Behind the Device of OLX

11 March 2016

The most interesting discoveries are often due to coincidences. Hans Christian Ørsted accidentally discovered elecromagnetism, and I accidentaly found a man, who helped to create an automated voice device for OLX.

While browsing Facebook I stumbled upon a book called "Očima estébáka" (Through the eyes of an StB officer). This book is a memoir of Vladimír Peták, who worked as programmer for Technical directorate of Ministry of Interior in the 80s. There is no top secret information or StB officers' real names in the book, but it's still an interesting read. It's depicts StB's everyday life from an insider's point of view. The PDF of the book was availabile for free, so I downloaded it and started reading.

In the middle of the book I stumbled upon this excerpt:

The neighboring office temporarily changed into the office of Mr. Higgins from My Fair Lady:

Přemysl is surrounded by mysterious machines and you can hear a loud "A, E, I, O, U" from the speakers on the shelf. His co-workers are apparently annoyed by the noise and they are bickering about their respective positions at the work table. [...] Přemysl is trying to tame special circuits from the Harris Semiconductor corporation. These are designed to record and imitate the basic factors of the human speech. We are working on a new important task - we need to teach our devices how to talk - talk well enough to trick an alert evil imperialist. The task is called [Rita] after some secretary of some big cheese up there and its final solution should enable us to talk over radio with our brave co-workers working (of course for idealism and patriotism and totally for free... ha ha ha) in evil capitalist countries.

This story reminded me description of a device called Brigita, so I opened my email client and wrote a few questions to Mr Peták, autor of that book. To my amazement he replied.

So now, we know a few new things:

  1. Q: Why is the device called Rita instead of Brigita in the book?
    A: This is because all names in the book were changed for privacy reasons.
  2. Q: What did it look like?
    A: It was a custom-built single board computer with Zilog Z80 CPU. Its software was written in assembler and Turbo Pascal 2.0. During the development, an Osborne 1 notebook was used.
  3. Q: Who voiced Brigita?
    A: Some lesser-known Czech Radio announcer lady. This was in fact similar to a job for the public transport PA systems.
  4. Q: Can we have Brigita source codes?
    A: Of course not! It was state secret back then. :-D

Please note that today this information is not a state secret anymore, according to the Czech law.

Thanks Mr. Peták for his honest answers to my cheeky questions. Thanks to those that researched number stations before me for their amazing work, and to Lucie for her help with the translation from Czech. Written by Severák.