Chasing the Machine

India’s first computers and the Cold War

01 April 2018
Prasanta Chandra Mahalanobis, third from the right, and Mrs Mahalanobis, in front of the URAL computer at the Indian Statistical Institute in Kolkata on 16 January 1960.
courtesy indian statistical institute
Prasanta Chandra Mahalanobis, third from the right, and Mrs Mahalanobis, in front of the URAL computer at the Indian Statistical Institute in Kolkata on 16 January 1960.
courtesy indian statistical institute

On a cold February morning in 1959, a 37-year-old American engineer fled Prague aboard an Air India flight. For the two years before that, Morton Nadler was suspected of being a spy by opposing sides in the Cold War—by the FBI in his country of birth, the United States, and by the government in his country of adopted citizenship, Czechoslovakia. Upon landing in Calcutta, he was driven to the Indian Statistical Institute, or ISI, where he would spend the next two years working with India’s first computers.

Nadler had joined the Communist Party in 1936 and subsequently was on the watch list of intelligence agencies in the United States. Chafing from an incident in which he lost a job as a radio engineer in Chicago due to his political sympathies and committed to furthering socialist ideals, Nadler decided to leave America. In 1948, he told his parents he was going to Paris to pursue a PhD. Instead he left for Prague and lived in the Soviet Union for over a decade. In the meantime, the United States Department of Defense asked J Edgar Hoover, the FBI director, to investigate whether Nadler was leaking classified information to Czechoslovakian authorities. In 1950, the American embassy in Prague seized Nadler’s passport on the charge that he was betraying American radar secrets and “inventing weapons for a potential enemy.” Outraged, Nadler renounced American citizenship and began working at the foremost computer institute in Czechoslovakia—the Institute of Mathematical Machines.

However, he would soon grow disillusioned with communism. The final straw, he recalled in his autobiography, came when the Soviets crushed the Hungarian Uprising in October 1956. By then, Nadler was searching for a way out of the country, but the Czechoslovak government believed he possessed information too sensitive to depart with, and the American Embassy refused him a return visa, suspecting he would conduct espionage for the communists.

An encounter with Prasanta Chandra Mahalanobis—founder of the Indian Statistical Institute, and the driving force behind India’s Second Five Year Plan (1956-61)—presented Nadler with an escape route. Mahalanobis made Nadler an offer to work for the institute in Calcutta as a computer scientist. Czechoslovakia could not object to Nadler leaving for India (given India’s friendly relations with the Soviet Union), and in American eyes spending time in a democracy that was formally non-aligned in the Cold War helped rub off the stain of communism. Nadler signed a two-year contract to join the ISI “to work on electronic computers.” At the time, the institute was home to the only two electronic computers in India.

The first time he saw an electronic computer at Harvard in 1947, Mahalanobis was mesmerised. Stunned by its ability and convinced of its indispensability to economic planning, he believed that computers would solve one of centralised planning’s largest problems: big data. They could help with complex calculations and develop mathematical models of the economy. Mahalanobis believed that they could be vital for assessing trends for the extensive National Sample Survey that he was integral in launching. Unlike most countries that used computers in the mid twentieth century, in India their earliest use was for development—not in the military. The computer’s potential for planning was how Mahalanobis and the Indian government justified their pursuit and enormous expenses.

Nikhil Menon is a historian at the University of Notre Dame. He is writing a book on the history of economic planning and democratic state-building in independent India.

Keywords: technology Cold War computer Indian Statistical Institute
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