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The Ugly Duckling completes thirty years

The first Brazilian minicomputer that was projected and built at the Polytechnic School of USP as a task within the post graduation course

Around a metallic box of 1 meter in length by 1 meter in height and 80 centimeters in breadth, weighing 100 kilograms, are grouped the bishop, the governor and the rector. It was July of 1972 and all of them were anxious to see the first Brazilian minicomputer, nick-named the Ugly Duckling, at work. It was a machine that represented an important victory for the researchers of the University of São Paulo (USP). At the moment that the governor of the State of São Paulo Laudo Natel was about to press the button to switch on the equipment, a somewhat clumsy photographer tripped on a wire and disconnected the plug.

The accident unloaded the memory and the awaited demonstration did not take place – whn functioning, the computer was going to carry out a series of simultaneous operations bringing on line various machines into its circuit. The only thing left to do for the bishop Don Ernesto de Paula, – who represented the São Paulo Church in some solemnities – to bless the machine. Nevertheless, the inventors of the computer showed little frustration with the experience of the public failure. All of them were very happy to have participated in the achievement that had begun to take shape some years before in 1968. In that year, the Polytechnic School of São Paulo at USP, established the Digital Systems Laboratory (LSD) and reformulated the curriculum of the course of Electrical Engineering breaking it into two: telecommunications and digital.

It so happened that there was not a professor who sufficiently understood enough to mount a course about digital machines in general. To take on this mission, an employee of IBM who had previously lived in Brazil, the American Glen Langdon Jr., a specialist in computer prototypes was invited to take the post. The School’s director, Oswaldo Fadigas, dealt with the managing of resources from the development agencies and the course was able to truly begin in February of 1971 with eighteen people, between professors, post graduate students and trainees. “As a task, Langdon asked for the construction of a digital machine”, recounts professor Antônio Massola, at that time a master’s student and one of those who worked to create the software.

Under the guidance of Langdon, the group completed the theoretical part and went on towards the building of the machine’s components. Since everything was new to them, a workshop for the manufacture of precision pressed circuits needed to be mounted, and in order to make the memory, professors Edith Ranzin and Paulo Patullo made use of a Philips model. After this phase, the researchers adapted themselves and mounted all of the parts and the computer began to show signs of life, that is, to produce cycles. In the end, what began as a mere course task resulted in a digital machine with 450 integrated circuit parts, with close to 3,000 logic circuits, distributed within 45 pressed circuit plates and 5,000 interlinking pins.

The principal memory was made from ferromagnetic nuclei, with a capacity for 4,096 words of 8 bits (or 32,000 bits). “The Ugly Duckling served to develop software, the training of trainees, and was responsible for masters and doctorate theses”, says professor Massola. Mission completed, the mini computer became a museum piece: it is on show in the main corridor that gives access to the Board Room of the Polytechnic School.