Cyberpunk 1958: The Early Days of the Polish IT Industry
#technology & innovation
default, Cyberpunk 1958:
The Early Days of
the Polish IT Industry, Assembly of the third-generation Odra 1305 computer in the Elwro plant, 1978, photo: Jan Morek / PAP, center, #000000, odra-1305-elwro-1978-fot-jan-morek-pap_19781200_00i.jpg
Today, the Polish IT industry is best known for its brilliant video games, but before the arrival of 'The Witcher 3' and 'Cyberpunk 2077', Polish computer scientists and engineers had ambitions to make their country a superpower in all things IT. Even if it didn’t always bring spectacular results, the Polish communist-era IT sector definitely left its mark on history. Here are just a few ways in which it stood out.
Although computer science is still considered a male-dominated industry, that was not always the case in Poland. After the end of World War II, Poland was in dire need of people who were able to help the efforts of rebuilding the country. The emancipation of women in the workplace in the period immediately following the war is perhaps best remembered through the slogan ’Kobiety na traktory!’ (Women to the tractors!), and, like farming, the IT industry did not hesitate to include women from the very beginning. When in the late 1950s projects aiming to jumpstart the Polish computer industry were launched, talented women mathematicians were already part of teams responsible for the task.
During the communist period, teams working on new devices and programming solutions were usually one third female and women also took on leadership roles. Ewa Kardymowicz was among the delegation which presented one of the first Polish programming languages, SAKO, at an international conference in Kyiv. Interestingly, out of over thirty people employed by the SAKO team, fourteen were women. This included Jowita Koncewicz, most likely the first Polish female computer scientist, who later went on to become the first Polish translator of books devoted to such important programming languages as FORTRAN, C and PASCAL.
Polish Women at the Drafting Table
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Wanda Rutkiewicz walks in to K2 Base Camp in 1982, photo: Individual Photographers / Vertibrate Publishing
Some teams consisted entirely of women – when Elżbieta Płóciennik became the head of a unit in the Instytut Maszyn Matematycznych (IMM, Institute of Mathematical Machines in Warsaw) responsible for checking the performance of computers created there, all of her co-workers were women and this remained the case until Płóciennik’s departure to France. There, she started her own company and achieved a legendary reputation in Parisian IT circles.
Other women also made significant contributions. Krystyna Pomaska revolutionised how IMM’s machines recorded data: since the memory and the computers themselves were quite unreliable at the time, Pomaska tried (directly opposing orders from her supervisors) to ask the computer to write the calculations on three separate data carriers. The method caught on – whenever there was a divergence in the results, the computer scientists agreed to use the calculations that were repeated two out of three times. Alicja Kuberska made significant contributions to the design of Odra 1003, one of the first mass-produced computers in Poland, while Elżbieta Jezierska-Ziemkiewicz was the head of the team responsible for designing the ground-breaking Mera 400 minicomputer (both machines will be discussed in more detail below). Another IMM employee, Wanda Rutkiewicz, arguably left an even greater mark on Polish history, but she did not exactly excel in programming… Her colleagues remember her as mostly absent from the office, as she was off conquering one mountain after the other and becoming the first Pole to climb Mount Everest in 1978.
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ZAM-2 computer, photo: Wikimedia Commons
Computer designs created in Poland were often quite out there – this goes back to the first attempts at creating a working computer. The first machines created at the IMM in the 1950s used mercury-based memory tubes which were open at the end where the cables were connected. This did not make for the safest of work environment but IMM employees quickly invented an ingenious way to avoid hazardous vapours: they purchased 128 condoms at a nearby pharmacy and put them at the end of the tubes to seal the mercury inside.
This did not exactly solve everything. When the first Polish computer, EMAL, was completed in 1955, it turned out that its success was rather short-lived – it operated only for a few days and any repairs only allowed it to function for a few more. Apparently the components available to the IMM were of such low quality, that it was impossible to keep all of them working at the same time. Poland had to wait for its first working computer until 1958, when XYZ was unveiled. Operating with the help of the aforementioned SAKO, XYZ was capable of averaging 1000 additions per second, but was quickly replaced by ZAM-2, which employed a newer kind of memory and allowed for the use of more commands. Interestingly, the technological development was so quick that the rather basic SAKO language became obsolete with the advent of the next IMM machines, ZAM-3 and ZAM-21, and had to be replaced with American-imported ALGOL and COBOL languages.
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The centre of efforts to manufacture Polish computers was quickly moved to Wrocław, where the ELWRO factory was tasked with starting mass production of digital devices. The first Odra 1001 and 1002 computers did not prove to be reliable enough for this purpose, but Odra 1003 was a resounding success, with 42 machines built between 1963 and 1965. This lead to great interest in the next generations of Wrocław-built computers. Odras were used to calculate payroll, manage production and even count the number of eggs laid by specific hens, as was the case with the computer used in the Institute of Zootechnics in Balice. Last generation Odras 1305, manufactured in the 1970s, remained in operation until as late as 2010 (although this required some maintenance from former ELWRO employees). One of the machines has been moved to Katowice’s Museum of Computer and Information Technology in 2017, where it was started up again. The museum’s visitors can use it to play Marienbad, probably the first Polish video game, which was inspired by the game from Alain Resnais’ 1961 movie Last Year in Marienbad. Apparently, the Polish video game industry has been releasing amazing pieces of software long before The Witcher 3 and Cyberpunk 2077.
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ODRA 1305 system at Katowice’s Museum of Computer and Information Technology, photo: Wikimedia Commons
Some readers might wonder why we are only using Macs and Windows PCs today if the Odra computers where such reliable workstations and entertainment centres. ELWRO was forced to stop manufacturing their core products when the USSR decided that all Eastern Bloc countries should cooperate to create a machine that could rival those made by the Americans (even those its architecture was ‘inspired’ by IBM computers). Under the ES EVM (Unified System of Electronic Computers), each country was supposed to develop particular components of a bigger machine, with Poland being responsible for processors, tape memory and printers. The programme was not exactly a success, as the inefficiency of the centralisation efforts meant that it was met with delays and a lack of coordination. It also did not help when ELWRO constructed an ES EVM-based R-32 computer which differed slightly from the centrally-planned design and outperformed other ES EVM machines.
In later years, ELWRO was mostly relegated to assembling computers from ready-made, Taiwan-imported parts. Its last significant design, the ELWRO 800 Junior from the 1980s was a ZX-Spectrum compatible computer which was supposed to serve as a learning tool for Polish students, but only less than 14,000 were manufactured (the plan was to build 30,000 a year). It is likely that students were simply not that keen on learning how to code, but maybe all the ELWRO 800 Junior needed to become a bestseller was the release of a sequel to Marienbad.
We have already covered Jacek Karpiński and the difficulties he faced from the communist authorities when designing his ground-breaking K-202 minicomputers. However, even though the regime resented Karpiński, they were not entirely opposed to the idea of manufacturing miniature computers in Poland. K-202 was much cheaper and faster than the hugely popular Odra computers from ELWRO, so the project to salvage Karpiński’s designs began, headed by Elżbieta Jezierska-Ziemkiewicz, who saw this as an opportunity to continue the brilliant inventor’s legacy, even if she protested the way he was treated by the authorities.
In theory, the Mera 400 minicomputer was supposed to fix some of the issues of K-202. It had less memory, because nobody even knew how to use the 8 MB available in its predecessors, and instead it offered its users more commands. However, this necessitated certain design changes as the new components took much more space – K-202 could fit on a desk, whereas Mera 400 was the size of a cupboard. Instead, it was virtually failure-free and all the elements were contained in one case, unlike many of its competitors which needed countless external connections.
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The computer also had probably the greatest impact on Polish history. At the beginning of the ‘Solidarność’ strikes in August 1980, researchers from the Gdańsk University of Technology used telex to send the 21 postulates of the striking workers to Jezierska-Ziemkiewicz’s Mera 400 in Warsaw and informed their colleague that the secret police planned to arrest members of the Workers’ Defence Committee. To commemorate these events, Jezierska-Ziemkiewicz even named her next computer SOLID 1981, but the design never took off – Martial Law and further insistence of the USSR to create a unified device put an end to a dream of Polish minicomputers. This did not mean the end of Mera 400, as one of them is still in operation – the students of the Polish Air Force University in Dęblin use it for flight simulations.
How to create a language
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While SAKO did not have a long life, another Polish programming language might still surprise us. Developed between 1977 and 1982 on Mera 400 computers by a team led by Andrzej Salwicki, Loglan’82 was ahead of its time. Like the popular Java, it is an object-based language, meaning that objects, specific elements of a programme. follow commands and interact with other elements according to the programmer’s intent. However, this often led to problems – when an object was removed, some variables associated with it might remain in the code and cause bugs when they interfered with other elements. On the other hand, if programmers opted to not remove objects that are no longer needed, the programme might become bloated and slow down as the computer was unable to process all the excess information, leading to so-called memory leaks.
In addition to being developed much earlier than Java, Loglan’82 also solved the most fundamental problem of its siblings. Programmers working with it did not have to depend on additional tools for deleting unused objects and they did not have to keep reminding themselves to delete or tag everything that might interfere with the programme’s operations. Loglan’82 was developed precisely to address the problem of memory leaks and it contains built-in tools for deleting unused objects. Programmers using Loglan’82 simply did not have to worry about issues keeping their Java-using colleagues up at night.
Unfortunately, Loglan’82 never took off. Salwicki and his colleagues tried to promote it in Poland and abroad (Salwicki was even a professor in France), but Java and C++ proved more popular in the end. However, Loglan’82 design remains ground-breaking as it solves problems faced by many contemporary programming languages. No wonder that some of its enthusiasts, including Salwicki, hope it will eventually be rediscovered and will finally revolutionise the programming industry.
Written by Michał Wieczorek, Oct 2020
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