PCs

Cracking open the Commodore 64

Simple design

For many of us, the first computer we can remember having was the Commodore 64. For me the Commodore 64 replaced an Intellivision console and I was intrigued by the ability to not only play games but to also connect to an online community via a 300 baud modem. The Commodore 64 was extremely powerful in its day and we can still marvel at the beauty of its simple design in this TechRepublic Cracking Open.

You can get a good look at the Commodore 64 in the TechRepublic First Look photo gallery published earlier.

About

Mark Kaelin is a CBS Interactive Senior Editor for TechRepublic. He is the host for the Microsoft Windows and Office blog, the Google in the Enterprise blog, the Five Apps blog and the Big Data Analytics blog.

241 comments
pj808
pj808

ahhh the 64, my first programming box, then the TRS (trash) 80!

walkingcross
walkingcross

Still have all the commodores including the SX-64 portable - use a 64 in my amateur radio fast scan tv setup to generate call letters and grpahics - great box. Dale WA8KQQ

williaa6
williaa6

I loved my 64. I was already a mainframe operator at the time, but the C64 actually taught me about how computer systems worked. I bought a game on tape, and it sweetly allowed me to display the code and print it off. That was the beginning of BASIC for me and PEEKs and POKEs. If only everything in the world was a simple as back in those days.

tonymanchi
tonymanchi

Man, I loved mine. I had the 256k memory expansion and added the other 256 so I could use GEOS! I remember whizzing away at 300 baud to bulletin boards. And Compute's Gazette - wow- learned a lot about BASIC before they had their checksum program. Was ready to shell out $200 buck for a 10 Meg hard drive and then decided to go the PC route to handle work stuff. I gave it to my father in law & he got another 5 years out of it.

misc
misc

The funnest part for my buddies The Dark Knight, Daddy Zer0, and myself was cracking all those cool games in 6502 Assembly Language :) And downloading warez from BBS's across the country (with our phreak codez) - those were the good ol' days! Silicon Pirate T.O.P.P.S.

gmidoherty
gmidoherty

C64, better use of RAM, Better use of HD space apple interface, what a nice startup for us geeks

dave.kellow
dave.kellow

My Grandfather, Ed Kellow was CEO of Commodore when they released it. It's the family fortune. Funny story: This programmer approached my grandfather just after the release of the C64, asked him for two of them and could he pay for them in 90 days? Commodore in the US had already said no. My grandfather agreed if he could get a co-signer. He did, and the loan went ahead. The programmer's name? Bill Gates.

Narg
Narg

I picked the Atari over the Commodore for a very few simple reasons: it has much better sound chips and video chips. Marketing by Jack Temmel (sp?) was fantastic though, so the Commodore ended up selling more. Later Jack saw the Atari designs were better, jumped the Commodore ship and bought Atari. Too late though as by that time the Apple and IBM PC craze had already started. I still have the old Atari 1200XL and the 130XE I later bought. It's amazing what we went through in the name of computing in those years :)

ben.rattigan
ben.rattigan

The 48k ZX Spectrum was the real daddy of 80's computing.

s.j.adamson
s.j.adamson

Powerfull? Sorry, im a Sinclair lover, ZX81, 16k Specturm (upgraded to 48k!!) and finally a Spectrum 128k +2a. Se we didnt have the graphics, but we had the gameplay, and a 3.4 Mhz cpu to boot! (thats 3.4 times more Mhz than the commodore) Not that im trying to start a format war here ;)

boughskid
boughskid

If you truly look at th commodore 64 you see many of the thing now being claimed as new it was a great liitle starter and a great follow up to the vic's

spap2
spap2

Why did you remind me all these? I still have tears in my eyes. Thank you for the trip in the past. It's a piece of my life and career......

agulesin
agulesin

I started on the IT road in 1986 with a BBC Model B (32k RAM!) They were produced by Acorn in the UK but I suppose some made their way across the pond. One day my dad reported strange characters on the FX80 printer, investigation pointed to a faulty chip (still have the circuit diagram at home!). A quick search revealed a spare in my parts store; removed the old one without taking the motherboard out of it's case, fitted a socket (in case of repeated problems!) then the new chip. All ok and complete in around 3 hours, has been going strong since then! They dont make 'em like they used to...

billiam
billiam

For those of you who remember, the ultimate in WordProcessing products back then, PaperClip64 by Batteries Included (rest their souls, their alkalines ran out of juice ;) ) There was also their database program, The Consultant. Also a small tribute to those who knew Jim Butterfield. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jim_Butterfield

aj.fardella
aj.fardella

God Help Me. Almost 30 years ago I learned CPM on a souped up 64 with expansion cards connected to expansion cards. Wrote my first and last game in BASIC, a sprite that went right to left on the bottom shot arrowws at evil enemies like dragons and ogres popping out of a castle. even had the peripheral tape drive and 5 1/4 inch floppy. good times.

joday
joday

Have to admit that I loved, well love the 64. I also had the Tandy Color Computer (remember that one?) I still have the 64, but somewhere I managed to lose the harddrive and just can not seem to find a power adapter. But this had to be one of the better systems of it's day. (Ah the 80's). But what happened to the games you could play on the 64. Man some of those games on floppy were awesome. Seemed like only a few of them made it elsewhere.

pehks
pehks

in Russia someone tried to attach a video cpu from "Dendy" game console to ZX-speccy. The games became more colourful then... But It wasnt possible to convert real ZX games in to that Video Processor, bc in this case you need to rewrite almost all code of a game...

EJB64
EJB64

I learned to program and use computers with one of these back in 1983 and played some great war games too they were realy good little computers

DrToddK
DrToddK

i still have my amiga 500 running, and an amiga 3000 with the newtek video toaster running, now that was computing, simple., solid, never died now i wish gateway would do somethign with it, they bought the rights to amiga 6 years ago or so

stevewauk
stevewauk

I got interested in sensing and controlling stuff during the c-64 times, and eventually built an interface to the User Port that drove a set of relays and small electric motors through a program that used input from the C-64 joystick. It was implemented on a small tethered platform with wheels driven by the motors. Under joystick control, it would go forward, backward, turn, pivot, etc. I always wanted to add a controlled pen and write an interface that would use the plotter language developed for the plotter that worked with the C-64 and do REALLY BIG plots with it, but never got that ambitious.

ebmzzz
ebmzzz

Mine is still running my home light control system! ebmzzz@aol.com

jcole74486
jcole74486

please can you do the speccie next. In the early 80's you either were a Duran Duranie or a Spandau Balletite. Equally you were into the Commodore C64, or the 48k Sinclair Spectrum. As a former Duranie and Spectrum fan can you please crack the speccie next. PS I'm in the UK, if you're in the US you probably dont know what I'm talking about

bouncy64
bouncy64

ok, for me the Commadore 64 was fast, i started with a PET-16 and PET-32,with dual floppy drives that was in highschool,when you could program your own programs in Basic, or Machine Language,yup done all that with 32mb of ram, it was a blast... all good memories thanx...

fastleo
fastleo

Wow! These photos remind me the good old days as a technician in a computer shop, repairing these machines...

a1tours
a1tours

I have one and everything that goes with it, incl. power supply, disc drive, monitor, printer, numerous manuals incl hard to find ones, and many games, some new. If anyone is interested in purchasing the lot, please contact me.

BALTHOR
BALTHOR

All of the stuff that you saw on the screen was the OS in the ROM.The machine could be shut off and retain all of your work even games.Get yours out and try it.Is it faster than the one you have now?

yurki3
yurki3

No one mentioned it? It's the only reason why i am interested of it. And propably biggest reason why this can't be found from recycling centers anymore.. There has been many products new hardware that uses SID chips as sound source; most important ones so far propably: http://www.reflexaudio.com/products_hardsid.htm and http://www.sidstation.com/ And vast amount of DIY synths. When SID based synths came "trend" it was called as big thing as the legendary TB-303 baselline for its unique sound. I sold my Hardsid Quattro when i was broke but now when it came to topic i might buy one of those new products again. :D

anguscaren
anguscaren

Do you remember how smooth sprite graphics were. With the C64 and Amiga they moved so smothly. The mouse pointer on the Amiga was so smooth unlike the mouse pointer in windows where it is just deletes it and redrawes it as it moves.

anguscaren
anguscaren

Can you really call it a motherboard when there are no daughter boards.

eramos
eramos

Love this machine, first computer I ever bought using money saved from delivering papers and hoarding allowances for a year (well, my dad paid for half) - - launched my tech career starting way back as a high school freshman -- will always be my sentimental favorite and still keep it boxed up with original peripherals in the garage, hard to believe my BlackBerry has more computing power but it's a classic...

wolgastd
wolgastd

You could do things with "sprites" that are difficult to simulate on newer machines. It was amazing for its time. It would be interesting to see a past look at the Commodore "B" series (business) machines.

john.foster
john.foster

I started our with the VIC-20, but got one of the originals and the modified C64, both still works! But I use my C-128 (because of the CPM and IBM Disk readers) for Word Processing with an original copy of WordStar... We have

mb85
mb85

CONGO BONGO and Fast hackem. Bring back memories?

gary.hicks1
gary.hicks1

I miss my old Commodor 128. I had the 300Bd modem too. Maybe we can learn something from the old days of BBSing. When your alloted time runs out for the day, get up and go outside! :)

Hazydave
Hazydave

Ed kellow was CEO of Commodore Canada -- the sales and marketing company that sold Commodore gear in Canada. They did a great job in Canada (always... Canadians often bought as many Commodore machines as the whole USA), but had no direct connection to the development of the C64. As for the Bill Gates story... um, Bill Gates had long been in the software business before the C64 shipped. Prior to coming to work for Commodore, I actually interviewed at Microsoft, in January 1983... a few months after the C64 was released. Microsoft had about 500 employees then; small by today's standards, but Gates wasn't walking around looking for loans to buy a couple of C64s. Of course, it could have been a different Bill Gates :-) In fact, the C64 has Microsoft BASIC in ROM. While this was much improved by folks like Fred Bowen at Commodore, is based on the original 6502 Microsoft BASIC for the PET. Chuck Peddle bought a permanent license for that BASIC from Microsoft in 1976.... for around $10,000.

mdwychoff
mdwychoff

I worked for an Acorn dealer until Acorn pulled the plug on US distribution. The Acorn featured built-in networking and that was a big plus for education. We sold one installation in a school near Plainfield, Indiana, as I recall.

billiam
billiam

did they take offf to another planet?

Hazydave
Hazydave

Gateway bought the Amiga assets from ESCOM (the winner of the original Commodore auction) basically just to get the patent portfoilo. That made sense... Gateway as a box and ship company.. they never did any original development in those days. Unfortunately, things weren't done well there. They originally talked about releasing an Amiga, but the folks in charge didn't have a clue -- they wanted to use Linux, which in those days was horrid at anything involving multimedia or realtime... Windows was dramatically better. They really didnt' have systems people involved, just marketroids. They sold the rights to the name and a tech license to some yahoos in Washington state, who have owned this ever since. These people seemed reasonable at first glance, but over time emerged as criminals. Don't expect anything "Amiga", other than maybe the latest UAE, or perhaps an AROS operating system some day. It's also quite true that the world has moved on... with computers 10,000x more powerful than Amigas, the kind of hardware and software elegance we had back in the 80s isn't needed... in fact, it would be lost in the noise, for the most part. BeOS (1996-8) was the only thing since that came close. PC hardware adopted everything Amigas did well in hardware, eventually: DMA, multiprocessing, video processors, autoconfig, etc. Most of this is far better today than we had back then... though Windows is still kind of brain damaged about autoconfig... even with PCI, PCIe, Firewire, USB, etc. they still have a 1980s view of expansion. This needs to change, but I wouldn't hold my breath. Linux has changed more, but started out even more stupid, and also needs work.

msalomon
msalomon

I never cracked the robotics level, but I remember teaching myself Forth, all the while believing that forth-83 was so superior to 79. Its was still a lot of fun!

Hazydave
Hazydave

My current startup company (see http://www.nomadio.net) began with the notion of essentially making the C64 of home robots. Unfortunately, we tried this in aftermath of the dot-com crash, and didn't find the cash for it (we spun off the radio piece into a full blown buisiness, moving digital radio into the R/C market and including our robot control electronics on half of the robots currently in Iraq, for bomb-discovery). I'd still like to see something happen in robotics. Robots are currently not very far from where things were in the early 70's, with respect to computers... sure, there are many dedicated robot-ish things, as there were microprocessor based things back then. But no one has a platform that can be embraced in the same way the C64 was... and that (from C= and others) is what jump-started the computer revolution. IBM didn't get involved until it was a sure thing, even if their design (if not IBM themselves) won.

jbarbalace0
jbarbalace0

You know the Amiga was on of the great ones. My dad still has an uses his Amiga. he has a couple new PCs as well, but somethings he likes his Amiga for. For many Years after commodore died, it was still the favorite for many graphics applications, especially with the built in video toaster.

pehks
pehks

:) Unfortunately I ve never coded on Amiga, but I heard that Cool Coders liked to write programs ie games&megademo's&flicking intros It was so cool!

niklaw
niklaw

In addition to my C64, I had a C128D, with the 1571 doublesided 5 1/4 disk drive, and an external 1581 3 1/2 drive, so I loaded Geos real fast! As I had worked for a Commadore dealer, I had a 2001 PET and also used it's 4040 dual diskette drive on the C128, interfaced via an IEEE-488 interface (made by a company called 'Brain Boxes')! I had a UK 1200baud modem and did tech support for other users on the UK 'Compunet' network (together with the crazy programmer who wrote 'Revenge of the Mutant Camels'!. I also used the built-in CP/M 128 and copied diskettes for friends - the 1570 would accept or write most diskette formats so I could convert formats. I had a copy of UCSD Pascal on the CP/M, as I used it at work on an Apple IIe (and later on a PC) - this was TOTALLY compatible cross-platform. I did write a few progs in CBM Basic though! I bought various parts when working in the US (but mainly for my Amiga 2000 - another story) and imported 2 1581s when tey appeared. I was very disappointed in the comparative performance of the first IBM PCs I worked on - definitely inferior to the last Apples and CBM systems - but business people worshipped IBM, so thats the way it went. I was also very disappointed at the great rush of the American public to drop Commadore stuff like a hot potato, when CBM closed - all the shops and the magazines I used seemed to disappear in a few months, while in the UK, Commadare continued for another 3 years! Nickl

Hazydave
Hazydave

The Vintage Computer Festival hosted a talk by Chuck Peddle last year, which wound up being by Skype from Sri Lanka, due to some "real work" he had to attend. I managed to capture this, and it's available on my YouTube channel, "hazydave". A very good talk, and even touched upon things I didn't know. Chuck Peddle probably had more input than any other single person on what an early personal computer ought to be like. He had experience on "big" computers that most of the early crowd lacked. Thus BASIC being built-in, and other things.

agulesin
agulesin

I remember that networking! But what was the standard it used? something obscure I think - maybe only used by Acorn... I once made a cable for my High School maths teacher to connect two machines together - she was very pleased! Do you know how many Acorns were sold in the US in total? I wonder if any one is still using them?

t.rohner
t.rohner

Sadly many people never heard of Forth. I designed a controller for making circular linear optical density filters in a vucuum plating machine back in 87.(optical potentiometers) They were used to attenuate the signals in HP fiber optic measuring devices. I used a 6809 based Forth system. The development was made on the same unit as the production machine. The 6809 design looks like it was made for Forth with its stack design. The top-down design combined with bottom-up coding makes it quick and easy to write fast and rock solid hardware interaction routines (words in Forth). You can even test them while you write them in the interpreter, then compile them into the dictionary when you're happy. Regular Forth code runs very fast already(ca. 70-80% of assembler code), but for real time critical words you could use a inline assembler to speed it up further. The CPU ran with 8 MHz as far as i remember. Until today Forth is present in different areas you wouldn't imagine: Apple uses it for their Bios, robotics on the Space shuttle use it, Postscript has many similarities and i can only guess that it's used in weapon guidance systems as well. I'd like to see more Forth, especially in embedded controller enviroments. As soon as you get the concept of Forth, you can start writing code with low overhead.(in terms of speed and memory usage) Speed and memory mostly isn't of concern in PC enviroments, in cheap low power and small outline devices it certainly is.

Tin Man
Tin Man

I bought Forth but was never able to do anything with it.

Hazydave
Hazydave

I still have my Amiga 3000.. then again, my initials are on the motherboard :-) There was a significant difference between the computers of those days and today's systems. When something like a C64 or an Amiga came out, it was pretty unique. There might be a new one some day, but it would be very different. These days, one PC is pretty much the same as another, maybe faster, maybe with a different port or two, but you don't really care what's in the box. So people formed hard attachments to early computers. If you had a C64 or an early Amiga, your hobby WAS the computer. Sure, you did stuff with it, but the computer was the center of those activities. These days, it's likely the computer is just a tool. I do internet stuff, video, and photography on a few computers here.. the computer itself is really just a measure of how fast the hard work (video rendering, etc) happens. If I were offered a faster PC, I'd give my main system up in a heartbeat. But there are folks who've worked hard to keep their Amigas and Commodore's running... it's been just over 15 years since Commodore declared bankruptcy (April 24, 1994.. I made a film about it, "The Deathbed Vigil and Other Tales of Digital Angst"

Hazydave
Hazydave

I had a C128D... one of the prototype units, with plastic case and a built-in handle :-) Pretty cool. I used that with four extra 1571s, and ran CP/M as well as regular C= stuff... until late 2005, when I bought an Amiga 1000 and never looked back. And I was one of the C128 designers (and A2000, A3000, etc). The IBM PC was very weak for the price point. It was like the Z80... you needed three or four clock cycles for every single 6502 cycle. So the C128 beat it readily; even the C64 could easily compete. And of course, IBM PC graphics stunk. They won on two new fronts. 16-bit math helped a little, but the first big win was that empty 8087 socket in every IBM PC. When you put that math chip in there, spreadsheets could go 100x faster. That fundamentally changed the nature of spreadsheet use, from an accounting tool to a modeling tool. And that's the main reason companies would spend $5000 on an IBM PC rather than $500 on a C64 system. The other thing was that the PC was a bad, off-the-shelf design. It was literally thrown together in six months, by people who weren't very good hardware designers. And systems people only, no chips. This, oddly enough, worked in IBM's favor in the long run, but only because they outsourced the OS and didn't make that exclusive. So anyone could buy MS-DOS, and the PC was easy for anyone to copy (and improve upon). That's how they won... by being crappy. Who would have guessed that's the key, back then? Ok, it helped to be a giant like IBM.. there were plenty of bad computers in the late 70s/early 80s. Many, many of them put out of business by Commodore...

msalomon
msalomon

I did manage a small line editor and wrote a nice little "Conway's Life" on top of the editor. Those were fun days!

stevewauk
stevewauk

I remember carrying my complete C64 system into my officed and setting up some nice spreadsheets and database applications some time before anyone used PCs in the office. It helped me to justify buying office automation equipment (unfortunately, that was a state agency and the purchasing department required PC equipment purchases). I also taught a BASIC programming class part time in an early adult education program. they had TRS-80 equipment in the classroom, but I used to carry my portable SX-64 to the class to show them what a "real" computer could do with the language. Incidentally, thanks Dave for helping to bring Amiga to fruition. That was another chapter for me.

niklaw
niklaw

I agree about the PC - I was a hardware designer, turned software (but wrote my own drivers in 6502 machine code). In 1982 was actually working on an Apple][e at work and a C64 at home, when I was told we had to port our Pascal software to the new IBM PC. I was staggered at how bad it was for the PRICE! But you are right about the maths co-processor - it was quite painful waiting for a Pet 2001 to finish it's spreadsheet math! The PC had one similarity to the Apple - the interface slots, together with info on how to build your own cards to fit them. This was another reason for the development of 'PC Clones' - there was enough info in the interface specs to make hardware hacking easy (if you could get someone who could be bothered with writing code for the 8008 8/16 bit processor, when most guys were more interested in 6502 code!). I also had to do some work on the TI994/A - this sounded good (great soundsystem!) with a 'true 16-bit processor', but the TI processor design ran out of chip space and some of it's registers had to be setup in system RAM - a bit of a disaster (even Intel chips were preferable)! I also did some work on Z80 systems - and a Unix system with the processor that lost the battle with Motorola - the Zilog Z8000. I carried on at home with a c64 and the C128D (plus 1570, 1581, 4040 etc.) for some time. I played some music (Thanks SID), carefully typed in programs from 'Compute' + 'Computes Gazette' and from some of the (less serious) UK magazines. I did get into games (played 'Bobble Bubble for 15 hours once!) and spent lots of time online with 'Compunet'. Eventually I gave in to temptation and bought an Amiga 2000 with a 386 bridgeboard (it still runs - with a 10 MEGABYTE SCSI hard drive!). Both Amiga and C64 / C128 fun were rudely interrupted when CBM shot themselves in the foot (maybe the should have shot their head?). 'Compute' couldn't wait to cease publication and I never received all the issues I paid for! I'm afraid I havn't booted the C128D for quite a while and have almost forgotten CBM Basic (I was thankfully spared from Apple Basic, as I used Pascal). Several years ago I worked for a while on robot camaras for the movie industry and met several directors who questioned me about my Commadore days - but they were only interested in Amigas, which were used a lot to produce video in early SF movies (with the 'video toaster'). Strangely enough, the robots were run by multiple transputers (a british invention!) the processor also used to produce the video toaster. But that's another story.....! Nick