M-3, the first Hungarian computer.
The History of the Hungarian computer began in a Budapest Transit Prison

Gyozo Kovacs
Hungarian Informatics-History Museum


The first two Hungarian computers were ready in 1958 - the MESz-1, relay computer consrtucted by ProfessorLaszlo Kozma - and in 1959 - the Hungarian M-3, tube computer, constructed by a group of young matematicians and engineers - using an original documentation receiving from the Soviet Union. I was the deputy leader and the technical head of the group constructing the M-3 computer.

The story started in the Budapest Transit Prison, where the computer pioneers were imprisoned. After the death of Stalin the conceived criminal case proceedings were revised and the condemned intellectuals rehabilitated.

Professor Laszlo Kozma returned to the University and he constructed his relay computer, Rezso Tarjan organised - first - a "calculator department", one year later the Cybernetical Research Group in the Academy of Sciences. Unfortunately his idea - a self constructed computer - was not realised, therefore he left the research group soon.

The M-3 started the operation on 23rd January 1959, it is the date, when the compter age began in Hungary.

If the protagonist of this story - Laszlo KOZMA - would not have protested against my opinion back in the seventies, I would like to say that between 1953 and 1956 Hungarian computers were born in the prison.

Kozma never agreed with me about this statement, and therefore I will modify my opinion: the idea of the first Hungarian electronic computer - B 1 - was born at the beginning of the fifties in the KOMI 401 "research institution" organised in a Budapest Transit Prison. Laszlo KOZMA, the inventor of the first Hungarian relay-computer - the MESz-1 - constructed his computer after his release, between 1955 and 1958 in the Budapest University of Technology. The computer was constructed and used to teach relay switching-technology.

We experienced Stalinism during the end of fourties and the beginning of fifties in Hungary, the political police arrested not only the ruling members of the former regime, but also the most distinguished members of the intelligencia. They then constructed legal cases against them. The fortunate ones were sentenced to prison for a short or long time. Unfortunately, some excellent specialists were sentenced to death.

Laszlo KOZMA, a university professor, was the technical director of the STANDARD company. They produced telephone exchanges, and therefore he was a second-class culprit in the STANDARD criminal case proceedings. The political police helped the communist government nationalize the previously English owned Standard Company by creating this trumped-up sabotage charge.

Laszlo KOZMA was sentenced to a long imprisonment. His boss, the managing director, was sentenced to death and executed.

Rezso TARJAN, a mathematician, lived in captivity at the same time and he also was working in the KOMI 401. He was later my boss. He also survived different hells. He was an inmate of a labour camp during the second war in 1944, then - after Hungary was liberated - he became head of the Directorate of Telecommunication, i.e. the leader of the Hungarian telecommunication industry-policy, for a short time. He was arrested at Ferihegy-Airport in 1953 coming back from the UK, and imprisoned. He spent two years there together with Dr Laszlo EDELENYI and Jozsef HATVANY.

There is not a lot of documentation about these years from the prison, but they later told a lot of stories about these years. They decided they would construct an electronic computer if they were freed. They gave a written proposal for construction of an electronic computer to the III Department (Mathematics) of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences (dated 2nd February 1954), which was sent by the legal representative company of the prison research group. Its complete Hungarian name was: "KOMI 401 Vállalat Altalanos Epulet es Geptervezo Iroda" (KOMI 401 Company General Office for Building and Machinery Construction). This proposal was refused by the Department of the Academy. I suppose, the proposal was formed by Rezso TARJAN and the "day-dreamers".

TARJAN had heard about the first American electronic computer - the ENIAC - then the activity of John von Neumann, after the second war. I think they drew up the proposal I mentioned based on this information.

Life at the KOMI 401 was odd. The leadership was formally in the hands of the political police officers. They controled - theoretically - the research at the KOMI. Laszlo KOZMA told me the political officers never decided on practical technical and important research questions, their task was to execute the accepted proposals of the prisoners and to make them available to the civil economy.

I remember Tarjan would let out a sigh when the Academy library could not get an important publication for him, because "it was different at KOMI, when I asked for any publication after a few days the document was on my table."

After the death of Stalin the conceived criminal case proceedings were revised and the condemned intellectuals rehabilitated. They usually received some financial compensation and generally they could return into their previous jobs.

1955, the daydreamers are free again

Laszlo KOZMA returned to the university, where I first met him. He was a professor of telecommunications (construction methods for the information traffic of telephone exchanges) and I was a university student of electrical engineering. In 1961 he was appointed a correspondence member of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences and in 1976 to be an ordinary member.

Professor KOZMA consructed his binary concepted relay computer, the MESz-1 between 1955 and 1958. The computer worked automatically on a decimal system, it contained about 2000 relays, and Professor KOZMA constructed the I/O pheripherials, too. The printer was an old, reconstructed and technically changed Mercedes typewriter, the program was punched by hand onto an X-ray black plan-film, Kozma constucted a reader to read the information from the film into the computer. The basic data was typed directly into the computer.

Rezso TARJAN - after being released - wanted to continue the construction of the original B(udapest)-1 computer, and so he organised a "Calculator" Department in the Technical Instrument Institute of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, where he and his new colleagues began the construction of some sub-systems (units) of a possible, new electronic calculator. Essentially this department changed in 1956 to the Cybernetic Research Group of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences. This Research Group was my first work place, where I started my electronic engineering activity in 1957.

The Academy appointed Sandor VARGA - previously a Soviet emigrant, the cousin of Eugene VARGA, a famous Soviet economist - as director of the Research Group. Rezso TARJAN became the Scientific Deputy Director.

The members of the Research Group continued the earlier research work on the electronic calculator, i.e. a computer. We constructed different circuits with electronic tubes and ferrit cores. We could get some pieces from the first Hungarian made germanium diodes, we tested them in different circuits, but their characteristcs depended on the temperature, therefore we could not use them to build stabile electronic circuits.

The first "prehistoric" computers

At the end of the fifties we did not know the cold war, the scientific researchers were in a very good connection with some other researchers, independently of the social system and countries where they worked. Hermann H. Goldstine - friend and partner of John von Neumann - told me when we met first in Budapest during his visit, several scientific researchers visited Philadelphia from different countries, because the ENIAC and the future EDVAC was very interesting to the scientific world. Their first visitor, for example, was Prof. Maurice WILKES from Cambridge University, who constructed the EDSAC, the first stored program computer in the UK after his visit. They had a lot of visitors from Sweden, France and many other countries. They all wanted to construct computers.

"We did not have any visitors from the Soviet Union - Goldstine told me - but we have got several letters from Soviet trading companies and the Soviet Embassy asking for documentation and papers about our computers - the ENIAC, the EDVAC, and later about the IAS computer. Naturally I sent all the documentation to them."

I do not know, but I think that some of the American documentation arrived to professor S.A. Lebedjev in Kiev, and he could use them when the first Soviet computer, the MESM, was constructed in 1952.

Returning to Budapest, Sandor VARGA looked at our circuits and knew that our research would not lead to an operational computer. We had high spirits, but we knew very well our experiments would never be successful.

During 1957 VARGA and TARJAN, as well as Andras BOKA and Laszlo SZANYI visited Moscow several times. They studied the new Soviet computers, e.g. we heard for the first time from our colleagues about the BESM and some other Soviet computers.

The "Hungarian M-3"

In the autumn of 1957 - behind the scenes - VARGA decided we would finish the construction of the B-1 (naturally we did not know about such a decision). He travelled to Moscow and returned with the logical and circuit-sketches (designes) of a small-medium size computer. This was the M-3.

The computer was designed in the Laboratory of Control Machines and Systems directed by Professor I.S. Brook, we had all the plans, but VARGA, - seeing our earlier experiments - did not trust Hungarian electronic parts, therefore he ordered Soviet parts (tubes, CUPROX diodes, resistances, capacitors etc.) for a minimum two computers or more.

A note: I knew in 1959, that the M-3 sketches were given to the Chinese Academy of Sciences, then I met an Estonian researcher in 2000, who told me the M-3 sketches were given to the Estonian Academy of Sciences, therefore their first computer was the M-3, too. Unfortunately the M-3 in China never was finished, but the Estonian M-3 was working a long time.

VARGA's decision was excellent. The M-3 was a not very complicated computer, therefore we - "greenhorns" - mathematicians and engineers could understand it easily and we could - during a relatively short time (15 months) - construct it. We understood later, because the computer content was not a lot, "only thousands" of tubes, therefore the continual operation of the computer was not very difficult. The computer used dual address instructions, therefore many beginners can learn very fast to write programs, in this way we had to introduce the three shift continual operation soon.

We were returning again to the building of the M-3, when VARGA returned from the Soviet Union and reorganised the whole Research Group. He organised a Computer Development Department, he appointed Balint Domolki to the head of the department and I (Gyozo Kovacs) became his deputy as the technical head of the developer group. VARGA knew how to develop computers very well at this time, usually two persons lead the development of a computer, one matematician and an electronic engineer, e.g. the ENIAC was developed by John Mauchly, matematicien and Prespert Ecker, electronic engineer. The ABC was developed by John V. Atanasoff, mathematician and Clifford Berry electronic engineer. The IAS computer was a little bit different, because two mathematicians - John von Neumann and Hermann Goldstine - and one engineer, J.H. Bigelow, led the development. Rezso TARJAN did not get any task during the development of the M-3, therefore he soon left the Research Group.

The development of the computer started at the end of 1957. Our first task was to understand the operation of the computer, because we had never seen a real operating computer. Our problem was we did not get any description about the operation of the M-3 computer, we had only sketches.

The solution was found by Balint DOMOLKI, who constructed a special flow-chart to describe each individual operation of the computer. He started at the very simple circuits or logical elements and he arrived at the most complicated large logical sub-systems. The DOMOLKI constructed description-system worked very well, we all - Imre MOLNAR, Sandor PODHRADSZKY, later Jozsef DRASNY and I, the members of the Computer Development Deparment, learned the operation of the computer from these flow-charts and naturally we also constructed similar descriptions with flow-charts.

We constructed technically the M-3 computer, the members of the Department of Mathematics - Janos SZELEZSAN, Emilia MARKUS and Laszlo VEIDINGER, headed by Ferenc SANDOR - studied the numerical methods and prepared the first mathematical programs, since when the computers were finished we would have to have programs to run them.

We had a Department of Economics where our economists and mathematicians labored: Istvan ACZEL, Bela KREKO, Geza JANDY and Janos KORNAI worked out different economic tasks, e.g. the control of the matrixes to the Planing Office, minimizing the unnecessary lorry journeys, etc. The main task of our mathematicians and economists was to monitor the matrixes of the Planning Office, because the country's economy was based on the planned-economy, and they were waiting for the computers to solve their planning problems.

We received our first planning matrix in 1959/60 from the Planning Office, they sent this first matrix to the Soviet Union using the BESM 2 computer because they did not believe either in our computer or in our mathematicians. But we had the same concern. The result from both computer calculations was mostly ready after a week and the two results were the same. It is true, this task was a big challenge for us, because our computer was smaller than the Soviets'. We worked 7 days and nights continually, we slept sometimes at the institute, but we solved the problem. After a week we got our first premium from Sandor VARGA. Very soon some of us - DOMOLKI, PODHRADSZKY, MOLNAR and me - won a prize from the Academy because we constructed the M-3 computer.

We did not know, but followed the computer development-tradition of this age. When we understood the sketches of the computer, we began to correct the flaws in the logical design, because the computer was never tested or constructed before us. We reconstructed not only the basic circuits, but the basic architecture of the computer, too. I do not remember well, but we had no connection with the Soviet creators of the computer, we had to correct everithing using our brains. It was very interesting, when our computer was ready in 1959, we - DOMOLKI, SZANYI and I - visited the computer factory in Minsk, where they had built the first Soviet M-3 computer. We discussed the problems of the original sketches, naturally they corrected the flaws, too, but their solution was completely different from ours. Naturally both - their and our - computers worked.

There was only one great difference between the Soviet and the Hungarian made M-3: our I/O solution was totaly different from their solution.

When our computer was working ordinally, every matematician came to us and suggested new solutions, e.g. they would like to introduce new instructions. We naturally had thought of such ideas, but we had not expected that we would lose compatibility with the other M-3 computers. It was not an important question at that time.

As I wrote we did not get any instructions about the I/O pheripherials of the M-3. I do not know who suggested a good solution to us, but we chose the Siemens T 100 teletype as an input and output equipment for the computer. The task was given to Sandor PODHRADSZKY, who implemeted the teletype together with Laszlo HORVATH post-engineer to the computer, and this solution worked very well. We used this teletype with 5 position coded punch-tape as an external memory, too. The international 5 position code was used in telecommunication not only for numbers, but letters and symbols, too, and therefore our colleagues solved not only numerical, but alpha-numerical tasks from the very beginning. One of the very famous tasks was a statistical language analysis of a famous Hungarian poet's poems.

The computer was ready on 21st January, 1959. VARGA invited G.P. Lopato, an electronic chief engineer and one of the M-3's developers, to test the Hungarian M-3 computer and to declare, it was working and the Academy can use it. After the acceptance procedure, the computer was used by a lot of matematicians, economists, philologists, physicians, engineers etc, but we also had a lot of foreign visitors from the Soviet Union, Poland, Czechslovakia, Romania, France etc. I remeber well A. Ershov, a matematicien, who visited our computer center several times, he met our matemathicians talking about the problems of programing. We became good friends, and met later in Moscow on several occasions.

When the computer was ready the activity of the Cybernetical Research Group ended and we opened the first Computer Center of the Academy in Hungary.

Meanwhile - following the instructions of VARGA - we began to construct a new and modernised M-3 computer, totaly based on Hungarian electronic parts (long-life Hungarian made tubes, Si diodes, REMIX resistors etc), but the leaders of the Academy of Sciences stopped this "secret" development work. The COMECON made a decision at this time, which was accepted by all Socialist countries, that the computers will be developed only in the Soviet Union, and that other countries will buy, rather than develop, computers. The Academy found our "illegal" computer development, VARGA was kicked out immediately and had to leave the computer center.

The computer capacity of the M-3 was not soon insufficient, and therefore the Academy bought an URAL 2 computer, which arrived in 1963.

The M-3 was delivered to the Cybernetic Laboratory in Szeged, established by Laszlo KALMAR, Professor of mathematics. His colleague, Daniel MUSZKA, organised the first country computer center with the M-3 computer.

We disassembled the M-3 computer and delivered it to Szeged. Daniel MUSZKA and his colleagues cleaned the whole machine and we - together with our friends in Szeged - put it in operation again - if I remember well, in one month.

The M-3 computer was working till 2nd January 1968, nine years altogether, when the leaders of the university decided to disassemble the computer into several parts, which were distributed among the departments of the university.

MUSZKA and I wanted to put the first computer into the Technical Museum, but the Director of the Museum rejected it. We preserved some pieces of the computer (drum, units etc), which are famous pieces now at different computer-history exhibitions.

An interesting story is that the Technical University in Timisoara ordered from us a magnetic drum for the first Romanian computer, the MECIPT 1, in 1960. We delivered the drum, connected it to their computer and the whole system worked very well.

A little bit later the Romanian Academy of Sciences ordered from us three magnetic drums to Bucharest, which we think they used for the second Romanian computer. We prepared and delivered the drums, but we never heard about these products.

It was the first computer peripherial export from Hungary.


2001, Siberian Branch of Russian Academy of Science, Novosibirsk
2001, United Institute of Computer Science SB RAS, Novosibirsk
2001, Institute of Computational Techologies SB RAS, Novosibirsk
2001, A.P. Ershov Institute of Informatics Systems SB RAS, Novosibirsk
2001, Institute of Mathematics SB RAS, Novosibirsk
2001, Institute of Cytology and Genetics SB RAS, Novosibirsk
2001, Institute of Computational Mathematics and Mathematical Geophysics SB RAS, Novosibirsk
2001, Novosibirsk State University
Last modified Saturday, 06-Oct-2001 16:54:57 NOVST