30 Years of Commodore 64

30 years ago, at the 1982 Las Vegas Consumer Electronics Show (CES) Commodore launched the most ground-breaking computer of all time: The C64.

One might think that the release of the C64 was something which was carefully planned by Commodore, but as is the case with most groundbreaking innovations, it would be the combination of the right product at the right time, or rather, the combination of genius at work, aggressive entrepreneurial insights and a series of fortunate events.

So, sit back and enjoy this trip down memory lane on the events that led to this landmark event in computer history.

The year is 1981 and Commodore had launched the VIC-20. In key markets such as Germany and the UK it was doing well. But in the US, sales were not as high as anticipated (although they picked up immensely later on, but more on that later).

Jack Tramiel and a couple of his key engineers (Al Charpentier, Bob Yannes and Charles Winterble) knew that it was time to prepare for the next step, so a project to create a new games chip that would be the core of a new game system was initiated. This 40-character chip would have to be something that was unlike anything that was to be found on the market at that time. It had to stretch the boundaries of innovation and become the very best on the market, able to completely wipe the floor with competing game systems such as the Atari and the Intellivision.

A key development would be the creation of “sprites”. Atari had 4 sprites, the so called player-missile graphics, on which most Atari games were built and which imposed certain restrictions making the creation of new innovative games quite challenging (I recommend reading the excellent book “Racing the Beam” by Nick Montfort and Ian Bogost on the technology behind the Atari VCS).

The new Commodore chip would have 8 sprites, all of them with multi-color capabilities, the ability to double in size and make development of games easier with the introduction of things like collision detection (as most games depended on the interactions between the sprites). It would also use dynamic RAM (DRAM) instead of the VIC-20’s static RAM (SRAM), which meant that you could use much more RAM as DRAM was much cheaper that SRAM.

The VIC chip in an early C64 model (Silver Label)

When development for the new chip by Al, which was dubbed VIC-II, went underway, Bob started to put his early ideas on a dedicated sound chip to paper. He created the architecture of what would become the SID chip (Sound Interface Design), also known as the 6581 chip. Not all of the Bob’s ideas made it to the final design though as the team was under immense time pressure.

Jack wanted to have something new ready for the January CES, which meant that the team had only months to turn their ideas into a production ready chip and they would have to remove certain parts of the design to fit everything into the tight schedule — Bob had initially constructed his SID chip not solely for use in computers and game systems but had conceived it as a true polyphonic music synthesizer. For instance, one of the features in the early SID design was the ability to receive signals from another source, such as a music instrument.

The final design of the SID nonetheless was impressive. It featured 3 voices, capable of producing 4 base sounds (tooth, noise, pulse and triangle). Designers could adjust the volume, pitch etc. of their sounds by playing with the ASDR parameters (Attack, Sustain, Decay and Release). The versatility of the chip is further underpinned by the fact that to this day, the SID chip is still widely used by many musicians, chiptune artists and demoscene creators.

So, what were Commodore’s plans with the chips? Why did they need to have something new for the Winter CES?

From the very beginning, Jack wanted to outsmart, outsell and completely remove his competitors from the field. When Sinclair started selling their ZX80 in the UK, he wanted to have a “Sinclair-killer”. The VIC-20 was partially, if not entirely conceived around this goal and it was with this machine that Jack launched his motto “Computers for the masses, not the classes”, indicating that Commodore wanted to win the mass computer market first, with easy to use, low-cost computers intended for the home computing market (even though that term didn’t even exist at that time).

When Apple released their Apple II and IBM released their PC 5150 in September of ’81, the two systems would go head-to-head with IBM initially winning the game, as their system would be cheaper (priced at roughly $2500 compared to Apple’s $2800). It would be the landmark event for personal computers as the IBM came equipped with Microsoft’s MS-DOS, marking the beginning of the rise of Microsoft as the de-facto OS system creator.

Jack realized that with the new VIC and SID, capable of producing a 40-character color display and superb sound he had the tools to build what he called an “IBM- and Apple-killer”.
These PET-II series as they were called initially, would be not just one computer but rather a range of high-end business computers.
One of them would be a black-and-white machine, using the SID chip for sound sporting 256K of memory. It was called the B256. With an optional slot for an Intel 8088 processor, the computer would be positioned directly opposite of the IBM.
The other would be a computer which would have to outperform the Apple II. This machine, called the P128, featured both the VIC-II and the SID chip and had 128K of memory.

With the chips now in use in high-end business machines, the initial idea of building the next generation game system seemed to be completely forgotten. This was about to change when Commodore’s Yash Terakura moved from Japan to America.
Tarakura learned about the new chips and wanted to build a game computer around them: the Max Machine. One of the biggest limitations though was the memory size. In the early 80’s it was still very difficult to obtain high-speeds with DRAM, so Terakura decided that he would need 8K of SRAM in his Max Machine, as the VIC-II needed 64.000 bits to display a full-bitmapped screen at a resolution of 320×200. The cost of SRAM, however drove for a decision to reduce the size of memory to a mere 4K, which was later on increased to 6K. The use of SRAM also meant that the Max Machine would need to have a special VIC-II chip as the chip was created for use with DRAM. This chip would become the 6566.

The Max Machine

With Commodore now working on the P & B series and the Max Machine, all using the new chipsets, it dawned on them that they could combine the best of both worlds and create the successor of the VIC-20. This idea was for many a bridge too far. The VIC-20 had picked up a considerable pace in the US, with demand being much higher than the production rate thanks to the marketing genius of Commore’s Kit Spencer who started to distribute the computer through retail stores like Kmart (where in the past the early computers were only being sold through specialist distributors) and Michael Tomczyk’s advertising campaign (remember the ad with “Captain Kirk”?) and his impressive software library featuring many arcade conversions amongst which was Pac-Man (and this version was many times better than the one Atari did, although they had the license to produce the game).

Nonetheless, Commodore’s executives realized that if they had the capabilities to replace the VIC-20, they should do it, as otherwise a competitor sooner or later would do it before them and they would lose their control on the market place.
The idea was put before Jack and he agreed to it. The name of the new computer would be the VIC-40.

Next to the 2 new chips (the VIC-II and the SID), the engineers decided to use the new improved 6502 CPU (which was called the 6510). The 6510 was created initially as a 6502 with I/O on it. It was part of a series of chips that Charles Winterble came up with to make MOS Technology more profitable in the beginning of 1981. Other chips that were built for the same purpose were the 6526 aka the CIA, capable of handling peripherals.
The biggest decision on the VIC-40 however would be the choice of RAM. Initially, the team settled on 16K of RAM, but it was Jack who wanted to have 64K. Jack predicted that the price of RAM would drop considerably by the time the VIC-40 was ready for production and it proved to be another stroke of genius.
If Commodore would have stuck with the 16K, it would never have been a true competitor to the Apple II Plus which had 48K of RAM.

With focus now on the VIC-40, everyone assumed that Jack would want to have the machines ready to be showcased at the June ’82 CES, but Jack held on to his January deadline and demanded to have the prototypes ready for the Las Vegas CES. This basically gave the Commodore engineers a mere 2 months to have the system up and running.
The fact however that Commodore could produce its own chips at their MOS Technologies facilities meant that they could make the impossible possible. Jack ordered the whole factory to be closed down and dedicate all its resources to the production of the new chips… which they did.

The lack of time meant also that they didn’t have time to create a custom case for the VIC-40, so the decision was made to re-use the VIC-20 case. The engineers added a second joystick connector and used the same cassette port, serial port and user port. For the cartridge port, they took the technology from the Max Machine and made it completely compatible with the Max Machine’s game cartridges. The VIC-40 essentially became a computer with a game console built into memory, as plugging in a Max cartridge made the C64 behave like the Max Machine.

With the hardware prototype ready, it was time to choose the colors for the screen and start to make some demo’s to be run on the prototypes at the show. They decided on blue and white as that gave the best contrast. They could have gone for black and white, but they really wanted to underpin the color capabilities of the VIC-II.
Most of the demos that they made featured the sprite capabilities, demonstrating things like transparency, collision detection and SID music.

Everything was ready and the prototypes were shipped to Vegas where they were demonstrated to Jack. He decided then and there that the prototypes were good enough and he decided on the retail price of $595.

When the doors of the Vegas CES opened, Commodore had the VIC-20 on display and more importantly, working VIC-40 machines. Marketing had been working non-stop the days before to provide advertisements, press-releases and collateral.
It was also there that the VIC-40 name was changed into Commodore 64. It was Kit Spencer who decided on the new name as he wanted the new computer to reflect its main feature over the Apple: the 64K of memory.
The low price, the capabilities of the machine and also the fact that it could use the VIC-20 peripherals such as the 1540 disk drive and printers left the competition stunned.

Michael Tomczyk at a 1982 Commodore press conference
(Picture courtesy of Michael Tomczyk)

The January CES was a success for Commodore. Not only did the VIC-20 sales continue to grow (perhaps aided by William “Captain Kirk” Shatner becoming “the face” of Commodore VIC-20), the C64 was hailed in several computer magazines as the next big thing to happen to computers. As Compute!’s Editor Robert C. Lock wrote in the February ’82 issue: “On the ‘high’ end, as it were, and also from Commodore: a 64K color, graphics computer (also for TV connection) said to retail for less than $600.00. And that’s with the 64K of memory. Looks like 1982 will surely be an interesting year!”

He couldn’t have been more correct. Happy 30th birthday C64!

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6 Responses to 30 Years of Commodore 64

  1. What a wonderful article this is. Kudos for presenting a clear history of the Commodore 64!

  2. Nice write up as always. We celebrated the 30th birthday at our Commodore Computer Club meeting last night and raffled off a complete in box C64 and some sealed C64 games.

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