OWC Senior Software Engineer, George Rath, shares his story about how a Mac 512K he pieced together in a refugee camp changed his life after fleeing Communist-controlled Hungary.
At the age of 26-27, I used to be a known Russian hacker living in Hungary. The original meaning of the word “hacker” was a person who could fix model railroad electronics and firmware for model railroad shows. Later it was used for any kind of hardware/software fix, installation, software workarounds, etc.
The word “hacking,” as it is used today, pretty much has nothing to do with what it used to be – until around 1990. Today the word “hacker” refers to what used to be called a “cracker” – a bad guy involved in computer crime. My first “hack” was when I learned to read punch tapes by looking at the holes.
My daytime activity was working as a programmer for the Ministry of the Industry in Hungary. I wasn’t really happy with my daytime job, so in the evenings, I was hacking ROMs of Western Digital controllers to match them with the MFM hard drives sold at that time. These weren’t something you could buy easily, even in the States. And everything in Hungary was contraband. For example, printers could be used for political dissent.
In 1986, the price of drives, and these were 10–40MB drives was around $250 to $300. A typical salary in East Europe was $50 – $150, and tech equipment had 100% to 200% duty charges. So it is easy to see how finding hardware and software workarounds became the norm. A typical hardware/software hacker would earn money by adapting these expensive hard drives to the expensive controllers, and work on some administration database projects, too.
When my wife got into political problems with the Communists, who were in control at the time, we escaped Hungary to West Germany. In Germany, for the first few months, we had no work permit, and I had to do something. My IBM PC wasn’t with me, so I looked for other interesting objects. I found a used Mac 512K, with no hard drive, and a lot of issues. I spent time learning how to expand the hard drive possibilities, add SCSI interface, and so on, and in a few months, I had a relatively up-to-date Mac workstation in the refugee camp! No one believed it – that this could be true.
In 1993 we left Germany because I was hired in the U.S. – as a Mac OS specialist! Until my time in the German refugee camp in 1988, I had not even seen a Mac. That was 30 years ago, but it determined all my further activity, up to today.
There is a funny side, too: the cheapskate mentality of the refugee camp is still in my brain; I probably will never get rid of it. I still enjoy fiddling around with older machines and trying to fix or upgrade them. My wife is the witness of this and is the one who suffers – I still have a nice “collection” of Macs made in the last 20 years.
My original Mac 512K is sadly gone.