Exactly 35 years ago, the first IBM PC in history went on sale, but long before that day — in the 1960’s, one of the centers of Soviet Cybernetics was in Belarus. Let us remember the story of a family of computing machinery “Minsk” which won All-Union glory, and then lost it.
The gap between the USSR and the western countries in the field of computer technology in the 1950’s, according to the most optimistic estimates, was at least 10 years. Therefore, in August 1956, the decision of the USSR Council of Ministers was the start of the expansion of the production of electronic computers across the country. The resolution also provided for the establishment of centres for their production, design and development, one of which was supposed to stay in the BSSR.
Soon in Minsk, the Ordzhonikidze Plant was opened, and by 1958, the Special Design Bureau (SDB) was set up to support and upgrade the computer. Subsequently, the SDB was transformed into an independent design and research company – NIIEVM – which is still working to this day.
“Minsk-1” – the first original Belarusian computer
*First-generation computer Minsk-1*
The first completely original project at the plant became a computer names “Minsk-1”. Development of the device occurred in a fairly short time – 18 months. In parallel with the design of the machine, they also worked on preparing its series production.
Computer testing took place in September 1960, and the first production samples appeared in the same year. The speed of the computer was estimated at 2.5 thousand operations per second (for comparison: the speed developed by the Moscow Institute of Electronic Control Machines computer M-3 was about 30 operations per second).
Achieving these results was obtained in part through the use of high-speed memory on ferrite cores, which replaced the older memory on magnetic drums (in appearance, the memory on magnetic drums resembled the tank of a washing machine).
Ferrite cores were small rings of special magnetic alloy, 1.5 mm in diameter. For the “Minsk-1” there were 80 thousand such rings.
Ferrite core memory.
Programming for this computer was carried out in machine code, but included in the “delivery” of the machine was a library of 100 programs. Also some of the world’s first auto-programming systems — translators “Autocode Inzhener” and “Autocode Economist” – were developed for “Minsk-1”.
Another competitive advantage of the machine was its relatively modest size. It took about 4 square meters of space to accommodate the entire system, while some other computers (for example, the Moscow BESM) took as much as 100 square meters.
All this has allowed the computer “Minsk-1” in the first half of the 60’s to become the leading type of tube production machines in the entire USSR. For four years, from 1960 to 1964, 230 “Minsk-1” computers were made, including a number modified for various industries.
“Minsk-11” was modified to work with seismic information and telegraph lines, “Minsk-12” was created with four times the external memory on magnetic tape. “Minsk-14” and “Minsk-16” were intended for the processing of meteorological data, and the “Minsk-100” was created by order of the Ministry of Interior of the USSR for the detection and storage of fingerprints and became the original fingerprint computer storage and retrieval system.
All-Union success of the “Minsk-2” series of computers
In parallel with the release of the “Minsk-1” at the Plant, the development of the second generation of computers, “Minsk-2″, was undertaken.”Minsk-2” subsequently became the first semiconductor computer in the USSR.
The speed of the unit was estimated at 5-6 million operations per second. It is important to note that the “Minsk-2” became the first computer in the entire Soviet Union where text could be entered and processed. Before this, all the machines worked exclusively with computer code.
However, the serial production of the machine did not go ahead straight away. The USSR State Committee for Electronics, to which the technical design of the machine was sent for approval, refused to accept it. As far as the Committee was concerned, the SDB factory should only be engaged in the testing and improvement of already existing computers rather than being involved with developing new ones.
It was only after the intervention of senior management of the Byelorussian SSR that the project was approved, and then in 1963 full-scale production began. In all, the plant issued 118 “Minsk-2” computers.
On the basis of the “Minsk-2”, a number of modified computers were also created. The “Minsk-26” and “Minsk-27” , for example, we intended for processing data received from meteorological rockets and satellites «Meteor».
The most popular model was the “Minsk-22” (in all, 734 units were released), which compared with the base model, had several times more RAM, and a tape drive.
The device was extremely popular in the field of planning and economics. Input and output devices that used punched cards were connected the the computer, as well as alphanumeric printing devices.
But the breakthrough model can be considered to be the “Minsk-23”, released in 1966.
The performance of the “Minsk-23” was about 7 thousand operations per second. It used many, unique for the time, technical developments which allowed the machine to work in multitasking mode. Amongst the technical developments were: an advanced system of interruptions and suspensions, universal communication with external devices, and a protected area of memory for system programs.
The unit could run up to 3 working and 5 service programs simultaneously. To do this, the machine was equipped with the first “Manager” operating system in the USSR.
Several large Soviet enterprises were based on the “Minsk-23” computer. For example, the system used in the Moscow association “Mosmoloko” was based on it, as was a system for the sale and reservation of seats on “Aeroflot” flights. Unfortunately the “Minsk-23” was not commercially successful – the plant produced a total of 28 machines.
The last of the Mohicans: The “Minsk 32” computer.
The “Minsk-32” computer was released in 1968 and incorporated all of the best achievements of the previous models in the series.
In addition to substantial productivity gains (the machine processed about 30 − 35 thousands operations per second), the presence of a multiprogramming system (up to 4 independent channels could operate at the same time), the ability to use Multimachine systems, and the “Minsk 32” ran software that was compatible with previous computers from the “Minsk” family.
In the 60’s it was a common practice to create a complex and expensive program that could only run on a single model of computer system, so the implementation of such interoperability became a real innovation and highlight of the “Minsk-32”.
From 1968 to 1975, about 3 thousand of these machines were released, but despite its popularity, the “Minsk-32” was the last representative of the whole “Minsk” family of computers.
Why did “Minsk” computers disappear?
A common problem for all Soviet computers of the late 60’s (with a few exceptions like the “Minsk-32”) was a complete hardware and software incompatibility with each other.
Programs designed for a specific computer model simply could not be used on other machines. This, in turn, significantly increased the cost of development, where designers had to “write” a program virtually from scratch.
At the same time, the American company IBM didn’t wait for anyone and in 1965 introduced a new, third generation of electronic computers running on integrated circuits – the IBM-360, where the software was fully compatible across models.
Unfortunately, of the two development paths, the second was chosen and the development of the “Minsk” family of computers was discontinued. In 1970, the founders of the family of these machines were awarded a USSR State Prize, and since 1971 the Minsk plant for the production of computers began to produce a Single Series computers (UCS), the architecture of which was borrowed from IBM.