Sergei Alekseyevich Lebedev

“His outstanding work will be included in the world's treasury of science and technology. His name must stand in the ranks of the great scientists of the world.” Academician Boris E. Paton in a speech during the unveiling of a memorial plaque for S.A. Lebedev - the founding father of the Russian computer industry - at the Electrical Power Engineering Institute in Kiev, Ukraine.

Sergei Alekseyevich (sometimes spelled Alexeevich) Lebedev was born on November 2, 1902, in Nizhny Novgorod, nowadays the fourth largest city in Russia. His father was a teacher and followed the principle that a teacher had to be a role model for his students by being irreproachable, industrious and intolerant towards slander or servility. He imbued his children with the same principles. Lebedev studied at the Moscow Highest Technical School – today Moscow State Technical University – where he graduated in 1928 with a diploma of electrical engineer. He then started working as a teacher at the Moscow State Technical University while doing research at its Electrotechnical Institute. In 1939 he was awarded a doctorate for his thesis on the artificial stability of electrical power systems. The scientists working in the field of power engineering had a need for elaborate computing facilities as its work involved many complex calculations. For this purpose Lebedev developed in 1945 an analog computer to solve differential equations. It is known that Lebedev was already familiar with the binary system as his wife recounts that during the early months of the war Moscow was often plunged in darkness. She remembers her husband disappearing to the bathroom where he scribbled sequences of “0”s and “1”s by the light of a gas-burner.

Russian envelope, issued 17-01-1977, commemorating Academician S.A. Lebedev’s 75th birthday

MESM – the first electronic computer in Russia

After the war Lebedev moved back to Kiev. From 1946 until 1951 he was head of the Kiev Electrotechnical Institute of the Ukrainian Academy of Sciences. This is where he and his team designed the first electronic computer in the USSR. The development of the MESM (in Russian: МЭСМ or Malaya Elektronaya Schetnaya Mashina meaning Small Electronic Calculating Machine) has been well documented by Lebedev. In a message to the Coordination Council of the Academy of Science of the USSR in the beginning of 1957, he wrote: “I began to deal with high-speed electronic computers toward the end of 1948. From 1948-1949, I had elaborated the basic principles of building similar computers. Taking into account the great significance of the computer in economic development and also the absence in the Soviet Union of any kind of experience in the realm of computer construction and operation, I decided to create as quickly as possible a small electronic computer, with which we would be able to investigate the basic principles of computer building, examine strategies for the solving of certain associated problems and get experience in computer operation. In this connection, initially it was planned to create a working model of the machine and then develop it into a small electronic computer.
...The general components of the machine and the principal circuit diagrams for its units were completed by the end of 1949 and by the end of 1950, the final adjustments on the working model were finished. After that, it was successfully demonstrated before a commission.

The MESM had about 6000 vacuum tubes, had fixed-point binary representation, used parallel arithmetic processors and could operate at an average speed of 50 operations per second. As it was virtually the only computer in the country it was widely used by other scientists for their calculations. In 1952 the Institute of Electrical Engineering of the Academy of Science of Ukraine submitted Lebedev and his team for their work on the MESM for the State Prize which was won – a not insignificant achievement in post-war Russia. The MESM was in use until 1956 when it was relocated to the Kiev Polytechnic Institute to be used for the training of programmers. Later the machine was scrapped and today only a few parts remain. After the MESM Lebedev started work on designing a special-purpose computer – the SESM – for solving algebraic equations. It would be his last project in Kiev.

Ukraine issued this envelope in 2002 commemorating Lebedev’s centenary birthday.
The cachet also shows a perforated paper tape and some binary numbers in the background.


In 1952 Lebedev was appointed professor at the Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology. In 1953 he became director of the Moscow-based Institute of Precision Mechanics and Computer Engineering of the Russian Academy of Sciences. During the fifties and sixties Lebedev built the next generation of computers, a series of large mainframes with the name BESM (in Russian: БЭСМ or Bolshaya Elektronaya Schetnaya Mashina meaning Large Electronic Computing Machine). Lebedev’s laboratory became the embryonic version of the Computing Centre of the Academy of Sciences of Ukraine. Where the MESM used vacuum tubes the BESM used the new semiconductors and transistors. The BESM-6 was launched in 1965 and used 60,000 transistors and 180,000 semiconductor-diodes. It operated at an average speed of one million operations per second, a tremendous improvement on the 50 operations per second of its predecessor, the MESM.

Lebedev died in Moscow in 1974 and was buried in the Novodevich cemetery.

Russian envelope, issued 17-09-1982, showing Academician S.A. Lebedev
wearing the Hero of Socialist Labor medal

Lebedev honored

The USSR has awarded Lebedev the Hero of Socialist Labor medal, its highest distinction for exceptional achievements in national science, economy and culture.
In 1997 the IEEE (Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers) Computer Society awarded Lebedev the Computer Pioneer Award for his work in the field of computer design and for being the founding father of the Soviet computer industry.

The USSR has issued two postal envelopes with Lebedev in its cachet to commemorate his 75th and his 80th birthday. Ukraine has also issued an envelope commemorating Lebedev.

© Wobbe Vegter, 2009

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