The aim of this paper is to describe Hungary’s early involvement in the Comecon's Unified System of Computers (Ryad) and its impact on the country’s computerization. This case study details Hungary's complex situation at the time: its engagement with Western computer companies, its willingness to participate in Ryad, and the impact of its newly introduced economic reforms on these processes.
This paper provides a case study of Hungary's early involvement with the Ryad project and its impact on the country's computerization. First I give an overview of the state of its computing industry and changing economic system in the years leading up to the Ryad project. Then I describe how the country managed its tentative attempts to engage with Western European computing companies and its newly accepted obligations in the Ryad, and used the situation for its own benefit. Finally, I introduce the institutions that were created to accommodate the Ryad project, and show how they and the new economic system impacted the field of computing in the country.
The computerization of Hungary started out relatively slowly even within the Eastern Bloc, not only in comparison to the Soviet Union but also to Poland and Czechoslovakia (, ). The first computer in the country, a clone of the Soviet small computer M-3, was operational only by 1959 (,  and ). By 1965, the country of 10 million citizens still had fewer than 50 computers altogether and only one outside Budapest, the capital.
However, the mid to late 1960s brought two promising domestic computer developments for the country. Between 1966 and 1968, the Central Physics Research Institute, KFKI 1, cloned the popular DEC PDP-8 small computer under the name TPA 10012. As it was compatible with the PDP-8, its developers became members of the DEC User Society (DECUS) in 1969, gaining access to most of the software that was already available. The TPA 1001 was in standardized production from 1968, first with transistors, then with integrated circuits. It was a successful minicomputer by Eastern European standards, as around 600 of them were sold in Hungary and Comecon. Later members of the TPA family were in production until 1990 .
Around the same time, a small to mid-sized computer family (with four model sizes) was developed at the Factory for Electronic Measuring Instruments, EMG. This independent and original design, the EMG 830, was also introduced in 1968 and about 15 of them were manufactured during the next two years. While the TPA machines were manufactured to satisfy the needs of the scientific community, the EMG 830 was created primarily for business applications (,  and ).
In 1968, Hungary introduced economic reforms. These had a long-lasting impact on the way enterprises operated, and consequently deeply impacted the computing field as well. The so-called New Economic Mechanism introduced a mixed economic system, where planning was retained only at the macro-economic level, while enterprises enjoyed freedom on the micro-economic level. That is, annual and five-year plans were prepared for the national economy as a whole, but these were not broken down to targets on the level of the enterprises anymore. This meant that enterprises had freedom in deciding what to produce in what quantities. The government influenced their decisions only in forms of incentives, such as taxation, credits, non-repayable grants, etc. There was also larger freedom in pricing: the government set only price-ranges for products, and within that range, enterprises could set their own, market-driven prices. In addition, the largest enterprises were encouraged to export their products as well, and partially finance themselves from foreign markets. However, state ownership remained unchanged. Not only did the enterprises remain state owned, but their leaders remained state officials, still being appointed or dismissed by the government (, , ,  and ).
These new economic policies impacted the computer industry in two important ways. In general, the impact they had on the country's economy was to foster computerization. Since enterprises now had more freedom in their production and were not just mechanically fulfilling central plans handed to them, they became interested in optimization. This new focus on optimization led to an increased interest in the use of computers for business data processing. The other impact of these policies was that enterprises now had to raise at least part of their own budget. In the case of the computer industry it meant that manufacturers advertised more aggressively and offered more well-rounded services, while “software-houses” actively sought possible users.
In the second half of the 1960s, the leaders of the National Committee of Technological Development, OMFB4, chairman Árpád Kiss and vice chairman János Sebestyén, were aware that Hungary had to decrease its deficit in computer technologies and appropriately computerize the country. However, it was clear that it could not do it on its own, despite the promising domestic projects at KFKI and EMG. To remedy the situation, OMFB decided to acquire a Western European computer license. The sole promising interaction took place with France, who saw this as an opportunity to promote its newly established government program, Plan Calcul, internationally. Starting in early 1968, meetings began between the government organizations, Délégué à l'Informatique and OMFB, and the manufacturing companies, the newly established French “national champion” CII5 and EMG (, ).
The license in question was that of CII's 10010 computer, which was a downsized version of SDS’6 Sigma 2, and all of its future versions. The upgraded computer, the Mitra 15, was CII's own genuine design. It was modeled after DEC's minicomputers and was, consequently, not compatible with the 10010 .
The impact of the New Economic Mechanism is already apparent in the reports about the license negotiations that EMG sent to OMFB. These reports consider the remunerativeness and time efficiency of the different options based on the estimated domestic market needs, instead of merely trying to fulfill a state-planned, preset requirement .
In January of 1968, Kosygin, the Chairman of the Council of Ministers of the Soviet Union, reached out to the governments of Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, the GDR, Hungary, Poland and Romania to invite them to join the Unified System of computers, the development of an upward compatible family of computers. The invitation was eventually accepted by all countries but Romania.
Participation in the joint effort appeared beneficial for the satellite countries for multiple reasons. It promised a whole family of computers that they would not be able to develop on their own, while creating a stable national industry with an easy access to the entire Eastern European market. In addition, in many of these countries, it guaranteed for the first time the steady backing of computing industries by the highest level of government, both politically and financially.
During the second half of 1968, the Soviet leadership of Ryad decided to use the IBM S/360 as the“prototype” of the project, i.e. to reverse engineer the most successful computer on the international market (,  and ). All satellite countries, with the exception of the GDRsup>7, opposed this decision without any affect. They feared that engaging in an essentially reverse engineering project would lead to the demise of their national computer industries and suppress domestic computer developments, innovation and research.8
In this complex situation the goal of the Hungarian political and professional leadership was twofold. On the one hand, purchasing the French license was considered of utmost importance, as it was part of a deliberate effort to restart technology and knowledge transfer from Western European countries through legal channels. On the other hand, they wanted to use the participation in Ryad to benefit the Hungarian computer industry. Thus, during the Ryad negotiations, Hungary offered to contribute a small computer to the project that was smaller than the smallest member of the IBM S/360 family, with the goal of basing such a computer on the CII license, which was not IBM compatible. Hungary closed the negotiations with CII and bought the 10010 license only once it was able to push this proposal through the Ryad decisionmakers.
To participate in as large an international undertaking as Ryad, Hungary had to create several new institutions. The international bureaucracy had to be handled; the domestic effort had to be organized.
Hungary first created its own, domestic bureaucracy that was also connected with the general Ryad bureaucracy. The main international governing body for the Ryad was the so-called Intergovernmental Commission on Computing Machinery, ICCM. The main political institution Hungary created was the Interdepartmental Commission on Computing Machinery, SZTB9. It enjoyed large freedom, as it was not subsumed by any of the ministries. It was the first time the computing industry and computing professionals had direct political representation on the highest levels. As part of the Ryad project, SZTB delegated the Hungarian member of the Council of Chief Designers and managed the Hungarian participating institutions and factories on the political level. Once it was created, its responsibilities were not restricted merely to managing Ryad-related issues, but to promote computing in general. Soon SZTB established the Central Development Program for Computing, SZKFP10, the first country-wide plan addressing every facet of computing.
The most important professional organization of the Hungarian Ryad participation was the Institute for the Coordination of Computing Technology, SZKI11, founded at the end of 1968. Zsolt Náray, the former head of the TPA program at KFKI, was appointed as its director. Thus, it was ensured that one of the few people who were already experienced in overseeing a computer development project was in charge from the beginning. Náray, as the head of SZKI, represented Hungary in the Council of Chief Designers on the international level. The primary goal of the institute was, of course, to coordinate hardware and software development and the manufacturing of the Hungarian Ryad computer. SZKI was also responsible for the documentation and the approval of the machine and its software.
However, in spite of its name, the activities of SZKI went beyond coordinating the development of the Hungarian Ryad computer. It also attended to independent, non-Ryad related research and development tasks as well. But this opportunity came with an obligation: SZKI became responsible for raising a portion of its own budget.
This prompted SZKI to actively promote computerization and to seek out possible users in Hungary as early as 1969.
SZKI also managed to engage with Western computer companies through its existing Ryad duties. This was due to the strategic maneuvering of the SZTB politicians. In order to facilitate real knowledge transfer beyond mere technology transfer from the licenses and other engagement with Western companies, SZTB requested from these companies that a portion of the price be paid by Hungary in services. This meant, for example, the participation in the software development of CII's Mitra 15 as part of the payment for its license. This strategy was especially viable in the field of computer technologies, where Western European companies were willing to “buy market shares” in Eastern Europe to counteract the global dominance of IBM. SZTB managed to secure that 40% of the CII license could be paid in research and development services. This led to a strong cooperation between CII and SZKI employees. For example, when CII's Mitra 15 was introduced to the public at the 1971 SICOB12 trade show in Paris, SZKI employees participated in the installation of the computer on site.
Besides SZTB's insistence, the New Economic Mechanism also fostered this kind of engagement with Western companies, for it allowed and encouraged large enterprises to finance themselves and their growth partially through international export. As a consequence, the cooperation with CII was only the first of many with Western companies.
As SZKI's Ryad-related tasks became more and more routine over time, it devoted increasing amounts of its capacities to domestic and Western European commissions that were independent of Ryad. This led to a“westernized” work culture at the Institute with additional benefits of higher wages and the potential for regular international travel for its employees. By the 1980s, SZKI functioned more as a software house with additional research and development projects than an institution with the main focus to coordinate the actions of the Hungarian computer industry (,  and ).
As the rapid growth of the computer industry, along with the number of computer installations, was expected as a result of Ryad, the country needed scores of programmers and operators in a short period of time. To quickly remedy this increased need for computer experts, a new Computer Education Centre, SZÁMOK13, was created as part of the Hungarian Ryad effort already by the end of 1969.
In accord with the aforementioned intention of Hungary to engage legally with Western companies, SZÁMOK bought an educational license from the Control Data Corporation, CDC. This meant that it was allowed to use the CDC's educational materials for 6 years and received its updates. As the New Economic Mechanism encouraged international expansion of large enterprises through export, in 1972 SZÁMOK applied to the United Nations’ Development Programme, UNDP, and won a contract for computer technology education in developing countries and Hungary. Subsequently, in 1973-1978 SZÁMOK received 2.2 Million USD from UNDP, which played a pivotal role in its development. During this period annually around 7000 people attended the trainings offered by SZÁMOK in Hungarian, English, German and Russian. It also published, sold, and distributed its own textbooks, about 12-14 titles and 45,000 copies annually. Once the first generation of Ryad computers was available, SZÁMOK educated Hungarian computer specialists about the imported Ryad computers, and offered trainings on the Hungarian Ryad computer both in Hungary and abroad (,  and ).
In 1973, around the time most of the first generation Ryad computers were nearing regular production, the NOTO-OSZV was founded. Every country participating in Ryad had a “NOTO” institution, the Russian acronym loosely translating into National Organization of Technical Service. The Hungarian subsidiary was OSZV14, which stood for National Enterprise for Computer Technologies. These organizations had the most important job in spreading the Ryad computer technologies in their respective countries. OSZV was responsible for importing Ryad computers through the foreign trade office and installing them. The service provided by OSZV was comprehensive. It designed and built computer centres, maintained the import machines and supplied them with software, all under warranty. It also organized training courses about the Ryad machines and a software club for it users. In addition, it acquired Western software and adapted it, and even distributed certain IBM software through IBM Hungary15. Again, the software acquisitions were legal purchases or license based (,  and ).
Although the CII license was purchased for EMG, in December of 1970 it was transferred to VIDEOTON. This came as a surprise to most participants of the computer industry, because even though VIDEOTON was the largest electronic manufacturer in the country, it had absolutely no experience with computer technologies. As a consequence, EMG's computer development program shrank and was terminated after a few years (,  and ).
As VIDEOTON was not prepared for manufacturing computers, the production and distribution of the Hungarian Ryad computer was delayed. VIDEOTON founded its Factory of Computer Technologies16 only in 1971. Due to its lack of experience and prestige in computing technologies, VIDEOTON had trouble recruiting an experienced workforce, and had to hire almost entire electrical engineering and programmer cohorts that had just obtained their degrees at the University of Technology in Budapest .
During 1971, VIDEOTON manufactured around 100 computers based on the CII 10010 license under the code VT-1010B. However, Hungary's contribution to the first generation of Ryad computers was VIDEOTON's computer based on the Mitra 15, under the code names EC-1010, VT-1010, or more colloquially referred to as R10. It was adapted to Ryad standards by VIDEOTON and SZKI. Due to VIDEOTON's lack of experience, the operating system17 of the computer was adapted entirely by INFELOR (the first Hungarian “software house”) and KFKI.
It was introduced to the public in 1972 at the Budapest International Fair18, and was distributed by late 1973 . Altogether almost 500 of them were sold in the Comecon countries. Although the shift to VIDEOTON caused a delay in the delivery of the R10, it was still among the earliest Ryad machines.
The Hungarian Ryad computer, the VIDEOTON R10 (EC-1010) with its VT 340 (EC-7168) graphical display terminals
In addition to manufacturing computers, VIDEOTON became involved with two kinds of peripherals: printers and graphical display terminals. As VIDEOTON was a known television manufacturer in the region, its entry into display peripherals came as no surprise. With the peripherals, the company followed a similar route as with the computer. Its goal was to purchase Western licenses legally, thus maintaining Hungary's tentative rapprochement to the West, while being able to market its peripherals as high quality licensed products in Eastern Europe. VIDEOTON's early line printers were based on Dataproducts licenses. In the end, VIDEOTON had to develop its own CRT graphical display terminal, as its license negotiations with Siemens did not reach an agreement. Its display, VT 340 (EC-7168), was an especially successful product, sold all around Eastern Europe.
Despite not having any experience with computing technologies, VIDEOTON quickly became successful in this field as well, and grew to be the second largest computer company in the satellite countries, with only the East German Robotron being larger at the time. This quick expansion was due to VIDEOTON's experience with international distribution and marketing of its televisions and other household electronics. VIDEOTON's market strategy was to emphasize the Western origin of its products and downplay their Ryad involvement, in order to price them more highly than the usual Comecon products. With the success of VIDEOTON, Hungary became a net exporter within Ryad.
Assembly of the VIDEOTON VT 340 (EC-7168) graphical display terminalsat VIDEOTON's Factory of Computer Technologies
This case study showed the swift expansion and development the Hungarian computing industry went through in only a few years at the turn of the 1960s and 1970s. The opportunity for such growth in the field of computing was due to the country's involvement with the joint Ryad effort that guaranteed unprecedented political and financial support for the sector and a large international (Comecon) market. The institutions founded to accommodate the project covered all aspects of computing, from hardware and software development to education, export and import, and customer service. As the scope and service of these institutions and programs went beyond the framework of Ryad, they impacted and accelerated the computerization of the country in general.
At the same time, Hungary fulfilled many of its Ryad obligations through legally obtained Western licenses. Seeking out Western licenses (not just in the field of computing) was part of a national strategy to re-start technology and knowledge transfer from the West. This trend was also fostered by the New Economic Mechanism that encouraged large enterprises, like VIDEOTON, to finance themselves and their growth through export activities. Despite the fact that this strategy was independent and even prior to the country's involvement with the Ryad efforts, most likely it would have been infeasible without the political and financial support that became available due to Ryad.
The Ryad project is understudied in the scholarly literature, which is most likely due to its being seen in a negative light. Be that as it may, this case study shows that Ryad strongly impacted Hungary's computing field and computerization in general. Most likely it was similarly impactful in the other satellite countries, and in the Soviet Union as well. Thus, in order to understand the history of computing of the Eastern Bloc, a more systematic examination of the joint Ryad project seems necessary.
I would like to thank Bálint Dömölki, Miklós Havass, Ervin Kovács, Pál Németh, and Pierre Mounier- Kuhn for their help and encouragement of my research on this topic. I would also like to thank Kendra Chilson for her help in proofreading multiple versions of this paper.
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1. Központi Fizikai Kutatóintézet
2. Tárolt Programú Analizátor
3. Új Gazdasági Mechanizmus
4. Országos Műszaki Fejlesztési Bizottság.
5. Compagnie Internationale pour l'Informatique.
6. Scientific Data Systems.
7. As the GDR had access to a couple of IBM 360/30s and 40s through West Germany  and already began examining them, it Identify applicable funding agency here. If none, delete this text alone supported reversebeonxg. ineering them.
8. Many leading Soviet computer experts and pioneers expressed similar worries concerning their domestic field.
9. Számítástechnikai Tárcaközi Bizottság.
10. Számítástechnikai Központi Fejlesztési Program.
11. Számítástechnikai Koordinációs Intézet.
12. Salon des industries et du commerce de bureau.
13. Számítástechnikai Oktató Központ.
14. Országos Számítógéptechnikai Vállalat.
15. IBM had a subsidiary in Hungary since the 1930s to sell its calculating machines. IBM Hungary stayed in operation even after the Second World War with a small number of representatives.
16. Számítástechnikai Gyár.
17. VIDOS, standing for VIDEOTON Operating System.
18. Budapesti Nemzetközi Vásár, Hungexpo.