Remembering WEIZAC: the beginning of computing in Israel
Israel is now one of the world’s tech powerhouses, second only to Silicon Valley as a hub for startups, but it wasn’t always this way. Today, in honour of the 84th birthday of Professor Aviezri Fraenkel, we’re delighted to share a short film sharing his story of working on the WEIZAC, Israel’s first computer.
Short film produced with support from Google as part of our ongoing computing heritage series
The impetus to build a computer in Israel came from Professor Chaim Pekeris, an MIT-trained geophysicist and mathematician, who made it a condition of accepting a job at the then-fledgling Weizmann Institute. An illustrious committee was set up to consider Pekeris’s request and initially opinion was divided. In particular, Albert Einstein was skeptical a computer in Israel would receive sufficient use and queried whether the skilled resources to build it were available. It took much convincing by another committee member, mathematician and computing luminary John Von Neumann, before the project got the go-ahead.
Construction of the WEIZAC (“Weizmann Automatic Calculator”) got underway in late 1953 under the leadership of Professor Pekeris and Jerry Estrin. A protege of Von Neumann, Estrin arrived in Israel armed with design drawings based on the computer at the Institute of Advanced Study in Princeton. After advertising for recruits, a small team of engineers and technicians was assembled, among them Aviezri Fraenkel.
It took the team a lot of ingenuity to source the necessary materials. Some were imported, but others were clever adaptations, such as the thin copper strips that came from a small local bicycle-part shop! Despite such hurdles, progress was steady, and the major components were in place by the time Estrin returned to the U.S. 15 months later.
The WEIZAC performed its first calculation in October 1955 and was soon much in demand by Israeli scientists. It remained operational until the end of 1963—50 years ago this year. Nowadays it resides in the Weizmann Institute’s Ziskind Building as a fitting memorial to where computing in Israel began.
I have fond memories of passing by the WEIZAC every day when I studied at the Weizmann Institute, where I also had the privilege to attend a class by Professor Fraenkel. With the release of this short film, I’m delighted to be learning more from him about such an important chapter in Israel’s tech history.