Recently the Commodore 64 was declared to be 25 years old. There was a presentation given at the Computer Museum which has been captured on YouTube. The recording is around 90 minutes long and is really a trip back to the roots of the Commodore 64 and how much affect it really had on a generation of computer owners.
The Commodore 64 was unique since it really was the first cheap mass produced computer which was accepted by the masses. At the time, 64K of memory seemed like more than enough. The IBM PC was considered by some to be overpriced and too targeted at business users.
What the Commodore did best was games. The games you could play on the Commodore 64 were so interesting compared to the fare for the IBM PC and even the Apple. Some of my first games on the 64 were from a young software house called Electronic Arts which later grew to be one of the most influential groups in the gaming industry.
Even though I had been doing some BASIC programming since 1980, the Commodore 64 was the first computer I could try things with at home. I remember buying magazines with programs that could be typed in for simple games and utilities. I bought the programming books as well to experiment with the sounds, sprites, colors, and storage.
In 1983 I had saved up enough money to buy the Commodore 64 for around $530 at a local small computer shop. I was happy to get a discount from the retail price of $599 but was not as happy when a few months later the price dropped to around $300. It wasn’t as obvious then that computer prices always fall and that there is no perfect time to buy a computer unless it is practically worthless.
Regardless, I was quite excited to have my own computer and learned how to do all kinds of things with it. The tape drive was very frustrating but also the only way to load programs into memory (for those on a budget). You could never tell when it was actually working and the only guideline you had was the tape counter which was inherently inaccurate. The only way to track it was to write down numbers if you were bold enough to save more than one thing on a tape. All I can remember is that it was more of an art than a science to successful save and restore programs.
The most interesting additions that came later were the disk drive, the monitor, and the modem. These items made my Commodore 64 into a real computer that could do many of the same tasks that any typical Apple or IBM PC could do. The modem opened up the world at a blistering 300 baud and allowed me to participate in local BBS groups. This is long before the Internet was widely used by poor students for home use. I remember the Internet was largely seen as a research tool at the time for universities and the government. 300 baud was a bit slow for reading text but when the 1200 baud upgrade came, it was finally evident that computers could transfer data faster than people could read the text.
The disk made it reliable to load programs and save data. It made the tape drive look like a joke. I can’t remember how much storage it had but I would guess less than 200K. This turned out to be a pivotal feature for making the Commodore 64 not only more usable but also faster and reliable.
The monitor allowed for 80 characters wide of text. This became important for text editing and reading BBS posts. After having 80 characters, 40 is just not enough.
The Commodore 64 led to the Commodore 128 and the Amiga. I wished I had bought the Amiga since it was seen as being largely ahead of its time. Years and years ago in college, a friend had suggested that we write games for the Amiga. He had some great ideas of how to do it and I respected his abilities and foresight. For whatever reason, I did not go with it and sometimes not only what happened to him but whether or not he chased up his dream to write a game.
One of the best games I remember playing was a game called Beach-Head . The game play was difficult and realistic for the time. I played this at university in the dorm room and it had more effect when plugged into my roommates stereo speakers.
At university the Commodore 64 played another role besides playing games. In 1987 I had an assignment for one of my more advanced computer engineering courses. Essentially we were assigned to model a system that could handle processing jobs in an orderly prioritized fashion with the best utilization of computing resources. It was much more complicated than what I remember now but the professor was convinced that it would take a great deal of time to put together. Working with my friend Bob Soehl, we realized that the biggest trouble was going to come from getting access to the university computers since they were overloaded with students. On top of that, these systems were cryptic (read specialized unique computers) that took more time to figure out than to program. After some struggling, I had the idea to produce the program on the Commodore 64. After some initial design and coding, I proved that it was possible to do it this way so I did it. It was surprising how well the 64 handled the task and I didn’t believe it was working properly until I checked against what was expected by the professor.
Bob and I took the program and computer to the professor to show our results. Not only did he not look at what we had done but he dismissed it entirely. The impression I got was that he did not think that some little home computer was strong enough to do his complex task. I’m sure he didn’t like us anyhow but I did think it was highly unfair of how he handled the situation.
In general I believe this was the overall impression that certain users had of the Commodore 64 community. Somehow this motley crew of young computer owners was not as savvy as the users that owned much more expensive computers. As the years passed, I came to the conclusion that people were paying too much for their computers and that companies like Commodore were really trying to bring computers to the masses. Just because it is more expensive doesn’t make it better. It just means that you think it is better since you paid more for it.
At some point, probably in the late 80’s, my Commodore 64 died. Not sure what went wrong but I would suspect that one of the chips got fried. I thought about fixing it but at that point things had changed. I would not buy another computer until 1995 since I had access to computers either from school or work and did not have much interest in having my own computer again. The philosophy was that if you work all day on a computer, the last thing you want to do is work on one at home. This shifted in 1995 for some strange reason and it is easy to say that it is perhaps one of the best things that I have ever done. That is another story however.
I still have the Commodore 64 at my Mom’s house in America. Even though it is dead I couldn’t part with it. There are so many good memories about either playing, reading/writing, or tinkering that it would be hard to ever let go of it. I can be very sentimental. I still have the first IBM PC I ever worked on as well.
Here’s to you Commodore 64! Happy Birthday and may you ever be remembered as the computer that came home to people for the very first time.