Romania’s 1980s Illicit DIY Computer Movement

In Western countries in the early 1980s, there was plenty of choice if you wanted an affordable computer: Apple, Atari, TRS-80, Commodore and Sinclair to name a few. But in communist-ruled Romania, mainly you’d find clones of the British Sinclair ZX Spectrum, an 8-bit computer built around the Zilog Z80A, using a CRT TV as display and a BASIC interpreter as UI. The Cobra was one such Romanian Sinclair clone. However, most people couldn’t afford even that, which lead to hackers building their own versions of the Cobra.

Making these clones was highly illegal. But that didn’t stop students at the Politehnica University of Bucharest. They made them for themselves, family and friends, and even sold them at well under market price. To keep people from building radio transmitters, the Communist government kept electronics prices high. So instead, parts smuggled from factories could be paid for with a pack of cigarettes.

Look inside an old Apple II and you’ll see a sea of chips accomplishing what can be done with only a few today. The Cobra clones looked much the same, but with even more chips. Using whatever they could get their hands on, the students would make 30 chips do the job of an elusive $10 chip. No two computers were necessarily alike. Even the keyboards were hacked together, sometimes using keys designed for mainframe computers but with faults from the molding process. These were cleaned up and new letters put on. The results are awesome hacks which fit right in here on Hackaday.

Sadly though, it often takes harsh necessity to make a culture where these inspiring hacks thrive in the mainstream. Another such country which we’ve reported on this happening in is Cuba, which found the necessity first when the U.S. left Cuba in the 60s and again when the Soviet Union collapsed in the 90s, reducing the availability of many factory produced items needed for daily life, and creating a DIY society.

48 thoughts on “Romania’s 1980s Illicit DIY Computer Movement

  1. To think, just how easy we have it these days. I always told people how it was when everything was salvaged from junk, or ordered from a paper catalog, with 4-6 week shipping, after you pay with a paper check mailed in with your order form. Radio Shack was the local source…

    This is on a whole next level. Mad props to these people for getting through even more difficult conditions for the love of the hobby.

  2. Like the old adage says “necessity is the mother of invention” which can be applied to most human endeavour. Think of Caesar and his nervousness about thin men.

    Don’t mind me, I’ve been reading V is for Vendetta.

    1. Necessity stole the credit from Dissatisfaction. No one needed a singing large mouth bass, but someone was dissatisfied there wasn’t one on the wall went and satisfied himself by making one. Life jackets weren’t invented by those who needed them, but by a guy who was dissatisfied at gathering bodies on a beach after yet another boat hit the rocks.

  3. Been blessed to be able to do that during those times. I cannot describe the thrill of getting it working after a few days of work. The parts were not all working and there was no way to test them before soldering. They were basic NAND gates and 1 bit DRAM capsules, and russian Z80 clones. No two ones were matching in quality and response time. Oscilloscopes were expensive so you were making a weird logic probe out of a regular TV since the system clock was a harmonic of the 50 Hz screen sync frequency, and you learned to “read” the address pin signals in the pattern on the tube. The RAS and CAS for the DRAM had to be adjusted with very small capacitors until you were getting the DRAM synched. I did program one of those in assembly to roll 3 bands of EKG on the screen, without any stalling. This was a feat at 3.5 MHz CPU speed. Try this today without a GPU.

  4. Cuba’s economic problems were not the fault of the USA. The island had the whole rest of the world to trade with, but with their economy under the bootheel of communism, they produced little that any other country wanted to buy.

    Look for the documentary “Yank Tanks”. It’s about how Cubans have kept 1950’s American cars running for decades.

    1. Not only is US still imposing embargos even after 50 years, there’s evidence of them actively “persuading” others to not trade/invest… Cuba has oil reserves that could be mined, but try doing that when you don’t have the funds to buy and keep running needed equipment and US is actively campaigning to prevent external investments…

      The rest of the world is pretty far away for them and since pretty much anything that Cuba can offer now are raw materials and argicultural products, it’s just too expensive for anybody to consider it being worthwhile. Making anything more complicated requires significant investments and since the country has shit GDP, it’s a “chicken or the egg” problem. The import embargoes don’t help either, since again – shipping from EU or China is expensive.

      By keeping the embargoes, US is actually unwillingly (or willingly?) helping the communist rule survive.
      Release them and people will start to thrive, once they satisfy the more basic needs (biological, financial security and so on), they’ll want the ones that are higher up in Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, various freedoms can be defined as those…

      1. Cuba sells people: they export doctors and health care professionals, who are paid a small allowance and the rest goes back to Cuba. It’s basically modern day slavery. A doctor working in Africa may be funded by the UN to the tune of $5000 a month.

        They’re not without their means to make money. They just like to do it in ways which don’t permit the people themselves to make any, so the communist government could keep all the strings in hand.

        1. It’s pretty good business too:

          http://www.ruthfullyyours.com/2014/11/10/cubas-slave-trade-in-doctors-by-mary-anastasia-ogrady/

          $8 billion a year good.

          “Cuba is winning accolades for its international “doctor diplomacy,” in which it sends temporary medical professionals abroad—ostensibly to help poor countries battle disease and improve health care. But the doctors are not a gift from Cuba. Havana is paid for its medical missions by either the host country, in the case of Venezuela, or by donor countries that send funds to the World Health Organization. The money is supposed to go to Cuban workers’ salaries. But neither the WHO nor any host country pays Cuban workers directly. Instead the funds are credited to the account of the dictatorship”

        2. I always think it is best to let cocaine “breathe” before it is consumed. I consider Cuba to be that uncorking before it arrives at our table here in the States. There’s always money in the banana stand ;)
          It has basically become a truckstop in the Atlantic.
          You would think that it would be a major fishmonger…

        1. Read up on the US backed regime before the communists. There were plenty of stealing resources (and killing those that protested) before too.

          People generally protest only if things are done to them and not if they benefit. There are exceptions. We should all aim for being that exception IMO.

  5. Am I the only one who was annoyed that they kept calling it “welding” in the linked Ars article? Even when they knew what the name of the tool itself was:

    “Moldovanu takes his old soldering iron, with a wooden handle, and redoes the welding.”

    1. “annoyed” would be a way to harsh word. I noticed it and wondered a little. But as non-native English speaker I for sure make some similar mistakes myself – without noticing.

      1. Technically, welding fuses similiar material together by melting; soldering and brazing do not melt the base metal.

        With soldering, there’s only an atomically thin surface film where the solder material may alloy with the base metal, which is called wetting. This is not necessarily a covalent bond, but can also be due to van der waals forces where there’s no shared electrons between the atoms – they are merely attracted electrostatically with a force that exceeds the surface tension of the liquid solder, preventing it from beading up and peeling off.

        So soldering is more like sticking two plates of glass together by putting a drop of water in between. If the water solidifies, the glass is firmly joined as if soldered. On the contrary, if you heat the glass to the point where the surfaces fuse to become continuous across the boundary, you’ve welded it.

  6. We had similar computer in Poland under Russian occupation. In 1984 an Amateur radio/electronics enthusiast quarterly magazine “Audio-Video Hi-Fi” published first articles of a series describing “Cobra 1” homemade
    Z80 based computer build process. Cant find any good english articles, here is google translate with tons of pictures:

    https://translate.google.com/translate?hl=en&sl=pl&u=https://www.dobreprogramy.pl/PAMPKIN/nbitowa-nastalgia-Cobra-1-1,57081.html

    example rats nest build:

    Living under iron curtain was terrible. Soviet-type central planning had some hilarious results. Rationed meat stamps, 10 year car waiting queue(+car cost 20 years of good salary), 5 years of salary to buy washing machine but no washing machines to buy unless you know who to bribe. On the other hand electronic/service shops had plenty of extremely cheap parts(but never the one you wanted, different components were sent to different regions), so smart people could put together TV, radio, or even whole car!! using parts sourced from all over the country.
    My first useful project was an audio graphic equalizer. All the modules for fixing UNITRA graphic equalizer (cost ~2 salaries) were readily available in local Bomis (“Biuro Obrotu Maszynami i Surowcami” = communist chain of discount supply depots/shops). 3 PCBs cost me as much as 3 bread rolls, crazy.

    1. Many of the university’s had colleagues from other countries regularly smuggle in entire computers and other needed parts when they visited. I saw several Western 1980’s printed articles in major magazines where authors admitted to this practice. So there was a pretty good parts pipeline for the educated. I recall one author admitting to smuggling Win3.1 and Mathlab – he was assured it would be duplicated and circulated among other Russian Universities. The article said the Govt was not smart enough to check computers or question where things came from (or even recognize things), but it was a big deal to be caught transporting smuggled items.

  7. With all that stealing parts from factory and sabotaging production to mark PCBs as reject to pilfer and go to sell to our “Hacker heroes” there is no wonder the computers were expensive and in short supply. These guys were disgraceful smugglers and did nothing for their countrymen and computing

    1. Look here Freidoun:

      at 2.35min Steve Jobs talking about « liberating » electronics parts from HP and Atari when they started out. In your reasoning “these guys were disgraceful smugglers and did nothing for their countrymen and computing”.
      I could admit you can have a negative thought in your rightful mind but I cannot understand why you need to spell out your obviously limited judgement when you haven’t lived in that place and in that time? And I really don’t understand why you are losing your time reading HAD with that mind-set either.

      What means rightful in a brutal dictatorship when even owning a mechanic typewriter was illegal? I can imagine young people doing things like these in N. Korea right now.

      Incidentally I have first-hand experience on what this article was talking about. Lived there, done that. Big time.
      Here an original CoBra bare PCB from that time I still own:

      We practically needed to check each track and each via for electrical continuity before components placing. It was a nightmare to pull-out bad chips on those easily exfoliating PCB’s which were “ghost shift” products at most. The components were from Romania, URSS, Bulgaria or Eastern Germany; very often wildly out of spec. For that reason I had a testbed unit with sockets for testing major components before assembling a new computer:
      Since we doubted about pretty much each and any chip, the components placing were progressive with intermediate check-up with the “logic analyser tool” Dan Martinov was talking about: practically a wire pulled out from the tv-set’s video amplifier. The logic “1” was blocking the electrons beam and was displayed like a black segment on screen and since every signal were a harmonic of 50Hz we knew the patterns we should get on pretty much each point starting from the crystal clock divider all the way down to RAS, CAS and DATA signals.

      CoBra was a heavily beaten design with a lot of mods and variants on original schematics (piggyback chips on top and tons of wrap wires on the bottom of the PCB) upon the components we had on hand. All schematics and information were openly shared in student dorm rooms in campuses in Bucharest. Anyone could build one if they wanted to.

      I guess this is a remarkable expression of very early DIY hardware movement.

      It has 3 boot modes: ZX Spectrum, OPUS and CP/M2.2 (on external floppy). OPUS was kind of low level programming environment with an assembler/disassembler and a memory addressing tool – sort of openboot prom. When booted in CP/M it was able to address up to 80K and up to 4 floppy drives.

      The not told story is: besides these Spectrum clones we made in our dorm rooms B/W and even Color TV-sets because we needed CRT displays too. These were basically hacked versions of commercial TV-sets built into DIY plywood cases or into old tube TV-sets cases we were sourcing at TV repair shops. We made them from board level, with scrap components mostly and with “liberated” bare PCB circuit boards from the Bucharest TV factory. Many times these were genuine junk dumped bare PCBs with obvious manufacturing problems, not commercial grade even by the low standards we had at that time.

      Many students learned to program on these self-made computers because that was the only ones they had access to.

        1. Is taking something out of the trash stealing?
          Is arguing philosophical principles in the fundamentally broken and irrational framework of communism anything other than a waste of time?

  8. Had built one of those. My dad brought it to me in a groceries bag. Didn’t worked out of the bag. I had soldered it with a soldering gun, no fancy soldering stations. Had to take it to a tv repair shop that had an osciloscope to replace some capacitors. I loaded the programs from a bare-bones car tape player, it was easy to put the finger on the wheel to slow it down where the tape was worn. Even the tapes were hard to get by. The bare bones car tape was great ’cause it let me see if tape was coiling. I was shocked when I saw a floppy drive and how much you can store on it. I was using it with a tv that was rescued from it’s way to the dumpster.

  9. My dad was one of the mentioned hackers. My mom keps telling me stories of how he would build them in the kitcken while she worked on fiberglass satelite dishes. My gandma’ worked at the “checue” which was basically the bank and her friend worked at the components factory. My dad always asked them to smuggle unmarked components.(because they were not catalogued) i still have a bunch of old transistors from him. His bc107’s were my first encounter with electronics.

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