Computers are common now everywhere in India. Even smartphones are powerful enough to perform tasks that decade-old computers were struggling to do. But lots of us are still unaware of key milestones in the path of what we have achieved in digital computing capabilities.
The most remarkable milestone in this success story is the invention of India’s very first digital computer: TIFRAC.
The Tata Institute of Fundamental Research Automatic Calculator (TIFRAC) is the first mainframe general-purpose computer in India ever built in India. The name “TIFR Automatic Calculator” was given by the Late Prime Minister Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru in 1962 during the inauguration of the new TIFR building.
In 1955, the team designed a pilot machine, which became operational by late 1956. The full-scale operational version was completed in 1959.
TIFRAC was officially commissioned on 22nd Feb 1960 and remained in operation till mid-1964.
TIFRAC program was inspired by early computer developments such as ENIAC and UNIVAC in the United States.
TIFRAC was conceived and developed by scientists at the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR), symbolizing the fusion of intellectual prowess, visionary leadership, and the pursuit of knowledge.
Structure & Capabilities of TIFRAC
TIFRAC computer was composed of 2,700 vacuum tubes, 1,700 germanium diodes, and 12,500 resistors. Its memory consisted of 2,048 40-bit words of ferrite core memory – an early venture into this technology.
It was made from a massive steel assembly, measuring 18 feet X 2.5 feet X 8 feet, comprising vacuum tubes. This structure, ingeniously fabricated from modular components sized at 4 feet X 2.5 feet X 8 feet, featured steel doors for circuit access. It had a cathode ray tube display system to display analog and digital output in the form of graphs and alphanumeric symbols.
It had a manual console for inputs. The software driving its operations was composed of a series of binary commands, represented by 0s and 1s.
It was used to solve linear equations and character displays. It was able to do teleprinting.
TIFRAC became a cornerstone of computational prowess, used extensively from 1960 to early 1964. Its popularity was such that it operated in two shifts to meet the computational demands of the institution.
The man behind TIFR Automatic Computer
Dr. Homi J Bhabha and his aspiration were behind the establishment of esteemed national institutions such as the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR). Those institutions lead the path to achieving many scientific marvels in India including the development of TIFRAC computers.
Initially, there were only six individuals in the development team. They were M.Sc. degrees holders in physics and specialized in electronics. Interestingly, none of them possessed prior experience with computers – an intriguing testament to their pioneering spirit.
After being commissioned at the Culkattas research center it was so demanded that started working in two shifts. Continuous demand for computation led to enhance team members’ computer science skills.
Between 1959 and 1962, key contributors to TIFRAC’s development traveled to American universities. Their visit inspired further research into large-scale computing, propelling experimentation with systems like CDC and OLDAP.