When the Commodore 64 Ruled Personal Computing

Conor Lawless, Flickr // CC BY 2.0
Conor Lawless, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

In the early 1980s—when the average cost of a personal computer was $2700, and the average American earned just over $14,500 per year—Jack Tramiel decided to do for computers what Henry Ford had done for cars with the Model T: roll out a model that could be manufactured cheaply and efficiently, allowing more people to have PCs in their homes. “We design for the masses, not the classes,” Tramiel once famously said.

The result of Tramiel’s effort was the Commodore 64, a personal computer that brought home hardware from the sterile aisles of specialty stores to mass market retailers like Kmart. Priced at $595 in September 1982, it quickly fell to $400, then $300, and eventually $190. Unlike most PCs of the era, the Commodore 64 could play games. Like the Model T, it didn’t have the sexiest aesthetic—the boxy keyboard housed its guts, while a separate monitor quickly crowded one's workspace—but it was cheap enough to sell 500,000 units a month. To this day, it remains the best-selling single model of computer of all time—an impressive statistic for a machine that sold Dragon’s Lair on cassette tape.

A Commodore 64 computer is set up for public display
afromusing, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

Tramiel, often considered the “anti-Steve Jobs” for his lack of interest in design elegance, was born in Poland in 1928. Nazi occupation forced his family into Auschwitz, where the camp's infamous SS captain/physician Josef Mengele hand-picked Tramiel and his father for work camp detail. His mother survived, but his father died under circumstances that were never confirmed. Tramiel later said he believed Nazi experimenters injected him with gasoline.

Tramiel, who was fascinated with all things mechanical, learned to repair typewriters in the Army. Upon discharge, he opened a typewriter shop in the Bronx before relocating to Toronto in the 1950s. His interest grew to calculators, and by the 1970s, his business—Commodore, named after the Opel Commodore car that he admired—was involved in the burgeoning personal computing field.

Tramiel’s aim was economy, and he bought his own chip manufacturer, MOS, to keep costs down. The result of their efforts was the 6502 processor, which could be rolled out inexpensively and rapidly. After the success of Commodore’s VIC-20, a $300 PC that had a color monitor (unheard-of at that price point), Tramiel focused all of his company’s resources on the Commodore 64.

The C64 had 64 kilobytes of RAM, a speedier 6510 processor, and a music synthesizer. While not quite in the league of the most expensive computers of the era, it outworked the Apple II and its 44 kilobytes of memory. Tramiel hoped it would be a kind of gateway computer, capable of introducing home users to BASIC programming language while amusing them with a library of educational and entertainment software. Programs were sold on floppies—which were invariably slow to load—or on data cassettes that could be played with the addition of a $75 peripheral.

Tramiel was so enthusiastic about the potential of the C64 that he rushed it to market, cramming its parts into old VIC-20 cabinets and prompting a quarter of the shipped units to arrive defective. It didn't do much to undermine the launch; Tramiel sent clear instructions to retailers telling them to exchange bad units without hassle. The machine took off, selling for $595 and promising an eclectic end-user experience. Opposing machines like the Apple IIc, Apple Macintosh, and IBM PC Junior, Tramiel’s model cost just a fraction of the price and, subjectively at least, was far more entertaining. Software titles expanded into the thousands, from licensed games like Ghostbusters to Boulder Dash to quasi-adult offerings like Strip Poker. Serious users had Microsoft spreadsheet programs or desktop publishing.

As manufacturing costs dropped—the unit cost Tramiel about $135 to produce—so did the price of the C64. Tramiel offered a $100 trade-in allowance for people who brought in old hardware, and even allowed retailers to accept old video game consoles like the Atari 2600. By 1984, the Commodore 64 represented a staggering 30 percent of the home computing market.

While the price point was appealing, it was Tramiel’s distribution strategy that surprised competitors. Rather than stick to computer stores, the Commodore 64 was stocked at mass market retailers in much the same way television and game systems had broken out of their hobbyist markets. Seeing a Commodore 64 display at Sears helped normalize the idea of home computing.

But not all users were satisfied customers. While the price kept plummeting, consumers realized that the central hardware was only part of the puzzle. A dot-matrix printer, cassette deck, modem, and other accessories could add hundreds of dollars to their investment. At $50, software wasn’t inexpensive, either. Even at its lowest price point of under $200, a fully expanded C64 setup could run $1000 (which would be just over $2600 in today's dollars).

Still, the Commodore 64 managed to permeate an incredible number of U.S. households. By some estimates, 17 to 20 million units were sold through the early 1990s, at which point PCs with greater processing speeds and more attractive design elements became the norm. Commodore tried upping the ante with the Commodore 128 and other models, but consumers were no longer in need of training wheels. With the presence of a home PC having been normalized and other manufacturers bringing costs down, Commodore fell behind.

Tramiel, who had resigned to run the ailing Atari corporation in the mid-1980s, died in 2012. While his creation doesn’t have quite the same popular recognition as Apple, it might have been the single most influential piece of hardware to come around in the nascent home PC era. A “retro” mini version is due in fall 2018. Naturally, it comes with 64 games.

When Y2K Sent Us Into a Digital Depression

iStock.com/Laspi
iStock.com/Laspi

It's hard to pinpoint the exact moment when the paranoia first began to creep in. Sometime during the late 1990s, consumers noticed that their credit cards with expiration dates in the year 2000 were being declined by merchants. Shortly thereafter, people began stocking up on shelf-stable food and water, potentially condemning themselves to months of all-SPAM diets. A number of concerned citizens outside of Toronto, Canada, flocked to the Ark Two Survival Community, a nuclear fallout shelter-turned-bunker comprised of dozens of decommissioned school buses buried several feet below the Earth and protected by a layer of reinforced concrete.

In the months leading into New Year's Day 2000, millions of people steeled themselves for a worst-case scenario of computers succumbing to a programming glitch that would render them useless. Banking institutions might collapse; power grids could shut down. Anarchy would take over. The media had the perfect shorthand for the potential catastrophe: Y2K, for Year 2000. The term was used exhaustively in their coverage of a situation some believed had the potential to become one of the worst man-made disasters in history—if not the collapse of modern civilization as we knew it.

In the end, it was neither. But that doesn't mean it didn't have some far-reaching consequences.

John Koskinen of the President's Council on Y2K Conversion makes a public address
Michael Smith, Getty Images

The anticipatory anxiety of Y2K was rooted in the programs that had been written for the ginormous computers of the late 1960s. In an effort to conserve memory and speed up software, programmers truncated the date system to use two digits for the year instead of four. When the calendar was set to roll over to the year 2000, the belief was that "00" would be a proverbial wrench in the system, with computers unable to decipher 2000 from 1900. Their calculations would be thrown. Using "98" for 1998 was a positive value; using "00" would result in negative equations. How computers would react was based mostly on theories.

That ambiguity was quickly seized upon by two factions: third-party software consultants and doomsday preppers. For the former, rewriting code became a cottage industry, with corporations large and small racing to revise antiquated systems and spending significant amounts of money and manpower in doing so. General Motors estimated the cost of upgrading their systems would be about $626 million. The federal government, which began preparing for possible doom in 1995, ended up with an $8.4 billion bill.

Some of that cost was eaten up by soliciting analyses of the potential problems. The U.S. Department of Energy commissioned a study looking at the potential for problems with the nation's energy supply if computers went haywire. The North American Electric Reliability Council thought the risks were manageable, but cautioned that a single outage could have a domino effect on connected power grids.

As a result, many newspaper stories were a mixture of practical thinking with a disclaimer: More than likely nothing will happen … but if something does happen, we're all screwed.

"Figuring out how seriously to take the Y2K problem is a problem in itself," wrote Leslie Nicholson in the January 17, 1999 edition of the Philadelphia Inquirer. "There is simply no precedent."

Pending economic and societal collapse fueled the second pop-up industry: survivalist suppliers. As people stocked up on canned goods, bottled water, flashlights, and generators, miniature societies like Ark Two began to spring up.

While the panic surrounding Y2K was dismissed by some as unwarranted, there was always fuel to add to the fire. The United States and Russia convened to monitor ballistic missile activity in the event a glitch inadvertently launched a devastating weapon. People were warned checks might bounce and banking institutions could freeze. The Federal Reserve printed $70 billion in cash in case people began hoarding currency. Even the Red Cross chimed in, advising Americans to stock up on supplies. Y2K was being treated like a moderate-category storm.

Adding to the concern was the fact that credible sources were sounding alarms. Edward E. Yardeni, then-chief economist at Deutsche Morgan Grenfell/C.J. Lawrence, predicted that there was a 60 percent chance of a major worldwide recession.

As New Year's Eve 2000 approached, it became clear that Y2K had evolved beyond a software hiccup. Outside of war and natural disasters, it represented one of the few times society seemed poised for a dystopian future. People watched their televisions as clocks hovered close to midnight, waiting to see if their lights would flicker or their landline phones would continue to ring.

A software program is represented by a series of ones and zeroes
iStock.com/alengo

Of course, nothing happened. So many resources had been extended toward the problem that the majority of software-reliant businesses and infrastructures were prepared. There were no power outages, no looting, and no hazards. The only notable event of January 1, 2000 was the reporting of the resignation of Boris Yeltsin and the arrival of Vladimir Putin as Russia's new president.

With the benefit of hindsight, pundits would later observe that much of the Y2K concern was an expression of a more deeply rooted fear of technology. Subconsciously, we may have been primed to recoil at the thought of computers dominating our society to the extent that their failure could have catastrophic consequences.

All told, it's estimated that approximately $100 billion was spent making upgrades to offset any potential issues. To put that into context: South Florida spent $15.5 billion rebuilding after the mass destruction caused by Hurricane Andrew in 1992.

Was it all worth it? Experts seem to think so, citing the expedited upgrades of old software and hardware in federal and corporate environments.

That may be some small comfort to Japan, which could be facing its own version of Y2K in April 2019. That's when Emperor Akihito is expected to abdicate the throne to his son, Naruhito, the first such transition since the dawn of the information age. (Akihito has been in power since January 1989, following the death of his father.) That's significant because the Japanese calendar counts up from the coronation of a new emperor and uses the name of each emperor's era. Akihito's is known as the Heisei era. Naruhito's is not yet named, which means that things could get tricky as the change in leadership—and the need for a calendar update—comes closer.

It's hard to predict what the extent of the country's problems will be as Akihito steps down. If history is any guide, though, it's likely to mean a lot of software upgrades, and possibly some SPAM.

When Mr. Rogers Taught Kids About Mutually Assured Nuclear Destruction

Focus Features
Focus Features

After months of hype, the ABC television network premiered a made-for-TV film titled The Day After on November 20, 1983. Presented with minimal commercial interruption, the two-hour feature illustrated a world in which both the United States and Russia made the cataclysmic decision to launch nuclear missiles. The blasts wiped a small town off the face of the Earth; the few who did survive writhed in pain, with their skin hanging off in clumps.

The imagery was graphic and unsettling, and it was supposed to be. Director Nicholas Meyer wanted to portray the fallout in sober detail. The Day After drew a sizable viewership and was hailed as a responsible use of television in order to educate audiences about the reality of the tension between the world’s superpowers.

In the weeks before the film premiered, though, another prominent broadcast was exploring the same themes. It was intended for young audiences and explored—via the use of puppets—the consequences of international aggression. For five episodes across one week, the threat of nuclear annihilation was looming in Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.

A nuclear explosion creates a mushroom cloud
iStock.com/RomoloTava-ni

Since its inception on Pittsburgh's WQED in 1968, Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood had informed its young audience about topical issues in subversive and disarming ways. When civil rights were discussed, host Fred Rogers didn’t deliver a lecture about tolerance. Instead, he invited a black friend, Officer Clemmons, to cool off in his inflatable pool, a subtle nod to desegregation. In 1981, Rogers—the subject of this year's critically-acclaimed documentary, Won't You Be My Neighbor?explored the topic of divorce with puppet Patty Barcadi, whose parents had separated. Rogers comforts Prince Tuesday, who frets his own parents might split. Famously, Rogers also explored the subject of individuals with disabilities with the introduction of Jeff Erlanger, who became a quadriplegic at a young age after undergoing spinal surgery to remove a tumor. (Decades later, the two were reunited when Erlanger made a surprise appearance as Rogers was being inducted into the Television Academy Hall of Fame.)

Despite Rogers's history tackling tough topics, there was perhaps no greater a hot-button issue for the children’s show to tackle than nuclear war. Rogers wanted to address what he felt was a growing concern among schoolchildren who processed Cold War headlines and interpreted tensions between Russia and the U.S. as potentially disastrous. (In one survey of classrooms across several major cities, students labeled the possibility of nuclear war “likely.”)

Rogers conceived and taped a five-episode storyline on the subject in the summer of 1983, which wound up being prescient. In November 1983, president Ronald Reagan ordered the invasion of Grenada to topple a Marxist regime.

“Little did I know we would be involved in a worldwide conflict now,” Rogers told the Associated Press. “But that’s all the better because our shows give families an opportunity for communication. If children should hear the news of war, at least they have a handle here, to assist in family communications.”

In the five-part series titled “Conflict,” Rogers again turned to the puppets that populated his Neighborhood of Make-Believe. Provincial ruler King Friday (voiced by Rogers) is handed a “computer read-out” that tips him off to some counterintelligence: Cornflake S. Pecially, ruler of the neighboring land of Southwood, is allegedly making bombs. In a panic, King Friday orders his underlings to do the same, mobilizing efforts to make certain they can match Southwood’s fiery super weapons—even if it means not having the financial resources to care for his people in other ways.

Lady Elaine Fairchilde and Lady Aberlin aren’t quite convinced. Rather than succumb to paranoia, they decide to travel to Southwood to see for themselves. They find its citizens building a bridge, not a bomb. A misunderstanding had almost led to unnecessary violence.

Of course, no mushroom clouds envelop the Neighborhood of Make-Believe, and none of the puppets suffer the devastating effects of radiation poisoning. Rogers wasn’t even claiming the story was necessarily about war, but the prevention of it.

“This show gives us a chance to talk about war, and about how it’s essential that people learn to deal with their feelings and to talk about things and resolve conflicts,” he said.

A publicity photo of Fred Rogers for 'Mr Rogers' Neighborhood'
Getty Images

The episodes sparked conversation in classrooms, where some teachers used the footage to broach the subject. At an elementary school in Venetia, Pennsylvania, students in a third-grade social studies class discussed the consequences of war. “No water” was one response. “Injuries” was another.

Unlike The Day After, which one psychiatrist declared as inappropriate for children under 12, Rogers proved it was possible to provoke conversation without rattling any nerves.

Following their initial run in 1983, the five-part “Conflict” episodes have never been repeated. The close of the 1980s saw a reduction in concerns over nuclear attacks, and it’s possible producers of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood regarded the shows as dated.

They resurfaced briefly on YouTube in 2017 before vanishing. The series was subsequently uploaded to a Dailymotion video account in 2018. Like The Day After, the shows are an interesting time capsule of an era when the fear of devastating conflict was palpable. For a number of kids who experienced that concern, Mr. Rogers helped frame it in a way they could understand.

“I don’t want this to be a frightening thing,” Rogers said. “I want children to know that war is something we can talk about. Whatever is mentionable is manageable.”

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