The first half century of the Neumann Computer Society
1968. Definitely a historical year: students’ rebellions in Paris indicate the appearance of a new generation, the state socialism wavers in Prague, Budapest experiments with a new economic mechanism. Western cinemas present the Planet of the Apes – apocalyptic images – and 2001: A Space Odyssey – with realistic space journeys and an on-board computer having artificial intelligence, while in reality people step on the surface of the Moon only in 1969. Hungarian film fans can enjoy the historical synopsis Stars of Eger, the first edition of Örkény’s One Minute Stories is launched at bookshops. Teenagers’ rooms are loud with The Beatles – and with Illés and Omega.
The semiconductor, transistor and integrated circuit computers, and the programming languages running on them (if 1968: ALGOL68) appeared at an increasing number of companies and universities. The company Intel was established this year, but mostly IBM and DEC computers conquer computing centres in the sixties.
In Hungary, the number of computers reached 150 only at the beginning of the seventies. Computers had been present in Hungary for a decade back then – and in 1968, two kinds of Hungarian computers were introduced at a trade fair in Esztergom. The TPA-1001 that was made after the model DEC PDP-8, and the Hungarian development EMG-830. If there are engineers, programmers, developers, you also need a scientific computer society. The first independent computing organisation of the Central European region, the John von Neumann Computer Society was established in 1968. Its first chairman was Rezső Tarján, the forerunner of Hungarian cybernetics, who introduced Neumann’s oeuvre and looked after John von Neumann’s legacy proudly – though Neumann lived in the USA and was a significant public personality and scientist on the other side of the iron curtain during the early cold war.
The Neumann Society provided their computer scientists with a professional forum from the first moment: departments like the medico-biological section were created as early as at the turn of the decade. The huge importance of health informatics can be seen now, half century later. In the seventies, the Society also allowed that users of the computer types that appeared in the country (for example eastern ES EVM computers) could exchange their experiences. In the 1980s, a new element: nurturing talent occurred. Besides the massively spreading home computers, game programs, later program products (1984: Garay, later Neumann Competition) and programming competitions (Tihamér Nemes competition, 1985) were established, which still run, completed with online competitions as well.
As of the second half of the nineties, the ECDL (European Computer Driving Licence) was introduced not only for people who wanted to encode and program, but also for the ones who wanted to use computers in their jobs, hundreds of thousands using office programs. In the frame of this licence, more than a half million (!) Hungarian citizens could develop their knowledge and prove their digital literacy.
NJSZT celebrated its fifty-year jubilee in 2018 – and we have put the panels NJSZT50 that was made by the Society then into the MaNDA database. It presents the period of 1968-2018. The renewed Neumann Computer Society – whose new aim is to help society as a GPS of the digital world – considers that its main pillars are the professional forum, the nurturing of talents, the digital competence education and qualification – and naturally, the IT legacy, whose records we have been collecting, researching and showing to interested persons for many years.
Due to the coronavirus emergency, our IT Museum at Albert Szent-Györgyi Agora (Szeged) is closed, but we would like to allow visitors online access on as many surfaces as possible. You can search the MaNDA database for video portraits of great Hungarian computer scientists from our IT historical data store, and object presenting videos from our museum collections. We also present a taste of object photos from our exhibition website. We are going to continue uploading these records into the MaNDA database in the future.
the author is a senior fellow at the John von Neumann Computer Society
Translated by Zita Aknai