how to become a computer power of developed socialism

The countries of the Balkan Peninsula are associated with many things. For some, this is Kusturica and Slivovitz, for others it is tragic conflicts, a difficult story, vampires with Van Helsing and memes inspired by turbofolk. Cyberpunk is perhaps the last thing that most of us associate the Balkans with, including many residents of southeastern Europe.

And yet, in the early 1990s, Bulgarian hackers and, above all, the creators of viruses, thundered all over the world. Bulgaria generally knows how to surprise upon closer acquaintance. Few people now remember that in the early Middle Ages the Bulgarian kingdom at times contested dominance over the region from the Byzantine Empire on an almost equal footing. We owe to Bulgaria the spread of Cyrillic writing – and having played a huge role in the education of the Eastern Slavs and the formation of their languages, the Church Slavonic language is essentially a variant of Old Bulgarian.

During the Second World War, Bulgaria, fortunately for itself, turned out to be almost the most peaceful of the Axis countries, almost not a single Bulgarian soldier fired at the armies of the USSR or Western allies – but in the First World War and in the Balkan wars before it, Bulgaria was known as the “Balkan Prussia”. To defeat her well-trained and equipped armies, the efforts of a whole coalition of countries were twice required – and not only Serbs and Romanians, but also Russians, British and French suffered serious defeats in battles with the Bulgarians.

And in the 80s, Bulgaria (taking into account the size of the country and the population) managed to become, perhaps, the most “computer” of the countries of the Soviet bloc.

▍ Digitalization of developed socialism

During the Cold War, Bulgaria was considered the most loyal to the USSR of the Warsaw Pact countries. Hungary rebelled and hanged state security officers, Poland was seething with the Solidarity movement, Czechoslovakia went into the “Prague Spring”, the Germans of the GDR fled en masse to the Federal Republic of Germany and West Berlin, Romania Ceausescu was fiercely friends with the United States and took Western loans by carloads … only Bulgaria quietly and phlegmatically built socialism in its understanding and even thought about joining the Soviet Union as one of the republics. As they joked in those days, “the Bulgarian elephant is the best friend of the Soviet elephant.” In the USSR, Bulgaria was known mainly as a supplier of lecho and scarce southern vegetables, and was considered a deeply agrarian and boring country. Not entirely fair.

The fact is that the authorities of socialist Bulgaria, perhaps better than anyone else in the socialist camp, realized the importance and promise of computer technology. The country’s economy, unlike the USSR, was not dominated by a colossal military-industrial complex and secrecy regimes that were anecdotal in ferocity and senselessness. Its relatively small and only partially planned economy was much more flexible and manageable than the colossal “dinosaur” of the Soviet Gosplan. And with many tasks, the small Balkan country coped better than the “big northern brother”.

The first computer specialists in Bulgaria began to be trained already at the end of the 50s. They diligently studied computational mathematics and the logical foundations of computers in different countries in order to lay the foundations for the computerization of their country.

In 1961, the first computer center appeared at the Institute of Mathematics of the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences, and three years later, Bulgarian engineers, led by Professor Lubomir Iliev, and in collaboration with Romanian colleagues, assembled their first computer: a warm 1500-lamp Vitosha with punched tape and index registers. According to the Bulgarians, the development was their own, without the help of colleagues and technologies from the USSR or the West.

Since the early 1960s, computer technology in Bulgaria has become a popular destination for young and ambitious techies – and this was supported by the country’s leadership. Development proceeded in three directions at once: large computers, mini- and personal computers, as well as information storage devices on a magnetic basis. Bulgarian developers released their first electronic calculator “Elka” in 1965, one of the first in the world.

These devices, as well as a number of more advanced calculators under the Elka brand, were actively purchased not only in the countries of the socialist bloc, but in the West. “Elka 42” at the world exhibition in Osaka in 1970 became the first calculator with integrated circuits. In the mid-70s, the export of calculators brought tens of millions of dollars a year to the Bulgarian economy.

Ivan Marangozov from the Institute of Physics of the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences is considered the “father” of advanced Bulgarian computer engineering. Back in 1963, he created the NOREL digital modular system, which was used in various devices in the countries of the socialist camp.

From the beginning of 1966, Marangozov came to the Scientific Research and Design Institute of Instrument Engineering as head of the “Computer Engineering” department, in which position he led the computerization of his country. First of all, he successfully organized the production of the ZIT-151 electronic calculating machine: a licensed copy of the Japanese Facom-230/30 mainframe from Fujitsu for use in computer centers.

By the end of the 70s, Marangozov managed to create around himself at the Institute of Technical Cybernetics and Robotics of the BAN (IKTR) a small group of enthusiastic specialists who were convinced that the future of computers was in microprocessor technology and personal computers. Marangozov’s ideas were supported by the leadership of the ITCR and the Deputy Chairman of the State Committee for Science and Technological Progress, Dr. Angel Angelov. The work was carried out within the framework of the priority “National Coordination Program for the Development and Implementation of Industrial Robots”.

The team received the green light to work on the creation of a Bulgarian personal computer, which was planned to be used both for calculations in various departments and for controlling industrial robots. The first of the Bulgarian personal computers was “IMKO-1” (Individual Micro Computer) in 1980. It was a variation on the Apple I theme in BASIC, made to a large extent on the element base of production in Bulgaria, the USSR, Czechoslovakia and Hungary. Instead of a floppy disk, however, magnetic tape was used. But it was a Bulgarian serial production, established in the second half of the 70s.

The experimental Bulgarian industrial robot ROBKO-01 was controlled by the first Bulgarian PC “IMKO-1”

50 copies of this computer were manufactured on the experimental basis of the ITKR, which were provided to the laboratories of the institute and the university. In the same 1980, the presentation took place at the International Symposium on Robotics in London, where IMCO controlled the Bulgarian robotic arm ROBKO-01. This impressed even Western engineers, since before that robotic arms were controlled by more expensive and complex “mini-computers”, not “micro-computers”, as personal computers were then called.
Its production, starting from three experimental units, was established at a plant in the city of Pravets, northeast of the capital Sofia. The importance of PC production for the leadership of Bulgaria was also indicated by the fact that the hometown of the head of the Bulgarian Communist Party, Todor Zhivkov, was chosen for the assembly line. According to the name of this city, in the future personal computers of Bulgarian production will be named.

Already in 1982, a more advanced IMKO-2 model, better known as Pravets-82, was launched into mass production. The computer was based on the already iconic and very successful Apple-II Plus. It had a processor based on the MOS Technology 6502, 48 KB of RAM, expandable up to 64 KB with an additional 16 KB card, built-in BASIC, and the ability to run under MS DOS. Two drives worked with Bulgarian 5-inch single-sided floppy disks with a capacity of 120 KB. An expansion card with a Z80 processor made it possible to work with the CP / M operating system. It also supported graphics operations and had a color monitor. And it sold for just $2,600.

Production ramped up rapidly. New, more and more advanced Pravets models appeared with indices 8M, 8A, 8E, 8C, 8S based on Apple II. Since 1984, Pravets 16, aka IMKO-4, were added to them, which were already based on the IBM PC with the Intel 8088 and 8086 processors. ”, but as “Ivan Marangozov Copy of the Original”. I don’t think it needs translation.


But in the middle and late 80s, Bulgaria, in terms of the pace of development of computer production, was more like not a socialist country, but “Asian tigers”. In 1988, there were 204 electronics companies in Bulgaria, almost 170,000 people were employed in the manufacturing industry, and industry revenues reached 14.5% of GDP: an unthinkable figure for any other socialist country. The number of computer scientists per capita in Bulgaria by the end of the 80s was also the largest of all the countries of the socialist camp, including the USSR. The Pravets plant at its peak produced 60,000 PCs a year. The production of Pravets 8M was established in the Uzbek USSR, and in the first post-Soviet years, these machines represented a significant part of the computer park of Uzbekistan.

Alas, the collapse of the Soviet bloc and the difficulties of transitioning the economy from a planned to a market economy dealt a heavy blow to Bulgaria as well. The last Pravets computers left the assembly line in 1994, after which production died, unable to withstand global competition (and questions from IBM and Apple about the obvious similarity of Bulgarian products with their developments).
Many Bulgarian IT specialists, who usually knew English well, were forced to emigrate from the country – and quite a few of them settled quite well in the West. Others remained in their homeland, which was going through difficult times – and some of them, like the famous Dark Avenger, made the early Bulgarian IT a rather gloomy glory as developers of especially dangerous viruses, as well as programs and manuals so that anyone could rivet viruses.

But that’s another story.

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