The first computer I owned was a Commodore 64. It was life-changing.
It wasn’t the first computer in our house – that was the TRS-80 Color Computer 2. That computer was fine, but the Commodore 64 (C64) was head and shoulders above it in terms of graphics and sound capabilities. The C64 was my computer.
Commodore was a well established player in the personal and business computer space by this time. They had a runaway success with their VIC-20 and the C64 was the next evolution of that design – and a big step beyond the VIC-20.
Commodore.ca has the story here. Essentially it was built around the VIC-II video chip and the famous SID sound chip, well ahead of its competition. The C64 was a phenomenal machine for its time and sold a reputed 20 million units, at a lower price than its competitors (the Apple IIe, the Color Computer III, and the IBM PC).
Buying the C64
I bought my C64 in late spring 1985, shortly after I started working at K-Mart. It wasn’t my first purchase with my new-found income – that was an integrated stereo with a CD player – but I didn’t waste too much more time before buying the 64. I think I bought it in mid May.
I remember that I didn’t have enough money to buy the C64, monitor and disk drive all at once, so I bought the computer and monitor and one game cartridge – Radar Rat Race. I played the heck out of that game, and probably others, until I bought a disk drive – on July 22, 1985. I bought the 1541 drive and 20 blank floppies from a guy named Steve – I think it was a Fredericton computer store but the name escapes me – for around $250.
My initial setup was:
- Commodore 64
- 1702 colour monitor
- 1541 disk drive (5 1/4″)
Commodore numbered all of its peripherals. Wikipedia has a list.
I never had a tape drive with my 64. My experience with the tape drive on the Color Computer 2 convinced me to skip over tapes and go right to the comparatively speedy floppy drive.
I definitely had a joystick. I believe I bought a Commodore one initially, and eventually upgraded to a fancier stick. It was black and red. The C64 had two Atari-compatible joystick ports so many joysticks were available.
Eventually I bought a modem for my C64. I think my first modem was a 300 baud Commodore model. The 64 didn’t have a serial chip so it couldn’t use Hayes-compatible external modems without additional hardware. I’ll write a lot more on modem use in another post.
The 1541 Disk Drive
You can’t talk about the Commodore 64 without talking about the 1541 disk drive. This big ugly external floppy drive was slow, noisy and prone to overheating and going out of alignment. It was basically its own computer, with its own 6502 processor and its own operating system, CBM DOS 2.6.
As delivered, the drive communicated with the Commodore 64 at 300 bytes per second, equivalent to a 2400 bps modem. That is slow. (bps = bits per second, with 8 bits in a byte)
To speed the drive up, developers wrote software and built hardware to rewrite the code on the floppy drive to achieve speeds up to 4 KB/s, or a 12x improvement. Some of these programs were software based (like TurboDisk) and some were hardware based, like the Super Snapshot cartridge or the Action Replay cartridge. More on those later.
Commodore released a more advanced 5 1/4″ drive, the 1571, in 1985, and a 3.5″ drive, the 1581, in 1987. Both were intended for the Commodore 128 – the less popular successor to the 64 – but worked at least reasonably well with the 64..
I bought a printer for the C64 in the fall of 1985, sometime before December 10. I didn’t buy a dot matrix printer like most people would have. I purchased the Commodore DPS-1101, a giant black beast of a printer with a daisy wheel instead of a dot matrix print head. I think I paid around $600 for this thing – but I earned my money back.
The great thing about daisy wheel printers is that they are basically typewriters, with each letter on a separate “spoke” of the wheel making a clean impression on the paper by striking an ink ribbon and transferring the ink to the paper. Dot matrix printers did a similar thing but the letter was formed by a matrix of dots (hence the name) and it was not nearly as crisp and clean as a daisy wheel or conventional typewriter. You can see a DPS-1101 in action here.
The downside of daisy wheel printers is that they can only print what is on the wheel. They cannot do graphic prints or screen prints. You could get other daisy wheels but I never did. I remember using it in 3rd year university (1986-1987) to print math notes using superscripted numbers (like squares or cubes) by entering a special code in the word processing program I was using. I had to tell it to go “up” half a line, strike the number, then go “down” half a line to return to where it was, since there was no superscript character on the wheel.
I said the printer paid for itself. I had a side job typing up essays for my fellow students. They would give me their hand-written draft and I would type it up on my C64, print it on my DPS-1101, and return it to them within a day or two. I would fix their spelling mistakes for free. I charged by the page and I know I earned more than the $600 I paid for the printer. I advertised on campus bulletin boards by using those “tear-off” flyers you used to see everywhere.
My printer was on an old TV-tray. When it printed, the entire table shook from the impact of the hammer hitting the daisy wheel repeatedly. It had a certain rhythm as it printed.
The Commodore 64 was a great game machine and every video game manufacturer released Commodore 64 versions for several years.
I can’t list every game that I played – there were a LOT – but I will list a few that I played.
- Impossible Mission – this was a bit of a frustrating puzzle game, but it is famous for the digitized voiceovers (“stay a while… stay forever” and “destroy him, my robots!”).
- Archon – it looks like chess but the pieces battle each other. I loved chess and I loved this game.
- Elite – a space trading game where you fly a spaceship between systems and trade goods and fight off pirates. It used wire-frame graphics and relatively realistic physics. It was almost almost impossible to dock with the space stations without crashing; buying an automated docking system was highly recommended.
- Ultima IV – one of the first “open world” type games where you adventure across a vast map. I spent many hours playing this game and mapping it out. Had I actually purchased the game, I would have had the map…
- M.U.L.E. – a ridiculously simple but fun game. It’s hard to explain how it worked but it was fun to play with two or more people. You can play it on Steam now. I saw a reference to a M.U.L.E. board game!
- Pirates! – sail around and be a pirate! Who wouldn’t like that? This game by the famed game designer Sid Meier was very fun to play. I also played other MicroProse games like Civilization and F-15 Strike Eagle and Railroad Tycoon.
- The Bard’s Tale – a dungeon crawl / D&D type of game based in the fictional town of Skara Brae. I didn’t play this as much as Ultima IV but I did enjoy it.
A few other games I remember playing include Sword of Fargoal, Zaxxon, and Time Pilot. There was a Nine Princes in Amber video game I rented (yes, rented, from a store in Saint John NB) because I loved the book series. The game was… disappointing.
There was a lot of non-game software for the Commodore 64 like spreadsheets, word processors and so forth.
I used PaperClip as my word processor. It was pretty comprehensive for its time and it suited me well. I do not remember using a spreadsheet on my C64.
The Print Shop was a very popular program for the 64 and contemporary systems. It came with clip art and you could print cards, banners, posters and more. I didn’t use it because I didn’t have a dot matrix printer.
I wrote a lot of software myself. Most of the programs I wrote were small utilities for my own use, but I did make some freeware and post it on BBSes under the “Infinity Enterprises” moniker.
Here’s a note in my diary from December 1985 about a project I had:
What’s Simons’ Basic, you might ask? It was a cartridge that you stuck in the back of the C64 that expanded the built-in BASIC language with more commands. It sucked up a precious 8K of the 38K RAM available, unfortunately.
I have another diary note from mid-January 1986 about writing a program called UCOMMAND. I have no idea what that was…
I was actually paid for two programs that I wrote for the Commodore 64. More to come.
Eventually I outgrew the C64, or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that better alternatives became available. I stayed in the Commodore family, though…
Eventually my C64 went to one of my cousins and I don’t know what happened to it after that.
Did you have a Commodore 64?
9 thoughts on “A Computer Geek: The Commodore 64”
Great story. I had a couple friends that had the C64 with the disk drive. I remember loading games and having to add “,8,1” to the end of the command line. I don’t think I ever knew what that meant/what it was for. We used VIC-20 at school.
I was the rebel, and had Atari systems, starting with the 400 (16k RAM) and eventually moved to the 800 (64k). I did have the tape drive for the 400. Equally slow, and prone to load errors if you so much as bumped the desk. When I moved to the 800, I had a disk drive and a printer – letter quality not dot matrix.
As I type this on my iPad, boy we’ve come a long way!
Hi Don! I think the drive was device 8 – you could have more than one disk drive connected together in a daisy chain. I think there was a DIP switch on the drive to set its address. The 1 indicates that it should load at the spot in memory defined by the first two bytes of the file, while 0 means load into BASIC memory.
When I worked at K-Mart, I worked in the computer department and I remember selling two Atari 800XLs in one night.
We definitely have come a long way. I do not miss modems and floppy drives one bit.
Hey, I recognize that C64! And clearly I need a printer!
You should recognize it!
I’d say your birthday is coming up, but it definitely isn’t coming up soon!
Steve – thanks for sharing! Kudos for running a business of sorts off your C64 – what a great idea. I never had one myself – my big purchase was a VIC-20 in 1983 for $399 from Eatons. By high school I moved up to a PC clone. Your articles have inspired me to dig my VIC out of the closet to see if I can get it going again.
By the way, do I see in your diary that you were way ahead of your time? Using “ML” to read your data for you? And on a C64 – that’s impressive! 🙂
HI Jeff, let me know how you make out with the VIC-20! I never had a new one but I bought one, used, for $20 later on to experiment with. I cooked the video chip one day and that was that.
I’ll get more into “ML” in another post!
My neighbour had that Impossible Mission game. I remember that evil guy’s voice, “Destroy him, my robots!” Good times.
I never had a Commodore 64 but I did have a Commodore Pet! The main drawbacks were the tape drive , until I too went for the floppy drive. The other drawback was the memory – with word processing I could only do about three pages. I later got a Commodore 128. Never ran out of pages and I learned Basic and wrote a big program to do track and field. Loved the programming – I had some neat stuff on seeding the races for lanes that worked really well.
Hi Jim, the PET was fairly limited, especially the earlier ones. The C128 was great – a better C64 – and you could do a lot with the BASIC in the 64 and 128. I think we’ve lost some of that capability in today’s PCs that are so powerful but less accessible for programming.