Robert Hampton

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12th April 2010

VICtory is mine

It’s probably not escaped your attention that I am something of a computer geek. What you may not know is where it all began. For that we need to go back to 1989 or thereabouts, when my seven-year-old self was thrilled to see that my dad had been able to source a computer second-hand for me.

Enter the Commodore VIC-20:-

VIC-20 keyboard
This picture released under Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported licence. Original by Pixel8/Cbmeeks.

By the time I got my hands on one, the VIC-20 was already yesterday’s news. Even by the standards of the time (it was introduced in 1981) it was somewhat underspecified. A whopping 5 kilobytes of memory and a chunky display which could only fit 22 characters on a screen line meant that this wasn’t exactly a power user’s machine. It was, however, a brilliant idea from Commodore Computers: a cheap computer which cost roughly the same as a games console but could be used to learn computing as well as playing games. It was a massive success, with a William Shatner-fronted ad campaign helping to sell the machine. The VIC-20 became the first computer to sell over a million units.

Despite the limitations (and an annoying fault on my machine which meant the TV display disappeared unless the video cable was positioned in exactly the right spot), I was thrilled to have this machine to play with. In the box, along with a lot of primitive arcade games on cassette tape (tape!), was a BASIC programming tutorial book, no doubt hoping to inspire generations of children to create their own wondrous video games.

In practice, many probably never got past 10 PRINT”YOU SMELL OF POO”:GOTO 10. However, I read the manual from cover to cover, carefully typing in the example programs, soaking up the wonders of GOTO, INPUT, POKE and PEEK; and cursing when I got an “?UNDEF’D STATEMENT ERROR” message. The BASIC was… well, basic, requiring screenfuls of confusing symbols to do something as simple as moving the cursor around the screen, but at the time I thought it was marvellous.

Animated GIF showing a simple VIC-20 program running

My own enchantment with the VIC didn’t last long. The following Christmas my parents upgraded me to a Commodore 64, which had vastly better graphics and sound. I ditched the VIC and never looked back, preferring to make crap games on the Shoot’Em Up Construction Kit instead.

Despite the low-tech nature of the era, it was a great time for computers. The 8-bit machines with built-in BASIC programming language encouraged a generation of bedroom programmers to experiment with their machines, burning the midnight oil hunched over their keyboards, their work illuminated by the glowing screen. Only a few managed to make the leap from amateur hacking to producing professional quality software and games, but for those who did the rewards could be huge.

Now, of course, Commodore is no more and the PC is ubiquitous. Few computer users these days will ever tinker with their machines the way I did. In a way the current situation is the natural next step of the evolution of the computer’s role in the home: the VIC-20 and its ilk were the first attempt to open up computing to the masses; modern systems like Windows and MacOS with their focus on user-friendliness are a continuation of that process. It’s sad though that many users have no understanding of the internal workings of their machine.

There is a coda to the VIC-20 story: Linus Torvalds took his first tentative steps into the programming arena on a VIC-20. Years later, he created the Linux kernel, the basis for the various Linux operating systems which threaten to change the face of computing as we know it.

The VIC obviously looks a little embarrassing now, but that hasn’t stopped someone from creating a Twitter client for it, proving that even the most ancient technology isn’t entirely useless (depending on your opinion of Twitter).

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