The Unlikely Rise and Collapse of the Bulgarian Computer
Today … I am finally doing it. The video you guys have all been waiting for. Bulgarian. Computers. No, really. In 1989, little Bulgaria alone exported more computers than all the other countries in the Eastern Bloc put together.
And Bulgaria was the only country in all of the COMECON countries making hard drive disk memories. Bulgaria's electronics industry was an export force to be reckoned with. Over 11% of all Bulgarian workers were employed in the production of computers and electronics. And they produced some of the first electronic calculators and personal computers in the world. Many became iconic brands in Southeastern Europe. Bulgaria wanted to be like Japan.
I think they got pretty close. In this video, we are going to take a look at the unlikely rise and fall of the Bulgarian computer industry. ## Beginnings This might be the first time I have ever mentioned the country of Bulgaria. Bulgaria is a middle-sized country in southeastern Europe bordering Romania, Serbia, and Turkey. Area-wise it is about the same size as the American state of Tennessee and today about 6.9 (nice) million people live there.
Bulgaria as we know it today - the Third Bulgarian State - was established in 1878. As is so often the case in the world, Bulgaria started out in this time as a relatively poor, largely agricultural economy. During World War II, Bulgaria chose to fight on the side of the Axis powers. They chose poorly.
The Soviet Union marched into Bulgaria. The Bulgarian Communist Party then overthrew the czarist government, abolished the monarchy, and established the People's Republic of Bulgaria. The Party worked to rebuild the damage caused by World War II, modeling their economic policies after the Soviet Union's. The Soviets aided by offering loans and raw materials and also by buying Bulgarian finished goods at generous terms.
## Todor Zhivkov After Stalin's death in 1953, Todor Zhivkov assumed leadership of the Bulgarian Communist Party, ruling it for 35 years. His relatively moderate rule gave the People's Republic of Bulgaria unprecedented political and economic stability until its end in 1989. The Bulgarian Communist Party's economic policy focused on producing machinery and tools for heavy industry like mining, energy, and metallurgy. Zhivkov had long admired the Japanese economy and wanted his country's economy to follow its path of development. To him, Japan's top two industries were heavy industry and electronics.
In his memoirs he wrote: > "...that's what I've been dreaming about for years. Those who have interacted with me know that electronics was my weakness... I saw it as our future." ## The Bulgarian Computer Gap In the 1950s, Bulgarian scientists began studying the major tendencies of Soviet cybernetics and the computer's economic potential. The Soviet Union and other countries then started building their own computers.
The Soviets' MESM computer first fired up in 1951. East Germany's ZRA-1 - built by the GDR's Carl Zeiss company - completed their build a few years after that at the end of 1956. Similar first-generation computers were being built in Czechoslovakia and Romania - completed in 1957 - Hungary's in 1958 and Poland, 1959. Where was Bulgaria's computer? Catchup efforts were complicated by the West's export restrictions - the Coordinating Committee for Multilateral Export Controls, or COCOM. Instituted in 1950, COCOM prevented Bulgaria and other allies of the Soviet Union from purchasing high technology tools that could have helped along its industrialization. ## Computing Center In 1956, a Bulgarian professor and mathematician named Ljubomir Iliev (Любомир Илиев) participated in a conference in Moscow.
The conference - titled "The path of development of Soviet mathematical engineering" - discussed the mathematical foundations of computing technology, cybernetics, and mathematical modeling. The Soviet delegation to the talk recommended that all the socialist countries establish computing centers of their own. They noted that some countries like the GDR and Czechoslovakia were not only receiving equipment from the Soviet Union but also building their own. Professor Iliev brought this message back to his employer - the Mathematical Institute within the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences. The government received the message well and over the next two years worked to raise funds and recruit staff. In 1961, the Council of Ministers approved the creation of a new computing center within the institute as well as a new name: the Mathematical Institute with Computing Institute (ИМ с ИЦ).
## Vitosha At the start of 1962, Professor Iliev's team of students began work on the Vitosha (Витоша), Bulgaria's first digital computer. Completed in 1963, Vitosha was modeled after one of Romania's CIFA computers. It was about 4 meters long and 2 meters tall. It had about 1,500 vacuum tubes and a magnetic drum memory capable of storing about 4,096 "words". Each "word" being 40 bits long.
During operations it consumed about 12 kilowatts of power, or about the same of 15 small microwave machines. You fed in data and programs using a tape punch. After processing the data at 2,000 operations per second, the results were output using an electrical typewriter at about 15 characters per second. Upon its completion, Vitosha was demonstrated at an international exhibition in Moscow called "Bulgaria Builds Socialism".
There, it solved math equations, presented graphical information, and spelled out messages. Sadly, Vitosha no longer exists. After it returned to Bulgaria, a burst hot water pipe in the room above it leaked water onto the computer, corroding it and ruining its parts. The machine was taken apart for scrap.
## ELKA and More Nevertheless, Vitosha was the talk of the show and spurred more political support for additional work in Bulgaria in the computer fields. At the Moscow exhibition, the Bulgarian government agreed to import a computer from the Soviet Union to use - a Minsk 2. Professor Iliev did not approve of this, believing that Bulgaria should use its own domestically produced computers. The team at the Computing Institute thought about producing an even larger Vitosha-style computer with 10,000 vacuum tubes. But as Iliev feared, the arrival of the Minsk 2 in 1964 dissuaded this path. At the same time, the chairmen of the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences and Mechanical Engineering Committee write a report pointing to electronics as a profitable export industry for Bulgaria.
They note that electronics production uses a lot of labor - especially female labor, which is cheaper than male labor - but relatively few raw metals. Furthermore, they can also be sold for a very good return. The Council of Ministers agrees and allocates people, labor, and even capitalist currencies to acquire what it needs for an industry. Professor Ivan Popov (професор Иван Попов) - chairman of Bulgaria's State Committee for Science and Technical Progress or DKNTP leads it. ## Popov Professor Popov is generally seen as the founder and main driving force of Bulgaria's computer industry. He is a fascinating character.
He grew up outside of Bulgaria in France, Germany, and Hungary. Yet he remained a hard-core patriot, believing that his country's future depended on a modern economy built on top of modern technologies. Popov was a natural entrepreneur.
In a different time or place, he probably would have founded a company and not been a politician. He had a blunt, direct manner that did not always suit him towards politics. But he had a vision for Bulgaria. Here is what I mean. In late autumn 1964, Ivan Popov goes to Professor Iliev and the Mathematics Institute with a Sumlock ANITA calculator - the world's first all-electronic calculator. He tells them to produce one of their own.
A small team of three people opens up the ANITA sample. Inside they find a bunch of vacuum tubes, including a special gas-filled tube called a Dekatron. Dekatron tubes were not available in the Soviet Bloc, which was unfortunate.
But some of the team members were familiar with transistors. So they re-engineer the design to use those instead of the tubes - a brilliant choice. ## Meet ELKA Thus we have the ELKA (ЕЛКА) 6521. ELKA is short for the Bulgarian phrase for "electronic calculator". They also liked its female-ish name.
ELKA weighs about 8.5 kilograms, uses Germanium transistors and can do square root calculations, integer division, averaging and so on. It was one of the first transistorized, all-electronic desktop calculators of its age. Other products like it include the American Friden EC-130, the Italian IME 84, and the Japanese Sharp CS-10A.
In April 1965, the ELKA 6521 was demonstrated in front of Zhivkov and the whole Politburo. With their approval, the not-so-little calculator went abroad to Moscow the next month to be exhibited at the INFORGA-65 show. There, Ivan Popov - who is fluent in French, German, Hungarian, and Russian - was ready to do business. ## Selling ELKA Popov brings the ELKA-6521 to the Soviet Union's state planning committee or Gosplan. Claiming that Bulgarian scientists had made a calculator breakthrough and that large-scale factories had already been set up, he asks for a five-year high volume sales contract from the Soviet Gosplan. Popov was bluffing.
The government had indeed set up a plant in the city of Sofia to produce ELKA calculators, but the "Electronics" plant as it was called was not ready. The Russians did not buy the ELKA-6521, though a few others did. In the next year 1966, the team simplified the original 6521 design to make it smaller and cheaper, the ELKA-22. They also produced a model with a printer called the ELKA-25, likely the first such thing ever made. Popov again took the new ELKA models to Gosplan. He asks for a price of 1,200 roubles per ELKA.
Gosplan replies that East Germany offered their own calculator - I presume it was VEB Robotron's Soemtron or something like that - at a price of 730 roubles. Ivan agrees to cut his asking price to 700 roubles and they win the deal! East Germany later drops out of the electronic calculator business entirely. In 1967, Bulgaria established a new industrial conglomerate to develop and produce calculating machines - DSO IZOT. From 1967 to 1984, IZOT would generate export revenues of over 11 billion leva - roughly $10 million USD in 1967 dollars - as well as profits of 6.4 billion leva. Exports were sent not only to the Soviet Union but also outside the Bloc to Switzerland and Italy. Notably, an ELKA-42 calculator using integrated circuits would be displayed with much fanfare at the Osaka World Expo in 1970 as the first IC-based electronic calculator.
A few years later, ELKA branched out into cash registers. These systems were also powered by integrated circuits and thousands were exported to Switzerland. ## Bulgarian Semiconductors As the novelty of the ELKA 42 implies, one of the reasons Bulgaria so rapidly caught up so fast had to do with its semiconductor capacity. At the same time of IZOT's founding, the Bulgarian government set up the Institute of Microelectronics.
It had a design house in the capital of Sofia and a production fab in the nearby town of Botevgrad. The Institute was led by the famous physicist Yordan Kasabov (Йордан Касабов). A Bulgarian microelectronics pioneer, he had in the prior year produced the country's first domestic MOS transistors.
Professor Kasabov and his team rapidly accelerated Bulgaria's semiconductor capacity. He not only designed the IC for the ELKA-42, he helped manufacture them too using modern processes like photolithography, wet etch, deposition, ion implantation and even plasma etch. Some time in 1972 or 1973 - it is not exactly clear when - Kasabov and Lubomir Antonov visit Silicon Valley in California. There they experienced the semiconductor industry's incredibly rapid growth. They saw a highly integrated, 4-bit IC advertised in an AMD sales brochure or data sheet oddly named "Burbon".
I couldn't dig up an AMD chip with that name. But considering the year, it was probably the AMD Am9300, their first product or near it. Or maybe something that never came out. Anyway, they grasped that these ICs were powerful and flexible enough to build calculators and other devices on top of. They resolved to try and make something similar.
Upon returning, they produced a series of microprocessors like the CM-400 - which enabled the creation of increasingly better-performing 4-chip calculators like the ELKA-50 series. ## Unified System In 1969, the Soviet Bloc of countries got together and decided to produce a computer - the Unified System of Computers. I talked about this in a previous video. The usual way for the countries in the Soviet bloc to coordinate with one another was through the CMEA, or COMECON. But it was infamously slow. Professor Ivan Popov and his Soviet colleagues worried about moving fast enough to compete in the rapidly evolving global computer industry.
So of course, the only solution to that was to establish another international organization. Russia, East Germany, Bulgaria, Romania, Cuba, Poland and others founded the Intergovernmental Commission on Computing Technology. I'll just call it the IGCCT. As one of the founders, Ivan Popov made sure that Bulgaria would have an important role in the computer system’s production.
The IGCCT drew up a list of 105 items to produce and then assigned them like a school project to each individual country. Thanks to Popov, Bulgaria produced just three of those 105 devices but they were the some of the most valuable - memory disks, magnetic memory tapes, and a processor. To build proficiency in these, Popov arranged technology transfer agreements with Western items. For instance, Fujitsu agreed to transfer their memory tape design.
Other items like IBMs disk drives, they copied. And in order to secure this monopoly, Popov rapidly coordinated the simultaneous construction of seven new plants to manufacture various components for the Unified System computers - magnetic heads for disk drives, ferrite memories, so on. Popov pushed the construction teams hard to complete the factories as soon as possible, an incredible feat.
One of his collaborators recalled: > I had the chance to participate in the selection of sites for the new plants and when he was giving orders to the industrial architects: "I need halls 12 meters high with all the communications underground (electricity, water, etc.). And we need it in six months!" > The architects often asked about what he needed these premises for, but Ivan Popov instead joked – "I will grow chickens". The export and sale of these high-technology systems were very profitable.
Bulgaria had essentially negotiated a monopoly for itself, selling products like hard disk drives at very high prices. No other Eastern Bloc country made such drives. At the same time, the Bulgarian factories produced goods at large scale and of good quality, buying advanced equipment from Europe and the United States to improve their advantages. Margins were at almost 200-300%. Along with a very favorable, very profitable Soviet oil re-export deal, these electronics exports buoyed the Bulgarian economy throughout the volatile 1970s. ## Popov's Exit Ivan Popov had built up Bulgaria's industry to these unprecedented successes.
But his bad political skills and blunt nature became his downfall. During debates for a new Five Year Plan in 1974, Popov proposed to build mainframes in direct competition with the Soviet Union and East Germany. This proposal faced heated resistance and spirited debate, so to say.
Todor Zhivkov himself called Popov to his office and asked for compromise. Popov refused, and thus Zhivkov removed him from the Politburo and banished him to Switzerland as ambassador. In its later years during the second half of the 1980s, IZOT did eventually venture into supercomputers very competently. All of the geological centers in the Soviet Union were powered by Bulgarian computers like the IZOT-1014. These were very sophisticated computers that impressed even the Americans. By 1988, Bulgaria was exporting them to countries like India in search of a supercomputer alternative to American machines.
## Microcomputers Throughout the 1970s, Bulgaria produced these mainframes and minicomputers - which were kind of like smaller versions of mainframes. But most notably, Bulgaria was very early in on the personal computing boom. In 1979, a microelectronics engineer named Ivan Marangozov (Иван Марангозов) joined the Institute of Technical Cybernetics and Robotics within the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences. There, he brought together a small team to copy an imported Apple II computer. The team successfully produces an almost-identical clone.
The ROM was even the same, except for a name change. The most significant differences were that the keyboard was changed to Cyrillic characters. Oh, and it also stored data in the old and slow tape cassette memory that the first Apple II had. So no floppy disk drives.
Guess they would have needed a Steve Wozniak to put it together. This Apple II PC clone was dubbed the IMKO-1 (Индивидуален микро компютър (ИМКО-1)) which stands for "Individual Micro Computer". Only a limited run of these were ever made - not clear how many but at least 50 - but they were extremely popular.
Not only that, they were very functional. They took IMKO-1 to an international robotics exhibition in England and showed how it can control a robot arm. The little computer did as good a job as minicomputers many times its cost. ## Pravetz IMKO-1 was a demo, so the team goes on to build a better version for mass production - the IMKO-2.
For cost reasons, the IMKO-2 was modeled on the cheaper Apple IIe PC. It used a Synertek 6502, a second-sourced clone of the MOS 6502 as its CPU and included an optional floppy drive and a BASIC interpreter. Production of the IMKO-2 was then moved to a new factory in the town of Pravetz, Zhivkov's hometown. The commercial variant of the little PC is thus called the Pravetz-82.
82, for the year production began - 1982. Pravetz PCs were still far too expensive for the average Bulgarian. However, they were cheap enough to become reasonably accessible to ordinary people and thus became quite popular.
Production scaled up from 500 units in 1983 to 18,000 two years later. Many schools bought these PCs and a lot of Bulgarians today first learned programming on a Pravetz PC. By 1987, there were over 500 computer clubs in Bulgaria. Pravetz produced a whole bunch of very interesting 8-bit and 16-bit Pravetz PC variants. We don't have the time to go into all of them here but many are well covered in vintage computing websites.
At their peak, the factory had 3 units and produced about 60,000 computers in a year. Many of which were exported abroad to the Soviet Union, other COMECON countries, and even a few Western countries too. ## Missed Opportunity By the late 1970s against all odds, Bulgaria was one of the top 10 biggest electronics manufacturing countries in the world. But there were troubles on the horizon. In the 1970s, the Bulgarian government stopped investing in microelectronics - perhaps being unable to afford it in light of its military and heavy industry economic priorities. As a result, Bulgaria's semiconductor industry hit serious limits, impeding the country's ability to compete in the increasingly competitive environment.
For instance, the Institute of Microelectronics developed a powerful IC that could have enabled pocket-sized calculators. But unfortunately, the fab couldn't make it. Thus IZOT had to import foreign-made ICs for their ELKA-100 series of pocket calculators. Imported chips cost precious foreign currency and made Bulgarian calculators and computers more expensive as compared to Japanese and Western calculators. Considering the restraints, the only possible way out was a technology collaboration with a Western company.
Luckily, an incredible opportunity presented itself. Lubomir Antonov's memoirs recall a delegation from the American company Rockwell visiting Sofia. He didn't say when, but I am guessing some time after 1980 based on an June 1980 LA Times article about Bulgaria looking for joint ventures. They discussed the possibility of doing a technology collaboration to build semiconductors together.
A deal was struck and the only thing left to do was to sign. Then suddenly a member of State Security appears at the negotiations hall, declaring: "Gentlemen, the contract will not be signed." Confused, the Rockwell people even offered to extend their stay in Sofia to work through the issues.
But Security didn't budge and the deal fell through. No reason was given at the time. But many years later, Antonov learned that authorities over in the Soviet Union felt that the deal would bring Bulgaria too close to the United States, harming their own interests in the country. Whatever the reason was, it was a devastating blow to the future of the Bulgarian semiconductor industry. More sophisticated Bulgarian computers would then always have to use imported chips. ## Decline By 1988, the Bulgarian computer industry employed over 169,000 people or about 12% of the country's labor force.
But times were changing. In 1989, Todor Zhivkov lost his power after a botched assimilation drive of the country's ethnic Turkish minority. Opposition raged against his long rule, and he lost the support of the Soviet Union.
Finally in November 1989, he resigned at the behest of senior members of the Communist Party after 35 years. He died a few years later at the age of 86. In 1990, the Bulgarian electronics industry employed 181,000 people. The year after that, the Soviet Union too began to collapse.
95% of Bulgaria's electronics revenue came from within the Soviet Bloc, with the USSR by far the single largest market. And since so many of the industry's products were stolen from the West, once the Soviets vanished as a customer the Bulgarians had nowhere else to go. The electronics industry also suffered from its dependence on Western-sourced critical goods for its computers.
About 30-40% of the computer had to be imported from abroad. When Bulgaria's currencies weakened throughout the 1980s, those imports became prohibitively expensive. Finally, the early 1990s saw the opening up of Bulgaria's markets.
Extremely cheap South Korean and Taiwanese PCs entered the market with a vengeance and people stopped buying Pravetz PCs. The factories closed down in 1994. The once-formidable Bulgarian computer industry collapsed in seemingly an instant - shriveling away or stolen as the economy cratered. Employment crashed from almost 200,000 people to a mere 30,000 just a few years later. ## Conclusion Bulgaria's link to the Soviet Union both helped and hurt them.
Obviously, the Soviets were their single biggest customer. The Bulgarian monopoly on the computer’s most valuable parts was a gift that buoyed their economy. In some ways, it was the perfect position to be in.
But in the long term, the Soviet link was also a massive handicap. It meant copying from the West, which restricted exports, and it prevented the Bulgarians from getting closer to the West, which capped its technological progress. Zhivkov had a vision of turning Bulgaria into another Japan. They got tantalizingly close. And then it was gone.