Socialism’s DIY Computer
by Michael Eby / 12.07.2020
“The Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia was a political anomaly. Ruled by a Communist Party but spurned by the Eastern Bloc following the Tito-Stalin split of 1948, this federation of six republics was held together under Tito’s banner of an inter-ethnic, inter-religious, and international “brotherhood and unity.” Subsequent to its repudiation by the USSR, Yugoslavia bootstrapped its geopolitical precarity into a Herculean effort to chart a middle course between the two world superpowers. Along with Egypt, Ghana, India, and Indonesia, the country founded the “non-aligned movement,” a patchwork of developing nations aspiring to chart a decolonial “third option” of formal neutrality during the Cold War. This constituted one of the few genuine anti-authoritarian, anti-imperial international alliances of the twentieth century. Yugoslavia’s unique geopolitical situation and its infrastructural autonomy constituted the fertile ground upon which the seeds of the country’s national identity were planted.
The fast-track growth of defense stockpiles and industrial facilities after the war, and especially after Yugoslavia was expelled from the Cominform in 1948, necessitated nothing less than a logistics revolution. Robust calculating machinery was essential for the comprehensive real-time monitoring of vast quantities of commodities in production and exchange. Moving to fill this demand, a local computing industry began to bloom. Dr. Rajko Tomović—a roboticist instrumental to the invention of the world’s first five-fingered artificial hand—worked alongside teams of mathematicians and mechanical engineers at the Institute for Nuclear Sciences, Vinča, and Belgrade’s Telecommunication and Electronics Institute, Mihajlo Pupin (later the Mihajlo Pupin Institute) to develop manufacturing techniques using local instruments and local parts. The rise in living standards throughout the 1960s and 1970s introduced a need for the ever-more widespread adoption of bookkeeping computers in bureaucracy. Yugoslavia became a technological pressure-cooker, incubating an idiosyncratic computer culture that flowered due to intense institutional support.
But computers were expensive. The average price of an Iskradata 1680, Sinclair ZX81, or Commodore 64—standard consumer-grade systems, found across the country’s government offices, accounting firms, and university science labs—exceeded by many times the monthly salary of the average Yugoslavian worker. Compounding this hurdle were the tight restrictions imposed by the country on imports of any item costing greater than 50 Deutschmarks; that limit was well under the amount needed to buy an 8-bit microcomputer produced anywhere on the continent. As a result, throughout the 1970s computer ownership, experimentation, and programming were the domain of an educated and well-to-do select few Yugoslavian youth. Often, members of local art, music, and literary movements like the New Tendencies, the Novi Val (New Wave), and science fiction scenes would pool their money in order to collectively acquire a machine.
But Yugoslavia’s cultural tradition of self-taught expertise endured. While on holiday in Risan, Montenegro in the early 1980s, amateur radio and digital electronics enthusiast Voja Antonić devised the basic conceptual schema for an elementary microcomputer. Antonić was already a reputed engineer; in the past, he had developed Arbitar, an official timing system used on several Balkan ski contests, as well as an interface for transferring frames from monochrome monitors to 16mm film. On his Montenegrin vacation, Antonić read the application manual for a new line of single-chip CPUs produced by the RCA Corporation.
It gave him an idea. Rather than using a sophisticated and pricey video controller, Antonić wondered if it might be possible to construct a computer whose 64×48 block graphics were wholly generated using just a cheap Zilog Z80A microprocessor—a CPU readily available in electronics stores throughout Yugoslavia. Upon returning home, Antonić tested his idea, finding it worked nicely. The effect of his critical intervention was twofold: it reduced the computer’s overall price and streamlined its design. More importantly than this, though, was the fact that the schematic was so simple, users could assemble the computer themselves.
A long-standing commitment to open hardware and open software allowed Antonić’s invention to ripple across the country. It precipitated a minor computer revolution, activating a multiplicity of subcultural actors—programmers, gamers, DJs, musicians, and fanzine collectors—who each coagulated around his machine’s novel combination of collectivity, autodidacticism, and technophilia. Around the time of Antonić’s discovery, Dejan Ristanović—journalist, computer programmer, and wunderkind of the Rubik’s Cube—wrote a favorably received article on computing for a Yugoslavian science fiction and popular science magazine called Galaksija.
Shortly after that article’s publication, Galaksija’s editor-in-chief, Jova Regasek, received a reader request that the magazine dedicate an issue entirely to computers. Though initially skeptical, Regasek tasked Ristanović with spearheading this project. At precisely this time, Antonić was looking for a place to publish the diagrams for his new DIY “people’s computer.” Though Antonić had bundles of home computing monthlies like Elektor from Germany and BYTE from the United States—foreign publications that were expensive to procure—accessibility was essential; SAM Magazine in Zagreb was a domestic periodical, but after a mutual friend connected him with Ristanović, the project found its home in Galaksija.
The special issue was titled Računari u vašoj kuć i (Computers in Your Home). A thick portion of it was devoted to Antonić’s computer: it included not solely the diagrams, but also comprehensive instructions for assembling the circuity, store locations for purchasing makeshift equipment, mail-order addresses for obtaining built-it-yourself kits, and channels through which to order accessory parts legally from abroad. Ristanović and Antonić settled on the naming the project after the magazine—Galaksija—and no one involved thought that readership for the issue would exceed Galaksija’s regular print run of 30,000 copies. But the response was extraordinary: Regasek ended up needing four reprints to cover the joltingly high demand for each preceding out-of-print run. Antonić recalls the trio chatting casually one day before the issue’s release, speculating as to how many readers would actually try and make a Galaksija; he remembers guessing a maximum of 50 hardcore hobbyists. But, after a total distribution of 120,000 copies, the magazine had received over 8,000 direct letters from enthusiasts who had built their own Galaksijas.
Oftentimes the very limitations of a technological device are what allow for its expressive capacities to surface. Antonić’s microcomputer contained only 4K bytes of program memory—a veritable drop-in-the-bucket compared to any laptop today. Owing to this restriction, the system could only display three splendidly playful one-word error messages: users received a “WHAT?” if their BASIC code had a syntax error, a “HOW?” if their requested input was unrecognizable, and a “SORRY” if the machine exceeded its memory capacity. The 4K EPROM—erasable programmable read-only memory—was packed so tight that some bytes had to be used for multiple purposes; through this hack, Antonić says, his firmware now stands as proof that it is possible to use more than 100% of program memory.
The innards of the machine reflected the social milieu under which it thrived. No two Galaksijas looked alike: in addition to the organic imprecision that necessarily accompanies the untried, error-prone action of neophyte circuit tinkerers, the assembly kits shipped without a case. This omission became the stimulus for users to get creative; many designed their own. Individualized designs often reflected the aesthetic overlap of these new computing revolutionaries with the subcultures around New Wave and sci-fi. And, like other computers of the day, cassette tape was Galaksija’s main storage system. While most other machines would automatically run a program after loading the tape—a primitive anti-copy protection—Antonić’s commitment to open source meant that he had no desire to protect anything. After loading a program, users would have to type a “RUN” command to make it go. That extra step, though subtle, acted as a deterrent to programmers imposing any copy protection upon their work; the tape could just as easily be straightforwardly input as it could be edited or duplicated en masse. Free play was implicitly encouraged: the sharing, collaboration, manipulation, and proliferation of software was built into Galaksija’s very operation.
A computing enthusiast since 1979, Zoran Modli caught wind of Galaksija after the publication of Computers in Your Home. As host and DJ of Ventilator 202—a renowned New Wave radio show on Serbia’s Radio Beograd 202—Modli was something of a minor celebrity in Yugoslavia. This was the period in which the compact cassette tape had begun to usurp the 12-inch vinyl record as the listening medium of choice for audiophiles; portable pocket recorders like the Sony Walkman were in the ascendant. Sensing an opportunity in this media shift, Regasek called Modli one day in the autumn of 1983 with a pitch for a radically new Ventilator segment. Because all the day’s computers, including Galaksija, ran their programs on cassette, Regasek thought Modli might broadcast programs over the airwaves as audio during his show. The idea was that listeners could tape the programs off their receivers as they were broadcast, then load them into their personal machines.
An overnight sensation, this DJing practice quickly became a staple on Modli’s show. In the ensuing months, Ventilator 202 broadcast hundreds of computer programs. During the hour, Modli would announce when the segment was approaching, signaling to his listeners that it was time for them to fetch their equipment, cue up a tape, and get ready to hit record. Fans began to write programs with the expressed intention of mailing them into the station and broadcasting them during the segment. Those programs included audio and video recordings but also magazines, concert listings, party promotions, study aids, flight simulators, and action-adventure games. In the case of games, users would “download” the programs off the radio and alter them—inserting their own levels, challenges, and characters—then send them back to Modli for retransmission. In effect, this was file transfer well before the advent of the World Wide Web, a pre-internet pirating protocol.
During the mid-1980s, Yugoslavia entered a period of profound political and social uncertainty; several bloody wars and an economic spiral put an end to New Wave culture and the vibrant computing scene. By then, import restrictions and tariffs were relaxed, and Western-made computers were welcomed into the country by consumers, corporations, and government bodies alike. For a brief time, pre-assembled versions of Galaksija were mass manufactured, finding a place in classrooms at some of Yugoslavia’s high schools and universities. In 1995, Antonić threw away all five of his personal Galaksija prototypes because by that point, he laments, simply no one cared.
However, a kind of nostalgia for technological obsolescence has emerged in recent years, and—in addition to encountering old Galaksijas being sold on the marketplace dearer than many modern laptops—Antonić was approached by Belgrade’s Museum of Science and Technology several years ago to participate in an exhibition of pre-millennium computers. For the occasion he claims to have scavenged and located a forgotten Galaksija in his attic, one that sits on display in that museum today. What’s more, a short while ago Antonić was contacted with a similar request from the Computer History Museum in Silicon Valley, a few hours’ drive from his current home in Pasadena, California.
The reason for this resurgent interest in Galaksija is perhaps due to the fact that this exciting and little-known episode in computer-science history is pregnant with counterfactual potential. Galaksija embodies a destratification of today’s technological hierarchy, a tacit ideological assertion that computing machinery should be for the masses, cheap and available to everyone, and that neither money nor technical know-how need be barriers to entry. Paralleling the Yugoslavian alternative to the bipolar world order, the Galaksija saga signals to uninitiated technologists that alternative modes of practice are possible, paths wholly separate from those of Western manufacturing overlords like IBM, Microsoft, Hewlett-Packard, or Apple. In this sense, Antonić’s 1983 schematic was more than just a build-it-yourself microcomputer. Through its virtual capacities for connectedness — between its circuitry and components as well as between the agents and forces that shaped it as a cultural phenomenon — Galaksija stands tall as a monument to a different kind of technological life, one teeming with exploration, experimentation, and communitarian spirit.”
COMPUTERS in YOUR HOME (Računari u vašoj kući)
by Dejan Ristanović
“It would be pretty immodest to say that the 100-page publication “Racunari u vasoj kuci” set off the computer revolution in Yugoslavia. So I won’t say it; the fact is, however, that the computer revolution began just after the appearance of the first issue of the “Racunari ” magazine. Clearly, the time and the circumstances were favorable, and the well advertised publication only gave things a push in the right direction…
I have to admit that, at the time, I couldn’t imagine my area of interest would become so popular, so wanted and needed. The editorial board of the popular science magazine “Galaksija,” however, had estimated the market much better than I. In June 1983, Gavrilo Vuckovic, Editor – in – Chief of “Galaksija,” asked me to think about an “special publication about computers.” Thereafter, things started to happen pretty fast, and our plans also began to change: at the end of August, a new opportunity arose, allowing us to enhance the publication with a chapter on do-it-yourself assembly of the Galaxy computer, a project headed by Voja Antonic. At the same time, the market began expanding so fast that it became obvious programmable calculators were already old hat. At the beginning of October 1983, Jovan Regasek, one of the editors in “Galaksija,” informed me that I was slated to be the author of the entire special edition, which would include Voja’s chapter on do-it-yourself assembly of the Galaxy computer.
And, boy, what a challenge that turned out to be! Time has shown, however, that I succeeded in overcoming all the problems involved in this project. The special edition included several important and very successful chapters with instructions on how to make the right choice when buying a computer; descriptions of peripheral equipment; a classification of commercial software; and a section on the ‘little secrets of the great masters’ of programming.’ The most popular chapter was an introduction to BASIC for absolute beginners. There was, naturally, a chapter about how to assemble a Galaxy computer on your own. Looking at it as a whole, the project was not a magazine in the real meaning of the term — if bound and assembled under one cover, it would have been a real book.
“Racunari u vasoj kuci” entered the market at the end of December 1983. It was an unbelievable success, appearing at the right time and in the right place. The people who bought the magazine were very interested in computers but knew almost nothing about them. The circulation of 30,000 copies was sold out in a matter of weeks, so we printed another one of the same size. Finally, at the end of 1983, we printed a third edition of 40,000 copies which sold out as well, even though two other issues of “Computers” had appeared in the meantime. I must emphasize the fact that over 8,000 of our readers have built their own Galaxy computers.
Soon afterwards, the pace began to pick up — other media also started to talk about computers and Voja and I took part in many shows. Everybody wanted to ask questions, to suggest ideas, to propose something… Even the government’s trade and tariff board left computers off its very strict list of import products. The board set such limits that at least the Spectrum could be imported legally. “Racunari u vasoj kuci” continued to come out regularly, and finally it grew into the magazine “Racunari.” I was one of the editors of “Racunari ” for 11 years, until circumstances allowed me to create a new magazine. But this time, it was a privately published magazine and everything went much easier.”
SOFTWARE DOWNLOADS by RADIO
“…Perhaps some of the most enthusiastic early downloaders were to be found in Serbia, then a part of Yugoslavia. Zoran Modli, who hosted the Ventilator 202 show on Radio Belgrade, was approached by the editor of the Galaksija computer magazine with idea of sending a Spectrum program over the airwaves. Zoran remembers broadcasting for the first time: “Both me and my radio team were very excited. I had to inform the Radio Belgrade technicians who were on duty at remote radio transmitters that for the next few minutes only hissing and growling would be heard. Lay people were confused and wondered, ‘What is this lunatic doing?’ But those who listened and understood excitedly contacted us by telephone to say they had successfully loaded the program onto their computers!”
From 1983 to 1986 Zoran broadcasted about 150 computer programs, most of which were sent in by his dedicated and enthusiastic listeners. They included programs for mathematical calculations, short educational programs, mini-encyclopaedias, simple games and even a flight simulator. The broadcasts became so popular that National TV Belgrade even featured them on their ‘Sunday Afternoon’ program, so every weekend for two months viewers were treated to an ear-splitting din of screeching ones and zeroes…”
HACKING the DIGITAL and SOCIAL SYSTEM
by Voja Antonić / August 3, 2015
“When you live in a totalitarian, controlled and “happy” society, and you want to be a hacker, you have to hack the social system first. Being just an engineer doesn’t cut it, you have to be a hypocrite, dissident and a smuggler at the same time. That’s the motto of my personal story, which starts in Yugoslavia, and ends in Serbia. No, I didn’t move, I’m still in Belgrade, only the political borders have changed.
interview with Voja Antonić
Half a century ago, when I was in elementary school, I discovered the magical world of HAM radio. I became a member of two amateur radio clubs, passed all exams and got my licence and callsign, which was YU1OPC. I was delighted, but after five years, the party was over. What happened? Well, one day the police paid a visit to all registered owners of CB Band equipment and simply took that equipment away. No one knows why they did it, but it was probably off the books, as we never got any written confirmation, and no one ever saw their equipment again. I wondered why they didn’t take our HAM Radio units as well, which were as legal as any CB unit. I guess they didn’t know how to use it… for their own personal needs. Nothing will disuade me from calling it uniformed robbery.
Actually, I was not too sad about it. I lost only a Japanese 5W CB transceiver, but I was not interested in HAM radio anymore. Since the first commercial HAM radio equipment appeared on the market, the profile of users has changed dramatically – instead of people who could build HAM units with their own hands, now you had people who had enough money to buy them. Maybe I was overreacting, maybe there were still a lot of enthusiasts, but the magic of my own enthusiasm was destroyed and I moved to digital technology. I didn’t know that in just about two decades, the same thing would happen again with computers.
“Pen and Paper” Development System
The migration from electronic tubes to transistors was fascinating. Such a small tube, with a cold cathode and a low anode voltage, so cheap and simple to use! I bought my first germanium transistors from my pocket money, and built… guess what? The flip-flop! I thought I invented it. How could I have known that it had already been invented fifty years ago? Just a few years after Intel’s 4004, I was head over heels in love with microprocessors. I had ordered two Z80s from the USA, but soon discovered that one of them was inoperative – I most likely burned it somehow without realizing it. Still, I had the second one, so I could start building my first microprocessor project. What should I use it for? It was an easy question. I was fascinated with Conway’s Game Of Life, and all the walls in my room were covered by papers with hand drawn cell groups, in hundreds of generations. There were two consequences of my wall art: the fact that my parents and half of my friends thought that I had gone crazy, and my first project – Game Of Life, with a 16×16 LED matrix. The LEDs were so expensive back then that I finalized the firmware with less than half of them, and filled the matrix gradually in the coming months.
I didn’t have a computer, so I assembled the firmware manually, by pen and paper, and then entered the code in my programmer, byte by byte, using rotary switches. However, the debugging process was relatively fast, as I had two 2708 EPROMs – in fact, I had four to start with, but burned (literally) two of them trying to debug my DIY EPROM programmer. So while one of them was in the UV eraser (built from an old sun-tanning lamp), I could debug the code and program another one. However weird it may seem to assemble the code manually, I didn’t know there might be another way to do it. And when you don’t have a better idea, there is no reason to be unsatisfied with the current one. So, I went on and finished my Game Of Life. Unfortunately, I don’t have it any more, but I replicated it a few years later and it still runs in my workshop after almost 40 years – even the EPROM still keeps its content. Maybe I should describe it at the Hackaday.io projects page, as one of the old MPU DIY projects that still work?
No Computers, Please
The personal computers of that time were pretty expensive, but it was not the main problem. If you lived in Yugoslavia, you simply couldn’t buy them. It was not specifically forbidden, but you couldn’t import anything worth above 50 Deutschmarks. So I asked a friend of mine from the US to split my freshly ordered TRS-80 model 1 into two units and send them to me in separate packages, as inconspicuously as possible. Having to cut the ribbon cable that went between two PCBs (there was no connector) was frustrating but, after some hesitation, he grabbed a pair of scissors and went for it. A good while later, I received them tax-free, labeled as “technical junk”, then “repaired” it. My own computer revolution had started.
The basic model had 4KB of dynamic RAM, so when I saw the commercials for the 16KB expansion kit, I wondered who would ever need more than 4KB! Ironically, I soon found myself using not 16, but 48KB, arranged in three piggyback layers. The main PCB got numerous hardware upgrades: Shift hold, 2×clock, single step mode, speaker, and an additional EPROM with my own disassembler and editor/assembler. Step by step, microcomputers were spreading everywhere, but the government still did not recognize the potential of the new technology. We asked for a new legal treatment of computers, but nothing had changed for an entire decade. Our main argument was that we need the technically skilled people and young software experts, and one politician gave us the famous, widely known answer: “I’ve heard that Americans will create self-programming computers, so we shall need no programmers.” There was no other way but to continue smuggling, bribing and hiding the equipment deep under the laundry in a suitcase.
Computer Animation from 1979
While I was a student at the Faculty of Dramatic Arts in late 1970s, I was enchanted by computer animation. I acted as quite a rookie in here, since I had to start from scratch. I simply had never even seen the equipment that was used for it. First I built the graphical interface, which contained 90 static RAMs 2114 (4×1Kbit), one Z80A and a lot of glue logic. The resolution was 400×300, with a 3-bit monochromatic pixel. I borrowed a 16 mm Bolex camera which could operate in a frame-by-frame mode, and built a solenoid trigger with corresponding computer interface. I also wrote the animation software in BASIC, which could draw geometric shapes in a wireframe mode. Everything was defined in 3D, including the camera, which could move, pan and zoom. All of that, including the amber monitor, was enclosed in a large wooden box, which looked a lot like a coffin, but it did the job of protecting the system from ambient light, and my ears from the noisy solenoids. The animation software was executed on my DIY TRS-80 clone with the 6MHz Z80B microprocessor, so one frame took a mere 10 minutes of rendering time, which translated to 24 hours for an average shot.
I had shown the result to my professor Marko Babac, who was delighted. He asked me if it would ever be possible to animate human figures, but I said, with a lot of authority and self-confidence: “No way”! He suggested to me that I prepare a short TV broadcast with a few animated examples. I was up for it, but I couldn’t find anyone who was interested in my technological wonder. The only topic being covered by the media at the time was President Tito’s illness. After 36 years, there are only two short shots left. I never managed to find someone who could digitize them, so I used a flat-bed scanner and improvized backlight to digitize this one.
Galaksija : DIY Microcomputer from 1983
It was not possible to buy a microcomputer legally and nobody was trying to produce it in Yugoslavia – similar problems were faced in all Eastern Bloc countries. Everything pointed to us being stuck in the Stone Age on the matter. We had no computer magazines or other way to educate people about technology, so the media coverage was limited to “a strange contraption called an electronic brain, which can even play chess”. Regarding microcomputer projects of that time, the most expensive part was the video interface. I knew that the ZX81 and ZX Spectrum had ULA (uncommitted logic array) chips which generated video signals aided by software, but I couldn’t even dream of having that. So I had to hack the microprocessor to make the video controller unit as simple as possible, with the existing TTL chips.
The Z80 microprocessor has one transparent counter, called the R register, which is used for dynamic memory refreshing. It is simply incremented and output to the Address bus after every instruction execution. It could be used to generate the fastest portion of the video signal, and the slower portion of video hardware could be simply replaced by software. So I needed just one shift register driven by a pixel clock and the character generator, and I saved on the video address counters, selectors, tri-state buffers and blanking logic. That was a concept worth trying. Just a few days later it worked perfectly, and I started building the operating system. Memory chips were expensive, so I decided to use only 4KB (expandable to 8K) of ROM, and 3×2K of static RAM. I stole the arithmetic routines from TRS-80 Level I Basic, and started creating my own line editor and a BASIC interpreter.
The resulting price/performance ratio was so good that I decided to publish it as a DIY project in a magazine. As the first issue of the first Yugoslav computer magazine was just about to get published, I met the author Dejan Ristanovic, and made an agreement with him to let me write the DIY manual. Jova Regasek, the editor of the issue, insisted that the microcomputer name be “Galaksija” (Galaxy). In August 1983, Galaksija was presented to the readers.
The magazine was named “Računari u vašoj kući” (Computers in Your Home), and the release was scheduled for the very end of December 1983. So I had five months to finalize the firmware, sometimes with Dejan’s help with the general concept. It’s amazing how much you can pack into 4 KB of EPROM space as long as you do your best to optimize the code! One of many ideas I’ve described in my project page is how to use more than 100% of program memory. A few days before the deadline, I was at the editorial, talking to Jova and Dejan. Jova asked the intriguing question: How many readers will build the microcomputer? I said “maybe 50”, Dejan said “I think that there will be at least 200”, and Jova said “Dont be silly, there will be more than 500”. We laughed at him, as it seemed too much. But we’ve had more than 8000 letters from people who built it. The computer revolution had started in my country.
In the same year, my friend Zoran Modli, a famous radio host, started broadcasting programs for all current microcomputers in his weekly show on the FM radio, and even on TV! There were no floppy nor hard disks at that time, so the only magnetic media were compact cassettes. Data coding was performed in audio range, which made it convenient for broadcasting. So we had the wireless network (or at least its predecessor) in 1983! You might think only the pirated video games were broadcast, but actually the vast majority were original programs written by enthusiasts. Zoran even created a digital magazine, which was broadcast in digital form. In the next few years, there was approximately one new microcomputer in Yugoslavia every year. Most of them were in limited production, and they were predominantly Apple II clones with Microsoft Basic.
War and No Peace
Starting in 1991, Yugoslavia was disintegrated in the bloody war. When I saw the military Jeep under my window, I knew that I had no choice but to take my toothbrush, razor, walkman and some garments and let those guys take me to the quarters outside of town. Tomorrow morning, my officer asked me about my current job. When I said that I deal with computers, he sent me to the headquarters, to check out an old Apple II: “It’s inoperative for more than a year, nobody could get it back to life”. I offered to try to fix it back at my workshop, and thus was given a ride back by the same Jeep.
Home again! It took me a few minutes to see that the only problem was in the video monitor. I disassembled it, replaced a burned diode, and everything worked fine. The next day the officer gave me back my ID and sent me home, saying the words which I remember to this day: “Take care of yourself, I need you alive. Who knows when this peace of shit might get broken again”. Feeling like I woke up after deep sleeping, I joined several anti-war and anti-Milosevic campaigns, writing articles against terror. In 1995, after a few tragic events in my family, I was left alone with my two-year-old son, no money, and three days during which we had to leave our flat. Then I did a very stupid thing: I threw away almost all of my projects, including the documentation and five prototypes of the Galaksija microcomputer.
Hope And Punishment
Living during war time was very stressful, so I sunk deep into my work to pull myself together. In 1998, I built a small hand-held instrument with a single-chip MCU design. Using a PIC16F84, it was a logic probe, single channel logic analyzer, 50 MHz frequency counter, RS 232 analyzer and a battery charging manager – all that in only 1K of code. I sent mail to Microchip and offered it as an Application Note. The answer was very encouraging: “We are very impressed with the level of integration that you have achieved with the PIC16F84…”. First they asked for one, then for three more samples, so that they can use them as a demonstration tool during their conferences. They promised me not only to publish the Application Note, but also exposure in US and European magazines, together with an official consultant status. Asked about the compensation, I refused money and said I’d rather have their in-circuit emulator.
I prepared an article and soon the project appeared on Microchip’s site as AN689. At last, there was a hope that finally I shall rise, after all the pitfalls and disappointments. But only a few weeks later, I received the following message from Microchip: “Evidently, the United States has some type of a trade embargo against Yugoslavia…” and so on. They were apologetic but were still certain that some kind of an arrangement could be made… No magazine articles, no consultant status, no in-circuit emulator. Even the Application Note was removed from the site. I was thinking that my luck couldn’t be any worse than this, but only a few months later Serbia was attacked by NATO and intensively bombed for 78 days. Without a single day off, 24 hours a day, we were listening to the war sirens, supersonic blasts, guided missiles and frequent detonations over the city.
Technology and the Legacy of Five Decades
In 2006, after several mails, I have finally received my In-Circuit Debuggers from Microchip and the Application Note was put back in place. I strongly believe they did everything they could, so I can’t really blame them. I stilll like the PIC platform and I’ve never stopped using it for my medium-scale projects. For a long time, I was listening to “experts” telling me my Galaksija computer is X times slower than the modern PC and Y times slower than their smartphone. Lately though, it seems like we entered a sort of a renaissance of technological culture. People grow nostalgic and more appreciative of older stuff. Now there are numerous retro computer emulators for PC, including a Galaxy emulator, and also the single chip FPGA replica named μGalaksija, created bu Dušan Grujić. I was honored by the Muzej Nauke i Tehnike (Museum of Science and Technology) in Belgrade, when I was asked to donate a sample of the Galaksija computer. How can I donate it, if I don’t have it? Fortunately, I found one forgotten prototype in my cellar, cleaned it and now it is a part of the museum exhibition.
The last decade of the 20th century was a disaster for my country, but the worst damage was done to the people’s minds. Corruption spread, social values suffered the most. Not unlike in the Middle Ages, various clairvoyants, prophets, quacks and pseudoscientists flooded the media, and there was not a single voice from the side of reason. So I thought I could try to hack the system again. I wrote and published two books and a lot of newspaper articles and light fiction, promoting a skeptical view on the paranormal phenomena. And it worked, at least partly. I was invited to many TV shows, and a certain number of intellectuals started to raise their voices against the modern superstition. Some deceivers and quacks were even jailed, I like to think, at least partly as a result of my efforts. Unfortunately, the ’90s crisis left us with some serious consequences. A lot of young scientists and experts, which were the better part of the generation, left the country. One prominent politician said that there’s no harm done, as during the period we also received an equal number of refugees. Numerically speaking, we are the same.
Here is how I see the consequences of that brain drain. In 1960, Yugoslavia was one of six countries which had its own computer, CER-10. It was created by our engineers at the Mihailo Pupin Institute, which is just a few hundred meters from my home. Guess what those “scientists” are producing today? Magnetic slippers! Well, you may have pseudoscience in your media, but we’ve gone a step further – we have the pseudoscience in our science! Still, one gets used to everything. At this point I would be surprised if things turned out any better. As for myself, all I need are four walls and peace, so I can do my work and create. I don’t need a lot of money, that’s why my projects are open. I never counted them, but I guess that I have between 50 and 100 open projects published in computer magazines.
Last year I met Mitch Altman, who is known not only for TV-B-Gone, but also for teaching introductory electronics workshops around the world. When we were talking about the creative work in general, I told him my problem is that I fall in love with each of my projects, and he laughed and said “What a nice problem to have”! He was right, it’s the best possible problem, and that’s why my projects are open – when you’re in love, then you want to tell it to the whole world and to show the object of your love to everybody. Maybe you won’t get rich that way, but you will surely spend the life worth living.”
[ Voja Antonic works as a freelance microcontroller engineer in Belgrade. His first microprocessor projects, based on Z80, date back to 1977, just a few years after the appearance of the first Intel’s 4004. He assembled the firmware manually, by pen and paper. In 1983, he published his original DIY microcomputer project called Galaksija, which was built by around 8000 enthusiasts in the former Yugoslavia. To date he has published more than 50 projects, mostly based on microcontrollers, and released all of them in the public domain. ]
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