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.

Geographic mis-representation?

Cartographic mis-representation?
update [20/09/2011] from HaperCollins Publishers at the bottom
Most maps lie, they are only a representation of what is out in the real world, simplified, distorted and can be mis-leading.
The Map of Greenland by the Times Atlas is a cause of concern left is the 12 year old representation of Greenland, the right is the revised current 2011 representation – side by side can be very clear they are representing less ice than before by a huge margin.

Image from BBC News (updated)

Image against a recent satellite imagery – the out-skirting coastline and more noticeable is the difference in colour representation. (There is also seasonal change that is difficult to represent in one snapshot of the cartographic map.)
Though a lighter (grey) would of be wiser to graduate the contrast.
“Publicity for the latest edition of the atlas, launched last week,
said warming had turned 15% of Greenland’s former ice-covered land
“green and ice-free”.

Via Mapperz

Space Archeologists discovering ancient tombs in Egypt


While we’ve often referred to them as “Armchair Archeologists“, Dr. Sarah Parcak is doing similar work by finding thousands of important ancient settlements through the use of infrared satellite imagery.



According to Gizmodo, the satellite that captures the infrared imagery is accurate to one meter, and makes pyramids, tombs and settlements easier to spot even if they are completely buried. Because ancient Egyptians used mud brick, it is much denser than the soil around it and can be picked up with infrared satellite imagery.

She recently traveled to Egypt to during which they excavated a 3,000-year-old house, and the outline of the structure matched her imagery almost exactly! This was great validation of the work she’s been doing.

You can read more about what she has done and her future plans on the BBC website.

Stefan at Ogle Earth has dug into this story as well, and has created a nice file to use for comparison purposes. Grab his KMZ file to see a comparison between some of Dr. Parcek’s imagery and the base Google Earth imagery for the same area.