Antonín Svoboda

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Born 1907 in Prague. Died 1980 in Portland, Oregon. Czech computer scientist, mathematician, electrical engineer, and researcher. He is credited with originating the design of fault-tolerant computer systems, and with the creation of SAPO, the first Czechoslovak computer design.

Studies in Prague

His father was professor of Czech language and literature. After obtaining his electrical engineering degree in 1931 from the Czech Institute of Technology in Prague (Ceske Vysoke Uceni Technicke), he studied theoretical and experimental physics at Charles University, also in Prague. There he met an astronomy student, Miluna Joanelli, whom he married in 1936. In the same year he submitted a thesis on the application of tensor calculus to electric power distribution and obtained the Doctor of Technical Sciences degree from the Institute of Technology. His early interest were in physics--extensions of relativity theory and X-ray spectroscopy, which he pursued at the institute of Professor Dolejsek in Prague. As a hobby, he published a book, New Theory of Bridge, which presented a scientific approach to a bidding strategy in bridge. He also became a successful musician, which provided additional income during his studies. He was the pianist of the Prague Wind Quintet, founded by the renowned conductor Vaclav Smetacek, his life-long friend. Occasionally, Svoboda played percussion with the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra.

Development of anti-aircraft machinery in Prague (failed), Paris (failed) and Boston (finished as Mark 56)

Svoboda intended to follow a career in basic research and teaching. His plans, however, were severely affected by the events of world politics. His native Czechoslovakia had become more and more threatened by its neighbor--Nazi Germany. In the fall of 1936, Svoboda was called to active duty for two years in the Czechoslovak army. After his return from service in the fall of 1938, he resumed the position of assistant professor of mathematics at the Czech Institute of Technology. His tenure there did not last long. Immediately after the occupation of Czechoslovakia by the German army in March, 1939, the former officials of the Czechoslovak Ministry of Defense encouraged him to leave Czechoslovakia and go to Paris, officially for a prolonged scientific visit. He took with him the most advanced fire-control equipment, which he made available to the allied war efforts. The family was reunited in New York City in January 1941. In the United States, Svoboda continued the development of anti-aircraft defense gear, and in 1943 he was invited to join the Radiation Laboratory of MIT, where worked to develop a new auto-aiming targeting scope for warship anti-aircraft cannons. This was eventually developed fully as the Mark 56 (protiletadlového zaměřovač, určený k použití na válečných lodích), which was mounted in the final stages of the war and was very effective in reducing the amount of damage by Japanese kamikaze airplane attacks, for which he was given a Naval Ordinance Development Award in 1948. Often visited Harvard University lectures by Howard Aiken and made a good friend with him, he also conducted initial design work with other scientists such as John von Neumann, Vannevar Bush, and Claude Shannon on emerging computing elements, including ciphering. Svoboda concluded his stay at MIT in 1946 by writing a book, Computing Mechanisms and Linkages, finished in Prague in 1947, and is one of the comprehensive books on computer mechanisms.

Development of the first Czechoslovak computers in Prague (M-1, SAPO, EPOS 1 and 2)

After the war, he spent some time helping to write computer documentation for the initial efforts in the US before returning to Prague in 1946. While initially he had wanted to stay in the USA to participate in the development of computers, early frustrations and military controls of the project made him decide he would be better off trying to build up a “mathematical machines” industry in his native country. His dream was for Czechoslovakia to become in computers what Switzerland once was in watchmaking.

He became the head of the Department of Mathematics at Prague's Czech Technical University (ČVUT). He attempted to get tenure but initially was rebuffed. V roce 1947 na základě podpory organizace UNRRA podnikl se svým kolegou a přítelem profesorem Trnkou studijní cestu po většině amerických a britských institucí zabývajících se vývojem počítačů. Svoboda si představoval, že na pražské technice začne stavět číslicový počítač. Jenže ČVUT nebyla výzkumná univerzita jako MIT a mnoho rozhodujících lidí vlastně vůbec nechápalo, o co jde. Odešel proto do začínajícího podniku Aritma, kde navrhl „kalkulační děrovač“, který Aritma poté dlouho vyráběla. Poznamenejme ale, že stále vedl přednášky o strojích na zpracování informace, které zahájil v roce 1947. Tím se stalo ČVUT v pořadí druhou nebo třetí univerzitou na světě, kde byly zahájeny pravidelné kurzy o výpočetní technice.

In 1950 he accepted an offer from Eduard Čech, the director of the Central Institute of Mathematical Studies, to come there and set up a new institute of what was called at the time "mathematical machinery", where he started to work on SAPO.

Při vzniku ČSAV v roce 1953 vznikla také Laboratoř matematických strojů, později změněná na Ústav matematických strojů. V tomto ústavu byl v roce 1956 spuštěn první československý samočinný počítač SAPO. Svoboda remained with the institute, first as executive director, later as director of research, and finally as a member of the scientific advisory board, until his second departure from Czechoslovakia in 1964. Svoboda's diverse research activities in this period included:

  • Computer architecture: Computers M 1, SAPO, EPOS 1, and EPOS 2. SAPO was the world's first fault-tolerant computer design. Based on unorthodox and untried elements and designs such as electromagnetic relays and drums, its architecture was quite advanced compared to other contemporary efforts such as ENIAC. V historii počítačů se SAPO uvádí jako první počítač, u kterého byly využity von Neumannovy principy konstruování spolehlivých systémů z nespolehlivých prvků. Počítač měl tři aritmetické jednotky a výsledek se určoval na základě majority (později byl tento princip využit také v řídicím počítači pro projekt Apollo). Počítač SAPO pracoval úspěšně až do roku 1961, kdy došlo k malé havárii, po níž byl ale stroj odstaven a rozebrán. V té době již byl ve velmi pokročilém stadiu další počítač vyvinutý Svobodovou skupinou, elektronkový a později tranzistorový počítač EPOS. Při dokončování počítače EPOS se ale vyměnilo vedení ČSAV, předsedou se stal J. Kožešník a Svoboda byl vystaven silným politickým tlakům a šikanovaní. Ústav matematických strojů byl vyčleněn z ČSAV. Svoboda byl zbaven jeho vedení a musel čelit neustálým politickým útokům na svou osobu a na své spolupracovníky.
  • Numerical analysis: Development of methods suitable for digital computers.
  • Arithmetic codes and algorithms: Development of the numerical system of residue classes; fast-division algorithm; high-speed adders.
  • Switching theory: Synthesis of relay networks; graphic means and methods for switching circuit design.
  • Cybernetics: Model of instinct of self-preservation; medical treatment with automata.
Back in USA

In 1966, Svoboda jointed the faculty of the University of California, Los Angeles, becoming Professor in 1968. He taught courses in logic design, computer architecture, and computer arithmetic. Also in 1968, he received the IEEE Fellow Award for “his contributions in logic design, mechanical design, and his fundamental work on residue class number system”.

His main research activities continued in expanding his logic design methods. He exploited the didactic advantages of his graphic-mechanical aids to logic design. He conceived the idea of a Boolean analyzer to facilitate the solution of some fundamental problems in advanced logic design. He developed the methods for finding optimal solutions into an APL Logic Design Laboratory, as published in his last book, Advanced Logic Design Techniques, written with his student, Donnamaie E. White. Svoboda became Professor Emeritus in 1977, the same year in which he suffered his first heart attack. After recovering, he moved to Oregon, where his son Tomas Svoboda, a gifted composer and outstanding chess player, is professor of music at Portland State University. Antonin continued his activities there, consulting, writing, and lecturing.

V roce 1999 Antonín Svoboda obdržel od prezidenta Václava Havla in memoriam medaili za zásluhy prvního stupně.

Books by Svoboda
  • Antonín Svoboda, New Theory of Bridge
  • Antonín Svoboda, Computing Mechanisms and Linkages, 1947
  • Antonín Svoboda and Donnamaie E. White, Advanced Logic Design Techniques
Books about Svoboda
  • Jiří Klír, Memorable Ideas of a Computer School: The Life and Work of Antonin Svoboda, 2007 (Czech)
  • Jiří Klír and Petr Vysoký, Počítače z Loretánského náměstí – Život a dílo Antonína Svobody, 2007 (Czech)
Articles about Svoboda
  • "Oral History Interview with Antonin Svoboda" [1]
  • Petr Vysoký, Počítače z Loretánského náměstí – Život a dílo Antonína Svobody, in: Vesmír 11/1999 [2] (Czech)
  • "In memoriam" [3]
  • Petr Vysoký, "100 let od narození Antonína Svobody", in: Automa, 2008 [4] (Czech)
  • Jan G. Oblonsky, "Eloge: Antonin Svoboda, 1907-1980", Annuals of the History of Computing, Vol. 2, No. 4, October 1980.ín_Svoboda