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Hungarian Computer History by "Tomcat of Greenroom"

As you might be interested in how Hungarian computers were manufactured and sold, here is a little story which might give you a glance about Hungarian technology level in the eighties, and also some explanation for why we had so many models in production. In the Communist age, the cold war, one of Hungary's strategic tasks was to produce military electronic systems for the Warsaw Pact armies and industry.

After 1920, the Trianon Peace Pact, when Hungary lost 70% of its original land mass, all raw material resources were also lost. For this reason the Hungarian government found interest in precise mechanics and electronics instead of heavy industry. Hungary soon became a great power on the field of optical devices, radio electronics, and naturally also sophisticated military equipment, like targeting devices, telescopes, etc. These were widely used in the second world war. Hence a great amount of precise mechanics and electronics engineers appeared, of which many managed to keep the quality of such products after the war, even despite the forced buildup of heavy industry.

The Hungarian electronic industry returned to its normal life in the beginning of the sixties. During the fifties, the Russians always claimed that cybernetics and electronics are "just a new toy of the imperialists", and denied the usefulness of intelligent devices, even military equipment. When Stalin and Khruschev were both gone, the Russians changed their mind and pumped a lot of money into the rebuilding of Hungarian electronic industry. This became rather successful, within years Hungarian companies were manufacturing a lot of consumer electronic goods, and of course, also non-consumer ones. One of the great advancements was the Ural computer series in the sixties. These machines were big, ugly bastards, with ferrite ring memories and such oldschool stuff. One of these, an Ural-II was operating at the university of Miskolc, I don't know where did they use the rest, but many had been exported to the USSR, and they might be still working somewhere.

When the personal computer age arrived, Hungarians were quickly adopting new Western technologies, as you probably know, it resulted in the HT and Robotron machines. Robotrons were actually not real computers, but word processors, and they also manufactured terminals. Another company manufacturing computers was the so-called SZKI, Számítástechnikai Kutató Intézet, Institute of Computer Research. They had a very successful series of x86 compatible PCs in the early 80's, called Proper computers. I still have a copper "Proper 16A" label on my PC. Videoton, located in the city of Székesfehérvár (some of their buildings is being used by IBM now) was not only manufacturing the TVC models, but they also sold x86 PCs.

Hungarian computer education was very high in that time. Kids were learning about computers and BASIC in the school, and there were numerous computer clubs, both for children and adults. There were no stupid laws banning software "piracy", it was all about scientific fun, and no one claimed any lame "copyrights" for themselves. There were numerous Hungarian inventions, of which unfortunately many were lost in the labyrinth of Communist bureaucracy. One of these examples was the theory of the switched processor. You know, a computer that has two different CPUs, let's say, a Z80 and a MOS 6510, and you can run a proram which uses both processors' commands. Perhaps you know, the first switched processor machine was introduced by Apple. But there were two Hungarian inventors, engineers of HT, who actually finished a working model of a switched processor computer, many years before Apple, and requested patent for it. The Hungarian patent office rejected, claiming that "it's impossible to build such a machine, it will never work." They tried four times, always receiving the same answer, and when for the fifth time they also included a printed advertisement of the meanwhile introduced Apple machine, and the office still said "it's impossible to build such computer, and this advertisement is most probably an Imperialist hoax to confuse the scientists of the Communist camp, and drive them into pointless research projects."

The Primo, as you already know, was a Sinclair Z80 clone, which was actually never sold in Hungary. They wanted to break into the Western markets with it, which was a ridiculous idea in 1984, two years after the introduction of the Commodore 64. So, the Primo failed, and not much had been seen around here in Hungary.

But you probably don't know that some Eastern computers using Zilog Z80 processors were actually not using Zilogs. The Russians cloned the very successful chip. First there was a smaller espionage action to acquire one, because they thought it would be "too dangerous" to simply buy one in a shop and take it to Moscow. Instead of buying, a KGB agent stole a Z80 from a Paris shop. Then he hide it in the toilet of an international express train that headed to Berlin, where another KGB agent removed it, and then it travelled to Moscow by a diplomatic courier.

Now came the hard part, since the Russkis had no idea how to look inside the chip. Finally they found it. They started to polish the processor very smoothly, taking a photograph at every 0.1 mm. Finally they were able to build a 3D model of the processor, and started to manufacture it. Do you know that there are Z80 driven computers still being sold in the ex-USSR even nowadays? They're called the Pentagon and Scorpion, both are upgraded versions of ZX Spectrum clones.

Back to Hungary: computer industry was flourishing here around 1988, Videoton even built a state of the art, fully robotized manufacturing plant. First they built modern televisions, the so-called Precision 2000 models, of which I have two, still being used. Unfortunately, when the Russians left Hungary, KGB was ordered to destroy the Hungarian microelectronic factories, so in 1990, just two years after it opened gates, the Videoton factory had been blown up by KGB agents and burned to the grounds. (This is not a speculation, but a known fact.)