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I am curious to learn about any developments in computer theory, hardware, and software that took place outside of the United States, in the middle of last century (~1940s-1980s).

I have read 'Where Wizards Stay up Late' (K Hafner and M Lyon; a real gem of a book) on the development of the Internet, as well as 'The Cathedral & the Bazaar' (E Raymond), and I'm currently reading 'Hackers' (S Levy). Other books on my reading list include 'The Difference Engine' on Charles Babbage, 'Just For Fun' on Linus Torvalds, 'The Mythical Man-Month' (F Brooks), and a few others. I am also working my way through 'The Annotated Turing' (C Petzold). So far, the only non-American whose name comes immediately to mind is Alan Turing.

Can anyone recommend any books, articles, or other sources, that discuss non-American contributions to the development of computers, from the 1940s to the ~1980s? Were there any European or Asian equivalents to the hacker groups that nucleated at MIT, Berkeley, Stanford, and other schools? Any non-American equivalents to BBN Technologies or MITS (Altair 8080 mnfr.)?

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    @Spektre "Hacker" in the question has nothing to do with internet or doing bad things to computers. It means something like "tinkerer". They were people who were figuring out ways to do stuff, i.e. playing around with computers (and model railroads). There were definitely hackers in eastern Europe everywhere; you didn't get much that worked without hacking :) – Luaan May 26 at 11:36
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    An unspoken Q might be "how much important but neglected history happened outside of the US?" Shockingly, not nearly as much as you'd think. US computer innovation had huge advantages: not being devastated by WWII, IBM was headquartered there, ENIAC wasn't destroyed and classified as Colossus was, transistors and semiconductors were invented in the US... – Owen Reynolds May 26 at 14:22
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    The question as stated is incredibly broad, and things like 'The Mythical Man-Month' (F Brooks) aren't even per se about software, but about management of (large) software projects, specifically in IBM in the US in the 1970s. And yes there were computer enthusiast/hobbyist/'hacker' (in the old 1970s sense) groups/collectives in most countries and citites, back in the 1970s/80s. – smci May 26 at 19:45
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    You may enjoy reading about the cyclade project, the X.25 protocol (predating ipv4) and the minitel. – asac May 26 at 20:48
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    The entire field of compiler construction was essentially pioneered by the people at ETH Zurich. That work is often overlooked but was critical in shaping languages like Algol 60 that greatly influenced our modern perspective of programming. – fuz May 27 at 18:25

14 Answers 14

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Just a short list from memory, concentrating on people and 'firsts' with some impact (*1):

  • Poland: Jan Łukasiewicz published in 1924 an article in a German science paper about a parenthesis-free notation, which today, modified as Reverse Polish Notation (RPN), is at the foundation for most expression evaluation
  • Germany: The Dehomag D11 is introduced. Eventually the only machine that comes as close to a mechanical computer as possible - except the Z1 ofc.
  • Germany: Konrad Zuse developed in 1936 the first binary floating point computer the Z1.
  • Germany: Helmut Schreyer demonstrates with his 'Versuchsschaltung' of 1938 that a full figured ALU could be build with tubes.
  • England: In Summer 1948 the Manchester Baby (SSEM) became first operational. More of a demonstrator for the later Mark 1, but nonetheless a complete stored program computer.
  • Germany/Switzerland: Zuse's Z4 became in 1949 the first commercial sold computer.
  • Sweden: The electromechanical BARK, a plug board programmed calculator, becomes operational in 1950.
  • Switzerland: In 1951 Heinz Rutishauser presents his paper "Automatische Rechenplanfertigung" essentially the first paper describing a practical compiler and a language - Superplan - which already showed many signs of the later ALGOL.
  • England: Alick Glennie develops in 1952 the Autocode compiler for the Manchester Mark 1
  • Germany: Friedrich Bauer and Klaus Samelson propose the stack as stata structure for subroutines, parameter passing and dynamic storage in 1955 - and received a patent in 1957.
  • Austria: The Mailüfterl a fully transistorized Computer becomes first partial operational in Vienna.
  • Germany: Siemens finishes in 1956 the first prototype unit of the 2002, the first fully transistorized computer. Delivery to customers started in 1959.
  • Europe: Algol 58, is essentially the grand-dad of most modern language from C to Rust, was developed by a group lead by Friedrich L. Bauer (Lead, Germany), Hermann Bottenbruch (Germany), Heinz Rutishauser(Switzerland), Klaus Samelson (Germany), John Backus (USA) - check their Wiki entries for more work.
  • Germany: An Algol compiler was first implemented in 1958 on the PERM and a Z22 - so not just the grand-daddy of most modern compilers, but as well multi platform.
  • USSR: Sergei Sobolev and Nikolay Brusentsov build the Setun, an electronic ternary computer, at the Moscow University. A notable series of 50 machines follow.
  • Italy: Olivetti introduces in 1965 the Programma 101, eventually the first desktop computer.
  • Netherlands: Edsger Dijkstra worked on a lot of software problems, but is most known from his 1968 letter "A Case against the GO TO Statement", published by Niklaus Wirth under the famous title "Go To Statement Considered Harmful". He first coined the term 'Structured Programming'.
  • Germany: The term 'Software Engineering' was as well coined in 1968 by Friedrich Bauer.
  • Switzerland: Niklaus Wirth, best known for developing PASCAL in 1970, a simplified ALGOL that became base of many other languages, some dome by him as well. But he was even more influential on compiler teaching which includes his works on metasyntax to describe/teach languages, including WSN and EBNF.
  • Chile: During 1971-73 Project Cybersyn tried for the first time integrated production planing and control using computers and networking.
  • Germany (and USA): Rudolf Bayer (Germany) and Edward McCreight (USA) publish in 1972 the theoretical description of B-Trees.
  • France: The 1973 Micral-N is the first microprocessor (8008) based ready to use computer.

There is many more. So long story short, there was development all over. Like with any upcomming industry - and later steamrolled and absorbed by the big players ... again like always :))

For more information the quite informative book "The First Computers: History and Architectures" by Raul Rojas and Ulf Hashagen, ISBN 978-0262681377. It focuses on very early developments in the US, Germany, Britain and Japan.


*1 - And trying to cover as many countries as well - so some entries may be lesser marks in history.

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I may be a little biased, but much early work was done in the UK.

For academic projects, the EDSAC at Cambridge, and the Mark 1 at Manchester were seminal. The first operating system we'd recognize today was on the Atlas, a joint industry/commercial project.

Some of the commercial products are summarized at the British website Our Computer Heritage. The Computer Conservation Society in the UK has a journal, Resurrection, which often has articles from those who were there, or from historians of the subject.

There are several books around: look for names like Martin Campbell-Kelly and Simon Lavington. The trouble is, such books tend to have short print runs. I'll look around and see if I can come up with some references. Early British Computers, by Lavington, is particularly good, but is no longer available new.

Maurice Wilkes' memoir is worth a read, as is his Computing Perspectives. The latter might be more suited to your aims. Wilkes is the man behind the EDSAC, which was one of the first two computers in regular service in the world - the other was the Mark 1.

There are at least a couple of early (well, not that early - but certainly involved with significant projects) British programmers on this site, so maybe one of them will have more to say. I just missed the glory days.

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    The EDSAC also closely inspired the LEO, giving it a relevance beyond academia. – Tommy May 26 at 1:39
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    Yup. And the Manchester Mark 1 begat the Ferranti Mark 1 – another-dave May 26 at 1:55
  • Brilliant, thanks @another-dave ; I'll look into those links – skytwosea May 26 at 2:11
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    Perhaps the ENIGMA cracking bombes can be given some credit as UK precursors to programmable computers. – President James K. Polk May 26 at 18:39
  • Worth noting that Martin Campbell-Kelly has produced an EDSAC simulator that may be of interest. – occipita May 26 at 22:17
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Acorn Computers in the UK, who later became ARM and are responsible for the vast majority of the CPUs out there today that aren't in desktops or servers, are very well documented.

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Raffzahn's answer contains a list of "firsts", so I will try to come up with a list of "mosts".

  • Norway: The most popular Programming Paradigm today is Object-Oriented Programming. The name "Object-Oriented Programming" was coined by Alan Kay at Xerox PARC in Palo Alto, California, but the paradigm was invented by Ole-Johan Dahl and Kristen Nygaard in their language Simula in 1962 at the Norwegian Computing Center of the University of Oslo, Norway.
  • Norway: One of the most popular Patterns for structuring the architecture and design of interactive applications is Model-View-Controller or one of its many variations. MVC was created by Trygve Reenskaug. Technically, he wrote it down in 1979 in America, while visiting the Smalltalk team at Xerox PARC, but he had created and used it before that.
  • UK: As already mentioned in Alan B's answer, most general-purpose CPUs nowadays are ARM CPUs of some form or another. (By "general purpose", I don't mean "desktop" or "server", although ARM is also making inroads on the desktop, and thanks to the popularity of consumer home media servers and the Raspberry Pi also for home servers. I mean "not DSP, not GPU, not microcontroller, not ASIC".) ARM was developed by British company Acorn in 1983. ARM-based chips power practically every smartphone, most tablets, many ultra lite notebooks, a significant portion of home networking equipment from routers to WiFi APs to media servers to NAS devices, and even a very small number of Android-based desktops, plus Raspberry Pis and many of its competitors, and many of the more high-powered IoT devices. Also, many "smart" media devices such as TVs.
  • Sweden: The Erlang Programming Language, one of the most-hyped programming languages in the late 2000s–early 2010s was designed at Ericsson, starting in 1986. It powers many of Ericssons products in the telephony, GSM, GPRS (2G), UMTS, HSDPA (3G), LTE (4G) space. It is also used by Nortel and T-Mobile. Erlang powers WhatsApp, GitHub, and many other services.
  • Netherlands: Guido van Rossum designed Python, one of the most popular programming languages, during the 1980s, with a first public implementation in 1991.

These two happened slightly after the time period you specified:

  • Finland: Linux, the Operating System used by most servers, most smartphones, and many network and IoT devices, was started in 1991 in Helsinki, Finland by Linus Torvalds.
  • Japan: Ruby, one of the most-hyped programming languages of the late 2000s–early 2010s, was designed by Yukihiro Matsumoto in early 1993.

And a list of "honorable mentions" that doesn't really fit into the category of "most":

  • Tony Hoare (UK): Important contributions to Program Verification (e.g. Hoare Logic), Concurrency (Communicating Sequential Processes), Programming Languages (served on the ALGOL 60 and 68 committees), Algorithms (Quicksort and Quickselect). He is also famous for blaming himself for inventing the NULL Reference, which he calls his "billion dollar mistake", alluding to an estimate of the cost caused by uncaught null pointer dereferences.
  • Christopher Strachey (UK): Important contributions to Functional Programming, Programming Language Theory, and Type Theory. Described the difference between and coined the terms for Parametric Polymorphism and Ad-Hoc Polymorphism. One of the founders of Denotational Semantics.
  • Phil Wadler: (UK): many contributions to Haskell, Functional Programming, and Type Theory. Introduced Monads into the world of programming. Co-designed Java Generics.
  • Peter Landin (UK): many contributions to Functional Programming, Programming Language Theory, and Type Theory. Created ISWIM, for which he invented the "off-side rule" (block structure is defined by indentation instead of keywords or delimiters), which is used in languages such as Miranda, Haskell, Occam-π, Python, Boo, Scala 3, and F# (in "light mode").
  • Luca Cardelli (Italy): countless and major contributions to Type Theory and Operational Semantics. Coined the term Typeful Programming.
  • Simon Peyton-Jones (UK): One of the principal designers of Haskell, and one of the principal designers and implementers of GHC, the Glorious Glasgow Haskell Compiler.
  • Erik Meijer (Netherlands): Important contributions to the design of Haskell. Most well-known for his work at Microsoft in Redmond, though (worked on the design of VBScript, C#, VisualBasic.NET, and the .NET BCL, principal designer of LINQ and Rx.NET).

Note that, while some of the major contributions I listed were after the OP's timeframe or in the US, all of the people mentioned made at least one major contribution during the timeframe of the OP outside of the US.

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    I think that the "Denmark" for Erlang should be "Sweden" (it is named after a Dane, but i'm pretty sure Joe was working for Ericsson in Stockholm when he came up with the language. – Vatine May 26 at 13:44
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    Yes, sorry, I was confusing Ericsson with the mathematician Erlang. – Jörg W Mittag May 26 at 15:26
  • Jörg: Easy mistake to make. – Vatine May 26 at 15:51
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Sweden had BARK (relay-based, more a dataflow hardware than a "runs code" computer, from what I understand), BESK[1] (IAS-type architecture, inspired SMIL and DASK (Denmark)) and the D-series of machines from SAAB. May indirectly also have inspired the Censor machines (from Standard Radio & Telefon, eventually merged into DataSAAB), but that is not entirely clear.

On the hobby side, the LYS-16 was designed at Lysator (released late 1975, went into commercial production until 1978).

[1] Coolest thing I can think of from the BESK project was having an active feedback loop for controlling the brightness on the Williams tubes. Increased the reliability of the storage tubes by an order of magnitude.

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I can recommend A Computer Called LEO: Lyons Tea Shops and the world’s first office computer (Amazon link). From the preface:

To some, it was a supreme irrelevance, a quixotic venture into the unknown by a respectable family business that ought to have known better. To others, it was an enterprise of boldness and vision, whose ultimate failure resulted from the conservatism and short-sightedness of others, and whose story contains lessons that succeeding generations would do well to learn.

LEO was a computer. It burst into the British public consciousness through a snowstorm of popular articles in February 1954, although its genesis lay some years earlier. It was not the first computer in the world, by any of a number of possible definitions. As a piece of electronic engineering it was not fundamentally original. LEO and its creators deserve their place in history not because of what it was but because of what it did. For LEO was the first computer in the world to be harnessed to the task of managing a business. That business was J. Lyons & Co., renowned the length and breadth of the land for its fine tea and cakes, available in grocers’ shops everywhere but savoured especially in the Lyons teashops, a chain of more than two hundred high street cafés.

LEO was designed and built by Lyons’s own engineers, and its first programs were written by Lyons managers before the computer programmer existed as a job description. At the time, the few who knew anything about computers thought of them as tools for scientists and mathematicians. LEO was a novelty in that its circuits hummed not with non-linear equations but with the hours worked and rates of pay for the bakers who produced, among other things, 36 miles of Swiss roll per day. Rather than calculating missile trajectories (though it could do that, too), LEO grappled with the task of restocking each teashop every day with no more and no less than it needed to keep its customers supplied with bread rolls, boiled beef and ice cream. It even turned its attention to ensuring that Lyons continued to produce the perfect blends of tea on which so much of the company’s reputation rested.

And from LEO (computer) on Wikipedia:

The prototype LEO I was modelled closely on the Cambridge EDSAC. Its construction was overseen by Oliver Standingford, Raymond Thompson and David Caminer of J. Lyons and Co. LEO I ran its first business application in 1951. In 1954 Lyons formed LEO Computers Ltd to market LEO I and its successors LEO II and LEO III to other companies. LEO Computers eventually became part of English Electric Company (EELM) where the same team developed the faster LEO 360 and even faster LEO 326 models. It then passed to International Computers Limited (ICL) and ultimately Fujitsu.

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    Scrolling through the answers I was worried no one was going to mention Lyons. – Simon F May 28 at 11:44
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It only just squeezes in to your timeline, but I can't let this question go without mentioning Psion in the UK, who invented the PDA with their Organiser, and later the Series 3 and Series 5 palmtops.

Their legacy includes the Symbian smartphone platform, which was a direct descendant of the Psion software stack.

The (very long) article at The Register: Psion: the last computer goes into a lot of the background, both technical and political, behind the creation of the Series 5.

(I still use my 22-year-old 5mx most days — and still regret their sudden exit from the consumer market.  It was remarkable for its time, and in a couple of respects modern phones still haven't quite caught up.)

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  • Ericsson did produce an experimental bluetooth-enabled phone that was a Psion 5mx, with a GSM chip integrated, as well as a bluetooth chip and a headset. I don't actually know how many of those they made, I suspect it was in the low hundreds. – Vatine May 27 at 9:14
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    Yes, there were a few devices on the road from PDAs to phones. The Ericsson MC218 was just a rebadged Series 5mx, but the Ericsson R380 was a phone/PDA running a limited version of EPOC 5.1, and the Nokia 9210 Communicator was the first one running EPOC 6 branded as Symbian. Then the Nokia 7650 was the first Symbian-based mainstream phone. – gidds May 27 at 9:54
  • The ones I saw (two or three, IIRC) were actually dual-branded with both Psion and the Ericsson /// logo, so very much "a 5mx with some phone circuitry integrated". – Vatine May 27 at 10:17
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You might want to look up books by Edsger Dijkstra, from the Netherlands. He was instrumental in the development of structured programming.

Also, books by Niklaus Wirth, developer of Pascal.

Computers and Thought by Feigenbaum and Feldman has several articles about the work of Alan Turing, although a lot of it is about work done in the US.

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Also well worth reading:

Turing's Cathedral, by George Dyson

which describes the peculiarly unknown actual origins of the digital computer at Princeton. An excellent read. I'm guessing the connections between Turing's mechanical computers and the American digital computer re-implementation of Turing's bomb, and the subsequent translation of the American digital bomb into actual digital computers has been obscured by classification for much of our lifetimes. It is an extraordinary story.

John Von Neumann (Hungarian-American) plays a foundational role in Princeton's MANIAC computing group.

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  • I just added Turing's Cathedral to my kobo. It looks great - I haven't found too many other books that appear to bridge the connection between the earliest theory and the beginning of practical hardware design and construction. Thanks! – skytwosea May 26 at 22:26
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Prolog was first developed and implemented in Europe (initial development in Marseille, France and greatly improved in Edinburgh, Scotland). The contemporary king of the hill is SWI-Prolog, developed in Amsterdam, Netherlands; headed by Jan Wielemaker

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The history of the Soviet computer industry is very interesting - especially before the decision to copy S / 360 in the early 1970s. But there are far fewer English texts about it than the scale and significance of the phenomenon deserves. You can try reading the translated materials on this site - https://computer-museum.ru/english/

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    Soviet computers would be more than just non-American, they'd surely be gasp un-American! – Tommy May 27 at 18:34
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I'll try to supplement Raffzahn's great answer with some events from countries that were less relevant on the world stage, but IMHO have fascinating hacker stories to tell. (I am not an expert on this topic, this is just what came up of a quick literature search). Unfortunately english-language sources are scarce on the topic and most of my links are to dense academic papers:

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Modelling and design of complex systems.

Ivar Jacobson which while a student, later in his work at LME (Ericsson) and in his PhD described what today is a big part of Object orientation and modelling.

Scandinavia is also well known for the concept of Participatory design

The design of the AXE exchange with its language is also particular.

Would autopilots for an ASM (Rb04) count ?

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  • I don't know what is meant by 'autopilots for an ASM (Rb04), but I will definitely look into it as I work through the stack of information provided in all these answers. My intention with this question was for very broad interpretation, so if the concept you mention has to do with non-American development in computing during the last century then I will happily count it! – skytwosea May 27 at 20:31
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    Rb04 is a swedish made anti ship missile. It was a radar target seeker made by AGA so probably not fair. – Stefan Skoglund May 27 at 23:08
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    Participatory design is intended to empower an organization's current work force to be able at least to do the requirement definitions for a (software) system. – Stefan Skoglund May 27 at 23:11
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FWIW, Australia's first computer, CSIRAC, was the 5th stored-program computer in the world, and is now the oldest electronic computer that still exists. Apparently it was the first computer to "play digital music".

There's more information on the CSIRO website.

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