Do you remember that time in the early days and weeks of the pandemic when you picked up a new hobby? You baked bread. You gardened. You crocheted. You refurbished furniture. You wrote a novel. You created a podcast… Vlado Vince built a Yugoslav computer.
The little Galaksija, an 8-bit computer created by Voja Antonić that enthusiasts built themselves using instructions published in 1983 in Yugoslavia’s first computer magazine, had an enormous impact on Yugoslavia’s IT industry. And, like other 80s tech around the world, the Galaksija computer has enjoyed a revival in recent years.
This is the story of the DIY Yugoslav computer and its enduring legacy.
Featuring the tracks “Galaksija iz 80a,” “Mustafa go brani svetot,” “Kalifornija, dobra večer,” and “Testarossa” by Detective Spook.
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Episode Transcript (and More)
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PETER KORCHNAK: This is Remembering Yugoslavia, the show exploring the memory of a country that no longer exists. I’m your user guide Peter Korchnak.
[BACKGROUND MUSIC – “Galaksija z80a” by Detective Spook]
PETER KORCHNAK: Do you remember that time in the early days and weeks of the pandemic when you picked up a new hobby? You baked bread. You gardened. You crocheted. You refurbished furniture. You wrote a novel. You created a podcast… Vlado Vince built a Yugoslav computer.
VLADO VINCE: I looked for something to do when I would come home.
PETER KORCHNAK: That something ended up being Galaksija, an 8-bit computer created by Voja Antonić that enthusiasts built themselves using instructions published in 1983 in Yugoslavia’s first computer magazine.
VOJA ANTONIĆ: I was just playing around with things. Everything that happened after that was actually not my idea.
PETER KORCHNAK: The little machine had an enormous impact on Yugoslavia’s IT industry.
DEJAN RISTANOVIĆ: It wasn’t a very powerful computer, but it works. But what is much more important than all that…it was a story.
PETER KORCHNAK: As other 80s tech around the world, the Galaksija has enjoyed a revival in recent years.
JENNY LIST: Whereas the reissued Galaksija actually is a Galaksija, which makes it yet again, unique among retro computers. You can have the real thing.
PETER KORCHNAK: In this episode of Remembering Yugoslavia: a DIY Yugoslav computer and its enduring legacy.
But before I load the program, a 64-bit reminder that this and every episode of Remembering Yugoslavia is made possible by…you. Thank you to everyone who has joined Remembering Yugoslavia as a monthly supporter on Patreon or donated on the Remembering Yugoslavia website via PayPal.
Today I welcome new supporters Tamara and Dragan.
IF you like the show, THEN join these generous people as a monthly supporter or donate one time. GOTO RememberingYugoslavia.com/Donate and DO INPUT your DATA.
How to Build Your Own Galaksija Computer
PETER KORCHNAK: Vlado Vince was born in 1991 in Zagreb.
VLADO VINCE: I am one of the last people who were issued a Yugoslav birth certificate.
PETER KORCHNAK: When in 2010 Vince moved to Portland, Oregon to study art history at Reed College, we lived in the same neighborhood for a few years but never met. A lifelong tech enthusiast, after graduating he moved to New York and ended up at the multidisciplinary art center called The Shed, where he advanced to IT director shortly before COVID hit.
VLADO VINCE: The pandemic hits New York, and we go through two incredibly difficult months. And around the time that I got to really leave my apartment for a longer period of time, for the first time, which for us really came in May of 2020, I learned that New York City was essentially suspending all municipal composting. And a part of that was also suspension of electronics recycling which brought me to visiting a community-based electronics recycling facility. And over there, I had the opportunity to pick up a couple of old pieces of tech, I bought an old keyboard and also an old camera, and kind of got to talk to people for a little bit. And that really sort of prompted me to start thinking about old tech after quite quite a long time.
PETER KORCHNAK: Perhaps you, too, rediscovered an old passion when the pandemic locked everything down. I definitely did with Yugoslavia.
VLADO VINCE: This was also exactly around the same time that George Floyd was murdered. And for the next month and a half New York, the rest of the US, exploded and protests asking for social justice—protests that I participated in. And I looked for something to do when I would come home. And messing with an old keyboard and random pieces of tech kind of had an element of centering me.
PETER KORCHNAK: Hobbies and passions, new or rekindled from the backburners of memory, kept a lot of people in the US and, I’m sure around the world, sane during the quite insane times of spring and summer of 2020.
VLADO VINCE: Fast forward to later that summer. Me and my wife wanted to visit my folks back in Zagreb. So we managed to get over there. And I was already in this whole retro, old tech frame of mind. So I started researching what were our people doing at the time.
You’re in school, and they don’t really teach you anything about technology in that intermediary period that for us is the Yugoslav experience. You know, I went to elementary school in the late 90s, then they teach you how to use floppy drives or something. There’s this sort of gap there that you’ve never really learned about unless this was your experience.
Very close to where I was, there’s an old computer museum called Peek & Poke, in Rijeka. And it was an amazing I-can’t-believe-this-thing-exists-here type of experience. Previously, I had visited the Computer History Museum in the Bay Area, which is like a crown jewel of the Silicon Valley but this, to me was so much more meaningful, because this really was a space that celebrated my own history in a way, history that maybe I was born after, didn’t really get to experience it fully. But mine nonetheless.
PETER KORCHNAK: When I heard Vince talk about this I had one of those moments where I smacked my forehead: I literally walked past the Peek and Poke Museum while I visited Rijeka last year but chose not to enter.
VLADO VINCE: The Computer Museum had two floors. On the ground floor, you kind of got the, you know, your global general history. There’s the Spectrums, the Commodore 64s, etc.
But then you go up, and you find this kind of amazing room that’s full of these logos and names that you don’t really knew [sic] existed. I remember there’s these boxes that say, RIZ—Računarska Industrija Zagreb, like Computer Industries Zagreb—like what the hell is that? I grew up in the city, I didn’t know we had a computer industry.
I was just so profoundly happy to see all these things. Like there’s these calculators, there’s a photo of Tito checking out a calculator, like, it’s all kind of like kitschy and campy in the best way.
But this to me was the moment where I was like, “Okay, this is a fascinating topic that I don’t know nothing about. As a young person working in tech, as a young Yugoslav or post-Yugoslav person working in tech, it’s my responsibility to educate myself.” And the best way I educate myself is by doing something practical. So I decided I got I got to either obtain or build one of these machines.
PETER KORCHNAK: He honed in on perhaps the most famous one of these, an 8-bit microcomputer called Galaksija. This was a DIY computer Yugoslav techies had been building themselves in the 1980s based on instructions, schematics, and documentation published in the magazine called Računari u vašoj kuči (Computers in Your Home).
The summer of 2020 was a big one for the little Galaksija, in fact. An article in the summer issue of the socialist magazine Tribune titled “Socialism’s DIY Computer” stoked Vince’s inspiration. And Vince learned about a group of people in Novi Sad making a documentary about the Galaksija and crowdfunding to produce kits for it. Unfortunately, they did not return my invitations to contribute to this story.
[BACKGROUND MUSIC – “Galaksija z80a” by Detective Spook]
VLADO VINCE: I’m so happy they’re doing this, but the timeline just wasn’t sticking with me. So I decide, I’m gonna take the advantage of living in New York, where you really are able to obtain things more quickly than you are in the Balkans. And I’m just going to order all of this stuff myself. I’m going to build this computer.
PETER KORCHNAK: Vince followed a few self-imposed rules. He would use the guide from the inaugural issue of Računari u vašoj kuči (of course, the scans are available online); use only original or identical parts except the power adapter; and stick to a few memory limitations.
VLADO VINCE: This doesn’t go as planned. And yeah, I’m really struggling to build it.
PETER KORCHNAK: It became for Vince the same sort of situation I experience any time I undertake a home improvement project: no matter how much research I do in order to accomplish this thing I’ve never done in my life, I end up taking way too many trips to the hardware store, and back and forth and back and forth I go until I figure it out.
VLADO VINCE: What really becomes significant for me in trying to build the computer is really about trying to understand what 1983, 1984 in Yugoslavia was like for the folks who were interested in technology.
Galaksija was wonderful, but it wasn’t the first Yugoslav computer.
The Trials and Tribulations of Yugoslavia’s Computer Industry
PETER KORCHNAK: The trajectory of the Yugoslav tech industry followed that of the country itself. From the late 1950s thru the early 70s Yugoslavia experienced a kind of a boom, albeit financed in large part by foreign aid, mostly American, IMF loans, and remittances from guest workers, mostly in West Germany. Industries were developed, living standards improved, the arts flourished, literacy and life expectancy grew, the country was freer and more open than its Eastern Bloc counterparts…
VOJA ANTONIĆ: It was a socialist society. And if you don’t interfere with politics, then you are okay. No one will help you but no one will mind your work.
PETER KORCHNAK: Voja Antonić is the creator of the Galaksija computer that Vince built last year. Born in 1952 in Šabac, in today’s Serbia, he began to dabble in electronics in elementary school. His first project, or should I say “operation,” at 13 years old, was a board featuring a map of Yugoslavia with nails hammered in the locations of major cities connected on the back to nails hammered to city names in the legend. When you connected a city’s name with its correct map location, a light went off.
The first Yugoslav computer was a mainframe called CER-10, developed at the Mihailo Pupin Institute in Belgrade in 1960 for the Tanjug news agency. Yugoslavia was then one of only six countries that had their own computer. From 1960 to 1975, state institutions, companies, and the military used CER iterations in their operations, bookkeeping and such.
Due to administrative bias, or bureaucratic laziness as I came to think of it, Antonić was not admitted to engineering studies and so he ended up at the Faculty of Dramatic Arts where he made in the late 1970s the first computer animations in Yugoslavia using cobbled-together equipment and software he wrote.
As the country began to disintegrate in the mid-70s and the economic crisis began to unfold in the early 1980s, the state abandoned its tech policy and switched to importing mainframes. Microcomputers and Yugoslav citizens interested in getting their hands on these increasingly popular machines were not so lucky.
VLADO VINCE: Unlike the West where at the time computing was just such an exploding market, in Yugoslavia these things are really kind of niche. And an important difference in the way the state is approaching this effort is that microcomputers are not things that you need on a big national level. There’s sort of this lack of vision that perhaps was present earlier.
VOJA ANTONIĆ: We formed just the kind of group of people interested in computers at that time. And we asked just, if the government could modify the regulations of that time, which were actually awful.
PETER KORCHNAK: The Yugoslav state imposed a strict cap on the imports of goods to manage foreign currency reserves and the trade deficit. You could buy no more than 50 Deutschmarks worth of stuff abroad, or about 100 US dollars, obviously not enough to buy a computer. Inflation that was gathering pace at the time didn’t help either.
DEJAN RISTANOVIĆ: Back then, there was not much talk about computers in former Yugoslavia or Yugoslavia. So there were very rare.
PETER KORCHNAK: Dejan Ristanović was a reporter at the popular science magazine called Galaksija at the time.
DEJAN RISTANOVIĆ: And the import of those computers was limited. Well, actually, I wouldn’t say limited, I would say it was impossible. So nobody was actually allowed to import computers. So some were smuggled, some were imported by some little companies…
PETER KORCHNAK: Shopping trips to Graz or Trieste were part of life in Yugoslavia, which allowed its citizens to travel fairly freely. But because of the import limits, people often resorted to smuggling goods from the West—jeans, underwear, appliances—and some brought in an odd Sinclair ZX Spectrum or Commodore 64.
VOJA ANTONIĆ: We just asked if they could allow us to buy and import computers from the western market. But actually, there was no reply to our questions and our request. You know, we had we had even a kind of public dialogue with some politicians in our printed press. And one of politicians said that we actually do not need no computers because we don’t need programmers. We said that we will need programmers in the future, which turned out to be true, but he said that we need no programmers because he has heard that Americans will produce the computers that program themselves, you know, that are self-programming computers. So we will not need programmers. That’s the kind of people that we were dealing with.
PETER KORCHNAK: “There was no other way but to continue smuggling, bribing, and hiding the equipment deep under the laundry in a suitcase,” Antonić wrote in a 2015 article for Hackaday, “a news website for the global hardware hacker and technology enthusiast.”
Watching the ascendance of microcomputers in the West, a number of Yugoslav companies in the first half of the 1980s developed their own machines, to use internally, by state institutions, or in schools.
[BACKGROUND SOUND – Assorted Orao computer noises]
VLADO VINCE: None of these companies that made Yugoslav computers were computing companies. They decided, “Okay, well, it’s the 80s, it’s time to start making computers.”
I love the story of this Lola 8, which was also a contemporary microcomputer made by the Ivo Lola Ribar, the manufacturer of heavy machine tools.
PETER KORCHNAK: Partner, Ivel, and Pekom too never became household names. Galeb and Orao, made by PEL Varaždin, fared a little better but were still too expensive for individuals as well as mutually incompatible.
VLADO VINCE: So they make this Galeb computer that doesn’t really sell.
They need to start production for the Orao and this is a much more ambitious project, like they want to get into the 1,000s. And in order to get permission to import parts, the state mandates that they have to essentially account for everything they’re importing, they need to export something out into the world. So they end up making wicker baskets. They are making wicker baskets, so they can make computers. This to me is the perfect illustration of the absurdity and also the wonder that is the Yugoslav computer industry of the 80s.
Computer Galaksija Is Born
PETER KORCHNAK: One of the byproducts of socialism, whether it be the restrictive kind we experienced in Czechoslovakia or the looser kind the good people of Yugoslavia enjoyed, was creativity: People had to come up with ingenious ways to bypass top-down restrictions on social and economic life.
Where some entrepreneurial Yugoslavs smuggled computers from the West, Antonić made his own. “When you live in a totalitarian, controlled and ‘happy’ society, and you want to be a hacker, you have to hack the social system first,” Antonić wrote.
VOJA ANTONIĆ: I can tell you the story, but you should imagine it just like not so serious project. I was just playing around with things. It was just one of many of my projects.
PETER KORCHNAK: By then Antonić had developed things like a timing system for skiing contests and a machine for transferring frames from monochrome monitors to 16mm film.
VOJA ANTONIĆ: I just wanted to see how simple [a] computer you can make, the computer that still works. The most expensive thing, the most expensive stage of the computer of that time was the video interface, which generates video signal. Everything was quite simple: You must have the microprocessor some some program memory, some data memory, some DC supply unit, and some keyboard, and now you need video, which took at that time, it took maybe 80 percent of the hardware of the computer. So I just was thinking, how I can use some internal registers in microprocessor Z80 to generate that video signal.
PETER KORCHNAK: The year is 1983.
VOJA ANTONIĆ: I was at my summer holidays. I had to go to the summer holidays, although it’s very boring for me. I was just married, and I had to go somewhere. But actually it was just wasting too much time on the beach. Then I started working on that concept for generating video signal with almost zero hardware.
PETER KORCHNAK: Recalling Vince’s decision last summer in Rijeka to build his Galaksija, I am beginning to think there’s something about the Adriatic coast that makes techies want to build computers. I don’t know.
VOJA ANTONIĆ: And when I came home, I started applying it on my table and it worked. And I said, “Well, if it works and this, if it’s really that cheap, then anyone can make it.” Why wouldn’t I publish it somewhere?
Everything that happened after that was actually not my idea. It was just a good moment. It was happening automatically somehow.
PETER KORCHNAK: While Antonić was working out the computer build on the coast in Montenegro, the editor of the popular science magazine Galaksija, Jova Regasek, tasked the 21-year-old Dejan Ristanović to put together a follow up on an earlier successful article: a special edition dedicated to computers. There were no computer magazines in Yugoslavia at the time.
One day a reader approached Ristanović with a pitch. His godson named Voja Antonić had built a computer and would like to share it with the public and would the Galaksija magazine be interested.
DEJAN RISTANOVIĆ: I was very very interested in that. So I went and met Voja, saw that computer. I was impressed really, I was impressed because not only did he made [sic] that computer, he also made other computers before that as prototypes, including the one he was using to develop software for Galaksija, system software, Assembler and so on. So I was like, “Wow!” It was a small apartment, but he had so much interesting equipment. And he was obviously very, very able to do those things. So I took him to my editor and they talked and—
PETER KORCHNAK: —decided Antonić’s home-made computer would be featured in Ristanović’s special edition of the Galaksija magazine, Računari u vašoj kući, Computers in Your Home.
VOJA ANTONIĆ: It was another lucky moment for me to meet Dejan Ristanović. He was just planning to publish the first issue of the first computer magazine in Serbia. And it was good moment to work on that do-it-yourself project Galaksija. And everybody was willing to help about that. And it really turned out to be great.
PETER KORCHNAK: First, the October 1983 issue of the Galaksija magazine featured an article by Ristanović introducing the project. At Regasek’s insistence, they named the DIY computer after the parent magazine, Galaksija—
DEJAN RISTANOVIĆ: —and told the readers that they will be able to assemble that computer using legally imported integrated circuits and motherboard and some other passive components that could be purchased in Serbia, Yugoslavia.
PETER KORCHNAK: And he asked readers to send him a letter confirming they were interested in this project.
DEJAN RISTANOVIĆ: And we expected that there will be some 10, 15, 50, 100 interested people—
PETER KORCHNAK: In Antonić’s telling, he said 50, Ristanović 200, and Regasek more than 500.
DEJAN RISTANOVIĆ: —but it was much, much more, and about between 800 and 900, we received that number of letters. So it became even in the magazine a very important project.
And it was also a great inspiration for Voja. And he started improving that computer.
So in a few months, Galaksija was [a] much better computer than it was initially. But it was still the same computer: easy to assemble and not very fast.
PETER KORCHNAK: The special Galaksija magazine edition, Računari u vašoj kući, Computers in Your Home, came out in December 1983. The cover story: the Galaksija computer and how to build one at home plus the essentials of programming in BASIC. For less advanced geeks the edition also included articles about what computers are for, how they work, and how to choose your first computer.
DEJAN RISTANOVIĆ: It was a huge, a tremendous success for that time. We had to two or three times print additional copies of the magazine because everybody wanted to have that.
PETER KORCHNAK: The initial run of 30,000 sold out quickly, and the three subsequent runs sold another 90,000 copies.
DEJAN RISTANOVIĆ: Now when you look at that special edition in that magazine now it’s bad print, it’s low-quality paper, and so on. But for those who bought it, it was so precious, so so interesting information, how to use BASIC, how to select the computer, and on top of all that how to build your own computer.
VOJA ANTONIĆ: That do it yourself project turned out to be very successful at that time, even much more than anyone expected. We got in our magazine, we got 8,000 of letters of people who built [the] Galaksija computer with their own hands, we can just estimate the number of all the built computers, because not everyone will write the letter.
When you make something with your own hands, you’ll have different psychologic approach to that thing, some other emotional relationship, it’s not the thing that you bought and you can dispose it of one day. You keep it for your whole life.
PETER KORCHNAK: On the pages of the magazine and otherwise, both Antonić and Ristanović helped Galaksija builders to obtain parts, domestically or from abroad, essentially organizing a supply chain for the computer. People could order domestic parts directly through the magazine, others by following the instructions included therein.
VOJA ANTONIĆ: I was just helping people with the advices [sic] how to smuggle them, how to order, how to hide the real price, so that it does not exceed the supposed 50 Deutschmarks, and so on.
PETER KORCHNAK: Antonić also programmed for free the EPROMs, erasable programmable read-only memory units, with the system software. Galaksija builders simply had to mail empty EPROMs to him with a self-addressed and stamped envelope. There was no source for the computer enclosure, the box housing all the tech. People had to build their own.
VOJA ANTONIĆ: Because everyone had to build the computer with his own hands, we had thousands of computers, which are same computers, but different looking computers. Everyone built the enclosure with the material that he had, or maybe with no enclosure or— But all of them were different. So I don’t think that it will ever happen in history again, to have the type of computer with which you don’t have two twins, which are completely the same.
PETER KORCHNAK: The duo also helped Galaksija builders troubleshoot the computer.
VOJA ANTONIĆ: I helped hundreds and hundreds of people if they had some problems with, with bad soldering or something, I help them to make that computer work. That’s all that I did.
PETER KORCHNAK: Later in 1984, a couple of Yugoslav companies manufactured Galaksijas for use in schools.
According to Ristanović, Antonić sold them the project on the condition the magazine can publish it for its readers with no associated licensing fees. And while they first refused to call the computer Galaksija, they eventually conceded, and the commercially produced Galaksija was born.
Računari u vašoj kući became a standalone magazine, in print until 1999, and a couple of additional computer magazines emerged following its success.
And Galaksija became a national story.
[SOUNDBITE – “Kompjuterska škola” clip from TVB, 1984]
DEJAN RISTANOVIĆ: It wasn’t a very powerful computer, but it works. But what is much more important than all that: with 10,000 people, maybe nine or 10,000 people building, purchasing the kit and making a computer, it was a story. It was a story for classic media. So papers wrote about that. We went to television. There was just I think, one or two programs at that time on national television and so everybody watched those programs.
Voja and I went there and talked about the Galaksija, about computers in general, what can you use the computers for? How to build a computer? What can you do with that computer?
So it was a great time, it was a lot of work, but really great time.
PETER KORCHNAK: A fascinating aspect of the Galaksija phenomenon was the software. While Antonić wrote and distributed the system software, a lot of programs, mostly games, were written by Galaksija users themselves.
VOJA ANTONIĆ: There were no hard discs or flash memories or anything like that at the time, there were even no floppy discs. So we had to record our programs on cassette tapes and on compact cassettes.
My friend, Zoran Modli, who is who was a famous radio host in Serbia of the death of that time—sadly, he died last year—he had a lot of radio shows at the time and he had the idea to publish those programs through the radio, you know, in his shows.
They were recorded actually in some kind of audio format and thanks to that, you could just emit them in radio show and everyone with a cassette recorder could just record that program and use it as a normal computer program.
PETER KORCHNAK: Modli had already been broadcasting microcomputer programs on his Ventilator 202 show by the time Galaksija came along. He simply added the DIY computer’s software into the mix.
[BACKGROUND SOUND – Program loading to Galaksija computer]
VOJA ANTONIĆ: The emitting of those programs lasted maybe for one minutes or two minutes and I was afraid that everyone will just run away, that people will stop listening but I was luckily I was wrong. People loved it and people recorded it and they started exchanging their programs through radio shows.
And even one bright idea of Zoran Modli of that time, we had a digital magazine, which was emitted through the radio. You could download it through your radio and read it on your computer.
PETER KORCHNAK: This was the third time broadcasting code over the radio occurred. The first to do this were the Dutch in 1980, the second the British in the summer of 1983 just a few months before Modli. Over three ensuing years, Modli broadcast some 150 computer programs, mainly for the Galaksija and ZX Spectrum.
Galaksija Computer’s Impact…and Fallout
PETER KORCHNAK: So in 1984 Galaksija became a Yugoslav computer celebrity. Its impact extended far beyond its popularity—or indeed its creator’s intentions.
DEJAN RISTANOVIĆ: That computer itself, it was not so useful. You could play some games, even the graphics was low resolution. It didn’t have a printer, it had little memory, and so on.
That computer in itself made people hear about computers, made people interested in computers and made me feel believes that they can really own a computer and use it maybe some more powerful computer, and use it for some business or personal work. So it really made people aware of computers.
VLADO VINCE: Galaksija wasn’t just a computer.
PETER KORCHNAK: In the process of building his own Galaksija, Vlado Vince, a techie art historian that he is, immersed himself in the Yugoslav IT world of the 1980s.
VLADO VINCE: Galaksija was a whole big project of publication, distribution channel, community, and, finally, actual machine.
There’s this group of people that put this whole structure together so that you, a random, young, or maybe not so young person living virtually anywhere in the Yugoslav land, can obtain the parts for, can obtain the documentation and the instructions for, and then eventually build it. And that really wasn’t the case with any other of these microcomputers.
Galaksija really ended up being this kind of like national computer because it had a path to the people. And what’s also really interesting is, it was very much kind of a labor of love, really something that came from the bottom up and not from the top down.
PETER KORCHNAK: Michael Eby’s Tribune article “Socialism’s DIY Computer” not only provided Vince with an inspirational boost for his build, it also came to diametrically different conclusions.
VLADO VINCE: I actually love his work and I love his article. But from what I took from his conclusion was sort of this kind of ambitious and utopian claim that Galaksija truly was like this people’s computer that really ended up being made, because, he says, “It embodies the stratification 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 to be barriers to entry.”
And there’s something about this that is both wonderful and just not necessarily true. And what isn’t necessarily true is that Galaksija never had the potential really to be for the masses in a literal sense. It definitely was for the masses in its intent, in its overall effort, in its considerations. But what I don’t really agree with is that the Yugoslav socialist state of the mid-80s, so the very late Yugoslav state, really provided neither the structure nor the initiative, nor support for any type of wonderful effort like that. And that instead, Galaksija ended up being a way around the limitations that that state had imposed by that time.
I think that is very illustrative of sort of the two sided nature of what Galaksija teaches us, right? It both teaches us what an inspired and hardworking group of people was able to achieve in that arguably a very difficult period. And it also teaches us what, you know, the results of that wonderful effort were: getting folks to be able to import their ZX Spectrums and Commodore 64s.
VOJA ANTONIĆ: I dare to say that with computer Galaksija the computer revolution started in my country and that’s, that’s the truth. There were some other projects with other computers, but I think that they came a little bit too late and they could not be so successful like Galaksija. But they were not do-it-yourself projects, it was buy-me project[s], not build me.
PETER KORCHNAK: And the revolution was quite disruptive.
VLADO VINCE: Galaksija was so famous and successful, because it effectively killed the Yugoslav microcomputer industry.
Because Galaksija brought micro computing, really at the center of attention, you had tens of thousands of people who were interested in building it. And a part of this attention was actively being used to effectively lobby the state to change the strict customs regulations that prevented the import of foreign made computers. And Galaksija was very successful in doing that, because in late 1984, the SIV, Savezno Izvršno Viječe, the Executive Council of the Communist Party, introduced new legislation that essentially allowed folks to start legally importing foreign microcomputers.
PETER KORCHNAK: Shortly after the Galaksija killed the Yugoslav computer industry, I too was index-finger-punching BASIC commands into a domestic machine in an elementary school class, creating shapes and making little Q&As. PMD-85 was a Made-in-Czechoslovakia dark-gray box which we could work on for 15-20 minutes at a time before it overheated and smoke came out of it. My best friends were a guy with an Atari and another with a Didaktik Gama, a domestic ZX Spectrum clone.
And I guess I too look on that era with some nostalgia, one reason why the story of the Galaksija caught my eye. Another Czechoslovak company produced DIY computer kits in 1989, but the product flopped completely; I’ve never even seen one. As with so many other things, the Yugoslavs really were ahead of other socialist countries in computers as well.
Anyway. Antonić made the Galaksija in part in order to bypass government-imposed limits on computer imports. Thanks to the Računari u vašoj kuči magazine, [the] Galaksija became a hit, popularizing computers in the country. The government took notice and changed the regulations to spur the industry and allow computers to be imported. The floodgates opened, the foreign computers that everyone wanted in the first place took over the market, and the Galaksija, and with it Yugoslavia’s entire, albeit tiny, computer industry became obsolete. Like a successful beneficial project, the Galaksija worked itself out of existence. Alas, Antonić’s fortunes mirrored the Galaksija’s.
[BACKGROUND MUSIC – “Mustafa go brani svetot” by Detective Spook]
VOJA ANTONIĆ: Those early trends made the computer Galaksija to be forgotten very, very fast. Because of course, I could not follow the trends in the multibillion industry.
And a few years after that, the Galaksija computer was not just completely forgotten, but people were making jokes, were making bad jokes about it, they were laughing at the computer, laughing at me. People were telling [sic] that they have the phone which has [a] thousand times bigger computer power than my Galaksija, and so on. You don’t feel good when you hear something like that. I was unhappy that I bought that I built that computer, that I offered it, and…
PETER KORCHNAK: Things went from bad to worse for Antonić in the 1990s.
VOJA ANTONIĆ: You know, we had war, and civil war at that time, people were dying. And we were under embargo. You couldn’t have enough money for your basic your family’s basic needs unless you were you were a bad guy of that time. It was hard to live for an honest man, to live at that time.
And at one moment, I had to move out from the flat that we were living on in three days. So when you even don’t know where you will live on or what you will do and you have no money and you have to do something but you don’t know what to do. Then I just disposed [of] several prototypes of Galaksija which I kept. I thought that they are really worthless. Everything was worthless that moment. I disposed of a lot of my projects. I’m very sorry about that. Now, of course, but there’s nothing I can do.
PETER KORCHNAK: Antonić spent 20th century’s last decade writing newspaper articles and books demystifying Serbia’s faddish obsession with the paranormal and the occult.
In 1995, the same year Antonić became temporarily homeless and threw away his Galaksijas, Ristanović founded a new computer magazine, PC Press, which is still in existence.
DEJAN RISTANOVIĆ: A long time ago, I wrote an article about that project, when it was long gone. And we asked people to write their thoughts about that, people who made that computer who knows somebody who made it, what they think about that. And well, nearly all of them said, it was so great experience. I wouldn’t do it again but I like it to remember that very, very much. And well, that made me feel happy.
Once in a while, I got an email or meet somebody and so on, who say, “Well, you know, you helped me choose my profession.” And one of them said, “Without you, I would be a doctor, so I have to congratulate you for not making the army doctor.” So he became an engineer, of course.
I’m very glad to hear it from time to time, it’s nice to hear that things you did help people find their world, their professions, their hobby, and so on.
PETER KORCHNAK: Antonić has had the same experience.
VOJA ANTONIĆ: Now I still receive a lot of emails from people who just have to say, “Thank you for changing my life.” Now I’m working somewhere, maybe in Canada, Australia, US, Germany, somewhere, as a computer specialist, and they just want to say thank you, you changed my life. And this is [a] great thing to to think about, isn’t it?
PETER KORCHNAK: Ristanović later started an internet service provider company which brought broadband to Serbia; 10 years ago he sold that company to a multinational.
[BACKGROUND MUSIC – “Kalifornija, dobra večer” by Detective Spook]
As Serbia’s prospects looked up after the turn of the millennium, so did Antonić’s.
VOJA ANTONIĆ: After that quite bad period for me, when some kind of renaissance of computers started in this century, first, I was invited by the Museum of Technical Science, I think, from Belgrade, to donate one sample of Galaksija to them.
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PETER KORCHNAK: It turned out he hadn’t thrown out all the Galaksijas after all.
VOJA ANTONIĆ: And later also, the same thing arrived from the Computer History Museum from California, from Silicon Valley, and I also donated one sample of Galaksija to them, and now it’s the exhibit in the Computer History Museum, which is just between Google’s building and Microsoft building in Silicon Valley. And that’s what makes me very proud.
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I’m doing new projects, I have more than 100 published projects, do it yourself projects. None of them was as successful as Galaksija computer. And that just makes me happy to communicate with a lot of people, which are enthusiasts also. That’s just makes me spend a better life. I’m happy about that, you know what I want to say?
Now I’m working as a digital hardware engineer in Pasadena, California—
PETER KORCHNAK: —for Hackaday in fact, the very place where he wrote about hacking socialist Yugoslavia’s system.
VOJA ANTONIĆ: I moved four years ago, actually it was just one day before my 65th birthday. I don’t feel like an old man now. I’m still the same enthusiasm [sic].
And I’m happy that I have the job here, which also enables me to communicate with enthusiasts here in [the] US and to help them perform their projects. So I can say that I’m really happy now, at last. That’s it.
[BACKGROUND MUSIC – “Chariots of Fire” 8-bit version]
If you want to be happy, you just have to be creative and you will be happy by default. You will never be bored that way. Sometimes still, sometimes I have just to stop my work and to go out and to walk just to dissolve the adrenalin rush, and just to calm down, because it’s not good to be too pleased and too happy. I don’t think that it can it can kill you, but you have just to calm down sometimes.
How can you be bored if you are if you are doing the job which fulfills you so much. You know what I’m talking about. You don’t need no drugs. You don’t— You will never never be depressed. And actually, you will spend the life worth living. That’s it.
Galaksija Computer and Retrocomputing
PETER KORCHNAK: That renaissance of old hardware Antonić was talking about has a name: retrocomputing.
VLADO VINCE: I think it really is coinciding with a couple of things. First of all, you know, there’s definitely the idea of 20 or 30-year cycles in pop culture in general. And I think what we’re really seeing is both the generation that lived with these devices as kids finding them again, or like remembering them, after a long time. I know a lot of people in the retrocomputing community are folks who were kids in the 80s, who are now sort of rediscovering these computers of their early youth. But then there’s also folks like myself, who really never got to experience them, learning about them, and really wanting to experience them for the first time.
JENNY LIST: I’m a kid who was in primary school in the 1970s. As you can probably tell by my accent, I’m from the United Kingdom.
PETER KORCHNAK: Jenny List is a contributing editor and European correspondent at Hackaday.
JENNY LIST: So I was very, very lucky to be just at the right age to be just getting into secondary school when the first of the 8-bit computers came to market. My first computer was a Sinclair ZX81. And it’s still the only computer I’ve ever had that I have fully understood how it works from the ground up; I understand how it works, I understand its microprocessor and its memory and its display. This is why retro computing is of interest to me, because they’re computers that can be understood by an average engineer, shall we say.
The Galaksija fits in very well with that because it’s a uniquely understandable computer because it’s not based around custom chipsets and black boxes protected by Digital Rights Management. It’s a computer you can actually understand by looking at its circuit diagram. And the other unique thing is quite a lot of reissued retro computers. Some fans have taken, let’s say, the Sinclair Spectrum and have reverse engineered it and they’ve produced a board that does the job of a Sinclair Spectrum but isn’t actually a Sinclair Spectrum, it wasn’t made by Clive Sinclair’s company. Whereas the reissued Galaksija actually is a Galaksija. It’s from Voja’s bench, which makes it yet again, unique among retro computers, you can have the real thing.
PETER KORCHNAK: Antonić and List are, of course, colleagues at Hackaday.
JENNY LIST: It’s not every day you meet the guy who designed one of the seminal computers for an entire generation in a country. Him writing about the Galaksija here was absolutely fascinating, because, of course, as a kid on my side of the Iron Curtain, I’d never heard of the computers that were on the other side of the Iron Curtain. And to discover, I mean, it’s not entirely, should not be a surprise, but to discover that the geeks on the other side of Europe were doing exactly the same as us is immensely cool.
PETER KORCHNAK: With retrocomputing I can’t help but think that part of the appeal is the veneer of geeky, for some maybe even hipsterish, cool that old tech imparts.
JENNY LIST: My generation, the generation who had 8-bit computers in the 1980s, are now at the point where they can rediscover their youth. They’ve been through all the modern computers, and modern computers are cool, but they’re very samey, and they go back to their first love. So there’s been a huge revival of interest in everything from 8 bit Atari consoles through things like the Sinclair Tiger machines, Apple 2’s, Commodore 64s, all the way through to sort of Amigas and even the sort of earlier decent spec PCs. If somebody grew up with it somewhere there will be a fan base around resurrecting old ones and preserving them and writing software for them.
VLADO VINCE: There are certain aspects of that interest for some of us who are younger, who cannot remember where these end up really being signifiers of a past that is cool. But they may not really contain all the emotional or really cultural significance that they may hold for other folks.
JENNY LIST: Yes, it’s certainly to do with re-experiencing your childhood in a way probably that you never did before. So the number of people I know now who have all the toys that they couldn’t have when they were teenagers.
[BACKGROUND MUSIC – “Testarossa” by Detective Spook]
There’s also a cultural thing. There’s very much a nostalgia for past formats, technical devices, you know, things such as the revival of the sale of cassette music, for instance. I strongly suspect not many people are buying cassettes to actually listen to them, they’re probably buying the cassette and downloading the digital version or streaming it. They’re buying the cassette as a thing to own. That’s all part of this nostalgia for past entertainment things. It’s for instance, you might know synth wave music, it’s like 80s synth music only it’s a turbocharged 80s that’s far better than the real 80s ever were. You know, there is a thirst for this.
VLADO VINCE: Now that of course, is a more global thing.
I think there’s definitely aspects of that same cycle occurring in and post-Yugoslav states as well. You know, I can definitely speak for Croatia in particular, there is definitely currently an ongoing wave of 80s nostalgia, there has been one for quite a while now.
PETER KORCHNAK: The Croatian TV show Crno-bijeli svijet, or The Black and White World, is a prime example of this phenomenon. The Galaksija magazine makes an appearance in a couple of episodes. And in Season 3, Episode 1, which takes place in the spring of 1984, a highschooler assembling a smuggled ZX Spectrum references the backwardness of the Yugoslav computer education by mocking programming an Orao computer with BASIC.
[SOUNDBITE – Excerpt from Crno-bijeli svijet]
VLADO VINCE: And I think it largely coincides with that generation that was young, maybe a little older than than kids, but really like people who were in their 20s in the 80s are really folks who are currently sort of at their professional peak, and have a disproportionate influence on our pop culture.
PETER KORCHNAK: As with Yugonostalgia, I wonder how much of retrocomputing is driven by resistance, how much of it is an expression of dissatisfaction with or a critique of the present state of affairs in the computer world.
JENNY LIST: Very much the PLAY button is increasingly being turned into the PAY button and you know, all these sort of download the game but you want in-app purchases and that kind of stuff. And it’s very refreshing to have a game where you just shove the cartridge in the machine and play it and that’s it.
And certainly, there are quite a lot of handheld consoles, which are designed to be completely playable, completely hackable, lots and lots of fan-written software that’s free to download, which is the absolute antithesis of your handheld, modern console from a large manufacturer—he wants you to pay to download all the software and probably pay a subscription on top of it as well.
PETER KORCHNAK: Retrocomputing has its own challenges in former Yugoslavia.
VLADO VINCE: There’s also this painful topic of, when you look at how retrocomputing in our local community is looked at. There’s two sides of it, as I guess there always is, in our post-conflict societies. There’s folks who are going to be looking at, you know, the quote, unquote, Serbian computers, which Galaksija will often get cited as, which to me, it just seems intellectually dishonest. Where some other folks are going to look at these, like Galeb and Oraos made in Varaždin and be like, “Oh, yeah, this is a Croatian computer.” I think if you go to Wikipedia, it might say it’s a Croatian computer, which is like, I mean, yes, in a very limited sense it is. That, of course, like gives this unfortunate flavor to our local topic, but I think we really are going through a more global phenomenon.
PETER KORCHNAK: A number of enthusiasts, mostly in former Yugoslav countries, have built Galaksijas over the past 10-15 years, and a few documented their accomplishments online, providing Vince with ready-made support.
As for his Galaksija…
VLADO VINCE: It is functional now. I’m so happy to report that it’s still functional. After I completed it, I kind of had a couple of these, it works for a couple of days and then something breaks because, you know, my soldering skills aren’t the best. But yeah, it’s been working for a while now.
PETER KORCHNAK: Vince may have concluded the Galaksija project but he isn’t done with Yugoslav computers. His next challenge: building an Orao computer.
VLADO VINCE: What I really am hoping to do with the Orao is to get a more in-depth story about what computing education was like in that period of the late 80s. It’s really this deep archival study and trying to make some types of conclusions and narratives out of that.
PETER KORCHNAK: On his blog, Vince writes: “While I don’t think we should all go back to making our own computers…I do wonder if there are other ways we can lay claim to the technologies we use–to transcend the cycle of perpetual consumption and waste generation imposed on us through planned obsolescence. For me, learning this history is the first step.”
VLADO VINCE: What I do find valuable about really kind of engaging with the topic in almost like a thought experiment type of way is the potential it has to influence our thinking about technology right now.
This is also where I’ve found my experience trying to engage with this material and learning about the things folks did then and thinking about, “Okay, well, how is this relevant to me now, in 2021, when we’re living this dystopian technological future with megacorporations ruling the internet, having our data, the potential to have an impact that comes from the bottom up in a way that Galaksija did,” and thinking like, “Okay, well, where are we now? And what can I learn about this other than, you know, all of this, that is important to me because of my heritage.”
[BACKGROUND MUSIC – “Chariots of Fire” 8-bit version]
And did those geeks in 80s time,
Type upon their computer screens:
And was Voja’s Galaksija
In Yugoslavs’ pleasant rooms seen!
And did the Računari mag
Shine forth upon our nerdy thrills?
And was Galaksija built here
Among these dark socialist ills?
Bring me an imported Spectrum
Bring me some 8 bits of desire
Bring me a Commodore, o Lord,
Build me a Galaksija, sire.
I will not cease from tinkering
Nor shall my soldering gun sleep
Till we have built retro Eden
In my monitor’s pixel keep.
PETER KORCHNAK: Next time on Remembering Yugoslavia, we’ll stay in the 80s:
MITJA VELIKONJA: But in the 80s, together with the decline of Yugoslavia in economic, political, and social terms, you know, the culture erupted as such.
PETER KORCHNAK: Nostalgia for the 1980s continues to flourish. Why is that? What was so special about Yugoslavia’s final decade? Find out on the next episode of Remembering Yugoslavia.
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PETER KORCHNAK: That’s all for this episode of Remembering Yugoslavia, thank you for listening. Find additional information, videos, screenshots, and the transcript of this episode in the show notes at RememberingYugoslavia.com/Podcast.
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Outro music courtesy of Robert Petrić. Additional music by Petar Alargić licensed under Creative Commons; 8-bit Chariots of Fire courtesy of Vlado Vince; tracks by Detective Spook played with permission, eternal gratitude, and special thanks to Martin Petkovski.
I am Peter Korchňak.