Added on March 14th, 2023 (1072 views)

Hey Pawel! Great to be able to interview you. Please start off by telling us something about yourself.
My name is Paweł Sołtysiński, and I was born in April 1969 in Poland. I still live there today, in the city of Szczecin in the north-west of the country. My whole life is more or less programming. I am currently an independent developer specialising in the integration of ERP, MRP and MES software, with a strong focus on the manufacturing industry. I have my own proprietary hybrid MRP/MES (Manufacturing Resource Planning / Manufacturing Execution System) system operating in two factories. My hobbies are wristwatch collecting, board games and enjoying good food.

What handle(s) did you use and how did you come up with it/them?
I have always used the pseudonym Polonus. It originates from the very beginning of my big adventure with computers, when I worked together with a friend on a ZX Spectrum which he owned. I didn't have my own computer, so I programmed his Spectrum. We thought this was the beginning of a fruitful collaboration and decided we needed a name, something that indicated we were from Poland. We chose the element Polonium, which takes its name from Poland. After a bit more refining, this became Polonus. We soon parted ways, but I stuck with the pseudonym Polonus and never changed it.

What group(s) were you in?
In 1988, I got together with some colleagues and founded the first Polish group, which we called Quartet, because there were four of us at the beginning. To be honest, we didn't know then that we were the first. The lack of communication with other computer enthusiasts in Poland made it impossible to know. Not being the richest member of Quartet, I couldn't afford to change my C64 for an Amiga like the others did, and I became the last coder in the group still doing anything on the C64. I decided to find another group that was still doing something on the C64, and I ended up joining Science 451. Later, I moved again to Padua, initially because most of its members were from Berlin, which was only about 160 kilometres from my city.

What roles have you fulfilled?
I was mostly a programmer. I also did some graphics, mainly because I was very impatient and grew tired of having to look for "contractors" and then await the fruits of their labour. Most of the time, my work had a funny appearance colour-wise, because I was working on a black-and-white TV at the time, so my graphics only looked cool in grey. My colleagues laughed themselves to tears when they saw my graphics on a colour monitor. :D

How long were you active for?
Almost five years in the C64 era, between 1988 and 1993.

Tell us about those years and how you got in to the scene.
To understand the beginnings of my computer hobby in Poland in the 1980s, one must remember that we were still in the shadow of socialism. The discrepancy between wages in Poland and wages in Western countries was overwhelming. The simplest ZX Spectrum with rubber keys would have cost my father about one and a half month's salary, so there was no question of casually buying one. On the other hand, I lived in Szczecin and many of the city's citizens were sailors in the 1980s, because this allowed them to earn money in a foreign currency, such as dollars. It was mainly sailors who could afford to buy their children computers. The children would ask for a ZX Spectrum or a C64, and these would be smuggled across the border or brought back from a cruise. One of my school friends, whose father was a sailor, also asked for a Commodore 64, but his father did not listen too carefully and brought back... a Commodore Plus/4. There were virtually no games for it, because this computer practically did not exist on the Polish market. My friend wanted to sell it to get at least some of the money back, so that's how I was able to buy a computer with the money I had saved up by then. I bought this computer together with one game and a programming manual... written in Hungarian, because this computer was originally popularised in Hungary for educational purposes. I learned programming by copying examples from the Hungarian manual. An interesting feature was the built-in machine language monitor, which is how I learned. I managed to buy a used C64 around the same time as I met my friends from what was to become Quartet, and it turned out that most of my Commodore Plus/4 knowledge was useful in getting to know the C64. The C64 gave me my first exposure to demos, after which my friends and I wanted to write them too. That was the beginning.

Describe a typical day for you in front of the computer.
I would typically start by turning on the computer and TV and opening the cover of my C64 (because the VIC chip was damaged and constantly overheating, so I usually had a fan next to it which cooled the motherboard through the open cover). Fun stuff. ;) I was usually programming some tool of my own or some new little demo.

Did you personally invent any special techniques or tools to make things easier for you?
In retrospect, I now find it a bit funny how I drew all the wrong conclusions about what was being created on the demo scene in other countries. Seeing the great productions by Western groups, I was convinced that these works were the culmination of intense activity in the groups, i.e. for example that they surely wrote all their tools themselves in order to create these demos, so I was trying to do the same. I wrote my own special-purpose graphics programs (for editing fonts, fonts of various sizes, sprites and logos with irregular shapes based on fonts). Then I came up with my own compressors, machine code editors, my own primitive assembler (I didn't know Turbo Assembler existed...), even music editors like Voicetracker and MusicMixer. I think 70 percent of my work wasn't even demos but rather tools made mostly for my own needs. Most of the time, I was just reinventing the wheel, but it did get me into writing programs faster and faster.

When you look at what you did back then, what are you most proud of?
This probably sounds funny, but what I'm most proud of is that I wasn't terrified of the lack of software, and that I assumed naturally that if something didn't exist, you just had to write it yourself. This underlying attitude has stayed with me ever since. :D However, if I had to mention a particular thing, it would probably be my record $50 charpacker, Charblaster. The entire decompression procedure, including the BASIC start line, SEI/CLI flag, $01 preset, JMP start and correctly set end-of-file vectors after decompression, took exactly $50 bytes. I know that there were shorter procedures, but they were done at the cost of omitting the starting line in BASIC and other things (which is just not cricket). ;) Other than that, probably my version of Core Wars, or something completely unique, like my a program for receiving broadcast Morse code; according to my amateur radio friends, it was the best one out there at the time, regardless of platform.

Who were your heroes on the scene and why?
Basically, the coders from Horizon and Censor Design. A big shout out to them!

What, for you, was the coolest thing ever invented on the C64?
No question: Cruelcruncher. I was amazed by this. Also, Beam Racer (beamracer.net) which in part was done by one of the Quartet members. Really cool and jaw dropping.

Did you go to any copy-parties, meetings or tradeshows?
I hardly participated at all in the C64 days. Now I go more often, when a retro meeting is on.

In your opinion, what was the scene all about?
I think it was the activity of our generation. Our parents were from the hippie generation, whereas we had our own activities and ideals. It's great that this fun hobby also turned into a satisfying professional life for many of us. And the sentiment remains: our "opponents" from the demo scene are now greeted like old friends at meetings, and that's great.

What were the particular highlights for you?
For me, it's not about any particular demo or program, but rather a certain memory. As Quartet, we wrote some demos and decided to show the world what we'd done. We had some old foreign demos, and we chose one by the Swedish group Science 451. At that time, myself and another member of Quartet were considering studying IT in Sweden, but it all fell apart over money. The affinity for Sweden reamined, however, and our first contact was Glerc of Science 451. We sent him floppy disks and waited. Glerc sent back a "sadistic" set of floppy disks with the latest demos. After watching them, we were genuinely devastated and briefly considered giving up on writing demos because we were so far from the level on display in the productions he had sent. I remember we watched the demos one after the other: as each member of Quartet came in, we would run the demos we'd received, sit in silence and watch him react to what he was seeing. The reaction was the same each time: horror bordering on a breakdown. :D But somehow we pulled ourselves together, rolled up our sleeves and got down to writing new things.

Any fun stories to share with us?
About 80 percent of my work was done on a tape recorder. I didn't have a floppy drive until my last year of working on the C64. Looking back, I can only laugh about it. I guess I was not easily discouraged.

Are you still in contact with any old C64 people today?
Yes, even after all these years, the members of Quartet are still in contact with each other, and it's as if no time has passed at all. After all, the friendships made then live as long as we do, right?

When did you get your C64 and do you still have it lying around somewhere?
I do still have a C64, though it's not the one from my demo scene days. I was at a retro party and mentioned that I regretted not having a C64 anymore, and someone gave me a working example of one of the first versions of the C64. Now, the old keyboard seems so uncomfortable to me...

Why was/is the C64 such a great machine?
The C64 was a great machine because it allowed many of us to do great things in our youth, just when you need to build and justify your self-confidence. The C64 and our achievements on it were proof that we could do many things in our lives.

When can we expect to see some new C64 output from you? :)
I have no idea! :) At the moment, I would probably have to buy a C64 manual to brush up on it again. I can remember some addresses, probably out of an old habit of writing code, but I don't remember what it did :D

Do you have a message for your old contacts and/or anyone reading this?
Massive greetings to everyone in and around Quartet, Science 451 and Padua. You are part of my life.

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