by Ian Matthews of Commodore.ca May 19, 2003 – Revised Feb 1, 2020
Sections on this page:
- Commodore 64 History
- Commodore 64 In Browser Emulator
- Commodore 64 Chronology
- Commodore 64 Manuals, Magazine Articles, Announcements, Videos and Advertisements
- Commodore 64 Prototype Slide Show
- Commodore 64 Picture Gallery
- Commodore 64 Video Review From 2018
Commodore 64: Machine of Destiny
The 64 began 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 Commodore’s president Jack Tramiel decided against using them in the faltering 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 request, the basic design was completed and by the end of December 1981 the hardware for five VIC-30 (the C64’s development name) prototypes were assembled. In the remaining two weeks, the VIC-20 operating system with lowly Commodore Basic 2.0 was stretched onto the C64. With an estimated retail price of just $595 ($1250 dollars in 2018), it was the buzz of the show. It did not hurt that there were no other new powerful computers shown at CES by Commodores competitors that year. The Commodore 64 was alive: it was 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 Radio Shack TRS-80. (Click the advert on the right.)
The Commodore 64 is arguably the easiest to use programmable computer that has ever been made. Like the PET and VIC-20 before it, the 64 booted to a friendly screen with the Commodore Basic Operating System ready and waiting for instruction. If writing your own programs was too daunting and loading software from cassettes or floppies was ‘just 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.
Creating 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 pushed the industry to a level of scale that was previously thought impossible.
Like its VIC-20 predecessor, 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 and hardware that we use today.
In 1980 Commodores semiconductor arm, MOS Technologies, 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” concept, Albert Charpentier recruited another MOS engineer Robert Yannes in 1981 to help figure out how far other companies could push their current technology. By their own admission, they pulled apart and ‘stole’ ideas from Texas Instruments TI 99’s, Atari 800’s, Apple II’s and others. It is worth noting that most computers of the day used Commodore / MOS’ powerful but inexpensive 6502 processcor
According to Charles Winterable, Commodore’s 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 a CAD technician they developed “first silicon” in just 9 months and shockingly 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 you’re getting you get a whole new phase interpretation” Brian Dougherty, President of Berkley Software 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 also likely the first computer in the world capable of reproducing a recognizable human voice without the addition of peripheral hardware.
The most common C64 chip 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 Commodore Basic 2.0 (a.k.a. Microsoft Basic). .
Jack Tramiel believed that budgets were a “licence to steal”. He wanted staff to argue for every dollar they spent rather than giving them a fixed amount of money and telling the to get the job done. As a result 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 in Norristown Pennsylvania. If Commodore had not owned MOS, the design costs may have been prohibitive and the C64 may have never been even conceived.
The 64’s initial production cost target was $130 ($300 dollars in 2018); it actually came in at $135. The opening price of $595 ($1350 in 2018 dollars) would leave a handsome profit for Commodore, even after packaging, promotion and distribution. Within a few years it was estimated that component cost decreases combined with production efficiencies had dropped the cost of manufacture to less than $50 ($110 dollars in 2018). You can see in the photo on the left that the original 1982 board had about 40 chips on it while the the final 1992 board had only about 15.
The C64 uses Commodore Basic version 2.0 even though a substantially improved Commodore PET Basic 4.0 was available. This is because the upgrade would have required more Read Only Memory (ROM) which would have cost more. While researching the Commodore VIC-20 we found claims the Commodore CEO Jack Tramiel also liked the idea that shipping Basic 2.0 would leave a nice upgrade path for consumers to buy an add on cartridge to provide more commands and we have to think that logic was still at play with the C64.
Because the VIC was such a huge success it was “obvious” that they should reuse that machines plastic chassis. 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 announcement at CES, retail prices as high as $1000 ($2275 in 2018 dollars) per unit had been proposed for the base machine (i.e. no floppy drive, cassette drive, or monitor). Quickly the price was set at a more reasonable $595 ($1350 in 2018 dollars).
Based on the VIC 20 distribution model, Commodore packaged the 64 in small and most importantly, cheap paper ‘boxes’ which were stacked inside of cardboard stand-up’s. Sears, Toys ‘R’ Us, Montgomery Ward, Fred Meyer, K-Mart, Lionel Play World, sold these machines along side their usual produces like toasters, clothes and hammers. Of course the 64 was also available at through Commodores professional computer retailers and specialty computer shops like Austin Hook’s The Computer Shop in Calgary Alberta Canada which is the oldest computer store in the world.
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 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 C 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 to cover production costs, giving software away in exchange for getting your name publicized seemed like a pretty good deal to many kids
Engineering flaws and supplier problems caused all kinds of issues with the early 64’s. Some of the quality issues were simply caused by the C64’s enormous popularity. One engineer is quoted as saying “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 quantity.’ ”
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 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 computers including the wildly popular arcade game “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 this off Commodore had moved its engineers to Head Office in Pennsylvania, away from the California production line which caused communication to be further strained.
If you are having problems diagnosing your C64’s problems, click HERE for a great troubleshooting guide.
The Commodore 64 has sold more than any other computer in history. The Guinness book of Records estimates that there were about 30 MILLION units pushed out of Commodore plants even though most historians argue that the real number is closer to 20 million units. Either way, it is a record breaking achievement.
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 several 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, its commercial significance died with the 64.
The most interesting C64 Derivative was the Commodore Max Machine. It was announced in Germany and Canada but was only released only in Japan.
The MAX was anything but. It was a much cheaper version of the Commodore 64 with only 8K of RAM and a very bad membrane 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. The 64GS was a little white box containing a C64 motherboard with a cartridge slot on top. If the production cost of a regular C64 was $50, the GS was likely near $40 ($90 in 2018 dollars). It did not sell well. In fact I have never seen one, other than in pictures.
There were seemingly countless Commodore 64 bundles to keep sales moving including Terminator II bundle, a 64C TV Quiz Pack and so many more.
There were even several $995 ($2100 in 2018 dollars) laptops (ok, laptop is a stretch; they were 25 pound luggables) executive versions of the 64 called the SX-64, DX-64, and the SX-100. These began to appear in 1983 which was fairly early on in the 64 life cycle and taken by some to as an indication that the C64 laptop was planned as an expansion product rather than a way to resuscitate a dying 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.
Although the machine had important flaws, the Commodore 64 design team created a fantastic machine at very low cost which soundly thrashed the competition for years. How did they do it and why would it prove to be nearly impossible for Commodore (and most other companies) to replicate process in the future? The design success is widely attributed to the fact that engineers were not intending to build a computer, just some chips, so the corporate bureaucrats left them alone. Engineers did the core 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 (the sound card company) in the late 1990’s.
Post Post Mortem: The C65 (1994):
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 (2004):
The mighty 64 has sprung up from the ashes of Commodores dissolution, in the form of the C-One. The Commodore One was conceived in 1999 by engineering student Jeri Ellsworth. 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 was 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 One click HERE for the official page.
As in it’s “hay day”, it seems the 64 is had to beat and harder yet to kill. The final chapter of the history making Commodore 64 is not still yet written nearly 40 years after it began as just an idea for some chips.
Post Post Post Post Mortem: Commodore USA (2010):
Commodore USA was setup by Barrie Altman who has an interesting background with media broadcasting and now runs a furniture company that manufactures knock-off high end furnishings. This new entity has a license to use the Commodore brand from the Commodore BV (the Commodore brand copy write and trademark owner in 2013) . Following the pattern established with the furniture business Commodore USA originally sold re-stickered very low end PC’s manufactured in China. We interviewed Barry in 2010 and he made no oligopolies for it.
In 2012 Commodore USA produced a custom chassied modern PC that looked like the classic Commodore 64. As an Intel Core i3 to i7 based PC it would run any modern Operating System including Windows 8 or even Windows Server 2012!
In December of 2012 Barrie died and it did not take long for Commodore USA to follow.
Final Note: If you want to play the games or run other applications but do not want to bother with the hardware, there are many of excellent emulators that allow you to run 64 programs on your PC. We suggest using VICE because it emulates almost all Commodore hardware and you can download it from this site on our Download menu item at the top of the page. C 64 Software usually referred to now as ROM’s are available for VICE on hundreds of websites.
Commodore 64 In Browser Emulator
We have the Commodore 64 In Browser Emulator HERE!
Commodore 64 Manuals
- Commodore 64 Users Guide
- Commodore 64 Programmers Reference Guide
- How To Connect a Commodore 64 / 128 Computer
- Commodore 64 & 128 Tips Sheet – Hardware Failures
- Commodore 1541 Floppy Drive Tips Sheet – Hardware Failures
- Commodore 64 Rev A Motherboard Schematics from 1982
- Commodore 64 Users Manual
Commodore 64 Magazine Articles
- Commodore 64: Design Case History (where MANY of the facts for this article were sourced) (1985)
- Commodore 64 Car Pilot 1984 – Worlds First Consumer GPS?
- Commodore 64: Introduction to the New Basic (1982)
- How to Hide Basic Code (1982)
- Computer Peripherals of the Future (1985)
- Commodore 64 Expansion Ports Explained (1985)
- Commodore Peripheral Devices: Slot Expanders, Modems, Printers (1985)
- Buyers Guide to C64 Languages (includes details & prices) (1983)
- How to Add Your Basic Own Commands to a Commodore 64 Basic 2.0
- Commodore Floppy Drive and Tape Mass Storage Prices (1986)
- Computer Comparison includes Everything from Apple to C64 to Osborne to TRS80
- Commodore 64 Advanced Use Manual
- 6500 Series CPUs Explained by Jim Butterfield (1983)
- Telecomputing Explained (1983)
- Commodore Machine Language Explained (1982)
Commodore 64 Announcements
- Commodore 64 Prototype Pictures
- Commodore SX-64 (laptop) Announcement
- May 1983 Price Drop & Software Announcements for the 64
- Guide to Languages Available for the Commodore 64 (with prices)
- Commodore 64 Software Guide from 1984
- Commodore VIC-20 and 64 Brochure from Sweden
Commodore 64 Videos:
Commodore 64 Advertising:
Commodore 64 Chronology:
- MOS completes development of the 6510 Central Processor and chip set
- 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
- 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
- 5 Prototypes are assembled
Operating System 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, 20KB 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
- 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
- Summer CES Commodore shows the 64 again but this time production is well underway
- Production is stable enough and large enough to start shipping the 64 to retailers
- 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. ($2950 in 2018 dollars)
- The price drops $100 ($225 in 2018 dollars) as Commodore starts distributing the machines through mass marketers like Sears
- 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).
- Commodore offers $100 rebate on 64’s
- 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.
- Commodore drops the dealer price of the 64 all the way down to $200
- 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 hefty 10.5 kg and incorporates a 5-inch color monitor and one or two 5.25 inch floppy drive all for $1600 ($3500 dollars in 2018)
- Commodore introduces the Educator 64. A 64 in a Commodore PET 8032 style case.
- 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.
- Commodore stops production of the 64 several times (presumably in favour of the much more powerful Commodore 128) but restarts the C64 line because of consumer demand.
- 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 ($1000 2018 dollars)
- Plus/4, C16, 116, 264 were in full liquidation were selling for a mere $79 ($160 dollars in 2018)
- 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
- Berkley Software shows off a host of applications for GEOS, including geoCalc, geoFile, and geoDex and sets them to retail at about $50 each
- Sales of the ‘new’ 64C cross 270,000 units
- GEOS 2 for the Commodore 64 is shown at Summer CES
- 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 ($2200 dollars in 2018)
Commodore 64 Games System is released in Europe
- Last Commodore 64 is pushed off the assembly line
- 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.
Commodore 64 Picture Gallery:
Click any image to enlarge it
Commodore 64 Explanation and Demonstration From 2018
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