The Computers That Came In From The Cold (Part 2)

8/14/2013 9:19:31 AM

We take a peek behind the Iron Curtain, and weirdly finds many clones of the ZX Spectrum hiding there.

In the UK in the 80s there was no better computer than the Sinclair ZX Spectrum (unless you felt the Commodore 64 was your thing). It emerged in Britain in 1982 and until the late 1980s was a dominant force in the computer industry. Mainly used for games, but also featuring some serious or educational activities, the ZX Spectrum was a great little machine.

While we in the UK thought the Spectrum was pretty super, there were other countries in the world who thought the Sinclair machine was even better than that. One such country was the former Soviet Republic, who liked the machine so much they copied it over and over again. If imitation is really the sincerest form of flattery, then the Russians flattered Sir Clive Sinclair’s computer to death.

ZX Spectrum

ZX Spectrum

This feature will look at the background to this Soviet Spectrum love, as well as the machines themselves and the software the Russians wrote for them. It will also look at the remarkable longevity of the Spectrum in the Eastern Block, with devices still being made, sold and used well into the 2000s.

The Soviet Computing Era

The Russians, of course, had their own computers, with exotic (well, Russian) names such as Lvov, Elektronika and Plyclin. However, they were all just a little bit behind the times, being a little bit 19705 in their workings, when the rest of the world was in the 1980s.

If you can speak Russian, then you can play Solitaire on your Pentagon 128

If you can speak Russian, then you can play Solitaire on your Pentagon 128

It’s not true that nothing good came from these Russian computers, though, as we all know that Tetris was written on an Elektronika, so that makes it a great computer. Nevertheless, for many Russians there were two problems with the Russian-built machines. Firstly, they were too expensive for many, and secondly, the software on them was very limited, particularly where the games front was concerned.

Then news got through to Russia of Sir Clive Sinclair’s little plastic and rubber wonder and things began to change.

Some Russians had always liked certain elements of Western culture, particularly the more decadent aspects. You only have to read the many writings about the popularity of bootleg Beatles records in the 605 and 70s to realize that among certain parts of Russian society there was a feeling that not everything in the West was bad. This also happened with the ZX Spectrum.

Many Scorpions are modified to within an inch of their lives

Many Scorpions are modified to within an inch of their lives

Sir Clive was a wily old fox, but he wasn’t wily enough to actually export his own Spectrums to Russia although he may have lasted longer as a computer manufacturer if he had worked out how to do this. What actually happened is that a few models were smuggled across the Iron Curtain and then copied... and boy oh boy, how they were copied.

Cloned in their hundreds of thousands the Spectrum spread like wildfire across the country. With not just one make but tens of different makes and models.

Now, then, is a good time to take a look at some of the more interesting models that were available.

The Soviet Spectrums

In terms of legality, the Russian Spectrums are a grey area. They are pretty much reverse engineered devices in the main, meaning they used slightly different components but got the same result. Therefore, they didn't use any copyrighted parts, but it’s still probable that Sir Clive did not like these clone machines.

Timex Sinclair 2068

Timex Sinclair 2068

The most widely known Spectrum clone in Russia is probably the Pentagon 128. I'm not really sure whether the name is ironic about the US or not, but the machine itself is quite interesting. Rather than being a complete computer, it would arrive in kit form for the user to build themselves (strangely like earlier official Sinclair kit). It also featured a range of add-on parts such as generic keyboards and joysticks and disk drive interfaces, allowing the user to create quite an impressive setup. The Pentagon 128 used no official Sinclair pans but was pretty compatible with Spectrum software from the West, making its popularity even higher among the Russian population.

Like most Russian clones, it often looked like it was fitted with an aftermarket keyboard in the style of UK favorite hardware manufacturers like Sage or D K Tronics (which, for those who don‘t remember, made proper keyboards that slotted around your rubber keyed device). However, not all Soviet clones were quite as conventionally designed.

A particular favorite of mine is the Nafanja, which not only had a built-in joystick port, but also had round rubber keys, which surely would have made typing anything lengthy nearly impossible. Others, such as the Digra, look like ancient adding machines rather than computers.

What’s most impressive, though, is the sheer ingenuity of the clone manufacturers. They used whatever parts they could lay their hands on to create their machines. It was clearly not easy to get many components in Soviet Russia, but these enthusiasts managed it somehow and were then able to get enough to manufacture the computers in quite high numbers.

They also took what Sir Clive had made and ran with it. They added extra memory (often 16KB more), joystick ports and strange keyboards. They also added disk drive interfaces and gave their humble Spectrum clones the ability to run the CP/M operating system... this had the effect of widening the software available to the enthusiasts even more. It took Amstrad to allow CP/M onto the ZX Spectrum in the West, with the building of the Spectrum +3 in the late 80s, adding a strange 3” disk drive to its newly acquired computer. In this respect, the Russian amateurs had beaten the professionals to it.

There was another clone Spectrum in Russia that rivaled the Pentagon for popularity, and that was the Scorpion. The Scorpion is interesting in just how many peripherals there were available for it. There are many examples online (just Google ‘Russian Spectrum Scorpion’) of the Scorpion in IBM PC-AT cases, with hard drives and professional monitors. Even more interesting are Scorpions built into almost modern looking PC tower cases. The Scorpion sold well, although possibly not as well as the Pentagon and, as with the others, allowed hobbyists and amateurs to get access to computer technology that was not officially available to them.

Hardware of ZX Spectrum

Hardware of ZX Spectrum

There was even a slightly official clone that was used in many schools, which was called, interestingly, the Hobbit 8030. It was a really well put together machine too. In many respects it was what the Amstrad versions of the Spectrum should have been. Released in the late 19805 but still being updated and sold well into the 1990s, the Hobbit wasn’t as cheap as some clones but offered a professional keyboard, more memory, a disk interface and even more interestingly a network interface. Not only that, but as well as Sinclair BASIC, the Hobbit also had the Forth programming language available to it (shades of the Jupiter Ace here perhaps). In the early 1990s, the Hobbit computer was even sold in small numbers by some sellers in the UK, although its use of the Russian alphabet meant it was mainly bought by ex-pat Russians.

On top of the more popular ones, there were hundreds of other clone makes available to Russians who wanted a Spectrum compatible computer. There was the Baltic, the Kvorum, the Leningrad, the Magik, the Master, the Robik, the.... Oh, alright, far too many to mention.

In many ways, the late 1980s Soviet computer scene looks remarkably similar to the 1970s California computer scene you read about with people like Steve Jobs or Nolan Bushnell. It was a time when computer clubs ruled, and people would share ideas, intelligence and parts at small meetings to create working computers.

Let’s now look, though, at what sort of software the Russians ran on their Spectrum clones.

Video tutorials
- How To Install Windows 8

- How To Install Windows Server 2012

- How To Install Windows Server 2012 On VirtualBox

- How To Disable Windows 8 Metro UI

- How To Install Windows Store Apps From Windows 8 Classic Desktop

- How To Disable Windows Update in Windows 8

- How To Disable Windows 8 Metro UI

- How To Add Widgets To Windows 8 Lock Screen

- How to create your first Swimlane Diagram or Cross-Functional Flowchart Diagram by using Microsoft Visio 2010
programming4us programming4us
Top 10
Free Mobile And Desktop Apps For Accessing Restricted Websites
TOYOTA CAMRY 2; 2.5 : Camry now more comely
KIA SORENTO 2.2CRDi : Fuel-sipping slugger
How To Setup, Password Protect & Encrypt Wireless Internet Connection
Emulate And Run iPad Apps On Windows, Mac OS X & Linux With iPadian
Backup & Restore Game Progress From Any Game With SaveGameProgress
Generate A Facebook Timeline Cover Using A Free App
New App for Women ‘Remix’ Offers Fashion Advice & Style Tips
SG50 Ferrari F12berlinetta : Prancing Horse for Lion City's 50th
Popular Tags
Video Tutorail Microsoft Access Microsoft Excel Microsoft OneNote Microsoft PowerPoint Microsoft Project Microsoft Visio Microsoft Word Active Directory Exchange Server Sharepoint Sql Server Windows Server 2008 Windows Server 2012 Windows 7 Windows 8 Adobe Flash Professional Dreamweaver Adobe Illustrator Adobe Photoshop CorelDRAW X5 CorelDraw 10 windows Phone 7 windows Phone 8 Iphone