2018/08/23


Student Spotlight Interview: Robert Patrick Jameson
by Chloe‘ Skye

Robert Patrick Jameson is a Fulbright student with affiliation to Charles University. He is, in his own words, re-examining the history of the personal computer behind the Iron Curtain, specifically Czechoslovakia from circa 1975 to 1997. In our interview, he discusses how computers were popularized, adopted and used (particularly during the 1980s) and how they influenced the transformation of the Czech economy, as well as his deep dive into socialist-era tech magazines! 



Fast Facts: 
Hometown: St. Paul, Minnesota
Age: 29
College, Major/Minor: M.A. History, Iowa State University. Currently enrolled in History Ph.D program at the University of Kansas, with a major field in Russia and East Europe and minor fields in Urban History and History of Technology.
School in the Czech Republic: Charles University Faculty of Social Sciences 
Favorite Czech Phrase: Strč prst skrz krk – a tongue twister that means ‚Stick a finger through your neck‘
Favorite Czech Food: Vepřo knedlo zelo (pork, cabbage and dumplings)
Favorite Quote: 
“The purpose of morality is to teach you, not to suffer and die, but to enjoy yourself and live.” - Ayn Rand 

Describe your research for me.
I'm re-examining the history of the personal computer behind the Iron Curtain, looking at the case of Czechoslovakia from circa 1975 to 1997. The common view among historians of technology is that socialist countries like CZSK inevitably failed to successfully adopt personal computers for ideological reasons (control of free speech, bureaucracy) and reasons related to the inefficiencies of centrally planned economies. I acknowledge that those were important factors, but I look at other reasons as well: a cultural orientation to Western technology, the USSR as a monopsonistic market for CMEA computers, endemic poverty, language barriers, and the lack of a public constituency for computers in CZSK. 

I also examine how computers were popularized, adopted and used (including computer skills) in late socialism, especially the 1980s, and how that created a core of knowledgeable users that drove the Czech economy's transformation into an information and service economy over the last three decades. Day-to-day, my work consists of reading through and copying sources from the popular and professional technical press, like Sdělovací Technika and Věda a Technika Mladeži, and oral interviews with Czechs and Slovaks involved in the computing scene in the '70s, '80s and early '90s - computer scientists, programmers, repair technicians, youth club leaders, physicists, and so forth. 

What makes the Czech(oslovak) situation unique?
I am looking at the Czech government‘s efforts to adopt personal computers, which begin in the late 70s with their attempts to reverse engineer the famous Intel 8080 microchip. They produced their own copy in 1980 with the company Tesla (which was headquartered in Bratislava at this time). About four years later they started producing their own personal computers, which were used predominantly in Czech and Slovak schools. But the Czechoslovak governments invested a lot of money into reverse engineering or importing Western technology to the country and trying to teach kids to program as well as basic computational skills. They wanted to popularize computers as the next big thing and update the economy. It was ultimately a failure if you consider the spread of computers or number of computers available. But even with computers being so scarce in the 1980s in this country, there was still a generation of kids who grew up being able to fix their own machines and write their own software and videogames, for example, because you couldn’t buy them or they were too expensive. They were a very technically savvy-generation that led the way for the tech and information economy in the 1990s and early 2000s.

How have you been discovering more about this time period?
There’s a popular kids magazine that’s still being published called ABC, or Abičko. There was a section where, in the 80s and 90s, readers would write in and say, ‚Okay, I have this computer and I want this game or software, and I can trade you this kind of game or software,‘ so you can track who has what computer by their actual addresses across the country. I have mapped them out. A lot of them are in Prague or in other major urban centers, but you also have a concentration of people who were lucky enough to live in small towns or villages along the northern border, You‘d have people who would cross over into Poland, which had looser regulations at this time, or would cross into Eastern Germany to get computers imported from West Germany like the ZX Spectrum or the Atari 800. Czechoslovak versions were all over the country and they weren’t well-liked, but they were distributed.

How do you find interview subjects?
A lot depends on luck or a daisy-chaining process where, once I‘ve established a rapport with my subjects, I ask them to connect me to one or two people they know, for example someone who was in their computer club, a private collector or someone who taught at their school. I‘ve been fortunate that they always think of other people and possibilities.

Have you encountered any challenges in your time here?
In my research I’ve been fairly fortunate because I’ve been here before (editor’s note: this is Robert’s fifth time here, and he has been coming to CZ on average every other year for the last ten years) and I knew what materials I could use, like the magazines I mentioned previously. Otherwise it’s just being an outsider in someone else’s country for a long period of time. For me personally, I’m more interested in the history and not so much getting into the Czech cultural milieu. I’m already used to the pork-eating and beer-drinking culture (laughs). But it doesn’t feel like a vacation to me. I mainly do my work, sometimes I go to conferences and I travel to interview people. Overall, the main challenge is that I miss family and friends back home.

What has been most rewarding about the Fulbright program?
Without Fulbright, I couldn’t do my research and thus wouldn’t be able to finish my Ph.D program. This would have represented a big blow professionally and personally. Fulbright gives me an invaluable opportunity by providing funding and the organizational scaffolding without which I wouldn‘t be able to accomplish what is essentially my life‘s work.