Chasing The Machine: India’s first computers and the Cold War

Fascinating account of  history of computers in India by Prof Nikhil Menon of Notre Dame University.

Prof Menon starts with this story of Morton Nadler who escaped from Prague to Calcutta for setting up a computer at Indian Statistical Institute at the behest of PC Mahalonobis. The entire tale is woven with ongoing Cold War and geo-political affairs. It was several events and conspiracies which led to computers coming to India.

What caught my eye was how computers were needed to “mine big data” to usher planning:

An encounter with Prasanta Chandra Mahalanobis—founder of the Indian Statistical Institute, and the driving force behind India’s Second Five Year Plan (1956-61)—presented Nadler with an escape route. Mahalanobis made Nadler an offer to work for the institute in Calcutta as a computer scientist. Czechoslovakia could not object to Nadler leaving for India (given India’s friendly relations with the Soviet Union), and in American eyes spending time in a democracy that was formally non-aligned in the Cold War helped rub off the stain of communism. Nadler signed a two-year contract to join the ISI “to work on electronic computers.” At the time, the institute was home to the only two electronic computers in India.

The first time he saw an electronic computer at Harvard in 1947, Mahalanobis was mesmerised. Stunned by its ability and convinced of its indispensability to economic planning, he believed that computers would solve one of centralised planning’s largest problems: big data. They could help with complex calculations and develop mathematical models of the economy. Mahalanobis believed that they could be vital for assessing trends for the extensive National Sample Survey that he was integral in launching. Unlike most countries that used computers in the mid twentieth century, in India their earliest use was for development—not in the military. The computer’s potential for planning was how Mahalanobis and the Indian government justified their pursuit and enormous expenses.

How this big data talk is seen differently today. But in reality the objectives are the same.

Highly recommended….


One Response to “Chasing The Machine: India’s first computers and the Cold War”

  1. Some Glimpses Says:

    Some Glimpses

    Chasing The Machine: India’s first computers and the Cold War | Mostly Economics

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