My first personal computer: The Commodore VIC-20

Set the Wayback Machine to the early 1980s, when the world of personal computing was just beginning to bud. The Commodore VIC-20. This is the story of my first personal computer and the man who told me to buy it.

My first personal computer: The Commodore VIC-20

I don't really want to go into much detail of where I was or what I was doing when I bought my first personal computer but it was the early 1980s. I was young and impressionable. I wanted a computer that was both affordable and fun to use. No 1s and 0s for me. No punch cards either. I wanted the real thing. The VIC-20 was as close as I came to the real thing. William Shatner made me do it. This is my story.

Since other writers on ZDNet are taking the long, strange trip back to the 30 year ago mark in time, I'll do the same. But this isn't a story of triumph or inspiration. It's a story of want. It's a story of despair and disappointment. It's a story of hero worship taken too far—where no boy with limited spare change should have ever gone.

In the early 1980s, there were a lot of different personal computers hitting the market: The TRS-80 lineup, the Commodores (computers not the band), the Apple, the Zenith, the IBM PC, the Compaq luggable, the Amstrad, and a few other oddballs left over from the late 70s. The highly acclaimed Amiga was also in there somewhere.

But the only personal computer that this poor boy from the sticks could afford was the much hyped Commodore VIC-20. For only $299, I could own a part of history. It was the first mass marketed computer that I can remember. It had TV commercials. And it had none other than Captain James Tiberius Kirk himself at the helm, William Shatner.

Well, that was it for me. I had to have one. I needed a computer. I actually needed a real computer. Instead of a toy with 3K of memory and a keyboard that you plug into a TV, I needed a real 128K PET or Apple or an IBM PC or something. What I could afford and what I got was a VIC-20. Awesome. Not.

The Commodore 1530 Datasette VIC-20
The Commodore 1530 Datasette VIC-20

Even then I knew that the VIC-20 was junk but at least I had one. And like always, I had friends who got a VIC-20 and then the Commodore 64, the 128, the Atari 600 and so on it goes. I only had the VIC-20. It was basically (no pun intended) worthless. Of course I bought the 5K add on expansion pack and the cassette thingy so that I could load and save programs. You know, programs that could make noise and play 8-bit games. On my TV.

The VIC-20 didn't teach me to program in BASIC, although I did do a little programming. It didn't teach me to appreciate video games—the ones at the Arcade were much better. Yes, I spent my mispent youth in Arcades playing Dig Dug, Centipede, Space Invaders, Star Castle, Defender, Tank Battle, and many others. I never got very good at any of them. It took a lot of quarters just to be less than a mediocre player.

I wish I had all those quarters back. And my $500-ish that I spent on the VIC-20 and accessories. No, I wouldn't be rich. I probably wouldn't be better off in any way. The biggest loss of all was my time. Hundreds of hours spent playing video games, messing with that VIC-20, trying to come up with awesome ideas for software to sell, only to have my friends tell me, "Oh, they already have that."

Nope, in many cases, they did not already have that.

So, my nephew was the proud recipient of my ill-conceived purchase less than a year after it was purchased. I gave him all the accessories, games, and other software too. I don't think he ever really did anything with it other than sell it in a garage sale for $5 or less.

I remember the deciding moment to buy the VIC-20, as if it were yesterday. My girlfriend and I had gone to the mall where we saw a huge display of VIC-20s and all of its accessories. There a big sign with Shatner's face on it told me that this was the "wonder computer of the 1980s" and that it would be the only computer that I'd ever need for "years to come".

She asked me, pointing to Shatner, knowing that he was my hero and my role model (Well, Captain Kirk, not so much Shatner—but to me, he was Kirk), "Would this man lie to you?"

The Commodore VIC 20 box
The Box

I grabbed the box, went to the counter, wrote the check, ran home, plugged it all in and probably didn't speak to anyone for the next week.

The only thing that little box taught me was the following:

  • Technology is obsolete by the time I buy it.
  • Technology never lives up to its hype.
  • The next version is going to be way better than the currently available one.
  • I can't afford the technology that I really need.
  • Heroes are fictional characters.
  • William Shatner got paid to be in those commercials.

But those things I learned back then are still true today. They were lessons learned. They were relatively inexpensive lessons to learn. If I could buy 20 years worth of wisdom for $500, that would be $500 well spent.

And you wonder why I'm so cynical. 

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