Raiders of the Lost OS: Reclaiming A Piece of Polish IT History

In today’s digital era, we almost take for granted that all our information is saved and backed up, be it on our local drives or in the cloud — whether automatically, manually, or via some other service.  For information from decades past, that isn’t always the case, and recovery can be a dicey process.  Despite the tricky challenges, the team at [Museo dell’Informatica Funzionante] and [mera400.pl], as well as researchers and scientists from various museums, institutions, and more all came together in the attempt to recover the Polish CROOK operating system believed to be stored on five magnetic tapes.

MEERA-400 Tape Recovery 1

Originally stored at the Warsaw Museum of Technology, the tapes were ideally preserved, but — despite some preliminary test prep — the museum’s tape reader kept hanging at the 800 BPI NRZI encoded header, even though the rest of the tape was 1600 BPI phase encoding. Some head scratching later, the team decided to crack open their Qualstar 1052 tape reader and attempt to read the data directly off the circuits themselves!!

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Retrotechtacular: How Solidarity Hacked Polish TV

In the 1980s, Poland was under the grip of martial law as the Communist government of General Wojciech Jaruzelski attempted to repress the independent Solidarity trade union. In Western Europe our TV screens featured as much coverage of the events as could be gleaned through the Iron Curtain, but Polish state TV remained oblivious and restricted itself to wholesome Communist fare.

In September 1985, TV viewers in the city of Toruń sat down to watch an action adventure film and were treated to an unexpected bonus: the screen had a brief overlay with the messages “Solidarity Toruń: Boycotting the election is our duty,” and “Solidarity Toruń: Enough price hikes, lies, repression”. Sadly for the perpetrators, they were caught by the authorities after their second transmission a few days later when they repeated the performance over the evening news bulletin, and they were jailed for four months.

The transmission had been made by a group of dissident radio astronomers and scientists who had successfully developed a video transmitter that could synchronise itself with the official broadcast to produce an overlay that would be visible on every set within its limited transmission radius. This was a significant achievement using 1980s technology in a state in which electronic components were hard to come by. Our description comes via [Maciej Cegłowski], who was able to track down one of the people involved in building the transmitter and received an in-depth description of it.

Transmission equipment seized by the Polish police.
Transmission equipment seized by the Polish police.

The synchronisation came courtesy of the international effort at the time on Very Long Baseline Interferometry, in which multiple radio telescopes across the world are combined to achieve the effect of a single much larger instrument. Before GPS made available a constant timing signal the different groups participating in the experiment had used the sync pulses of TV transmitters to stay in time, establishing a network that spanned the political divide of the Iron Curtain. This expertise allowed them to create their transmitter capable of overlaying the official broadcasts. The police file on the event shows some of their equipment, including a Sinclair ZX Spectrum home computer from the West that was presumably used to generate the graphics.

There is no surviving recording of the overlay transmission, however a reconstruction has been put on YouTube that you can see below the break, complete with very period Communist TV footage.

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Split-flap Train Display Uses Punch Cards; Serviced with Station Ingenuity

short but highly detailed documentary by [Krzysztof Tyszecki] explores the split-flap display system in place at the Łódź Kaliska train station in Poland as well as the efforts needed by the staff to keep it running and useful to this day. Split-flap displays might be old technology, but many are still in use throughout the world. But even by those standards, the unit at Łódź Kaliska is a relic you wouldn’t expect to see outside a museum. “I doubt you’ll find an original anywhere else,” says a staff member. It requires constant upkeep to remain operational, and meeting the changing demands of a modern station within the limitations of the original system takes some cleverness. “In general the failure rate of the device is terrible,” he adds.

Operator console for Czech PragotronThe system runs on punch cards. You can’t buy them anymore, so a local printer makes them – several hundred are needed every time there is a schedule change. The punching pliers (which also can no longer be purchased) get so worn out they replace the pins with custom-made ones from a local locksmith. The moving parts of the card reader have split-pins which need to be replaced every week or two – the stress of repeated movement simply wears them away. There’s nothing to do but replace them regularly. The assembly needs regular cleaning since dust accumulates on the cards and gets into the whole assembly. The list goes on… and so does the station.

There is no computation in the modern sense – it’s an electromechanical signing system managed and updated by human operators. It has more in common with a crossbar switch based telephone exchange than anything else. The punch cards are just a means of quickly, accurately, and repeatedly setting the displays to known states.

The short documentary goes into a lot of detail about every part of the system. The cards themselves are described in detail (1:07), as is the operator’s routine (2:27). We even see the back end controller (9:41), as well as see a split-flap module taken apart and tested (14:33) with an old tester the staffer isn’t sure will even work – but as with everything else we see, of course it does.

Split-flap displays are fascinating pieces of technology. We have even seen people build their own split-flap displays from scratch!

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