Jacek Karpiński: The Computer Genius the Communists Couldn’t Stand
In 1970s Poland, the engineer Jacek Karpiński made an incredible technological breakthrough. He created the K-202, a computer which could conduct a million operations per second but was small enough to fit into a briefcase. At a time when computers were not only slower but also comparable in size to large cupboards, this was a remarkable accomplishment. Unfortunately, the communist regime blocked the device from going into production, and here’s why.
A million per second
The K-202 computer made its debut in 1971 at the Poznań International Fair. It was small enough to fit into a briefcase, and could conduct a million operations per second – many more than the PCs that conquered the world a decade later. In addition, this revolutionary Polish computer cost around $5,000 – not at all pricey given its unique features. On the contrary, it was much cheaper than its main Polish competitor, the Odra computer – a slower and much bigger device, like the many other computers around the globe at the time, around the size of a cupboard.
Despite all of this, two years later, the ingenious constructor of the K-202, Polish inventor Jacek Karpiński, was escorted out of his factory by guards armed with rifles and all of the K-202s in production were thrown out. On top of that, the authorities of the communist regime banned him from creating any other devices.
Why would such a fate befall the would-be Polish Bill Gates or Steve Jobs (as he’s dubbed in today’s Poland)? Why on earth would any country deprive itself of potentially becoming the leader in a vital and cutting-edge field of technology? This article looks into these very questions and looks a bit closer at the man behind the machine: Jacek Karpińśki.
On the roof of Europe
Jacek Karpiński was to be born on the roof of Europe, at least that’s what his parents had planned for him. In a 2009 film about him, made toward the end of his life by Polish Television, he says the following:
I was to be born on Mont Blanc, there’s a little hut over there, called maybe Courmayeur. Just below the summit, that’s where I was supposed to come into this world – a completely crazy idea.
Both of his folks were mountaineers, hence this ‘crazy idea’, which they eventually dropped due to the fact that the hut was somewhat Spartan. Jacek was eventually delivered in Torino on 9th April 1927. Nevertheless, this anecdote illustrates the ‘sky-is-the-limit’ mind-set that ran in the Karpiński family and in time would become one of Jacek’s personality traits.
His father, Adam, who was killed by an avalanche while trekking in the Himalayas in 1939, was an aircraft designer. It was he that proposed the construction of a low-wing plane years before that kind of aircraft was first introduced – unfortunately the idea wasn’t approved by his bosses. Jacek’s mother, on the other hand, was a professor who specialised in rehabilitation. She was decorated with one of Poland’s most important awards, the Virtuti Militari, for serving as a liaison officer during the Polish-Bolshevik war.
Jacek went to war himself as well. When he was only 14 years old (claiming he was older), he joined the Polish resistance in World War II. He participated in reconnaissance missions and served alongside Krzysztof Kamil Baczyński, the noted Polish poet who perished in the Warsaw Uprising. Karpiński, who also fought in the Uprising, was shot in the spine, paralysed, and transported out of the Warsaw – and he survived. Fortunately, thanks to his and his mother’s efforts he regained mobility, although he was left with a permanent limp. He never removed the bullet either, it remained in his back for the rest of his days.
After the war, Karpiński completed high school and in 1951 he graduated from the Warsaw University of Technology. He had considered becoming a composer, as he loved music dearly, but in the end he chose to pursue electronics. Even though this may seem unthinkable, as a former freedom fighter he had trouble finding employment upon graduating from university.
After World War II, the communist regime in Poland considered members of the resistance a threat to its existence, convinced that people who had risked their lives to free Poland of its Nazi oppressors could also act to undermine the new Soviet regime. Eventually though, after being thrown out of several workplaces because of his wartime past, he was finally hired at an electronics plant where he constructed a shortwave radio transmitter that proved good enough to be used by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
By 1955 Karpiński was working with the Polish Academy of Sciences, where he created, among other things, the AAH mathematical machine, which increased the accuracy of weather forecasts by 10%. In 1959, under the auspices of the academy, he also constructed the world’s first analogue computer which could analyse differential equations – the AKAT-1. The transistor-based device, stylishly designed at the Warsaw Academy of Fine Arts, was the size of a small desk and showed the results of its work on a built-in screen.
The construction of this computer prompted the Academy of Sciences to register Karpiński for a global technological talent competition organised by UNESCO in 1960. Of course, he won. As a result, he had the opportunity to go to the United States for two years and further his education at Harvard and MIT.
This is how Karpiński described his trip to America in an interview he gave CRN magazine in 2007:
I was treated like a king, which by the way made me feel quite uncomfortable. I was only in my early thirties. After I finished studying, I asked if I could visit a whole list of companies and schools. UNESCO agreed. At Caltech I was greeted by the rector and all the deans, in Dallas – by the city’s mayor. Everybody wanted me to work for them, from IBM to the University [of California] in Berkeley.
Karpiński was even let into what he described later as a ‘top-secret military and government research facility’ where he was able to familiarise himself with American work on artificial intelligence. This all goes to show how seriously he was treated by the Americans, who badly wanted him to stay in their country. Karpińśki, however, decided to return to his homeland, hoping that one day the communist regime would collapse and that his inventions would be able to serve a free Poland, not a foreign country.
In 1962, he returned to Poland and resumed work at the Polish Academy of Sciences. Two years later he presented his Perceptron, a transistor-based neural network hooked up to a camera that could identify shapes shown to it (e.g., a triangle drawn on a piece of paper) and learn by itself. This was only the second such device in the world (the other in the USA) but rather than getting a promotion for his accomplishment, Karpiński had to leave the academy – his superiors grew rather envious of his invention, so much so that he decided to find another place of work, one where the atmosphere was less toxic.
Karpiński ended up at Warsaw University’s Institute of Experimental Physics. At the time, the institute was receiving far more data from the famous CERN laboratory than it could process. To solve this issue, Karpiński, together with a small team, constructed a computer that would analyse the data concerning collisions of elementary particles. It was ready in 1968, after three years of work.
Called KAR-65, the transistor-based machine was the size of two cupboards and was controlled via a console as big as a desk. It could conduct 100,000 operations per second and served the institute for the next twenty years. Even though this was yet another big success of his, Karpiński had no intention of taking it easy. When working on the KAR-65, he was already thinking about his next project: a computer that could fit into a briefcase. At a time when computers could take up entire rooms this must’ve seemed like ‘a completely crazy idea’. However, unlike his father’s idea to build a low-wing aeroplane, this one was to be realised, even if the road leading to it that was to be a winding one.
What Karpiński had envisioned this time was of a much bigger scope than his earlier technological inventions. He was looking to make a versatile micro-computer (a term used back then to describe computers comparable in size to today’s PCs) not limited to a specific scientific use. At the time a device like that would’ve been at the forefront of international technological development. The Institute of Experimental Physics couldn’t come up with the funds required to back such an ambitious project, so Karpiński decided to go to the army with his idea. Even though there was some initial interest in his micro-computer, the final decision was a no-go. The conclusion was based on the findings of a special committee appointed to review Karpiński’s idea, which argued that the project was impossible to realise, because… if it were possible it would’ve already been done by the Americans.
A little help from my friends
Karpiński, however, wasn’t going to give up on his project that easily. With the help of a well-connected British friend, he managed to present his idea to a computer specialist in England. Unlike the committee back in Poland, they were enthralled by it, recognising it for what it was – a brilliant design. Karpiński could’ve set up shop on the Isles as the Britons were eager to manufacture his product, but he decided to go back to Poland. Acting on the same principles that made him return from his educational trip to the USA, he wanted to take one more shot at persuading the communist authorities to give his project the go-ahead.
Eventually, thanks to the British specialists’ seal of approval and the help of another friend, a journalist by the name of Stefan Bratkowski who opened some important doors for him, Karpińśki was given the green light. Thus in 1970, the Microcomputers Plant was established. Located in Warsaw, it employed Polish workers but used British components and financing – the required parts weren’t available in Poland and the communists weren’t at all eager to throw money at the project.
A printer, camera, radar
Within a year Karpiński delivered on his idea. He and a team of engineers including Zbysław Szwaj, Elżbieta Jezierska, and Krzysztof Jarosławski, had worked day and night, convinced that they were doing something remarkable – Karpiński’s enthusiasm proved infectious. The result of their efforts was the famous K-202 computer, at the time of its creation an absolutely exceptional piece of hardware.
The K-202 could conduct a million operations per second – many more than the PCs that became popular a decade later. It was designed to be modular, which meant you could connect or disconnect various components of it: memory blocks, ports, etc. Today this may seem obvious but back then it was a revolutionary solution. The 16-bit machine also made use of paging, which according to the Collins English Dictionary is ‘the transfer of pages of data between the main memory of a computer and its auxiliary memory’. Thanks to Karpińki’s skilful implementation of this method of increasing memory, the K-202 could have up to 8 MB, whereas other micro-computers at the time had no more than 64 KB.
It’s believed that Karpiński paved the way for today’s common use of paging in computer memory systems. On top of all this the K-202, running on Karpiński’s original operating system, could have various peripheral devices connected to it: a camera, a printer, even radar. The computer was a multi-purpose device – it could’ve been used in an office or for engineering work. It was also very reasonably priced but, most importantly, its system unit, the case containing the system’s bowels that was connected to an external monitor and keyboard, could fit into a briefcase, just as Karpiński had promised.
Pour tea on it & throw it off the table
One would expect that for such an achievement in the greatly important field of computers sciences Karpiński would get some sort of recognition, a bonus at least… After all thanks to him Poland under the communist regime had the opportunity to become a world leader in technology. Unfortunately, that wasn’t the way things worked back then. There were powerful forces at play trying to ruin Karpiński’s success.
When Karpiński showed the K-202 at the Poznań International Fair in 1971 it drew way more of the authorities’ attention than its main Polish competitor, the slow and bulky Odra. The press was excited, here’s what the weekly Perspektywy wrote about it:
A micro-computer based on fourth-generation electronical components was made, it is the most universal machine of its kind in the world. It counts with the speed of a million operations per second, a result that can be matched only by the American minicomputer Super Nova and the English Modular One.
The manufacturer of Odra, the Elwro company, was, however, better connected with the regime than Karpiński. Instead of improving its product to catch up with the competition Elwro began to subvert Karpiński’s position in any way they could, not shying away from slander. Moreover, the Soviets wanted to introduce a single computer to the entire Eastern Bloc, a crude rip-off of a by then already outdated IBM machine. Called RIAD, the device constructed by Nikolai Lavronov was K-202’s opponent. Its constructor even got to see the revolutionary Polish micro-computer during a trip to Poland. Here’s how Karpiński described that moment as reported by the Puls Biznesu daily in 2008:
Lavronov couldn’t help but wonder how I could fit into a briefcase what he required a whole wall of space for. When I poured some tea over the K-202 and then threw it off the table, his eyes went wide. The computer was still working.
Karpiński’s computer could be so small and resilient because it used Western components. Even though they were vital to the functioning of the K-202, they might have raised suspicion among the authorities of the Eastern Bloc, as they were elements imported from beyond the Iron Curtain and used in the sensitive field of information processing. Also, it didn’t help that during a visitation of communist dignitaries to his factory Karpiński called one of them ‘fit only for constructing chamber pots’.
This all lead to the shutdown of Karpiński’s operation in 1973. He was escorted out of his factory by men armed with rifles who made very sure he wouldn’t and couldn’t retrieve any sensitive information or components from his workplace. All of the K-202s in production (about two hundred) were thrown away. Before then, only thirty such computers had been manufactured. As if that wasn’t enough, the communists also banned him from making any other computers and wouldn’t issue him a passport. As a result, in a gesture of protest, Karpiński and his wife Ewa moved to the countryside, where they farmed pigs and chickens. He once said to a journalist that visited him at his new place of residence that ‘he preferred real pigs’.
He finally received a passport in 1981 and left Poland, a place where at the time it was impossible for him to pursue his vocation – the creation of electronic devices. Karpiński moved to Switzerland where he designed among other things the Pen Reader, a hand-held scanner that scanned text from paper onto a computer. Soon after the fall of communism, in 1990, he returned to Poland wanting to manufacture this device, which predated the first Japanese scanner of the kind by more than a year. Unfortunately, due to credit problems, Karpiński didn’t manage to do so and even lost the house in Warsaw where he had lived after his return. Eventually he moved to Wrocław, where he made a living designing websites.
Certainly a genius
Jacek Karpiński passed away on 21st February 2010. For the bravery he exhibited in the Warsaw Uprising he was decorated with three Cross of Valour medals.
He certainly was a genius, a genius who had a clear vision of what he was doing and was utterly absorbed by it.
That is how Diana Wierzbicka, who worked with him on the construction of the KAR-65, remembers Karpiński in the film about his life. This device, as well as the AKAT-1 and a K-202 are in the collection of Warsaw’s Museum of Technology and Industry. So in the end, it’s turned out how Karpiński wanted it to: the communist regime is gone but his technology made under it exists in a free Poland.
Author: Marek Kępa, June 2017