From about 1960 to 1964, India’s first indigenous digital and general-purpose computer occupied a massive air-conditioned hall across the second floor of the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR) in Mumbai.
Albeit far slower than today’s supercomputers, it was nonetheless, a breakthrough then. On Monday in Bangalore, its designer Dr Rangaswamy Narasimhan passed away, ending a legendary era that ushered in India’s age of computing.
Both the computer and its creator now remain only in a few golden memories. In 1962, Jawaharlal Nehru came to christen the unwieldy computer TIFRAC.
Its prototype is said to exist in a museum in Delhi. But soon after 1964, TIFR researchers lost track of what happened to the original machine.
“The core memory was later gifted to the Bhabha Atomic research Centre (BARC), and its parts were dismantled and sent to the Indian Institute of Science (IISc), Bangalore. But did not preserve it either,” says retired professor M.V. Pitke who joined Narasimhan’s group in 1959.
“It is a pity the computer was not preserved,” said the Mumbai-based Pitke. “It will be very difficult for today’s generation to imagine that state of technology.”
Early mornings, Narasimhan would proudly polish the cabinet doors of the laboratory that was a national facility until 1964.
“He put India on the world map of computer labs,” recalled Pitke. “We were then behind the US and Europe by only 4-5 years. But after proving we could build complex electronics, we frittered away that advantage.”
Computing was then primitive, and a small computer used several kilowatts. The historic computer had a tele-printer and punched card devices for heavy databases.