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The Mesm: Ukraine Beats Russia


Herbert Bruderer

After Germany (Zuse Z3 and Z4), Sweden was the second country on the European continent to develop its own computer (the Bark), in 1950. The third country to do so was Ukraine (with the Mesm). The Ukrainian computer pioneer Sergey Alexeyevich Lebedev built the first Soviet computer at the All-Union Electrotechnical Institute in Kiev. The Mesm is considered the first stored program digital computer in Continental Europe. The first Soviet digital computers were called the Mesm, Besm 1, M-1, M-2, and Strela (see Table 1). The very limited information available is in part contradictory.

 

 


Table 1: Early computers in the Soviet Union

Ukrainian and Russian electronic computers

Inventor

Name

Year

Sergey Lebedev

Mesm

1951

Isaak Bruk

M-1

1951

Isaak Bruk

M-2

1952

Sergey Lebedev

Besm 1

1953

Yuri Basilevsky

Strela

1953

Bashir Rameyev

Ural 1

1955

Isaak Bruk

M-3

1956

© Bruderer Informatik, CH-9401 Rorschach 2022, Switzerland

 

The Mesm (= small electronic computer)

Sergey Alexeyevich Lebedev (Сергей Алексеевич Лебедев) built the first Soviet computer at the All-Union Electrotechnical Institute in Kiev. The Mesm stored program vacuum tube machine was a binary parallel machine with fixed point notation. It first ran on November 6 1950 and began operating on December 25 1951. The machine had a vacuum tube flipflop memory (trigger register) and an additional magnetic drum memory. Magnetic tapes served for input. The Mesm is considered the first stored program digital computer in Continental Europe. According to Boris Nikolayevich Malinovsky, Lebedev developed the fundamentals of the Von Neumann architecture and the stored program entirely independently (see Georg Trogemann; Alexander Y. Nitussov; Wolfgang Ernst (eds.): Computing in Russia, Friedrich Vieweg & Sohn, Braunschweig, Wiesbaden 2001, page 115).

The Besm 1 and Besm 2 (Besm = fast electronic computer)

Due to supplier problems the binary parallel floating point machine with electrostatic memory tubes initially had a mercury delay line memory. It was later outfitted with Williams-Kilburn tubes, which substantially increased the speed. In 1953 the magnetic drum computer was completed in Moscow and also had a magnetic tape memory. The year 1952 is also cited for the Besm 1. The successor was the Besm 2 parallel binary vacuum tube computer with ferrite core memory and floating point notation, which was mass produced.

The Strela (Strela = arrow)

The Strela was a large-scale parallel vacuum tube machine with floating point notation. The computer had both binary and decimal numerical notation, a main cathode ray tube memory, and a magnetic drum and magnetic tape as external storage. It was mass produced from 1953.

The Ural 1 and Ural 2

The small Ural binary vacuum tube computer with fixed point notation had a magnetic drum as main memory in addition to a magnetic tape. The serial-parallel machine was built in large numbers from 1956. The Ural 2 parallel machine (1959) with floating point notation also had a ferrite core memory.

The M-1, M-2, M-3 and M-20

The M-1 binary parallel electronic computer functioned as a fixed point machine. It was equipped with an electrostatic memory and a magnetic drum memory. The M-2 parallel computer featured fixed point and floating point notation and also had Williams-Kilburn tubes and a magnetic drum. The M-3 binary drum computer with fixed point notation was mass produced from 1957. The M-20 floating point computer (1959) had a ferrite core memory, as well as a magnetic drum and magnetic tape.

Remark

The Setun floating point computer (1959) of Nikolay Petrovich Brusentsov (Moscow State University) was a ternary computer with ferrite core memory and additional magnetic drum memory. A ternary machine functions with three states, i.e. positive, zero, and negative. A later model was called the Setun 70.

 

Sources and further reading

Andrei P. Ershov; Mikhail R. Shura-Bura: The early development of programming in the USSR, in: Nicholas Constantine Metropolis; Jack Howlett; Gian-Carlo Rota (eds.): A history of computing in the twentieth century, Academic press, New York, London etc. 1980, pages 137–196

Boris Nikolajevich Malinovsky: Pioneers of Soviet computing, edited by Anne Fitzpatrick, Special interest group for computers, information and society, 2nd edition 2010

Georg Trogemann; Alexander Y. Nitussov; Wolfgang Ernst (eds.): Computing in Russia, Friedrich Vieweg & Sohn, Braunschweig, Wiesbaden 2001.

George Rudins: Soviet computers, in: Soviet cybernetics review, volume 4, 1970, no. 1, pages 6–44

Herbert Bruderer: Meilensteine der Rechentechnik, De Gruyter Oldenbourg, Berlin/Boston, 3. Auflage 2020, Band 1, 970 Seiten, 577 Abbildungen, 114 Tabellen, https://www.degruyter.com/view/title/567028?rskey=xoRERF&result=7

Herbert Bruderer: Meilensteine der Rechentechnik, De Gruyter Oldenbourg, Berlin/Boston, 3. Auflage 2020, Band 2, 1055 Seiten, 138 Abbildungen, 37 Tabellen, https://www.degruyter.com/view/title/567221?rskey=A8Y4Gb&result=4

Herbert Bruderer: 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, https://www.springer.com/de/book/9783030409739

John Impagliazzo; Eduard Proydakov (eds.): Perspectives on Soviet and Russian computing, Springer, Heidelberg, Dordrecht etc. 2011

Sergey Alexeyevich Lebedev: Besm, eine schnell laufende elektronische Rechenmaschine der Akademie der Wissenschaften der UdSSR, in: Johannes Wosnik; Alwin Walther; Walter Hoffmann (eds.): Elektronische Rechenmaschinen und Informationsverarbeitung. Nachrichtentechnische Fachberichte. Beihefte der NTZ, volume 4, 1956, pages 76–79

Seymour Goodman: The origins of digital computing in Europe, in: Communications of the ACM, volume 46, 2003, no. 9, pages 21–25

 

Herbert Bruderer (herbert.bruderer@bluewin.ch; bruderer@retired.ethz.ch) is a retired lecturer in the Department of Computer Science at ETH Zurich and a historian of technology.


Comments


Andrei Sukhov

The author confuses Soviet developments and scientific achievements of independent Ukraine. These achievements are easy to separate along linguistic lines. Scientific articles on the first Soviet computer, as well as all technical documentation, are written in Russian. Sergey Lebedev's native language is Russian. Note that Ukraine has abandoned the Soviet past and the Russian language. The scientific achievements of independent Ukraine are presented in the Ukrainian language, the so-called "Move".


Andrei Sukhov

Sergei Lebedev was born in Nizhny Novgorod, now Russia. He has been a member of the Communist Party since 1946. In Ukraine, the Communist Party is banned and a law on decommunization has been passed. Ethnic segregation was prohibited in the Soviet Union, so it is impossible to consider Soviet successes as national achievements.


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