Bits, Bytes, Trits, and Trytes

Bits, Bytes, Trits, and Trytes

February 17, 2010

Making the Chapter:

Ukrainian markets are awash with pirated computer software and some say that Ukraine is the centre of excellence of hacking. Neither paint Ukraine in a particularly good light, but both are founded on the country’s heritage of leadership in computer technology development.  In Bits, Bytes, Trits, and Trytes I visit the Ukrainian Academy of Sciences to learn the story of the development of continental Europe’s first computer and about some of the world’s most most advanced computer technology.  It’s a remarkable story that start’s in Kyiv, under conditions of utmost secrecy, and ends in the most unlikely of places, a nun’s bedroom.

And in case you think that the technology innovation of Ukrainians died along with the Cold War, we take a look at who made the first mobile telephone call, the computer disk and scanner. And, yes, I think you’ve guessed already.


If not for the war, Lebedev would have completed his computer even earlier, and his wife recalled the dark wartime evenings when her husband would sit in the bathroom, lit by an oil lamp, and scribble the 1s and 0s of the binary operations. The basic elements were complete by 1948, and two years later his “Small Electronic Calculating Machine” (called MESM) was operational. Many of the original design documents are kept at the National Academy of Sciences and scribbled on the front cover are the words, “To be kept forever.”

At the time there were only two similar working machines in the world, both in England: Maurice Wilkes’ EDSAC, and a machine called the Manchester BABY developed by Frederick Williams and Tom Kilburn. In fact, Lebedev’s machine was superior because it performed several calculations simultaneously (what we now call “parallel processing”), whereas the EDSAC and BABY employed a sequential method of calculation. By reading US journals the Ukrainians had learned of the world’s first computer, ENIAC, completed in 1946, but it was not programmable.

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