Happy 30th birthday, Commodore 64

The C-64 sort of turns 30 this week. It was introduced 30 years ago this week, though it wasn’t until August or so that you could actually buy one. It took that long for memory prices to come down to reach the target price, and if memory serves, the machine they displayed at CES in January wasn’t quite production-ready anyway.

I remember the machine well. It was my first computer. It seems like just yesterday the thing turned 25. And not all that long ago that I still used one on a regular basis.

I badgered Dad for a computer for as long as I can remember. Dad didn’t know what I’d do with one. I’m not sure I knew what I’d do with one, but I knew I wanted one after the first time I used one. In 1984, Dad bought a Commodore 64, mostly because that’s what my school had. And my school had Commodores because they were cheap. Oh, you thought I was talking about the computer? Yeah, the computer was cheap too. Along with it, Dad started bringing me computer magazines, which I read and re-read until they fell apart, absorbing whatever knowledge I could from them. I don’t know that he ever really figured out what I’d do with a computer, though he certainly used a lot of single-purpose computers in his medical practice. I guess he was glad I was interested in something.

The thing about the 64 that makes me wistful is that the machine was simple enough that you could understand it pretty thoroughly. As a teenager, I was capable of knowing how to program it in two or three languages, how to repair it, and even how to design add-on circuits for it. With modern PCs, being able to do one of the above is a real accomplishment.

It was a primitive machine by today’s standards, but it taught the fundamentals of computing. Later this month I’m going to take a test that could potentially cover things like indirect addressing and processor architecture–things I first learned in the 1980s with a Commodore 64, learning how to program it in assembly language. Not to mention serial communications. Today I’m paid to know what stop bits are and what 7E1 and 8N1 mean. Messing around with a $20 VICmodem that Dad bought on closeout from C.O.M.B. Liquidators taught me all that.

When I’m faced with something complicated, to this day I’ll think what the problem would look like on a Commodore 64. It forces me to simplify the issue down to its basics and usually brings clarity to it.

But besides all that, it was just plain fun. Games like Pole Position, Dig Dug, and Defender were better on the 64 than they were on the consoles of the time. I could simulate baseball seasons with Micro League Baseball. The game took half an hour to load, but there wasn’t anything like it available for any console.

And it was a quirky machine. That made it frustrating at times, but it also made it endearing. Even today, people are still learning new things the machine’s hardware could do.

Some people didn’t think much of the machine because of its quirks, but it was a trailblazer. For most of its lifetime, other computers were priced at levels that only the rich could afford. A complete C-64 setup in the early 1980s cost between $1,000 and $1,500, depending on when you bought it. In today’s dollars, that’s $3,300. By the mid 1980s you could have a nice setup for closer to $600, which is more like $1,200 in today’s dollars. That’s ridiculously expensive by today’s standards, but an Apple or IBM system cost several times as much.

If you like being able to walk into any retail store and buy a capable computer for $500, you have the 64 to thank.

Ex-Commodore engineer Dave Haynie piped up on Slashdot that, near the end of its lifetime, the machine was able to wholesale for as little as $35, which was why it was able to live on as a $99 machine long after it was past its prime. It meant in 1991 or 1992 that you could buy a $100 C-64 and a $150 disk drive, connect it to a spare TV, and have a usable computer for $250. Remember, the first $399 Emachine didn’t appear until 1998, and it was really more like a $600 computer by the time you bought a monitor for it.

So, happy birthday C-64. Thanks for the memories. And for everything else.

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