Issue 52

Created, designed and built in Cluj

Radu Cristea
Entrepreneur & Co-author @ Faces of Freedom, Lives of Courage

The implementation of various calculus techniques can and must be regarded as a means of accelerating the presence of all material and spiritual conditions that continuously increase our level of civilization. (Rev. Stiinţă şi tehnică/The Science and Technology Review 1986). 

Even if the quotation pertains to ages long gone by, which were times when many things occurred in a different manner than what was expected, yet, the focus on science and research in IT has been around since 1965 when the first research institutes in electronics appeared. In 1970 the first Romanian computer is produced at industrial scale, Felix C-256. In 1975 Intreprinderea de Echipamente Periferice/The Peripheral Equipment Company (IEPER) was founded together with the Romanian-American society, Romcontrol Data. During the same year, the new models from the Romanian computer family, namely Felix, appear. These were the computers that had been exported to Communist countries for 10 years. This first computer family, exclusively destined to solving the requirements of industrial units regarding production management and other applications, as well as economic and central units, was followed by the emergence of Coral, Cub and other computer brands.

In 1980, based on original Romanian research, the first Romanian personal computers where designed and built. aMic was created in Bucharest, Tim-s was created in Timişoara  and Prae was created in Cluj, within I.T.C.I. under the supervision of engineer, professor Miklos Patrubany, PhD.

I provided this brief introduction to the history of Romanian computers in trying to explain the context which favored the emergence of Prae, the computer created, designed and built in Cluj. I did not choose this model at random, but rather due to a very good reason. Until not a very long time ago, I could read only about this computer, as well as about its precursors, without being given the opportunity to study one up close. As many others, during my childhood and teenage years, I had a Spectrum-compatible computer, either Cip-02, 03, HC 85 or Junior, computers which, even though they had only 64 kilo octets worth of memory, including the 16 ko where the Basic language was lodged, eight colors with two levels of brightness, they were technologically superior to old Prae.

There are only a few, rare such computers left, and recently I found one buried in a heap of electronic waste. I found it hard to believe that it was in front of my eyes. It was partially disassembled, covered by a coat of dust that was thicker than the one found on cobbled streets on a hot summer day, a relic which was useless to others, but which was a treasure to me, not a material one, but rather an emotional one. I was extremely happy, as happy as I was as a child when I got a new toy. Together with a good friend of mine, I placed it on my desk and we started studying it. From a single glance we could easily notice the genius behind the engineering team which designed it, as well as the fine detail which evolved to the level of art in terms of its execution. Let us not forget that this was done in the '80s.  After we identified the connections it required, we set out to plug it in the attempt to identify the possible flaws. Even if I knew that there are small chances to repair it and make it function again, it would have been virtually impossible to find integrated circuits and other components used over 30 years ago. Nevertheless, we set out to fix the computer.  We identified the inner source of power which had a bridge rectifier attached to it, something I had not seen in many years. After checking the cables, we plugged it in. To our great surprise, we heard a beep sound coming from the loudspeaker in the motherboard. I was overjoyed. That short, squeaky sound was music to our ears. It was an entire orchestra which seemed to interpret an aria specially-written for us. Although 20 years had passed from its production, the sound it made brought us the same joy as the cry of a newborn baby would. When I heard that sound, I imagined how, after a long and undeserved sleep, the processor was brought to life. The inner quartz started to resonate again; the inner silicon and oxides had been brought to life. All the 2,5 Mhz of the Z80 processor were alive, apparently. After the euphoria subsided, we carried on with our work, trying to determine a way to connect it to the screen. For those of you who are not familiar with these computers, named H.C. (home computer) at the time, it should be known that the way the information was stored in audio mode, on magnetic tape, using a tape recorder or a magnetic recorder. The display was provided by the common TV set.  These solutions for the storage and display of information were chosen so as to decrease the costs, at the time. It must be understood that, in those days, technology had a prohibitive price, because it was very expensive, while the workforce was cheap. After identifying the 5-pin port which served the video exit, I created a connection cable between Prae and a classic TV, using its video complex entrance. As soon as I started the TV and the computer, we realized that it would be too good if the computer started working and if the image were displayed on the screen. Even though our enthusiasm lowered in intensity, we were not disappointed and we reopened the computer's carcass in order to find both the problem and its solution. Upon a closer inspection, we noticed a shielded metal box, which we soon realized was a modulator for the video signal. We soon realized that, at the time, the TVs did not have an entrance for a complex video signal, but only to a modulate one, via the antenna's cable. I reconfigured the connection cable, and I connected the unit to the TV's antenna jack. After looking for the signal for an hour, and after switching two TVs, we successfully connected the computer to the TV. It was fully functional. Partly euphoric, partly enthusiastic, we started executing short command lines, from simple mathematical operations to 2nd degree equations. The language written in the 16 kilo octet worth of memory is Basic, a version which was slightly altered and which was named Prae Basic. The display is alpha numeric only or, at least, we did not identify a graphic command in Basic that could work.

Prae is a statement which pledges for the power of engineering genius, and for the quality research done at Cluj.


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