Romanian calculator CoBra, international star in communism. How he was sabotaged at an event in the USSR

The CoBra supercomputer, an entirely Romanian product, was a multifunctional device, appreciated abroad, and even a source of pride at international exhibitions – where it was not surprising when Moscow's employees stole its most important piece.

Newer version of the computer, charging unit and a promotional poster PHOTO

CoBra was one of the few high-performance computers produced in Romania during the communist period. It was a major success because it could be used in different fields: entertainment, education and economy.

It was the only Romanian computer produced in Brașov, hence the name (COMputer BRAșov). The prototype of the computer was ready after a year of research, in 1986. The team that created it consisted of eight researchers, coordinated by Prof. Dr. Gheorghe Toacșe. Thus, Vasile Prodan, Wagner Bernd Hansgeorg and Adrian Maxim worked on the hardware part, and on the software part, Marcel Arefta, Sorin Finichiu, Mircea Pop and Sorin Cismaș.

The series model was released starting in 1988. The case of the latter was made in collaboration with several factories in the country (Metrom Brașov, IUS Brașov and Electromureș), the motherboard was manufactured at ICE Felix Bucharest, while the components they were imported through IPRS Bucharest. All these were assembled at the SIACT workshops of the CFR.

Half of Dacia on a “Cobra”

About 1,000 units were officially produced, which were used in technological processes (furnaces, machine tools and robots), in accounting, cargo management, video camera surveillance systems, entertainment. The price of a complete equipment was 35,000 lei, half of the price of a Dacia car. It was also sold and installed to order according to the customer's needs, in which case the price was several times higher.

“For the common man, it was bought on the black market because in a communist country like Romania you couldn't buy a computer as a natural person. The only weak point was the power supply and the 4116 memory chips, as they required three different voltages. The boot sequence (first -5V, then +5V and finally +12V) didn't work every time. It was later replaced by the 4516. After the 4164 was released, the three standard 4116/4516 memory banks were replaced by a single 4164 bank, and the RAM addressing was changed,” says Bogdan Bordea, engineer by profession, on a portal dedicated to old computers.

Tape recorder used in the system and different versions of the computer PHOTO

Tape recorder used in the system and different versions of the computer PHOTO

CoBra mainly worked in two modes: CoBra BASIC (automatic configuration) and CoBra CP/M (which was loaded from diskette).

“From the beginning, the intuition and skill of the collective directed us to realize not only a calculator as a support
only for applications in the home, games and writing letters, but to be a support for access to professional applications as well. Thus, it started with the concept of two computers in one machine, i.e. a CoBra Basic computer, compatible with the ZX Spectrum, for which there were many software products available on the market, and a CoBra CP/M computer, i.e. a computer with a system operating system CP/M, a system that was widely used at the time, hence the promotion of the product with the slogan “Two computers in one””argued Prof. Dr. Gheorghe Toacșe in a computer presentation material.

Management, ECG and TV

According to the user guide, the CoBra computer was capable of performing the most diverse tasks, such as: dimensioning and color drawing of mechanical structures, solving mathematical and scientific problems that are algorithmized, designing and testing complicated electrical and electronic circuits, economic and on-time ordering timeliness of production processes, operating robotic arms, accurately determining the state of development of a crop.

He could operate management and accounting applications, diagnose certain conditions and successfully interpret tomograms, electrocardiograms and encephalograms. It could also be used as a typewriter.

The complete computer system also included the power supply, a television or color monitor, one or two cassette players, a floppy disk drive that could be connected to another one, a printer, and one or two joysticks.

Inside the computer case were three modules: the central drive board, the floppy disk drive interface board, and the keyboard.

CoBra computer system with all components PHOTO

CoBra computer system with all components PHOTO

Black/white TVs, color TVs or other types of color monitors were used as video monitors. The computer could display an image of 256 x 192 pixels. Comparatively, today almost every mobile phone has a resolution of 2340 x 1080 pixels. If a color monitor was used, 16 colors could be used for display.

Because of the small memory, but also for the organization of applications and documents, CoBra offered the possibility of saving data on the cassette. For this purpose, an ordinary cassette player, mono or stereo, is used, which is connected to the computer through a special cable.

The joystick was used in various graphics programs or games and was also connected with the help of a special cable to the dedicated socket on the back of the computer. The serial version of the computer offered two such sockets, for two-player games. A dot matrix printer could be attached to the computer to print the information.

Made in black, by students

The success of the computer, as well as the very high price for ordinary people, caused the equipment to be hacked by Bucharest students. In folklore at the time, there was a legend that the students made more CoBra units than the factory that officially produced them. Students would get motherboards and components from the ICE Felix factory and assemble them into HC 85 cases or some crafts.

“Usually the board and components were bought from one of the hostels in Regie. To get the parts you had to have the right connections as many were stolen from the factory and sometimes the militia would raid. The CoBra board was usually mounted in an HC-85 case, as the original cases were rare and hard to come by. It was joked that more CoBras were made in the dormitories than in the factory”Bogdan Bordea also said.

The Moscow incident

News of the computer's viability reached Moscow. Between August 30 and September 3, 1988, the national exhibition “Romania 88” was held in the USSR.

In the middle of the central pavilion, in a specially fenced “arbor”, on a lift, the exhibition of the products of the electronic and radio equipment industry was placed. Electronic computing machines, special equipment for them, consumer radioelectronic equipment, medical equipment, portable and naval communication equipment and many others were presented here.

Visitors were constantly flocking around the Kobra personal computer, which attracted attention with its wide possibilities and modern design.

Although it was bolted to the pedestal, the base plate was stolen overnight. However, the Romanians had a spare.

CoBra motherboard PHOTO

CoBra motherboard PHOTO

“We were warned by Security against industrial espionage and that something might be tried. We, to be sure that there will be no problems, fixed its case with table screws in the exhibition pavilion and sealed it. The next morning, before the opening of the exhibition, the computer stopped working. At that moment I saw that it had been disassembled, the motherboard was removed, and the integrated “intelligence” were, in turn, removed. They also copied the software. We were able to get it back up and running immediately with the spare board”said Adrian Maxim, one of the engineers involved in the realization of the project.

Production of the CoBra computer was halted in 1990 due to a lack of funding for the project. The existing equipment on the market was used for a few more years, until modern computers produced in Western European countries also entered Romania.