1973, USA, John Vincent Atanasoff is named the inventor of the first automatic electronic digital computer.
1980, People’s republic of Bulgaria, the first three local computers are produced as analogues of Apple II.
1985, John Vincent Atanasoff (as a Bulgarian) receives the first class order of the People’s Republic of Bulgaria for his invention.
To this day Bulgaria is proud to have given something to the world. And this something is nothing less than what defines the latest industrial revolution – the computer. Atanasoff was of course an American whose father immigrated to the USA in 1889. So Bulgaria has actually given the grandfather of the computer to the world rather than the computer itself. The irony is that Bulgaria could have done much more if it were not called the People’s Republic of. Instead of being a story about glory and achievement this is a story of a sorry conception. The conception of the Bulgarian computer and its abortion by the communist party.
Indeed Bulgaria was a leader in computer technologies among the socialist countries in the 1980’s when it produced first 8bit processors on an Apple architecture and later 16 bit analogues of IMB PC. In the early 1980’s Bulgaria surprised the world with the first microprocessor controlled robot hand “ROBCO”. The electronic equipment of the Russian space station and shuttle was also designed and produced in Bulgaria. The main plant in Pravetz (the birthplace of the communist leader Todor Zhivkov) produced 40% of the computers used in the Socialist bloc by 1985, the electronics industry employed 300 000 people and generated 13.3 billion USD yearly.
For only a few years. Back in the 1980’s the commanding highs of the Council of Mutual Economic Assistance regarded “telecommunications as a kind of private luxury irrelevant to development planning”. We read this in Michael Palairet’s review of Berend, 1996 along with the reviewer’s own experience: “When researching the history of the Bulgarian steel industry, I was impressed by the modernity of its imported control technology, but although Bulgaria took pride in its role as Comecon’s computer specialist, the plan fulfilment spreadsheets for the mid-1980s were entered entirely in pencil or ink.” (Palairet, 1997).
Our understand of development directly affects the path of our development. This inability to predict the transforming potential of new technologies is the main difference between a capitalist system based on entrepreneurship and a communist system based on central planning. It is also an important example of what Friedrich Hayek means by dispersed knowledge and the inability to plan what we do not understand. It is widely known that communism is at odds with innovation. But those who see the world only as a revolution of one class against another remain blind to the innovation that is a revolution in itself.
Michal Palairet, Review: Ivan T. Berend, Central and easternEurope, 1944-1993: detourfrom the periphery to the periphery (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996. Pp. xviii + 414. /J45), Economic History Society, 1997:392.