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Photos of Soviet control rooms (presentandcorrect.com)
268 points by jpatokal on Sept 29, 2017 | hide | past | web | favorite | 67 comments

Submitter here. Not my blog post, but glad to see this got some traction!

Random memory of a Soviet control room: in the late 1990s, the rave scene was booming in Estonia and I ended up wrangling an invite to a party called "Beast Feast" [1] arranged by fellow promoters VIBE. The venue was a giant old Soviet-era factory in the industrial zone of Liiva Keskus [2]. The factory floor, complete with random, rusty machines, was used for a "fashion show" featuring models wearing only animal skulls, horns, tails etc, plus stacks of speakers reaching to the ceiling and a thousand-plus ravers dancing. The control room -- which looked exactly like the ones in the pictures -- was carpeted with mattresses, decked out with disco lighting, and there was a DJ playing chill-out music. One of the most memorable parties I've been to! Unfortunately I can't find any pictures of it online...

[1] http://www.moles.ee/99/May/26/5-3.html

[2] http://www.rrk.ee/?op=body&id=86

Reads like a scene from the Planet of the Apes...

Nothing can beat Project Cybersyn's control room, IMO.


There was a good 99% Invisible episode on this a while back. It is an interesting listen.


Outstanding. It seems like they attacked an identified problem with an engineered solutions instead of political one. Shame that it never had the chance to be.

Too bad they could not be allowed to succeed or fail on their own...

There have been multiple attempts at planned economies throughout history. None of them were terribly successful, and it's not entirely clear why using spiffy early-70's style computers and knock-off Star Trek chairs would make that much of a difference. Although, it does look pretty cool.

Most planned economies were founded before the availability of real-time, computer-driven decision support systems. Maybe it couldn't've worked, I dunno, but it was a bold experiment, and probably preferable to the brutal military junta that destroyed it.

There’s already a real-time decision support system that also happens to be computer-driven these days. It’s called the market.

You seem to be ignoring people's actual posts to score points against straw Communists. Nobody's saying we should all switch to a planned economy.

We were talking about Cybersyn, right? Planned economies (and the merits of a particular Chilean attempt at such) was the point.

I took your post to suggest that Cybersyn used more sophisticated real-time mechanisms to run the economy and was hence quite different from other attempts at planned economies in the past. My point was that those mechanisms, in function, probably would just be an “ad-hoc, informally-specified, bug-ridden, slow implementation of a market” at best anyway.

If anything’s a straw man argument, it’s the irrelevant discussion of “military juntas”, as if military juntas are fundamentally incompatible with using 1970’s-era computers to centrally plan and control a country’s economy.

> *If anything’s a straw man argument, it’s the irrelevant discussion of “military juntas”

What? We're talking about how Cybersyn was physically destroyed by Pinochet's junta after they overthrew Allende. That's what digi_owl was referring to with "Too bad they could not be allowed to succeed or fail on their own." This is about the coup and its aftermath, not just an economic policy.

Fantastic. The project itself is rare and fascinating. I wonder if there is an English translation of the sci-fi novel based on Cybersyn in a coup-less alternate reality.

Do you know the name of that novel?

All my life, I've had a strange fascination with this kind of thing: control rooms, cockpit instrument panels, or any sort of location with lots of of dials, buttons, gauges, switches, and indicators. Even Microsoft Windows "Control Panel" kind of excited me the first time I saw it.

Now, seeing this posted here makes me wonder if maybe there are others out there who share this particular quirk of mine.

Oh absolutely! I've had the same thing too for as long as I can remember. Aircraft cockpits especially interest me, and I can spend hours looking at physical switches.

I created a subreddit, maybe there are more of us? /r/ControlPanels/

Same - it drove me to spend all the time I could behind sound & lighting consoles through high school and college.

There’s something about live production operations that software engineering - even on the ops/oncall side - doesn’t come close to. I’d seriously consider taking a significant pay cut to sit at a console with a headset and run something in real time.

Hello, I'm ....

It started for me when I first saw a calculator.

These are beautiful — especially the Metsamor nuclear power plant (white table tops, with wood trim).

Not strictly related, but the Death Star control panel in the original Star Wars was actually a modified Grass Valley television switcher. http://www.partsofsw.com/dscntrl.htm

Something I have always imagined doing was to build 'paneling' for lab that followed the theme of a control room like this. At Google we discussed making the inside of a conference room appear to be a shuttle in flight. (it was possible as it had no windows.) We figured we could build a slightly interior wall (maybe 3" thick) and rig up panels with various micro processors and left over displays from the Android project. It probably would have been a $20,000 conference room if we had done it. :-)

In Google's ITA Software division there is a conference room made up to look like the inside of an airliner.

Albeit it's far, far roomier than any actual airliner I've ever been on.

These are the kinds of places where I'd be fired on the very first day, likely escorted away by security.

I like to call it intellectual curiosity, but it's really poor impulse control. I'd push all those buttons. I couldn't help myself.

you should get into modular synths.

Funny you mention that...

I have played at both hardware and software synths. I will never be productive, but I do have fun.

A friend also has a recording studio. (I used to play guitar as a source of additional income, some studio and some performance work.) There are so many buttons, sliders, and knobs! I will go play with them.

One of the reasons I enjoy my practice time (I still play but it's not for financial gain) is because it gives me time to play with the various settings.

It's kind of how I learn things.

This might seem off-topic, but I don't think it is. See, it's the love of poking buttons and moving sliders that has given me the 'hacking mentality.' It is the love of experimentation and willingness to press unknown buttons, metaphoric or real, that seems to be a trait of 'hackers.'

We may not like to admit it, but I suspect a large number of HN viewers would not fare well if locked in a baren room, devoid of everything vut single red button that said, 'DO NOT PUSH.'

I suspect that it is because of our willingness to poke these metaphoric buttons that we are driven to learn, create, and take risks. We gleefully push those buttons and learn more, create new processes, and discover.

Polite society probably calls it intellectual curiosity. Really, many of us just like buttons, knobs, and sliders - be they metaphors or nuclear control reactors.

Bret Victor often talks about this how you learn by tweaking and observing results realtime

Presumably you would be trained on a simulator before being thrown into the room

Yeah, I'd be weeded out in training.

I don't even care if it's a bright red button with warning labels saying, "DO NOT PUSH!" I'm still going to push it. I might even push it first.

It's a great way to learn software, but probably not so good in a nuclear reactor control room. Like you, I presume they have ways to weed people like me out. It's not that I'm evil, or anything. I'd just be like a five year old if I had access to that many buttons.

They could probably disable your exploration reflex by teaching you in advance how the plant worked and what buttons did. Which, I guess, is just normal training.

Yeah, I suspect they train the fun right out of it.

Nice paper going into detail about the circumstances behind these rooms and the Soviet push for Cybernization:


The pictured control rooms are mostly just control rooms of power plants, not levers for adjusting the Soviet economy. The paper is not really about these control rooms.

Most power plants have control rooms that look pretty much like these; they fulfil the same function.

Yes the 'Soviet' bit just makes these pictures sound more exotic than they are (and it seems they originally had a couple of American ones in there by 'mistake') but the point is, none of this has anything to do with cybersyn-like networked command centers for the command economy. Which is what the linked paper is about.

Does anyone know what the circular indicators in the middle of some of these control rooms are for?

Right in the centre of the indicator wall here: (http://blog.presentandcorrect.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/09...)

The first image is from a blog with lots of information and high-resolution photos of old reactors, including Chernobyl:


Rods in the reactor. These are basically all reactor control rooms.

These are pizza oven control rooms - see the last-but-one, in particular.

Having been in current U.S. nuclear power plant control rooms, they're not substantially different.

Same, went on a tour of a U.K. nuclear power plant and its all 1960s tech like this. I asked why and they said you can't afford the risk of bugs/problems for the efficiency gains you might achieve with new kit.

I talked to the person who wrote a program that displayed reactor data on a computer screen. She wrote it in FORTRAN in the late 80s.

They're still using it 30 years later. She confirmed that her programming passed Y2K with flying colors.

Side note, anyone remembers the Star-Trek inspired control room the NSA built?


The sliding doors with a "whoosh" sound are probably among the things every geek loves but is afraid to confess...

NASA recently published a picture of Annie Easley standing in front of something impressively retro-future-looking but didn't include an explanation of what it was:


My guess, after a quick google search: https://www1.grc.nasa.gov/facilities/erb/turbo/#small-engine...

The signs on the top of each section says "air 40 psig" and "ref. air 10 psig", and this matches the capabilities described in the link: "The compressor can draw air from either an atmospheric intake, a 40-psig pressure source, or 10-psig refrigerated air system". The image also has GRC in its file name.

(It might be a complete miss, though)

The first photo is from the NS Savannah, the first nuclear-powered merchant ship, built in the US in the late 1950s as a demonstration project for the potential use of nuclear energy: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/NS_Savannah

This one looks intriguing, any more info on it?


It's part of the control room of this hydro-electric power plant:



Looks like an analog future.

where are the synths

It is amazing how many of these control rooms are just huge surfaces covered in dials and instruments that lack any representative structure of the system they are monitoring and controlling.

I counted 14 of 22 that integrated dials or instruments into a diagrammatic structure of the system; it could be more that I couldn't see from the zoom level. The degree to which instruments (and especially, status lights it looks like) were integrated into diagrams was the most interesting thing.

Back in the early 90s I got a chance to visit the BART train control center in the bay area. Surprisingly the controls were as old looking fixed displays as this stuff.

I really love those Soviet white hats. Does anybody know if they served any real purpose, or was that just soviet chic?

This how all big plants worked before Scadas came

We are missing the one with Homer in it

This is beautiful! It's amusing to think that most of this can be replaced with a single iPad.

Spatial memory works for me: I had a lab with three racks full of analogue electronics controlling my experiment and I could 'navigate' my way through various procedures very easily based on what the instrumentation was showing me.

To collapse the instrumetation and the controls onto a display the size of a piece of paper there would need to be a number of different screens and then I'd have to know what was where.

Wall sized multiple touch screens - now you are talking.


Sort of like that but with a system diagram instead of the sea...

My thought was exactly the opposite. Some of them have modern computers right in the control room and still have all this gadgetry. There's just no way to reproduce that level of visual information on a small screen. Even at work I sometimes struggle with dual 32" monitors, I just need more real estate and have to constantly switch between windows and desktops. And that's for fairly mundane development tasks.

My impression was that the control console is probably coupled too tightly to the control system, that removing and replacing it with something modern wouldn’t be feasable or worth the effort.

I find it unlikely that they need to see all those dials at once, but without a modal system to switch between data views they need to show every data point. On a modern system you could achieve the same by having views specific to each task, and an alerting system for when a data point for that task goes out of range.

Here is an image from a modern Austrian steel factory run by 3 people - half of the screens on the top row are just showing CCTV images:


Can they? I don't think you'd get the same situational awareness that you can with e.g. blinking warning lights. And many of them have both measures and controls integrated into a schematic of the system, something that would be impractically small on an ipad.

When something goes wrong in the plant, spacial memory and muscle memory are outstanding for letting a panicked person get the most important things done. Also the person that is acting as the leader gets nice information based on where people are moving their arms, sound with built in clicks/bells, and similar.

Personally I think a computer screen lowers intelligence temporarily as well. Or at least activates the UI grazing habit of looking for a control that is close to what you want and playing with it without thinking about it. Especially if you're not careful.


Though lots of really big screens, and UI/control screens that have limited options works nicely.

Cool pics are what killed the intellectual quality of Reddit. Let's not upvote this.

I think in this case the images can start some interesting conversations about UX/ human interface devices/ industrial design.

Posting memes would be a different story though - I'd probably bail at that point.

Modding content to this degree is one thing I don't like about (modern) reddit. When the majority of posts start taking a low-information high-emotion form then I'll start worrying. But one off events don't necessarily lead to trends.

Flagging and voting has been very sufficient here.

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