A remarkable Soviet computing pioneer

Sixty years ago today, in the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv, the Soviet Academy of Sciences finally granted formal recognition to Sergey Lebedev’s pioneering MESM project. MESM, a Russian abbreviation for “Small Electronic Calculating Machine,” is regarded as the earliest, fully operational electronic computer in the Soviet Union—and indeed continental Europe.

Recently we were privileged to get a first-hand account of Lebedev’s achievements from Boris Malinovsky, who worked on MESM and is now a leading expert on Soviet-era computing.

Described by some as the “Soviet Alan Turing,” Sergey Lebedev had been thinking about computing as far back as the 1930’s, until interrupted by war. In 1946 he was made director of Kyiv’s Institute of Electrical Engineering. Soon after, stories of “electronic brains” in the West began to circulate and his interest in computing revived.

Sergey Lebedev*

Initially, Lebedev’s superiors were skeptical, and some in his team felt working on a “calculator”—how they thought of a computer—was a step backward compared to electrical and space systems research. Lebedev pressed on regardless, eventually finding funding from the Rocketry department and space to work in a derelict former monastery in Feofania, on the outskirts of Kyiv.

Work on MESM got going properly at the end of 1948 and, considering the challenges, the rate of progress was remarkable. Ukraine was still struggling to recover from the devastation of its occupation during WWII, and many of Kyiv’s buildings lay in ruins. The monastery in Feofania was among the buildings destroyed during the war, so the MESM team had to build their working quarters from scratch—the laboratory, metalworking shop, even the power station that would provide electricity. Although small—just 20 people—the team was extraordinarily committed. They worked in shifts 24 hours a day, and many lived in rooms above the laboratory. (You can listen to a lively account of this time in programme 3 of the BBC’s ”Electronic brains” series.)

MESM and team members in 1951. From left to right: Lev Dashevsky, Zoya Zorina-Rapota, Lidiya Abalyshnikova, Tamara Petsukh, Evgeniy Dedeshko

MESM ran its first program on November 6, 1950, and went into full-time operation in 1951. In 1952, MESM was used for top-secret calculations relating to rocketry and nuclear bombs, and continued to aid the Institute’s research right up to 1957. By then, Lebedev had moved to Moscow to lead the construction of the next generation of Soviet supercomputers, cementing his place as a giant of European computing. As for MESM, it met a more prosaic fate—broken into parts and studied by engineering students in the labs at Kyiv’s Polytechnic Institute.

*All photos thanks to ukrainiancomputing.org.

Searching closer

The global trends revealed in 2011 year-end Zeitgeist. In addition to looking broadly at topics from more than 40 countries around the world, the site included the most popular local terms from more than 30 major cities in the United States. Looking at these lists, I was surprised to see that, from city to city, almost all the terms across all the lists were related to local news, education, civic services or entertainment and activities. I wanted to take a minute to take a deeper dive into these specific local trends that you won’t see published in Zeitgeist.

In nearly every single U.S. city we looked at, the top ten local terms showed that people were using Google to find local news stations and learn more about educational organizations. Searches for school districts, universities and local libraries made the list in ten states, from the Hennepin County Library in Minneapolis, MN to the Chicago Public Library in Illinois. Pittsburgh, PA was the most media-hungry city in Zeitgeist this year, with all of their top 5 terms related to local news stations, while in New York City and Houston, TX, no news sources made the top ten lists.

The data also showed some interesting regional differences within single states as well. Orlando, FL was a leading city in terms of education, with related terms making up 40% of the list. But in Miami, less than 250 miles away, no education-related terms made the list. While local TV station WRAL came in at the top of the list in Raleigh, NC, people three hours away in Charlotte bumped the station to their #3 spot, behind the local Charlotte Observer, which came in at #1.

People in many U.S. cities were also using Google to connect with civic services, from the Maricopa County Assessor in Phoenix, AZ to the Cuyahoga County Auditor in Columbus, OH. We also saw many terms related to public transit and traffic, which was of particular interest to residents of Los Angeles, who put SigAlert, the California Highway Patrol’s traffic report site, as the #1 most popular local term. The city most concerned with getting out and about, though, was New York, where the top four search terms were all related to transportation, be it by subway, train or car.

With national unemployment in the United States above 9% for most of the year, there was a strong interest in unemployment and finding jobs locally. The term unemployment came up on lists in Kansas City, Philadelphia and Portland, OR, and in total more than ten of the 31 cities we looked at had a term related to unemployment or job-seeking on their list. In Detroit, MI and Houston, TX, the only two cities where two unemployment-related terms made the top ten, Google searchers were also taking initiative, looking at job posting sites like the Michigan Talent Bank or classifieds like Greensheets to try and find their next job online.

The local lists didn’t just reflect hard times. Nearly every city had a mall, fair, amusement park, sports team or other fun activity or destination in the top ten (the only holdout was Washington D.C.). Indianapolis, IN and Phoenix both had their respective lotteries in the number three spot—looks like lots of people there were feeling lucky! Across the country, Americans also looked for ways to relax, from restaurant week in Boston to the Lenox mall in Atlanta and Summerfest in Madison, WI.

The searches people make are a fantastic pulse on what is happening around the world and close to home. We pay attention to what you’re looking for so we can come up with new and better ways to help you find it, no matter where you’re searching from.

Test your creativity

The main goal at Google Search is to bring you the most relevant and useful results as quickly as possible. But, we are aware that often that is only part of your task or journey. Sometimes, you need more than simple results. You might want to learn, to discover, to be entertained or get insights.

Insights can happen when you least expect them. To improve their chances, it’s good to try other things, or do things differently once in awhile. As a lifelong fan and connoisseur of New Yorker style cartoons, I always believed in the power of humor not just to entertain but to enlighten. I have tried to connect humor to everything I do (although, I have to admit, not always successfully). The best cartoonists possess great insights, which they illustrate in a clever package that we can consume in seconds and yet remember for years.

With all of this in mind, today we’re connecting Google search and cartoons through a search caption challenge. Cartoon caption contests have a long history dating back at least to the 1930s, as can be seen in this example I found from Ballyhoo magazine. For our modern version, we worked with artists like Matthew Diffee, Emily Flake, Christoph Niemann, Danny Shanahan and Jim Woodring, who created cartoons that place characters in unusual, interesting and funny situations—all with a common twist. In each cartoon, one of the characters is doing a Google search. We’ve left it to you to imagine what they’d be searching for at that moment, and left the caption blank for you to fill in with your answer.

To participate, go to Inside Search and submit your idea. Your caption will appear on the site, and you can share it with friends via a unique link. You can also vote on your favorite submissions and the most popular will rise to the top.

We hope this game helps you think in a way you wouldn’t otherwise, and maybe get some insights. Or just have fun.