The tech history in Soviet Armenia

Armenia is one of the leading centers for software development in the world, a regional hub for chip design, additionally networking systems, and communications. It has a long history in computing, and a much larger role in the history of Soviet computing than many would imagine for such a small country. For instance, somewhere between 30% and 40% of Soviet military computers were built in it.

The story began with Andronik Iosifyan. Born in 1905 in the Kalbajar district of Artsakh, he became the director of the All-Union Scientific Research Institute of Electromechanics (AUSRIE) in Moscow. Iosifyan specialized in designing electronics and used his skills to design electrical systems for missiles, nuclear submarines, satellites, and spacecraft, such as the first Soviet Meteor weather satellites. Besides, Victor Hambartsumyan, known as the founder of theoretical physics in the Soviet Union, was looking for designs for a computer that might be assembled at the Yerevan Scientific Research Institute of Mathematical Machines (YerSRIMM) that had been established in 1956, with the mathematician Mergelyan as its founding director.

He traveled to Moscow to meet Iosifyan, in the hope of securing such a design. Iosifyan knew Isaak Bruk, who had designed a minicomputer called the M-3 for scientific calculations and arranged to build three at AUSRIE between 1957–1958. One of these stayed at AUSRIE, — one went to Sergey Korolev, the lead designer of the first Soviet spaceships, satellites- and the other to Sergey Mergelyan at YerSRIMM.

Receiving the M-3 computer in Yerevan enabled Mergelyan and his team to accelerate their work in computing and they designed a new computer called Aragats between 1958–60, based on the M-3. A lot of the Armenian technological research and production was conducted at the Yerevan Computer Research and Development Institute -or the Mergelyan Institute- during the Soviet era. The Razdan general-purpose computer series was developed between 1958–1965.

Beginning of the digital era

Electronics demonstrated to be new strategic technology, due to the economic reforms that were launched after Stalin’s death in 1953, so, Soviet Armenia took a notable role in manufacturing a new generation of military-focused hardware by establishing new factories in Gyumri, Etchmiadzin, Sisian, Ijevan, Vedi and other smaller towns.

In 1960–1980, Armelectro, Electron, and HrazdanMash the Soviet Armenian factories began to create early computers, machine-controlled management systems, radio electronics, space communication devices, rocket launchers, and various parts used in military submarines and ships.

According to the decentralized and theoretically-egalitarian ideology of the Soviet Union, the production process was not fully concentrated in Armenia. Armenian factories focused on creating parts that were then shipped to other areas for final assembly. This made Armenia a center of science, especially maths and physics. The field of radiophysics was centered in the Yerevan Computer Research and Development Institute.

A network of factories, companies, research centers, and institutes made Armenia an electronics hub. Among the USSR, Armenia was the second in the production of electric machines, the fourth in overall military production, and the fifth in instrumentation; it punched well above its weight considering its size.

Producing early computers

In the early 1950s, the first steps toward producing early computers were started. At first, they were aimed to aid in scientific and technical calculations but later expanded into more general information processing. Early research was centered in universities in Moscow, where the first specialists began to be trained.

In 1956, the Mergelyan Institute was established in Soviet Armenia, marking the start of the new computer age and playing a role similar to that of Stanford University in Silicon Valley nowadays. Computer brands such as Nairi, Aragats, Araks, Razdan, Prizma and others were designed and created in Soviet Armenia.

The Hrazdan/Razdan computer series

It was the first semiconductor computer in the Soviet Union. Between 1958 and 1965, the Mergelyan Institute created general-purpose digital computers. The Razdan-1 was released in 1958, occupying an entire room and the Razdan-2 in 1961 could perform 5000 operations per second, and the Razdan-3 in 1966 could perform in the order of 30,000 operations per second. The Razdan computers were large — designed to occupy a 50 square meter room — and were mostly used for military purposes. A Razdan-3 can still be seen in the Computer Science Museum in Szeged, Hungary.

Its applications expanded into economics and statistics and were used in experimental physics. Later, the Nairi minicomputer was developed to be used to solve scientific, engineering, and economic problems. This was a smaller machine, designed to be operated by a single person, and some were in use in Moscow railway stations. Several iterations of Nairi were developed, with those in the 1980s being designed to be compatible with DEC PDP-11 computers.

From 1962 to 1964, the institute designed and released a prototype of another computer named Araks.

The Aragats computer

Aragats was designed and assembled at Yerevan Institute between 1958–1960. It incorporated new custom-designed computer memory technology based on a photo reading device (capable of converting an image into a processing unit), magnetic tapes, external drums, and ferrite cores. Only four units were ever made, they were used in the computer centers of the Armenian and Georgian academies of science, one in a Moscow research institute, and the other in the computer center of the Novosibirsk branch of the USSR Academy of Sciences.

Not all designs were mass-produced. In 1960, the development and testing of the “Yerevan” universal electronic computer were completed. It was intended for ship propeller calculations but never implemented.

The collapse of the Soviet Union

By the end of the Soviet era, the following difficulties were extremely disruptive to the sector like Supply chain breakdown, competition in a global market, and emigration of human talent didn’t stop the IT sector from playing an important and growing part in the Armenian economy. The government encourages people of the Armenian diaspora working in big multinational companies, such as Microsoft and Synopsys, to move their R&D branches to the country.

The institute today is home to a new generation of startups, and IT workers who are the highest-paid employees in the country. Those computers today are regarded from the Soviet legacy as most of all Soviet computer manufacturers ceased operations after the breakup of the Soviet Union, and a few companies that survived into the 1990s, used foreign components and never achieved large production volumes. However, Armenians are still making outsized contributions to the tech sector of the 21st century.

Originally published at https://www.linkedin.com.

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Ahmed Ibrahim

Full-fledged Content Creator & Tech Journalist. Worked previously with top publishers like AkhbarTech, Abda Adv, and RobbReportArabia.