My first computer: The Commodore 64

The C-64 deserved more respect...

The C-64 deserved more respect...

This article was first published in February 2002 as part of our 'Technologies That Time Forgot' series. We are running the full series again to mark the recent re-birth of Commodore. Thus far we've featured the BBC Micro, the Sinclair ZX Spectrum, the Acorn Electron and the Vic-20. Here Jon Bernstein and silicon.com reader Andy Walmsle pay homage to the Vic-20.

Jon Bernstein writes:

I probably don't deserve to write silicon.com's eulogy to the Commodore 64 because I have a shameful secret. A secret, nearly 20 years later, I only now dare tell.

I'd had my C64 - a Spectrum replacement - for just a couple of months when in an after school session playing a tennis sim it all went wrong. I can't even remember the name of the game but I do remember losing a vital point in the third set and, more embarrassingly, I do remember losing the plot. In a fit of McEnroe-esque rage I slammed my fists against the beige and bulky keyboard. My Commodore 64 was no more.

Having nagged my mum to buy me the thing I couldn't now tell her that I'd had an expensive accident. Instead I pretended I was still using it, disappearing into my bedroom for hours on end. The lying was easy; after all I'd previously pretended that I was using it for schoolwork. (She still doesn't know, so if you don't mind can we keep this between us?)

The Commodore 64 deserved more respect. First shipped in 1982 it weighed in with 64K RAM, 20K ROM, a 1MHz CPU and sound and graphics that blew you away (then not now, obviously). Although it took the Amiga for Commodore to create the world's first multimedia home computer, the C64 was heading in the right direction. As for the keyboard, it didn't seem so beige or bulky back then.

This was 'state of the art' 1980s-style.

That's not to say it didn't have its problems. According to Project64.com, the unofficial chronicler of the C64, about a quarter of the machines originally shipped didn't work. Only later did the company reduce defects to a more tolerable four to five per cent.

A number of 'old skool' commentators in the UK have made that point that to own a Commodore was to support a US goliath against the plucky Brits beavering away at Sinclair Labs. That's not how I remember it. For my teenage mates and me the Spectrum and the C64 demanded equal playground respect.

Did we know that Commodore was founded in 1954 by Jack Tramiel, a Polish Jew who'd survived six years at Auschwitz and other concentration camps? Did we care that Commodore would ship some 22 million C64s turning it into a billion dollar company giant in the process? Did we feel guilty not lobbying our mums and dads hard enough to buy British? Not a bit of it. For us the only thing that mattered were games, games, games.

Still, the history of Commodore is incredible. After the C64, the firm had one last big success with the Amiga before things started to unravel. It remained profitable until the late 1980s but a refusal to build IBM-compatible PCs probably sealed its fate.

When the company finally liquidated its assets in 1994, Byte magazine wrote: "Commodore deserves a eulogy, because its role as an industry pioneer has been largely forgotten or ignored by revisionist historians who claim that everything started with Apple or IBM."

silicon.com reader Andy Walmsley writes:

From its release in 1982 through to the final models rolling off the production line in 1992, estimates suggest as many as 22 million Commodore 64 units were sold worldwide.

This makes it the most popular 8-bit home computer in the world and it's not hard to understand why. The machine's sound and video capabilities were streets ahead of its main rival, the ZX Spectrum. It had a built in sound and video connector, on board parallel and serial connectors, built in joystick ports and even an expansion cartridge interface.

This substantial offering was backed up by a meaty power supply that was always on top of the job (unlike many others) and a host of affordable peripherals which were all made by the same manufacturer and therefore enjoyed some reasonable chance of working at the first attempt.

While we practically consider interconnectivity and interoperability as God-given rights these days, getting the old 8-bit machines to work with third party peripherals could well mean many an after school evening listening to Alphaville and carefully wiring up interconnection leads into esoteric configurations with a fine tipped soldering iron in the hope that there weren't any mistakes on the photocopied instruction leaflet.

A prime example of the benefits of Commodore peripherals attached to a Commodore computer can be found in the venerable old C2N cassette deck. Whilst Speccy owners were left blowing on their volume and tone controls and incanting ritual curses over their Philips battery powered portables in the hope that Manic Miner would load on the ninth attempt, you just plugged the C2N in and off it went.

Power to the motor was supplied and controlled by the computer so you didn't need another mains socket, and they worked every time as long as you didn't use your mum's Sacha Distel tape that had been left on the parcel shelf of your dad's Capri for two years.

A lot of people criticised the 64's primitive BASIC programming language but I can't agree with any of them. Okay, you didn't have the raft of keywords that you got with machines like the BBC B and the Spectrum but at least you were POKEing and PEEKing to change the screen and border colours by the time you got to the fifth page of the user manual.

To do anything useful you had to quickly learn about linear address spaces, random access memory, binary arithmetic, bit masking and all the other lovely things that are still used in exactly the same way in modern programming languages.

Probably more importantly, even though you were programming in BASIC you were only a hair's breadth away from real machine code. Stepping into assembly language and discovering the elegant simplicity of the 6510 processor's instruction set was a walk in the park for any competent C64 BASIC programmer.

And once you were into the machine code world you were rewarded with unhindered access to C64's excellent sound and video subsystems - the possibilities were practically endless for the time.

The majority of people that owned a C64 ended up playing a lot of games. You couldn't help it really when you had a machine that embodied the best qualities of a hobbyist's home computer and a gamer's video console. I have vivid recollections of spending many, many happy hours playing such classics as Attack of the Mutant Camels, Scramble, Falcon Patrol, Chuckie Egg and Manic Miner.

A recent rash of C64 emulators for the PC has allowed me to dig all my old games out, jerry rig a cassette interface to my machine and transfer the data onto files on my HDD.

All that's left to do then is turn down the lights, turn up the speakers, dig out the joystick and go for it!