3. September 2023.

From the “digital dinosaur” to selecting the components to build personalized computers

What did the history of computer development look like in Yugoslavia?

“If I had to describe the Yugoslav computer scene using a single sentence, it would probably be overpriced hardware, free software” – as Dejan Ristanović put it in the 43rd issue of the magazine Računari. Ristanović goes on to “thank” the inflation, the Dollar exchange rate, unscrupulous computer equipment manufacturers, the federal government and many other factors for the pricy hardware. However, in order to discuss the 1980s, which was a period when home computers became popular and quite common in the former Yugoslavia, we have to go back a few decades, to the time when the first computer in our region was designed and made.

“Digital dinosaur” which took up the entire room

During the 1950s, only four countries in the world managed to build their own digital computers. Those countries were England, Germany, France and Russia. Later on, Poland joined this list, but – so did Yugoslavia.

It took four years (1956-1960) to create the pilot lot (as its name suggests) of the first digital computer built in SFRY – CER 10 (Cifarski Elektronski Računar – Digital Electronic Computer), and the concept designer and creator of CER, Tihomir Aleksić, headed a team of 70 people. The development of the computer started at the “Vinča” Institute and continued at the “Mihajlo Pupin” Institute.

Mihajlo Pupin Institute

However, CER 10 and its successors looked nothing like the computers of today. Picture six 2x2m metal boxes – that’s what CER 10 looked like. The operations of this serial computer were based on a system of transistors and vacuum tubes. At first it was used for statistical processing of encrypted data, and later on for educational purposes. This “digital dinosaur” is now on display in the Belgrade Museum of Science and Technology. At the time CER 10 was created, many held the belief that digital technologies would not be able to surpass analog technologies when it came to the speed of execution of operations. For the sake of comparison, CER 10 was 40.000 times slower than today’s home computers.

CER Teleprinter

During the 1960s, CER continued its development through new series, and thus the models CER 11, CER 12, CER 200, CER 20 and CER 22 appeared on the scene. These models were used in bookkeeping, banking systems, utility companies and the military across Yugoslavia. However, computers were still far from being popularized and were rarely used for private purposes. The reason for the slow early development of new technologies in our region lies in the sphere of politics. The import of components necessary to build a computer (as well as pre-built computers) was prohibited at the time – private persons could import goods valued at around 50 Deutsche Marks. In addition, it was prohibited for individuals to establish private organizations, so the development of first home computers started in state-owned institutes and companies.

Who did it first?

Who was the first to design and build a computer in Yugoslavia? – it is difficult to provide a single answer to this question. However, there are several different computer models that were created around the same time that are worthy of a mention.

When it comes to the “Mihajlo Pupin” Institute, the CER series was replaced by the TIM series, and thus the institute developed the TIM 100 and TIM 600 models, which used microprocessors. Floppy disks were used as external memory devices. However, TIM 600 was not PC compatible, and as such did not find much commercial success.

Fabrika računarskih mašina (Computer Factory) – FRM was founded by 1971, and this is where the first Yugoslav electronic calculator, IE-4000, was manufactured. According to engineer Dušan Senćanski, this was the first Yugoslav minicomputer. FRM then began collaborating with the West German company Kienzle, which resulted in the installation of over 1,500 computers across Yugoslavia for automatic data processing in various business areas.

In 1979, FRM signed a contract with the American company Honeywell Information Systems, and this represents a turning point in the Yugoslav production and use of computers. According to Ivan Nakev in an interview conducted by an unnamed author for the May 1985 issue of the magazine Svet Kompjutera, the result of the EI Honeywell company operations, from its founding to 1985, is the complete installation of over 300 computer systems across Yugoslavia. In the same year, the aforementioned company joined the race to manufacture a domestic school computer. This is how the computer models EI Pecom 32 and EI Pecom 64 were created.

However, the popularity of imported computers in Yugoslavia – ZX Spectrum and Commodore 64 – was responsible for the fact that all of the aforementioned models did not last long in the market, and domestically manufactured computers remained in use only in government institutions and schools.

Ad for Commodore 64
Clive Sinclair holding his newly developed ZX Spectrum home computer in 1982

There were other attempts during the 1980s to build similar computers. In 1982, the Ivo Lola Ribar Institute created the model Lola 8, built using CNC machine components. The hardware was designed by Radovan Novaković, while Nela Radovanović created the software. This model is memorable for a video game that played the song “Fijaker stari” (Old Cab) if you got a certain score. Production of the newer, more advanced Lola 8a model started on May 25, 1985, when the first youth computer factory was opened in Lomina Street in Belgrade.

Lola 8

Ivo Lola Ribar Institute

Also notable at the time was the Galeb (Seagull) model produced by PEL Varaždin in Croatia. Miroslav Kocijan, the creator of Galeb, was also responsible for the development of the Orao (Eagle) model which was used in Croatian schools during the 80s. Orao is also the “main culprit” for the fact that only 250 units of Galeb were manufactured, as Orao was more technologically advanced and cheaper to manufacture. The Apple OS compatible computer Ivel Ultra was also manufactured in Ivanić Grad in Croatia.

During the 80s, the IRIS PC 16 computer was manufactured in Bosnia and Herzegovina and it achieved great sales in spite of its high price. The company Energoinvest designed this model thanks to their employees who also worked at the Sarajevo Faculty of Electrical Engineering.

From EL-82 to Galaksija

What EL-82, the first home computer produced in the form of a functional prototype, and “Galaksija” (Galaxy) have in common is their creator – Voja Antonić. EL-82 was manufactured by the company “Elektronika inženjering” from Zemun in early 1982. However, this computer was soon off the market as it was too expensive – namely, it cost around 6,000 Deutsche Marks at the time.

Galaksija set a new precedent, as this model gained immense popularity because Voja published diagrams and instructions necessary to build this home computer in the magazine “Računari u vašoj kući”. Microprocessors, memory units and other integrated circuits could be legally imported by mail, and the production of printed circuit boards (PCB), keyboards and cases was organized in Yugoslavia. According to Dejan Ristanović, the companies “Mipro” and “Elektronika” from Buje, together with “Institut za elektroniku i vakuumsku tehniku (Institute for electronics and vacuum technology) agreed to supply the PCBs, keyboards and masks, “Mikrotehnika” from Graz supplied the chips, while the staff of the “Galaksija” magazine collected the purchase orders, and, as a result, over 8000 people managed to build their own Galaksija computer.

Further development of this computer took place on the pages of the magazine “Svet Kompjutera”, where Nenad Balint, Vojislav Mihailović, Bojan Stanojević and other collaborators managed to attract the attention of Galaksija users. They mostly published games: “Dijamantski rudnik” (Diamond Mine), “Squash”, “Svetleći bicikli” (Glowing Bikes), “Blade Alley”, “Inspektor Spiridon” (Inspector Spiridon)… These programs were written in machine language and fully utilized the capabilities of Galaksija. In Zoran Modli’s show “Ventilator” on the radio channel “Beograd 202”, sound recordings of program and video game codes for the Galaksija computer were broadcast, only such occurrence in the world.

During the second half of the 80s, the popularity of IBM PC compatible computers increased, as did the popularity of Amiga and Atari ST compatible computers, albeit to a lesser extent. The grey economy made it possible for foreign technology to dominate the individual market, and software piracy continued to thrive until the collapse of the SFRY in the 1990s.

Zoran Modli in the studio

The “merry” 90s

During the 90s, with the establishment of numerous private companies, the introduction of the convertible dinar, and the abolishment of import restrictions, the first attempts were made to form brands and introduce serial manufacturing with quality control. Some of the first brands were created by the companies Comtrade, Jugodata and Pakom, which standardized their supplied equipment.

During the sanctions and until the complete liberalization of the market, computers in Serbia were generally built in the following manner: users could select the individual components for their computer, including the processor, motherboard, graphics card, memory unit, hard drive, power supply, the case and other peripherals. Components could be purchased from local distributors or specialized computer equipment stores.

After the installation of the physical components, the users would install the operating system. That was usually a Windows operating system, such as Windows 98, Windows 2000, or Windows XP. After the OS, users would install drivers for the computer components. This included drivers for the motherboard, graphics card, sound, network, and other components so that all of the computer’s functions would be supported. Users would also install other applications as needed, such as productivity software, games or any other program. Of course, for the computer building process to be successful, users had to possess certain technical knowledge and skills. There was also the option to buy pre-built computers from local manufacturers or import complete units from well-known brands. At the end of 2003, there was about 700,000 personal computers in Serbia.

By the mid 2000s, there was already a large number of specialized stores full of computers produced by world-famous brands, so this short but significant history of computer development in our region remains interesting only to computer enthusiasts.

Žarko Živanov, Once Upon a Byte
Počeci informacionih tehnologija u Novom Sadu, Atila Hornok
50 godina računarstva u Srbiji – hronika digitalnih decenija, PC Press
Saša Šepec, Museum of Science and Technology

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