Commodore 64 History

The Commodore 64: Machine of Destiny
by Ian Matthews of May 19, 2003 - Revised Feb 10 2004


Sections on this page:

Commodore 64 History
Commodore 64 Chronology
Commodore 64 Manuals, Magazine Articles, Announcements, Videos and Advertisements
Commodore 64 Prototype Slide Show
Commodore 64 Picture Gallery


C64 History:

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 Commodores 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 was assembled. In the remaining two weeks, the VIC-20 operating system was stretched onto the C64. With an estimated retail price of just $595, it was the buzz of the show. 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 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 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 it's 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 for the C64 and other non-Commodore platforms.

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" concept, Albert Charpentier recruited MOS Engineer Robert Yannes in 1981 to assist him in figuring 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, Apples and others. Note that most computers of the day used MOS' powerful 6502 processor.

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 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 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 Microsoft's Operating System, Commodore 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. This is because the upgrade would have required more Read Only Memory (ROM) which would have cost more.

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 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.

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 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 for 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. One engineer is quote 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. 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 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 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, in commercial significance 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 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. It was a little white box with a cartridge slot on top. If the production cost of a regular C64 was $50, the GS was likely in the $40 range. 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. There was a Terminator II bundle, a 64C TV Quiz Pack and so many more.

There were even several $995 laptop (i.e. 25 pound luggable) 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 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, Commodore's 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 the engineers alone. Engineers did the core market research and developed their own standards.