When computers were unemployed

Owing to John von Neumann and his colleagues, modern computers conquered research institutes and then our homes. The electronic computers which stored programmes and were made on the basis of the Neumann principles were huge giants that filled the whole room. The first really modern computer IAS was not an exception either. It was built at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton by the Neumann group, by 1951. After eight years, the first Hungarian computer M-3 started working on 21 January, 1959.

Ex libris Lippóczy Ilona - Balatoni Múzeum, CC BY-NC-ND

John von Neumann thought that there would be maximum a dozen computers. He might not have thought that billions of people would use computers one day. His daughter Marina von Neumann-Whitman wrote about him in her memoir: ‘Parents will be mad about their children spending the whole day in front of monitors playing games. Although my father wouldn’t have bought me computer games either, because he liked playing childish games.’

Neumann knew exactly what changes mankind has to face mainly due to the computer. He warned us like that:‘The one solid fact is that the difficulties are due to an evolution that, while useful and constructive, is also dangerous. Can we produce the required adjustments with the necessary speed? The most hopeful answer is that the human species has been subjected to similar tests before and seems to have a congenital ability to come through, after varying amounts of trouble. To ask in advance for a complete recipe would be unreasonable. We can specify only the human qualities required: patience, flexibility, intelligence.’

Számítógép állást keres - Szendrői Közművelődési Központ és Könyvtár, CC BY-NC-ND

In the second half of the 20th century, the computer was ‘without employment’; it looked for a position in our lives. The first electronic computers started working in the so-called computing centres that were founded for this special aim.

To be able to have an idea about the sizes and values of these machines, let me quote Győző Kovács, director of the first Hungarian computing centre, who wrote this in 1974:

‘The number of the staff depends on the task and the configuration. The usual staff number in a general computing centre, for a medium-size computer (cc. HUF 50 million) is about 100-150 persons.’

Knowing the value and the staff number, one can understand why common people found computers mystical and frightful at the beginning.

Computing centres

A Pécsiterv számítóközpontja - Kistelegdi István, CC0

One of the outstanding values of Forum Hungaricum’s database is the Ybl-prize winner architect István Kistelegdi’s photo collection that includes several photos of computers. He recorded the new computing centre of the Designer Company of Pécs (Pécsi Tervező Vállalat) at the beginning of the ‘80s. The photos show the TPA (Stored-Program Analyser) computer configuration at the KFKI (Central Research Institute for Physics), and the administrator is working on the terminal of an Orion ADP-2000. The computer is the large light-brown box in the background. The monitor and keyboard of the terminal just serve for the connection with the computer. TPA-1001i (the first member of the TPA series with integrated circuit) belonged to the smaller computer types. The target type of the construction developed between 1969 and 1972 was the American mini-computer DEC PDP-8/i.

You can also see a TPA-1001i computer with integrated circuit in Ózd at the Digital Power Plant, where the history of information technology is evoked by 24 exhibited objects thanks to the John von Neumann Computer Society (NJSZT). If you are interested in more objects – for example an ADP-2052 terminal, similar to the one in the photo – come and visit the IT History Exhibition of NJSZT (in Szeged) and you will be able to wander among the info-communication relics in one of the top 4 or 5 biggest IT collections in the world.

Back to the database: you can get an insight into the computing centre of DÉDÁSZ (Southern Transdanubian Electricity Supplier Co.), where an East German Robotron computer was operating. Note the clock on the top of the machine: the passing time was watched cautiously, because the machine hour may have cost a fortune.

SYRIANAIR - Syrian Arab Légitársaság Irodája, Budapest - Magyar Kereskedelmi és Vendéglátóipari Múzeum, CC BY-NC-ND

Following long-forgotten worlds, you can also admire the Budapest office of the Syrian Arab Airlines. The photo from the Hungarian Museum of Trade and Tourism proves that computer terminals were not so rare in air transport and in trading in 1985 as they had been a couple of years earlier. It is a special design solution to put the futuristic table of the terminal (fitting in a sci-fi film) in the interior that reflects traditional near eastern style. Modernism and tradition had a rendezvous in this space: and unfortunately the Syrian affairs of the past years showed that this symbiosis did not go without a hitch.

Computer searching for a mate

Néhány kibernetikai játékgép - Szendrői Közművelődési Központ és Könyvtár, CC BY-NC-ND

As of the beginning of the 1980s, computers were not only the valuable equipment of colleges and companies; the cheaper personal computers appeared in public education, cultural institutions and homes. Children became the most enthusiastic fans of IT. The Ministry of Culture invited a competition in Hungary for school-computer production, and the Telecommunication Cooperative (Híradástechnikai Szövetkezet) won it. Their product, the HT-1080/Z computer spread first at schools. Tens of thousands of students studied the books that were published for it.

Do you speak the BASIC language? – they asked – because the most popular and easiest programming language was the BASIC. The original version of it was written by John Kemeny (Kemény János) and his colleague Thomas Kurtz in the USA.

The main attraction of the computer was the computer game. Even the first Hungarian IT (then called cybernetics) high-school teacher Mihály Kovács discovered that. He had taught computer science since its appearance (1958-59) in Hungary. He published several books as well, which help anyone build ‘game-automats’ at home and understand the principles of computers.

You didn’t even need a soldering-iron to compose a game on the cheap personal computers at home, because the BASIC language helped anyone, who was ready to learn programming.

Számítógépes szakkör 1986-ban - Debreceni Művelődési Központ, CC BY-NC-ND

Wandering in the database, it is enough to look at the photos of the Culture Centre of Debrecen (DMK) to see: the meeting of children and computers became a crucial experience of a generation. The photos show kids learning on Commodore-16 computers. I am wondering how many workshop members of 1986 from the Community House of Újkert (Újkerti Közösségi Ház) are working as IT experts nowadays. One thing is certain: as adults, no one can live without the blessings (and curses) of the IT world now.

Robots are here to stay

Computers became our usual personal articles; we don’t even notice how many of them are around: maybe more than human beings. Smart phones (more than a billion iPhones were made!) and other smart devices are all computers.

We are facing a new revolution: we have to learn to live in the world of artificial intelligence, automatic cars and robots. It is worth preparing for the “risks and side-effects”, thus NJSZT organises conferences about the topic, in terms of the digital equal opportunities.

Corvin Áruház Budapest - Magyar Kereskedelmi és Vendéglátóipari Múzeum, CC BY-NC-ND

For a long time past, humans have been longing for (and are afraid of) creating a robot similar to them. According to the photo from the Hungarian Museum of Trade and Tourism, a “robot-man” charmed the customers of Corvin Department Store in the 1950s. Of course, this “informator” was hardly a real robot.

Dr Dániel Muszka built a much more complicated informative system in the “Robot-man of Szeged”. The Hungarian Museum of Science, Technology and Transport reconstructed his beautiful robot on the basis of the cover of the magazine Ezermester from 1962, but they restored only its “physiognomy”.

Thanks to Dániel Muszka, the first Hungarian artificial animal Katicabogár (Ladybird) was born. You can see it (and a working model is switched on regularly) at the IT History Exhibition of NJSZT. Its creator is talking about Ladybug:

It is sure today that a robot is not only a “balloon”, but robotics is one of the most exciting fields of information sciences. Let’s prepare for their reception!

The mission of NJSZT is: ‘To protect the values of the past, to adapt to the present, to influence the future.’ The three are inseparable.

Those, who are interested in the past, are recommended to view the portraits of NJSZT made of the great Hungarian IT experts in the database, to visit the Digital Power Plant of Ózd and to visit the IT History Exhibition (Szent-Györgyi Albert Agora, Szeged) in order to see the fascinating instruments of the IT past in their real measures.

written by Gábor Képes
the senior fellow of the John von Neumann Computer Society

 Translated by Zita Aknai

 Bibliography can be found below the Hungarian article.