Robert Hampton

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6th August 2012


Commodore 64An icon of computer geekery turns 30 in August. No, not me (that’s next month). I’m talking about one of the most popular home computers ever built – the Commodore 64.

The late 1970s and early 1980s were the time when computers finally moved out of university laboratories and corporate payroll systems and into people’s homes, as computer manufacturers – including Apple and Atari – introduced the first generation of microcomputers. These small self-contained systems could be connected to a TV set, giving Joe Public a window into the world of computing, in a limited fashion. By 1980 the Apple II and Atari 400 were well-established, although with a price tag of circa $1,000 they were still rich people’s toys.

Commodore were, perhaps, slightly late to the party – their earlier computers, the PET series, were mainly used in small businesses and schools. That policy changed in 1981 with the advent of Commodore’s first machine targeted squarely at home users, the VIC-20. Its capabilities were limited even by the standards of the time: only 5K of RAM and 176×184 screen resolution, meaning some very chunky graphics. However, at $300 it was substantially cheaper than its rivals and in its first year on sale it sold over 1 million units. This was partly thanks to a memorable TV ad campaign featuring William Shatner, who implored parents to buy this proper computer for their kids instead of a mere video game.

The VIC-20 was the result of a plan hatched by Commodore CEO Jack Tramiel. He wanted to make computers “for the masses, not the classes” – this meant cutting some corners to produce cheap machines which everyone could afford, compared to the more expensive systems which often had advanced features not needed by home users. However, despite the success of the VIC-20, it was clear that a more capable machine was needed for more serious users, and thus Commodore’s engineers went back to the drawing board.

The end product was the Commodore 64, named for the amount of memory it contained (64 kilobytes, massive by the standards of the time). This was a significant upgrade from the VIC-20: high-resolution graphics (well, 320×200), eight hardware sprites, an advanced sound synthesiser, and a wide variety of external ports for connecting printers, disc drives, modems and all manner of other exotic peripherals. This was a machine for the masses and the classes, and it went on sale priced at $595, which was $300 cheaper than the nearest competitor.

For that $595, you would get a basic machine ideal for running games. Spend a couple of hundred dollars more and you could add a disc drive, printer and modem, creating a personal computer suitable for many business tasks, as this early commercial demonstrates:

Reportedly, when Commodore displayed the prototype in January 1982, rival companies could not believe that a computer could be sold for that price. Commodore’s secret was simple: they owned MOS Technology, the company which made the 6502 processor used in the VIC-20 as well as Atari and Apple’s computers. MOS produced a more advanced version, the 6510, for use in the C64. Commodore’s ownership of MOS meant that they could “cut out the middle man” and obtain the processors cheaply, and also enabled the design and production of custom graphics and sound chips specifically for the C64.

As with the VIC-20, a number of compromises were made to keep the price down. Like most computers of the time, the C64 provided the beginner’s programming language, BASIC (licensed by Commodore from a company you may have heard of: Microsoft). However, to save space in the system ROM, Commodore decided to reuse the VIC-20’s BASIC interpreter. This left novice programmers frustrated, as it was difficult to access the newer machine’s powerful graphics and sound functions – they could only be utilised from BASIC by using the POKE command to write to the hardware directly. This meant that many programs became incomprehensible long lists of numbers (see below for an example). This difference was especially noticeable in the UK, where the rival BBC Micro had a powerful BASIC with dedicated sound and graphics commands.

Sample C64 program to play a tune

The disc drive and tape interfaces were another victim of cost-cutting. Loading programs from tape was slow and frustrating on any computer, but the C64 suffered especially as loading speeds were restricted to 300 bits per second, a quarter of the speed of most computers. Loading a 60-kilobyte program could take over 20 minutes from tape. A variety of “fast loader” systems were soon developed by software companies to solve this problem.

It's slow, but ideal for keeping coffee warmDiscs were not much better as a hardware problem in the disc interface had to be worked around, crippling transfer speeds to a fifth of what they should have been. The limited BASIC also caused issues for disc users: there were no built-in commands for disc handling, so simple tasks like deleting a file required users to type arcane instructions such as OPEN 15,8,5,"S0:FILENAME":CLOSE 15.

Commodore also earned an unfortunate reputation for poor quality control. Many early machines left the factory with hardware faults and had to be returned. Critics pointed out that these problems could and should have been picked up before the machines left the factory – many suspected that Commodore was skimping on testing procedures. This article from the time outlines some of the issues reported. The original C64 disc drive, the 1541, was nicknamed “The Toaster” because of its tendency to overheat, and contained a horrendous bug in its firmware which could corrupt data.

After the first year, however, the reliability problems were ironed out, and the Commodore 64 proved irresistible. It was more powerful than most other home computers of the time, and although not quite as capable for business use as the IBM PC, it was a third of the price. Commodore hammered this point in a series of smug TV adverts, which make Apple’s noughties “I’m a Mac/I’m a PC” adverts look positively modest in comparison.

Commodore quickly became the market leader in the US, but in the UK, the market was a lot tougher to crack. The C64 had two formidable British rivals, in the shape of the Acorn BBC Micro and Sinclair ZX Spectrum, which beat the C64 to market by some months. The BBC Micro had the education market sewn up thanks to its use in the government’s Computer Literacy Project. The ZX Spectrum, meanwhile, quickly came to dominate the home market, with a large collection of original, quirky games.

The Commodore 64 struggled against these competitors – home users interested mainly in games tended to opt for the Spectrum at half the price of the C64, while schools and colleges were reluctant to use anything other than the BBC Micro, which had become the de facto standard in that market. In both cases, the BBC and Spectrum had large loyal user bases which proved tough to shift. It was only in the latter half of the 1980s, as Acorn and Sinclair both faltered and Commodore lowered its prices, that the C64 became the leader.

The Commodore 64 proved a hard act to follow. In 1985 the C128 was introduced, offering twice the memory and more advanced graphics and sound. However, it was much more expensive than the C64 and software makers were reluctant to support it, preferring to focus on the C64 (with which the 128 was 100% compatible). In the event, the C64 actually outlived its supposed successor – the C128 was discontinued in 1989, while the earlier machine (by now redesigned into a more modern-looking case) remained in production.

Commodore’s 16/32-bit Amiga computers, although successful, also failed to totally eclipse the venerable 64, which continued to sell well into the early 1990s, ten years after its introduction and long after other 8-bit systems had fallen into disuse. It was only in 1994 that production of the C64 finally stopped, when Commodore became bankrupt.

So, that is a short history of the C64. I actually planned to include a more personal recollection of my own Commodore 64 experiences, but I think I’ve gone on long enough, so I’ll save that for a future blog post.

(Commodore 1541 image from, CC BY-SA 3.0)

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One Response
  1. Pingback by PRESS PLAY ON TAPE « Robert Hampton
    12th August 2012 at 8:29 pm

    […] my previous post I waxed lyrical about the C64 as it celebrated its 30th […]