In the age of the Chip War, we have forgotten the edge of Soviet computers. The rise and fall of the Soviet computer edge offer a valuable lesson for managing technological Innovation. We all know the story of ENIAC—Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer—created in 1945. The USA developed it to calculate artillery firing tables for the United States Army’s Ballistic Research Laboratory. In the cold war race, Soviet scientists under the leadership of Surgey Lebedev at the Kyiv Institute of Electrotechnology were not far behind. They succeeded in making their MESM—a universally programmable electronic computer—got operational in 1950. Ironically named since it had 6,000 vacuum tubes occupying 60 square meters of space. In 1951, MESM demonstrated its computational power by solving for 585 possible values of a probability distribution function. An artillery weapons calculation table requiring 250,000 individual calculations was done by MESM within 2.5 hours.
In continental Europe, MESM was the first electronic computer. The underlying force of developing this computer was to solve differential equations to simulate the detonation of nuclear bombs and the trajectory of shells. Hence, MESM was the continuation of the effort to develop an analog computer designed by Vladimir Lukyanov in 1936. Despite the subsequent Soviet’s continued eroding edge in computing machines, it was the world’s first computer for solving partial differential equations.
Why did the early lead of the Soviet computer fail?
Despite the early lead, nobody cites the journey of the soviet computer as an example of how to drive economic growth from the computer. On the other hand, Taiwan, South Korea, Japan, and USA’s Silicon Valley are notable examples of creating mega economic prosperity out of the computer. As explained, far before Taiwan and South Korea, Soviet scientists and engineers were at the edge of the computer. But why could not the Soviets leverage it to remain a global powerhouse of computing machinery for sharpening weapons and creating economic success stories?
Early lead for the purpose of the military is not good enough
Scientific discoveries, technological inventions, and early leads in innovations are not good enough to leverage technology potential. Of course, that early lead helps attain a military edge, but it does not naturally correlate with economic growth. First of all, military power does not create any economic value—uplifting our living standards. The next one is that the technological inventions serving military purposes, which invariably emerge in primitive form, are not good enough to create economic value. They need continued refinement to offer better alternatives to serve civilians’ purposes. Despite their immense benefits for the military, neither ENIAC nor MESM was of any use for improving industrial productivity, advancing communication, or diagnosing diseases. The profit-making race in creating a Flow of Ideas to make computers increasingly better and cheaper has led to helping economic activities. Such progression also causes immediate job loss, creating policy conflict.
Contradiction between Soviet philosophy and labor-saving computing machines played a role in Soviet Computer Failure
At one point in time, 100+ Soviet mathematicians had full-time jobs solving differential equations for simulating the detonations of nuclear weapons. Killing those jobs by developing computers was not the underlying force for the Soviet leadership. Saving money was not also the reason. Instead, speeding up the rate of solving mathematical equations to accelerate the edge of weapon design was the primary reason. Hence, by operating 6,000 vacuum tubes by consuming 25 kW of power, MESM’s achievement of performing approximately 3,000 operations per minute in 1950 was a great success for the Soviet leadership.
Furthermore, like the Japanese firms, Soviet organizations were not facing the challenge of survival. Hence, Soviet Radio, TV, and other civilian electronics product makers were not serious about using the successive generation of computing devices, like transistors, in reinventing or incrementally advancing them.
Despite the pivotal role of computers in sharpening the edge of weapons, the Soviet leadership found no use of computers in productive activities due to their labor-saving automation role. Hence, from an ideological standpoint, Stalin’s administration era, ending in 1953, collided with cybernetics– Control and Communication between the Animal and the Machine. They looked upon computer-powering cybernetics as an evil product of capitalism. Consequentially, the Government rhetoric portrayed computers powering cybernetics in the Soviet Union as a capitalist attempt to undermine workers’ rights further. Therefore, during the Stalin era, the computer remained confined within the military’s walls to advance the Soviet’s weapon capability. However, policy instruments during the successor Khrushchev era became liberal to computers.
Notable Soviet initiatives—failing to create enough momentum to win the race, preventing Soviet computer failure
Just two years after Stalin’s death, in 1955, the Lebedev Institute of Precision Mechanics and Computer Engineering released the successor of MESM, MESM-1, the first large-scale computer. In the late 1950s, the Soviet’s Ministry of Radio Technology and Ministry of Instrument started sponsoring the development of two mainframe computer families: Ural and Minsk, first released in 1956 and 1960, respectively. In 1956, the Moscow Plant of Computing-Analytical Machines also released a mainframe computer: the Strela computer, designed by Special Design Bureau 245 (SKB-245) of the Ministry of Instrument Making. It performed calculations for the guidance of Yuri Gagarin’s first manned spaceflight.
Although successive versions of Soviet computers showed better computational performance, Soviet leadership was skeptical about solid-state devices like transistors in making computers. For example, MINSK-1 released in 1960, used vacuum tubes. Similarly, Ural-4 in 1964 used vacuum tubes (valves) to perform 12,000 floating-point calculations per second. Soviet computer industry moved to semiconductor devices in making their computers, like Ural-11, in 1965—almost ten years after the USA. Kyiv Institute of Cybernetics started releasing Transistor based minicomputer series MIR in 1965.
To consolidate Soviet computer capability, in 1967, the Unified System of Electronic Computers project was launched to develop a general-purpose computer. Furthermore, the space program demanded higher computer capability in addition to weapon design. For example, the Argon-11S was the onboard digital computer for Soyuz 7K-L1, the first Soviet-piloted spacecraft. According to some experts, the lack of computing power was a factor in the failure of the Soviet manned lunar program.
Despite early progress, by the early 1970s, Soviet computers fell far behind Western producers due to the lack of common standards in peripherals, digital capacity, and programming languages. Consequentially, the Soviets started giving up their designs and adapting western computer technologies and cloning.
Late response in adopting digital and semiconductors left Soviet computer far behind
In response to USA’s digital computer ENIAC, in 1948, the Soviet Union set up the Institute of Precision Mechanics and Computer Technology or ITMVT within the Academy of Sciences. But in response to ENIAC’s vacuum tube-based digital technology core, ITMVT opted for an electromechanical technology core. It happened due to the political influence of powerful Director General Nikolai Bruevich, as he believed that electronic devices were not reliable enough. Hence, ITMVT ended up developing mechanical and electromechanical technology core-based analog calculating machines. Unfortunately, such a political decision in selecting technology core overrode the opinion of scientists and engineers.
By the time the Soviets moved to the vacuum tube-based digital era, the West was ahead with the next technology core—Transistor or semiconductor devices. While the Soviet was concerned about the reliability of transistor and was busy making vacuum tube-based computer for simulation purposes, the USA moved ahead in developing transistor-based onboard computer. As early as 1954, Bell Labs developed TRansistorized Airborne DIgital Computer (TRADIC) for the US Air Force.
Latent potential of semiconductors created decision-making Dilemma to Soviet computer program
Invariably, all technology cores emerge in primitive form, and Transistor was no exception. Despite the latent potential, often, primitive emergence causes a decision-making dilemma in changing the matured, proven technology core with an unproven one. Unfortunately, in making computers, Soviet leadership got confused and became late in adopting Transistor as a better substitute for vacuum tubes. But the US-led western countries rapidly moved to the new technology core. Consequentially, the Soviet computers started falling behind. By the time the Soviet was forced to adopt Transistor, the US industry was chasing Moore’s law to increase microchip density, fueling exponential growth in computer performance. Hence, in the race to make computers increasingly better and cheaper by leveraging semiconductors, the Soviet computer industry kept falling increasingly behind the US and other Western countries.
Inter-agencies conflicts slowed down the most powerful Soviet computer –the case of BESM-1
To make the situation worse, Soviet Union’s most powerful computer, BESM-1, got caught in the inter-ministerial conflict. Due to the blessing of Nikita Khrushchev, then secretary of the Ukrainian Communist Party, ITMVT succeeded in deposing Nikolai Bruevich, opening the window to pursuing digital computers. Subsequently, ITMVT came up with a digital logic-based large calculating machine—BESM-1. It could perform 8,000 to 10,000 operations per second or 8 to 10 Kilo FLOPs, far more powerful than UNIVAC 1108, having 1 Kilo FLOP capability in 1951. Perhaps, BESM-1 was the world’s fastest computer in the world.
But ITMVT struggled to deliver BESM-1 because it needed a critical part from the Ministry of Machine and Instrumental Engineering. This ministry’s institute, SKB-245, for making a differential analyzer. Very soon, SKB-245 gave it up and pursued digital computer STRELA, performing only 2 KFLOPs in 1951, far inferior to BESM-1. But the supporters argued that STRELA was good enough as it could complete 100,000 days of work of a single mathematician in just 10 hours. Unfortunately, with Stalin’s blessing, both institutes kept competing.
Inferior STRELA caused a barrier to BESM to blossom
But it hurt BESM-1, as ITMVT needed a particular part for memory (cathode ray tube) which used to be only produced by SKB-245’s parent ministry. For this apparent reason, the Ministry of Machine and Instrumental Engineering refused to deliver this vital device to ITMVT, resulting in an inferior option for BESM-1. Consequentially, a 1951 state commission chose STRELA over BESM-1. However, due to the poor performance of STRELA, in 1955, a nuclear development program requested the replacement of STRELA by BESM-1. Such conflict illustrates an important underlying reason for the future death of the Soviet’s computer capability.
As BESM-1 remained the most powerful computer in Europe in the 1950s, the Soviets demonstrated their superiority in developing first-generation computers. They did it as fast as the West could, and arguably their computer was better.
Coincidentally, in the 1940s and 1950s, both in the West and Soviet Union, computer development programs were mainly confined within Government agencies. But due to the growing scope of military and civilian applications, in the late 1950s, profit-making competition in the USA started to emerge. But due to the command-driven economy, Soviet computer programs remained limited to government programs.
Absence of a profit-making race in accelerating the flywheel effect
In the early days of the life cycle, computer technologies were primitive. Analog computers developed with electromechanical technology core in the 1930s and 1940s were large and expensive and had limited computational capability. Even vacuum tube-based digital computers like ENIAC, MESM, UNIVAC, or BESM-1 developed in the late 1940s and 1950s had no economic value to private corporations—let alone individuals. Only large Government departments were customers of those costly, giant machines to solve mathematical equations.
Hence, in the early days, profit-making competition of private investment had little incentive to drive the growth of computers in both the Soviet Union and the USA. Consequently, in both the Soviet Union and the West, government agencies or Government funded programs were driving the growth of computers. It seems that Soviet public institutions were as good as their American counterparts in developing and advancing computers in the early days. Therefore, Soviet computers like BESM-1 were not inferior to UNIVAC. It seems that still the mid-1950s, Soviet computers were at par or better. Soviet was the computing powerhouse of continental Europe.
But the adoption of transistor technology core kept opening the door to rapidly improving the performance, reducing the size, and lowering the cost of computers. Hence, profit-making competition in private investment found the incentive to enhance computers quickly. But unfortunately, Soviet computers could not benefit from it due to command driven economy. On the other hand, intense competition in the USA started unfolding to advance computers. Among the notable ones is the race between Fairchild and Texas instruments to invent integrated circuits (IC) and keep increasing microchip density. Hence, although still 1965, the US military was the significant customer for computers, the race of advancing ICs started accelerating the growth of computers in the USA. Consequentially, Soviet computers kept falling further behind.
The military market is not good enough to support speed and a growing R&D budget
In both the USA and the Soviet Union, in the 1940s and 1950s, the military was the customer for computers. Different weapon programs, including nuclear warheads and air defense systems like USA’s SAGE, were using expensive machines to speed up solving mathematical equations. Hence, computer development and production were mainly consuming resources instead of creating Wealth. On the other hand, the R&D budget kept growing. As a result, the growth of Soviet computers started slowing down.
Furthermore, due to the labor-saving role, Soviet policymakers did not encourage using computers to drive productivity in other sectors, like producing steel. But unlike the Soviets, private investment in the USA started exploring the use of computers in many sectors to drive productivity, leading to industrial automation through programmable logic controllers. Hence, computers in the USA started getting a boost from the private sector productivity improvement agenda, driving economic growth. For example, in 1959, contrary to the Soviet’s computer production of $59 million, America produced $1b worth of computer hardware. Similarly, in 1964, the Soviets producing 200 million semiconductor pieces was far behind America’s 1.36 billion units.
Due to profit-making competition and using computers to drive productivity and economic growth, USA’s capability to advance and adopt computers accelerated. Consequentially, despite having an early edge, the Soviets lost the game of computer technology to the USA by 1965. Furthermore, the amenability of semiconductors in supporting microchip density growth, giving birth to Moore’s law, kept intensifying profit-making competition and growing adoption of computers in the USA and the western world.
Continued improvement and diffusion of technology out of military programs
In the Soviet Union, the demand for computers was only for the military and space programs. But that demand was insufficient to tap into computers’ full potential. While computers kept rapidly improving in the West due to their growing role in industrial automation, Soviet leadership kept overlooking it due to their labor-saving role. Besides, due to the absence of competition, Soviet producers like steel makers were busy meeting their quota. Hence, they did not allocate their resources to benefit from computers to improve the quality and reduce the cost of their outputs. Therefore, unlike in the West, Soviet computers could not exit the military compounds to find further improvement opportunities in driving economic growth and improving the lives of civilians. On the other hand, intense competition in the West kept improving and using computer technologies in incrementally advancing and reinventing products and processes.
Policies and personalities with technology and business insights matter
As mentioned, due to the labor-saving role, Soviet policies discouraged the computer from productive activities. Soviet policies supported computers in military programs, despite their labor-saving role in solving mathematical equations, due to the pressure of the cold war. On the other hand, unlike the USA, Soviet policies did not encourage profit-making private competition in developing computers, even for the military program. But, in the early days for the military program, the USA urged private contractors’ engagement. For example, dozens of contractors worked for the US air force’s Semi-Automatic Ground Environment (SAGE) system–a large computer with distributed networking equipment. Besides, in the Soviet Union, military personalities like Nikolai Bruevich were deciding about technologies. On the other hand, in the USA, scientists, engineers, and entrepreneurs like “treacherous eight” leaving Shockley Semiconductor lab were driving the advancement of computers, forming Silicon Valley.
Technology transfer without continued refinement does not win the race
By the late 1960s, Soviet computers lost the battle to the US-led western world. With BESM-6 performing a million operations per second, Soviet computers were in parallel with the west in 1st and 2nd generation computers. At the most, the Soviet was two to three years behind the USA. But they rapidly kept falling behind due to the exponential growth of ICs and their usage in developing increasingly powerful computers in the USA.
The development of the third-generation computer, IBM 360, in 1964 cemented Soviet reliance on western computer technologies. Its wide use promoted the Soviet Union to consolidate fragmented computer development and production efforts for developing unified third-generation computers for every problem. It gave birth to Edinaina Sistema (ES) project for a unified system with a 3 billion Rouble budget for establishing 28 new computer plants to produce 20,000 computers by 1975. But to build the unified system, Soviet ministries in charge opted to copy and adapt the design of IBM 360 to make their 3rd generation computers compatible with the IBM 360 software. This controversial decision led to Soviet computers getting caught in uncontrollable and irreversible addiction to imported technology. As a result, Soviet computer innovation stopped self-generating.
This copying decision had long-lasting consequences—resulting in the death of the soviet computer. However, not everyone in the Soviet computer industry liked the decision to copy US IBM 360 technology for the ES. In addition to the resignation of several prominent computer scientists, computer legend Surgey Lebedev attempted to reverse the decision in vain. Some people believe that his efforts to reverse this decision led to hastening his death in 1974.
Copying decision reduced the computer gap between the Soviets and the US
To implement this copying decision, over 100 organizations, 46,000 scientists, and 3,00,000 workers across Poland, East Germany, Hungary, Romania, and Czechoslovakia would help develop ES. Many of the ES’s hardware sub-systems were reverse-engineered. In this effort, over 15,000 pieces of ES were produced.
For sure, technology transfer offers a quick solution. But often for a long-term dependence. The development of ES running IBM 360 software reduced the computer gap between the Soviets and the USA. According to CIA estimates in the 1970s, the gap shrank from 10 to 15 years in the mid-1960s to 4-6 years in the early 1970s. But this gain was at the cost of long-term loss. Due to the growing role of microchips and the sophisticated processes to produce them, Soviet scientists faced increasing difficulty in reverse engineering western computers, resulting in a widening gap. In the meantime, the Soviets lost their native computer industry capacity to develop anything new on their own to address the growing gap. Consequentially, the widening gap became permanent. Hence, the Soviets kept using the ES computers developed out of copying the 1965 IBM 360 till the late 1980s.
The decision to copy, adapt, and reverse engineer western technologies led to the death of the Soviet’s native computer; it kept widening gap, and creating a permanent dependence on the import of finished products. Hence, the USA started using export restrictions of advanced computers, ensuring the Soviets would always remain behind.
Technology transfer does not always create chronic dependence
But technology transfer does not always end up in such a bleak reality. For example, Japan and Taiwan started their respective semiconductor industries by licensing technology cores from American firms. But unlike in the Soviet Union, the intense competition of private firms led to the advancement of transferred technologies even at a faster rate than their American counterparts. Consequentially, Sony and NEC led Japan attained and retained a semiconductor edge over America till 1986. Similarly, Taiwan’s TSMC has attained a monopoly in the high-end semiconductor—making the USA dependent. At the firm level, Apple is a role model in creating a success out of technology transfer. These are good examples of leveraging technology transfer as a seed to pursue the path of innovation.
On the other hand, Dutch ASML has emerged as the monopoly in EUV lithography. Unlike Taiwan and Japan, computers in the Soviet Union could not benefit from intense profit-making innovation competition. Hence, the Soviet Union kept transferring and relying on Western computer technologies.
Technology superiority demands winning the global race of military and economy through public-private collaboration
Here are several lessons from the rise and fall of the soviet computer. Scientific discovery, technological invention, and early edge do not sustain unless the military and economic races are won. In the early days of the technology life cycle, the role of the government is very important for development and adoption. In the case of the computer, the military became the lead customer for an early-stage solution, as there was no use for civilian purposes. Hence, both the USA and the Soviet computers were on par; but Government’s role runs the risk of deciding by military personnel or bureaucrats. Sometimes, inter-government agency politics also become problematic. Unfortunately, Soviet computers suffered from such a danger.
Due to the limited market in the military and untapped potential in civilian markets for driving economic growth, the profit-making competition is beneficial for improving technology and reducing costs through a flow of ideas. On this front, the Soviet’s command-driven economy fell short, resulting in slow progress. Furthermore, the progression and adoption of computers had immediate labor-saving effects. Hence, Soviet policymakers did not leverage computers to drive industrial productivity. On the other hand, the US government and industry were after industrial automation out of the advancement of computers. Hence, Western countries started leveraging computers to drive economic growth. Consequentially, computers were also experiencing additional help to grow rapidly.
Technology transfer and reverse engineering failed to fuel self-generating capability
As Soviet native computers fell behind, widening the gap, Soviet policymakers decided to copy and reverse engineer USA’s IBM 360. Yes, it reduced the gap. But the continued maturity of western computers kept increasing the complexity of reverse engineering. As a result, the short-term effect of gap reduction out of technology transfer led to the death of the Soviet’s native computer industry and permanent reliance on Western computers. It underscores the reality that technology transfer may turn out as a development myth–surfacing as a persistent barrier to creating idea economy.
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