Trial by Fire: Behind the Iron Curtain, in the early industrial computer age

Stephen M. Buck tells of the early struggle to bring computer technology to behind-the-Iron-Curtain Communist Poland, in the book, “Trial by Fire: Tales from the Dawn of the Computer Age.” Excerpt follows.


Stephen M. Buck, retired Honeywell International site support specialist, wrote the book, “Trial by Fire: Tales from the Dawn of the Computer Age.”In the excerpt below, Stephen M. Buck tells of the early struggle to bring computer technology to behind-the-Iron-Curtain Communist Poland, in the book, “Trial by Fire: Tales from the Dawn of the Computer Age.” Other tales in the book go to post-Franco Spain, Socialist Venezuela, and post-World War II Brazil. The intersection of political ideology, human nature, and advanced technology creates a drama that is humorous, appalling, dangerous, and even lethal, he said.

Buck retired from Honeywell International as a site support specialist in 2003, after 37 years in the field.

Book excerpt: Technology to Poland

One of the Honeywell project managers that I knew came over and sat down at my table. “Would you be interested in installing a computer system in Poland?” he asked me.

“Of course,” I answered immediately. And then I thought about it for a second. “Wait a minute,” I said, “Isn’t Poland behind the Iron Curtain?” Of course it was. What was I thinking? Poland, since World War II, had been part of the USSR. It was referred to as a Satellite Country in that it had a “puppet government” but was actually controlled by the Soviet Politburo in Moscow. We were in a Cold War with the USSR. Why in the world, in 1980, were we selling them a process computer system?

It was a long story, and not a simple one. American companies were prevented from selling state-of-the-art computer equipment or anything else to Soviet Russia. However, it was permitted by the U.S. government to sell process computer systems or other computerized products to satellite countries provided that the technology was not the very latest. That was not a serious problem for Honeywell, since we were still using General Electric technology in our computer systems that dated back to the ‘sixties. So, technically, it was a “go.”

With these facts in mind, then, Honeywell applied for an export license to sell a 4400 process computer system to Zaklady Chemiczne, a chemical company in Inowroclaw, Poland. This raised all kinds of eyebrows at the federal level and generated tons of paperwork, but finally, after 18 months of wrangling, the official export license had been issued. And now I was being asked to accompany a software engineer to install the system. Of course, I said “yes.”

But dealing with the bureaucracy of a Communist nation was extremely difficult, if not impossible. I kept in touch with Phoenix as the months rolled by and we attempted to establish the necessary credentials, work permits, and visas. Finally, the paperwork was done and the date of departure was scheduled in early May. But I still had not received my airplane tickets from the Polish Government. I complained to Phoenix, and then I got a strange call from Warsaw. It was the worst connection in the world, and I struggled to make it clear that I needed a ticket to Poland from Seattle, Washington. I did not know if I had communicated successfully…

“Trial by Fire: Tales from the Dawn of the Computer Age,” is a book by retired Honeywell International site support specialist Stephen M. Buck.Weeks went by. The departure date was getting close, but I still had no tickets. Finally, with only a week to go, the tickets arrived. Or should I say the ticket. It was a one-way passage from Washington, D.C. to Warsaw. I couldn’t believe it. They had confused Washington State with Washington D.C.…It was way too late to make any changes, so I decided to use my company Air Travel Card to book a flight from Seattle to J.F.K. in New York and to use the ticket I had received from Poland to go to Warsaw. That would take care of that problem. But wait a minute! This was only a one-way ticket! I was going behind the Iron Curtain on a one-way ticket...That sounded like a recipe for disaster.

About the book

For more information about the book from Outskirts Press Inc., visit

- Introduction edited by Mark T. Hoske, content manager, CFE Media, Control Engineering and Plant Engineering,

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