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Updated: April 12, 2011 12:13 IST

Story of computer technology in India

D. Murali
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Do you know that ‘Apsara’ was the name that Jawaharlal Nehru chose for India’s first nuclear reactor? Or, that he also named the country’s first computer, TIFRAC or Tata Institute of Fundamental Research Automatic Calculator?

“The Apsara and TIFRAC design teams were working together and interacting regularly. There was much jubilation when Apsara went critical for the first time,” narrates P. V. S. Rao in the opening essay of ‘Homi Bhabha and the Computer Revolution’ edited by R. K. Shyamasundar and M. A. Pai (www.oup.com).

Stored program

There was similar excitement, adds Rao, when all the subunits – viz. the arithmetic, memory, control, and display units – operated in synchrony, and the first program could be run on the system. “It was a small machine language program cumulatively adding one number to another; it looped a number of times and stopped after a specified number of cycles. To the design team, the first Indian computer running a ‘stored program’ was as much a milestone as the first Indian reactor sustaining a chain reaction of nuclear fission!”

The pilot model of the computer, completed in 1956, was a parallel, asynchronous, fixed point, and single address machine with a word length of 12 bits and a two-dimensional ferrite core memory of 256 words, the essay informs. “Input and output were accomplished via paper tape and teletype. The total power consumption of this machine was about 10 kw.”

‘Intangible’ item

An important component of the TIFRAC was an ‘intangible’ item named its assembler, designed and implemented by R. Narasimhan and Kamalakar S. Kane, recounts S. Ramani in his essay. It was almost certainly the first item of system software to be implemented in India, he notes.

A snatch of information of use to novices is that, as against an application program which has specific uses, system software is an essential part of a computer system that is necessary to implement the very complex functionality that computer systems need to provide. As Ramani elaborates, the TIFR computer group had recognised in 1959-60 the importance of software. “This was a time when the term ‘computer software’ meant nothing to anyone outside a small community of specialists in the world.”

Trust and confidence as inputs

Another essay, authored by S. R. Vijayakar and Y. S. Mayya, traces the birth of TDC12, ‘the first Indian-built electronic digital computer’ commissioned by Vikram Sarabhai at Bhabha Atomic Research Centre on January 21, 1969.

TDC stood for Trombay Digital Computer series of ECIL (Electronics Corporation of India Ltd), and the computer was the result of the work of “a small band of young engineers and scientists, fresh from the colleges, without any previous knowledge of computers or guidance from people with hands-on experience in the field… Their only inputs were the trust and confidence that their superiors reposed in them. The key figure was Sivasubramanian Srikantan, a ‘veteran’ of 36 years…’”

All that Srikantan had with him were a few handbooks on computers pertaining to Programmed Data Processor (PDP), Hewlett Packard (HP), and Honeywell and Nova series, the authors narrate. ECIL benefited from the linkages with the only other places in the country where computer activity was being pursued, viz. TIFR, Jadhavpur University (which developed the ISIJU computer in association with the Indian Statistical Institute), and IIT Kanpur (where computer science was being taught).

A predecessor to TDC12 was EAC (Electronic Analogue Computer) machine from Srikantan’s team in 1964. About ten of these computers were sold to various engineering colleges in the country! “One of the very interesting applications for which this computer was put to use was the design of the flyover bridge at Kemps Corner, Mumbai, in association with Roorkee and Osmania universities. The system was also employed for the simulation of control systems of CIRUS reactor.”

Intensive course

An essay on the impact of computer science education, by V. Rajaraman, opens by travelling back in time to IIT Kanpur, prior to August 1964 when IBM 1620 arrived in the campus. Three professors led by Harry D. Huskey of the University of California, came to IIT to prepare the groundwork to receive the computer and train the faculty to run it and use it, the author reminisces.

A ten-day course in computing was conducted for scientists, engineers, and academics from various laboratories of CSIR (Council of Scientific and Industrial Research), IARI (Indian Agricultural Research Institute), DRDO (Defence Research & Development Organisation), ISRO (Indian Space Research Organisation), and universities. “The course was intensive and required all the participants to program ten problems using Fortran, punch them on cards, execute the programs, correct errors and re-run programs until they executed successfully giving correct results.”

Computer books

As author of books in computer education, Rajaraman tells the tale of how a book on ‘Principles of Computer Programming’ was rejected by three publishers in the 1960s because they felt there was no market for such a book in the country. In 1969, when it was finally published, priced at Rs 15, the first year sales were 6,000 copies, demonstrating ‘the pent-up demand to learn about computers in India.’

He emphasises that the unique aspect of IIT Kanpur’s course was the creation well-rounded engineers with a focus both on software and hardware. “Information technology industry was just starting in India and trying to build minicomputers. Several companies such as ECIL, Wipro, HCL, ORG Systems, DCM Data Systems, and PSI were in hardware design and TCS was in software design.”

M. Tech. students from IIT Kanpur pioneered both machine and software design, the author extols, and makes a special mention of some of the students who started their own IT companies later, such as N. R. Narayana Murthy of Infosys and Narendra Kale of Kale Consultants.

Ideas to continue IT success

An essay on the Indian software industry by Narayana Murthy, compiled from his speeches, offers a few ideas to continue our success in IT. Foremost is his call to become visa-independent, what with the developed countries restricting work visas such as H1B.

As antidote, recruit local talent in the host countries to perform all customer-site activities, he advises. Also, “the industry should drive non-linear revenues by creating and monetising intellectual property. While it has built a growing brand in technology and business services, the industry has to achieve a similar recognition for its software products.”

One other suggestion in the essay is to embrace competition, ‘the greatest management guru.’ Unless Indian companies realise the importance of competition and customer focus, the use of IT will not become all-pervasive in the corporate world, reasons Murthy. “This is even truer of government departments and the public sector. For these institutions to deliver faster, better, and cheaper services to the citizens by way of e-governance and e-commerce, they have to invest heavily in IT and reap the benefits on an urgent basis.”

May all be disease-free

A differently-titled essay is of Bud Mishra titled, ‘Sarve Santu Niramaya’ (meaning, ‘May all be disease-free’). He is of the view that the emerging fields of computational systems biology and population genomics analysis could be the next important high-technology areas for India to nurture.

India’s ambition, he says, should be to continue developing technologies with the goal of establishing herself as a global superpower and a world leader, not necessarily in a military sense or even in an economic sense, but as an example representing the ambitions of all humanity and having its fount embedded in knowledge, science, and technology – all aimed to end human suffering. The investment in biotechnology, nanotechnology, robotics, etc. would be the necessary steps in moving India in that direction, explains Mishra.

“We must strive never to forget that we are just a temporary clonal eruption of a tiny, fragile, young infantile species that almost went extinct twice. Nor should we belittle the fact that, despite its lowly origin, something bigger holds true for this altruistic, trusting, and tolerant species – more than E. coli or elephants…”

Imperative addition to any IT professional’s shelf.

**

Tailpiece

“With advanced GIS we could guide the squad vehicles…”

“Through traffic?”

“Yes, to track the buses carrying cash on top!”

**

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