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Datasaab laid the foundations for sweden as an it nation

Datasaab laid the foundations for sweden as an IT nation

14 min read

In the 1960's and 1970's Saab broke new ground with its development of computer systems. The computers were mainly for use in missiles and aerospace, but spread to banking and business systems, weather forecasting and the population register as well. Datasaab became a cornerstone of the Swedish information society.

Today it is almost impossible to understand how the world could operate without computers. This is particularly the case for advanced industries which at that time absorbed large numbers of employees, but which also failed to carry out some complex tasks.

In the mid-1950s there were still some 20-odd accounting clerks at Saab who counted and double counted on manually operated calculators. But in Saab’s annual financial report in 1954 it was noted for the first time in a short passage that: “In cooperation with the Swedish Board for Computing Machinery (MMN) the construction of a Saab calculating machine is in progress”.

This was the small seed that over time would grow into a large-scale business and even into a separate company, Datasaab.

The race for digital technology and the new era’s data processing machines had started up immediately after the war and most of the development took place in the USA. There were forward-looking forces in the Swedish state administration and in 1947 four Swedish scholarship students were sent off for extended study periods at some of the leading US universities. A computing machinery committee was set up, which would later lead to the establishment of the Swedish Board for Computing Machinery.

The investment led to a pooling of resources which were to be of key importance to Swedish industry, especially for companies such as Saab and Ericsson. In 1955, testing began on the second computer developed in Sweden, BESK (Binary Electronic Sequence Calculator) and the first programming training began at the same time. Ten or so large companies were hired in, mainly to solve various technical problems.

One of the main users of BESK was Saab, which was wrestling with strength calculations and aerodynamic challenges. A growing demand for the new technology resulted in Saab building a modified copy of BESK, equipped with a core memory and new external magnetic tape memory, Saraband. SARA, Saab’s Calculating Machine, went into operation in 1957. The premises still bear the name ‘Sara-källaren’ (SARA Cellar), which now forms part of the historical archive at Saab in Linköping.

Developments were driven by the concept of using digital technology to control a missile. Another idea of the time was to replace the navigator in military aircraft with a digital machine that could perform navigation and various tactical control functions.

Datasaab laid the foundations for sweden as an it nation
Beginning in the 1950s, Saab began to develop their own computers. Operations grew over time in to a new company, Datasaab. In 1960 the mainframe D21 and 1962 were presented to the first customer, Scandinavian Electricity. The picture from 1963. Photo: J. Thuresson.

Europe’s first transistorised computer

Over time the industrial Facit group took over the resources of the Swedish Board for Computing Machinery and invested in computer manufacture. Nine copies of BESK were produced, but in the absence of any demanding application the step towards the new transistor technology was only taken at a later stage.

Instead it was Saab that would break new ground after receiving an order from the Royal Swedish Air Force Materiel Administration (KFF), which related to the production of the new RB 330 missile. It would include a computing machine and had to be based on transistor technology to cope with the airborne application. A small development team in the missile department headed up by Viggo Wentzel was commissioned to develop a transistorised computer.

In 1960, SANK (Saab’s Automatic Navigational Calculator), now D2, was presented. It was a small desktop calculator. It was probably Europe’s first transistorised computer. The computer weighed 150 kg and could perform 100,000 additions of two six-digit numbers per second. It had a storage capacity of 15 kilobytes, 5 of which were for data storage and 10 for programs.

Computer for the Viggen system 

A new division was organised in Linköping with the name Datasaab and it then developed a computer for the new Viggen system. Saab invested in integrated circuits and was therefore the first in Europe to use such technology.

During the design engineering work on the Saab 37 Viggen (Thunderbolt) there were discussions as to whether the aircraft should be a two-seater (pilot and navigator) or a one-seater with computerised support for the pilot. It was realised that the analogue calculating systems used previously would not be up to the task, but after SANK had been created, it was clear to Saab that there was every chance of them being able to design a digital computer that could be housed in a fighter aircraft.

One advantage of a rapid digital computer system was also that it could be used for sight calculations for attacks, in addition to navigational calculations and radar information. The idea of using a head-up display, on which relevant information could be displayed in the pilot’s field of view, was born out of this.

The computer that would fulfil the task was named CNK-37 (Central Numerical Calculator). A specification was ready in January 1960 and work started on building a prototype. The design made use of transistors and a circuit configuration that was reminiscent of SANK. However, the size and weight of the computer dismayed those around them and the designers were forced to think along new lines. After several amendments to the specification, which included a reduced number of inputs and outputs on the computer and a focus on what is known as a biax-type memory unit, the specification for the CK37 (Central Calculator) was ready in March 1964.

Saab’s electronics department investigated what the manufacturers of compact electronics could offer at the time and ended up with Fairchild’s DCTL (Direct-coupled transistor logic) circuits. These could be purchased customised for military use, in other words they could withstand temperatures from +125 to -55 degrees Celsius, and included several transistor functions in the same capsule. This would allow the computer to be housed in four units, each slightly larger than a shoe box. The four units were divided into a central processing unit, memory, input/output unit and power unit. A complete computer required approximately 3,000 semiconductor functions.

During 1965 the first prototype of the central master computer flew successfully on its ‘test bench’, the Lansen 32 A (Lance). A total of 196 central master computers were manufactured up to May 1978.

The CK37 was intended for the strike version, AJ37 Viggen. The Swedish Defence Materiel Administration chose a computer solution from the US Singer-Kearfott for the fighter version, JA37 Viggen. Some 100 units were produced at the Datasaab Prodata factory between 1979 and 1985.

Experience gained from the CK37 formed a good basis for the subsequent development of a new generation of computers for the JAS Gripen.

Computers for civilian use

It became clear that the new computer age would lead to a whole host of civilian applications. For its own use, Saab installed the country’s first complete data processor for industrial purposes. It was an eight-tonne giant that was used for salary payments, production planning, stock records, financial planning and so on.

Saab also soon acquired its first civilian customers. At the end of 1960 a contract was signed with Skandinaviska Elverk for an order for a D21 mainframe computer. The new era was captured by Saab’s CEO Tryggve Holm in a speech to customers expressed in the following words: “We woke up one day at Saab and found that we made computers.”

The design work for developing the D2 into a general computer was headed up by the development manager, Wentzel. A team of experienced staff took part including names such as Börje Langefors, Sven Yngvell and Bengt Asker. The work involved reviewing characteristics such as word length, memory management, management of bit streams from the magnetic tape memory and the development of an efficient programming language. Most of this had to be invented from scratch. SARA, Saab’s large calculating machine, was a great help during this development programme. The test programs for the D2 could be tested long before the computer was ready for testing.

Datasaab gradually developed its own problem-oriented programming language Algol-Genius, which was an amalgamation of the Algol and Cobol programming languages.

Data processors were now hot property and everyone wanted to take advantage of the new computer age. The deal with Elverk was followed up by several significant business deals. Among the customers needing mainframe computers were SMHI, the Swedish National Road Administration, Kockums, Flygmotor, Industridata and Söderberg & Haak.

Conflict with the ministry of finance

One item of particular note was the dispute that erupted with the ministry of finance in 1962. The background to this was that twenty counties were due to start keeping the population register and tax collection details on a computer and a government committee had pre-ordered a system from the US IBM company. Saab asked for the reason for this to be reported openly, but the material was classified as strictly secret. The large order was valued at more than SEK 50 million.

In a typical compromise the Minister of Finance Gunnar Sträng decided in 1963 that both the IBM and Saab systems would be used in the tests run by the county administrative boards. The D21 proved to be clearly better after several years testing and by 1969 the ‘computer war’ had come to an end. The government decided to use only Saab computers in the county administrative boards. The main reason for this was the well designed architecture of the D21, including the way the software used the memory and the adaptation of the tape memory system to this with simultaneous reading and writing onto magnetic tapes, faster tape units and variable record length on tapes. Another advantage of the D21 was the service undertakings that Saab made and lived up to.

Datasaab laid the foundations for sweden as an it nation
A competitive advantage with D21 was the service commitments that Saab did and lived up to. Here one of Saab's service groups in 1966. Photo: Å, Andersson.

The new D22 computer was compatible with the D21, but had a larger internal memory and was faster. The computer could handle several programming languages and had both a magnetic tape storage unit and a disk drive. An operating system was also developed for the D22 which allowed several programs to operate simultaneously. The first system was supplied in 1968 and production continued until 1977. A total of 77 units were produced. The operating systems of the D22 and its successor the D23 were probably the best that were available on the market at the time.

The option of collaborating with other computer companies started to come under consideration at Saab. In early 1975 a contract was entered into with US manufacturer Sperry Univac on forming a jointly owned company, Saab Univac. This company took over the D20 line’s mainframes.

Minicomputers for banking systems

At the same time another product had seen the light of day – minicomputers. This new type of computer had been studied in Datasaab, and in 1968 a decision was taken to extend the product range with a family of minicomputers which were given the designation D5.

This proved to be a real success when the Nordic savings banks started to investigate the possibility of installing banking terminals for cash handling at the same time. Datasaab won the order in collaboration with Facit – Datasaab as the systems supplier and Facit as the subcontractor supplying equipment for the cash workstations.

The first delivery took place in December 1971 and by the end of 1973 Datasaab had received orders for 6,000 cash terminals and 2,500 type D5/20 minicomputers. It was one of the largest installations of bank terminal systems at that time.

In the first stage all transactions were recorded on a cassette tape locally in the bank account and updates were carried out on the bank’s central computer during the night. In the second stage the first online network was set up with real-time recording of data. At the time this was one of the largest data networks in the world with the analogue communication of the time and 4,800 bps – a fantastic milestone in the banking world.

The D5 would still be in operation at the savings banks into the 1990s.

Later in the 1970s Datasaab launched its own pass book printer, which was in production for a long period – more than 30,000 units were produced and supplied as recently as the 1990s. Datasaab also developed business systems, which began with the purchase of Facit’s computer operations in Malmö in 1974, the former Addo. Various applications were now developed named after Nordic gods: Odin for orders/stocks/invoicing, Tor for accounts, Freyr for accounts receivable, Loki for accounts payable and Mímir for stock control and production control. What are known as the God packages survived several changes of hardware and were used well into the 21st century – later under the auspices of Ericsson, Nokia and ICL. The programs and knowledge are still in use to this day in new forms.

When Saab Univac was formed in 1975 the minicomputer operations remained within Saab. In 1978 the operations were transferred to the subsidiary company Datasaab AB with the state holding half the shares. This company was purchased in 1981 by L M Ericsson.

Datasaab laid the foundations for sweden as an it nation
Datasaab contributed to building the Swedish IT society. The computers and systems developed led to early automation in industry, commerce and at several of the country's authorities. In 1972, the last major, Saab D23, was introduced. The picture from March 27, 1972. Photo: Å. Andersson.

Many achievements

Datasaab was ahead of its time in many fields. This included among other things the early standardisation of the unitary circuit as the smallest element, which paved the way for industrialisation of digital technology. This also included the development of software for which high requirements were set. A third example was advanced solutions for the protection of information through encryption – which was important for military applications, for records held by the authorities and for the safe management of accounts in the banks.

Employees were witness to an open-minded corporate culture which was not hampered by hierarchies or complex bureaucracy. You did not need to be afraid of making mistakes and could knock on Wentzel’s door at any time to make suggestions, large or small. There was also a critical mass of talented technicians and engineers. Some of the country’s brightest minds had gone to work at Saab, which was a dream workplace for the young talented mathematicians and technology geniuses of the 1950s and 1960s.

Datasaab helped to build up the Swedish information society. The computers and systems that were developed led to early automation in industry, trade and several of the country’s public authorities. Similarly automation of banks and small companies also took place through the business systems and terminals that were developed.

The company also operated as an educational institution for its own staff and for customers. It was a nursery for the influx of skills to the country’s universities of technology, especially in relation to the Linköping Institute of Technology which became a university in 1975. Datasaab also provided training to the Swedish National Labour Market Board (AMS) on both hardware and software. It can be said with good reason that Datasaab was the first IT university in Sweden.

The driver behind the development started with Saab’s computational requirements and a calculating machine for the RB 330 missile. However, in time it resulted in a significant civilian development which was a world leader in many areas and which, at the same time, gave Saab the critical mass to develop computers for aerospace requirements, first in Viggen and later in JAS Gripen – a background which paved the way for Saab to take a leading role as a systems supplier in the aeronautics sector.

Today there is an active veterans’ association ‘Datasaabs vänner’ (Friends of Datasaab), which has documented operations at Datasaab and in addition, there is a museum of computer development in Sweden, Datamuseet IT-ceum, which has been set up at Östergötlands Museum in Linköping.

Datasaabs Vänner was formed in the early 1990s, originally with the aim of documenting the history of Datasaab for future research purposes. This work resulted in a series of five books – Tema D21, Tema Flyg (Aviation), Tema Bank (Banking), Tema D22-D23 and Tema Gudar (Gods). The books are available from the association’s website, (in Swedish only). Since 2013 the association has awarded an annual scholarship to encourage young people to study scientific subjects. The scholarship has been financed from the association’s book sales.