‘The Man Who Made Tomorrow’

Dwijesh Dutta Mazumdar
saw it all–as a fresh passout after his PhD in Radiophysics and Electronics
from Calcutta University. He joined the Indian Statistical Institute in Kolkata
after a meeting with Dr PC Mahalanobis that gave him an opportunity to be a part
of the evolution of computing in India. At 74, Dutta Mazumdar is a professor
emeritus at the ISI and still visits the computer department religiously
everyday. In a candid tete-a-tete with Bhaswati Chakravorty of Dataquest, DDM
(as he is popularly referred to) relives the evolution of computing in India and
the key role that the ISI has played under the aegis of Dr Mahalanobis.

How did you get to be a part of the computer department in 1955
considering the department was not even officially established at that time?
I had just completed my exams from the Calcutta University and was still
waiting to take my practical papers when I came across a photograph in the Amritabazar
, a well-known Bengali daily in those years, of Dr Mahalanobis, with
Jawaharlal Nehru where the former was showing a computer to the late Prime
Minister. I didn’t know what a computer was but developed this sudden urge to
work on this alien thing. I arranged a meeting with Dr Mahalanobis. I carried a
handwritten application and told him that I wanted to work on computers. We
spoke for an hour and he told me about the computer unit he was planning to
start at ISI and offered me a job.

Although there was no department at that time, we started our
preparations for the arrival of the first digital computer at ISI-the HEC-2M.

Was the HEC-2M the first computer, followed by the Ural and the
ISIJU? What were these machines like and how much of the assembling was done in
I think it is incorrect to say that the HEC-2M was the first computer in
India. Actually it was the first digital computer in India. The first computer,
brought to the ISI in 1952, was an analog computer that was used to solve a
10×10 matrix equation. The only other analog computer at that time in the
country was at IISc Bangalore, which was being used as a differential analyzer.

HEC-2M was the first digital computer that was shipped from
London in the form of stacks in 1956. The machine cost about Rs 1 lakh around
that time and occupied around 300 sq ft. Around that time, I was asked by Prof
MM Mukherjee to generate a random number using computers. I designed a circuit
with a digital counter that worked at 20 cycles per second. It had to be
switched off manually which generated the random number. I was asked to
translate this into Russian, so that Russia could be convinced of our prowess in
computers which would help us get a computer from Russia.

We got the Ural from Russia in 1958. It was much larger than
HEC-2M. In fact, unlike the HEC-2M, the Ural was assembled by us at the ISI.
Prof Amaresh Roy and Prof MM Mukherjee were sent to London and they later
returned to India to train a team at ISI, which included Prof Dutta Mazumdar. We
were trained in building digital circuits by then and this helped us to assemble
the Ural. This was a great learning experience for us.

The ISIJU was the first indigenous digital computer developed in
India in 1966 through a joint collaboration between the ISI and Jadavpur
University. However, the design of the ISIJU was ahead of the professional
computing needs of the time and this was the drawback. No significant work
actually happened on the ISIJU

How was Ural different from the HEC-2M?
Both HEC-2M and Ural were vacuum tube computers but the vacuum tube of the
HEC-2M was a miniature one that made it smaller in size. The HEC-2M was a 16-bit
machine with a drum memory of 1024 words. Punched cards were used as the
secondary memory. Ural also had a magnetic drum memory but used punched tape
instead of cards as the secondary memory.

Memory was a big limitation for both the computers. Another
constraint was speed due to the electromechanical relay switching system. I
developed a saturable core reactor for high speed switching and this resulted in
the electromechanical switching system being replaced by the electromagnetic
switching system. This was incorporated in the Ural.

What would you say was the single-largest contribution of the
ISI to computing in India?
I believe that ISI has made a significant contribution to computer research
in India. In fact, ISI has been the pioneer of soft computing in India. Till the
’60s, information processing on the computer was confined to numerical
processing. We started research in the area of non-numerical information
processing which involved speech recognition, pattern and handwriting
recognition and interpretation. The center for soft computing was established at
the ISI, the first of its kind in the country.

I think ISI has also played a critical role in the way the
Indian IT industry has shaped up. In 1980, the 8th World Computer Congress
organized in Tokyo talked about the alienation between humans and computers and
this laid the foundation of the 5th generation computers. We started the 5th
generation program at the ISI in 1985 with support from Rajiv Gandhi and a
corpus of Rs 16 crore. We pioneered and promoted the concept of knowledge-based
computing and worked on IT policies, and university and college curriculums.
Very few people understood Artificial Intelligence in the ’80s, but the
picture was completely different in the ’90s. And today, nobody can deny our
supremacy in the knowledge services industry.

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