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.
The Industrial Revolution gave us the rise of factories all over the world in the 1800s. Life was moving faster and we were engineering complex solutions to mass produce items. And many expanded from there to engineer complex solutions for simple problems. Cartoonist Heath Robinson harnessed the reaction from normal humans to this changing world in the forms of cartoons and illustrations of elaborate machines meant to accomplish simple tasks.
These became known as “Heath Robinson contraptions” and were a reaction to the changing and increasingly complicated world order as much as anything. Just think of the rapidly evolving financial markets as one sign of the times! Following World War I, other cartoonists made similar cartoons. Like Rube Goldberg, giving us the concept of Rube Goldberg machines in the US.
And the very idea of breaking down simple operations into Boolean logic from those who didn’t understand the “why” would have seemed preposterous. I mean a wheel with 60 teeth or a complex series of switches and relays to achieve the same result? And yet with flip-flop circuits one would be able to process infinitely faster than it would take that wheel to turn with any semblance of precision. The Industrial Revolution of our data was to come.
And yet we were coming to a place in the world where we were just waking up to the reality of moving from analog to digital as Robinson passed away in 1944 with a series of electromechanical computers named after Robinson and then The Colossus. These came just one year after Claude Shannon and Alan Turing, two giants in the early history of computers, met at Bell Labs.
And a huge step in that transition was a paper by Alan Turing in 1936 called "On Computable Numbers with an Application to the Entscheidungsproblem.” This would become the basis for a programmable computing machine concept and so before the war, Alan Turing had published papers about the computability of problems using what we now call a Turing machine - or recipes. Some of the work on that paper was inspired by Max Newman, who helped Turing go off to Princeton to work on all the maths, where Turing would get a PhD in 1938. He returned home and started working part-time at the Government Code and Cypher school during the pre-war buildup.
Hitler invaded Poland the next year, sparking World War II. The Poles had gotten pretty good with codebreaking, being situated right between world powers Germany and Russia and their ability to see troop movements through decrypted communications was one way they were able to keep forces in optimal locations. And yet the Germans got in there. The Germans had built a machine called the Enigma that also allowed their Navy to encrypt communications. Unable to track their movements, Allied forces were playing a cat and mouse game and not doing very well at it. Turing came up with a new way of decrypting the messages and that went into a new version of the Polish Bomba.
Later that year, the UK declared war on Germany. Turing’s work resulted in a lot of other advances in cryptanalysis throughout the war. But he also brought home the idea of an electromechanical machine to break those codes - almost as though he’d written a paper on building machines to do such things years before.
The Germans had given away a key to decrypt communications accidentally in 1941 and the codebreakers at Bletchley Park got to work on breaking the machines that used the Lorenz Cipher in new and interesting ways. The work had reduced the amount of losses - but they needed more people. It was time intensive to go through the possible wheel positions or guess at them, and every week meant lives lost. Or they needed more automation of people tasks… So they looked to automate the process.
Turing and the others wrote to Churchill directly. Churchill started his memo to General Ismay with “ACTION THIS DAY” and so they were able to get more bombes up and running. Bill Tutte and the codebreakers worked out the logic to process the work done by hand. The same number of codebreakers were able to a ton more work. The first pass was a device with uniselectors and relays. Frank Morrell did the engineering design to process the logic. And so we got the alpha test of an automation machine they called the Tunny. The start positions were plugged in by hand and it could still take weeks to decipher messages.
Max Newman, Turing’s former advisor and mentor, got tapped to work on the project and Turing was able to take the work of Polish code breakers and others and add sequential conditional probability to guess at the settings of the 12 wheels of an Enigma machine and thus get to the point they could decipher messages coming out of the German navy on paper. No written records indicate that Turing was involved much in the project beyond that.
Max Newman developed the specs, heavily influenced by Turing’s previous work. They got to work on an electro-mechanical device we now call the Heath Robinson. They needed to be able to store data. They used paper tape - which could process a thousand characters per second using photocell readers - but there were two and they had to run concurrently. Tape would rip and two tapes running concurrently meant a lot might rip.
Charles Wynn-Williams was a brilliant physicist who worked with electric waves since the late 1920s at Trinity College, Cambridge and was recruited from a project helping to develop RADAR because he’d specifically worked on electronic counters at Cambridge. That work went into the counting unit, counting how many times a function returned a true result.
As we saw with Bell Labs, the telephone engineers were looking for ways to leverage switching electronics to automate processes for the telephone exchange. Turing recommended they bring in telephone engineer Tommy Flowers to design the Combining unit, which used vacuum tubes to implement Boolean logic - much as the paper Shannon wrote in 1936 that he gave Turing over tea at Bell labs earlier 1943. It’s likely Turing would have also heard of the calculator George Stibitz of Bell Labs built out of relay switches all the way back in 1937. Slow but more reliable than the vacuum tubes of the era. And it’s likely he influenced those he came to help by collaborating on encrypted voice traffic and likely other projects as much if not more. Inspiration is often best found at the intersectionality between ideas and cultures.
Flowers looked to use vacuum tubes where the wheel patterns were produced. This gave one less set of paper tapes and infinitely more reliability. And a faster result. The programs were stored but they were programmable. Input was made using the shift registers from the paper tape and thyratron rings that simulated the bitstream for the wheels. There was a master control unit that handled the timing between the clock, signals, readouts, and printing. It didn’t predate the Von Neumann architecture. But it didn’t not.
The switch panel had a group of switches used to define the algorithm being used with a plug-board defining conditions. The combination provided billions of combinations for logic processing. Vacuum tube valves were still unstable but they rarely blew when on, it was the switching process. So if they could have the logic gates flow through a known set of wheel settings the new computer would be more stable. Just one thing - they needed 1,500 valves! This thing would be huge!
And so the Colossus Mark 1 was approved by W.G. Radley in 1943. It took 50 people 11 months to build and was able to compute wheel settings for ciphered message tapes. Computers automating productivity at its finest. The switches and plugs could be repositioned and so not only was Colossus able get messages decrypted in hours but could be reprogrammed to do other tasks.
Others joined and they got the character reading up to almost 10,000 characters a second. They improved on the design yet again by adding shift registers and got over four times the speeds. It could now process 25,000 characters per second.
One of the best uses was to confirm that Hitler got tricked into thinking the attack at Normandy at D-Day would happen elsewhere. And so the invasion of Normandy was safe to proceed. But the ability to reprogram made it a mostly universal computing machine - proving the Turing machine concept and fulfilling the dreams of Charles Babbage a hundred years earlier.
And so the war ended in 1945. After the war, The Colossus machines were destroyed - except the two sent to British GHCQ where they ran until 1960. So the simple story of Colossus is that it was a series of computers built in England from 1943 to 1945, at the heart of World War II. The purpose: cryptanalysis - or code breaking.
Turing went on to work on the Automatic Computing Engine at the National Physical Laboratory after the war and wrote a paper on the ACE - but while they were off to a quick start in computing in England having the humans who knew the things, they were slow to document given that their wartime work was classified.
ENIAC came along in 1946 as did the development of Cybernetics by Norbert Wiener. That same year Max Newman wrote to John Von Neumann (Wiener’s friend) about building a computer in England. He founded the Royal Society Computing Machine Laboratory at Victory University of Manchester, got Turing out to help and built the Manchester Baby, along with Frederic Williams and Thomas Kilburn. In 1946 Newman would also decline becoming Sir Newman when he rejected becoming an OBE, or Officer of the Order of the British Empire, over the treatment of his protege Turing not being offered the same. That’s leadership. They’d go on to collaborate on the Manchester Mark I and Ferranti Mark I. Turing would work on furthering computing until his death in 1954, from taking cyanide after going through years of forced estrogen treatments for being a homosexual. He has since been pardoned post
Following the war, Flowers tried to get a loan to start a computer company - but the very idea was ludicrous and he was denied. He retired from the Post Office Research Station after spearheading the move of the phone exchange to an electric, or what we might think of as a computerized exchange.
Over the next decade, the work from Claude Shannon and other mathematicians would perfect the implementation of Boolean logic in computers. Von Neumann only ever mentioned Shannon and Turing in his seminal 1958 paper called The Computer And The Brain. While classified by the British government the work on Colossus was likely known to Von Neumann, who will get his own episode soon - but suffice it to say was a physicist turned computer scientist and worked on ENIAC to help study and develop atom bombs - and who codified the von Neumann architecture.
We did a whole episode on Turing and another on Shannon, and we have mentioned the 1945 article As We May Think where Vannevar Bush predicted and inspired the next couple generations of computer scientists following the advancements in computing around the world during the war. He too would have likely known of the work on Colossus at Bletchley Park. Maybe not the specifics but he certainly knew of ENIAC - which unlike Colossus was run through a serious public relations machine.
There are a lot of heroes to this story. The brave men and women who worked tirelessly to break, decipher, and analyze the cryptography. The engineers who pulled it off. The mathematicians who sparked the idea. The arrival of the computer was almost deterministic. We had work on the Atanasoff-Berry Computer at Iowa State, work at Bell Labs, Norbert Wiener’s work on anti-aircraft guns at MIT during the war, Konrad Zuse’s Z3, Colossus, and other mechanical and electromechanical devices leading up to it.
But deterministic doesn’t mean lacking inspiration. And what is the source of inspiration and when mixed with perspiration - innovation? There were brilliant minds in mathematics, like Turing. Brilliant physicists like Wynn-Williams. Great engineers like Flowers. That intersection between disciplines is the wellspring of many an innovation. Equally as important, then there’s a leader who can take the ideas, find people who align with a mission, and help clear roadblocks. People like Newman. When they have domain expertise and knowledge - and are able to recruit and keep their teams inspired, they can change the world. And then there are people with purse strings who see the brilliance and can see a few moves ahead on the chessboard - like Churchill. They make things happen.
And finally, there are the legions who carried on the work in theoretical, practical, and in the pure sciences. People who continue the collaboration between disciplines, iterate, and bring products to ever growing markets. People who continue to fund those innovations. It can be argued that our intrepid heroes in this story helped win a war - but that the generations who followed, by connecting humanity and bringing productivity gains to help free our minds to solve bigger and bigger problems will hopefully some day end war.
Thank you for tuning in to this episode of the History of Computing Podcast. We hope to cover your contributions. Drop us a line and let us know how we can. And thank you so much for listening. We are so, so lucky to have you.