The Weizac Days


First computer -- tubes and relays


This is a birth of the State of Israel story, and with it, the birth of the computer, and computer technology. It sounds more like a fairy tale or at the very least, a stretch of the imagination. But when you think about it, this country ­ -- and this Institute ­ -- are based on an almost embarrassing wealth of the latter.

It all began just after the War of Independence. The country was literally being built beneath the feet of a country lacking in just about everything. Israel needed housing. It needed roads and an infrastructure. It also needed to absorb a flood of hundreds of thousands of immigrants. What it lacked in the material it made up for in a vision, the Zionist vision.

At the helm was Dr. Chaim Weizmann, the first President of the State and forward-thinking head of the Weizmann Institute. Fortunately, his personal Zionist drive was inclusive of the sciences. While Israel was struggling to establish something as basic as food production, Weizmann had the foresight ­ -- some would say audacity ­ -- to engage $50,000, or one-fifth of the Institute's budget, to build a computer. Why the urgency? To unravel the mysteries of theoretical physics, of course.

First imperative: Bring together the world's most brilliant Jewish minds to design the computer. Second: Find the parts to build it. Third: Be patient, because it's going to take a long, long time.

"Today, people talk about a computer for every child in the classroom," says Gerald Estrin, one of those brilliant minds. A former head of the Computer Science Department at UCLA, Estrin (Ph.D., Electrical Engineering, University of Wisconsin), was in Israel for a conference on the subject. "Say 'computer' and people think of Bill Gates. Things were different then." Indeed.

The story begins at Princeton University in the mid-1940s. The Applied Mathematics Department included Albert Einstein and other leading physicists of that era. Among them were two famed professors. One was John von Neumann, considered by many as the inventor and builder of the first electronic computer as we know it today. The other was Chaim Pekeris, a Lithuanian Jew, whose domain was computational methods for solving physical problems, and who was one of the first serious users of computers for scientific calculations.

In case you ever wondered what Einstein thought about computers, the answer is: not much. Einstein raised a skeptical brow; computers were in their experimental stage and very expensive, he argued. In the end, Einstein, who also sat on the advisory committee of the Institute, was finally persuaded to give a seal of approval to Pekeris' bold proposal to build an electronic computer at the Weizmann Institute, akin to the von Neumann machine.

In 1945, Pekeris (Ph.D., Theoretical Geophysics, MIT), was asked by the Weizmann Institute to establish a Department of Applied Mathematics. Pekeris' one condition: the building of a computer at the Institute, similar to the one he'd worked on at Princeton. Pekeris approached two colleagues from Princeton, Estrin and Ephraim Frei, an Israeli physicist. Would they be willing to join the group in Israel?

Estrin and his wife, Thelma, also an electrical engineer, came on board, literally. They arrived on a ship carrying immigrants from North Africa. Their daughter Judy, born at the Institute, is now a famous executive in the computer industry.

Estrin recalls that after meeting with leading Israeli scientists at Weizmann, "My impression was that except for Pekeris, they thought it ridiculous to build a computer in Israel. And we soon learned that I was not to 'help' the project but, rather, to take charge and be its director."

And where do you put the director of an important project that will later revolutionize the world? In three rooms of the basement of the Ziskind Building.

Pekeris was joined by Micha Kedem, an Israeli electrical engineer (who later joined IBM Israel). Together they roamed the streets of Tel Aviv in search of the parts needed to construct a tube tester. Sometimes the duo improvised. When their work required precision machinery, there was always the shop which produced fans and bicycle parts, owned by recent immigrants from Bulgaria.

Next on base was Zvi Riesel, who'd been in charge of the Israel Defense Forces radar workshop. How did he hear about the Weizmann job? "I saw an advertisement in the newspaper saying the Institute is looking for people to build an electronic computer."

A herd of young mathematicians-cum-olim were next. Phillip Rabinowitz, who'd worked on the Whirlwind Computer project, and who went on to the U.S. National Bureau of Standards, began by giving courses on programming at Weizmann. His students would eventually become Israel's first crop of computer experts.

Another new immigrant was Hans Jarosch. Jarosch (Ph.D., Aeronautical Engineering, Queen Mary and Westfield College, University of London), had just finished three years in the Israel Air Force. He was assigned the writing of application programs.

As the computer was nearing completion, Estrin and his wife returned to the U.S. Shortly after their departure, WEIZAC performed its first calculation, in October 1955. By early 1958, WEIZAC was put into full operation. In 1963, the Estrins came back for a brief visit to Israel, to attend a retirement and a birth. WEIZAC was being put out to pasture as a new generation of computer, the GOLEM, was about to be launched.

Estrin recalls: "Remarkable changes in Israel were evident. New roads, new buildings, new people, new problems. Before the start of the WEIZAC project there were no digital electronic computers in Israel. No electronic digital engineers. No programmers and no support personnel.

"The WEIZAC people succeeded in creating the technological know-how necessary for Israel to play a strong role in the information revolution."