Sergei Lebedev - creator of the first stored program computer in continental Europe
"The ability to show the way is a sign of genius"
"The MESM (Small Electronic Calculating Machine*) was designed and constructed by Lebedev and a small group of coworkers at the Institute of Electrical Engineering in Kiev. On November 6, 1950, it solved its first simple problem (Maurice Wilkes dates May 6, 1949 for the British EDSAC), and accepted for full operation by a high-level á®mmission of the Academy of Sciences in late 1951.
The MESM was based on an original design that used a fixed-point representation and a three-address command format. At acceptance, its average speed was 50 operations per second, with a primary component base of approximately 6,000 vacuum tubes; it was improved and used continuously until 1956. As was the case with the ENIAC and other early machines, in addition to its in-house users, teams of scientists working on problems of national importance would visit to use large quantities of computing time-appreciative users included many world-class mathematical scientists of the era. In 1956, the MESM was moved to the Kiev Polytechnic Institute where it was used for three years to train young programmers. It was later scrapped for parts, and only a few pieces, easily fitting into a shoebox, remain today."
Seymour Goodman. The Origins of Digital Computing in Europe. Communications of the ACM, 2003/Vol. 46 No. 9 p.21
Sergei A.Lebedev was born on November 2, 1902 in Nizhny Novgorod into a teacher's family. Sergei's parents strictly followed the principle: A life of a teacher of the people must serve as an example and pattern for pupils as well as for the children of his own family. The main principles of his upbringing were: irreproachable uprightness, industry, and intolerance toward any sort of slander or servility and these early influences on Sergei and the other Lebedev children were linked to what followed in their lives.
Having received the Diploma of Electrical Engineer in April of 1928, Lebedev simultaneously became a teacher at MVTU and a junior research worker at VEI. Soon he headed the research group there and later the Laboratory of Electrical Power Networks.
In 1939, Lebedev, not being a Candidate of Science, had to defend his doctoral thesis. The main idea of the investigation was dedicated to the theory of artificial stability of power systems.
Almost every project in the field of power engineering developed by the institute's scientists required elaborate computing facilities, either to make calculations for the work itself or to include them in the range of computing devices.
This development led Lebedev in 1945 to create the first analog computer in the Soviet Union. By means of this machine, it was possible to solve ordinary sets of differential equations, which is frequently met in problems connected with power engineering.
The binary system also was not outside the scientist's field of vision. Lebedev's wife, Alisa Grigorievna, remembers the first months of the war, in the evenings, when Moscow was plunged in darkness her, husband went to the bathroom and worked there by the light of a gas-burner, scribbling the 1's and 0's of binary operations, all quite unintelligible to her.
V.V.Bardizh, Lebedev's deputy in the laboratory where the BESM was created, asserts that if it were not for the war, the work for the development of a computer using binary mathematics would had been started by the scientist much earlier (this was also noted by Sergei Alexeevich himself).
The fact that Lebedev's interest in digital computing facilities had surfaced before the war is confirmed by Professor A.V.Netushil at the Moscow Power Engineering Institute.
"As a result of my research, a Master's thesis emerged, "Analysis of flip-flop elements of high-speed pulse counters". As it is well known, electronic flip-flops (triggers) later became the basic elements in computer technology. From the very beginning of this thesis work in 1939, until its defense, Lebedev had expressed a great interest and approval in my research. He agreed to act as an opponent of the thesis, the defense of which took place in 1945. At that time, nobody even suspected that Lebedev had been formulating ideas for the creation of digital computers, which made his name immortal."
The designer's documentation and materials concerning the MESM (Malaya Elektronaya Schetnaya Mashina, or Small Electronic Calculating Machine) are still kept at the National Academy of Science of the Ukraine in Kiev. Many of the documents were prepared by Lebedev himself. Someone marked these papers with the inscription, "To keep forever".
Let us look through some of them. In a short message sent to the Coordination Council of the Academy of Science of the USSR in the beginning of 1957, Lebedev wrote: "I began to deal with high-speed electronic computers toward the end of 1948. From 1948-1949, I had elaborated the basic principles of building similar computers. Taking into account the great significance of the computer in economic development and also the absence in the Soviet Union of any kind of experience in the realm of computer construction and operation, I decided to create as quickly as possible a small electronic computer, with which we would be able to investigate the basic principles of computer building, examine strategies for the solving of certain associated problems and get experience in computer operation. In this connection, initially it was planned to create a working model of the machine and then develop it into a small electronic computer. To prevent a delay in the work, it was necessary to make a memory bank on flip-flop cells which, however, had limited memory capacity. The development of the basic elements was completed in 1948.
...The general components of the machine and the principal circuit diagrams for its units were completed by the end of 1949 and by the end of 1950, the final adjustments on the working model were finished. After that, it was successfully demonstrated before a commission".
Two months after the demonstration of the model, Sergey Lebedev made a report at a closed session of the Science Council at the Institute of Electrical and Heat Power Engineering. The Minutes of the Session were preserved and later published in "Control Systems and Machines" Magazine (1992 #1/2). Considering the great importance of this document1 in the history of computer technology, it is cited without abridgment.
On January 4, 1952, the Presidium of the USSR Academy of Sciences heard the report by Lebedev about the operation of the small electronic computer, MESM.
In 1952 (after Lebedev had moved to Moscow) the Institute of Electrical Engineering of the Academy of Science of Ukraine presented the work in the Creation of the MESM in a Competition for the State Prize. It won the Prize. Lebedev, Dashevsky and Shkabara were included on the staff of this creative team.
The work, undoubtedly, deserved the prize: life itself has proved that. The principles of computer building developed by Lebedev are still used without serious changes in modern computer techniques. In 1950, the model of MESM had been tested2. At that time, the only similar machines were those operating in England (the BABY designed by Williams and Kilburn, 1948, and the EDSAC3 designed Maurice V.Wilkes4, 1949). It should be noted, however, that both the BABY3* and the EDSAK employed a sequential operational arithmetic unit, while MESM worked on parallel arithmetic units. The fruitfulness of the ideas embodied in the creation of the MESM was evidenced clearly by the future work of scientific teams headed by Lebedev.
In 1952 MESM was practically the only computer in the country which was solving the most important scientific-technical problems from the fields of thermonuclear processes (Y.B.Zeldovich), space flights and rocket technology (M.V.Keldish, A.A.Dorodnitsyn, A.A.Liapunov), long-distance electric transmission lines (S.A.Lebedev), mechanics (G.N.Savin), statistical quality control (B.E.Gnedenko) and others.
The following is one of many documents which witnesses this fact.
Department of Applied Mathematics of the Academy of Science of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics
The V.A.Steklov Mathematics Institute
The Board of Directors of the Department of Applied Mathematics of the USSR Academy of Sciences V.A.Steklov Mathematics Institute expresses great thanks to the Ukraine SSR Academy of Sciences Institute of Electric Power Engineering for its participation in the great and important computer-calculation work carried out from November 1952 through July 1953 on a small electronic computer designed by academician S.A.Lebedev.
During this period the scientific group of the USSR Academy of Sciences Mathematics Institute under the direction of academician A.A.Dorodnitsyn and Doctor of Physics and Mathematics, A.A.Liapunov, together with the scientific team of Laboratory № 1 of the USSR Academy of Sciences Institute of Electric Power Engineering (supervised by academician S.A.Lebedev) made very labour intensive calculations for three complex programs, having performed on a computer nearly 50 million operations. It should be noted especially the conscientious and intensive work of such scientists as Deputy of Laboratory Director, L.N.Dashevsky, Chief Engineer, R.Y.Cherniak; Engineers A.L.Gladish, E.E.Dedeshko, I.P.Okulova, T.I.Petsukh and S.B.Pogrebinsky and Technicians Yu.S.Mazira, S.B.Rosenzweig and A.G. Semenovsky. These co-workers, disregarding time, directed great efforts toward guaranteeing trouble-free and high-quality operation of the machine.
Director of the Department of Applied Mathematics of the USSR Academy of Sciences Mathematics Institute Academician M.V.Keldish.
Lebedev's Laboratory was located at the 2-stored building at territory of the former monastery, Feofaniya by Kyiv.
Developers and makers of MESM: Lev Dashevsky, Doctor of Tech Science, Ekaterina Shkabara, Doctor of Tech Science, Solomon Pogrebinsky, Ziniviy Rabinovich, Engineers, Anna Gladish, Ivetta Okulova, Zoya Zorina-Rapota, Rostislav Chernyak, Engineers, Vladimyr Kraynitskiy, Lidiya Abalyshnikova, Andrey Kondalev, Mikhail Pinevich, Engineers, Rafail Ofengenden, Evgeniy Dedeshko, Nikolay Pohilo, Semen Rosenzweig, Technician.
The following also have take part in MESM creation:
After MESM, design work for a specialized computer (SESM) for the solving of sets of algebraic equations (chief designer, Zinoviy Rabinovich) began. The basic principles for the construction of the SESM had of course already been put forward by Lebedev. Subsequently, specialized computers for different purposes became an important class of computers, which demonstrates once again the farsightedness of the scientist who put forward the idea of computer specialization from the very beginning. The SESM was Lebedev's last project in Kiev.
Sergey Lebedev moved to Moskow and became the Director of the Institute of Exact Mechanics and Informatics and Computer Techniques (ITM and VT) of the Academy of Science of the USSR.
Speaking at the Scientific Council of the Cybernetics Institute's of the Academy of Science of Ukraine dedication to twenty-fifth anniversary of MESM's creation, Glushkov appreciated the importance of MESM for the development of computer technology in Ukraine and throughout the USSR. He said: "Independently from foreign scientists, S.A.Lebedev elaborated the principles of building a computer with a stored memory program. (Publications dealing with computer building principles were elaborated by the Hungarian-born American scientist John von Neumann in 1946 and appeared in the open press of the Soviet Union in the 60's - Author's note). Under Lebedev's supervision, the first computer in continental Europe was created and in a short time it was solving the most important scientific and technical problems which initiated the appearance of the Soviet programming school. The description of the MESM became the first textbook of computer technology in the country. MESM was a prototype of the Big Electronic Computing Machine (BESM) and S.A.Lebedev's Laboratory became the organizing embryo of Computing Center of the Academy of Science of Ukraine, and then - the Institute of Cybernetics of the Academy of Science of Ukraine.
In Kiev, there is a memorial plaque of Lebedev adorning the Electrical Power Engineering Institute Building, where he was the Director. Speaking on the day of the memorial presentation, the President of the Ukrainian Academy of Science, Academician Boris Paton said: "We will always be proud of the fact that it was at the Ukrainian Academy of Science, in our dear Kiev, where the talent of Lebedev, a distinguished scientist in the fields of computer technique, mathematics and also, large automated systems, flowered. He pioneered the creation of the outstanding school of Computer Science in Kiev. His torch was taken up by V.M.Glushkov. Today, we have the Glushkov Cybernetics Institute, one of the foremost and largest computer institutes in the world.
...He lived and worked during a period of the vigorous development of such branches of science as electronics, computer technology and missile development, mastery of outer space and atomic energy. Being a patriot of his country Sergei Alexeevich took part in the developing of the largest projects of Igor Kurchatov, Sergey Korolyov5 and Mstislav Keldish guaranteeing creation of the Shield of the Motherland6. The role of the electronic computers created by Sergei Alexeevich in carrying out these projects was, without exaggeration, of enormous importance.
His outstanding work will be included in the world's treasury of science and technology. His name must stand in the ranks of the great scientists of the world."
After the work on the tube computers BESM-2 and M-20 was finished the design work of the semiconductor computer, BESM-6, began. BESM-6 was a real masterpiece - the first second-generation supercomputer, made by the scientific group of the Academy of Science of the USSR.
Lebedev's scientific school arose as a result of the enormous work of the scientist and his fellow champions in the creation of a high-performance universal and specialized computers - the most complex classes of computer.
The establishment of a new scientific direction, as well as a scientific school, is a complex creative process. The establishment of Lebedev's scientific school can be considered a classic example.
From the very first steps of his creative activity, Lebedev brought forward and, in the following years, consistently put into practice, one general construction principle of computers, and that was the process of computational paralleling. The arithmetical units in both the MESM and BESM were equipped with parallel operation, as were the M-20 and the M-40, and in addition, peripheral units, each containing a processor, also operated in parallel. The BESM-6 used a kind of pipeline calculation method (or "plumbing" as Lebedev called it). In the subsequent computers - the basis was multiprocessors (here only the main stages in paralleling of the computational process are mentioned.)
The super computers developed by Sergei Alexeevich still remain a leading class of machines in computer technology.
*MESM - in Russian: Malaya Elektronnaya Schetnaya Mashina