Secret Weapons of Commodore - the Story of Commodore

The Story of Commodore

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The greatest unsung pioneer in computing has to be Commodore Business Machines, the now sadly defunct company that produced without a doubt the single most remembered and surely one of the most influential computers of the 1980's (and 90's!): the Commodore 64. Its importance in truly putting computing within the reach of the home user cannot be overestimated. Still the best-selling single computer model of all time, and even more so when combined with its bigger brother, the Commodore 128, the C64 (hereafter the 64) is an amazing machine for having a powerfully flexible architecture allowing software-level expansion of the system to encompass diverse operating systems, flexible hardware handling, and even software-driven additional graphics modes; a superb sound synthesis system that was unmatched in its class until the Amiga; a huge library of software; and a wide assortment of peripherals from both Commodore and third-party manufacturers. Commodore reigned practically supreme during the mid-to-late 1980's; estimate for total units sold range as high as 22 million, and several hundred thousand or more are estimated still in active use around the world. Not bad for a machine introduced to the world in 1982. Couple this with the Amiga series, for a time the uncontested frontrunners in multimedia. For years, no computer system could match the mind-blowing graphics, sound and stability of the Amiga and its (from day one!) pre-emptively multitasking operating system. Their unique capabilities and software were bywords in a computer community that still associated raw, oozing computing power with monochrome screens and boring productivity applications. For its part, the Amiga, too, remains present and in active use around the planet in its many diverse incarnations.

Despite this astonishing market achievement, computer users who entered the field when the Macintosh and the Wintel hegemony were carving up the landscape probably are unaware of Commodore's achievements in technology and computing. The most irksome part of this is that so much of it was due to Commodore's later internal mismanagement, and sometimes downright incompetency. While no company ever gets all of its projects out the door, and every enterprise has its fair share of false starts and utter failures, CBM seemed particularly bad at picking the products to ship; and of those that they did, their support was riddled with gaps if it was there at all.

The purpose of Secret Weapons, then, is obvious: to catalogue the amazing machines that Commodore might have made and released. Stunning devices like the 900 could have changed the face of enterprise servers; TOI might have been the machine that kept Commodore from ever entering the home computer arena had it sold; the 264 series may have revolutionised home computers with their graphics and internal business software. It's amazing, and a little sad, to think of the wasted brilliance of these lost devices and to realise that they might have kept this inept yet innovative computer company alive. Intentionally, I only write about 8-bit related systems (the 900 and the original Lorraine being the sole exception), as these, more so than the more conventional Amiga secret weapons and the Commodore PC clone line, contain the most surprising and interesting engineering feats of the unsung and largely unknown CBM developers. But yes, there was much more to Commodore than their 8-bits, and this history of the company might help to shed some light on the lost giant.

Commodore's beginnings were rather inauspicious, and start at Fort Dix around 1952 or so with a young US Army soldier, originally an Polish Auschwitz survivor, who had a talent for typewriter repair. Born Idek Tramielski in Lodz, Poland in 1929, the future Jack Tramiel was only 15 when he was sent to the Nazi death camps, where the rest of his family died (his father at the hands of the infamous Dr. Josef Mengele; the rest, in the gas chamber). Rescued in April 1945, Tramielski wed another young survivor (of Bergen-Belsen), Helen Goldgrub, in July 1947 and emigrated to the U.S. later that year to enter the Army in 1948. While his friends tried to impress nubile young women and strutted around in their uniforms and rifles, Jack (as he was dubbed) was honing his skills on Army Hermes units. Later discharged, Tramiel set up shop in the Bronx, and moonlighted as a cab driver to supplement his income. Tramiel first did repair work only, mostly odd typewriter fix-it jobs for the local Fordham University. But as his business slowly started to become more profitable, Tramiel rapidly started to exhibit the devilish business attitude that would later simultaneously make him the most celebrated and hated man in computers for years. The money was in sales and manufacturing, and Tramiel negotiated with the Czechoslovakian state typewriter factory during the late 1950s to start assembling typewriters in Canada. Moving his family to Toronto in 1958 and laying the foundations for his new enterprise, which he christened Commodore International in 1959, Tramiel found another way to strengthen his bottom line: cut out the middle man and start selling his own typewriters. Purchasing a typewriter concern in Berlin and adding that to his international operations, Tramiel had managed to assemble a small yet formidable conglomeration within the space of less than a decade. But why the name Commodore? According to Tramiel, he wanted a company name that had a military ring, and of course General and Admiral had long since been taken.

Commodore's first market challenge came from Japan, which was then spewing cheap mechanical adding devices into the US and European markets in large numbers. Tramiel again shifted gears and at the request of his customers started his own line and the beginnings of Commodore's successful calculator division. By 1962, Commodore International was ready for its first public offering (at a Canadian bargain-basement price of CAN$2.50 a share). Renamed Commodore Business Machines, Tramiel was made president, with new chairman and banker C. Powell Morgan, former president of the Atlantic Acceptance Corporation. The company did well, but the reasons might not have been all ethical. In 1965, Morgan was condemned by a Canadian Royal commission for, among other things, acts of "rapacious and unprincipled manipulation" and total disregard for "all accepted business principles". Morgan was also in default on a $5 million short-term loan. His death shortly afterwards of leukemia prevented him from prosecution, but Tramiel was also subjected to equal scrutiny. Tramiel was not indicted, but the poor publicity had cost CBM dearly. Commodore lost huge portions of the adding machine market to the Japanese, and profits dwindled in the face of ostracism from the Canadian financial community.

The ray of hope came in the form of investor Irving Gould, who in 1966 offered to buy a substantial piece of Commodore in return for Morgan's vacated position. Tramiel, naturally, accepted the offer, but ideas for a turnaround were scant. As a last-ditch effort, Gould suggested a little subterfuge and sent Tramiel to Japan to check out the competition.

There, Tramiel saw the magic rejuvenating ingredient for his moribund calculator division: the new electronic desktop calculators. Tramiel made a strategic and perspicacious decision: drop the mechanical units from production and put all resources into developing a competing electronic unit of CBM's own. Tramiel's quick switch paid off, and Commodore was first on the market in 1969 with the C108, a portable, pocket calculator based on a Bowmar LED display and a Texas Instruments IC core. Buyers went crazy. While it may seem ludicrous to spend hundreds of dollars on machines that now go for a dollar or so in bargain bins, Commodore could not keep the "newfangled electronic adders" in stock -- until 1972, when Texas Instruments decided to produce a calculator of their own. By dint of using the same chip they sold Commodore at a profit, TI was able to undercut Commodore's price severely; worse, new manufacturing processes caused chip prices to plummet, and Tramiel found himself with warehouses full of calculators with chips at the old prices. By 1975, after years of increasing profit, Commodore reported a loss of $5 million on sales of almost $50 million. Tramiel and Gould rapidly realised that the calculator components were the weak link. If someone could control them, they could control Commodore, just like Texas Instruments did.

Like the Internet companies of today, semiconductor companies were then a risky and often unprofitable business, and the cash-strapped company buying one outright seemed a sure recipe for suicide. Tramiel, however, was adamant, and both Gould and Tramiel could see the payoff if the gamble succeeded. Once again, moneybags Gould came to the rescue and personally guaranteed a $3 million loan to purchase a small chip foundry in November 1976: MOS Technology.

MOS Technology started in 1975 when chip engineer Chuck Peddle quit his job at Motorola and went into business for himself. MOS, and Peddle, were the brainchilds behind one of the major microprocessors of the 1980s: the venerable 6502. A fast, inexpensive and reliable product of NMOS VLSI manufacturing, the 6502 became the CPU for diverse machines during the 1980's. In addition to powering virtually all of the Commodore 8-bits (usually in a modified version based on the 6510, a 6502 with an on-chip I/O port), the 6502 and its later HMOS and CMOS successors powered many disparate systems including the BBC Acorn, the Apple ][ series (the 16-bit 65816 powers the IIgs and the CMD SuperCPU accelerator cartridge for the 64/128), the Atari 8-bits and even the Nintendo systems up to the N64 (the NES used the 6502 and the SuperNES the 65816). Peddle developed its forerunner, the 6501, in direct competition with Motorola's workhorse 6800, the very chip he had been designing at Motorola, to the point where it was intended to be pin-compatible. Motorola did not like the prospect of a drop-in replacement, even one that wasn't machine code compatible, and successfully sued for hundreds of thousands of dollars in damages. Combined with about 200 simultaneous R&D projects consuming their capital, MOS rapidly found itself in financial trouble. Peddle accepted Tramiel's offer without delay.

While Commodore also made other acquisitions, including Los Angeles CMOS chip manufacturer Frontier and LCD manufacturer MDSA, MOS Technology's buyout was the one with the furthest reaching ramifications. While Tramiel killed most of the outstanding projects immediately, he heeded Peddle's advice about the 6502 and kept it in development. Indeed, the chip already was being used in computers: Steve Wozniak's Apple I prototype. Tramiel marched up with an offer to buy Apple outright, but Wozniak wanted $15,000 more than Commodore was willing to pay. Commodore declined. What a thought to realise that Apple might have become a Commodore division for just a few thousand more! The 6502 also had found a use in MOS's kit computer, the KIM-1, a hobbyist unit with all of 1K and a six-digit numeric LED bank and a decent seller compared to the famous Altair, which was a major player in those days. Commodore made their own versions of the KIM-1, but Tramiel did not want to be selling kit computers forever. Legend has it that Peddle brought up the idea of making a desktop computer out of the 6502; after the failed bid for Apple, that was just what Tramiel wanted, and put Peddle on the job with Tramiel's second son Leonard to design a computer of Commodore's own.

The result of Peddle's labours was the prototype PET (the acronym Personal Electronic Transactor was actually added later), which Tramiel tried to introduce to Tandy, then a leather company, for sale through the Radio Shack division. Tandy spied a goldmine and after looking over the PET decided to develop their own computer instead, but Tramiel refused to be discouraged even after a lukewarm reception to the announcement of the project in 1976. The 8K PET 2001 appeared at the Chicago Consumer Electronics Show in 1977, Commodore's first desktop unit. A massive metal and plastic hunk with a built-in monochrome monitor, a colour-coded keyboard and built-in BASIC, the PET met enthusiastic reception. (This was much to the relief of Peddle, who had worked on it for three straight days without rest to get the unit functional enough for display.) Commodore got flooded with calls from dealers at the rate of fifty plus a day. Tramiel, remembering his experience with typewriters, decided that Commodore would be better off selling the units themselves.

Originally announced for $495 (with CPU, RAM, ROM, keyboard, monitor and tape storage), the new PET found itself the toast of the town. The PET was a capable, effective unit with a stunning array of features, but the price unfortunately was rapidly found to be overoptimistic, and Commodore's service subpar. After raising the price to $595 before taking orders, Commodore further took a public opinion hit with their tardy shipping, their solution moronic at best, instead deciding to offer a $795 version with an extra 4K of RAM. Current orders were required to send an extra $200. Moreover, to force people to buy new PETs instead of expanding old ones, CBM even started drilling holes in the