Vilen N. Plotnikov | History of Computing in Ukraine

Vilen N. Plotnikov

Vilen Nikolaevich Plotnikov was the head designer of the “Carat” computer series, the first plug-in universal computing machines for the USSR Navy.

Vilen Plotnikov was born on January 31, 1930 in Petrodvorets, Leningrad region in the family of an Aviation Engineering Service general-major. When he was born, his father had just joined the Communist Party, and so decided to name his son “Vilen” after V.I. Lenin.

The war found the Plotnikovs in an aviation camp near Kursk. It separated the family for a long time, yet the father managed to send the rest of them to Kamyshin, Saratov region. Young Vilen was only 12 at the time. Later, the family moved through Gudermes and Baku to Ferghana until 1943, when they moved to Moscow to live in one of the many shared apartments.

By the end of 1945, Plotnikov’s father was appointed head of Kyiv Aviation College, and soon the entire family moved to Kyiv. Despite still having a love interest in Moscow, Vilen entered the Kyiv Polytechnic Institute’s radio technologies department. After completing his course, he was invited to stay for graduate school, which he finished by defending his Candidate’s dissertation spectacularly well.

In 1957, Plotnikov was invited to work at the newly-established Computing Center of the Air Force near Moscow, which was supposed to become a foundation for computing technology research. The novelty and controversy around computing and cybernetics appealed to the young Plotnikov; after all, back then very few people talked about computers or knew much about them.

Head of the computing center general-lieutenant Z.A. Ioffe quickly convinced Plotnikov that this was a good choice. Ioffe’s talk about future on-board machines for military aviation inspired Vilen so much that he skipped any questions about wage, lodging, work opportunities for his wife, and promptly signed up.

In the space of six and a half years, Vilen participated in 4 projects related to creating computer technologies: an on-board plane computer, a headquarters computer, a computer for rocket forces, and a computer for pre-flight control projects.

Then suddenly everything changed. All computing centers of the Ministry of Defense were forbidden to research computers, because of the new infrastructure of Scientific Research Institutes (SRIs) and organizations with their own design bureaus, who were tasked with this research. Plotnikov wanted to find an organization where he could continue working on creating and implementing computers.

In those years, computing technologies specialists were in demand, and so the Head of Kyiv SRI of Radio Electronics Ivan Vasilievich Kudryavtsev, when he found out about Plotnikov, tasked his staff with recruiting the talented designer. Among the people responsible for bringing Plotnikov back to Kyiv was V.Y. Lapiy. Thus, Vilen Plotnikov found himself working at Kudryavtsev’s institute. The latter understood full well that computerized ship radio-electronic systems are impossible without digital computing technology, and new specialists, equipment, and appropriate financing are necessary to develop it.

After familiarizing himself with the core tasks, Plotnikov immediately realized that the hardware base was hopelessly outdated. Gradually, he involved two more engineers in his independent research. First of all, he needed to define the potential of new transistor-based hardware for use in digital computing machines. Eventually, in 1963, new base elements were introduced: the two-dimensional microcircuit modules. The laboratory designed 3 different types, but the modules created by Plotnikov (4N02 type) were used in 99% of devices of every system. This was the first serializable universal base element in the USSR, which made it possible to design computers to the highest available technological level at the time.

The next step was to develop a specialized digital computing machine (Russian: SCVM), which became a prototype for the future computer “Carat”

Kudryavtsev understood that they needed to make a machine that would be accepted for use by the Navy. They needed smaller and more reliable base elements than the microcircuit modules. At that time, integrated microchips were still in the early stages of development, but the Head of the Institute asked the Vilnius Design Bureau to create a completely new type of hybrid big integrated chips, which were later named GBIS “Varduva”.

In 1970, the Kyiv SRI produced and fine-tuned the first model of “Carat” designed by Plotnikov. It was a compact 24-bit machine with a “Varduva” base. The following two years were spent producing and testing two test prototypes. In 1976, the machine was adopted for service by the USSR Navy.

Plotnikov’s favorite creation, the “Carat” came a long way from complete denial to unconditional acceptance by his contemporaries. Plotnikov’s peers always respected his ability to defend his opinion on any level, to think outside the box, and to predict the development trends for computer technologies.

During the time when “gigantomania” plagued computer design, and spawned a number of super-computers with inscrutable command systems, Plotnikov continued to defend simplified design and command structure. 10-15 years later, Western companies will call this invention RISC-architecture. “Carat” also lacked the usual I/O devices, since it was integrated into the already existing equipment.

Vilen Plotnikov’s determination often amazed people. He often refused higher-ranking posts, because he thought them “distracting”. When he began working, he was a “senior research associate”, the same title he held when he retired. He could easily write and defend a Doctor’s thesis on all the research he carried out, but he didn’t have the time for that either. Plotnikov himself claimed that he was so engulfed by the work that he no longer had control over his life and always felt personal responsibility for completion speed and quality of the projects.

Despite this, V.N. Plotnikov was an enthusiastic and well-rounded man. His friends and family admired not only his professional expertise, but also his numerous talents, which were often completely unrelated to his work. The extraordinary scientist was also an original painter and photographer, a literature, theatre and music expert and enthusiast.