Mathematical Center

The Mathematical Center was founded in 1946 by Van Dantzig, Van der Corput and Koksma. It was primarily an institute of mathematical research, but in 1947 a computing department was launched, lead by Van Wijngaarden. The calculating department had two goals: To perform difficult calculations and to research and develop new computing machines. The first of these two was accomplished by first developing calculating schemes that were then executed by a group of women nicknamed the Computing girls. The idea of using a separate department to perform large calculations came from Van Dantzig who had seen a similar set-up in the Technische Hogeschool Delft. Besides calculations for the other departments of the Mathematical Center orders came from the ship and airplane construction industries amongst others.

For the second goal, to develop computing machines, two physicists were hired. Carel S. Scholten and Bram Jan Loopstra came to the Mathematical Center in august 1946. A few years later, in September 1952, Gerrit Blaauw was also hired to aid in the development of new computing machines.

Old Physics Lab

The Mathematical Center was first located in an old physics laboratory in Amsterdam, but in the late forties they moved to 49 2nd Boerhaavestraat, also in Amsterdam. This new building consisted of two symmetrical schools that were occupied by the Germans during the second world war, put to use as a garage. The Mathematical Center occupied one half of the building and the attic of the other half, the rest was used as a school. The building was not in very good shape though. The Germans had installed an ammunition elevator which was now gone, but the shaft was still there. As Scholten states it was a good thing there were very few people with suicidal tendencies[1]. The shaded glass from the toilet doors was long gone so curtains were hung instead. Van Wijngaarden had a hole in the floor next to his desk corresponding to a hole in the vacant room below him and even though he smoked quite a lot of cigars he never filled this enormous ashtray.

When Van Wijngaarden starts giving courses in “modern calculating methods” (1949) and “programming for the ARRA” (1951) a new point of interest for the calculating department arises, programs and programming. This grows out to be one of the main interests.

In 1955 the Mathematical Center is approached by Engelfriet on behalf of the Nillmij firm that they were willing to back up a commercial computer building industry. This results in the computer building company Electrologica in which Nillmij provides fundings and the Mathematical Center provides know-how. Carel S. Scholten and Bram L. Loopstra become the managers. Within two years from its founding in 1956 most Electrologica acquired most of the personnel from the Mathematical Center's computer department[2].

Projects

There were several handicaps that made development of a working computer difficult for Scholten and Loopstra. First of all neither of them could travel to England or the United States because of lack in funds. Secondly there was hardly any literature available. They started with only two article: one about the ENIAC and one about Vannevar Bush’s differential analyzer, which was an analogue computer. With little other reference they decided to make a differential analyzer because the article about the ENIAC was much harder to understand and they knew that the Mathematical Center would never give them enough funds to buy the 18.000 vacuum tubes that were used to build ENIAC. A third problem was a lack of equipment and the expertise to use it. They had no experience with the use of vacuum tubes or relays. So they experimented with equipment they got from a secondhand garage sale[3].

Scholten about their first experiment with radio tubes: "We safely hid behind a table that was turned onto its side and switched on our 'experiment'. The only difference with a slapstick movie was that nothing important happened."

  • ARRA I: This was the first machine to be constructed by the Mathematical Center. It was under construction from 1948 to 1952, but was never really put to use.
  • ARRA II: For this second computer Gerrit A. Blaauw was hired. He had some experience from his work at the Harvard university where he helped with the testing of the Mark III and designing of the Mark IV.
  • FERTA: The FERTA was basically a copy of the ARRA II built by order of the Fokker company that needed it to perform calculation for the design of the Fokker F-27 Friendship.
  • ARMAC: The ARMAC was built for use of the Mathematical Center itself. It was designed entirely by Scholten and Loopstra because Blaauw had now left the Mathematical Center to work for IBM.

Today

Nowadays the Mathematical Center is named "Centrum voor Wiskunde en Informatica" (CWI, translated: Center for Mathematics and Computer science), which is the national research institute for mathematics and computer science in the Netherlands.


References

  1. Scholten, C.S. , Computers Ontwerpen, Toen, , 1979  .
  2. Kranakis, E. , "Early Computing in the Netherlands", CWI Quarterly, vol. 1, issue 4, pp. 61-84, 12/1988.
  3. Kranakis, E. , "Early Computing in the Netherlands", CWI Quarterly, vol. 1, issue 4, pp. 61-84, 12/1988.