What do a breadbox and an elephant foot have in common? If you say “nothing” here, then you are either not a child of the 80s, or you had nothing at all to do with computers at that time 😉
Indeed, the legendary C64 was lovingly referred to as a breadbox by its fans because of the shape of the computer. And the elephant’s foot was the C64’s external power supply, which actually perhaps reminded a bit of an elephant’s foot, but was in any case very heavy. At least if you dropped it on your own foot. Then you could maybe grow such an elephant foot yourself 😉
Anyway, back in the mid-1980s – like so many kids back then – the Commodore C64 was also my very first own computer! After more than 30 years I found it by surprise in the attic of my parents – including a 1541II floppy drive and a floppy box full of games. And what can I say: It still worked like on the first day and I could even load the old games from floppy disk!
Since then, a few years have passed and I was caught by the retro or vintage computer fever. In the meantime I have a small collection of “old boxes”, which I always wanted to have, but could not get them. The result of my collecting passion and the experiences with the old boxes you can read among other things here on my website.
But back to the C64, more precisely to MY C64! Because he remains of course always something special. Here I want to introduce you a little bit to the computer, which has then also decisively shaped my life.
But let’s start from the beginning: When the Commodore C64 was presented to the public at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas in 1982, no one had any idea how successful the little box would become. The technical data of the device were already remarkable for that time – especially in relation to the favorable price of initially US$ 595.00. But the C64 was not Commodore’s first computer. Originally the company came from the office machine corner and sold mainly typewriters and pocket calculators, until 1977, when they brought the first computer for the office on the market, the PET 2001. With this, they were one of three American manufacturers of inexpensive computers, next to the Apple II and Tandy TRS-80. From this time on, the boom began slowly with increasing sales figures and thus always new models. With the purchase of the chip manufacturer MOS Technologies, the company had the best prerequisites for further developments in the emerging computer market.
The predecessor of the C64, the Commodore VIC-20 or VIC-20 was Commodore’s first attempt to make computers attractive for the living room. Jack Tramiel, founder and head of Commodore Business Machines, coined the phrase at the time: “We need to build computers for the masses, not the classes.” The VIC-20, which was first launched in Japan in 1980 and then in the USA in the spring of 1981, was still very limited in terms of its features. It already had the housing and the keyboard of the later C64, but only 5 KB RAM and could only display 22 characters per line and 23 lines. But it already had 16 colors and several tone generators for high, medium and low tones. The computing unit consisted of a MOS 6502 CPU with 1 MHz. The simple construction of the computer with a single motherboard, on which all components were accommodated, let the manufacturing costs sink in the end to approx. US $ 60. This was a significant reason why already the VIC-20 became a big success for Commodore. But it came still better …
The computing unit
As the computers of the competition became more and more powerful, the chip prices sank due to increasing sales figures and spurred on by their own success, the next home computer, the C64, should definitely support more memory. Here Jack Tramiel proved again the right feeling for the market, because when the decision was made, the bigger RAM chips were just available and quite expensive. But he quickly predicted falling prices. However, since the 6502 CPU from the VIC-20 could only address a total of 64 KB, RAM, ROM and video memory combined, a new CPU had to be designed quickly. So the MOS 6510 was created, which could switch parts of the memory on and off by bank switching. This made it possible to realize 64 KB of RAM. Otherwise, the CPU differed little from its predecessor – it also had an 8-bit architecture and also had a 1 MHz clock frequency.
Starting in 1981, MOS was already working on a graphics chip (VIC II) and a sound chip (SID) for an originally planned video game console, which was only briefly on the market as the “Commodore MAX Machine” before the project was quickly scrapped due to poor acceptance. Instead, these chips were used for the C64 and helped the computer to its revolutionary graphics and sound capabilities, besides its generous memory of 64 kB RAM and the slightly adapted 8-bit CPU 6510 compared to the VIC-20. Especially the SID chip, a three-voice polyphonic 8-bit synthesizer chip (MOS 6581) is legendary and was used in many music productions. BYTE Magazine described the SID chip in 1983 as “a true music synthesizer … the quality of the sound has to be heard to be believed.“
The graphics chip also had something special to offer: The possibility of so-called sprites was extremely popular with game developers. Sprites are moving graphic objects that are placed in front of the background and can be moved across the screen independently of the background. They can also trigger interrupts in case of collisions (e.g. when a spaceship collides with a star). The chip supports 16 colors and multiple graphics modes up to 320×200 pixels (Hi-Res). The text mode has 40×25 characters. By exploiting undocumented features and programming tricks, amazing graphic effects could be coaxed out of the computer. Among other things, this led to the fact that, in addition to the large number of games, the so-called demo scene became very popular. The aim was to program spectacular graphic and sound sequences, which were often packed by game crackers as an intro before the actual game and were often better than the actual game. From this developed its own subculture of programmers and graphic/sound designers, from which later very famous software developers or music producers emerged.
Besides that, the C64 got two joystick ports, an expansion port for ROM cartridges (mainly games, but also tools like Final Cartridge III, application software like Pagefox and programming languages like Simons Basic). There was also an antenna port for the TV, video port for monitors, user port for expansions, a port for cassette drive and a round DIN serial port for connecting printers or floppy drive.
My first steps
When I finally got my much awaited C64 for Christmas ’85 – I was just 14 years old – it was only the console, so without datasette or floppy drive and anyway without monitor, because that would have blown my parents’ budget at that time. So during the Christmas vacations I was busy with the internal BASIC of the computer, using the quite good documentation. In addition I blocked also still the only television in the house and if my parents wanted to watch television then in the evening, then I had to give place and my laboriously typed program lines were gone. That’s why the initial euphoria was followed by frustration, and after the vacations the breadbox disappeared back into the box.
Only when I had saved up some pocket money and my parents gave me something on top, I could afford at least a datasette with a few cassettes some time later. Then I was finally interesting for the game exchange in the neighborhood and the school and also in my nursery was then more often gambled. Oh yes, from somewhere I got hold of a small black and white television. That had to be enough for now.
At some point, however, the datasette was also quite frustrating. The loading of the games was miserably slow, and then there was the constant rewinding of the cassettes. Another problem was that foreign cassettes often didn’t work right away because the sound head was adjusted differently. So you often had to use a screwdriver to find the right position of the sound head, which meant that you had to repeat the loading process until the sound head fit.
Floppy disk drive 1541 II
So finally a floppy disk drive was needed! For me it was the 1541 II, which I probably got around 1987. Now I could finally exchange games without any restrictions. Speaking of “swapping games”. What we did back then was basically the redistribution of illegal, cracked game copies or also called pirated copies. Everybody was doing it, and as kids we didn’t have any sense of injustice about it. This was probably due to the fact that it was made so easy on the one hand, but certainly also due to the multitude of exchange possibilities. I guess that at least half of my class had a C64 or C128. There was a huge market! It felt like every week someone came around the corner with a new game. Of course the floppy was glowing 😉
A few words about the 1541 floppy: My model was already the third version of the 5.25″ floppy drive, which was completely revised: There was a completely new and smaller case, which was based on the C64-C design. Furthermore the power supply was moved to external to avoid the overheating problem and you could finally change the device address from outside.
But basically the floppy still had its … well, let’s say “peculiarities” 😉 Everyone knows the distinctive clacking sound when the stepper motor moves the read/write head to the edge (track 0) until it hits hard. There everybody startles from the office sleep 😉 That was because there was no detection of track-0. So if a diskette was unformatted, or faulty, then the carriage constantly drove against the mechanical barrier.
The floppy drive is a separate computer with its own CPU (MOS 6502) and RAM (2 kB). Because unlike external drives of PC’s for example, Commodore installed the DOS (Disk Operation System) taken over from the own CBM floppy drives as ROM (16 kB) directly in the drive (this was quite common with other manufacturers as well). However, this made the hardware complex and expensive. Unfortunately, the software was also quite buggy, which led among other things to the fact that the floppy was also very slow. Turbocharger programs could remedy this. If you are a happy owner of a “Final Cartdrige III”, you already have the turboloader built in. Also, it was not originally intended to use multiple drives on the C64, although BASIC could access multiple device addresses. So if you wanted to use multiple floppies, you either had to do a hardware intervention, or change the device address by software each time you switched on. Only the 1541-II had DIP switches on the back to change the device address.
Also, the CBM DOS Copy command did not know a function to copy files between drives, but for that again you needed external tools. Despite all these limitations and shortcomings, a floppy drive was indispensable and the best thing you could get for storage at that time.
Beside different housing variants there were still several different board revisions (16!) with partly different assembly, which brought partly also incompatibilities with itself and had actually only the goal of the cost reduction. I don’t want to go into the variants in more detail here, because that is an own extensive topic.
|Original-C64||from 1982 – also called “Silver Label” because of its silver logo in the brown-grey breadbox shape, keyboard from the VIC-20|
|C64 I||from mid 82 – rainbow logo, gray-brown case and gray F-keys (my model)|
|C64 II/C||from 1985 – flat modern case and keyboard in white (picture from my collection)|
|C64G||from 1987 (G stands for Gameset), beige breadbox shape, light keyboard, simple foil logo with rainbow (picture from my collection)|
|Aldi C64||from 1988, beige-grey breadbox variant with light keyboard and metallic rainbow logo, which was distributed by the discounter ALDI.|
When I turn on my C64 today, I naturally look at it with different eyes than when I was a teenager. Basically, back then we were mainly interested in playing games and maybe a little bit of BASIC. I remember programming a vocabulary program for my little sister in BASIC, which I was very proud of. It stored the vocabulary on floppy disk and could unit-based retrieve the vocabulary in random order. The user interface was like German BTX at that time.
Today I like to deal with extensions I couldn’t have back then, like printers, plotters or various software modules like the well known desktop publishing software Pagefox, which I already dedicated an own article to here.
But, today as then, I don’t feel alone with my hobby, because there is still a huge community for the breadbox, almost 40 years after its launch. Yes, there are even always new developments for the C64. There are retro-shops, where you can buy cables and adapters e.g. for modern monitors, there are download-areas with all the software/games that ever existed for the C64. New demos are still being programmed, which still get more out of the little gray-brown box. The challenge to get as much as possible out of the, from today’s point of view, extremely limited resources, still spurs many on. The fascination Commodore C64 lives on! You can see that not least in the many videos on Youtube, which deal with the CeVi. Many reasons for me to continue my hobby. Because there is still a lot to discover!
PS: I found a very interesting page with scanned catalog pages of the computer division from the Quelle Versandhaus of the 80s. Since I have but immediately felt taken back to my youth:https://retroport.de/retro-kult-quelle-katalog/