The First Computer Comes To India…



Professor and head of the Electronics and Communications Unit of
ISI, the Indian Statistical Institute, Calcutta, Dr Dwijish Dutta Majumdar,
smiled weakly as we shook hands. At 53 he was bespectacled, hair brushed back,
slightly heavy in the middle which you notice only when he stands up. There were
at least 40 kgs of paper on the table, much of which had strong bearing on
fields as diverse as image processing to pattern recognition and artificial
intelligence to multi valued logic of fuzzy mathematics.

Dr Majumdar or DDM, is an institution within an institution. In
the next three hours, he took us on a conducted tour of what should be a
compulsory subject in initiating every computer professional in India.

No. It was not just the first ‘computer for India to be
brought here in 1995, it was the first in Asia, outside Japan. DDM lights up a
Wills Navy Cut cigarette and adds that ISI had the distinction of developing the
first Indian analog computer as well. Nehru came to meet the computer that
solved a 10 x 10 single precision matrix in 90 minutes. It was built with
military disposal.

Dwijish Dutta, MM Mukherjee
and Amaresh Roy: The men behind India’s first ever computer

The first of the two digital computers in India was also
installed here. Towards the end of 1955, came the HEC-2M, a giant piece of
equipment that set sail from England in two crates. Nobody knows how much it
weighted but, yes, it took about two months for ISI people to install the 1K
memory, tube-based system. It was not the days of manufacture by hundreds and
thousands. This was specially crafted and designed by Professor AD Booth at Birk
Bak College in the UK.

Two young people were sent by Prof Mahalanobis to get trained by
Prof Booth himself in installing and managing the equipment.

One was Prof MM Mukherjee and the other was Amaresh Roy. Could I
meet them, I enquired, breaking DDM’s nostalgia. He stopped for a moment.
Looked out of the grey December window. No, Mr Roy is no more and Prof Mukherjee
has left the country and now lives with his son in the USA.

The HEC-2M was a 16-bit machine. With 16 instructions. It
operated in machine code with its drum memory of 1024 words. Some of the double
precision was there with 32 bits registers. It did not have a printer or a tape.
It used punched cards and gave out punched cards, till ISI fixed a printer. Was
it part of a grant? DDM recollects, "It was purchased. I think it was
around Rs 2 lakh and you know what Rs 2 lakh was in 1955!"

Housed in an air-conditioned space of about 300 square feet, the
HEC-2M ‘worked’. Scientific problems poured in from all parts of the
country, including a lot of work from the Defense, mostly for trajectory
analysis for artillery cannons. DDM remembers lovingly, "It most became the
National Computational Center of India."

In 1958, with a grant from the UNTAB (United Nations Technical
Assistance Board), ISI got a computer named after the mountain range of the
country of its origin—URAL. It came from Russia with a few things over the
HEC-2M. Also, unlike HEC-2M, it was accompanied by a team of Russian engineers.

HEC-24, posing with the late
Professor Amaresh Roy….

It had a 32-bit word size, a horizontal magtape, a punched
celluloid tape, 2 Kb of memory and a printer that made "ridiculous
sounds".

At this point Ashok Dasgupta joined in. Now 52, he is one of the
few who can offer a firsthand account of the feelings of the ’50s. Dasgupta
was connected with both HEC-2M and URAL from "opening the packing box"
that came by ship.

Yes, there was a formal celebration but he cannot recall the
details. How was it to be associated with India’s first computer in 1955?
Dasgupta took a puff of his Regent Regular and informed us that his family took
immense pride that he was associated with the only computer of the country.

Today, Biswanath Das is graying. In 1956, he was a peon in the
ISI Computer Group. Thirty years after, he is still with DDM, now in the
Electronics and Communication Sciences Unit. Das peered through his lenses and
suddenly his unshaven face lit up in ecstacy. "Oh, you are talking about
URAL and HEC-2M? Yes, I was there and we worked late nights for them. We were
very happy with their arrival, and particularly with that of HEC-2M." For
Das and for many others, it was not ‘the’ URAL or , ‘the’ HEC-2M. In
recollection, they are almost like family pets who were around for such a long
time. Both were used well till 1964 when IBM installed the 1401 here. And with
that event, India’s first two computers were given a rest.

Could one go and see them, I enquired. For a moment all three
people became disturbingly quiet. They were dismantled and thrown irretrievably
in some godowns long back, I was told. Today it may not be possible to rearrange
them beyond bits and pieces.

ISI has never thought of keeping any memento around it, like
possibly the first card punched by it. "I had thought of making a museum to
preserve them but it could not happen. If someone comes, I am willing to trace
them from wherever they are and give the remains from preservation," a
pensive DDM remarks. Ingratitude to history ins firm-wired in the basic fibres
of the nation,
but possibly readers will come forward to help.

Before going to the archives to trace a few photographs, I
decided to give the search a try. Winding through damp corridors we landed up in
a long tin-roofed godown which partly is a workshop and partly a junkyard.
Covered under heaps of cobwebs and dust accumulated over years of neglect, lay
buried metal remains of many discoveries, prototypes and tools used in basic
research. I had almost given up the search when a jubilant DDM shouted with joy—"Look,
there is HEC-2M". I could not even go to a foot away from it in the pile of
scrap, with cobwebs hanging like tentacles of death. From where I stood, the 6
x 4 HEC-2M looked like an oversized PABX panel with the switches, instructions
and a voltage meter still clearly visible. God forbid, if DDM is not around for
some reason, nobody will ever know where it all began-because India’s first
computer will not be identifiable by the scientists of today.

HEC-2M-Once Premiers and Heads of States used to come and see
it. Today it is resting desolately it heaps of allied scrap—like one more
skeleton in a technological graveyard.

Subroto Bagchi

Dataquest, January 1985
Page: 46-47

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