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Teaching the History of Computer Science:

the Moral Aspect



Yakov Fet


Computing Center, Siberian Division of Russian Academy of Sciences

6 Lavrentiev Ave, Novosibirsk 630090, Russia, fax no.: 7 (383) 2324259




Key words:   information technologies, mass media, moral  education,  history  of  computing,   distance education



Abstract.  The rapid growth of information and communication technologies has an extremely strong influence on the development of society. The intent of this paper is to draw attention to some disturbing phenomena accompanying this process. The author believes that the only true remedy is to enlighten people and to bring forward moral education. Computer science teachers are obliged to give their students firm moral beliefs and standards. Among the numerous topics they are teaching, ethical issues should occupy the foremost position. History of computer science is considered to be an important subject in this respect. A special place in propagation of ethical principles can take teaching of biographies of distinguished scientists and engineers of the past. The hard problem of moral education can effectively exploit the possibilities of distance education which allows to bring to everybody the highest values in culture, science, and ethics.




1. Introduction


In the age of extraordinary rapid growth of information and communication technologies the moral issues call for  a special attention.

   It is well-known that these technologies have an extremely strong influence on the development of society. The information technologies present one of the greatest achievements of the 20th century, the rate of their perfection is unprecedented. These powerful means can bring to people well-being, prosperity, physical and spiritual thriving. However, at the same time, they are fraught with great dangers, like other achievements of the human brain (nuclear energy, genetics, etc.).

   One of the ESPRIT Networks of Excellence organized by Greece specialists and working at the frontier of information technologies has chosen the saying "Use power intelligently!" as its motto and a stylized image illustrating the myth on Dedalus and Icarus as its logo. This warning from the ancient history is quite actual in our days and could become the principle of everyone working at the edge of science and technology.



2.   Contradictions in the development of



The main scientific, technological, and business problems in the field of new information technologies are discussed yearly at the impressive International Conferences "Information Society Technologies". Usually the conferences of this series were held in Brussels, the IST'98 moved to Vienna. 3800 participants from 62 countries have been working here during three days under the slogan "Living and Working in the Information Society".  The key event of this forum was the European IT Prize Award Ceremony. This Prize sponsored by the European Commission is "an award for groundbreaking products that represent the best of European innovations in information technology" (cited from an official EU brochure).

   In 1998 the three Grand Prizes (200.000 ECU) were awarded: 1) the Swedish company "iD2 Technologies" - for the design of a comprehensive system for large-scale production of secure digital certificates for banks, postal and telecommunication companies, etc.; 2) the Greek company "MLS Laserlock" - for the development of a highly efficient Copy Protection System for CD-ROM, an "ultimate weapon against piracy"; 3) the Polytechnic University of Catalonia (Barselona) together with the Spanish company SRFM - for the invention of a new broadband antenna for cellular communication systems. There was as well 22 other winners receiving the Encouraging Prizes (5.000 ECU) for development of similar products.

   It is important to draw attention to the fact that two of the three mostly distinguished achievements in IT have the aim of protection against crime, against the safecrackers the number of which does not tend to reduce in this brave information world ! On the contrary, the uncontrolled (or, rather, controlled in  a specific way by interested governmental and private institutions) use of the new means of mass media leads to active decline of ethics, tastes and abilities of millions of watchers and users. This process of  pollution of intellectual environment has now a character of national, and even international disaster. This is the subject of numerous books and papers in different countries. Thus, colorful pictures of this trouble could be found, for instance, in Jerry Mander's book "Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television" [1]. One of the newest sources can be Stanislav Lem's "Bomba Megabitowa" [2].

   Professor P. Masani, the well-known American mathematician, collaborator and follower of Norbert Wiener, has addressed in August, 1998 to the International Congress on Cybernetics (Namur, Belgium) dedicated to the 50th anniversary of the classical Wiener's book. Professor Masani's speech was entitled "Norbert Wiener's book ‘Cybernetics’ and the Prospects of a New Era of Human Slavery" [3]. In particular, he said:

   "In Chapter VIII of Cybernetics written in 1948, Wiener had analyzed the factors responsible for the state of affairs in the society. He wrote: ‘That system which mote than all other should contribute to social homeostasis is thrown directly into the hands of those most concerned in the game of power and money, which we have already seen to be one of the chief anti-homeostatic elements in the community ... Communication is the cement that makes organizations. Communication alone enables a group to think together, and to act together ... The primary function of a channel of communication is to provide communal information, that is information available to the race as against that available just to the individual’''.

   Further - the text by Professor Masani:

   "To lease a communication channel commercially is to classify it first and foremost as a vehicle to make profit. But a commercial network, relying on advertising revenue, can maximize its profit only by blowing to the advertiser's wishes, creating thereby a new source of unscrutinized, biased and often false information. Only secondarily or tertiarily, can it attend to the dissemination of communal information, for the latter need not serve the advertiser. Thus, to vest the control of the means of communication in commercial hands is to bypass the primary function, to weaken the cement that holds a community together, and to inject into the rivers of communication a strong pollutant, and into the social fabric a highly anti-homeostatic factor. The faulty system of allotment has had the devastating effect encouraging investment that clearly lowers the mental and moral potential of citizenry".

   Meanwhile, new specific "computer crimes" like the  pirate copying, the computer viruses, etc. are fast expanding. The pollution of brains becomes more and more dangerous. Thus, the entertainment industry is already mastering the technology of Interactive Virtual Reality (IVR), and the "... specialists, the psychiatrists in the first place, become greatly worried by the problem: what is the degree of people's dependency from the IVR ...  It is supposed that the mental and psychological dependency from IVR can step by step become stronger than from drugs" [4].



3.   The role of enlightenment


Let us recall the first rule of the IEEE Code of Ethics which reads that the members of IEEE agree "to accept  responsibility in making engineering decisions consistent with the safety, health, and welfare of the public, and to disclose promptly factors that might endanger the public or the environment".

   How can we resist now the «megabit bomb» ? Evidently, any censorship, any prohibition is in this case helpless. We believe that the only true remedy able to gradually change the situation is the enlightenment. The mentioned trends bring the attention of teachers, and of  computer science teachers in particular, to important specific problems: to withstand the negative influence, to give the students firm moral beliefs and standards. Among the numerous topics we are teaching the ethical issues should occupy the foremost position.

   The present author believes that the only true remedy is to enlighten people and to bring forward moral education. Our students mast have not only the necessary professional knowledge and skills but also firm moral beliefs and standards.

   In order to get a good breeding one should have proper educators. We use to say: "a bad teacher" or "a teacher by God’s grace", a "provincial university" or "the Moscow (Harvard, etc.) University". The whole destiny, private as well as professional, of a definite person is dependent on which level, which quality of teaching fell to his lot. And later, the features of all individuals form the face of society. Had many of us been happy to meet a teacher by God’s grace in the childhood, or to graduate the Harvard University in the youth ? The new information technologies are able to change this picture radically. Indeed, the distance education allows to seed the reasonable, the kind, the eternal.

   We consider the history of science, and the history of computer science a very important subject in this respect. Studying the history, the lives and achievements of its heroes, their successes and failures, will enable us to choose right decisions in the development of our science. A special place in propagation of ethical principles can take teaching of biographies of distinguished scientists and engineers of the past. As a rule, these people combined brilliant creative talents and highest morality with civic courage.

   The recently published report of the IFIP Joint Task Group (TC3 and TC9) [5] can serve a good manual for the teachers of computer science . It should be noted as well that the paper [5] contains numerous references to relevant literature and Web sites.

   Fortunately, in this hard problem of moral education one can effectively exploit just the possibilities given by new information technologies. The distance education allows to bring to everybody the highest achievements in culture, science, and ethics.



4.   Some peculiarities of Russian computer

     science history


During the last years an active interest in the history of science can be recognized in Russia and in other   Eastern European countries. One of the reasons is the fall of bans and censorship. During dozens of years scientists and other specialists were forced to be silent with their recollections of the past, especially about the events related to repression. Now, they received the opportunity to speak.

   Unfortunately, the history of Soviet science is a very sad history. This concerns especially cybernetics (computer science, informatics). Computer science in the USSR shared the "place of honor" with scientific biology and genetics. One of the new books on the history of Soviet science recently published by the known Russian biologist Simon Shnol has a characteristic title "The Heroes and the Villains of Russian Science" [6]. The book itself is devoted to the people and events concerning biological sciences. However, the author's words appearing at the title, "heroes and villains" are typical of the situation that prevailed in the USSR during a long period in many other fields of science as well. The ignorant and cruel rulers commanding upon the country and science regularly suppressed any creative undertaking, every new idea which did not correspond to their understanding of "purity" of official Soviet ideology.

   The dramatic history of struggle for cybernetics in the USSR is presented in a recently published book "Essays on the History of Computer Science in Russia" [7]. This book is a collection of various materials  concerning the corresponding period. It is divided into six Chapters: 1) Early history of Soviet cybernetics; 2) Computer linguistic; 3) Cybernetic problems of  biology; 4) Cybernetics in economics; 5) Biographical materials; and 6) Supplements. The book aids to reconstruct the atmosphere of the troublesome  period of origin of computer science in Russia.

   Thus, in 1953, the leading Soviet ideological journal "Problems of Philosophy" published a notorious article "In whose service is cybernetics?" [8]. The author wrote, in particular: "The theory of cybernetics, trying to extend the principles of modern computing machines to a broad variety of natural and social phenomena without due regard for their qualitative peculiarities, is mechanism turning into idealism. It is a sterile flower of the tree of knowledge arriving as a result of a one-sided and exaggerated blowing of a particular trait of epistemology". And further: "The imperialists are unable to resolve the contradictions splitting the capitalists' world. They cannot prevent the approaching inexorable economical crisis. They try to find salvation not only in the frenzied arms drive but as well in the ideological weapon. In the depth of their despair they resort to the help of pseudo-sciences giving them some shadow of expectation to survive".

   In the article "Cybernetics" of the 4th edition (1954) of "Concise Dictionary of Philosophy" [9] this science was defined as a "reactionary pseudo-science which appeared in the USA after the World War II and become also wide spread in other capitalist countries; a kind of modern mechanism".

   One can easily imagine what meant defending and disseminating of a "reactionary pseudo-science" at those times in the Soviet Union! Nevertheless, the best Russian scientists of those times like Axel Berg, Leonid Kantorovich, Andrey Kolmogorov, Alexey Lyapunov stand up for the defence of newborn science. Just because of their common efforts and fearless struggle cybernetics, and later computer science acquired the proper standing in Russia.



5.   Selected biographical pages of the heroes

     of Russian computer science


5.1. Professor Alexey Lyapunov, the founder of

       Russian cybernetics


In the history of Russian science, Professor Alexey Lyapunov (1911-1973) occupies a particular place in connection with his activities in defending cybernetics and genetics. Being a descendant from a noble family which made a great contribution to world culture, Alexey Lyapunov devoted more than forty years of his life to desinterested serving the science of his country. The scope of his interests was so broad that he can be, in fact, called encyclopedic scientist.

   The known Russian cybernetician and historian of science Modest Haase-Rapoport wrote about Alexey Lyapunov: "Despite the broad spectrum of his scientific interests, Lyapunov's activities in science were always distinguished by professional skill. The biologists considered him a biologist, the geophysicists a geophysicist, the philosophers a philosopher. His large erudition and encyclopedic knowledge, combined with his integrating, unifying approach to natural science, to the whole complex of scientific knowledge, became the rich soil which provided the sprout of cybernetic ideas. In this respect, there is some similarity of Alexey Lyapunov with Norbert Wiener, who was also a scientist of deep and broad mind working in different areas" [7, p.241].

   In 1952, Lyapunov began his work at the Moscow State University as a Professor of the Chair of Computational Mathematics. He presented to the students of this Chair, in the 1952/1953 academic year, a brief course (from just eight lectures) entitled "The principles of programming". It was the first course on programming in the country which played a fundamental role in the development of this new field of knowledge. 

   In those hard years, when cybernetics was suppressed in the USSR,  Professor Lyapunov, in  the 1954/1955 academic year organized at the Moscow University a Seminar on cybernetics. This Seminar attracted, from the very beginning, great attention of different specialists and developed into an all-Moscow and even in an all-Union event. He invited for work in this Seminar and presenting lectures the youth as well as prominent Soviet scientists, and sometimes even foreign guests. During ten years (1954-1964) a total of 121 sessions of this famous «Big» Lyapunov's Seminar was held.

   In 1955, Alexey Lyapunov (together with Sergey Sobolev and Anatoly Kitov) published in the same journal "Problems of Philosophy" the first officially permitted positive article on cybernetics entitled "Essential aspects of cybernetics" [10]. Essentially, this publication marked the beginning of the early period of cybernetics in the USSR.

   In 1958, Lyapunov initiated the world-wide known series of scientific publications "Problems of Cybernetics" being the editor-in chief of it. The total of 41 issues have been published during the period 1958-1984.

   Beginning from 1961 Professor Lyapunov lived in Novosibirsk (Academy Village) and worked at the Siberian Division of Russian Academy of Sciences. This was one of the most fruitful periods of his life. Alexey Lyapunov was an outstanding pedagogue, and a propagandist of scientific knowledge. His interests in this field covered the teaching at all the levels of education, from the primary school to the University. In Siberia his pedagogical activities reached their peak. Thus, he organized here an advanced high-school of a  new type, so-called "Physico-Mathematical School", where students were prepared for studies at the Novosibirsk University.

   Dr. Igor Poletayev, one of the Russian Computer Pioneers and close Lyapunov's collaborator wrote: " Scientific truth ever was the subject of his service, and the search of this truth - almost a cult. This unselfish, knightly service to the truth was supplemented by his irresistible personal charm <...> and surprisingly deep and, perhaps, inoffensive and kind humor. Even the controversial opinions sounded from Lyapunov's lips attractive, almost convincing. Every conversation and personal contact with him was an intellectual event and aesthetic experience" [11].



5.2. Professor Leonid Kantorovich: the struggle

       for recognition of new methods in economics


The name of Leonid Kantorovich, his life, his role in the science, and his struggle for his ideas occupy a special position in the history of science of the 20th century.

   The early blossoming of his talent, the discovery (at the age of 27) of new methods of planning and management, the extraordinary breadth of interests, the uncompromising nature of a fighter, and, at the same time, his modesty and nobility - all these features form the unique phenomenon of Kantorovich. 

   The mathematical investigations of Kantorovich formed a basis of new important directions in mathematics. At the same time, he is rightfully considered one of the founders of modern mathematical economics, the kernel of which is linear programming which he created. It is a new concept of the economical cybernetics which is highly important because it allows to transform economics into an objective science, thus ensuring most efficient results of economic activity.

   Professor Valery Makarov, one of the closest Kantorovich's collaborators, wrote : "He is the author of first-class results in functional analysis, in the theory of functions, in computational mathematics. He has a number of great works on the theory of sets, the theory of computer programming, etc. He published a dozen of reputable monographs on mathematics. In seems clear that Leonid Kantorovich is a mathematician to the core ... . In reality, this is not true. It is just Kantorovich's phenomenon that he is at the same time an outstanding economist, a scientist who changed essentially the understanding of economical events, the economic thinking, and became a founder of an original economic school" [12, p. 79].

   Leonid Kantorovich (1912-1986) was, indeed, "a prodigy". As early as being two years old he could already count. In the age of seven he has been keen on chemistry. Studying the textbooks of his elder brother, who was a student of medical department, Leonid suggested (at this age !) the radio-carbon method of dating the age of rocks which was discovered by chemists much later.

   In 1926, being 14, Leonid Kantorovich entered the Physico-Mathematical Department of Petersburg University brilliantly graduating from it at 18. The known mathematician Professor of Petersburg (Leningrad) University Grigory Fichtengolts wrote (in 1930): «The regular and intensive contacts with him during four years allows me to state with absolute certainty that, in the person of this (now 18 years old) youth, we have an exclusively  gifted mathematician».

   After graduating the University, Leonid Kantorovich entered postgraduate courses. Simultaneously, he began teaching mathematics at the newly established Institute for Industrial Construction. In a year (at 20) he became there a Professor.

   Working in this Institute which had a very strong Chair of Mechanics Kantorovich took an interest in problems originating at the design of large objects like turbines, aircraft, some complicated constructions. He invented a series of new computational methods and published in 1936 (together with Vladimir Smirnov) a book "Approximate Methods of Higher Analysis". It was the first monograph in the world on computational mathematics essentially being a beginning as a self-dependent science.

   In 1939 Leonid Kantorovich published a small brochure "Mathematical Methods of Organizing and Planning Production" containing the discovery of linear programming, a new scientific direction which had an enormous influence on the development of economic science. This fundamental work of Kantorovich gave, for the first time, a mathematical statement of economic problems of planning and suggested efficient methods of their solution.

   The new, truly scientific approach to economics suggested by L. Kantorovich was incompatible with the official Soviet ideology. The leaders of the Soviet Union, throughout the history of the country, regularly suppressed every creative undertaking, every new idea which did not correspond to their understanding of "purity" of their doctrine.

   For a long time, Kantorovich's discovery of linear programming had remained unknown to the West. At the end of the '40s, similar approaches to optimization have been independently proposed in the USA. Then, after the American scientists had become, at last, acquainted with the early Kantorovich's publications, they unconditionally acknowledged his priority. Moreover, they made considerable effort to translate into English and to publish the pioneering Kantorovich's work of 1939. In 1975, the Nobel Committee awarded the Nobel Prize in economics jointly to Leonid Kantorovich and Tjalling Koopmans (USA) thus recognizing the outstanding achievements and independent contributions of the scientists of both countries.


   There exists an opinion that L. Kantorovich's career in science was fortunate. Really, according to generally accepted criteria, he was successful enough to be a Member of the USSR Academy of Sciences, to be awarded the Lenin Prize, and to serve for 10 years as a Deputy Director of one of the leading Institutes of the Academy. And finally, he was "allowed" to receive in Stockholm his Nobel Prize ! However, if one investigates carefully Kantorovich's biography, for instance, by putting to use archive materials and recollections of his contemporaries, this career will appear by no means a smooth one. Let us look at just these two examples from memoirs of the closest Kantorovich's collaborators.

   Gennady Rubinstein:   "... the manuscript of his book "The economic calculation of the best utilization of resources" was written, in general, at the beginning of '40s, while published in 1959. 14 years passed between the end of the war and the publication of this book. And during the substantial part of this period the book was "being reviewed" by people considered at those times «experts» in economics" [12, p.90].

   Victor Zalgaller:   " ... From the side of the dogmatists of economic pseudo-science, an open persecution of Leonid Kantorovich followed. The editor-in-chief of the journal "Problems of Economics", corresponding member of the USSR Academy of Sciences L. Gatovsky ... published in the journal "Communist", (1960, No.15, pp. 79-90), jointly with a staff member of the journal, a real denouncement in the spirit of 1937. Other articles appeared as well, some of them even more mean-spirited" [7, p.452].

   In fact, Kantorovich's archives contain a number of his manuscripts which were not published at all, after remaining for many years in the editorial offices of different Soviet journals.



   A typical document illustrating the academic dispositions of those times in the USSR is one of letters sent by Professor Kantorovich in 1959. We are reproducing it here in full:







«To the Editorial Board of Journal

‘Problems of Economics’.


Copy: to academician A.N. Nesmeyanov,

the President of the USSR Academy of Sciences.


Copy: to V.A. Kirillin,

Department of Science,

Central Committee of the USSR Communist Party.


In May, 1957 I have passed to the Editorial Board of the Journal ‘Problems of Economics’ my paper "On the calculating of public expenditure of labor".

   The paper was not published till now. During this period (beginning from August, 1957) I heard six times about the terms of its publishing, four times the work was reedited in accordance with the instructions from Editorial Board, two times it was composed and then scattered. I find it difficult to count the number of oral assertions (both official and informal)  of the editor-in-chief of the Journal Professor L.M. Gatovsky that he supports the publication of the work.

   In view of the fact that a year and 8 months passed from the time when the work was submitted to the Editorial Board, I ask to return me the final text of the manuscript together with a resolution of the Board.

   I consider it appropriate to remind, in this connection, that there exist numerous cases when the actions of timid and short-sighted editorial boards have caused evident damage to the prestige and priority of Soviet science, hampered the practical use of scientific results. The same took place as well with some other my works, which gives me the right to manifest in this case a definite persistence.


Corresponding Member of the USSR Academy of Sciences

L.V. Kantorovich




   Undoubtedly, the whole life of Leonid Kantorovich, his discoveries in mathematics and economics, his uncompromising struggle for recognition of new methods in science and economy, presents a remarkable example of highest morality and of serving the interests of people, of society.





6. Conclusions


The intent of this paper is to draw attention to the disturbing consequences of rapid growth of information and communication technologies. Teachers are obliged to ensure that their learners will use these new powerful means only for the well-being of people, of society.

   It is claimed that moral education is the most important part of teaching computer science. A valuable source for propagation of ethical principles can be found in the history of science and, in particular, in the history of computer science. As a rule, the distinguished scientists and engineers of the past combined brilliant creative talents with highest morality and civic courage.

   References are given to relevant literature. Some dramatic events are discussed from the scarcely studied history of Russian computer science. Two biographical sketches are cited of prominent Russian computer scientists, Alexey Lyapunov and Leonid Kantorovich.

   Finally, it is suggested that in disseminating of the highest achievements of culture, science, and ethics the modern means of distance education should be widely exploited.





The author would like to thank Prof. Natalya A. Lyapunova and Dr. Vsevolod L. Kantorovich for their assistance and permission to use materials from their private archives.

            This research was supported in part by Russian Basic Research Foundation grant 99-06-80361.


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