A Quick History Lesson

Commodore was a Toronto-based company set up by Jack Tramiel in 1955 which manufactured and imported typewriters and adding machines.  As time went on, Commodore saw the potential of creating small electronic goods such as calculators and successfully moved into this field.

The Company then started to take a big interest in the rapidly developing Home Computer market and it’s next move was to acquire MOS Technologies, which manufactured the 6502 chip.  By doing this, it had a distinct advantage over its rivals, as it was able to under-cut any other computer manufacturer who used the 6502 microprocessors.

In 1976, Commodore moved into the realm of the home computing with the launch of the KIM-1 system, which was the world's first single board home computer kit.

Commodore PET

Following the KIM-1, an enthusiastic engineer who worked for MOS Technologies called Chuck Peddle, created an all-in-one machine with a massive 4K of RAM and a built-in screen and keyboard.

Chuck had looked to Radio Shack to take on board his ideas for this machine, but for whatever reason, they seemed disinterested at the prospect. 

However, Jack Tramiel embraced it with open arms and the Commodore PET was born.  PET stood for Personal Electronic Transactor, although over jealous engineers adjusted the acronym to Peddle’s Ego Trip!


The PET was known as the CBM series in Europe and set new standards in computing for the time.   It was fully self-contained, including CPU, memory, keyboard, screen and storage device.  It needed only a power source to use it which made them cheap for a time and easy to setup, use and understand - unlike the "kit" computers which required both technical knowledge and soldering skills!

It's character set (PETSCII), was an 8-bit ASCII-compatible character set (as opposed to the 7-bit standard of the time), with a set of pre-defined built-in graphical symbols. There was a down-side to this however, as with no user-definable graphics, its graphical capabilities were somewhat limited.  Even so, many games were written for it.  Most notably, a fantastic version of Space invaders, and a revolutionary program called Tunnel Vision.

There were rumours of a colour PET being prototyped, known as the PET 4033, but this never appeared, and the last generation of the PET’s died out in 1981.



The VIC chip was created initially as a graphics chip for third party developers, however, Jack Tramiel changed track decided to build a complete computer system around it.  The VIC-20 was born - with a low price tag it was marketed as “A computer for the masses, and not the classes”, and a “real computer at the price of a toy”.  The VIC-20 was officially Commodore’s first real colour computer with user-definable graphics and sound capabilities and a long string of game releases followed.

Backed up by their own software and hardware, as well as good support from third party developers, Commodore had another success story.

The VIC-20 didn’t appear in the UK until around 1981 following massive sales in the Japanese markets, but this didn’t stop people from buying it here.  At one point, there were 5,000 VIC-20s being manufactured every day just to keep up with demand. 

To squeeze more sales out of its existing technology, Commodore repackaged the VIC and it was for a while was available as a VIC-21 or Super-Vic.  This was simply a VIC with a 16K RAM pack bundled with it (5K plus 16K equalled 21K – hence the name).

The VIC-20 had a short life however, the machine’s demise came when Commodore, ever eager to keep up with the market, pulled it from production when the mighty Commodore 64 appeared on the scene.



Commodore’s second generation of colour computer started out life in the latter part

 of 1981.  Commodore’s engineers had to come up with a machine that could compete with machines such as Atari 400/800, but at a price people could afford. 

This new machine featured the greatly improved VIC-II graphic chip and the dedicated SID sound chip.  In January 1982, the company launched the Commodore 64 at less than half the price but double memory of many of its competitors.

At first, the C64 was marketed as a business machine, and a cut down version named the Commodore MAX was to be aimed at the gaming market.  The MAX with around 2.5K of RAM and a membrane keyboard, was aimed again at the Japanese market after the success of the VIC-20.  However, the C64 was taking the world by storm and the Max vanished very quickly. 

By now, the Commodore was fast becoming THE brand -  Clive Sinclair may have bought personal computers to the UK market, but on the world stage, Commodore was becoming increasingly dominant.

Although intended as a serious business machine (consoles were seen as the natural choice for games at the time), this was slowly changing as personal computers were now finding their way into many homes around the world.  With cheaper mass produced media (such as tapes and floppy disks), more and more were being used for recreational purposes.  The C64, with 3 sound channels, 64K of RAM, hardware sprites, bit-mapping and user definable graphics, was the ideal machine for playing games.


Again, to squeeze more from the technology, the C64 had several makeovers and revisions during its lifetime.  The best known was the C64c.  This was a new slim line machine for the mid-80’s, resembling the original C128 in colour and basic design.  It even had some of the C128’s attributes, with the new revision of the VIOC-II chip.  The lower manufacturing costs and hence lower price, plus the hundreds of good games already available only increased the popularity of this machine. 

One unpopular change through was the new revision of the SID chip.  The sample playback seemed much quieter than on the bread-bin C64s and to this day, people complain about this.


The C64 was put into many differing casings, including an educational machine known as the PET64, Educator 64 and 4064.  The most well known version of this machine was in a PET casing with a built-in green screen.  





The Commodore 128 was set to supersede the C64, with a greatly, enhanced BASIC, faster loading capabilities, an 80-column mode and a Z80 coprocessor.  These significant enhancements gave the C128 its own native modes, a C64 mode and CP/M compatibility.  It even had dedicated video RAM that could be expanded to 64K, and the 128K main memory was internally upgradeable to 1Mb!.  However, this upgrade was extremely uncommon, and then only done by knowledgeable and experienced hardware hackers. 

Although a superb machine, the C64, thanks to its colourful graphics and fantastic sound, had become the Commodore games machine of the times, and as such, the great majority of software available required none of the extra capabilities that the C128 had to offer.  Very few dedicated titles actually appeared for the C128, and many of the business applications specifically written for it also became available for the C64.  Those who did purchase a C128 only really made use of the C64 mode,so although the machine was still a relative success, continuing sales of the C64 dwarfed it.



Commodore C16

As the VIC-20 neared the end of its life, Commodore needed a successor to compete with other low-cost micros that had emerged since the C64's launch, particulaly the Sinclair range of machines. 

The C16 was released both as a replacement to the VIC-20 and as a new budget machine and came in a black casing resembling both the VIC-20 and C64.  The machine’s graphical resolution was similar to the C64’s, but the 2-channel sound chip was inferior to the SID.  It did however have a far greater colour palette (16 colours and 16 shades of colours) and a slightly faster processor, but without hardware sprites it had the drawback of suffering from colour-clash in some cases.  Perhaps the biggest flaw was the fact that it was not compatible with the VIC-20 or the C64 - add to that the absence of a user port and it was bound to fail.



Commodore C116

This model was originally going to be the C16, but for some reason Commodore changed its mind.  The C116 found its way into Europe in very small numbers.  It reportedly had an improved ROM compared with that of the C16, whilst retaining a mere 16K of RAM.  It was put into a smaller casing and given a cost-saving membrane keyboard as used by Sinclair.  You could see that from this design that Commodore was aiming to topple Sinclair, or at the very least, remain a close competitor to Sinclair in the UK market.



Commodore Plus/4

The Plus/4 was developed at the same time as the C16 and was originally known as the C264.  The machine was again in a black box, but its design was more like the intended C16 rather than the familiar bread-bin style.  The Plus/4 featured a built in word processor, spreadsheet and database, and also carried a full 64K of RAM and an improved version of BASIC, plus the other enhancements of the C16.  However, the compatibility with the C16 (and incompatibility with the the C64) meant that it would see very little commercial software written specifically for it, as happened with the C128.




Commodore 232

A revision of the Plus/4, with 32K of RAM, internally expandable to 64K.  Another error in Commodore's marketing strategy, this machine was shelved in fear of crowding the market.



The Final Years

Although the 8-bit market was still healthy with the C64 still selling strongly, as the 90s loomed Commodore looked to the future of the platform.  Games consoles were back in fashion, and Commodore wanted a slice of this area of the market.  What it came up with was a C64c in a new casing, with no keyboard and a slot for game cartridges.  It was named the C64GS and retailed for £50 less than the C64c.  It sounded great, except that the G64GS would not play hundreds of games from the C64 back catalogue. 


A Commodore C65 was planned which was a 16-bit machine that would fall between the C64 and the Amiga, using 3.3" disks and this time compatible with C64's extensive software library.  However, Commodore was now struggling significantly and the eventual cancellation of the C65, coupled with general mismanagement led to Commodore declaring bankruptcy.