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Legendary Chuck Peddle, Inventor of The Personal Computer
Written by Ian Matthews January 22 2006
Last Updated May 29, 2007
Chuck Peddle is an inventor, engineer and entrepreneur of highest class. His rich early history mirrors that of Commodore; hugely important successes through the 60's 70's and early 80's, followed by late 80's and 90's turmoil. Today he, like Commodore, is in an exciting new phase developing fresh technology concepts.
I have been fortunate enough to interview Chuck at length several times in early 2006 and that is where the bulk of the content below came from. He is a quite a character and quite a contrarian, which likely explains his success. If he 'followed the pack' he would not have invented or been part of so many important technological advances.
CHUCK'S A NEWFIE! (WELL SORT OF)
The family name is actually "Piddle", named after the river that ran through his ancestral town. However, after moving to Canada, his grandfather discovered that "piddle" is slang for urinate and so he changed it to Peddle. Newfoundland was hard on the family as work was scarce and so the the family moved to Bangor Maine, US.
Chuck graduated as an Engineer, from University of Maine in 1960 but had only been introduced to Information Theory (binary & algebraic concepts) in his final year. "I just fell in love, this is where I was going to spend my life".
His first notable job was at General Electric in 1961 where he implemented the new concept of Time Sharing Main Frame computing power and developing the Electronic Cash Register. But by 1970 GE decided there was not enough money in computers anymore so they gave Chuck and three colleagues a severance package which they promptly used to start their own cash register development business.
While Chucks new team was able to develop important concepts, like the credit card driven gas pump and the electronic cash register, they did not have the funding to get product to market. "It's too bad we did not patent the shit out if it, because we could have been very wealthy as a result." Chuck had also decided to marry his partners beautiful ex-wife which caused a strain. "I just could not stay with the company so we put it to sleep... we did not kill it."
Chuck interviewed at and was offered a position with Texas Instruments. He was to "do the Air Traffic Control system. ...TI had the biggest fastest computer... they were the top of the industry". He also interviewed with Motorola "...to build the 6800 which was the lowest end of the industry... where (his) heart was".
DEVELOPS THE WORLDS FIRST MICROPROCESSOR
It is important to note that Chuck believes that the worlds first microprocessor is not the much ballyhooed Intel 4004 or 8008, "(I am) not trying to be negative about the guys that did it... they are nothing more than calculator chips". He believes the worlds first real CPU is Tom Bennett's 8bit Motorola 6800 "...it's terrible that guy never got any credit."
At this time, you have to remember that there was no such thing as personal computers and most technical staff in large corporations would not have authority to work on main frames. As the lead technical engineer, Chuck was often tasked with explaining the capabilities of this new wonder, the microprocessor, to large industrial manufactures like Ford and Unisys. After one of Chuck's one day courses, Engineers were always impressed with the potential for such a device but at US$300 ($1200 in 2005 Dollars!) would almost always say it was far to expensive for their application. Chuck started to asked Motorola's customers the price they thought it would be possible to put a microprocessors into their mass market products; $25 came up as the magic number.
MOTOROLA SAYS STOP
& CHUCK SAYS "GOTTA GO"
Today there are engineering design houses, like RAMBUS, that produce nothing but engineering concepts and patents, but back then if you were a chip designer you had to work for a company that actually fabricated the chips (a "fab".) In 1975, just a few months after Chucks letter exchange, he took Bill Mensch and five other key Motorola 6800 engineers to work for an old General Electric colleague, John Pavinen who ran a small "fab" called MOS Technologies (later renamed to Commodore Semiconductor Group.)
Chuck said he gave the engineers a "..tight list..." of features to build into the chip along with a fixed die size. To get to the $25 price they need to produce only the instructions that its customers would required, nothing extra. It contained some of the 6800 concepts but nothing that was patented. It was to be a newer, enhanced, faster CPU.
THE $25 CHIP
During our 2006 interview Chuck explained that selling a dramatically less expensive CPU was not as easy as it sounded. A few years earlier there had been a high profile scam involving a company that claimed it could produce mainframe terminals it would lease for just $10 per month. The company had went bankrupt in a cloud of scandal after taking millions of dollars from investors, and blamed the failure on industries inability to produce cheap chips.
In an effort to drum up interest in the chip they ran an advert stating that anyone could not only see, but they could buy the amazing $25 microprocessor at the WestCon (Western Electronics Show and Convention) in 1975. Unfortunately, when MOS arrived at the show they were told that, in an effort the keep the show 'high brow', exhibitors were not allowed to sell product at their booths. Chuck quickly rented a nearby hotel room and had is very attractive wife, sit at a table with two glass jars full of newly minted MOS 6501's. Little did the buyers know that all of the chips in the bottom of those jars were defective. "Image is everything", Chuck says.
MOTOROLA'S ANGER: A
BLESSING IN DISGUISE
A STAR IS BORN: MOS 6502
Chuck designed two 6502 trainers call the TIM-1 (Terminal Input Monitor) and KIM-1 (Keyboard Input Monitor) to teach engineers how to use this great new microprocessor. Without intending to, Chuck had built the worlds first single board computers. Tens of thousands of KIM-1's would be sold to budding engineers in companies and colleges all the way through 1980.
Over the previous few years Chuck had met with hundreds of computer enthusiasts, educational institutions and main frame corporate users. He learned that "...what people wanted was a computer that looked like a terminal." The concept of the stand alone, fully assembled, 'Personal Computer' was born.
In an effort to start sales of the 6502, MOS staff ran though a quick tour of the US, dropping into see major manufacturing companies like Ford. On the trip Peddle was told that two young guys working in their garage wanted some help using the 6502. Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak were working on the first Apple and Chuck was happy to lend a hand even though he did not design the 6500 line for computer use. "...not in a million years... it was supposed to go into industrial and consumer products." Little did Chuck know that the computer business would quickly become the mass market consumer product he was targeting.
THE WORLDS FIRST PERSONAL COMPUTER:
THE COMMODORE PET
At this time Commodore was MOS' largest customer as there main product line was still calculator chips. When the calculator market collapsed in 1975 Commodore decided to buy MOS. All of a sudden, MOS had access to money and a visionary leader, Jack Tramiel. Tramiel knew about the 6502 and after a few conversations with Chuck, he saw the future. However, Tramiel was concerned about developing the product from scratch. They entered negotiations to buy Apple but would not meet the $150,000 price set by Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak. Jack then approved the development of what would become the Commodore PET. He even promised to pay Chuck a bonus of $1 for every PET sold. That and so many other Tramiel promises were never paid.
Chuck purchased a little book on how to build your own television written by the legendary Adam Osborne and "...Fujiyama Oogi contracted a company to make a chassis out of wood." Using a motherboard based on the 6502 processor he designed and built the worlds first Personal Computer which would later be named the Commodore PET. Explaining how cutting edge this concept was and how unprepared they were, Chuck said "The first time we turned it on, the image was upside down... we got Adam's book out to figure out how to turn it..."
Chuck even wrote the machine language code to handle the integrated tape cassette that was used as storage on the PET. "The others didn't ****** work." Chuck said of his competitions tape systems. Much to the bane of Engineers who developed Commodore's future computers, like the C64, he never documented that work. Over the years, several engineers were assigned to either document that sub-system or re-write but all attempts failed. Chuck said that a complex web of "...lots of error detection..." and mechanical instruction meant that "fixing" one thing always caused some other problem. He was writing code "...while watching an oscilloscope". Manual tuning made it work. During our face to face interview with him, it was apparent that that code is still one of Chucks proudest achievements.
THE BIGGEST DEAL IN COMPUTER HISTORY
Chuck naturally turned to Micro-Soft and worked with one of their new hires, Rick Wyland, to develop a version of BASIC that could be built into hardware called a ROM (Read Only Memory). Even though this version would be difficult to steal Gates was not happy because he was sure Chuck's concept was not going to be successful. Chuck tells of a 1976 trip to Microsoft's small office, the in Albuquerque. Gates had told Wyland to "...just get rid of it... he thought is was a waist of time..." Chuck's explains "Gates was not a visionary..." and the quickly follows up with a respectful "...Hell, who is at 20 years old?". As a result, Chuck made a deal that would become legend: at that meeting, he negotiated a stunning unlimited usage, perpetual licence for MS BASIC on ROM for any 6502 based Commodore computer. Out of respect for Bill Gates, Chuck does not want the stunningly low price published, but we can say that over the 20 years Commodore used that licence, it cost them less than a penny per machine. As part of that deal Commodore could enhance Microsoft's BASIC as long as they gave the updates to Microsoft.
As evidence of Gate's apathy Chuck points out that Microsoft did not even require their name to be shown anywhere in the product. When you boot up any Commodore computer manufactured prior to the Commodore 128, the machine will display a simple COMMODORE BASIC screen. Not until Commodore required a new version of Microsoft Basic, for their non-6502 based Amiga, was Microsoft able effect any change to the original contract. Part of the Amiga deal required all future computers models, including the soon to be released 128, to use the the Microsoft name in the boot up screen.
In January of 1977 Commodore showed the worlds first Personal Computer, the Commodore PET, at the West Coast Computer Faire. Chuck had beat Apple by six months and Radio Shack by four months.
Chuck tells a great story about trying to sell the 6502 CPU's to Atari. Atari was so worried about industrial espionage that they sequestered their top engineers to a remote complex on a dirt road, several hours from Los Angeles. Chuck packed he and his wife for brief holiday and made plans to stop in to see this top secret Atari think tank on the way. Atari's Steve Mayor was working on three options for their new machine and one of designs called for a 6502, an IO chip and a custom chip. Atari wanted him to produce the 6502 and the IO chip for just $12. By this time MOS' production cost on those two chips was just $4 and so it was easy to agree. There only problem with the deal was the tight 'Non Disclosure Agreement' "...the kind that would punch out your first and second children. I knew what (Atari) was doing but could not say anything." One of MOS' projects was going to eclipsed by Atari. Chuck simply told some MOS staff to "give up, start again" but could not tell them why. Commodore's CEO, was famous for breaking his contracts and when I pressed Chuck on this matter I was surprised to here him say "Jack Tramiel never stole anything from anybody to my knowledge". The Atari 400 and 800 were announced in December of 1978.
MUTINY IN LONDON
By the early 1980's Tramiel's Commodore was so 'law suite happy' that a joke inside the company was that the legal department had become a profit center. Chuck explains "The strategy is just to slow you down... give them time to catch up". Chuck was sure he was in the right but in the end Sirius lost to Commodore's enormous legal power and was forced to pay fines. Worse, Chuck personally had to return his Commodore stock options. In a 2005 interview for the book The Spectacular Rise and Fall of Commodore, Chuck said of Tramiel "(Jack) destroyed me, he destroyed my family, he did all kinds of terrible things".
Chuck wanted to do what Commodore had failed at: have a real presence in the US. Coincidentally Victor Monroe, a major player in the calculator business and told Chuck "we want to play; we think computers are going to take off." Sirius needed money and distribution so they made a deal to sell machines in US exclusively to Victor. Victor was to order a set number of machines on a schedule.
The Sirius was a $5000 16Bit business computer with a hard drive, manufactured Scotts Valley, California. Click to the left for an advertisement shown the range of pricing. Every key could be programmed and fonts could be changed. At a time when many people still did not know what a computer really was, Chuck had envisioned storage requirements that we take for granted today. Again, Chuck worked with Microsoft to develop his 16 Bit power machine. Unfortunately Bill Gates did not see a need for a hard drive and after months of disagreement, Sirius wrote some of the code to support Hard Drives and gave it to Microsoft. That was the major improvement in MS-DOS 1.2.
Chuck used a 16Bit Intel 8088 CPU (with support for an optional Intel 8087 math co-processor) and had a myriad of drive configurations. Both single (620Kb) or double sided (1.2MB) floppy disks and 10MB and 30MB hard disks could be shipped. It even had four internal expansion ports, two RS232 (com) ports and powerful graphics,. The machine had either 128K or 256K of RAM from the factory but could upgraded to a massive 896KB. It ran both Garry Kildal's CP/M-86 which was what most business applications were built on at that time and MS-DOS 1.2. A more complete specification is available here.
For a sales force, Sirius plundered nearly the entire European Mannesmann Tally team. That team put together an advertising campaign that "... won awards and put us on the map... a phenomenally successful campaign". The team told him "People relate to animals. Computers are mysterious." The paper ad's showed "...a picture of a dinosaur with a caption like 'things that don't adapt, die'...". The following pages showed a series of friendly animals linked to the Sirius features. For instance a picture of an Elephant would have a tag line relating to the Sirius' large memory capabilities. The problem was that it was very expensive. "We bet the company." Chuck recalls, still with a tone of nervousness all these years later.
THE SECOND WORST DECISION
"Sirius (was) burning up Europe... killing the (IBM) PC" Chucks states indignantly. In addition to a solid sales record Chuck points out that Sirius "had a paid up Microsoft licence and computer parts other companies had shortages of".
In November of 1982, Byte Magazine said "...the chief designer of Victor's machine is not a novice but Chuck Peddle, a founder of the microcomputer industry who knows how to bring maximum performance to the market at an affordable price". By March 1983, IBM caught up when they released the legendary XT. That year the company renamed itself "Victor Technologies" and fired 600 employees.
In the second quarter of 1983 they arranged for bridge financing from a investment banker. Chuck ended up with $3 million worth of stock which caused "greed over good sense. We were to take the company public too early..." Kidde convinced Sirius' CFO to take a loan to pay off the bridge money and when that loan was unexpectedly called early, Sirius was instantly insolvent.
On December 17th 1984, bankrupt Victor Technologies sold their assets for $28 million to the Stockholm based company Datatronic which, ironically, was a successful European Distributor for Commodore at the time. Datatronic continued to develop and produce the Sirius for some time. Today the Sirius still has a UK Sirius Users Group and THIS page provides a complete Victor / Sirius technical manual.
THE TANDON YEARS
I first met Chuck during CES 2006 in Las Vegas and found him to be a personable, friendly, 68 year old. We talked until after 3am and he was surprisingly complimentary to his contemporaries, like Steve Jobs, Bill Gates and Jack Tramiel. About the most mean spirited comment I have heard him make is "There is nothing nice about Steve Jobs and nothing evil about Bill Gates. Gates is a good man". Make no mistake; Chuck was firm and had strong opinions about these people, but he never once tried to take more credit than I thought he was due.
Chuck Peddle is a legend in the industry who some insiders credit for their success. As an example of this, during one of Bill Gates 50th birthday speeches, he mentioned Chuck by name. One of Bill Mensch's comments was "He understood the market and has the vision". The combination of the 6502, the KIM1 and the Commodore PET leads many observers to credit Peddle with the lofty title: Father of the Personal Computer.
Chuck Peddle deserves much more credit for inventing the Personal Computer than he has received to date. He changed all our lives. His inventions and vision drove Commodore (and to a lesser degree Apple) to their early success while making massive entrenched companies like IBM sit up and take note. We at www.commodore.ca wish him all the best in his future endeavors and look forward to benefiting from his new inventions.
Intel 8088 vs
A huge but partial list of MOS 6502 based devices can be found HERE.
Original Chuck Peddle