Seven years of Slušovice’s IT underground
It was the one time in Milan Frnka’s life that he “has worked for the party”. “A chair of a communist manufacturing centre came to me once and asked me to create a computer program that would generate records of party meetings. That way he wouldn’t have to call meetings but have the needed documents to send to the regional KSČ bureau,” the former head of the IT sector of JZD Slušovice, Frnka, recalls. It was the early ’80s, the communist regime controlled everything, but the IT experts of the exemplary agriculture coop in Beskydy mountains lived their lives independently. “Since the communists didn’t understand computers, they let us be.” Programmer Milan Frnka belongs to the star team of Slušovice’s IT experts –the only Czech business that has offered a comprehensive computer manufacturing.
Slušovice managed to nestle in a privileged spot during normalisation, reporting a turnover of hundreds of millions, and not owing to agriculture.
IT production and sales came about by chance, actually. Although the coop has been using a computer for the calculation of wages in the early ’80s, its capacity wasn’t sufficient and it couldn’t carry out multiple operations simultaneously. So, the coop’s chairman František Čuba, a master at bypassing communist economic regulation, headed out to find innovation. At the Slovakian academy of sciences he found the right computer and with it three Slovakian programmers whom he brought to Slušovice.
“They offered me doubled the pay than the academy of sciences and incomparably better working conditions,” Frnka recalls when he arrived to Slušovice from Bratislava and found himself in a world at the time unimaginable for many. Aside from a wage of CZK 3,500 (a teacher, for instance, was paid CZK 2000, a doctor few hundred more), the 15 members of the IT team had flexible working hours, were paid by results and, above all, had around-the-clock access to computers. “In Slušovice, we didn’t create things to put inside a drawer, and that was what fuelled it. We were making exactly what customers wanted and could immediately put to use,” adds his former colleague Evžen Varadínek who came to Slušovice from the Institute of Chemical Technology in Prague.
The first batch of computers stayed in Slušovice—used for dosing vegetables with nutrients, monitoring milk production in cow stables and manufacturing of machinery. “It wasn’t planned for, the production began spontaneously and gained its own momentum,” says the former chief of hardware production Miroslav Janda.
That system of ours
In 1984 other businesses noticed JZD’s progress and, within a few months, queues formed for Slušovice’s latest products. Čuba decided to take a risk and launch production and do business with electronics. The computer was named TNS–originally short for Terminal Network System, but the programmers didn’t want to provoke the regime and called it Ten Náš Systém (that system of ours)—and was initially employed in agricultural businesses, later seeping into research institutes, hospitals and even schools.
“The communists in coops had to accept an allied production because we would have to employ people in the winter,” Janda explains. Although many people linked the “Slušovice miracle” with Čuba’s connections to party heads, the chair says that all was done within lawful bounds—including the manufacture of first 8-bit computers at a time when the market was wholly regulated.
The components came from the Czechoslovak market. Software development was the most expensive and Slušovice surely priced their computers at royal highs of around CZK 200,000.
With the Czechoslovak components not meeting the higher-performance 16- and 32-bit computers, components needed to be bought abroad, pulling up the computer prices. The coop established a barter trade. The agro-combine supplied agricultural products, fertilisers and apple cider in exchange for processors and memory. In the second half of the ‘80s Slušovice couldn’t meet the demand. Despite the embargo imposed on communist countries by the west, the coop was importing whole computers by the component, only injecting its own software. “JZD had a deal with the communist secret services,” dissident Stanislav Devátý who’s worked in Slušovice as a technician says.
Although the engineers came up with 8-bit computers at a time when this was a passé in the west, they tried to keep up with the world, finding their way to literature from abroad and foreign experts through other Czechoslovak colleagues. The team, for instance, created a computer network using optical cables—an up-to-date system still today.
Initially, the communist regime didn’t like the computer production. “But development turned around at the snap of a finger in 1987—the time of the Russian Perestroika, and Slušovice’s development came in handy for the communists. They began to flaunt the computer production,” Varadínek says. Starting 1987, communists began bringing visitors into the production centre. Although IT experts weren’t excited about the delegations, they utilized it for their own purposes, inviting over experts from abroad and traveling mainly to Japan, Canada and the US. “We intended to buy materials and machinery for the production of components and pay back partially with production and software development,” Frnka says. Just before sealing such deals, when JZD bloomed, came the revolution.
Charter on a disk
Apart from local residents, JZD also employed believers, communists as well as dissident and endorsers of the Charter 77, including Arnošt Kohút and Stanislav Devátý who was ousted from the coop in February 1988. “In 1988 and 1989 we encoded the charter texts onto disks that could only be opened by those who knew about it,” Evžen Varadínek recalls.
After the revolution, the elite team of programmers broke up and Čuba’s miracle JZD close down. “Suddenly people could buy better-quality computers from abroad for a better price. I don’t think that the domestic computer production would have held up long term,” Janda says. The one attempt to keep employees proved unsuccessful and, so, the former colleagues meet today as competitors on the global IT market. According to Milan Frnka, the computer production in Slušovice remains undervalued. “Communists criticised us for spreading capitalism among the youth. After the revolution everything turned around and people scolded us for endorsing socialist education of youth in schools.”