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Did Poland Invent the PC?

A surprising legacy of Jewish mathematicians and Polish resistance fighters

Liel Leibovitz
April 18, 2013
Karpinski’s AKAT-1 at the Muzeum Techniki, with Lukaszewicz’s ARR at left(Tablet Magazine)
Karpinski’s AKAT-1 at the Muzeum Techniki, with Lukaszewicz’s ARR at left(Tablet Magazine)

The Muzeum Techniki in Warsaw is exactly what you’d expect a museum dedicated to scientific achievements in a formerly Soviet country to be. There’s a room-sized tribute to mining, the gift shop sells models of long-defunct MiGs, and cheerful little signs inform you that the antiquated-looking telephone you see encased in glass—and which you could have mistaken for something the Marshal Jozef Pilsudski might have used to call his wife and inform her that he’d done quite well fighting off the Russians in that decisive battle in the summer of 1920—was in use in several government offices as recently as 2003.

But walk up the empty staircase, past a few spacious rooms packed with drill bits and other relics of industrial glory, and you’ll stumble on a pride of ancient machines that tell an unlikely story of how Polish scientists, led mainly by Jews and members of the resistance, were at one time at the vanguard of inventing the computer.

First among them was Abraham Izrael Stern, who was born in 1769 in Hrubieszów. Quickly recognized for his enormous mathematical talent by his peers, he was encouraged to move to Warsaw, and there developed a strong interest in calculating machines. He was hardly the first to devote his talents to the question—Pascal and Leibniz had both done the same a century earlier—but Stern’s inventions were good enough to gather him admittance to Poland’s royal science society and to earn him an audience with Tsar Alexander I, who liked what he saw so much that he promised the young inventor an annual stipend of 350 rubels.

But Stern’s greatest contribution was not so much in the machines he had created as in the minds he had shaped. In 1838, a young man named Hayyim Selig Slonimski visited Stern’s home and was quickly embraced as a member of the family. He was the author of the unimprovably named The History of the Heavens, a popular guide to astronomy, and soon he was also Stern’s son-in-law, having married his daughter, Sarah. One month after the marriage, Stern passed away, leaving all of his inventions to Slonimski. The young man, however, was busy inventing magical machines of his own, like a chemical process for coating iron with led and an electromechanical device that allows sending quadruple telegrams. That latest invention was soon repeated by an enterprising American, Thomas Edison; despite the proximity in dates, however, it is highly unlikely that the Wizard of Menlo Park knew anything about Slonimsky’s invention, as the latter, eager to enlighten his fellow eastern European Jews, wrote many of his scientific works in Hebrew, even publishing a popular scientific magazine called Hazefirah, which remained in circulation until the early 1930s.

Slonimski’s fame, however, was dwarved by that of Izrael Abraham Staffel, who is believed to be a distant relative of Stern’s and was his disciple. Inspired by his mentor, Staffel became obsessed with calculating machines in 1835, and by 1842 took his first creation—a beautiful device, the size of a toilet, encased in lacquered wood and consisting of rotating pinwheels and capable of division, subtraction, multiplication, and addition. The machine easily won the silver medal in Warsaw 1845 industrial exhibit. Six years later, a slightly improved version of the machine was displayed as part of Russia’s pavilion—Poland then still being part of the Russian Empire—in London’s Great Exposition, a showcase for the world’s greatest inventions, where it was judged to be the best of its kind. The Illustrated London News covered it breathlessly: “In the Russian Court,” the newspaper wrote, “modestly secluded amidst the glitter of malachite doors and vases, jewelry and silver, there is one work, the produce of high intelligence, and intended to assist in certain intellectual labors. This solitary tribute of mind to minds comes not from Petersburg, nor Moscow, nor from Siberia, nor from the Ural Mountains, but from Poland. We refer to Staffel’s Calculating Machine.”

His high intelligence, however, earned Staffel much acclaimed and little money; he died, as he was born, an impoverished Jew. With him, more or less, died the first chapter of Polish computing; soon, and for obvious reasons, fewer and fewer Jews were able to thrive and invent. But a second golden era was about to begin, owing much to the Polish uprising against the Nazis.

The most important figure in this pantheon is probably Marian Rejewski, a cryptologist whose contribution to breaking the Nazi codes was immense. A mathematical wunderkind, Rejewski was whisked away by the army while still in college and asked to attend a secret cryptology class, at which he excelled. As the German invasion grew imminent, he escaped to France and then to England, where he vigorously offered his services at Bletchley Park, the center of the Allied code-breaking efforts. His discoveries were as complex as they were seminal; many historians agree that they contributed to considerably shortening the war, saving the world anywhere between two and four additional years of carnage.

In the resistance, other young Poles were finding their scientific callings in a roundabout way, by learning the value of machines firsthand, on the battlefield: Jacek Karpinski, for example, fought with the Battalion Zoska of the Polish Home Army, liberating the Gesiowka concentration camp and saving the lives of 383 prisoners, among them 348 Jews. For his actions, he was awarded the Medal of Valor. Leon Lukaszewicz got his start as a sharpshooter. Many others were trained by the resistance, and when the war ended they found their way into various academic programs, mainly the State Institute of Mathematics in Warsaw. There, they founded the GAM, short for Group Apparatus Mathematics, the latter two words being the agreed-upon term for the calculating machine that would only later be called “computer.”

In many non-trivial respects, the work these former dissidents managed to accomplish is astounding. When the United States introduced ENIAC—a so-called “Giant Brain” capable of calculating artillery routes—in 1946, it estimated that the computer had cost $500,000, or nearly $6 million in today’s terms. Working on similar projects in Warsaw, the GAM team completed their first major project in 1952; lacking serious resources, they used old vacuum tubes looted from the defeated German army. These often malfunctioned, and hindered the machine’s otherwise stellar functionality—it was, for example, one of the earliest machines in the world, if not the first, to allow for human errors in calculation. Furthermore, with the politics of eastern Europe ever mercurial, the GAM team worked in near isolation, speaking to no one as they produced a number of extremely advanced and terribly beautiful machines.

They are still on display at the Muzeum Techniki. There, side by side, are Lukaszewicz’s ARR, a massive differential analyzer, used to calculate things like the velocity and trajectory of flying objects given gravity and wind-resistance; it’s the size of a large bed, all gray casing and black dials. Next to it is Karpinski’s AKAT-1, a differential analyzer using transistors and therefore as small and sleek and futuristic looking as something you might expect to find aboard the U.S.S. Enterprise. The surge of innovations runs all the way into the early 1960s, when machines like the ODRA 1002 were still competitive with the best stuff produced in the west. Then, the flame flickers and dies. International isolation, lack of funding, politics—all led Poland to fall behind as an epicenter for computing and watch as California delivered invention after invention. But the work of its ingenious computer scientists—begun by Jewish thinkers and tinkerers, completed by Polish freedom fighters—should not be forgotten.

Liel Leibovitz is editor-at-large for Tablet Magazine and a host of its weekly culture podcast Unorthodox and daily Talmud podcast Take One. He is the editor of Zionism: The Tablet Guide.

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