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.

Want To Create A FabLab In Your Garage? Start By Joining Your Hackerspace

For many hardware enthusiasts, it’s hard to stop imagining the possibilities of an almighty fablab in our garage — a glorious suite of machines that can make the widgets of our dreams. Over the years, many of us start to build just that, assembling marvelous workbenches for the rest of us to drool over. The question is: “how do we get there?”

Ok, let’s say we’ve got a blank garage. We might be able to pick up a couple of tools and just “roll with it,” teaching ourselves the basics as we go and learning from our mistakes. With enough endurance, we’ll wake up ten years later and realize that, among the CNC mill, lathe, o-scope, logic analyzer, and the graveyard of projects on the shelves–we’ve made it!

Image Credit: [Rupunzell] on EEVBlog
Image Credit: [Rupunzell] on EEVBlog

“Just rolling with it,” though, can squeeze the last bits of change out of our wallets–not to mention ten years being a long journey while flying solo the whole time.  Hardware costs money. Aimless experimentation, without understanding the space of “what expectations are realistic,” can cost lots of money when things break.

These days, the internet might do a great job of bringing people together with the same interest. But how does it fare in exchanging the technical know-how that’s tied directly to tools of the trade? Can we get the same experience from a chatroom as we might from a few minutes with the local ‘CNC Whisperer’ who can tell us the ins-and-outs about tuning the machine’s PID controllers?

I’d say that we just can’t. “Getting started” in any subject often seems daunting, but we’re at a compounded disadvantage in that the gurus on the forum have some shared implicit knowledge and jargon on the subject that we wont have if we truly are taking our first steps. (Not to fear, though; none of us were born with this stuff!)

Ruling out forums for taking our first baby steps, where can we find the “seasoned gurus” to give us that founding knowledge? It’s unlikely that any coffee shop would house the local hardware guru sippin’ a joe and taking questions. Fear not, though; there are places for hackers to get their sustenance.

Continue reading “Want To Create A FabLab In Your Garage? Start By Joining Your Hackerspace”

Cuba: A DIY Society?

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After the U.S. left Cuba back in the 60’s, most of the engineers went with them, so [Fidel Castro] told the citizens to learn how to make stuff themselves. They were called the National Association of Innovators and Rationalizers (ANIR), and that’s exactly what they did. This was the beginning of Cuba’s backyard innovation.

Fastforward a few decades and the 90’s were a very difficult time for Cuba. With the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, a severe economic downturn almost crippled the country, and as a result a Cuban DIY culture began to flourish even more — out of absolute necessity. No money, no imports, only what they already had. Making and fixing things became a part of life, you couldn’t just go out and buy a solution to your problem, you had to do it yourself. This might be one of the greatest examples of what a full-flung maker/DIY society would be like — well, maybe minus the communist part.

The excellent video after the break is a short story about the designer [Ernesto Oroza], who started collecting examples of this DIY culture under his art project aptly called, Technological Disobedience. It’s worth the watch, so take a look.

Continue reading “Cuba: A DIY Society?”