Military Review

Unique and forgotten: the birth of the Soviet missile defense system. Lebedev and MESM

We stopped at the fact that by the end of the 1950s in the USSR there was not a single computer capable of effectively solving the task of targeting an anti-missile missile. But wait, we were one of the pioneers of computer technology? Or not? Actually история Soviet computers are a little more complicated than they seem.


It began in the Union immediately after the war (with a slight lag behind the United States and Great Britain, ahead of all other countries) independently in two places (Kiev and Moscow), with two people - Sergei Aleksandrovich Lebedev and Isaac Semenovich Brook (MESM and M-1 machines respectively).

MESM, like the British SSEM, was conceived as a model, therefore it was originally called the Model Electronic Counting Machine. But, unlike SSEM, the layout turned out to be quite workable. And the programs written for him, the first in Russian history, had practical significance almost from the very beginning. By the beginning of the development of the first Soviet computer, Lebedev was already a young, accomplished scientist. For a long time and successfully he was engaged in electrical engineering, in 1945 he was elected a full member of the Academy of Sciences of the Ukrainian SSR, in May 1946 he was appointed director of the Institute of Energy of the Academy of Sciences of the Ukrainian SSR in Kiev. In 1947, after the division of the institute, Lebedev became the director of the Institute of Electrical Engineering of the Academy of Sciences of the Ukrainian SSR and at the same time organized a laboratory of modeling and computer technology in it.

Just like his colleague Brooke, he receives the first information about the development of a fundamentally new class of computing technology - digital machines in a roundabout way from abroad. The chairman of the Academy of Sciences of the Ukrainian SSR from 1930 to 1946 (when he died of tuberculosis) was the famous Soviet biologist and pathophysiologist Alexander Aleksandrovich Bogomolets, who gathered around him a team of outstanding specialists in various fields of science, including mathematician Mikhail Alekseevich Lavrentiev, the future founder of the legendary Siberian branch of the Academy of Sciences of the USSR (in addition, it will still play a significant role in the development of early computers).

The son of A. A. Bogomolets, Oleg, also a biologist, was an inveterate radio amateur and, during his business trips to Switzerland, collected various magazines on electrical engineering and radio electronics. They included, among other things, descriptions of the work of the computer pioneer Dr. Konrad Ernst Otto Zuse, who developed the Z series for the ETH Zurich (the Z4, then under construction, became in 1950 the only working computer in continental Europe and the first computer in the world to was sold five months ahead of Mark I and ten months ahead of UNIVAC).

Returning to Kiev in the summer of 1948, OA Bogomolets shared these materials with Lavrentiev, the latter with Lebedev. And already in October 1948, the inspired Lebedev began to create MESM.

Despite the terrible conditions of post-war Ukraine, Lebedev's team, starting from scratch, managed two years later, on November 6, 1950, to carry out a test run (it took so much time for the car, among other things, because the MESM required more than 6000 lamps, and about a third of they were delivered from the factory defective). A year later, after successful testing by a commission of the USSR Academy of Sciences headed by Academician M.V. Keldysh, regular operation of the machine began.

Interestingly, the premises of the former monastery hostel in Feofaniya were so unsuitable for the operation of a huge lamp computer that part of the ceiling had to be demolished in the laboratory in order to remove the heat generated by thousands of lamps from the room. The conditions for creating MESM were hellish and not at all like the laboratories where ENIAC, Harvard Mk I and other computers were built in the United States.

Unique and forgotten: the birth of the Soviet missile defense system. Lebedev and MESM
Kiev after the war. The first creators of Soviet computers worked in such conditions (

MESM needed a room with an area of ​​about 150 sq. m. and about the same - for generators, batteries and control automation. Plus workshops, worker dorms, and more. It was very difficult to find such a building in Kiev destroyed by the war. The building in Feofaniya was in disrepair, at first it had to be repaired. Every day a specially dedicated bus drove from Kiev to the developer's village, but at 17 o'clock he left back. People stayed at work for several days or even weeks.

Zinovy ​​Lvovich Rabinovich, a student of Lebedev, recalls:

... in addition to the machine itself, it was necessary to develop and make various technological equipment ourselves, and not only standard equipment, but also previously not provided for - a special device for selecting pairs of lamps for triggers (matched in characteristics in each pair), a lamp filament stabilizer (without which lamps malfunctioned and generally quickly failed), etc., etc. Sometimes the need arose for completely unusual actions - such as obtaining various radio components from military equipment dumps - resistances, capacitors, etc. that everything was done for the first time - in the sense that nothing was borrowed.

In addition, Lebedev faced another problem. His staff included Jews! Again, a word to Rabinovich:

Sergei Alekseevich even had a lot of trouble because of this. An anonymous denunciation was written against him to the Central Committee, in which one of the main accusations was the promotion of Z. L. Rabinovich at work, and, in particular, assistance in his dissertation work (such was the time!). The denunciation as a result of the check was found defamatory, but, as they say, he spoiled Sergey Alekseevich's nerves a lot. It cost me a delay in defense for a year and a half - since it took additional closed review of the work ... I also cannot help but tell that Sergey Alekseevich still had a chance to defend me from the demands of my dismissal of some higher verifying authorities, in view of the campaign being carried out at that time the desirable reduction of Jewish researchers working on closed topics. Besides me, there was another researcher with the same passport, deputy head of the laboratory (S.A. Lebedeva) Lev Naumovich Dashevsky, and the presence of two such researchers in one laboratory was extremely undesirable ... But Sergey Alekseevich took a principled position, which at that time was not at all easy, and resolutely defended me.

As a result, in the fall of 1952, MESM performed calculations for the generators of the Kuibyshev hydroelectric power station. Learning that Feofania has a working computer, Kiev and Moscow mathematicians were drawn there with problems that required large-scale calculations. MESM worked round the clock counting thermonuclear reactions (Ya.B. Zel'dovich), ballistic missiles (M.V. Keldysh, A.A. Dorodnitsyn, A.A. Lyapunov), long-range transmission lines (S.A. Lebedev himself), statistical quality control (B.V. Gnedenko) and others. The first programmers in the USSR worked on this machine, including the famous mathematician MR Shura-Bura (he was "lucky" to work later with our first serial computer "Strela", and he spoke of it with horror, but we will tell about this later) ...

This is how it looked like working with MESM, note that the machine occupies all available wall surfaces, being simply mounted on them

Despite this, Lebedev did not receive any official honors (Rabinovich recalls):

I will tell you about one more unpleasant circumstance. It is perplexing that the work on the creation of MESM, being presented for the Stalin Prize in the person of its main authors S. A. Lebedev, L. N. Dashevsky and E. A. Shkabara, did not receive the prize. This fact, perhaps, reflected a misunderstanding of the importance of digital computing on the part of government agencies and even the then leadership of the Academy of Sciences of the Ukrainian SSR, in which, as in Kiev in general, there was no longer Mikhail Alekseevich Lavrentyev, who did so much to deploy work on the creation of MESM and then the Big Electronic Counting Machine (BESM). But, as they say, we survived. The car was, it worked well and was in an aura of fame and keen interest in it, and this gave its creators great joy.

MESM was used until 1957, until it was finally outdated, after which it was transferred to the KPI for educational purposes. In 1959, it was dismantled, the Ukrainian historian of computer technology Boris Nikolaevich Malinovsky recalled it this way:

The car was cut into pieces, a number of stands were set up, and then ... thrown away.

Several electronic tubes and other components remaining from the MESM are kept in the Foundation for the History and Development of Computer Science and Technology at the Kiev House of Scientists of the National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine. However, a similar fate awaited ENIAC and, in general, practically all the first computers - neither in the Soviet Union, nor in the West, no one particularly bothered to create museums of computer technology. In the USSR, they did this with absolutely all computers - they dismantled both the Setun and all the first BESMs for scrap. Programmer of the first Soviet computers Alexander Konstantinovich Platonov, mathematician of the Institute of Applied Mathematics (an interview with him from 2017 was published on Habré) bitterly recalls:

Then I felt so sorry for this remote control. When the BESM was being broken, I asked Melnikov: "Why not to the museum, the whole country was working?" And he says: "And they have no place!" Then the employees of the Polytechnic Museum, in front of my eyes, ran, trying to find at least something. Here it is, the lack of culture.


Few people know that after Lebedev left for Moscow, his group, on the basis of his ideas, implemented (here already the general designer was the aforementioned Z. L. Rabinovich) an even more amazing idea - the so-called SESM, a Specialized Electronic Counting Machine. Its uniqueness lay in the fact that the SESM was a specialized computer, and a matrix-vector (!) One, one of the first, if not the first, in the world.

SESM was intended for solving correlation problems and systems of algebraic equations with 500 unknowns. The machine operated with fractions and had a current automatic control of the order of magnitude. The calculation results were given in the decimal system with an accuracy of the seventh digit. Based on the Gauss-Seidel LAU method adopted for SESM, the arithmetic device performed only addition and multiplication, but the computer turned out to be elegant - only 700 lamps.

Specialized electronic calculating machine "SESM", at the control panel S. B. Rozentsvaig (

Surprisingly, it was not classified. And it became the first Soviet computer to receive a laudatory review in the then-just appeared American computer magazine Datamation.

Moreover, a monograph written based on the results of the development ("Specialized electronic calculating machine SESM" Z. L. Rabinovich, Yu. V. Blagoveshchenskaya, R. A. Chernyak and others, Glushkov insisted on the publication of the book, the developers themselves were not particularly looking for fame, as a result he was right in securing our priority in this area) was reissued in the USA in English. And, apparently, was one of the first books on domestic computing, published abroad.

Zinovy ​​Lvovich himself worked a lot and fruitfully in the field of computer science until the 1980s, together with such titans of world electronics as Academician V.M. Glushkov, including on air defense systems (it seems that in those years absolutely all computer Soviet specialists were involved in two areas: missile defense or air defense).


As we said, MESM was conceived by Lebedev as a prototype of a large machine (with an unpretentious name BESM), but it was unrealistic to implement a much more complex development in the dilapidated war of Feofania in Ukraine. And the designer decided to go to the capital. Let us again give the floor to Platonov (we will discuss ITMiVT and their relation to BESM in more detail below, there are many interesting things):

Lebedev was making a model of an electronic calculating machine, and the money ran out. Then he wrote a letter to Stalin that useful work was underway ... They sent a commission headed by Keldysh. Keldysh saw the computer technology and, we must pay tribute to his perspicacity, understood the perspective. As a result, the government issued a decree on this matter. The first point: to rename the layout of the electronic calculating machine into a small electronic calculating machine ... The second point: to make a large electronic machine - BESM. This was entrusted to the director of the Institute of Precision Mechanics.

So Lebedev went to Moscow.

And there at that time for several years already a second group was working on their own, completely independent computer - under the leadership of Isaac Brook.

To be continued ...
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  1. Virus-free crown
    Virus-free crown 17 May 2021 18: 11
    Lebedev and MR Shura-Bura should have erected monuments in the hero's homeland !!! good drinks
    The author is well done, keep it up !!! good
    Whoever will run into him - run over me right away, I also rummage a little about this, what the Author writes ... repeat wink
    1. mark1
      mark1 17 May 2021 18: 36
      Yes, what is there to run into then, THIS part of the article is very interesting, it is a pity that it is short.
  2. Knell wardenheart
    Knell wardenheart 17 May 2021 18: 25
    Thanks, informative!
  3. Aviator_
    Aviator_ 17 May 2021 18: 40
    Good article, respect to the author. I look forward to continuing.
  4. Avior
    Avior 17 May 2021 18: 44
    It is sad that the advanced direction made its way into life with such difficulty and constant steps: ((((((
    1. Narak-zempo
      Narak-zempo 17 May 2021 20: 49
      Quote: Avior
      It is sad that the advanced direction made its way into life with such difficulty and constant steps: ((((((

      Scientists must be kept in good shape.
  5. Alien From
    Alien From 17 May 2021 19: 32
    I subscribe to the above, an interesting article, thanks to the author good
  6. Potter
    Potter 17 May 2021 20: 49
    Thank you! An interesting and little-mentioned topic. Applied mathematics
    - an interesting cross-section of society, both human and scientific.
  7. Rash
    Rash 17 May 2021 21: 29
    A very interesting article. I discovered a lot of new things in the history of the development of our computers.
    Personally, my engineering biography began with the operation and repair of the Nairi-3 transistor computer. At that time it was a brilliant Soviet development. Then came SM-3, 4, etc., as they say now, "clones" of the American PDP-11.
    1. AUL
      AUL 18 May 2021 20: 36
      And I started with Nairi-2. I still remember with pleasure those years, the beginning of the 70s.
    2. B-15
      B-15 8 August 2021 20: 13
      Electronics 79 (I could be wrong, it was made in Kaliningrad), SM-4 and CM1420 - PDP11
      CM-3, this is already HP
  8. Rash
    Rash 17 May 2021 22: 20
    A very interesting article. Personally, my engineering biography began with the maintenance and repair of the Nairi-K transistor computer at the UAI. Maybe that's why, due to youthful maximalism and rejection of the "mossy" past, then we could not bear any mention of tube computers.)
    Nairi was then a truly advanced computing complex. Soviet computer. Of course, we got it in its repair - the transistors and memory ferrite rings on the boards had to be replaced in batches.) But after the repair it worked!
    And then CM-3, 4, etc. have already gone, as the "clones" of the American PDP-11 now say. You open the description of the "Soviet" SM-3 - the text is in Russian. You open her diagrams - everything is already in native English. Apparently, the translators did not have time). For me personally, it was an incentive to learn English).
    I think so, since then the dying of the domestic school of computer technology began. Apparently, at the very top they decided not to "be original" with the domestic military equipment, but to take (ie, steal through industrial espionage) proven Western solutions.
    How similar it is to the Western worship of the modern "domestic" BT. Unfortunately, history repeats itself.
    1. BAI
      BAI 17 May 2021 22: 30
      I think so, since then the dying of the domestic school of computer technology began.

      And in China, this was the beginning of the birth of Chinese computing technology.
      1. Rash
        Rash 17 May 2021 22: 33
        Well, at that time (mid-80s) all of China was on rice paddies).
      2. Rash
        Rash 17 May 2021 22: 51
        BAI, I didn't want to hurt you somehow, but then (mid-80s) there was a battle between the Soviet and American BT schools. We do not take the European into account). And ours lost. And how could you win when we blindly copied their technique? In particular, they produced assemblies K1801-1804, which were inferior in performance and reliability to the originals. As soon as the temperature in the turbine hall rose, the computers began to "float" because of them. How did we deal with them? We opened and opened baskets with boards, ran tests and warmed up boards with assemblies with a hair dryer. As the tests began to fail, the assemblies were cooled with freon from cartridges until the test passed normally. Thus, we went to a faulty assembly. That was the technique).
    2. ont65
      ont65 17 May 2021 22: 50
      Disassembled PDP-11. The machine has nothing in common, except for the language with the CM. In terms of the structure of the credit, Electronics 60 is more suitable for it, but in this case it is not a clone either. Don't mislead the public. All equipment, and it was sent to the countries of the commonwealth of the USSR a lot, was supplied with both original documentation and translation. The one that went even further included English. No innuendo needed. The CM series competed with VAXs in this sense.
      1. Rash
        Rash 17 May 2021 23: 21
        Disassembled PDP-11
        For parts? Where did you find it?
        The machine has nothing in common, except for the language with the CM.

        Don't write nonsense. I myself wrote in a macro assembler for hardware tests. And then there is Fortran, Pascal and Lisp.
        All equipment, and it was sent to the countries of the commonwealth of the USSR a lot, was supplied with both original documentation and translation.

        Have you seen it yourself? And I saw. Schemes are in English only.
        VAX is already CM-1600 - 1700. You don't need to bulk up the entire CM series.
        1. ont65
          ont65 18 May 2021 10: 37
          And in this case, you are still broadcasting nonsense. As for the programs, I wrote them too. These machines are familiar to me.
  9. Usher
    Usher 17 May 2021 22: 55
    Again disguised as a technical article, the Overton window
    The conditions for creating MESM were hellish and not at all like the laboratories where ENIAC, Harvard Mk I and other computers were built in the United States.
    Well, I'm sorry that the Nazis attacked the USSR, what can you do, the Germans destroyed half of the country. Not like in the USA. The author's logic is simply amazing, or rather a typical Western one.
    1. kalibr
      kalibr 18 May 2021 09: 39
      Quote: Usher
      or rather a typical western one.

      So normal!
      1. Usher
        Usher 18 May 2021 17: 02
        Quote: kalibr
        Quote: Usher
        or rather a typical western one.

        So normal!

        What's normal? Are you friends with your head? He reproaches the USSR for what the Nazis did. This is how they will show you after bathing, why are you so wet. Clear?
    2. Usher
      Usher 18 May 2021 17: 04
      How the liberda minus. The United States is a paradise on earth, not like the others. VO follows in the footsteps of KONTA. That is, it has become a liberal trash heap. Under the guise of free information, one lie and a terrible lie mixed with half-truths.
  10. anclevalico
    anclevalico 18 May 2021 07: 57
    The history of computer technology shows that this project was ruined in the USSR. I don’t know, out of stupidity or intent.
    1. Dym71
      Dym71 18 May 2021 09: 21
      Quote: anclevalico
      The history of computer technology shows that this project was ruined in the USSR.

      This action was especially observed in Bulgaria. bully
      In the mid-eighties, 60 thousand computers were produced annually, although with a plan of one hundred thousand. hi
  11. The comment was deleted.
    1. Sensei
      Sensei 15 August 2021 13: 32
      Little is written about programming on early computers. Apparently the reason is that the work of programmers in those years was not appreciated at all.

      It is impossible to describe in a nutshell everything about programming on the first computers.

      The uniqueness of the MESM computer allowed programmers to use sophisticated programming techniques.

      The uniqueness of the MESM architecture:
      1) an arithmetic device of parallel action (led A.A. Lebedev to the invention of "water supply system");
      2) the presence, in addition to the central control, of local control (provided programmers with the convenience of using the library programming method and prompted the invention of "swapping" RAM to external devices; and also: the invention of removable-soldered memory for constants and subroutines in the Kiev computer);
      3) the possibility of dynamic modernization of programs is a very special and special attention to it.

      1. The possibility of dynamic modernization of programs during programming on MESM was used to access sequentially located RAM cells. This is what allowed A.A. Lyapunov to invent arrays in programming, which he included in the operator programming method.

      2. The possibility of dynamically modernizing programs contains a hint about the possibility of creating a program that, in free memory, changing its contents, will create a new program. This hint was understood by A.A. Lyapunov and Kiev programmers, which led to the concept of a programming program (as a consequence: a compiler or translator).

      3. The possibility of dynamic modernization of programs was used by Kiev programmers to model pointers to data and to subroutines. This was the impetus for the invention of pointers by the Kiev programmer. It should be especially noted that dereferencing of pointers was implemented in hardware in the command system of the Kiev computer.

      Computer "Kiev" was developed by friends, associates and students of S.А. Lebedev as the implementation of his idea for the development of BESM (originally in Kiev).

      Lebedev S.A., like other computer designers, used certain architectural features in subsequent computers.