Computers You Should Know

Large Electronically Computing Machine

That is the literal translation of “Bolshaya Elektronno-Schetnaya Mashina”, which became known throughout the Soviet Union as the BESM, a series of mainframe computers produced in the 1950s and 1960s.

Due to a little thing called the “Cold War”, the Soviets could not import computers from western sources. They were left to design their own, which were rarely compatible with anything in the rest of the world, or reverse engineer and clone western computers like the IBM PC.

You might think that the backwards nature of the Soviet Union would lead to inferior computers. While this may have been generally true, the first BESM was actually the fastest computer in Europe when it debuted in 1952. It had 5000 vacuum tubes and could perform 8-10 KFlops. Memory was via 1024 words in read/write ferrite cores or 1024 words in read-only semiconducting diodes. It could also store data in 4 magnetic tape units of 30000 words each or 5120 words in fast magnetic drum storage. It consumed 30 kW, not including the cooling systems.

Several iterations were made with a switch to transistor-based circuits in BESM-3. BESM-4 was used to create the first computer animation. However, the culmination of the series was BESM-6. It proved to be so robust and flexible, that it was produced between 1968 and 1988. It had a 48-bit processor that operated at 10 MHz. The interesting thing about the BESM-6 processor was it had two instruction pipelines — one for control and one for arithmetic — and a data cache of 16 48-bit words. This allowed the system to achieve a performance of 1 MFlops. At the time, the fastest computer in the world could do 3 MFlops utilizing multiple processors.

BESM-6 units were found all over the Soviet Union, including in the space program. During the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project, a BESM-6 was used to perform the calculations for the Soyuz craft. Reportedly, it took 1 minute to perform the calculation. NASA, reportedly, took 30 minutes.

The BESM-6’s staying power even extended to the next series of Soviet supercomputers. Integrated circuits were fitted to it and it became the base for the Elbrus 1K2 supercomputer.

[Image Credit: Sergey Vakulenko]

  • mr. mzs zsm msz esq

    [youtube 0O4mm3hXNgA youtube]

    Here's that world's first computer animation.

  • craigsu

    I am sorry comrades, but we are not permitted to use Large Electronically Computing Machine to locate Moose and Squirrel.