapley of Harvard University submitted a project report to UNESCO in July 1949. In August 1949, ECOSOC (the United Nations Economic and Social Council) constituted a committee under the Shapley's leadership, which advocated the Mathematisch Centrum in Amsterdam as a site.

However, in November 1949, UNESCO (the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) invited bids for the computation center. Applications were submitted from Italy (Istituto Cazionale per le Applicazioni del Calcolo, Rome), the Netherlands (Mathematisch Centrum, Amsterdam), Switzerland (University of Zurich and ETH Zurich), and Denmark. The candidates were hoping for substantial financial support for their computation institutes. In the spring, Denmark withdrew its application due to a cooperative effort together with Sweden. In the fall of 1951, Switzerland also decided not to pursue its application further after conditions had worsened.

Herman Goldstine from Princeton, a colleague of John von Neumann, then authored a proposition for the site of the planned European computation center. However, this provided only for a service center, and no longer for a research laboratory. Goldstine recommended Italy. At an international conference that took place in Paris from November 26 to December 6, 1951, in Paris, Rome was determined as the site. The "Convention for the Establishment of the International Computation Center" agreement was signed on December 6, 1951. Its implementation, however, resulted in many years of difficulties, and eventually the idea of the center was abandoned, at least in its original form.

The generous financial support that the Istituto Nazionale per le Applicazioni del Calcolo (Inac) expected did not materialize. Consequently, the national research council Consiglio Nazionale delle Ricerche (CNR) purchased a large-scale English computer, the Ferranti Mark 1* (star) from Ferranti Ltd. in Moston (Manchester). It was dedicated at the Inac on December 14 1955 and christened the Finac (Ferranti-Inac). The Finac was in operation until 1967. Also working at the Inac at the time was the mathematician Corrado Böhm, who had written a test report regarding the Zuse Z4 together with Harry Laett in 1949. Böhm was a pioneer in the area of compilers.

David Nofre wrote in his essay (see references) that the UNESCO project served to advance the transfer of technology in Denmark, Italy, the Netherlands, and Switzerland (page 412). However, this does not apply for Switzerland, since this significantly delayed the realization of the ERMETH. Ostensibly, Switzerland withdrew its application because ETH Zurich had rented Zuse's Z4 and thus possessed sufficient knowledge to build its own electronic computer. The Swiss government probably wanted to enhance the prospects for obtaining the site for CERN (page 424). Goldstine supposedly proposed the establishment of the center in Rome with Eduard Stiefel as its director: "Goldstine insinuated that the best solution would be to bring the centre to Rome with Edward Stiefel, head of the ETH Zurich computational laboratory, as director of the ICC" (page 426). Originally, he had favored Switzerland as the site. In fact, Goldstine was not entirely convinced of the Roman institute, because it did not embody the required logical and technical knowledge of modern electronic computers (page 427). Due to lack of money, the center was only opened in January 1962. In the 1970s, it was transformed into the Intergovernmental Bureau for Informatics and closed down in 1988.


Further reading

Herman Goldstine: The computer from Pascal to von Neumann, Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey 1993, chapter "The computer and UNESCO," pages 321–324 (reprint, first edition 1972)

Angelo Guerraggio; Maurizio Mattaliano; Pietro Nastasi (editors): L'IAC e l'affaire Unesco: i documenti, Università commerciale Luigi Bocconi, Centro Pristem, Milan 2008, pages 28–35, 78–82, 91–94, 149–153, and 223–232.

Simon Hugh Lavington: Early computing in Britain. Ferranti Ltd. and government funding, 1948–1958, Springer Nature Switzerla d AG, Cham 2019, pages 183–199

David Nofre: Managing the technological edge: The Unesco International computation centre and the limits to the transfer of computer technology, 1946–61, in: Annals of science, volume 71, 2014, no. 3, pages 410–431.



The Mathematisch Centrum in Amsterdam was founded in 1946. Adriaan van Wijngaarden was the head of the computation section.



Bruderer, Herbert: Milestones in Analog and Digital Computing, Springer Nature Switzerland AG, Cham, 3rd edition 2020, 2 volumes, 2113 pages, 715 illustrations, 151 tables, translated from the German by John McMinn,


Herbert Bruderer (; is a retired lecturer in the Department of Computer Science at ETH Zurich and a historian of technology.


Join the Discussion (0)

Become a Member or Sign In to Post a Comment

The Latest from CACM

Shape the Future of Computing

ACM encourages its members to take a direct hand in shaping the future of the association. There are more ways than ever to get involved.

Get Involved

Communications of the ACM (CACM) is now a fully Open Access publication.

By opening CACM to the world, we hope to increase engagement among the broader computer science community and encourage non-members to discover the rich resources ACM has to offer.

Learn More