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.

Spit Take: The Story of Big League Chew

Amazon
Amazon

Rob Nelson watched the kid’s ritual with curiosity. It was the mid-1970s, and he and the kid were in Civic Stadium in Portland, Oregon, both working in the service of the Portland Mavericks, a rogue baseball team operating outside the purview of Major League Baseball. Nelson was a fledging player who sometimes got on the field but mostly stuck to selling tickets and coaching youth baseball camps. The kid, Todd Field, was the batboy. And what Field was doing fascinated Nelson.

Field, who couldn’t have been older than 11 or 12, took a Redman chewing tobacco pouch from his pocket, scooped out of a bunch of gunk, and stuffed it between his cheeks and gumline. Then he’d let the black goo dribble down his chin or hock it in the dirt.

Chewing tobacco was a common sight among the athletes, but Nelson hadn’t seen many kids take up the habit so early. He approached Field and asked if he was dipping, the common parlance for stuffing tobacco in one’s cheek pockets.

Field hocked another glob of brown discharge at the ground. He showed Nelson the tobacco tin, which was full of black licorice. Fields had minced it up so that he could replicate the muddy color of the real thing.

The exchange planted a seed in Nelson's brain. As a kid, he had done something vaguely similar, stuffing his mouth with bubblegum to resemble his idol, Chicago White Sox second baseman Nellie Fox. What if, he wondered, kids could emulate their heroes without the health consequences or parental scorn that accompanied real tobacco?

The package for Big League Chew shredded bubble gum is pictured
Amazon

Not long after, Nelson found himself in the team’s dugout with Jim Bouton, a onetime New York Yankee who had been ostracized for writing a tell-all memoir, Ball Four. Nelson shared his idea for a novelty faux-tobacco product with Bouton, but with something of a twist: Instead of licorice, he would use shredded bubblegum. He might, he said, call it Maverick Chew, or All-Star Chew.

Bouton was intrigued. As the two watched the Mavericks players jog around the field and dip real tobacco (neither man had ever taken up the habit) they agreed it would be an idea worth pursuing. Nelson would develop the product and Bouton would try to get it distributed. Bouton would also be the sole investor, sinking $10,000 into Nelson’s idea.

The Mavericks disbanded in 1977, but the partnership between Nelson and Bouton endured. Nelson, who worked for a pitching machine company, visited Bouton after the pitcher signed with the Atlanta Braves in 1978, and the two conspired further on Nelson’s shredded gum idea. Nelson purchased an at-home gum-making kit that he saw an ad for in the pages of People magazine and got to work producing a batch of the stuff in the kitchen of Field’s parents. Hoping to mimic the tar-like color of Field’s concoction, Nelson used brown food coloring, maple extract, and root beer extract in the gum. The result was predictably terrible.

Despite a lack of a viable prototype gum, Bouton did his part by pitching the idea to several baseball-affiliated companies. (The former Yankee put his own likeness on the mock-up pouch.) Topps and Fleer, which produced bubblegum cards, politely rejected him. He eventually ended up at Amurol, a subsidiary of the Wrigley Company, one of the largest chewing gum conglomerates in the world. In a coincidence, Amurol engineer Ron Ream had been working on a shredded-gum project for several years. Rather than brush Bouton off, the company embraced the idea of a gum that would be sold in a pouch and was a play on kid-friendly chewing tobacco. They even liked the name Nelson had settled on: Big League Chew.

Ream had successfully developed a formula that solved the problem of the tiny ribbons of gum, using enough glycerin to make sure it wouldn’t stick together and become a useless clump in the package. Amurol, however, didn’t take to Nelson’s other big idea, which was to make the gum brown. While the chewing tobacco homage was obvious, they didn’t want to completely replicate the experience. The gum would remain pink.

In 1980, Amurol conducted a sample rollout at a 7-Eleven store in Naperville, Illinois. When executives came back from lunch, the 2.1-ounce pouches had sold out.

That first year, Big League Chew rang up $18 million in sales, capturing 8 percent of the bubblegum market. Amurol’s other products all together hadn’t totaled more than $8 million. (Nelson and Bouton received a percentage of sales.)

Nelson’s hunch had been correct: Kids loved the facsimile chew, which sold for between 59 and 79 cents a pack. Candy distributors in Orlando reported selling 25,000 pouches a week. Copycat products like Chaw came and went. Little Leaguers and amateur ballplayers could take out as much gum as they wanted and stuff the rest in their pockets. But the association with tobacco, which wasn’t meant to be taken literally, upset some parents. They feared Big League Chew could become a "gateway" gum—bubblegum one day, tobacco and oral cancer the next.

Nelson and Amurol took the criticism in stride. Nelson was often quoted as saying he personally detested chewing tobacco and considered this a solution to, not the cause of, a tobacco habit. A California bill that would have banned the gum, candy cigarettes, and other products meant to resemble tobacco died in the state’s Senate Judiciary Committee in 1992. Kids continued to dribble grape, strawberry, and other fruit-flavored gum on their shirts. Amurol experimented with gum branded with Popeye’s likeness, colored green and meant to resemble spinach. It did not enjoy the same success.

Nelson bought out Bouton’s interest in Big League Chew in 2000 and has remained with the brand ever since, including a move from Wrigley—which was sold to Mars Inc. in 2008 for $23 billion—to Ford Gum in 2010. Sales have hovered around $10 to $13 million annually and there have been no confirmed reports of children being indoctrinated into a chewing tobacco habit as a result.

In February 2019, the package depicted its first female player. In the past, it has featured a variety of artwork and the likenesses of several retired players. In 2013, two active players—Matt Kemp of the Los Angeles Dodgers and Cole Hamels from the Philadelphia Phillies (now with the Chicago Cubs)—were pictured. But despite its name, Big League Chew has never had any formal affiliation with Major League Baseball. The MLB has instead maintained relationships with Bazooka and Double Bubble.

The lack of any official MLB endorsement hasn’t hurt. At last count, more than 800 million pouches of Big League Chew have been sold.

Traumatic Episodes: A History of the ABC Afterschool Special

BCI / Sunset Home Visual Entertainment via Amazon
BCI / Sunset Home Visual Entertainment via Amazon

My Dad Lives in a Downtown Hotel. The Toothpaste Millionaire. Me and Dad’s New Wife. She Drinks a Little. Please Don’t Hit Me, Mom. High School Narc. Don’t Touch. From 1972 to 1996, no topic was too taboo for the ABC Afterschool Special, an anthology series that aired every other Wednesday at 4 p.m. Each of the standalone, hour-long installments highlighted issues facing teens and young adults, from underage drinking to the stress of living in a foster home. For the millions of viewers tuning in, it might have been their first exposure to a difficult topic—or the first indication that they weren’t alone in their struggle.

The Afterschool Special originated in the early 1970s, when programming executives at ABC had an epiphany: While there was a lot of content for families and adults during primetime, soap operas for adults in the daytime, and cartoons for children on Saturday mornings, there was relatively little content directed specifically at teenagers and pre-teens. The network saw an opportunity to fill that gap by airing topical specials midweek, when parents watching General Hospital might leave the television on and stick around to watch some TV with their adolescent children.

Initially, the network solicited a mix of fanciful stories and serious, issue-based melodramas. In the animated Incredible, Indelible, Magical Physical Mystery Trip, two kids were shrunk down to the size of a cell to travel through their uncle’s body. In Follow the Northern Star, a boy ushers a friend through the Underground Railroad to escape slavery.

 

Not long after the series debuted in the fall of 1972, ABC executives—including Brandon Stoddard, who was initially in charge of the show and was later responsible for getting the landmark 1977 miniseries Roots and David Lynch's quirky Twin Peaks onto the air—realized that the more puerile stories may have been working against them.

According to Martin Tahse, a producer on dozens of these specials, it was rare for older teens to watch programming intended for younger children. Pre-teens, on the other hand, would watch content meant for an older audience. By season three, the specials were largely made up of topical content. In The Skating Rink, a teen skater overcomes shyness borne out of stuttering. In The Bridge of Adam Rush, a teen copes with a cross-country move after his mother remarries.

The ABC Afterschool Special was an immediate hit, drawing an average of 9.4 million viewers between 1972 and 1974. Many episodes were based on young adult novels, like Rookie of the Year, which stars Jodie Foster as a girl struggling to find acceptance on a boys’ Little League team, or Sara’s Summer of the Swans, about a young woman searching for her missing, mentally challenged brother.

The series also sourced material from magazine articles, short stories, and other venues. For 1983’s The Wave, which originally aired on ABC in primetime in 1981, the story of a high school teacher who describes fascism and Hitler’s rise to power by successfully convincing his students to subscribe to a dictatorial rule, was based on the real experiences of Palo Alto teacher Ron Jones.

The effect of the topical episodes could be potent. For a 1985 special titled One Too Many, which starred Val Kilmer as an underage drinker and Michelle Pfeiffer as his girlfriend, one viewer wrote in to the Los Angeles Times to explain how the show had impacted her:

After watching the ABC Afterschool Special titled One Too Many, a story of drinking and driving, I realized I have taken too many chances with my life. I always think I can handle myself and my car after I’ve had something to drink. Nothing has happened to me … yet. I’d like to thank ABC for showing a program that could possibly save the lives of my friends and me. I’ve realized that drinking and driving is not worth the price of life.

 

As Tahse explained to interviewer Kier-La Janisse, the specials resonated with kids because they rarely indulged in what could be considered a fairy tale ending. “It had to be real,” he said. “If kids watched any of my three specials dealing with alcoholic parents, they were never given a fairy tale ending. I saw to that, because I came from an alcoholic father and knew all the tricks and I wanted the kids who watched—many dealing with the same problem or having friends who had alcoholic parents—to know how it really is.”

The shows also picked up their share of awards. One installment, the self-explanatory Andrea’s Story: A Hitchhiking Tragedy, won five Daytime Emmys in 1984, a third of all the Daytime Emmys ABC won that year. A Special Gift, a 1979 show about a basketball player who takes up ballet, won a Peabody Award.

By the mid-1980s, the specials attempted to strike more of a balance between morality plays and lighthearted fare. The 1984-1985 season consisted of seven episodes, including three comedies and one musical. In The Almost Royal Family, Sarah Jessica Parker stars as a teen whose family buys a home outside the jurisdiction of Canada and the U.S. In Mom’s on Strike, an overworked mother decides to suspend her duties until her family can appreciate her contributions.

Gradually, the specials began leaning back toward hot-button topics. Oprah Winfrey’s Harpo Productions took over producing the series in 1991. That season, Winfrey introduced the episodes, including two panel discussions about relationships and race relations. Though the series did revert back to fictional narratives, it gradually lost its footing in the wake of shows that had a more adolescent bent. A “Very Special Episode” of Beverly Hills, 90210 or Family Matters was essentially a stealth afterschool special. The series was canceled in 1996.

That the show endured for nearly a quarter of a century is a testament to the craftsmanship of producers like Tahse and the support of ABC, who rarely shied away from difficult topics. Still, Tahse—who died in 2014—believed that the series' broad appeal went beyond that.

“The only rule of storytelling that ABC required we follow was … the kid always had to figure out what to do and do it,” he said. “No finger-waving by parents, no lectures by parents. It was a kid who was in a situation and found, through his or her own efforts, a solution.”

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