Magazine May/June 2013 Pioneering Computer Technologies

01 May 2013, 13:00
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Pioneering Computer Technologies

The biography of Vardan Amirbekian is parallel to the rise and fall of computer technology in Soviet Armenia. He was a typical representative of the generation of the ’60s, the post-WWII generation of Soviet intellectuals who immersed themselves in science and technology. He was a celebrity among those who knew him, with his movie-star looks, sharp brain and unique sense of humor. Like many of his era, he displayed criticism toward the official establishment and optimism toward life in general.

We met in New York in the summer of 2008, after the passing of Sergey Mergelyan. I was interested in the history of the Yerevan Institute of Mathematical Machines. Then in his late 70s, the First Deputy Director and Chief Constructor of YerSRIMM, Vardan Amirbekian, was the perfect man to ask because he himself was one of the prominent figures at the Institute from the beginning. Our conversation started with the rise of cybernetics in the USSR. Amirbekian began:

“Before I went to the Institute of Energy Physics, there were articles in the official USSR press that cybernetics, computer science and everything related to these fields were pseudo- sciences. Our Institute had 12,000 students in nine departments, of which two departments were closed, classified. One of them was called the Institute of Physics and Energetics. They dealt with nuclear physics. Usually, high-achieving students were invited to transfer there after their first year. Many did, but others refused to transfer, scared by the idea of working in nuclear physics.

“After my first year, I was invited to the other classified department. My best friend, also an Armenian, told me that this was the computer technologies department. He said, ‘This is where the future will be when the government comes to its senses.’ Lectures were delivered, but the courses were listed under other names as they were classified. We were not allowed to take notes, and if we needed clarifications, small group consultations were offered later. I graduated in April of 1955, and from there I went to a classified institute called the Scientific Engineering Bureau #245 located near the Yelokhovskaya Church in Moscow. From the outside, the building did not appear to be very large, but inside it was huge. There in the basement, they were making the first semiconductor machines in the USSR. It wasn’t a serial production, and the transistors they were making were far from being usable because they rapidly changed their characteristics, disregarding external factors such as the temperature.

The head of the laboratory was Olympiada Olhovskaya. She assigned me to design a scheme on two transistors. They brought a stand on which I had to work. But the stand was not functioning, with all the thick cables tangled up. At first I wanted to tell them that I couldn’t work on it, but then I sat down and dug into it. I found some minor errors, fixed them, and soon the stand started working. Olhovskaya was very surprised, because someone else in this situation would have called for help. Soon I completed this device, and on the third month of my employment, my portrait was on the best employees’ board.”

Mikoyan’s Visionary Idea

At the end of 1955 during the Communist Party Convention, it was announced that because of ideological restrictions, the USSR was falling behind in computer technologies and cybernetics. It was decided to take very urgent specific steps toward developing computer technologies. At the closing of the session, it was stated that the government should utilize the large pool of human resources that existed in the Soviet Republics of Armenia and Georgia, particularly in Armenia.

Years later, after the opening of the new building of the Yerevan Scientific Research Institute of Mathematical Machines (YerSRIMM), a commemorative plate was installed by the current administration on the red tufa facade. The plate stated something along these lines, “YerSRIMM was created by the initiative of Academician Mergelyan.” When the Head of the Ministers’ Council, Anton Kochinyan, saw the plate, he told the Fadei Sarkisian, “Fadei, but this was not exactly where it all started.” Amirbekian confirmed, “Kochinyan told me the following story on one of his frequent visits to YerSRIMM. It all began when Anastas Mikoyan called Kochinyan and said, ‘Anton, there was a Party resolution regarding automatics and computer technologies. Prepare your proposals. This field could be very profitable; there will be big money in it.’

So Kochinyan, the Head of the Ministers’ Council of Armenia, started looking for a facility. At that time, the Minister of Agriculture of Armenia had a two-story building in Yerevan built for professional development conferences. The facility had good adjacent territory and a small hotel for staff development. There was enough area for expansion and additional buildings. Kochinyan decided to set aside the place and name it the Institute of Mathematical Machines. Eventually, the new campus of the Institute was built at the beginning of Komitas Street. Next, Kochinyan went to Kirovakan, where he was originally from, to inspect the site for the Institute of Automatization of Chemical Production.

With these ideas and facilities in mind, he arrived in Moscow, visiting first Mikoyan, who was very glad to see such a quick response. Mikoyan directed Kochinyan to Prime Minister Kosygin saying, ‘Go to him and present your proposals — he likes you, and I think he won’t refuse.’ When Anton Kochinyan put on the table his plan, Kosygin was pleasantly surprised. ‘We haven’t even finalized our decision. I can’t imagine when you managed to have the facilities ready. Go ahead and organize the institute.’”

Youngest Academician

In his undergraduate years, Mergelyan studied at the Mechanical Mathematics Department of Yerevan State University. His adviser, Academician Artashes Shahinyan, noticed Mergelyan’s talent and created favorable conditions for him to focus solely on mathematics, easing the burden on the young man of the many other subjects mandatory in the USSR. In three and a half years, Mergelyan graduated from the university and at 19 was accepted as a Ph.D. aspirant of Mstislav Keldysh, academician and later, the president of the USSR Academy of Sciences.

The world’s great mathematicians traditionally leave behind some unsolved mathematical problems. One of the anecdotes Amirbekian told was that Keldysh presented his aspirant Mergelyan with four unsolved problems of the French 19th century mathematician Augustin-Louis Cauchy, one of which Mergelyan solved. Of course, that was not the only problem Mergelyan worked on. During the defense of his Ph.D. candidate thesis, it was proposed that Mergelyan’s thesis should be presented as his doctoral dissertation. Consequently, after a two-week review session conducted by the members of a newly-formed doctoral panel of reviewers, Mergelyan received his doctoral title at the age of 21, becoming by far the youngest Doctor of Sciences in Russia and Armenia.

After working several years at the Armenian Academy of Sciences, Mergelyan was appointed as the first director of the Scientific Research Institute of Mathematical Machines. It should be said that not many people at the time understood what mathematical machines were. Mergelyan was the face of the new Armenian mathematics, so he was the natural candidate for the position. Rumors said that when he was informed about his appointment as the director, he was enraged because to him it was quite clear that this was a completely different field than the field of his expertise. Evidently, they convinced him to take the position.

Yerevan Scientific Research Institute of Mathematical Machines

At the time, the largest portion of government support in the USSR was given in two fields of science: nuclear and rocket sciences. “Many people considered electronic computational machines as secondary. There were petty attempts in the organization of operations and distribution of resources, which produced petty results,” stated one of the pioneers of computer technologies in the USSR, Alexander Zalkind, Ph.D. “By that time, cybernetics had lost its prefix pseudo-. We were assembling our first M3s on the stand of the State Scientific Research Institute of Electronic Industry, headed by the academic Andranik Iosifyan. He also was the vice president of the Armenian Chapter of the Academy of Sciences of the USSR, which determined where the first M3s were sent. Melik-Shakhnazarov, who defended his dissertation with Abel Aganbegyan in Novosibirsk, was appointed as head engineer, with academician Mergelyan as director. The Catholicos of all Armenians addressed Armenians around the world in a plea to help Mergelyan with the project. A year later, they received a wagon full of radio parts, even from Japan. But it wasn’t easy to incorporate them into our technology. We always had a close friendship with YerSRIIM, having attended tens of conferences there and skiing in Tsakhkadzor – during the training of young specialists,” remembered Zalkind in his “Little Stories About the Large and Medium-Sized ECMs” [Electronic Computational Machines].

Amirbekian remembered how he transferred from Moscow. “I was called by Aram Melik-Shakhnazarov who asked me to move to Yerevan in 1956. It was around the time that the Festival of Youth was about to take place in Moscow. My wife was pregnant with our first son, Armen, and it was very difficult to find any apartment in Moscow. I was glad for this opportunity. Several months later, I arrived in Yerevan. Many young specialists from Russia were also offered jobs at YerSRIMM. This was the time when Boris Khaikin, Henrikh Belkin and many other young engineers moved to Armenia as well.”

“At YerSRIMM,” he continued, “I had a laboratory which was making a semiconductor machine. This was the first semiconductor machine, which we called Hrazdan. When we started making Hrazdan, there was an Institute of Applied Mathematics directed by Shura Burov, and he had a team of very good young guys. He sent them to us, they designed the frame of the device and formulated the main characteristics and ideas, and we started working on the memory of these machines. I had seven or eight guys on my team, and we were working round the clock in shifts. When we made the machine and took it to the Expo of Industrial Achievements in Moscow, we received first prize. Brusilovsky received the grand prize and Gold Medal; I and two others received small gold medals. We came back triumphant.” That victory was followed by one of the largest contracts at YerSRIMM, commissioned by the headquarters of the air force. The lead developer of the project was Fadei Sarkisian, Amirbekian was the first deputy, and there were two more deputies. It was a classified project called “Nuclear Control System of the USSR Strategic Rocket Forces,” and in particular they were working on the program support of nuclear bomb aircraft carriers. The rockets were made by an institute in Leningrad, but the head organization was the so-called P.O Box 3007 in Moscow, directed by Academician Vladimir Semenikhin.


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