Tales In Tech History: Commodore 64

Tom Jowitt is a leading British tech freelance and long standing contributor to TechWeek Europe

ZX Spectrum rival and best selling computer of all time, the Commodore 64 was a hugely popular home computer

Technology has seen many fierce rivalries over the years, and in the 1980s it was no different. The Commodore 64 (C64) home computer faced many competitors, but it went on to become the best selling computer of all time.

But how did a computer that began life as a project to design state-of-the-art video and sound chips achieve such a feat?

Commodore 64

C64 Origins

The history of the C64 can be traced back to January 1981 when engineers at MOS Technology (owned by Commodore Semiconductor Group since 1976), decided they needed a new chip project.

They sought to produce a state-of-the-art video and sound chip for the video game console market, and by November of 1981 the engineers had completed the cutting edge chips.

Around the same time parent company Commodore International was searching for new ideas. It had experimented with the Commodore MAX Machine but opted to ditch it.

Meanwhile its Commodore PET line (namely the VIC-20) was aimed at the business community and was in need of a refresh. But Al Charpentier (the VIC-20 engineer) and Charles Winterble (manager of MOS Technology) proposed to Commodore CEO Jack Tramiel to instead make a low-cost sequel to the VIC-20.

In November 1981 Tramiel was facing a tricky choice, as he could always opt for the faltering arcade game market. But instead he tasked the engineers to develop a low-cost home computer to show off at the 1982 Consumer Electronics Show (CES).

Rushed Prototype

Tramiel also wanted the prototype machine to have 64 KB of random-access memory (RAM).

He made that decision despite the fact that 64KB RAM chips cost a hefty $100 at the time. However Tramiel gambled, as he realised that RAM prices were falling, and would drop to an acceptable level before full production of a new machine would start.

Despite that, Tramiel’s CES deadline was incredibly tight, as it meant that Commodore engineers had just 6 weeks to design and build a prototype for the show. But the Commodore engineers were up to the challenge and even reportedly worked over Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays.

The team was thus able to quickly design the C64 prototype because, unlike most other home-computer companies at the time, Commodore had its own semiconductor fab to produce test chips.

Indeed, within days of Tramiel’s request, the engineers had produced a basic design for the VIC-40 (the C64’s development name).

The C64 used cartridges to load games (the ZX Spectrum for example used cassette tapes) and as previously mentioned, the machine came with 64 KB of RAM plus 20 KB ROM. It was powered by MOS Technology 6510/8500 CPU, and the graphics offered 320 × 200, with 16 colours – all rather cutting edge for time.

Sound came from the SID 6581/8580 and connectivity wise the C64 supported two joysticks, a ROM cartridge, a floppy-printer, and digital tape.

By the end of December 1981 Commodore had produced five prototype VIC-40s machines and the final two weeks before CES was spent customising the VIC-20 operating system (Commodore BASIC 2.0) to work on the C64.

Commercial Success

Tramiel’s request was satisfied and Commodore was able to show off its C64 machine. Tramiel placed a highly aggressive price of just $595 on the device (worth $1,477 in 2016), and the machine became the talk of the show.

Following its successful debut, Tramiel quickly ordered the prototype into production, as he was well aware that Commodore at the time had a reputation for announcing products that never appeared.

Production ramped up in August 1982 and soon the C64 began appearing in traditional retail outlets and not just specialist electronic stores.

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This wide selling base meant that the C64 being listed in the Guinness World Records as the highest-selling single computer model of all time, with independent estimates placing the number sold between 10 and 17 million units.

Some estimates even claim that between 18 and 22 million C64s were sold worldwide.

Indeed, for a substantial period (1983–1986), the C64 had between 30 and 40 percent share of the US market and a staggering two million units were sold per year.

The advantage that the C64 had was that it used its own in-house tech and parts. In addition to being vastly more powerful than anything on the market at the time, it was drastically cheaper than its competitors like the Apple II, IBM-compatible PC, or the Atari 8-bit family of computers.

Commodore 64 2

In Europe its competition was mostly British, namely the BBC Micro and the ZX Spectrum.

By early 1985 the C64’s price was $149 and Commodore sold about one million C64s in 1985 and a total of 3.5 million by mid-1986.

It should be noted that Commodore tried on a couple of occasions to discontinue the C64 in favour of more expensive computers such as the Commodore 128, but demand for the C64 remained stubbornly strong. In 1986, Commodore did introduce the 64C, a redesigned C64.

In Conclusion

Another part of the charm of the C64 was its ease of use.

It was a programmable computer that just booted to a friendly screen with the  Commodore Basic Operating System ready and waiting for instruction.

If the user didn’t want to write their own programs, they could load software from cassettes or floppies. Or they could jam in a cartridge.

But by the late 1980s, IBM-compatible PCs were starting to eat into home and entertainment software markets, displacing Commodore from its leading position, despite the fact that it was still selling 1 to 1.5 million machines worldwide each year.

By the time the 1990s began, the PC was completely dominant, but the C64 continued to be popular in the UK and other European countries.

At the March 1994 CeBIT show in Hanover, Germany, Commodore announced that the C64 would be finally discontinued in 1995. But Commodore was not around to carry out its threat, as only one month later, in April 1994, the company filed for bankruptcy.

But its legacy lives on. In 2011 for example, 17 years after the C64 was taken off the market, research showed that brand recognition for the C64 model was still at 87 percent.