05/12/2021

018 – Light the blue touch paper – 1957

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Man is the best computer we can put aboard a spacecraft…
and the only one that can be mass produced with unskilled labor.  Werner von Braun

If you seek a single moment in history that ignited the development of the PC, you need to travel to a Gulag labour camp in Eastern Siberia.  A Ukrainian, convict # N1442, would provide the vital catalysts that led to personal computing.  He was arrested in Stalin’s Great Purge of 1938; hundreds of thousands were imprisoned and accused of conspiracy against the Soviet Union.

N1442 was beaten during his interrogation at the KGB headquarters then sentenced to forced labour in the Kolyma gold mines.  It was considered a death camp; many died of exposure, malnutrition, overwork or beatings by guards and inmates.

N1442 contracted scurvy, lost his teeth, yet survived to be transferred to a camp where scientists and engineers worked on a number of major Soviet projects.  It was there that Sergey Korolyov, aka N1442, worked on the design of the Tupolev bomber and the Petlyakov dive bomber.  While there he later reverted to his pre-war interest – rocket science!

Having earned the rank of colonel in the Red Army he was despatched to Germany at the end of the war to capture V-2 rocket technology and personnel.  Returning to the USSR, he worked with 150 German scientists

150 German scientists to develop the Soviet R-2, R-3 and R-5 ballistic missiles, but his main interest was in rockets for space travel.  1954 he proposed the R-7 for launching satellites.

1957/8 was designated by the scientific community as the International Geophysical Year.  When President Eisenhower announced that Americans would launch a satellite as part of this effort, ten days later the Political Bureau of the Soviet Communist Party gave Korolyov go-ahead to launch a satellite in response.

In under a month he created Object PS-1, a satellite launched by a modified two-stage R-7 rocket.  R-7 had a chequered history; its first flight lasted 98 seconds.  The second failed in three attempts to take off.  The third had to be exploded 33 seconds into its flight.  The fourth flew for 6,000km (3,700 miles), then destroyed when its head separated on re-entry.  The fifth launched but again exhibited a problem – not confidence inspiring.

Object PS-1 was aboard the sixth attempt at launch.  It was called the Sputnik Rocket, Sputnik 1 its payload , the Russian word for ‘satellite’.  Sputnik 1 achieved orbit on 4 October 1957, taking 96.2 minutes to circle Earth.  Its signal was listened to for twenty-two days until its batteries died; it fell back to earth on 4 January 1958.

Sputnik threw the USA into disarray; recollections of the country’s unpreparedness for Pearl Harbor were far too fresh.  With this new technology the Russians would soon be able to deliver a nuclear warhead to any point on the globe.

A US politician highlighted that the Russians had taken four years to catch up with the US atomic bomb, nine months to develop the H-bomb, now the USA was behind in the space race.

Lyndon B Johnson, VP to JFK, summed up the feelings,  ‘In the eyes of the world, first in space means first, period; second in space is second in everything.’ This furore led to the foundation of ARPA, the Advanced Research Projects Agency, which ignited a whole generation of individuals and clusters that would define the PC and the Internet.

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