Jan 27, 2020
Computing In Poland Welcome to the History of Computing Podcast, where we explore the history of information technology. Because understanding the past prepares us to innovate (and sometimes cope with) the future! Today we’re going to do something a little different. Based on a recent trip to Katowice and Krakow, and a great visit to the Museum of Computer and Information Technology in Katowice, we’re going to look at the history of computing in Poland. Something they are proud of and should be proud of. And I’m going to mispronounce some words. Because they are averse to vowels. But not really, instead because I’m just not too bright. Apologies in advance. First, let’s take a stroll through an overly brief history of Poland itself. Atilla the Hun and other conquerors pushed Germanic tribes from Poland in the fourth century which led to a migration of Slavs from the East into the area. After a long period of migration, duke Mieszko established the Piast dynasty in 966, and they created the kingdom of Poland in 1025, which lasted until 1370 when Casimir the Great died without an heir. That was replaced by the Jagiellonian dynasty which expanded until they eventually developed into the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth in 1569. Turns out they overextended themselves until the Russians, Prussians, and Austria invaded and finally took control in 1795, partitioning Poland. Just before that, Polish clockmaker Jewna Jakobson built a mechanical computing machine, a hundred years after Pascal, in 1770. And innovations In mechanical computing continued on with Abraham Izrael Stern and his son through the 1800s and Bruno’s Intergraph, which could solve complex differential equations. And so the borders changed as Prussia gave way to Germany until World War I when the Second Polish Republic was established. And the Poles got good at cracking codes as they struggled to stay sovereign against Russian attacks. Just as they’d struggled to stay sovereign for well over a century. Then the Germans and Soviets formed a pact in 1939 and took the country again. During the war, Polish scientists not only assisted with work on the Enigma but also with the nuclear program in the US, the Manhattan Project. Stanislaw Ulam was recruited to the project and helped with ENIAC by developing the Monte Carlo method along with Jon Von Neumann. The country remained partitioned until Germany fell in WWII and the Soviets were able to effectively rule the Polish People’s Republic until a socal-Democratic movement swept the country in 1989, resulting in the current government and Poland moving from the Eastern Bloc to NATO and eventually the EU around the same time the wall fell in Berlin. Able to put the Cold War behind them, Polish cities are now bustling with technical innovation and is now home some of the best software developers I’ve ever met. Polish contributions to a more modern computer science began in 1924 when Jan Lukasiewicz developed Polish Notation, a way of writing mathematical expressions such that they are operator-first. during World War II when the Polish Cipher Bureau were the first that broke the Enigma encryption, at different levels from 1932 to 1939. They had been breaking codes since using them to thwart a Russian invasion in the 1920s and had a pretty mature operation at this point. But it was a slow, manUal process, so Marian Rejewski, one of the cryptographers developed a card catalog of permutations and used a mechanical computing device he invented a few years earlier called a cyclometer to decipher the codes. The combination led to the bomba kryptologiczna which was shown to the allies 5 weeks before the war started and in turn led to the Ultra program and eventually Colossus once Alan Turing got a hold of it, conceptually after meeting Rejewski. After the war he became an accountant to avoid being forced into slave cryptographic work by the Russians. In 1948 the Group for Mathematical Apparatus of the Mathematical Institute in Warsaw was formed and the academic field of computer research was formed in Poland. Computing continued in Poland during the Soviet-controlled era. EMAL-1 was started in 1953 but was never finished. The XYZ computer came along in 1958. Jack Karpiński built the first real vacuum tube mainframe in Poland, called the AAH in 1957 to analyze weather patterns and improve forecasts. He then worked with a team to build the AKAT-1 to simulate lots of labor intensive calculations like heat transfer mechanics. Karpinski founded the Laboratory for Artificial Intelligence of the Polish Academy of Sciences. He would win a UNESCO award and receive a 6 month scholarship to study in the US, which the polish government used to spy on American progress in computing. He came home armed with some innovative ideas from the West and by 1964 built what he called the Perceptron, a computer that could be taught to identify shapes and even some objects. Nothing like that had existed in Poland or anywhere else controlled by communist regimes at the time. From 65 to 68 he built the KAR-65, even faster, to study CERN data. By then there was a rising mainframe and minicomputer industry outside of academia in Poland. Production of the Odra mainframe-era computers began in 1959 in Wroclaw, Poland and his work was seen by them and Elwro as a threat do they banned him from publishing for a time. Elwro built a new factory in 1968, copying IBM standardization. In 1970, Karpiński realized he had to play ball with the government and got backing from officials in the government. He would then designed the k-202 minicomputer in 1971. Minicomputers were on the rise globally and he introduced the concept of paging to computer science, key in virtual memory. This time he recruited 113 programmers and hardware engineers and by 73 were using Intel 4004 chips to build faster computers than the DEC PDP-11. But the competitors shut him down. They only sold 30 and by 1978 he retired to Switzerland (that sounds better than fled) - but he returned to Poland following the end of communism in the country and the closing of the Elwro plant in 1989. By then the Personal Computing revolution was upon us. That had begun in Poland with the Meritum, a TRS-80 clone, back in 1983. More copying. But the Elwro 800 Junior shipped in 1986 and by 1990 when the communists split the country could benefit from computers being mass produced and the removal of export restrictions that were stifling innovation and keeping Poles from participating in the exploding economy around computers. Energized, the Poles quickly learned to write code and now graduate over 40,000 people in IT from universities, by some counts making Poland a top 5 tech country. And as an era of developers graduate they are founding museums to honor those who built their industry. It has been my privilege to visit two of them at this point. The description of the one in Krakow reads: The Interactive Games and Computers Museum of the Past Era is a place where adults will return to their childhood and children will be drawn into a lots of fun. We invite you to play on more than 20 computers / consoles / arcade machines and to watch our collection of 200 machines and toys from the '70's-'90's. The second is the Museum of Computer and Information Technology in Katowice, and the most recent that I had the good fortune to visit. Both have systems found at other types of computer history museums such as a Commodore PET but showcasing the locally developed systems and looking at them on a timeline it’s quickly apparent that while Poland had begun to fall behind by the 80s, it was more a reflection of why the strikes throughout caused the Eastern Bloc to fall, because Russian influence couldn’t. Much as the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth couldn’t support Polish control of Lithuania in the late 1700s. There were other accomplishments such as The ZAM-2. And the first fully Polish machine, the BINEG. And rough set theory. And ultrasonic mercury memory.