back to article When Commodore ruled the world

"We made machines for the masses," said Jack Tramiel, the founder of Commodore, before motioning to the man beside him, Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak. "They made machines for the classes." Last night, at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, California, Tramiel and Wozniak joined several other veterans of the 80s PC …


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  1. Nordrick Framelhammer

    In Seppo land maybe..

    it may have been the best. But as anyone with half a clue knows that the BBC Model B outshown the C6t4 in so many ways, such as the 16 paged roms it could access, the Econet network ability including file server and network printing, the Tube with it's ability to run things such as co-processors which took over the task from the built in 6502 CPU, even allowing 16 bit PC compaitbility, as well as video disc access, Teletext, a mouse and graphics package, the ability with language roms to program in other languages such as LISP and C, the first BASIC language with the ability to set up propr proceduring rather than subroutines.

    But let us not forget the BBC's biggest ever contribution of all to computing. Without that machins abilities there would never have been one of the greatest games of all, namely Elite.

  2. lglethal Silver badge

    @ Nordrick

    Would have to disagree with you there champ. I think if you talked to people the world over and asked them the 80's PC they remember the words Commodore 64 would spill out.

    This BBC thing your talking about - cant say ive ever heard of it - may have been faster then the C64 but the C64 is the icon of the 80's PC market because it was the everyman's computer long before computer's became mainstream. Even now the distinctive logo and the name are recognised brands and still sell t-shirts, mugs, etc. So i think you'll find for the entire world the C64 is still considered the best 80's PC out there. Even if it wasnt the fastest...

  3. Jasmine Strong

    Stuff 16 bit PC compatibility

    There was an ARM2 coprocessor, too- 32-bit RISC in 1987, on the C64? Dream on. You need a BBC for that.

  4. Anonymous Coward

    Excellent article

    I know the event was to celebrate the history of the Commodore 64, Tramiel mentions Apple a lot, how come no mention of Atari ? I still have my first computer, an Atari 800, in the loft - at that time the C64, BBC B and Atari were the proper computers battling against the Spectrum.

  5. Graham Dawson Silver badge

    The rabbit must ahve given good advice...

    Workbench was miles ahead of just about anything out there when I was using it. Windows? Mac OS? Bah, amateurs compared to Workbench. Unfortunately, like so much superior technology, it simply didn't catch on.

  6. Anonymous Coward

    Shame... was pretty much the *only* game for the BBC.

  7. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward


    My dad used to beat me with his C64...

    Archon. Amniotic waves of nostalgia envelop me when I think of it. Almost makes me willing to get a C64 emulator.

  8. Adam White

    Oh you only have a Apple?

    Thus sayeht Steve Jobs: "I never heard anyone say 'Oh, you only have a Commodore.' I never heard that once in my life,"

    I personally heard people saying exactly the opposite all the time back in the day :P

  9. Tigre Marino

    BBC vs. C64

    There were two wonderful chips inside the C=64 that other machines dreamed about, they were VIC II and SID. And there was a 65hc816 16-bit accelerator for it someday ;)

  10. Anonymous Coward

    @ lglethal

    I think you are confusing "entire world" with "USA". (Yes, I know, it's a simple mistake for you 'cousin lovin' colonials to make.)

    Also, you made a typo in the following sentence <which I've fixed for you>:

    "Even now the distinctive logo and the name are recognised brands and still sell t-shirts <to> mugs."

    You are welcome, BTW.

  11. JMcL

    What no Spectrum owners

    ...or did their C5s break down on the way?

  12. Anonymous Coward

    Happy 25th birthday... the shit-brown plastic bread bin.

  13. Dale Harrison
    Thumb Up

    It was the Beeb for me

    I remember ordering the ZX81 as my first "PC" but the delay in getting it was so long I cancelled it and later bought the BBC B (snappy name huh!).

    But yeah I cut my teeth on 6502 Assembly Language and knew the Beeb inside out. I've never known a computer and OS so well since then; thanks for now making it so complex Mr Gates.

    And yes - simple as it seems now. Elite was a brilliant game and I've never really found anything to match it. Even playing on emulators doesn't seem the same.

    I since regret that I sold my beeb to upgrade to an Amiga. I liked the Amiga but felt like I'd sold my first born, along with all their brothers - e.g. advanced programming books etc. Still have thoughts of re-buying it.

  14. Bo Pedersen

    the Vic20 started me up

    and then onto many other machines (most of which I still have :) )

    as for the bbc micro argument, while it may have been superior, software availablility was a problem, plus it was a SCHOOL computer so was immediately more boring than the beige/brown box that played wicked games :)

  15. Torben Mogensen

    BBC B versus C64

    There is no doubt that the BBC B was a superior machine in almost all respects -- it was faster, had better graphics, better sound, better BASIC, better keyboard and better i/o and expansion capabilities.

    But it cost quite a bit more than the C64, so even in Britain where the BBC had most of its sales, the C64 outsold it.

    As for Elite being the only game for the BBC, that is not true by a long shot. Acornsoft made many arcade game conversions of excellent quality, and other companies made other excellent games. Elite was no doubt the most impressive game, as nothing like it had been seen before, but there were other good games. Maybe not as many as for the C64 (as ever, more sold units mean more titles being made), but enough to make it an excellent machine for games.

  16. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    It was the best because....

    It had an 25x40 character mode, with user defined characters, that could be smooth scrolled down to pixel level by the simple change of a register setting. Plus it had sprites (blocks of pixels overlaid onto the screen at arbitrary pixel locations with collision detection) in hardware.

    This meant that you could create smooth scrolling games, the processor at worst needed to shift 1000 characters not 64000 pixels.

    It even had an interrupt on the scan line counter, so you interrupt the processor half way down the screen, change the register settings on the fly so that different bands of the screen could be scrolled separately (think the non scrolling score/hi-score band at the bottom of the screen), or the number of sprites increased by reusing them in the top half and bottom half....

    The processors of that time could not shift a full screen of pixels, which made it the only machine that was a good games platform.

    Coupled the that it had a proper keyboard. It was a design work of genius, that made up for the weak processors of the time, it's success was not due to Tramiel it was some unnamed engineers (who were they?).

    BBC model B had more pixels but not enough processing power to move them and the pixels ate the 64KB (that's K not M or G or T) that the processor could address.

  17. Anonymous Coward

    Re: What no Spectrum owners

    I was fortunate(?) enough to own both a Spectrum and a C64 - the 64 was used mainly for programming (in assembler, natch) whereas the Speccy was used mainly as a games machine. Not that the Commodore was an inferior machine for gaming, it wasn't, but you couldn't get Sabre Wulf, Knight Lore on the 64 at the time, but then you couldn't get any of Jeff Minter's games for the Speccy either :-)

    Like most people of a certain age (ahem!) I used a Beeb during my Computer Studies O-level, although I wrote my final project on the Commodore, causing much consternation for my teacher. Heck, BBC Bs were still being used as VT52 terminals when I went to university in 1989, and a couple of the labs were still using them to control test equipment when I finished my PhD in 1996.

    Those were the days, and even 25 years on nobody has come up with a game which remotely matches games like 'Elite' or 'Gridrunner' in terms of playability.

  18. Andrew Fisher
    Thumb Up

    The Commodore 64 WAS significant...

    Without the C64, do you think the "PC in every home" would have happened? Machines like the C64 helped people get used to the idea of having a computer in the home, that it could do business tasks as well as play games, and for many their first "online" experience was with the C64 and its modem - to services like QLink (the forerunner of AOL) and Compunet here in the UK

    I love the machine so much, I still use it regularly (programming, composing and of course playing games). Without it, I would not have become a writer. In fact, I'm about to publish a book on Commodore 64 games to celebrate the last 25 years - "The Commodore 64 Book 1982-19xx", available to pre-order from

  19. James

    The PET

    I remember the PET (32 Kbyte memory and tape drive) 1981? The long wait whilst programmes became permanent on the tape drive!

    Then in Germany in 1983 selling accessories for the BBC micro - very, very popular with buyers from the european "communist" countries at the time (before the wall came down).

    The VIC20 was hastily renamed the VC20 in Germany. V is pronounced F - work it out!

  20. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    @Nordrick Framelhammer

    And don't forget Exile.

  21. Mark

    Re: What no Spectrum owners

    @ Simon Ward

    'Those were the days, and even 25 years on nobody has come up with a game which remotely matches games like 'Elite' or 'Gridrunner' in terms of playability.'

    Talk about rose tinted spectacles! More like rose tinted eyeballs :-)

  22. Neil Jones

    Ahhhhh, Memories.....

    Dragon 32 anyone? And all the jokes about it having 2 "L"s on the keyboard?

    I remember reading a book about the development of the home computer between the mid 70's and end of the century, it was primarily focussed on the PC and Apple's efforts, although there was a lovely paragraph which said something along the lines of these being the pre-eminant systems across the world except "in Britain a number of home computers were developed, but only the British could understand them". I'm sure someone on here can provice the source and the proper quote.

  23. Daniel
    Thumb Up

    it was beeb micro for me too

    Wrote my first scrappy BASIC code on one, in about 1982. (Much) later I bought a Spectrum that I used at home, but by them the PC was quite entrenched. Even later I worked in a university research lab where they must have and a job lot of beeb micro's with all kinds of hardware and software stuff on them, for data logging from environmental sensors.

    The whole lot is probably went in the skip a few years back. But at one time, that was cutting edge computing technology.

  24. Ferry Boat

    A can of sprite please

    I remember programming those sprite things. I started off making a block bounce around the screen. They used to leave an acid flashback style trail on the TV. I had a home made reset switch on my C64. It just diverted the processor power line to ground for a moment.

  25. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Still have one... the loft, and a huuuge box of games, unfortunately it's got a fault somewhere and regularly crashes (suspect a dry solder joint somewhere), however it's my GFs. My first computer was a C16 +4, learnt BASIC on it. C64 was truly revolutionary, SID was still being used (and may still be) a few years ago in Synthesizers, not bad for 20 year old technology.

  26. Giles Jones Gold badge

    Beeb had better sound? don't be stupid

    The C64s sound chip was the best. Other sound chips at the time were designed by the usual chip designers. The C64s sound chip was designed by someone who knew about synthesisers.

    While not perfect and produced in a rush, it was still competant.

    Other sound chips did bleeps, the C64's chip has selectable waves, envelopes, PWM (pulse wave modulation), ring modulation and a multi mode filter.

    So don't talk such rubbish and say the BBC model B had this, it didn't. It used the SN76489 which has the usual 3 square wave generators plus one white noise generator.

    Contrast this with the SID specs:

    * three separately programmable independent audio oscillators (8 octave range, approximately 16 - 4000 Hz)

    * four different waveforms per audio oscillator (sawtooth, triangle, pulse, noise)

    * one multi mode filter featuring low-pass, high-pass and band-pass outputs with 6 dB/oct (bandpass) or 12 dB/octave (lowpass/highpass) rolloff. The different filter-modes are sometimes combined to produce additional timbres, for instance a notch-reject filter.

    * three attack/decay/sustain/release (ADSR) volume controls, one for each audio oscillator.

    * three ring modulators.

    * oscillator sync for each audio oscillator.

    * two 8-bit A/D converters (typically used for game control paddles, but later also used for a mouse)

    * external audio input (for sound mixing with external signal sources)

    * random number/modulation generator

    I think the C64 wins.

  27. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    @Simon Ward

    >> Like most people of a certain age (ahem!) I used a Beeb during

    >> my Computer Studies O-level, although I wrote my final project

    >> on the Commodore, causing much consternation for my teacher.

    >> Heck, BBC Bs were still being used as VT52 terminals when I

    >> went to university in 1989, and a couple of the labs were still

    >> using them to control test equipment when I finished my PhD in

    >> 1996.

    O-Levels in 87 - heck, when I took my GCSEs in 95, my school were still using (mostly) BBCs for Computer Studies and Amstrad CPWs for Business Studies. We had a few Acorn Archimedes but most were BBCs (one lab was 50/50, the other was all BBCs). I can't say for certain whether they were BBCs Bs or BBC Masters, but definitely BBCs of some description.

    I'm not sure if it is a testament to the BBC Micro/Master's longevity or under funding in the UK education system - probably a bit of both.

    With regard to the Commodore 64, I never really had the pleasure. I had an Amstrad CPC464, followed by an Commodore Amiga. To my mind the C64 was only every the poor relation to the Amiga (probably because I never saw it in it's prime).

  28. Nev
    Gates Horns

    Commodore, those were the days. [sigh]

    Bah, BBC Micros were for swots.

    I never saw any outside of a school.

    The C64 was cheaper and better in almost every way. And lets not forget although the BBC eventually helped Acorn to spawn ARM, the 6502, in the end, belonged to Commodore.


    Then came the Amiga.

    And now the majority of people us the dreadful Wintel PC.

    Funny how things turned out.

    A good read: "On the Edge: The Spectacular Rise and Fall of Commodore" by B. Bagnall

  29. Philip Lord
    Thumb Up


    Aaahhh! Being of a certain age myself I fondly remember the C64 which was bought primarily on the basis for our children's education - mum and dad ended up hogging the machine!! Still have the C64 (in fact two) in the attic complete with tape recorder, 5 1/2" floppy drive, floppies - the whole shooting match - which my son who is now 26 only finished using earlier this year on completing his music studies. Not bad for a 25 year-old machine!! Been through at least four/five upgrades of PC over the same period!!


  30. Jon Gaul

    Those were the days!

    I loved the C64. :-) I too used BBC Bs at school and had a C64 at home (which introduced me to programming). I vastly preferred the C64; while "technically" inferior to the B, the C64 was practically a much nicer machine. Amongst other things it always felt more "friendly". Hardware sprites I still miss today on PCs, as well as scanline interrupts (the forerunner of 'copper lists' on the Amiga, oh those rainbow effects!)

    As far as sound goes... I've heard (very short!) wavs played in later C64 demos... I haven't heard that in a spectrum/BBC B (yet). If you want an idea of what C64 music sounds like, check out the High Voltage SID Collection at ... Some of the stuff composers managed to do with that little piece of kit is amazing.

  31. Graham Bartlett

    Them were the days

    Hey, I used to have a C16 Plus4 as well - bought by my nan and grandad who didn't know about computers. (Mind you, nor did I then, cos I was about 8.) Then a wonderful (for the time) Amiga.

    As regularly happens, the reason Commodore failed was a total disconnect between what top management thought customers would buy, and what customers actually wanted to buy. Once or twice, you can get away with. But when they did it time after time after time, eventually there just wasn't enough cash in the kitty to prop up their bad ideas. It was a great shame, seeing them piss away a perfectly good company like that.

    Even at the end, the Amiga (the one really profitable part of Commodore which customers *really* wanted) was still going, sold off as a separate business. But without the money to do any serious development on the Amiga, and without any serious competition from any other platform, the IBM PC steamrollered the market, and the rest is history.

  32. F Cage
    Thumb Up

    Ahh memories, memories

    My first exposure to Commodore was the PET my Dad brought home from work. We got a C64 in 1982, serial number 2711 made in Germany (later ones were made in Japan).

    I still had a C64 in 1990 when I used it to write up my final year project.

    School had PETs and BBCs. The only kids who had BBCs at home lived in large houses and their parents drove large cars.

    Still got two of them somewhere, along with a 1526 printer and 1561 floppy drive.

    If you're interested in 80s Home PC nostalgia, I'd recommend the book "Digital Retro"

  33. Karl

    The memories!!!

    I still have a C64, and it still works, i get it out once a year or so just to be nostalgic. Even got an Action Replay cart for it that gets some use, Jet Set Willy is just so much harder than what i remmember.

  34. Peter Foulkes

    Interesting Read

    Anyone wanting to know more about the Commodore story might want to get a copy of this book:

    On the Edge

    The Spectacular Rise and Fall of Commodore

    Brian Bagnall

  35. shane fitzgerald


    I got the C64 emulator for my N80 - it looks really great to see that small blue cursor blinking bewilderingly once more..

    Some of the games are like watching re-runs of the a-team or knight-rider though. You thought they were cool at the time but taking a second glance - the're crap.

    Still some of them like boulderdash and stuff work really well still on the small screen and keypad... But I guess like lots others above it was programming the old 6502, action reply freezing games to find out how they worked. Changing the way they work ed.. that kinda stuff. That was the fun of it. Not so much fun on a phone keypad and 2" screen though. ...

    So if the DS Lite and Wiis are in short supply this year pick up a C64 istead! :) The kids will be plesantly suprised (i.e. WTF??? Why did you get me a brown lunch box for christmas? Its ugly shit. Get out of my way old man. I got some Man hunting to do. w00t!!)

  36. Gerald Davison
    Thumb Up

    So modern these C64 things.......

    My nostalgia is for the PET 2001 (the one with the calculator keyboard) I bought in 1978. Still got it as well.

    Taught myself assembler and wrote a printer driver (well bloody big second hand 110baud teletype) using a serial 20mA current loop driven out of the 6522 VIA (if memory serves me right).

    Stood me in good stead, I'm still working in IT now (only the work is much more boring than in those days).

    Ah, happy days............

    By the time 1982 came round I was working on the Sirius-1 (Victor 9000), much better than IBM PCs but doomed to obscurity in the long run.

    Anyway, I agree, C64 was "the peoples" microcomputer in the early 80's. It doesn't matter what was best, what matters is what sold. The UK was a bit "different" with BBC's, ZX's, Spectrums, Dragons, etc.

  37. Rui Ribeiro

    A Spectrum user here too

    I was a Spectrum user back in the days, however I mainly used the machine for programming. For gaming, I went to a friend's house where he had a wonderful C64 with a floppy drive, and afterward an Amiga...

    Those were the times you could know a computer inside in and out, it's hardware and the "operating system" and it´s calls... and even be mad enough to do it all in assembly language.

    Truth is I feel fortunate that the entry level for mastering a machine was no nearly as complex as it is today, and I am deeply grateful to all the Sinclairs, Tramiels, wozniaks and all the geniuses that spurned all that wonderful hacks that allowed us poor guys to learn the trade and be where we are today.

  38. N

    BBC & VIC

    I had a VIC20 which I first learnt basic programming, there were two tapes and you had to wait ages for it to load.

    My wife a teacher, had a BBC which had great functionality for the time & theres still a few of them in use today.

  39. Anonymous Coward

    @Jon Gaul

    >As far as sound goes... I've heard (very short!) wavs played in later C64 demos... I haven't heard that in a spectrum/BBC B (yet).

    There was quite a few demos for the Beeb using sampled sound. One in particular was "Reet Petit" which had a fair portion of the song sampled. Also lots of samples in games etc.

    Also there was the Music 500/5000 system which was a "proper" synth in a box, vastly outdoing ALL of the existing systems on the go at that time. Still a very powerful system, although it did use a lot of cpu!

    I agree that, by default, the C64 had a better sound chip, but the Beeb was easier to programme. It spawned the "SidStation" a hardware synth running on a SID and a vast range of remixed C64 tunes exists on the net using today's technology.

    I still have fond memories of the BBC and C64 that I owned.

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