With a week to kill before my plane left to go back to the States, I decided to try and get in a little fun. Sitting in Tony’s office using Telnet to read my mail in Boulder, I looked next to his mouse pad and saw a disorderly stack of business cards. On top was the card of one Jan Gruntorad, head of data communications at the Czech Technical University in Prague.

With the opening of Eastern Europe, this seemed an appropriate omen. I picked up the phone and gave him a call. On Sunday morning, after an all-night train ride, I arrived in Prague. In addition to the usually high ratio of tourists to infrastructure, I had timed my visit to coincide with an international congress of 100,000 Jehovah’s Witnesses. Every hotel was full. Each clerk in an endless parade of hotels grunted the same explanation: “We have Jehovah Congress today.”

“They’ve always caused me problems, too” I cracked to one surly reservations clerk, attempting to inject a little levity into my fruitless tour of hotels. The clerk stared at me, giving me the same blank look she would give a moldy potato. My sense of humor was evidently not appreciated.

Most hotels in Prague are privately run, but Cedok, the state tourist agency, still books most of the rooms. In one hotel, for example, 80 percent of the rooms were controlled by Cedok. Cedok, which advertises itself as “the biggest travel agency in Czechoslovakia” (until recently the only travel agency, so it had a long head start), doesn’t believe in reservations. When I asked to make a reservation for the next day, they told me to come back the next day and they would see what they could do.

After 8 different hotels, I found a room. No wonder. The Prague Palace, at U.S. $230 per night (payable in foreign exchange) would be no bargain in London or New York. In Prague, it might be considered extortionate.

I had the day off, so I slipped into the mob of Jehovah’s Witnesses and set off to see the sights. For lunch, I stopped at one of the overcrowded, spartan restaurants and ordered the house special, a pizza topped with ham, eggs, and peas. The beverage menu also featured “Bois Avocat,” a French drink which could be translated either as the blood of a lawyer or some form of avocado nectar. I had a beer.

With relief, I finished my sightseeing and went back to my room. The number of tourists in Prague was staggering, but they didn’t seem to have anything to do. With few restaurants, most milled around in the streets. The Jehovah’s Witnesses smiled a lot. It was as if Walt Disney had taken over the country, but had named Kafka managing director.

The next day, I went over to the Czech Technical University. Jan Gruntorad ushered me into his office wearing a Hawaiian shirt, having come in from his holiday a day early to see me. His office was piled high with papers, computer boxes, a huge 3270 terminal, and books. An ancient TV was on top of one cabinet, and on the other were dozens of empty bottles of various kinds. In other words, my kind of office.

For many years, Czechoslovakia had suffered a technology embargo due to COCOM regulations and, like other Eastern bloc countries, concentrated on reverse engineering IBM mainframes. Jan took me into their computer room and showed me a Russian mainframe clone, together with a Bulgarian-made front end processor (FEP). The MVS-like operating system had been written locally and it had taken two years to integrate it all into a semi-working system.

The Bulgarian FEP and the Russian mainframe were right out of an episode of “Lost in Space.” Full of knobs and mechanical registers, it reminded me of early computers like the ENIAC, which can be seen at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C. In a corner were a pile of removable disk packs, each the size of a keg of beer.

Forcing designers to reverse-engineer systems and to serve as super-systems integrators had produced one positive effect. Many of the engineers at the school were quite sophisticated. Unfortunately, however, the operating system had never quite run right and the users never had enough confidence to invest their time learning to do useful work.

In 1989, with the revolution, things changed dramatically. Czechoslovakia was able to put in a 9,600 bps leased line to Linz in Austria and join the European Academic Research Network (EARN), the European BITNET. In Bratislava, another school started using UUCP links over dial-up lines to Vienna and became part of EUnet.

An important breakthrough for Gruntorad came in 1990, when IBM donated a 3090 mainframe as part of the IBM Academic Initiative. Starting with Czechoslovakia, but later including other countries such as Hungary and Poland, plunking supercomputers down in key locations gave an important boost to Gruntorad’s networking efforts (you can’t build a shopping mall without upgrading the roads around it).

EARN had expanded to include seven other facilities in Prague. Efforts were underway to extend the national backbone to Bratslava and other cities. From zero users in 1989, the system grew to over 1,500 users by the summer of 1991.

Gruntorad is much more than just the BITNET manager, however. He was leading the effort to install a national networking infrastructure. He wanted to see WCP, NJE (for BITNET), and TCP/IP protocols all sharing an infrastructure of leased lines.

Leased lines, as in many European countries, are quite expensive in Czechoslovakia. A 9,600 bps line from Prague to Brno, for example, costs 36,000 crowns per month (U.S. $1,242/month). With monthly salaries averaging 3,000 crowns, a leased line becomes a major line item in the budget. The PTT didn’t have the infrastructure in place to properly support digital lines, so a 64 kbps line would be provided by ganging up six 9,600 bps line.

Although I managed to time my departure with what appeared to be the majority of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, some other deity must have been on my side. Not having bought a ticket allowed me, through some mysterious bureaucratic rule, to bypass the hundreds of people waiting to check in and report to the excess baggage window.

The burly representative from Czechoslovakian State Airlines who sold me my Swissair ticket even smiled when I suggested she should feel free to close the airport after I had gone — a sure solution to overcrowding. They even allowed me to change my crowns back into dollars without the obligatory official receipt proving that I hadn’t used the black market.