How Programmable Calculators and a Sci-Fi Story Brought Soviet Teens Into the Digital Age

In the 1980s, the USSR’s unlikely computer-literacy campaign nurtured a generation of techies

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Despite the ubiquity of computers in modern society, the vast majority of today’s students never study computer science or computer programming. Those who are exposed to these subjects typically learn low-level skills rather than undertaking any deeper exploration of computational concepts or theory. In earlier decades, a few countries did promote computer education at the national level. In the 1980s, for example, the British government launched a popular and quite successful initiative that brought thousands of BBC Micros into classrooms.

But the most ambitious computer literacy program ever conceived is one you’ve probably never heard of, and it originated in a very unlikely place: the Soviet Union.

Perhaps you’re smiling to yourself, recalling the old trope about how the USSR invented Tetris and yet lost the Cold War. Implicit in this dismissal is the failure of the Soviets to fully appreciate the awesome power of the digital age. It’s true that the Soviet government never embraced a national computer network or provided its citizens with affordable personal computers. But if you subscribe to this narrative of technological stumbles and political failure, then you’re missing an important, not to mention fascinating, part of the story of global computerization—one in which Soviet teenagers latched onto a popular sci-fi novel of adventure and self-discovery and taught themselves and each other how to program using the only means available to them: the programmable calculator.

In September 1985, ninth graders all across the USSR began studying a new subject: Basics of Informatics and Computing Technology. The rollout of the compulsory course, which aimed to make programming a universal skill, was to be accompanied by new textbooks in 15 national languages, training for some 100,000 teachers, and a million computers for the 60,000 or so middle schools across the Soviet republics.

None of this went smoothly. The state didn’t supply schools with equipment, efforts to print and distribute course literature were uneven, and many teachers never received the requisite training.

Meanwhile, the move sparked an international debate among computer experts over the very definition of “computer literacy.” The U.S. computer scientist and entrepreneur Edward Fredkin argued that his country’s experience should inform the Soviets:

We now understand that computer literacy is not knowing how to program. It is not understanding how [a] computer works. It is not knowing about bits and bytes and flip-flops and gates.... We now know that true computer literacy means having the skills to use the advanced application programs, such as word processing and spreadsheet systems.

In response, the computer scientist Andrei Ershov quipped that coding and typing were not mutually exclusive. Ershov was head of the Akademgorodok Computer Center [PDF] in the Siberian science city of Akademgorodok, and he had emerged as the computer literacy campaign’s key promoter. In stark contrast to Fredkin, he viewed computer literacy as nurturing a set of intellectual habits, which he called “algorithmic thinking.”

That idea grew in part out of Ershov’s time as a student of Aleksei Liapunov, a towering figure of Soviet cybernetics. From Liapunov, Ershov learned to think in terms of cybernetic metaphors and to draw connections between technology and society. He conceived of algorithms as a form of communication between humans and machines.

Ershov also drew on ideas from the West. In September 1958, he was among an elite group of Soviet computer experts to meet with their American counterparts. His exchange with the computer pioneer Alan Perlis, who would later become the first recipient of the Turing Award, proved particularly fruitful. Perlis shared with Ershov his enthusiasm for developing a universal algorithmic language, called Algol, which aimed to make software portable and international. Ershov embraced Algol’s agenda, and he went on to develop one of the most ambitious compilers for the language in the early 1960s. The universalist aspirations of the Algol community would inform his views on computer education.

Ershov’s educational agenda was also inspired by a visit to MIT in the early 1970s, where he met Seymour Papert and learned of his computer education experiments with Logo, a programming language designed for use by children.

And yet, while Ershov closely followed developments in Western computer science, he believed the Soviet Union should forge its own path to the information age, one imbued with socialist values, less dependent on computers as black-boxed commodities and more focused on building citizens’ skills and habits of mind. By learning to program, he argued, students would develop abstract reasoning and a goal-oriented, problem-solving mind-set. By the end of the 1970s, Ershov and his team in Akademgorodok had formulated their literacy program, developing their curriculum with the help of Siberian students and testing it in local schools.

Of course, Ershov knew he needed much broader support to implement such a curriculum nationally. He began tirelessly promoting his idea of programming as a “second literacy” to Soviet authorities, computer experts, educators, parents, and children, as well as to the international community. Finally, in 1985, in a wave of transformative policies adopted with Mikhail Gorbachev’s ascendance to power, the Akademgorodok informatics curriculum was officially adopted.

The inefficiencies of Soviet planning and economics meant that most ninth graders studied the curriculum without computers on which to test their new skills. This wasn’t seen as an obstacle by the reformers. Instead, the teaching materials encouraged writing out programs on paper and engaging in imaginative exercises. Students, for instance, acted out the role of a robot named Dezhurik (from the Russian word dezhurnyi, the person responsible for maintaining the classroom), who was programmed to “close window” or “clean blackboard.” When students from the remote city of Khabarovsk complained about the lack of classroom computers, Ershov commended them for taking the initiative to write and emphasized that the youths still had the chance to “catch up to the train to the future.”

But he refused to commiserate with them. What they were learning—how to devise an algorithm and write a program for it—was the essential part, he said, whether or not they ever got to run the program on an actual computer. Ershov’s letter to the students concluded: “If the teacher may have pity on you and give you a satisfactory grade, the computer will not forgive you any errors. It will stay there, an impenetrable piece of metal, up to the end of the school year. Without an algorithm, without a program, without a plan, there is no point in sitting in front of the computer.”

Soviet citizens may have lacked access to PCs, but many millions of them did have access to computational devices, in the form of scientific programmable calculators. These handheld devices could store instructions and numbers in memory for later execution. Popular in the West following the 1974 introduction of the HP-65 by Hewlett-Packard, programmable calculators still have their fans and their uses.

In the Soviet Union, from the mid-1970s on, the microelectronics industry produced electronic calculators by the millions, primarily for use by what was then the world’s largest population of engineers. As in the West, Soviet calculator users were instrumental in shaping the development of programs and applications for the devices. Unlike in the West, few Soviets had home computers, and so the calculator took on many more roles—including as a makeshift computing platform for computer education and a thriving game culture.

These two roles converged in a popular science magazine called Tekhnika Molodezhi (Technology for Youth), which was published by the Communist youth organization Komsomol. The publication was aimed at teenagers and had a subscriber base of 1.5 million. In January 1985, the magazine took up Ershov’s computer literacy campaign and began devoting a section to programming with the most popular Soviet calculator, the Elektronika B3-34, which sold for 85 rubles. Reader response to the column was disappointing, however.

Then in August 1985, TM began serializing the space-travel novel Kon-Tiki: A Path to the Earth. In this tale of an epic quest, an engineer and a pilot attempt, against all odds, to fly a lunar lander from the moon back to Earth. The premise of the novel was the popular U.S. computer game Lunar Lander, in which players controlled thrusters and calculated trajectories to safely guide their landers to the lunar surface. The Soviet version was called Lunalet. Each installment of the novel invited readers to take up their calculators, transforming themselves into pilots and their devices into spaceships.

The Kon-Tiki serial was an instant hit, and the magazine soon became one of the most prominent forums for younger users of programmable calculators. The futuristic narrative of each chapter was combined with puzzles on the physical laws of space travel and tricks for programming the B3-34. But what kept readers reading was the dramatic plot and the novel’s focus on overcoming human and technological limits.

A reference to Thor Heyerdahl’s 1947 journey by raft across the Pacific Ocean, Kon-Tiki was also the name of the tiny vessel chosen by the novel’s protagonists for their earthbound voyage. The story line evolved far beyond the game’s original goal of landing the spacecraft. The “path to the Earth” became a journey of self-discovery. At one point, the pilot, called Moon Hawk, reflects on his own fallibility: “I am not a computer; I am a human, and it is typical for me to make mistakes. Because of that I can’t choose a path that does not allow for mistakes. Of course, in cases when I have a choice, I will prefer the way that gives me the right to make a mistake and simultaneously an opportunity to correct it.”

The heroes stumble even at the novel’s conclusion: They arrive back on Earth only to touch down in the ocean and are forced to send out an SOS. “After all, I am a cosmonaut, not a sea captain,” admits the pilot, as they await rescue.

Credit for the novel’s clever intertwining of programming and storytelling goes to its author, Mikhail Pukhov, who was also editor of TM’s sci-fi section. The son of a prominent mathematician, Pukhov graduated from the country’s most prestigious engineering school, the Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology. Abandoning a promising career at the Central Scientific-Research Radio Engineering Institute, he had turned to writing and editing.

Before starting Kon-Tiki, Pukhov thoroughly explored the calculator’s functions as well as its malfunctions. Calculator users in the West and in the East alike were quick to discover and exploit the devices’ undocumented features, pushing them to do things their designers never intended. Such exploration became known as errorology, from the “EГГОГ” message that would frequently appear on the small display at the execution of an undocumented feature. Pukhov’s novel glorified errorology with poetic descriptions of “fishing” for unusual combinations of symbols.

And readers responded, writing to TM about their own calculator exploits. “I inform you that I obtained an easy way for creating any combination from the numbers and symbols ‘Е,’ ‘Г,’ ‘С,’ ‘L,’ ‘-,’ which do not begin from zero on the display of the B3-34,” boasted one reader. To have their programs and names printed in TM was the highest aspiration of many readers.

Thus did TM and its sci-fi editor help cultivate a generation of hackers and computer enthusiasts. If you find it odd that a major state-sanctioned Soviet magazine promoted hacking practices, consider how U.S. hacker culture emerged—as a form of hands-on technological investigation. In his 1984 book Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution, Steven Levy traced the origin of MIT’s hackers to a club of railroad buffs. Similarly, in the Soviet Union, a combination of state interests and grassroots initiatives had nurtured a hands-on culture among radio amateurs. For a radio engineer like Pukhov, as well as for the educators who used the novel in the classroom, subverting the calculator’s design specifications was a way to encourage technical skills.

The community of readers and players that formed around Kon-Tiki unwittingly embraced the goals of programming literacy as conceived by Ershov. In their letters to TM, many requested more games as well as flowcharts for rewriting the programs for other kinds of calculators. One reader wrote that he aspired “to see the program as a conscious pattern of actions, and not as a thoughtless row of symbols. To be able, with the help of your magazine, not only to execute the available programs but to create [new programs] myself.” In this sense, the novel and its community of calculator users contributed to the spread of Ershov’s vision of computer literacy.

But was Ershov’s curriculum a success? The results of any educational initiative are, of course, hard to gauge. Soviet statisticians no doubt monitored the reform effort in some fashion, but that data would hardly capture real-world experiences in the classroom and beyond.

I posted on several Russian calculator-user forums hoping to hear from Kon-Tiki readers. The responses I received were tinged with nostalgia. Some wrote that their fascination with the novel spurred them to get a calculator. “For half a year, like a vacuum cleaner, I was absorbing all information available on programming and calculators in particular,” wrote one forum member, explaining how he learned the principles of programming before acquiring a device of his own. For others, the calculator was but a stepping-stone; eventually they earned enough money to buy computer kits (available in perestroika-era street markets) and assemble their own machines. Meanwhile, copies of TM continued to circulate via secondhand shops, where new groups of readers discovered the novel long after its original publication. Today you can easily find electronic versions of the magazine online, along with calculator emulators.

The extent to which such school-age experiences influenced people’s professional lives is less clear. Unless you lived through it, you may not fully appreciate the enormous disruption brought on by the economic crisis following the collapse of the Soviet Union—in Russia, those years are known as “the wild 1990s.” Kon-Tiki’s readers came of age as citizens of the emerging sovereign states. Few of them had full control over their career options, and for many, coding became a calling, a gig, and a gateway. These days in Russia, the “universality” of programming skills is no longer associated with creating a computer-literate society. Instead, it raises the prospect of migration, as skilled programmers choose to leave the country to pursue their careers.

Soviet-era efforts to foster computer literacy cast Western assumptions about the information age in a different light. Unlike events in the West, the Soviet digital revolution was not one of geeks and geniuses but of state-sponsored academics, writers, and educators, who worked with government officials, industrialists, and programmers toward a shared goal. It was not predicated on the personal computer but instead made do with calculators, pencil and paper, and students’ own imaginations.

Despite the passion of digital enthusiasts like Ershov and Pukhov, the campaign’s ideal of universality was hard to attain. The reform seemed to work best where you would expect it to, in the elite schools of the capitals and in a few remote schools blessed with wealthy patrons, such as those supported by the oil and gas industry. TM transcended some geographical and economic barriers and provided a motivation, an entry point, and a community to students who lacked inspiring teachers or computers of their own. But the magazine failed to bridge another familiar divide—that of gender. Unlike the population of Soviet professional programmers, and unlike the compulsory and gender-neutral informatics classes, the readers who wrote to TM about their calculator exploits were predominantly male.

And so, the digital socialist society that Ershov and others strove for was imperfectly realized. Neither Ershov, who died in 1988, nor the country itself survived long enough for the experiment to run its course. And yet, we shouldn’t be so quick to dismiss a vision of computer literacy that considered all students capable of thinking algorithmically. The Soviets did not prefigure the many challenges of the information age. But what we choose to remember from our computing pasts can help determine how we solve our present-day conundrums.

This article appears in the October 2018 print issue as “The Great Soviet Calculator Hack.”

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