CIMRMAN and Computers

In this article I would like to continue the exploratory work of a colleague Splichal and add some more details about Cimrman's thorny way leading to the invention of an automatic electronic computer. According to Mr. Splichal's document "Research", Cimrman got the idea of developing an electronic computer in his soda factory in the Ukraine around 1905. His first attempt to automatize the process of calculation by connecting the abacus to the electric circuit did not turn out to be a big success (Cimrman lost his book-keeper and in the factory he acquired a nickname "Killing Maniac"), however the basics were laid and a few weeks afterwards he was able to design the "Manual Automatic Ball Counter". But Cimrman aimed higher - his dream was to construct an electronic calculator and he was steadily working towards it.

It is known that, as a by-product, his soda factory also produced lots of potato chips. In Autumn 1905, when there was an extraordinary potato harvest in the Ukraine, his already overpacked soda-factory ran short of storage space and Cimrman had to introduce special measures. First of all he had several temporary depots built (called 'zemljanka' in Russian), but it was not enough and Cimrman had to switch the production from potato chips to less space-consuming micro-chips. These later became one of the building blocks of the computer industry. It is not entirely clear, however, what Cimrman used his microchips for. According to his sketches of a giant calculator MANIAC (modest Cimrman used his nickname in place of his real name), some think that microchips were used as heat exchangers for overloaded circuits. On the other hand, other sources assert that microchips were in fact food for the on-line accountants, who, sitting inside the gigantic construction, were printing and double-checking the results. Maybe both are true. In any case, without microchips, Cimrman's way to computers would be much longer.

But Cimrman had one more ace up his sleeve. It is generally known that during his expedition to the North Pole (not South Pole as colleague Urban believes) he discovered, that at very low temperatures, some materials exhibit so-called superconductivity. Being concerned about the flawless function of his gigantic calculator, Cimrman decided to install in it a few frozen super crystals, which should work as intermediators between the external conductors and the internal processing unit. For this purpose he had a big DC refrigerator built in front of the factory, in which the crystals could gradually ripen. But soon he found out that the quality of the electrical grid in Russia was not adequate (the fridge was powered from a small power station in a nearby Chernobyl). After a few days in which the power was incessantly interrupted by numerous outages he had to convert it to the AC current. This did not help much either, as on April 26, 1906, the last evening before starting a test run of its calculator, a small accident happened in Chernobyl and the frozen crystals started to melt. Jara did not loose his head, and using a bucket saved what he could. His MANIAC was a bit slower without the supercrystals but on the other hand, Cimrman's Liquid Crystals caused a revolution in display technology. So, from his point of view, not much had really happened.

With the regard to the dimensions of the disaster that happened in Chernobyl 80 years later, we should, however, mention a few more details. The original Chernobyl power station was a small coal power plant (the change to a nuclear fuel did not occur sooner than in the late 60's), and was taken care of by a stoker Anton Porfyrjevic. On that particular day in 1906, Anton came to work quite heavily drunk and after a few hours of stoking he fell asleep and slept for four days until a Tzar's Inspector woke him up. Naturally, the boiler had been long cold and the whole area had been without electricity for four days. Cimrman's description of that event, emphasized by the (at that time free) Czech press, inspired the Czech poet Wolker to write the famous verses: "Anton, the power plant stoker, put some coal in." Much to the credit of the Tzar's bureaucracy, Anton was immediately released from the contract for gross negligence. For a few years he tried to find some jobs abroad but as far as we know, both of his temporary positions (an iceberg lookout on the Titanic and a chief of the archduke Ferdinand's body-guards in Sarajevo) were total failures and Anton came back to his native Russia. In the middle of 1917 he moved to St. Petersburg, where he later became the commander of the Winter-Palace defence unit. There his track ends.

Let us now come back to Cimrman. Although the heating up of his calculator's circuits itself lasted 3 weeks, he was quite satisfied with results of the test run. Its numerical errors did not exceed 80% and on a chessboard it was able to beat the cleverest goat from a local farm. Considering that (according to the latest research of Mr. Hedvicek) Cimrman probably spent a part of his life in the U.S.A, we have a good reason to believe that the first American computer ENIAC, manufactured after the WWII, was only an improved version of Cimrman's MANIAC. The robustness of the construction indicates so.

The power failure at Chernobyl caused Cimrman also to revise his experiments with warm snow. He was known to be a good and passionate skier. Every winter he put a few armfuls of snow into the fridge and hoped to use it in June, but the Austro-Hungarian electrical grid wasn't reliable either. To prevent his growing dissatisfaction from taking over his plans, Jara had been thinking for a long time about warm and never thawing snow. His bad experience with the frozen crystals seemed to be the last straw and from then on he spent all his free time in a well heated calculator working on complicated thermodynamical calculations.

He was lucky at the beginning too. American "Gay and Lesbian Association", being mistaken by an ambiguous translation (in Czech "warm" has the same meaning as "gay" in English), sent Cimrman a cheque for $20 000. Cimrman did not hesitate and on the top of a hill behind the factory built a huge snow mixer and started experimenting. Unfortunately, he relied too much on the correctness of his calculator. It somehow messed up the water and steam equilibria and, during an artificial snow blizzard, Cimrman's best assistant suffered serious burns. About a week later, Cimrman himself was adjusting a safety valve and the snow mixer mixed him up so harshly that he had to retire for two weeks. Cimrman was finished with the warm snow. But not so with computer science.

There were two more problems Cimrman faced on his way to computers: a transfer of files between computers and development of higher programming languages. He started to work on the first one right away in the Ukraine. Unfortunately, the only files he had were in wooden file cabinets in his office and after two days of moving the heavy furniture around he scribbled down a note: "Files cannot be moved by hand!" As usual, it was a coincidence which helped him to find the right way how to transfer files.

One day his best soda-taster Ivan was arrested for sticking his tongue in the ears of his female co-workers during the working hours. After that the quality of the soda water went rapidly down and Cimrman realised that he had to get Ivan out of prison. Since at that time Cimrman didn't have much money to bribe the tzarist police with, he decided to send Ivan a file to get past the iron rods. Cimrman used the classical approach and baked the file into a loaf of bread. When he was walking to the prison he struck his head. What a way to transfer files! And no later than Ivan could resume his tasting duties Cimrman had developed a special kind of bread, which, for its softness and a noticeably round shape, he called a "floppy disk".

But that was not all. Somehow or other the police found out about Ivan's escape and Cimrman was summoned to the station where he had to sign an affidavit, stating how he helped Ivan to escape and that he would never do it again. While reading the resulting "file transfer protocol" Cimrman noticed that this document is very punctuous and later used its guidelines for all transfers of files between incompatible computers.

Finally, we would like to mention Cimrman's work in the field of programming languages. During his return trip from the Ukraine, Jara gave the problem a lot of thinking and finally came to the conclusion that a start for any successful language must be a well-defined loop. Already his first attempt, the raw loop "FURT-RAN" ("furt" is a Czech slang for "all the time") was working miracles and later became a basis for a popular language Fortran. But Cimrman was aware that he needed more than just a perfected loop and continued his search for a language that would be more comprehensive. And he struck gold during his forced stop in Presov (Slovakia), where one of his horses incidentally drank a pail of laxative and was incapable of towing for a few days.

At the beginning Cimrman was mad and angrily strode up and down the stables, every now and then taking a pause and shouting:"Shit! Shit!" At dusk he got tired though, and went to a pub where he spent the next few days drinking plum brandy and discussing current language problems with Slovak experts. This cooperation turned out to be very fruitful and at the end the foundations of the first fully fledged computer language ALGOHOL were laid.

I believe that you have overlooked a few points concerning his
development of FURT-RAN.  As any brilliant person, Cimrman enjoyed
word games, so it is necessary to investigate that aspect of anything
that he named.

First, Cimrman is the Czech version of the German name "Zimmerman".
This means we must not overlook the German language.  FURT in Czech is
"all the time" but in German it is almost like "Furz", which means
fart.  (This should not be confused with the German "fahrt" which
means go or run.)  The digestive problems of the horses indeed
inspired Cimrman's choice of FURTRAN.  The implied meanings of this
miraculously inventive word range from "Runs all the time" to "Full of
gas, likely to explode horribly any minute."  It is thus especially
apt for computer programming.

--Peter Neilson  (

PS: Isn't Ivan's grandson in charge of general peace, safety and
tranquillity for the city of Sarajevo?

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