Chasing the Machine

India’s first computers and the Cold War

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
01 April, 2018

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.

In 1950, ISI opened a laboratory that, under the stewardship of the engineer SK Mitra, delivered India’s first analogue computer three years later. Built with Second World War remnants found in Calcutta’s scrap heaps and disposal depots, the machine could solve simultaneous linear equations of up to ten variables. Mahalanobis suspected, however, that it would not be adequate. The best American machines would cost a million dollars, an unfeasible amount for India, a newly independent country with low foreign exchange reserves. Waiting was not an appealing solution either. “I have a great sense of urgency,” Mahalanobis wrote from London to a colleague in Calcutta. “I know that real planning would require the use of such computers.”

In London, Mahalanobis and Mitra settled on a British digital computer, the Hollerith Electronic Computer-Model 2M, purchased for 18,500 pounds. The HEC-2M would take nine months to build, three months to ship to Calcutta, and two more to assemble. The Indian government paid for it, and placed it on loan to the Indian Statistical Institute. In early 1956, it arrived in two crates and was housed in an air-conditioned room on the institute’s campus. Measuring six feet in height, ten in length, and seven in breadth, it consisted of three vertical metallic cabinets. Soon it was dealing with calculation requests from the Planning Commission and the National Sample Survey, alongside other scientific institutions.

While India’s first analogue computer was being set up, the ISI awaited another delivery—the URAL, a digital computer gifted by the Soviet Union. In February 1954, at an informal lunch hosted by Prime Minister Nehru for a Soviet delegation of scientists, Mahalanobis sat next to Mikhail Menshikov—the Soviet ambassador—and asked whether the Soviets would assist India with access to computers. Reminding the ambassador that India could be a useful ally in the Cold War, he provocatively added, “Surely the U.S.S.R. can have no objection in giving and teaching us things that are known to the Americans?” Menshikov laughed, and, taking Mahalanobis’s bait, asked for an official request from the Indian government. Later that summer, Mahalanobis, Mitra and a delegation of Indian scientists were on their way to the Soviet Union to discuss technical aid and equipment for computers. In Moscow, they visited the Institute of Precision Mechanics and Computer Engineering, which was developing a new computer with the backing of the future leader of the Soviet Union, Nikita Khrushchev. During the trip, Mahalanobis convinced Soviet authorities to grant the Indian government a computer. The URAL was finally unveiled in Calcutta in December 1958. Eight Soviet engineers assembled the machine, since the manuals were in Russian, and an interpreter assisted them in providing instructions to Indian engineers on how to operate and maintain it. The Times of India excitedly reported that this machine could calculate “600 times faster than a single man.”

Although Mahalanobis was instrumental in bringing India its first two digital computers, another campaign of his met with failure. Since the 1940s, he had been fixated with the UNIVAC, a powerful American computer that had become iconic in popular culture, appearing on the cover of a Superman comic and in a Bugs Bunny cartoon. Between 1950 and 1954, Mahalanobis initiated several informal conversations in Washington D.C. about the possibility of technical aid, which could help India to acquire the expensive computer. He was unaware that the obstacle in this case was his own notoriety in the United States: a secret dispatch in 1953 from the American Embassy in Delhi to the State Department referred to Mahalanobis as a “notorious fellow traveler and sympathizer of the Soviet Union.” Another file said “Mahalanobis is far more than straight communist propaganda … His ideas are … a direct preparation for an authoritative solution to India’s economic problems.”

ISI lost its exclusive association with digital computers in India by 1960. That year, under the supervision of Homi Bhabha, the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research in Bombay launched the country’s first domestically engineered digital computer. By the end of 1964, there were 15 digital computers in India and Calcutta was no longer even the exclusive data processing centre for the Planning Commission. In the autumn of 1965, the Planning Commission decided to open its own computer centre in Delhi, enabled by a Ford Foundation grant worth Rs 23 lakh.

Mahalanobis had tried hard to maintain ISI’s status as the Planning Commission’s main computational arm. But with the arrival of a computer in Yojana Bhavan, that partnership came to an end. In the 1950s, his campaign to bring India its first computers was lonely. However, once in India, the genie could no longer be kept bottled in Calcutta.