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What Did the Americans Know? A Review of Select Periodicals

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Abstract. The impact of American developments in computing on the work done in the former Soviet Union is well known. Less well understood is whether developments in the Soviet Union or other COMECON states influenced Western computing. Most of current and past historiography treats the work in the respective blocs as discrete, yet exchange of knowledge did occur. This paper attempts to investigate knowledge diffusion about computing in the Soviet Union by looking at three publications aimed at different audiences: The New York Times daily newspaper, Datamation magazine, an early periodical aimed at data processing professionals, and Soviet Cybernetics Review, a specialist research publication. It is shown that information about general computing work done in the Soviet Union was available in unclassified environments. Questions about the reliability, timeliness, and relevance of the information are explored.


The Soviet Union, the countries of Eastern Europe, and the COMECON members are not a locus in the dominant narrative of computing history in the general English-language literature. Pre-electronic work on calculators, punched card equipment, and especially the late 19th century Russian census, have been addressed as part of a global story of automated calculation and statistics;[1] descriptions of the places, people, and systems developed in the age of electronics equivalent to Anglo-American developments are notably absent.

While pertinent papers by primarily European authors can be found in journals (most conspicuously in recent issues of the IEEE Annals of the History of Computing)[2] as well as conference proceedings and essay collections,[3] the principal mention of the Soviet Union in broader computing history texts is within the context of the SAGE air defense system or the origins of the Internet.[4] These descriptions rarely explore specific technical developments in the Eastern bloc, but rather focus on perceived threats to the United States and the political and technological responses to them.

Two notable exceptions to this tendency are found outside the main body of scholarship in two works. Paul Ceruzzi, in the introduction to his 1998 book A History of Modern Computing, makes the laudable attempt to define the term "computer" and acknowledges the importance of considering developments in the Soviet Union: "More research on the history of Soviet computing needs to be done."[5] The second, more comprehensive example is the appendix in Herman Goldstine's 1972 classic book[6], which details work done in Russia, East Germany, Czechoslovakia, and Poland.

It would be superficial to try to explain the virtual absence of Eastern bloc computing developments in the Englishlanguage literature as an attempt by the so-called winners to rewrite history; the more likely reason is the difficulty in accessing primary sources that are mostly in Russian or other languages in which Western scholars have limited expertise. Indeed, similar deficiencies can be observed in the area of Japanese computing.

This does however raise the following question: If primary sources are difficult to access, what contemporaneous secondary English-language sources did exist? Was there journalistic or scholarly analysis of computing developments in the Eastern bloc? How widespread was this coverage and did it promote awareness amongst the general public? In short, what did the Americans know? And how can these secondary sources provide the basis for an international computing history?[7]

Survey Scope

A survey of the three periodicals chosen – The New York Times, Datamation magazine, and Soviet Cybernetic Review – provides some insight into the flow of information about computing from the Eastern bloc to the United States. These publications targeted different publics and their presentation of developments by "the enemy" has to be understood within that adversarial geopolitical setting.

In an effort to limit the scope of this survey, a number of other publications are intentionally excluded. The most obvious omission is magazines, journals, and proceedings by professional organizations like the ACM or the IEEE. Overview articles by scientists who visited the Soviet Union were one source of information and at times were published in these and other venues.[8] Specialist journals outside the computing field, especially those in mathematics, economics, and industrial and aeronautical engineering, likely offered complementary viewpoints. Archives of relevant papers for scholarly research are also not considered, the most significant of which in the United States is at the Charles Babbage Institute.[9] Finally, the endpoint for this survey is 1991. Additionally, the author would be remiss not to point out the 1985 two-volume bibliography and timeline Soviet Cybernetic Technology as a reference for further research.[10]

The New York Times

Established in 1851, The New York Times is considered the United States' "newspaper of record"[11] with a peak average weekday circulation of 1.185 million copies in 1993[12]. Targeting an educated audience and eschewing sensationalist reporting in favor of investigative journalism, The New York Times is widely available in the United States; sales outside the New York market began as early as 1910.[13]

The Times introduced electronic computing to its readers with a February 15, 1946 front-page article on ENIAC.[14] Soviet developments did not appear in its pages until 1954 when, in a summary of an Izvestia article by Axel I. Berg, the use of "electronic computing and calculating instruments" was identified as critical to Soviet defense capability.[15] More noteworthy, however, is a front-page article in 1955 that declared: "Soviet Electronic Brain Equals Best in U.S., Americans Find." The article, clearly about BESM, makes references to Sergey A. Lebedev who discussed some specifications of the machine and its language translation abilities.[16]

The New York Times articles are frequently sourced from Pravda or Izvestia or quote U.S scientists, business people, or government officials. The focus of the reporting changes over the decades: In the 1950s and early 1960s, technical advances and applications in the fields of defense, economic planning, and language translation are emphasized.[17] By the late 1960s and 1970s, the tone in reporting had changed: The computing "gap" and the attempts by the Soviet Union to catch up with the West, featured more prominently. This is especially apparent during the advent of the ES series of IBM System/360 compatibles in the early 1970s, which was greeted with much hope that these new machines might answer this challenge for the Soviet Union and its COMECON partners.[18] During the years of perestroika and glasnost, the dominant themes shifted to trade, illegal exports of computers to the Soviet Union, and also alleged industrial espionage.[19] The more civilized battlefield of computer chess received attention with the advent of computer chess championships.[20]

While there was the occasional report on computing in the Eastern bloc, two accounts, one short and one long, stand out. In a terse five paragraphs, next to advertisements for Christmas cards and gifts, Willis Ware of the RAND Corporation recounted the 1959 visit by an American delegation to the Soviet Union – the very visit that eventually led to the creation of Soviet Cybernetics Review.[21]

The other article is more substantial: A full six pages in The New York Times Magazine offered the reader a glimpse into the world of Russian computing.[22] The contentious ideological history of Norbert Wiener's cybernetics in the Soviet Union provided the backdrop for a report on the realpolitik of the time. A predictable assessment of the "computing gap," this time by IBM's chief scientist, completed this very readable story.

Datamation Magazine

Datamation magazine was first published in October of 1957 under the unwieldy title "Research & Engineering – The Magazine of Datamation."[23] The success of a publication solely dedicated to information processing at this early point in time was questionable, but circulation of the twice-monthly subscription magazine reached 24,000 in its second year.[24] Despite some ups and downs, especially in the 1970s, 199,000 monthly copies were printed when the magazine went to a Web-only format in 1998.[25]

Datamation's primary audience was the professional in the fledgling computing field – computer users as well as computer makers began considering Datamation a "must-read." The tone of the articles was oftentimes humorous, controversial, and sometimes verging on offensive by today's standards. The advisors to the magazine were of a very high caliber and Datamation wielded significant influence in the field.[26]

During its print run, Datamation covered Soviet computing to a surprising extent. Not only did short news items appear in the "Look Ahead" or the early, more internationally focused "Abroad" columns, but larger feature articles were not uncommon. Indeed, the cover of the November 1963 issue showed a stylized Russian building with the computer names MESM, BESM, URAL-4, and M-20 emblazoned on it. Most of those feature articles tended to be surveys and, by the 1970s, extensive discussions of the ES series.[27] RAND researchers contributed some of the articles: Paul Armer discussed Soviet cybernetics in 1963; Wade Holland provided information on the BESM-6 and the impending third generation architecture. [28] Survey articles expanded beyond the Soviet Union to other COMECON countries and China.[29]

A passionate plea for more open exchange of information by then editor Harold Bergstein, following a tour of the Soviet Union by Datamation staff, stands out in the August 1962 issue. After the obligatory mention of the reports from the 1959 visit by a U.S. delegation and references to the surveys published, the editor exclaimed: "On the whole, however, the dearth of information is appalling." His proposal was to exchange publications between the two nations to gain a better understanding of their mutual capabilities.[30]

In line with the larger geopolitical changes, Datamation's reporting mirrored the themes that The New York Times covered. Trade was a major factor; an article by Control Data Corporation chairman William Norris in 1978 laid out a way to do "High Technology Trade with the Communists."[31]

Soviet Cybernetics Review[32]

The origin of Soviet Cybernetics Review (SCR) lies in the abovementioned visit by a U.S. delegation of scientists to the Soviet Union in 1959 – the second part of an exchange of visits between the two countries in that year. Two of those scientists were Willis Ware and Paul Armer of the RAND Corporation think tank. As a result of this visit, Wade Holland, the eventual editor of SCR, was hired by RAND in 1962 to work as a translator for Russian-language correspondence and articles. Within three years, a department of about four people was engaged in the translation of materials concerning computing in the Soviet Union.

There were several factors that led to the creation of SCR. Initially Wade Holland translated personal correspondence. At that time, two RAND researchers (R. E. Levien and M. E. Maron) began work on inference databases and were investigating possible datasets to use for their new system. A "sociology of Soviet computing," the data generated by Holland's translation project, was to become the test case for their system and a research memorandum was published on this work in 1969.[33] It is important to point out that Holland's background is not in computing, but in the Russian language, and that the initial objective of the translation work was to provide information to RAND researchers about the people and places doing the work, not necessarily about the systems developed. A side effect of this work was the creation of a Russian–English dictionary of computer terms that Holland created in cooperation with Willis Ware.[34]

As the project grew in scope, the conscious decision was made to solely collect open information. Lists of books were acquired from Soviet publishing houses and publications ranging from daily newspapers to books by The Academy and universities were collected in a library at RAND that contained a large number of volumes. Avoiding information obtained covertly was also intended to show to the CIA that the quality of intelligence gathered was on par with what could be accomplished using espionage techniques. During the work on the project, it did become clear to the people at RAND that some misinformation about the computing advances in the Soviet Union was published intentionally; this does not however challenge the usefulness of the RAND publications per se, but it emphasizes the need for multiple sources to the historian.

An extensive report of the 1959 visit was published as a RAND Research Memorandum as well as in other journals. [35] Following some other reports, a series of research memoranda entitled "Soviet Cybernetics Technology" was issued by RAND, which were available outside the organization by request. The first document in the series was a collection of translated papers from 1959 through 1962; the papers that followed were more topical in nature.[36] Holland's team came across interesting pieces of information during their research and decided to initiate an informal publication series entitled Soviet Cybernetics: Recent News Items (SC:RNI). The choice of the word "cybernetics" for the titles of these series emphasized the Soviet view of computing, an aspect of computing history that is the extensively explored in Slava Gerovitch's 2002 book.[37]

SC:RNI ran from 1967 until the middle of 1969, when it became Soviet Cybernetics Review. RAND chose to make SCR available on request and then on a subscription basis starting in March of 1972. Six issues per year were available at the annual rate of $48; a not insignificant amount of money at the time, but accessible to the large government institutions and libraries that subscribed. Subscribers were rigorously screened, but there is anecdotal evidence that suggests SCR was a valued source for Soviet engineers and scientists who read it to find out about work done in their own country. Detailed information about the subscriber base does not appear to exist any longer.

SC:RNI and SCR were initially published monthly and went to a bi-monthly cycle in 1971. SCR ceased publication with the May/June 1974 special issue on the ES series of computers. A decreasing emphasis on computing developments unique to the Eastern bloc and internal RAND issues concerning its primarily military funding led to this decision.

The content of SC:RNI and SCR was broad and deep: They included translations of articles, commentary and feature articles by RAND staff, brief news items, press summaries, and biographies. The scope ranged from detailed hardware and programming descriptions to articles critical of state policy or stories on the public perception of computing. Different computing histories were represented, from theoretical computer science to applications in process control or medicine, from small accounting machines to supercomputers, analog and hybrid simulators to educational systems. Photographs, tables, diagrams, charts, and even the occasional cartoon were reprinted. The vast majority of content concerned the Soviet Union, but other COMECON countries' developments were mentioned; an article on computing in China appeared.[38]

The run of SC:RNI/SCR was relatively short (1967–1974), but one particular topic dominates the last three years of its publication. The development of the ES series (also known as the Unified series or Ryad) takes center stage. Stories of computer exports by Britain's ICL or the American computer makers IBM and CDC also appear in the early 1970s.[39]


The three periodicals surveyed here show a range of materials. Clearly, information about developments of computing in the Soviet Union was made available to the different American publics outlined. The relevance of these sources to the scholar varies. Journalism's breadth comes at the expense of the kind of descriptive detail the historian is often seeking. The quality and reliability of the journalist's original sources have to be questioned; the intent of information provided by the Soviet press is but one area to be considered. The delay incurred by the Soviet publishing cycle and the subsequent translations further complicates the selection of sources to the historian.

The New York Times articles rarely offer investigative depth, but their social and cultural settings can seldom be found in the more internalist publications. Considering the concision and topicality mandated by the newspaper format, their primary utility to the technology historian might lie in their contextualizing power. It is advisable to view The New York Times critically, despite or possibly because of its standing. An enlightening review of The New York Times' leanings on matters concerning the Soviet Union was explored as far back as 1946;[40] more modern periodical studies may be able to offer additional insight.

The extent of reporting on Soviet computing in Datamation magazine beyond short news items is surprising. There was an apparent awareness of the interest on the part of their readership and successful cooperation with authors who were familiar with the field. Datamation was a U.S. magazine, with a strong voice and as such could be tendentious. The early technical features were pithy and the language offers insight into the mentalities of the technical authors and their readership. It may prove useful to forgo the later articles concerning questions of trade or policy however, as business and news journals likely provide better sources.

The RAND publications are an outstanding reference for any research on the topic of Soviet-era computing until the mid-1970s. Selection of texts is an interpretive act. But the breadth of primary sources chosen for translation and the commentaries in SC:RNI and SCR elevate these series above other secondary sources. The analyses and feature articles offer hermeneutical integrity, which might be attributable to the RAND team's linguistics background.

SCR's distribution into the Soviet Union could be a productive research area in itself. The cited anecdotal evidence suggests that SCR served as a trading zone between different communities of researchers within the Soviet Union. This subject deserves further investigation.

This paper is just a starting point. It is neither intended to be comprehensive nor quantitative nor does it offer significant interpretation of the surveyed periodicals. It is meant to encourage American scholars to consider the above and other sources when producing comparative or truly international computing historiography. It may also provide inspiration for science journalists who seek to popularize the notion of a historical Soviet computing tradition to a broader, non-academic audience. Some very approachable examples of this already exist;[41] further exploration of this topic could foster a greater understanding of the parallel technology histories of the two superpowers during the Cold War.


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2. IEEE Annals of the History of Computing 28.3 (2006); IEEE Annals of the History of Computing 32.2 (2010).

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4. Redmond, Kent, and Thomas Smith. From Whirlwind to MITRE: The R&D Story of The SAGE Air Defense Computer. MIT Press, 2000; Hafner, Katie and Matthew Lyon. Where Wizards Stay Up Late: The Origins Of The Internet. Simon & Schuster, 1998.

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15. "Electronics Gain Hailed by Soviet." The New York Times. 9 May 1954: 50.

16. Hangen, Welles. "Soviet Electronic Brain Equals Best in U.S., Americans Find." The New York Times. 11 Dec. 1955: 1+.

17. Schmeck, Jr. , Harold M. "Translating Gain by Soviet is Cited." The New York Times. 17 Sep. 1959: 14.

18. Shabad, Theodore. "Moscow Unveils Computer System." The New York Times. 7 May 1973: 9.

19. Schuyten, Peter J. "Soviet's Univac Arouses Concern." The New York Times. 3 Jan. 1980: D2; Associated Press. "Big Role in Soviet Computers Laid to Rosenberg Associate." The New York Times. 19 Sep. 1983: B14.

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29. Szuprowicz, Bohdan O. "Computers from Communist Countries." Datamation. Sep. 1976:79–86; Szuprowicz, Bohdan O. "China's Computer." Datamation. June 1975:83–88.

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41.Hally, Mike. Electronic Brains: Stories from the Dawn of the Computer Age. Joseph Henry Press, 2005.

SORUCOM-2011 PROCEEDINGS: Second International Conference on the History of Computers and Informatics in the Soviet Union and Russian Federation
12–16 September, Veliky Novgorod, Russia
Edited by A. N. Tomilin

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