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Scientific Computers at the Helsinki University of Technology during the Post Pioneering Stage

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Abstract

The paper describes the process leading from the pioneering phase when the university was free to develop and build its own computers through the period when the university was dependent on cooperation with the local computer companies to the stage when a bureaucratic state organization took over the power to decide on acquiring computing equipment to the universities. This stage ended in the late 1970s when computing power gradually became a commodity that the individual laboratories and research projects could acquire just like any resource. This development paralleled the situation in many other countries and universities as well. We have chosen the Helsinki University of Technology (TKK) as a case to illustrate this development process, which for the researchers was very annoying and frustrating when it happened.
J. Impagliazzo, T. Järvi, and P. Paju (Eds.): HiNC 2, IFIP AICT 303, pp. 116–120, 2009.
© IFIP International Federation for Information Processing 2009
Scientific Computers at the Helsinki University of
Technology during the Post Pioneering Stage
Panu Nykänen and Hans Andersin
Helsinki University of Technology
panu.nykänen@tkk.fi, hans.andersin@tkk.fi
Abstract. The paper describes the process leading from the pioneering phase
when the university was free to develop and build its own computers through
the period when the university was dependent on cooperation with the local
computer companies to the stage when a bureaucratic state organization took
over the power to decide on acquiring computing equipment to the universities.
This stage ended in the late 1970s when computing power gradually became a
commodity that the individual laboratories and research projects could acquire
just like any resource. This development paralleled the situation in many other
countries and universities as well. We have chosen the Helsinki University of
Technology (TKK) as a case to illustrate this development process, which for
the researchers was very annoying and frustrating when it happened.
Keywords: Computing science, education, computing centre.
1 The Finnish State Computing Centre
The happy pioneering phase [3, 6] in the 1940s and 1950s when scientific university
institutions used to design and build their scientific computers preceded the era of
commercially produced scientific computers. The Committee for Mathematical Ma-
chines (Matermatiikkakonekomitea–Matematikmaskinkommit-tén) finished their task
in the beginning of the 1960s. After a period of interregnum, the state responsibility
for data processing matters transferred to the Finnish State Computing Centre (FSCC)
that was founded in 1964. Actually, it had already started to operate earlier [4]. Before
FSCC came into existence, an unsuccessful attempt was made in 1963 by the Acad-
emy of Engineering Sciences to form a national center for scientific and engineering
computing [2].
Due to scarce financial resources available for acquiring computers, the university
scientific staff lost their decision-making rights as to computer acquisition and re-
source allocation. The bureaucrats took over both within and outside the universities.
In Finland, the Ministry of Finance on a yearly basis allocated funds for computer
acquisition. When a university wanted to use the allocated funds for buying a new
computer, it had to get the approval for its plans by the FSCC. In many cases, the
situation deteriorated into open and bitter conflicts of interest. FSCC wanted to sell
their services and computing capacity to the universities instead of letting them buy
their own computers. FSCC also wanted to push certain computer brands instead of
giving the universities free hands. One of the reasons was their belief in the blessings
Scientific Computers at the Helsinki University of Technology 117
of standardization. Another reason was that the bureaucrats generally mistrusted the
competence of university professors to make rational decisions in selecting the best
computer.
FSCC acquired its first large-scale scientific computer, an Elliott 503, in the mid-
1960s. Interestingly enough, they physically placed it in the Helsinki University of
Technology (HUT, in Finnish TKK) main building and TKK students and research
workers heavily used it.
2 The Finnish Cable Works Becomes a Major Player
In December of 1958, Björn Westerlund was chair and CEO of the Finnish Cable
Works (later Nokia). He suggested to the board of directors that one could add com-
puters to the product program of the company. This resulted in giving the mathemati-
cian Olli Lehto (today a member of the Academy of Finland) the task of founding an
electronic division within the Cable Works. In addition to Lehto the Cable Works’
Electronic Division hired Tage Carlsson who then worked with the Committee for
Mathematical Machines. They also added Lauri Saari from VTT (State Institute of
Technical Research and Development) to the staff of the Electronic Division. When
IBM – that already had Hans Andersin from the Committee of Mathematical Ma-
chines on board – hired Olli Varho (who later became the president of IBM Finland)
from the Committee, this meant that all the key resources of the Committee were di-
vided between the two major players in the computer market in Finland [3].
In the beginning, the Finnish markets alone were not big enough to attract other
large international computer companies except IBM. During the cold war period,
however, the Finnish foreign trade was heavily directed towards the Soviet Union and
the big international computer companies apparently wanted to take advantage of this
situation. In 1961, this led to agent agreements between the Cable Works and the
French Compagnie des Machines Bull (CMB) with punched card machines and the
computers Gamma 10 and Gamma 30 on one hand and the Swedish Facit with pe-
ripheral equipment on the other. Earlier the Cable Works already had agreements with
the German Siemens and the British Elliott Brothers The agreements included sale to
the Soviet Union [1].
The Finnish computer market was from now on for some time divided between
IBM and the Cable Works (representing CMB, General Electric, Siemens, Facit, and
Elliott). The Helsinki University of Technology (TKK) had to balance between these
two major players. Cable Works was more technically and less commercially ori-
ented than IBM and it attracted the engineers both at TKK and at VTT Technical Re-
search Centre of Finland.
3 The First Scientific Computers at HUT/TKK
For users of scientific computers there were several possibilities to use computers
outside TKK. Many scientists used the Postal Savings Bank IBM 650, the first opera-
tional computer in Finland, for their scientific and engineering computing needs al-
ready at the end of the 1950s. In 1960 TKK started to use the newly acquired Elliott
computers (803 and later 503) of the Finnish Cable Works. When the Northern
118 P. Nykänen and H. Andersin
Europe University Computing Centre (NEUCC) opened in Copenhagen in the mid-
1960s, equipped with a world class scientific IBM 7090, many TKK users were
among its clients. In addition, many of the companies having acquired computers
suitable for scientific applications made their equipment available for TKK users.
Despite the abundance of computing power available outside TKK, the university
appointed in September of 1960 a committee to investigate the need for computers
inside TKK. The committee was chaired by Professor Erkki Laurila (Prof. of Techni-
cal Physics, later member of the Academy of Finland) with Professor Pentti Laasonen
(Prof. of Strength of Materials) and assistant professor Olli Lokki (Prof. of Applied
Mathematics) as members. The committee recommended that a scientific computer be
acquired by TKK to avoid being too dependent on outside computers. Additionally,
the computer education would require, according to the committee, that the students
experience a possibility for “hands on” use of computers. The committee did not be-
lieve that the idea of the Finnish State providing a centralized computing resource
would materialize for a long time to come. On the contrary, TKK could sell computer
excess time to the State [7].
Because the computer would require local maintenance service and cooperation
with the computer manufacturer, the feasible alternatives were only the IBM 1620 and
the Elliott 803. The final decision was in favor of the Elliott computer due to the
higher maintenance cost of the IBM machine and because the Computer Center of the
Helsinki University had just decided in favor of the IBM 1620. IBM submitted a new
proposal to TKK in March that in economic terms was almost identical to the Cable
Work’s proposal. This proposal was turned down but the IBM offer to give free com-
puter time to TKK was gratefully accepted [8]. Consequently, the decision occurred
by a wish to strike a balance between the two main players in the Finnish market. It
was clearly also a gesture of friendship towards the Finnish Cable Works that had just
begun its struggle for market shares in the Finnish Market.
The funds needed for the purchase were allocated in the State budget in January
1961 and in March, they made the decision to fund a computing Center at TKK. Rec-
tor Jaakko Rahola was to sign the agreement with the Cable Works. One of the mo-
tives for acting swiftly was the fact that computers got obsolete in no time at all. If
TKK had not approved the delivery of the one-year-old Elliott 803, the delivery time
of an updated version would have stretched out to be at least nine months. The Cable
Work’s Elliott 803 was free for delivery in April of 1961, which implied that the
computer education would begin the same year. The university placed the TKK Com-
puting Centre as a part of the Institution for Applied Mathematics. Later, they re-
placed the 803A with an 803B and simultaneously they added an IBM 1620 to the
equipment of the TKK Computer Centre, probably in order to create a balance be-
tween the two main competitors IBM and the Cable Works.
When TKK Computer Centre moved 1968 from the old facilities of TKK in Hel-
sinki City Centre to the Otaniemi Campus area, the laboratory got better possibilities
for independent work.
4 The Bank of Finland Enters the University Computer Scene
A large step towards centralized university computing in Finland occurred during the
end of the 1960s when the Bank of Finland allocated funds for acquiring large-scale
Scientific Computers at the Helsinki University of Technology 119
scientific computing capacity to the universities in Finland. They purchased a Sperry
Rand Univac 1108 and gave it to the FSCC to run. This caused a massive protest ac-
tion among the universities that feared that the dictatorial FSCC would now put an
end to all independent purchase of computers by the universities. As a compromise,
they allowed the universities to buy terminal computers and equipment; they pur-
chased 150 terminals and placed them at the universities all around the country.
TKK was very discontent with the situation but was finally able in 1970 to pur-
chase a modern time sharing system, Hewlett Packard 2000, which served the basic
courses of computer programming during some years to come [5]. The situation with
regard to increasing the capacity of the TKK computing centre did not improve, how-
ever. The strategy of the bureaucrats was still to maximize the use of the centralized
scientific computer capacity at the FSCC by allocating new computer money only to
the peripheral universities. TKK was of the opinion that this strategy had stalled its
development for nearly a decade. An interesting part of the history of computing at
TKK, was the 1974 purchased MIR-2 computer that was manufactured by Kievskij
Zavod elektronnyh vytsislitelnyh i upravljajuštšihmašin in USSR. They acquired the
computer as a part of the bilateral export - import agreement between Finland and
USSR, and as the payment for it was a huge amount of surplus eggs. Some of the bu-
reaucrats could see MIR-2 as an addition to the computing capacity of TKK, but the
director of the TKK computing center, Olli Lokki, warned of this point of view in his
inauguration speech. Instead, TKK’s own and several western researchers keenly fa-
miliarized themselves with MIR-2 as a rare example of a Soviet way to design com-
puter architecture [9, 5].
A rebellious act by TKK was to save the money that had been allocated for other
investments and expenses and use the resulting funds to buy a new computing system
without asking anyone’s permission. They installed a Digital Equipment Corpora-
tion’s DEC System 20 during the first half of 1978 at the TKK Computer Centre and
it served well for almost ten years.
Some of the research groups at TKK were able to obtain permission to buy their
own computers. Most of these were minicomputers such as the PDP-8, PDP-11, and
PDP-15 that started to appear in various laboratories in the beginning of the 1970s,
mostly in dedicated applications such as process control tasks. The purchases of such
small computers became deregulated and the discontent with FSCC among the uni-
versity research staff diminished.
5 Concluding Remarks
The commercialization of computer and software design and manufacturing affected
the universities in several ways. A positive result was the fact that most of the new
commercial computers were more reliable and had more software capabilities than the
ones built in the universities. At the same time, the need for scientific computing ca-
pacity grew beyond all limits at the universities and the government took the power to
control the use and purchasing of the machinery. A negative result of the commer-
cialization was that the innovative power and specialized know-how of university
research workers was left untapped. This development was typical for most small
countries.
120 P. Nykänen and H. Andersin
One of the reasons for the State centralized computer policy was the wide spread
belief in the blessings of standardization. It looked like that the bureaucrats generally
mistrusted the competence of university professors to make rational decisions in se-
lecting the best computer.
Despite of the limiting and often frustrating restrictions put on the universities, TKK
was able to find the right shortcuts and ways to stay in the main stream of the develop-
ment during the period of two decades covered by this report. We could observe five
different strategic directions. These include: (a) Some TKK institutions continued
to build special purpose computers for their own use, (b) some TKK institutions used
outside computer resources for fulfilling their needs for computing power, (c) the estab-
lishment of a TKK computing center, (d) TKK took part in using FSCC computer re-
sources, and (e) some TKK institutions bought computers for their own use.
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... Contrary to what we had heard about the controversy between a tool and a discipline in Norway [10], this was not a problem in Tampere since the university did not have natural sciences or technology with large number crunching needs. Later, however, this controversy was strongly reflected in the acquisition of computers, as is apparent in [11]. In any case, in computing education we were definitely going for a new discipline, which we felt to be of fundamental importance to human civilization. ...
Conference Paper
Full-text available
Following a session on university education, this panel discussed early Nordic visions and experiences on university computing education, contrasting them to today’s needs and the international development at that time. This report gives short papers by the panelists (their opening statements), and a brief summary (the chair’s interpretation) of the views that were raised in the ensuing discussion.
Historiaa ja muistikuvia Eskon ja Elliottin ajoilta. [30 years of computers at Helsinki University of Technology TKK] Teknillinen korkeakoulu
  • J Seppänen
Seppänen, J.: 30 vuotta tietokoneaikaa Teknillisessä korkeakoulussa. Historiaa ja muistikuvia Eskon ja Elliottin ajoilta. [30 years of computers at Helsinki University of Technology TKK] Teknillinen korkeakoulu, Laskentakeskus. Otaniemi (1991)
Nokian elektroniikkateollisuuden synty: nuorten kokeilijoiden ja keksijöiden pajasta huipputeollisuudeksi
  • A Aaltonen
Aaltonen, A.: Nokian elektroniikkateollisuuden synty: nuorten kokeilijoiden ja keksijöiden pajasta huipputeollisuudeksi. In: Tienari, M. (ed.) [The birth of the electronics industry at the Nokia Corporation], pp. 118-119. Tietotekniikan alkuvuodet Suomessa. Gummerus Kirjapaino Oy, Jyväskylä (1993)
Kun Suomen tietotekniikkaa ohjailtiin neuvottelemalla-Tietotekniikan neuvottelukunta 6.11.1975-31.12The history of the committee of the information technology
  • I Pietarinen
Pietarinen, I.: Kun Suomen tietotekniikkaa ohjailtiin neuvottelemalla-Tietotekniikan neuvottelukunta 6.11.1975-31.12.1991. In: Tienari, M. (ed.) [The history of the committee of the information technology], pp. 273-274. Tietotekniikan alkuvuodet Suomessa, Gummerus Kirjapaino Oy, Jyväskylä (1993)
TeKoLan 30-vuotinen taival
  • K Sarlin
Sarlin, K.: TeKoLan 30-vuotinen taival. In: [The history of the Helsinki University of technology Computer Centre]. Teknillinen korkeakoulu, Laskentakeskus, TKK OFFSET, pp. 4, 8, 9-12 (1991)
Tekniikan tiennäyttäjät. Teknillisten tieteiden akatemia 1957-2007. In: [The history of the Finnish Academy of Technology
  • P Nykänen
Nykänen, P.: Tekniikan tiennäyttäjät. Teknillisten tieteiden akatemia 1957-2007. In: [The history of the Finnish Academy of Technology] Gummerus Kirjapaino Oy, Jyväskylä, pp. 47-48 (2007)
Kun Suomen tietotekniikkaa ohjailtiin neuvottelemalla - Tietotekniikan neuvottelukunta 6.11.1975 - 31.12
  • I Pietarinen
Pietarinen, I.: Kun Suomen tietotekniikkaa ohjailtiin neuvottelemalla -Tietotekniikan neuvottelukunta 6.11.1975 -31.12.1991. In: Tienari, M. (ed.) [The history of the committee of the information technology], pp. 273-274. Tietotekniikan alkuvuodet Suomessa, Gummerus Kirjapaino Oy, Jyväskylä (1993)
30 vuotta tietokoneaikaa Teknillisessä korkeakoulussa. Historiaa ja muistikuvia Eskon ja Elliottin ajoilta. [30 years of computers at Helsinki University of Technology TKK] Teknillinen korkeakoulu
  • J Seppänen