The Computers of Commodore
January 1, 2019 2:19 PM   Subscribe

Commodore was a calculator company that, under the leadership of charismatic (and sometimes abrasive) founder Jack Tramiel, bought promising microchip foundry MOS Technologies, got into the home computer business. They made some of the most popular machines of the 8-bit era, especially the hugely Commodore 64. But the C64 was actually part of a line of machines, many of which are much less-known. Have you ever heard of the MAX Machine? The Educator 64? The 64GS? The Commodore 16?
Here is a series of extremely informative videos from The 8-Bit Guy that go through the whole line up to Amiga (which is forthcoming): Commodore PET - VIC-20 (warning: William Shatner) - Commodore 64 - Plus-4, C16, C116 (with guest Bil Hurd, former Commodore engineer!) - Commodore 128 Average video length is 30 minutes.

The MAX, Educator 64 and GS are are mentioned, and even shown, in the C64 video. The Commodore 16 is shown off in the Plus-4 video.
posted by JHarris (46 comments total) 45 users marked this as a favorite
The C64 was my introduction to programming. I still remember POKE 53280,1.
posted by Paragon at 2:36 PM on January 1 [9 favorites]

If only we could SYS64738 reality.
posted by grumpybear69 at 2:55 PM on January 1 [3 favorites]

GOTO's considered harmful? Not as much as POKE statements!
posted by parki at 3:07 PM on January 1 [1 favorite]

I cut my teeth on a PET 2001. That chicklet keyboard with every key having 3 modifier made me enjoy real keyboards the rest of my life. And like 6 years later in High School, I took touch typing on Selectrics. As you can guess, I'm on a Unicomp model M clone.

My biggest learning moment with the thing. My code exceeded memory, so I ended up chaining to sub-programs.

Limitations make you work to overcome them. It was the grandest PUZZLE anyone could have ever offered.
posted by mikelieman at 3:16 PM on January 1 [6 favorites]

ah, i love this kinda shit. Thanks!

Do one on high-end hobbyist telescopes of the 1970s and 1980s!

(naw, that's just a lazyweb request. how i scrutinized those ads in the back of Omni. I shoulda known, but I was, what, twelve?)
posted by mwhybark at 3:46 PM on January 1 [1 favorite]

mikelieman, that is awesome and you are a wizard unconstrained by time and space. i have it on good authority.
posted by mwhybark at 3:47 PM on January 1 [2 favorites]

The VIC-20, C64 (in both case shapes), C16/Plus-4 (which were essentially the low- and high-end variants of the same platform) and C128/128D were fairly well known, from what I remember. The SX64 (sometimes called Executive 64) was as well; some more well-off people had them in their studies. I remember they looked pretty cool (a floppy drive and a built-in screen!), though these days would be not only a completely absurd object but also ergonomically horrible. There were a few other weird variants like the C64DTV (a TV game console/set top box based on the C64 platform), and IIRC, a cartridge-based game console based on the VIC-20 platform that either didn't enter mass production or got canned early on. (Not to mention the stillborn predecessor of the VIC-20, the VIC-10).

Over and above this, there was the C65, a far more powerful successor to the C64/128 made in 1990, which never entered production, but a few prototypes were auctioned after Commodore entered liquidation.
posted by acb at 3:48 PM on January 1 [2 favorites]

The 8-Bit Guy’s videos are great. I sometimes listen to the audio while I work.

My first computer was a C64, and I used it until 1993 or so, writing papers in geoWrite and... there was another word processor I used, non-WYSIWYG. I can’t remember what it was called. Hm.
posted by uncleozzy at 4:30 PM on January 1 [4 favorites]

uncleozzy could it have been:
Speedscript (Compute! Publications, available as a type-in)?
The Write Stuff (Busy Bee Software, published fairly late)?
Bank Street Writer (Broderbund, commercial)?
posted by JHarris at 4:40 PM on January 1 [1 favorite]

I'm just here to restart my early BBS and later Usenet wars from when I owned an Atari 800.

(Honestly if I'd had a C64 I might have learned 6502 assembly before Pascal and who knows what my life would be like!)

I'll be binging these. Thanks!
posted by abulafa at 4:43 PM on January 1 [1 favorite]

uncleozzy: Vizawrite?

acb, I can confirm the ergonomic horribleness of the SX-64: got rid of mine just a month ago. They were also - even by C= standards - a horror to maintain, with lots of little boards held together with nasty connectors.

Weird Commodore hardware is still coming to light: how about the Commodore C65 Classroom Prototype?
posted by scruss at 5:00 PM on January 1

When I was a kid, I loved an interior design sort of game for C64 called Dream House, which came out in 1984. IIRC, the program was a bit too much for it and the computer crashed ... permanently.
posted by trillian at 5:01 PM on January 1 [3 favorites]

I honestly can’t remember, JHarris, although for some reason I feel like it came in a weird bundle of disks I bought at Egghead that included utilities and games (possibly including Rags to Riches and Captain Zzap). Might have been something obscure, probably not BSW.
posted by uncleozzy at 5:02 PM on January 1

I fell into this channel because of some restoration videos and it’s fascinating. The 6502 processor was an impressive workhorse - my favorite detail was that the Commodore disk drives would have their own processors onboard and were sort of computers attached to the computer.

There’s definitely a lost art to these computers as a programmer. A lot of the work was tedious and working around technical limitations but the hardware was so close you could feel it, whereas programming nowadays it’s so abstract it’s not really even the same discipline.
posted by graymouser at 7:42 PM on January 1 [7 favorites]

I can't watch these because GEOS won't play YouTube videos.
posted by GuyZero at 10:19 PM on January 1 [11 favorites]

This seems like the thread to ask in: while at a day camp sometime around 1987 (could have been anywhere from 1984-89) I watched some other kids play an adventure type game on a C-64. It had text at the bottom (2-5 lines) where you could type commands, and graphics at the top. Sort of like those Apple II graphics modes. I'm not quite sure but I think it was both text and joystick based - I think you could control things in the top part without typing commands.

Does anyone know what game that might have been? A few years later I played some of the Sierra games on PC, and it's sort of in the same category, but the gameplay was different.

I remember lots of pink, red and black up top and white on black text at the bottom.
posted by Pruitt-Igoe at 10:24 PM on January 1

I think those are likely The Wizard and The Princess and Mission Asteroid, early products by Ken and Serena Williams' On-Line Systems before it was Sierra On-Line. I had those, and they're close to what you describe.
posted by JHarris at 11:41 PM on January 1 [1 favorite]

I miss that 1541 floppy drive. It was like having an old Volkswagen Beetle running on my desk.
posted by pracowity at 12:01 AM on January 2 [4 favorites]

I don't have as many fond memories of the 1541. It may sound like a great thing, considering it had its own processor, ROM and RAM, but practically all that did was add expense to the unit for no benefit. The 1541 was by far the slowest disk drive of its class out of the box. A major design issue from the VIC-20 days resulted in those slow speeds, and rather than fix it Commodore kept using it for many years in the name of backward compatibility, leaving the market to third-party developers to fix their problem for them. It wasn't until the 1571 that Commodore rectified this issue, and even then, if you were using the drive on a C64, it still behaved like a 1541! The fast disk routines only saw use, again for backwards compatibility's sake, if you were using it with a C128.

Commodore had some pretty smart people working for them, but this ultimately comes down to a management decision to release the drive before it was ready, a decision that has personally cost me probably several days of my life waiting for those blasted drives to copy data when I was a teen.
posted by JHarris at 12:19 AM on January 2 [4 favorites]

Ken and Roberta Williams, surely?
posted by acb at 2:15 AM on January 2 [2 favorites]

My father in law spent part of his career designing disk drives for Jack Tramiel, but I believe it was after the 1541. He was legendarily a nightmare to work for, though. When Commodore finally ousted Tramiel, he personally bought the crumbling Atari personal computer division just so he could continue to make Commodore's life difficult.
posted by rikschell at 5:43 AM on January 2 [2 favorites]

I mostly remember Tramiel for the "Jackintosh", the Atari ST, which never got the same traction as the Mac even though it was significantly cheaper.
posted by Halloween Jack at 6:57 AM on January 2 [1 favorite]

Ah yes sorry, got Roberta's name wrong, my error.
posted by JHarris at 7:44 AM on January 2

personally cost me probably several days of my life waiting for those blasted drives to copy data when I was a teen.

OK, but considering how much time you probably wasted anyway, it doesn't make much difference.
You are standing in an open field west of a white house, with a boarded front door.
There is a small mailbox here.
posted by pracowity at 8:42 AM on January 2 [5 favorites]

The SX64 (sometimes called Executive 64) was as well; some more well-off people had them in their studies.

We had one of those when I was a child - we took it away on holidays with us so us kids could still play our games.

If you're interested in Commodore and its history Brian Bagnall has recently completed his trilogy of history books with Kickstarter funding of Commodore: The Final Years. Lots of interviews with folk that worked for or with Commodore, I believe you can still slacker back it.
posted by robertc at 9:44 AM on January 2 [2 favorites]

At the end of the C64 video, he says that they manufacture 90% of what's required to build a C64 these days: someone makes the cases using the original moulds (though in a variety of colours of plastic), and someone else makes the logic boards, though you'd need to scavenge a working VIC-II chip*. I wonder whether it'd be possible to fill this gap with, say, a FPGA programmed to emulate one, on a daughterboard to adapt it to the DIP socket.

* and possibly a SID; I imagine that the shortages of those would be even worse due to people cannibalising them for music projects, unless someone has started fabbing them to meet demand.
posted by acb at 1:02 PM on January 2 [1 favorite]

C128 owner here. Ran GEOS128 (wow, that's a memory) and a BBS off of it in the late 1980s. Good little computer.
posted by docjohn at 1:08 PM on January 2 [2 favorites]

Heh, I got a hand-me-down VIC-20... With a huge cardboard box full of hundreds of tapes containing programs & games - some possibly commercial copies, others probably typed in by hand at some point from magazines.

It was... interesting, frustrating... Trawling through those unlabeled tapes, trying to get random things to run... the game I most remember is "AMOK" - unfortunately, I didn't have it for long - maybe 6 months or so, no idea where it went to (lost in a move would be the most charitable possibility...).
posted by jkaczor at 1:35 PM on January 2 [1 favorite]

FPGA SID chip replacements already exist (at least as prototypes), don't know about VIC.
posted by CyberSlug Labs at 2:53 PM on January 2 [2 favorites]

I miss that 1541 floppy drive.
I still have two that I don't think I'll get back to. You want one?

I was just thinking 2 days ago about a 6502 machine language program I wrote that ran for a few days to solve a number substitution puzzle.
I had a diskette that had all my important C64 programs on it. It was write protected, but somehow I removed the write protection and copied it the wrong way, and lost all my cool stuff- Butterworth assembler, some diskette to disassemby that I wrote.... After that I lost interest. Still miss it, though. 6502 assembler made so much more sense to me than x86.
posted by MtDewd at 4:55 PM on January 2 [2 favorites]

I think. sometimes.... There is a whole galaxy of type-in software from magazines of the time, and some of them are not bad. It'd be interesting to do a review of some of them.
posted by JHarris at 6:00 PM on January 2 [1 favorite]

VIC 20, C64, C128 and Amiga 1000 owner. The word processor we used on our C64 was Paperclip by Batteries Included, which did not display WYSIWYG on the screen, but did flow text on the page. We also had their BI-80 80 column card and used an amber monochrome monitor and Brother daisy wheel printer with it.

We also had the CP/M card for the C64 which I got for cheap but only booted it up a couple of times - CP/M and 1541 disc drives didn't go well together.

The C128 CP/M implementation when used with a 1571 drive worked quite well. It was able to read many different MFM CP/M disc formats and run the CP/M version of Turbo Pascal.
posted by rfs at 6:19 PM on January 2 [1 favorite]

and possibly a SID; I imagine that the shortages of those would be even worse

Stefany of the C256 Foenix project is working with a reliable source in China. These are refurbed pulls, most likely from landfills/e-waste. VIC-IIs have been implemented in CPLDs
posted by scruss at 8:52 PM on January 2 [2 favorites]

The first computer I owned personally was a SX64.

My parents had one of the early C64s, but I was off to military college and we couldn't have something permanent like that on our desks back then. I purchased the SX64 with a loan from my grandparents while home on Christmas break and it was a workhorse for me for the rest of my college years.

It hasn't been powered up in around 15 years now, but this thread means I am going to have to see if it will still boot. Unclear how long my eyes will be able to handle reading text on that tiny display these days. Heh—it was the 'retina display', of it's day.
posted by bcd at 9:02 PM on January 2 [1 favorite]

I had a Vic 20, C64 and SX64. PEEK and POKE 4EVAH

This thread is sheer joy to an old nerd's optic nerves.
posted by dbiedny at 9:28 PM on January 2 [2 favorites]

Given all the hobbyist effort to fill in the gaps of “what could have happened if...” (the C256 Foenix, Jeri Ellsworth's FPGA-based super-64 a decade or so ago, the perennial multiple timelines of new Amigas), I wonder how long until someone decompiles GEOS to neat assembly language, refactors it to fit in a ROM, and produces a Plus-4 that has that in lieu of the 3+1 productivity suite, or even boots into a Mac Classic-style GUI.
posted by acb at 8:20 AM on January 3

Have you ever heard of [...] the Commodore 16?

Yep - my parents bought one in the mid-80s as a replacement for their kitbuilt ZX81. It was the machine I learned to program on; the first machine I wrote machine code for; the first machine I did computer music on; the first machine I played an IF game on (Brian Howarth's Circus Adventure). Bil Herd's interviews about it are well worth a listen.
posted by offog at 8:22 AM on January 3 [1 favorite]

I don't have as many fond memories of the 1541. It may sound like a great thing, considering it had its own processor, ROM and RAM, but practically all that did was add expense to the unit for no benefit.

Seriously. My mom's way of justifying my combined birthday/Christmas present to my dad was to claim that she could do the accounting for his office, but in adding the disk drive requirement herself she nearly doubled the cost of the system. In the end she never did any accounting on it, but I had a friend who could hook me up with bootleg games (on floppies I cut notches into so I could use both sides) and it did thus see a lot of use. The printer, on the other hand, was an almost total waste of money.

But anyway, I became a programmer largely because I had a C-64 to tinker with and outgrow (when BASIC couldn't do what I wanted I taught myself machine language from a book), so mom's constructive lie did pay off. It just didn't do it in a way either of my parents could possibly have expected. Or very quickly.
posted by fedward at 10:31 AM on January 3

WordWriter 128 FTW, or at least for most of my undergraduate papers.
posted by kimota at 2:26 PM on January 3 [1 favorite]

Jeri Ellsworth's FPGA-based super-64 a decade or so ago

I.e., the C-One, an interesting and unusual single-board computer. No longer on sale, but there are now configuration files (“cores”) for it emulating the Amstrad CPC, Amiga and ZX Spectrum, as well as several C64 implementations.
posted by acb at 2:44 PM on January 3

The MIST and ZXUno seem to have taken over from the C-One's lead. But a whole bunch of C= fans are losing it over the C64 Mini, a very polished fork of VICE running on a Raspberry Pi clone in cutesy case. The developers have done a good job of licensing and releasing firmware updates, even if some of the included games are bowdlerized for the international market.
posted by scruss at 7:07 AM on January 4

I paid into the crowdfunding for the C64 Mini, for the pocket-sized version with the LCD screen. That since got shelved, and I got a Mini in the post (the scale model of the breadbox C64, with a HDMI port and some USB ports); it was adorable, but I didn't have a TV (or space for one) so I traded it. I'm told that the Mini was an interim offering to all crowdfunders and I'll still get my pocket-sized C64 emulator, in the fullness of time.
posted by acb at 6:00 AM on January 5

I've often thought that the inherent immediacy of the 80s-era machines (like the C64) helped make programming more accessible to a generation of programmers.

JS/HTML/CSS can sorta get close to those rapid "I wrote something and now I can see it" cycles, but from watching people pick it up now and comparing it to what newbies in the land of BASIC were like I get the sense that it's still missing something. The further up the stack you go the more "magic" you have below you. Not to mention the browser/ES inconsistencies...

At least with BASIC it was a core part of the system (often at the ROM level!) Do a draw, and the hardware draws where you tell it. POKE, and you stored something in memory (or gave it to a piece of hardware.) Now? Well you have a language that runs in a virtual machine on top of an OS on top of a hypervisor, drawing using a markup/styling language implemented by a browser on top of a graphics context virtualized by an OS, running on top of hardware that implements most of its "hardware" features using yet another programming language...

Yeah, I know. Rose-colored glasses and all. ;) But you must admit, learning to program now involves coming to terms with a WAY bigger gap between what you write and what the hardware does.
posted by -1 at 9:18 AM on January 6 [3 favorites]

Re: FPGAs, I was reminded of a story related to me in college by an EE major which I remembered as "Genetic algorithm on FPGA induces sentience" or something similar. Anyhow, I just found it, and while the FPGA did not go on to have a career in politics or anything, the results are really fascinating:
posted by grumpybear69 at 9:29 AM on January 7

I became a programmer largely because I had a C-64 to tinker with and outgrow


I've often thought that the inherent immediacy of the 80s-era machines (like the C64) helped make programming more accessible to a generation of programmers.


For me also it was that the C64 felt perfectly-sized complexity-wise: small enough that you could completely understand the entire machine's hardware and software, but with enough interesting corners that people kept finding new ways to push it. (Sampled speech! Sprites in the border!)

Arduino and other hobbyist microcontroller platforms maybe scratch the same itch these days? (And a lot of us embedded programmers still live that close to the metal.)
posted by We had a deal, Kyle at 11:17 AM on January 7

Also, the Raspberry Pi. Its creator, Eben Upton (who was a SoC engineer at Broadcom) designed it specifically to provide the sort of tinkerable immediacy that 8-bit computers had in the 80s to a generation of kids who only had game consoles and PCs.
posted by acb at 2:53 AM on January 8

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