Socialism’s DIY Computer

The Galaksija computer was a craze in 1980s Yugoslavia, inspiring thousands of people to build versions in their own homes. The idea behind them was simple – to make technology available to everyone.

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.