Tracing the birth of Italian computer science

Friday, March 1, 2013 | 9:00 AM

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Tuscany is renowned as the birthplace of the cultural Renaissance. Less widely known is its role in another revolution, as the spiritual home of Italian computing.

The story begins in the 1950’s, when the University of Pisa received a large grant from local authorities to put towards a scientific project. Eventually, with the endorsement of famed physicist Enrico Fermi, they decided to use it to build a computer. In mid-1955, the funding was formally passed to the university’s new Center for Studies on Electronic Computers (CSCE) and work could begin.

The CSCE’s design team was made up of physicists and engineers. In the early stages, there were even a few engineers seconded from commercial firm Olivetti, who set up their own laboratory in Pisa and provided some extra funding for the CSCE project.

As no-one on the team had experience in building a computer, it was decided to test their design with a smaller but complete machine first, before progressing to building a fully-fledged device. By mid-1956 they had an initial design on paper, and on July 24th 1957 came the formal announcement the smaller machine was complete.

Called “Macchina Ridotta” which translated means “reduced machine”, nonetheless it was a computer in its own right and, at the time, the most advanced machine in Italy.

After lengthy testing, in February 1958 it was ready to start work helping scientists with calculations. An instruction manual prepared by Dr Elisabetta Abate (one of Italy’s very first female programmers) was published on 1st March 1958—55 years ago today.

Photos courtesy of the Archive of the University of Pisa, made available via the HMR project 
Top: The Macchina Ridotta installed in the Institute of Physics 
Bottom: Front view of the original control panel, alongside one of the simulators developed by the HMR project of the Department of Computer Science of the University of Pisa 

Within just a few months, the Macchina Ridotta had performed over 150 machine hours of calculations for other departments -- everything from helping study crystalline structures for the Institute of Mineralogy, to determining eigenfunctions of atomic systems for the National Institute of Nuclear Physics.

The Macchina Ridotta continued operating until the end of 1958, when it was dismantled so the materials could be re-used in the larger fully-fledged machine, which came to be known as the “Calcolatrice Elettronica Pisana” (CEP). This was eventually completed in mid 1961 and served the Italian scientific community well for the rest of the decade.

As importantly, the CEP project helped make Pisa a hub for computer science research and education in Italy. Researchers on the CSCE team gave seminars in 1955, followed by formal programming classes in 1956, in which the work-in-progress Macchina Ridotta was used as a theoretical teaching example. Later, in 1969, the first full Italian degree course in computer science was offered by the University of Pisa.

Until recently, the Macchina Ridotta’s importance was overlooked. It was not the earliest computer in Italy; that honour goes to two imported machines -- the CRC 102A at Milan Polytechnic, followed by the Ferranti Mark 1 at the INAC in Rome. Nor did it seek to be the first Italian commercially available computer; that honour goes to Olivetti’s ELEA 9003.

But the Macchina Ridotta was the first computer to be built in Italy, to an original design, and thus marks the cornerstone of Italian computer science. We’re delighted to pay tribute to it today.


Mirza Ahmed Ali said...

The Computer Learning