Feio Duck: how the first Brazilian computer worked, created 50 years ago | Technology

50 years ago, at a time when there were almost no trained professionals in the country, about 15 researchers created the first Brazilian computer. The device became known as ugly duckling at Poli-USP (Polytechnic School of the University of São Paulo), where it was developed.

The ugly duckling only had 4 kilobytes of memory (one floppy disk has 360 times more space). It didn’t have a screen, a mouse, or most of the functions of today’s computers. But it served to launch Brazil’s digital equipment industry.

“Feio Patinho was the seed of the Brazilian digital industry from a viable prototype,” said Lucas Moscato, retired professor of industrial automation and robotics at Poli-USP and one of the creators of the computer, in an interview with g1.

The device is the result of the efforts of engineers, professors, interns and students.

“We had excellent students. Many stayed to work with us at Poli, others fed the computer industry that started to emerge in Brazil”, pointed out Edith Ranzini, a professor at Poli-USP and one of the four women who participated in the project, when g1.

The 50th anniversary of the device begins to be celebrated this Thursday (22nd) at Poli-USP. In the coming months, exhibitions and planned student visits will be held to showcase advances in technology and highlight the importance of investing in public universities.

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The first Brazilian computer was a project of the former Laboratory for Digital Systems at USP, today called the Department of Computer Engineering and Digital Systems. Opened on July 24, 1972, development began two years before.

Remember the article about computers created at USP:

USP is developing a coin-sized microcomputer

The device was created after a request by the Navy to build a national computer that could be used on its ships. The device would be made at Unicamp (State University of Campinas), which called its project the White Swan.

So the USP engineers, who also designed the computer, called their initiative Pato Feio, which would later be called a diminutive. “The name was really a joke. Feio Patinho had that connection with what the people at Unicamp proposed,” explained Moscato.

Unicamp’s Cisne Branco failed and the G10, Patinho Feio’s successor, would begin to be used in the navigation systems of some naval ships.

Bishop Dom Ernesto de Paula at the inauguration of Patinha Fei, 1972 — Photo: Jorge Murata/USP

The ugly duckling was managed by a a panel with buttons and on/off switches that sends binary codes (0 and 1) to run small programs.

The device also used an input and output system with peripherals, i.e. devices connected to the machine. In this project plugins are used to save and run the program.

These programs were stored on punched tapes printed on a teletype, a type of typewriter that sent and received messages by telegraph. Then the reading machine could read those tapes and run the programs.

At the time it was developed, the Feio Duck was considered a minicomputer. But it weighed about 60 kg and, as Professor Edith pointed out, was the size of two mini-fridges.

The ‘refrigerator’, on the left, is used for power supply, so you can see how it was consuming energy,” he recalled. “The other part is the Ugly Duckling itself, it’s the one where the green board is”.

The Ugly Duckling board has buttons and on/off switches that were used to send commands — Photo: Disclosure/USP

As it had little memory, Feio Duck only ran small demo programs. He followed instructions to make lists and copy texts, while performing addition and subtraction calculations, for example.

The then governor of São Paulo, Laudo Natel, attended the inauguration of Patinha Fei in 1972. — Photo: Jorge Murata/USP

The idea was to test what was learned in the lectures on digital systems, included in the computer engineering course at Poli-USP a year before the inauguration of the computer.

“The important thing at the time was to show the ability to develop reliable equipment that works and allows the engineers who worked there to progress to building other equipment or even going into industry,” says Moscato.

According to Edith, the goal “was to study how to make an input and output module, how to connect other peripherals. The focus was not so much on what program to make, but to provide Patinh Fei with more basic infrastructure resources so that people could run the program later.” .

Another USP computer of the engineering group was the G10, produced for the Navy. It served as the basis for the first Brazilian commercial computer, called the MC 500 and manufactured by Cobra (Computers and Brazilian Systems).

Lucas Moscato, one of the creators of Patinho Fei, in a computer demonstration — Photo: Jorge Murata/USP

The knowledge gained by Feio Duck would also help researchers in other projects, which include train control systems, driver support on highways and telephone exchanges.

From there, other industries were born and a lot happened for 25 years until the mid-1990s, when the Brazilian option was for agriculture, leaving industry aside, Moscato assesses.

Two engineers heard g1 point out that Brazilian industry was not ready to open up trade in the early 1990s, which increased the presence of equipment from foreign companies in the country. For them, it is necessary to strengthen the sector in Brazil.

Edith also warns of the problem of brain drain from the country. “There are a number of things that, in order to be made, need an industry behind them. But some, for example, software development, need heads. And they are leaving, a lot of people are going abroad,” he says.

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