Shri Kamalakar S Kane (1934 – 2019), Computer Pioneer
KS Kane passed away on 6th July 2019, after a short period of hospitalization for a heart problem. One of the first few Indians to learn computer programming and, to master its uses in engineering, KS Kane played a key role in the Computer Group at Tata Institute of Fundamental Research. He had studied engineering in Sweden and returned in 1959. He joined the TIFR Computer Group headed by Dr DY Phadke and was assigned to head computer programming activities. Later, he worked for a couple of years at the Atomic Energy Establishment Trombay, as Bhabha Atomic Research Centre was then called.
A large number of Indians who entered the field in the 1960’s learnt computer programming from Kane and his colleagues, C Natesh Kumar, Mythili Rao, VSN Reddy GT Redkar, and P Sadanandan. The TIFR Computer Group served hundreds of institutions all over India, welcoming them to share the TIFR computing facilities, teaching them introductory courses, and offering them help in coping with program development and debugging efforts. These were exciting days when many fields of science and technology were making rapid progress with the new computing tools and techniques they were developing. For instance, revolutionary insights were coming out of analyzing x-ray crystallographic data. Some of the bridges, flyovers and buildings were designed during that period using computers for structural analysis for the first time.
Kane collaborated in software development with Prof R Narasimhan, who had headed the effort to design and build the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research Automatic Calculator (TIFRAC). This was one of the very early computers, which was dedicated to the nation by Jawaharlal Nehru, the then Prime Minister, in 1960. Narasimhan and Kane had together designed and implemented a three-address assembler for TIFRAC, the earliest instance we know of an item of system software developed in India. Three address codes gained importance years after the TIFRAC was commissioned because optimizing compilers used them as an intermediate representation. However, the TIFRAC team seems to have chosen a three-address system for other reasons. Computer memories of those days were amazingly small, by today’s standards. TIFRAC had a 2000-word memory, words being 40 bits in length. 11-bit addresses were enough to address the whole memory and 40-bit words could accommodate an instruction code as well as three addresses.
The TIFR Computer Group later acquired a CDC 3600 (1964), vastly increasing its computing capacities. Kane stayed on as Head of Programming till 1977 when he left TIFR to set up his own software activities. One of his sons, Shridhar, joined him in 1985 when the activity was converted to a Private Limited Company.
Kane is fondly remembered for his human qualities as well. He was a soft-spoken and friendly person. He was highly approachable and very helpful at a time when so many people were scrambling to learn computer programming, for use in science and engineering.
While we knew of Kane as a computer pioneer and a senior colleague, he was also playing an important role in maintaining his family’s institution in Mumbai that has set standards in excellence and popularity in serving ethnic food – Mama Kane’s Swatchha Upahar Gruh in Dadar. This institution had been founded by Kamalakar Kane’s grandfather in 1910. Kamalakar Kane showed equal zeal and passion for his busy computing/software activities and for this family business. He was always on the look-out for innovative ideas to implement in his ethnic food business too.
With great humility, he mingled with ease with a broad spectrum of people ranging from leading scientists to the lowest rung of workers in his business. A very generous and helpful person, he always enjoyed the respect and affection from all sections of society. He was usually referred to as Bapusaheb in Dadar.
Prof PVS Rao recalls that in the early sixties when a computer engineer from abroad was struggling to teach a course on FORTRAN for users at TIFR. Rao requested Kane to take over and solve the problem, which he did very successfully. Dr SG Wagle recalls meeting Kane at his residence a few weeks before his death and listening to his memories of the days TIFRAC was being built at TIFR. Dr Mathai Joseph recalls the work he did with Kane on a time-sharing system to run on CDC3600. He also recalls that Kane did his Master's in Sweden and worked on the first Swedish computer, BESK. In Dr Mathai Joseph’s words, “Kane was the person people went to when their programs did not work as desired. He had an acute eye and could often spot faults very quickly. Many large TIFR scientific programs owed their successful operation to Kane's insight”.
We would like to say in conclusion: A kind, thoroughly civilized, sincere, and dedicated person like Kamalakar Kane is rare to find. He enriched the lives of all of us who worked with him.