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Operation Berlin

A Cold War demo of time sharing linked Cambridge with West Berlin.
MIT’s Project MAC computer—an IBM 7094 like this one—was called on from a 1968 computer conference in West Berlin to show off the then-novel concept of time sharing.

In the summer of 1968, MIT and the Technische Universität Berlin (TUB) cohosted a conference in West Berlin that outraged students and landed MIT professors in the middle of Germany’s Cold War identity crisis. The event, called “The Computer in the University,” was the culmination of five years of planning and exchanges that Gordon Brown, MIT’s dean of engineering, dubbed “Operation Berlin.”

The technological star of the conference, which highlighted how computers could improve both university administration and engineering and technical work, was time-shared computing, recently developed by MIT’s Project MAC. Time sharing (versions of which had also been developed independently elsewhere) allowed people at different computer terminals to access the same mainframe and use its central processing power simultaneously.

To conduct a live demo of time sharing, MIT used Project MAC’s IBM 7094 computer. Connecting terminals in Berlin to the 7094 in Cambridge over transatlantic cables required following a two-page list of instructions that included dialing in to data centers in Paris or London to establish a connection with New York. A New York operator would connect the line to the keyboard circuit and simultaneously set up a voice call with the Project MAC operator to allow coordination of time-sensitive data and log-in commands.

Although a U.S. telephone company strike complicated matters and MIT had to do some debugging and address equipment issues behind the scenes, the demos went smoothly. The people in Berlin typed in a series of increasingly difficult mathematical and scientific questions, and the answers computed in Cambridge traveled back over the cables to Berlin. The Berliner Morgenpost reported that Gerhard Stoltenberg, West Germany’s minister of scientific research, mistyped a question, prompting the computer to respond “Das kann ich nicht lessen” (“I cannot read that”) before supplying, in response to one of his properly posed questions, a complete list of magazines and book titles on nuclear topics available in the MIT library. As the newspaper noted, “Ministers are fallible, but computers are not.” The audience of more than 1,200 academics, government officials, and members of the public was greatly impressed.

The event organizers, led by MIT professor and exchange program director Arthur Ippen, wanted TUB, the West German government, and industry leaders to start using the computing innovations it was demonstrating. That agenda was part of the Institute’s larger effort, funded by the Ford Foundation, to bring technology to developing countries. While not a developing country, West Germany was dealing with the aftermath of World War II, and West Berlin, an island of democracy in the middle of Soviet-controlled East Germany, was strategically important. Brown, who managed MIT’s international efforts, also wanted MIT to help West Germany’s struggling research universities, which had fallen far behind their international counterparts.

But the conference almost didn’t happen. Leftist student groups at TUB had been rioting, causing Brown and Ippen to consider canceling. Though TUB professors eventually convinced them that the students would behave, Brown remained wary, writing wryly to an associate, “If you are on the inside track with the students, will you please suggest that they do not throw rocks at me even if they do behave as usual and throw rocks at the Minister, the Mayor and the Rector.”

The students did not riot but wrote an angry piece in the newspaper Der Tagesspiegel condemning the conference. They believed that if TUB acquired a time-shared computer, the professors would monopolize it. And, echoing U.S. student protests of the Vietnam War, they also accused MIT of being able to afford its computer-based research programs only by accepting government money to develop war technologies.

Walter Ulbricht, the Communist Party chief in Soviet-­controlled East Germany, also noticed MIT’s display of computing prowess. He proclaimed the conference “not a coincidence or trifling event, but rather a provocation” and beseeched “concerned Comrades in the Government” to show off their own technological capability.
Politics aside, MIT and TUB professors considered the conference a success. In MIT’s view, the collaboration helped German universities modernize and understand the value of new technologies. TUB made plans for a computer center, and Stoltenberg announced at the conference that TUB would receive funds to acquire the first time-shared computer at a German university.

Meanwhile, what was an exciting new technology for Berlin was becoming obsolete in Cambridge. In 1973, MIT retired the outdated 7094 for a newer time-sharing system. Although the computer was soon forgotten, the MIT-TUB exchange program continued through 1975, serving as a model for MIT’s international programs for years to come.

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