Retros of the lost age: vintage computers from the East
Forget Commodore, Atari, and Apple with their Western feel and familiar retro features. Many vintage computers were made outside the USA and Western Europe, first hitting the Communist countries and starting a smaller but nonetheless significant local IT revolution.
No names from the former Eastern bloc countries appear among the most popular retro computer brands. That is no accident. For one, ideological differences hindered communist efforts to develop a feasible retro computer to be.
The constraints were such that prominent engineers on the Soviet side of the Iron curtain held computer science 'tainted' and avoided the field at all costs. While the Americans saw computers as 'giant brains,' the Soviets saw the novel device as nothing more than a calculator.
More crucially, a system built on control did not give every citizen a means to communicate easily. With no need to provide for the masses, an Eastern version of the revolution in personal computing did not materialize.
Capable but lacking
Lack of technological know-how also played a significant role. To compensate for low R&D investment, the Soviets took up reverse engineering.
"Hardly any of these devices were stable, resulting in them dying out quickly in the post-Soviet era, including companies that tried adding foreign materials to their processes," Miranda Yan, founder of software company VinPit, wrote CyberNews in an email.
More often than not, engineers in the East were stuck with inferior hardware and little know-how about the original devices. No wonder that most of the retro computers built in the Eastern bloc countries were clones of Western devices. However, the Eastern bloc engineers were capable enough to cobble together working machines with what they had.
They didn’t invest much into industrial design sometimes and so you might end up with a circuit board and chips attached to a keyboard with an RCA output rather than a nice injection molded case,Charles Edge.
According to Charles Edge, computer scientist and a founder of the Minnesota Computer History Museum, the Communists were very good at copying Western machines. After all, Soviet engineers did build a legendary computer game Tetris on a Soviet-made Elektronika 60 computer, a PDP-11 clone.
"They didn’t invest much into industrial design sometimes and so you might end up with a circuit board and chips attached to a keyboard with an RCA output rather than a nice injection molded case. But hey, they worked," Edge wrote CyberNews in an email.
We've already shown that difficulties aside, the USSR tried to develop their computer market with several brands of Soviet PCs appearing in the '80s. Continuing the story of largely unknown vintage computers, we've made a list of devices from the formerly communist Eastern bloc countries. Take a look at some of the extinct artifacts of computer history.
Pravetz IMKO-1 (1980)
Developed in 1979 by Bulgarian computer manufacturer Pravetz computers, the IMKO-1 was the first Bulgarian-made personal computer. The device kickstarted a relatively successful 'Pravetz series 8' computer line.
The Bulgarian Institute for cybernetics and robotics made an experimental model, the IMKO-1. A relatively low price of $2,600 ($7,800 in 2021) and versatility allowed mass production to start in 1982. To give the device a more customer friendly name, engineers renamed it to 'Pravetz 82'.
The name 'IMKO' is an abbreviation of 'personal individual computer' in Bulgarian. Pravetz computers made the device with a 1 MHZ copy of the MOS 6502 CPU, packaged with up to 64 KB of RAM and 12 KB ROM.
The computer was a complete clone of the Apple II device, reverse engineered using parts from the Council for Mutual Economic Assistance (COMECON) nations. Apple II is a member of the so called ‘1977 trinity', a group of retro computers cherished to this day.
The price of Pravetz 82 was low by Western standards but nowhere cheap enough for an average Bulgarian to buy. That meant the devices were mainly reserved for the military, public administration, and educational institutions.
Pravetz made other 8-bit, 16-bit, and 32-bit computers, mostly clones of other Western developments. However, the company was unable to compete with their manufacturers once the Iron curtain fell.
PEL Varaždin Galeb (1981)
Developed by a Croatian company PEL Varaždin in Yugoslavia, the Galeb (Seagull) was an 8-bit computer inspired by the Compukit UK 101, a self-assembly device for the the British market.
High import tariffs on Western-made electronics prompted local engineers to develop a computer using accessible parts. PEL Varaždinequipped the device with a MOS 6502 CPU, 16 KB ROM, and 9 KB default RAM. Less than 300 models of the device saw the day of light.
Three years later, in 1984, PEL Varaždin released its Orao (Eagle) 8-bit computer. Engineers equipped the eagle with a MOS 6502 CPU, built-in BASIC programming language, and 16 KB of ROM. Orao computers were standard equipment in Croatian schools and universities from 1985 till 1991.
Due to communist economics, the computer manufacturer PEL Varaždin also sold wicker products in Yugoslavia and foreign markets. Since wicker products were not under scrutiny similar to electronics, the company used income from wicker sales to boost its electronics arm, allowing it to cut costs of the device.
Mera-Ezlab Meritum I (1983)
Even though Jacek Karpiński likely developed the first Polish personal computer in the early '70s with the K-202 model, the first mass-produced PC in Poland was Meritum I, made by a local electronics manufacturer Mera-Ezlab.
The device was a clone of Tandy's TRS-80 Model I. Developers created the device fo Polish schools and universities to use for educational purposes. Mera-Ezlab equipped it with a 2.5 MHz U880 processor made in East Germany, a disk drive from Hungary, and a ROM made in Bulgaria, making it a genuine COMECON product.
In 1985, Meritum II came out with upgraded RAM and graphic mode to include resolution and add four colors. Since Mera-Ezlab made the device for educational institutions, it never gained wide popularity among the Polish population.
The devices accounted for only 1% of total computer sales for Mera-Ezlab, while only five people made the device in 20 hours. A total yearly production could not exceed the capacity of 4,000 units.
In 1986, Elwro, another Polish company acquired the license for the Meritum devices which resulted in a Sinclair ZX Spectrum clone Elwro 800. A current vintage classic, ZX Spectrum, is among the most cloned computers in the COMECON countries.
Named after a Yugoslavian science magazine, the Galaksija was a mix between a DIY computer and a fully assembled retro-like PC.
The author of the device published blueprints for the device in the Galaksija magazine, which resulted in thousands of hobbyists attempting to build the computer. All components were available in local electronics stores.
The design was successful enough for assembled versions of the computer to enter schools. Local manufacturing enterprises made over a thousand units in the first year.
The computer used a Z80 CPU, frequent part of many retro computers, had up to 6 KB of memory. The was no sound card and only monochrome colors, but the device was cheap enough to be affordable to the local public. The later version, the Galasija Plus, added sound and expanded memory.
Robotron Z 9001 (1984)
East Germany was somewhat of an electronics powerhouse in the COMECON, with Robotron electronics plants leading the charge against capitalism.
In 1984, Robotron released one of the first locally made personal computers, the Z 9001. The device used a locally made U880 CPU, a Z80 clone. The Z 9001 had 16 KB of RAM and 6 KB ROM.
Even though Robotron boasted a mechanical keyboard on the prototype, the mass-produced devices had much dreaded elongated plastic keys, similar to Tangerine's 1982 device Oric-1.
Still unable to cut device costs, Robotron shifted the production towards schools and rebranded the device as KC 85/1. Interestingly, the device series had a dedicated operating system, the Z9001-OS.
Around the same time, a competing East German manufacturer, VEB Mikroelektronik, made a ZX Spectrum clone, the HC 900. As with the Z 9001, the East German government shifted the HC 900s towards schools. For that purpose, Mikroelektronik renamed the device KC 85/2.
A year later, Robotron released a made-for-office device, the PC 1715 (shown in the articles' featured image). Over 90,000 devices rolled off the production lines with more than half shipped to the Soviet Union. The government was so proud with the device, they featured it on a post stamp.
Tesla PMD 85-1 (1985)
A state-owned electronics manufacturer made the PMD-85 in former Czechoslovakia with absolutely no relation to Elon Musk’s Tesla cars. For some reason, the PMD-85 was supplied to the Slovak side of the former republic, while Czechs mainly used an IQ 151 personal computer.
Even though Tesla released PMD 81 and PMD 83 in 1981 and 1983 respectively, they were DIY devices, with no units sold preassembled, whereas PMD 85 was ready to go. The computer used a COMECON clone of Intel's 8080 processor called MHB8080A.
The computer made ripples in the computing history of Czechoslovakia as it inspired several lines of computers, namely the Didaktik series (1986) and the Maťo series (1989). After the success of the Didaktik Alfa, a PMD-85 clone, the company continued to release three different versions of the retro ZX Spectrum clones.
Videoton TVC (1986)
TVC, or the TV Computer, was a device Videoton supplied mainly to schools in Hungary from 1986 till 1989. The computer made the device with Sinclair's ZX Spectrum and Enterprise computes in mind.
The device housed the legendary Zilog 80 CPU and provided users with BASIC programming language. The Hungarian-language keyboard was not the only oddity, as the TVC also had a built-in joystick to move the cursor around.
Videoton made around 12 thousand machines and sold them to schools across Hungary. The machine eventually could not compete with the flood of retro Commodore devices and local competitor Primo.
Designed in 1984, Primo was an 8-bit device made by local computer hobbyists. The device was cheaper and more reliable than the TVC. To cut costs, developers dropped the mechanical keyboard. Videoton equipped the device with a membrane keyboard, similar to Atari 400's instead.
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Primo was not developed with computer hobbyists, you mix it with Homelab series. Instead Primo was developed by multiple Hungarian affiliates and Institute for computer science and control. The keyboard was not a membrane type, but a capacitive touch one. Since it was less capable than the TVC. When Commodore failed TED series in western countries Both TVC and Primo were also suffering from flood of Commodore +4 and 16 computers as C= sold them out for less than half price.
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