Posts Tagged ‘Technology’

Bits, Bytes, Trits, and Trytes

Bits, Bytes, Trits, and Trytes

February 17, 2010  |  Comments Off

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.

Excerpt:

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.

Whirlybirds and Witches

Whirlybirds and Witches

February 17, 2010  |  Comments Off

Making the Chapter:

The science of flight and Ukraine have had a love affair for more than a century. Many will already be familiar with the names of Sikorsky and Antonov, whose agile helicopters and big birds, respectively, have served us equally in peace time and war.

Fewer will be familiar with other ingredients that I weave into the story of Whirlybirds and Witches. They include the remarkable people who conquered aircraft spin, designers who were decades ahead of their time, and pilots you would not want to encounter in a dog fight.  Only a few, perhaps, are aware of the remarkable role played by Ukrainian women in this story of flight. In war time, women pilots harried the occupying German troops invoking constant restlessness and in peacetime they broke numerous flight records. They clearly provoked something in Stalin; he is rumoured to have been the lover of one woman pilot, and he was the pallbearer to another.

Excerpt:

Undaunted by the experience, Valentina followed her father’s footsteps and went on to become the country’s first woman instructor, teaching hundreds of men to fly at Tula Institute.

Valentina’s co-pilot, Polina Osipenko, shared a similar ambition but had a very different upbringing. Osipenko was head of a chicken farm near Kyiv when she fell in love with a military pilot working at the Kacha Flight School. She enrolled at the school and started out by working in the canteen making breakfast for the pilots, but before long had inveigled her way into the pilot training programme. She excelled at training and was transferred to Kharkiv where she married Alexander Osipenko, who later became a famous general and Hero of the Soviet Union.

Over the next three years, in flying with fellow navigator and pilot, Russian-born Maria Raskova, Grizodubova and Osipenko set several new women’s distance world records and were awarded The Order of Lenin. (Nowadays, it seems somewhat quaint to be awarded a medal for making a four-hour flight, but then it had all sorts of implications for military supremacy.) The three women enjoyed working together, and with Stalin’s support — it is thought that Raskova may have been his mistress — they embarked on a flight across the Soviet Union.

The Chief Designer

The Chief Designer

February 17, 2010  |  Comments Off

Making the Chapter:

I’ve heard cynics say that the only areas where the Soviet Union outshone the USA were space exploration and ballet, and that in the first it was only temporarily.  That’s an unfair assessment.  In many of the space disciplines, Ukrainians have dominated their field since the mid-nineteenth century – you might say they were light-years ahead. In The Chief Designer I visit Odesa-the city of humour-and the Odesa Observatory to learn how the Ukrainian designer of Sputnik built on the ideas of his predecessors to first put a machine, and shortly after, a dog in space. Few at the time realised that decisions taken on the spur of the moment would upset the world superpower balance within a matter of months. Before leaving Odesa I investigate the story of the local man who provided the inspiration for the fictional character of “James Bond.”

Excerpt:

On October 4, 1957, Sputnik became the first manmade object to reach orbit. Though Sputnik was not visible from Earth, the casing of the R-7 booster travelling behind it could be seen. Korolev dearly wanted the world to hear the “beep, beep, beep” of his satellite. The signal, which continued for twenty-two days, could be picked up on an ordinary radio and millions around the world tuned into it. If the irritating “beep” wasn’t bad enough for the Americans, they also had to recognise that it was flying directly over North America and, thus, American sky had been violated.

We stopped by a fountain. Stanislav was elated and he groomed his beard; evidently the story was a source of pride and joy for him.

As we know now, Korolev’s tiny sphere shook America’s assumptions of its own superiority and sent some hard-to-believe messages. If the Soviet Union could deliver missiles to America, then winning a war with them would be practically impossible.