The Commodore 64: Machine of Destiny
by Ian Matthews of Commodore.ca May 19, 2003

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C64 History:
The 64 began life its design life in January of 1981 when  MOS Technology engineers decided they needed a new chip project.  MOS' Albert Charpentier had been responsible for several of the highly successful VIC-20 chips.  "We were fresh out of ideas for whatever chips the rest of the world might want us to do.  So we decided to produce a state-of-the-art video and sound chips for the worlds next great video game". 

By November of 1981, the chips were completed but Commodores president Jack Tramiel decided against using them in the arcade game market.  Instead he tasked the engineers with developing a 64 kilobyte home computer for show at the Winter Consumer Electronics Show (CES) the second week of January 1982; just 6 weeks away. 

Two days after Jacks decision, the basic design was completed and by the end of December 1981 the hardware for five VIC-30 (the C64's development name) prototypes assembled. The VIC-20 operating system was stretched onto the C64 by the time the of the show and with an estimated retail price $595; it was a hit.  It did not hurt that there were no other new powerful machines shown at CES by Commodores competitors that year.  The Commodore 64 was alive: it was a  immediately ordered into production which hit full stride by August 1982. 

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 PC, or TRS-80.  The Commodore 64 was arguably the easiest computer to use that was ever made.  Like the PET and VIC-20 before it, the 64 booted to a friendly screen with the Operating System, Commodore / Microsoft Basic 2.0, ready and waiting for instruction.  If writing your own programs was daunting, and loading software from cassettes or floppies was 'too much' for you, you could just jam a cartridge in the back of the unit and like magic, your machine was doing whatever you wanted it to.

Like it's predecessor the VIC-20, the 64 was the first computer that millions of today's programmers, designers, engineers and enthusiasts had ever used.  It has inspired a countless volume of software both for the 64 and other platforms.  The best selling machine in history is no small feat.  Commodore did not 'knock the ball out of the park', they 'knocked the park into the next city'. 

The Chips:  In 1980 MOS completed development of the 6510 Central Processor and chip set.  It was a standard .9875 MHz 6502 (used in the KIM-1 and PET) with a additional input/output port and the ability to see allot more RAM.   As part of the "next great video game" idea, Charpentier recruited another MOS Engineer, Robert Yannes, in 1981 to assist him in figuring out how far other companies push their current technology.  They pulled apart and 'stole' ideas from Texas Instruments TI 99, Atari 800, Apple and others, most of which used the powerful MOS 6502 processor.

According to Charles Winterable, Commodores Worldwide Engineering Director, "We defined in advance the die size that would give a yield we were willing to live with.  ...Then we prioritized a wish list of what needs to be in there to what ought to be in there to what we would like to be in there.  ...When he ran out of registers, he stopped."  With two draftsman and CAD technician, the two man team developed "first silicon" in just 9 months and it worked on the first try. 

The VIC-II 6567 video chip in the 64 can produce about 128 colours but was only engineered for and only officially supported 16 colours.  "The width of each pixel is almost half of the NTSC colour clock, so when you alternate the pixels of two different colours, instead of getting the two colours that you think your getting you get a whole new phase interpretation"  Brian Dougherty, President of Berkley Software's explained.  It displayed a large 320 x 200 character count.

The now legendary SID 6581 sound chip was astounding for its time.  It could play three different "voices" in sophisticated patterns and with some tinkering could be made to create one or two more.  It was without doubt the best sounding computer on the market at any price for years to come.  It was likely the first computer in the world capable of reproducing a recognizable human voice without the addition of peripheral hardware.

The most common C64 question is why does the screen say 38,911 bytes free when it supposedly has 64,000 bytes of memory.  This is because nearly half of its memory is used for internal functions like the operating system, Basic 2.0 .

The Costs: Jack Tramiel believed that budgets were a "licence to steal" so no one knows what it cost to produce the initial year or so of engineering work.  Commodore used an informal accounting system that made extensive use of otherwise idle physical and human resources at the MOS production facility.  If Commodore did not own MOS, the design costs may have been prohibitive and the C64 may have never been conceived.

The 64's initial production cost target was $130; it actually came in at $135.  The opening price of $595 would leave a handsome profit for Commodore, even after packaging, promotion and distribution.   Within a few years, it was estimated that component cost decreases and economies of scale, had dropped the cost of manufacture to less than $50!

The C64 uses Commodore Basic version 2.0 even though a substantially improved Commodore PET Basic 4.0 was available because it would have required more ROM which would have cost more. 

Because the VIC was such a huge success it was "obvious" that they should reuse that machines case.  Reducing the size of the cartridge slot, changing the colour and slapping on a new logo was all that was required.

Designing with cost as the primary concern rather than the performance, fit very well with Yannes.  "Anytime I design something, I want to use the minimum number of components possible.  It's a personal challenge.  If there 's a spare [logic] gate in the gate package, I'll work to get rid of the entire package, because... I ought to be able to use up everything that's in them."

The Retail Environment: Before its release at CES, retail prices as high as $1000 had been proposed just for the base machine without floppy drive or monitor.  Quickly the price was set at a more reasonable $595. 

Based on the VIC 20 distribution model, Commodore packaged the 64 in small and most importantly, cheap paper 'boxes' which were assembled inside of cardboard stand-up's.  Sears, Toys 'R' Us, Montgomery Ward, Fred Meyer, K-Mart, Lionel Play World, sold these machines like they were toasters.  Of course the 64 was also available at through Commodores professional computer retailers and specialty shops.

By the mid 80's large dealers were buying the 64 for about $100.  Some retailers sold 64's for less than $100 hoping that consumers would buy the floppy drives, printers, disks, modems and desks, which they made much higher margins on.  In 2003 I sold a 1541 floppy disk that was originally purchased from Canadian Tire and still had the shocking retail price sticker on it of $399!  There was definitely margin in the extras.

The early / mid 1980's is when the notion of freeware and shareware came to fruition.  Thousands of programmers were putting millions of hours of labour into programs that they were making available without charge.  Because the 64 had such a huge percentage of the market, it was a primary beneficiary of this innovation.  Some have argued that the 64 was also the cause of this innovation; millions of high school age C64 programmers with nothing but time and desire created thousands of pieces of software that they had no retail outlet for.  Because they had no cash production costs, giving software away in exchange for getting your name publicized seemed like a pretty good deal to many kids.

The Quality:  Engineering flaws and supplier problems caused all kinds of issues with the early 64's.  "You pick a switch that is listed as a 'consumer switch'.  You design it in.  ...Then California [the production division] wants 50,000 a WEEK but the manufacturer says  'We can't make that.  It's a consumer switch but we're not geared for consumer quantities.'"

Because production of 64 circuit boards was designed for the "auto-insertion" VIC-20 factory in the US, there were problems from day one with the Japanese plant which used manual-insertion production lines.  Local standards also wrecked havoc; the Japanese used mainly metric screws while the US lines worked with 'English' screws so when components were shipping between facilities, the result was not always pretty.  "It takes a very tough person to say 'I'm not shipping these because they're not as good as they could be - especially when people are clamoring to buy them" explained Charpentier.

There was a so called 'sparkle' problem which caused small 'lights' to appear on the screen of the first few hundred thousand units.  Most thought the problem was caused by defects in the video chip but in fact the problem was with voltage spikes caused by a series of 64 systems that adversely affected the ROM chip.  This same MOS ROM had been used in 3 million other machines including the wildly popular Asteroids, without problem.

Depending on the colours, the edges of some objects would appear slightly out of line because Charpentier miscalculated the number of clock cycles on each horizontal video line.  "Instead of 65 clock cycles per line, I had 64".  This problem took five months to correct.

"They don't test.  I've opened up brand-new Commodores and found traces cut.  They obviously use a power screwdriver to assemble the C-64, sometimes miss the screw and chop the traces."  criticized one of Epyx Software staffers.

To top all this off Commodore had moved its engineers to Head Office in Pennsylvania, away from the California production line.  This caused communication to be strained.

If you are having problems diagnosing your C64's problems, click HERE for a great troubleshooting table.

The Revisions: The Commodore 64 has sold more machines than any other computer in history.  The Guinness book of Records estimates that there were about 30 MILLION units pushed out of Commodore plants.  In addition to the 64 being a fabulously powerful machine produced at time of exploding computer popularity, it was also, without doubt the longest production run in history.  From early 1982 through to 1992, Commodore manufactured many minor derivatives of the machine to keep its profits paying for Commodores many many mistakes with newer products. 

The 64C came in a sleek beige plastic case.  Commodore kept the 64 in the ugly brown 'VIC-a-like' box because it was cheap.  Other than some minor circuitry revisions (and the case obviously), the 64C was identical to the original 64. The 64C came with Berkley Software's famous GEOS Operating System and modem linking software.  This made the 64 a minor competitor to IBM PC's with original versions of Microsoft Windows 1, 2, and 3.  GEOS was MUCH more mature and capable than Microsoft's fledgling Windows, but a combination of excellent copy protection (which hindered its spread / popularity) and it's minimal base hardware (the 64) made GEOS' life all too short.  While new versions of GEOS are still developed and produced for commercial sale today, in commercial significance it died with the 64.

The Max Machine was announced in Germany and Canada but was only released only in Japan. It was a Commodore 64 with only 8K of RAM and a very bad membrain keyboard. This combination makes it one of the rarest and most sought after production Commodore computers. This limited system has two joystick ports, a cartridge and cassette port, RF out, audio out, channel select and power input.

The 64GS was a keyboardless version of the 64 released to Europe in 1998.  The idea was to further reduce cost to produce a low price gaming console.  It was a little white box with a cartridge slot on top.  It did not sell well.  In fact I have never seen one, other than in pictures.

There were seamingly countless Commodore 64 bundles to keep sales moving.  There was a Terminator II bundle, a 64C TV Quiz Pack and so many more.

There were even several $995 laptop (read 25 pound luggable) Executive versions of the 64 called the SX-64, DX-64, and the SX-100.  These began to appear in 1983, fairly early on in the 64 life cycle which is an indication it was likely planned as an expansion into new markets rather than a way to resuscitate a dieing line.

Commodore produced fully functional Golden 64's in various markets.  These "Jubilee" machines commemorated the 1,000,000th unit produced.  In the US, Golden 64's were shown at the 1984 winter CES.  More than 350 Golden 64's were produced for Germany's one millionth celebration in December of 1986.
 

Post Mortem:  Although the machine had important flaws, the 64 design team created a fantastic machine, at very low cost, that soundly beat the competition.  How did they do it, you may ask, and why would it prove to be nearly impossible for Commodore (and most other companies) to replicate this process in the future?   The design success is widely attributed to the fact that engineers were not building a computer, just some chips... so everyone left them alone.  They did their own market research and developed their own standards. 

The 64 was the last machine Commodore engineered on a whim.  "If you let Marketing get involved with Product Definition, you'll never get it done quickly.  And  you squander the ability to make something unique..." said Winterable.  "When you get many people involved in a project, all you end up doing is justifying yourself... The freedom that allowed us to do the C-64 project will probably never exist again..."

In the end, nearly the whole C64 team, Al Charpentier, Robert Yannes, Charles Winterable, David Ziembeicki and Bruce Crockette, left Commodore early in 1983 and started Peripheral Visions which was quickly renamed Ensoniq.  Ensoniq was purchased by Creative Labs in the late 1990's. 

Post Post Mortem - The C65: Before Commodore went bankrupt in 1993/4, it was rumored that engineers were secretly working on a new improved (but still 8 bit) 64 called the C65.  After the bankruptcy dozens of prototypes, schematics, drawings, engineering notes, and system components were sold to the highest bidder.  Because Commodore Canada was the last division to fall, much of this inventory had been moved from other sites to their Toronto headquarters and this is where most of the of the prototypes came out of.

Post Post Post Mortem - The  C-One: The mighty 64 has sprung up from the ashes of Commodores dissolution, in the form of the C-One.  The Commodore One was conceived and started design in 1999 by Jeri Ellsworth, an engineering student.  Her original intent was to create a circuit that would allow the original Commodore 64 to function with a modern VGA monitor.  After learning the complications of such a task, the work expanded and expanded and now is a full blown 100% C64 compatible machine for about US$200, that uses a DIMM, Flash Memory, SVGA Monitor and other modern hardware.

The C-1 has now been branded "The Reconfigurable Computer".  The intent is to produce a machine that is as updatable as possible.  Not just thing like the BIOS but core system components:  "...it evolved into a re-configurable computer, a new class of computers where the chips do not have dedicated tasks any more. The two main chips carry out different tasks, depending on the needs of the program.

The technology used is called FPGA - field programmable gate arrays. These chips can be programmed to do the tasks that the chips of the C-64 or other computers have done. It's no emulation, but it's a re-implementation of the chips that are no longer available since many years.  The one thing that is not contained in the FPGAs is the main processor - it would take too much space, resulting in too high cost. To maintain flexibility, the CPU resides on a card that can be exchanged by the user - as simple as plugging in a PCI card.

After a cold start, the FPGA programs are loaded from a mass-storage device like harddrive, disk drive or a compact flash card. What's described in one short sentence is a giant leap in computer technology: The hardware can be altered by the user without even opening the computer. The FPGA programs - so-called 'cores' - turn the C-One into clones of famous 80's computers like the C64, VIC-20, plus/4, TI-99/4a, Atari 2600, Atari 400/800 series, Sinclair Spectrum, ZX81, Schneider CPC and many more."

For the most current news and information on the Commodore 1 click HERE or HERE for the official page.  The host of www.commodore.ca , Up & Running Technologies Incorporated is hoping to sell this machines to the Canadian and North West US market.  If you are interested in purchasing a Commodore 1, please contact Up & Running in Calgary.

As in it's "hay day", it seems the 64 is hard to beat and harder yet to kill.  The final chapter of the history making Commodore 64 is not still yet written nearly 25 years after it began as an idea for some chips. 


Commodore 64 Chronology
1980
- MOS completes development of the 6510 Central Processor and chip set

1981 January
- MOS Engineer Albert Charpentier looks for new chip project and starts work on state-of-the-art video and sound chips for the worlds "next great video game"

1981 Spring
- Charpentier recruited another MOS Engineer, Robert Yannes to assist him in figuring out how far other companies push their current technology

1981 November
- First Silicon is complete
- Jack Tramiel kills the "next great video game" concept and tells the engineers to make a home computer to show at CES in 6 weeks
- Two days later the basic engineering layout for the 64 is complete

1981 December
- 5 Prototypes are assembled

1982 January
- Software from the VIC-20 is ported to the much more powerful C64 hardware
- Commodore announces the Commodore 64 microcomputer at the Winter CES. It features a 6510 processor, 64 KB RAM, 20 KB ROM with Microsoft BASIC, custom SID sound chip, 8 sprites, 16-color graphics, 40-column screen, for US$595. It is the first personal computer with an integrated sound synthesizer chip.
- Production is approved immediately after the show

1982 Spring
- Minor engineering changes occur which will later cause as many problems as they resolve
- Production problems, like sourcing odd parts and figuring out how to use metric screws with 'English' nuts are worked out between several worldwide plants

1982 June
- Summer CES Commodore shows the 64 again but this time production is well underway

1982 August
- Production is stable enough and large enough to start shipping the 64 to retailers

1983 January
- Commodore shows off the 23 pound "portable" $995 SX-100 with integrates black and white 5" screen.  A colour 5" screen version with two 5.25" 1541 type drives lists for $1295.
- The price drops $100 as Commodore starts distributing the machines through mass marketers like Sears

1983 Spring
- Nearly the whole C64 team, Al Charpentier, Robert Yannes, Charles Winterable, David Ziembeicki and Bruce Crockette, left Commodore early in 1983 and started Peripheral Visions which was quickly renamed Ensoniq (which becomes part of Creative Labs in the late 1990's).

1983 April
- Commodore offers $100 rebate on 64's

1983 May
- After many false starts and name changes, Commodore Business Machines ships the Executive 64 with one 1541 type 170 KB floppy and 5" colour screen for $995.
- This is the worlds first portable colour computer.

1983 June
- Commodore drops the dealer price of the 64 all the way down to $200

1984 January
- January 13th - Commodore shows off prototype 264 and 364 at CES and indicates they should be in production by June
- January 15th - Commodores founder, visionary and CEO, Jack Tramiel quits Commodore with secret plans to buy the near bankrupt Atari
- Commodore shows a Golden Jubilee version of the 64 to commemorate the 1,000,000 C64 to be produced in the US
- Commodore introduces the SX-64, the worlds first portable colour computer.  It comes is a heafty 10.5 kg and incorporates a 5-inch color monitor and one or two 5.25 inch floppy drive all for $1600.

1984
- Commodore introduces the Educator 64. A 64 in a Commodore PET  8032 style case.

1985 January
- The last Commodore VIC-20 rolls off the line
- Commodore shows off the C128 Personal Computer at CES.  This new machine has three modes: 64, CP/M and the new 128KB mode.

1985
- Commodore stops production of the 64 several times (presumably in favour of the much more powerful but expensive 128) but restarts it because of demand.

1986 January
- Germany celebrates its 1,000,000 C64 with a Golden Jubilee version
- Berkley Software demonstrates GEOS for the Commodore 64 at Winter CES.
-
Commodore 128D's hit retail stores in Europe and North America  for about $500
-
September - Plus/4 was in full liquidation were selling for a mere $79

1986 June
- In an effort to revitalize sales, Commodore releases a sleek new 128 like case, changes the name to 64C, and bundles it with GEOS.
- The Commodore 1541C is displayed at Summer CES

1987 January
- Berkley Software shows off a host of applications for GEOS, including geoCalc, geoFile, and geoDex and sets them to retail at about $50 each

1987 December
- Sales of the 'new' 64C 270,000 units.

1988 June
- GEOS 2 for the Commodore 64 is shown at Summer CES

1990
- CMD Creative Micro Designs releases 3 hard drives for the Commodore 64: 20 MB for $600, 40 MB for $800, and a whooping 100 MB for US$1300
- Commodore 64 Games System is released in Europe

1992
- Last Commodore 64 is pushed off the assembly line

1994
- Commodore goes bankrupt and the Commodore 65 prototypes and documentation are auctioned off as part of the liquidation

2003 May 15
- Jeri Ellsworth has her 3 year project to develop a 100% C64 compatible machine using modern hardware is released.  This project is not sanctioned by the current owners of the Commodore trademark so the machine is called the C-One.


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