Discovering Computers and Commodore

Commodore

I started computing in 1978 when I was 11 years old by programming my father’s HP calculator.  After this the local Radio Shack in Needham, Massachusetts started selling computers and I would hang out there.  I remember programming their TRS-80 Model 1 with Level 1 BASIC, a version of Tiny BASIC.

Eventually, there was NEECO, a computer store I could easily walk to from my home.  They sold Commodore, Atari, Superbrain, HP, and Apple amongst others.  It as at this time that I gravitated to the VIC-20 because it was so affordable.  I would write demos for the VIC-20 in the store and they seemed to like having me around.  I ended up buying a lot of issues of Compute! Magazine and learned how to program graphics and sound for the VIC.  At one point, I even managed to write a game that they briefly sold in their store.

One day an older man walked in and bought a complete Apple II+ system because he wanted to write business software.  So, he asked the people at NEECO if they knew where he could find a programmer.  They pointed across the store at me.  He said, “Him?  He’s just a kid.”  They brought him over and he introduced himself as Patrick Alessi.  As it would turn out he lived around the corner from me.   Shortly I would end up spending evenings after school hanging out at Patrick’s house and working on inventory and human resources software for the Apple II+ and IBM PC.  I also ended up eating a lot of cookies, drinking coffee and talking politics.

Patrick later bought me my own VIC-20.  I played games and learned some 6502 machine code.   I also picked up a HES Forth cartridge and learned some of that.  During this time, I even made an attempt at crafting my own programming language, but that would have to wait.  A friend bought a Commodore 64 which he eventually sold to me.

Today the skills that I learned in my youth have served me well, and I’m still writing software today.

I have written a couple of versions of BASIC, inspired by the fun 8-bit computers of his youth.  Liberty BASIC is an easy Windows programming language, and Run BASIC is an easy web programming tool.
http://www.libertybasic.com and http://www.runbasic.com
Recently I have rediscovered and invested myself in the computers of my youth.  My concentration has been spent for the most part on the Commodore variety but I do have some other 8-bit machines.    I find those 8-bit machines are just so much fun, and they are simple enough to understand everything about them and powerful enough to do so many things.  I plan to blog about my experiments.  I hope to see others there.

Carl Gundel started his lifelong love of computers and programming in 1978, during the early years of the home computer drive.  During a time when the idea of a “home computer” was new, Carl was learning to program, hanging out at stores, and even writing his own code.   Those early skills and lessons have stuck with him through the years and he has continued to program computers and enjoy the computer world.  He has recently returned to the computers of his youth, including our favorite Commodore.  His programs are online and he is currently working on a blog:   http://www.libertybasic.com and http://www.runbasic.com
As for this Commodore Computers page, we’re excited that Carl shared his experiences and the article above with us!

Saving My Programs

Tape Drive
A Datasette just like the author owned….way back then.

I was having a blast by the time I saved up the money needed for a Commodore Datasette drive.  By this time I had one or two games to plug into the machine, but I had no way to save my precious programs.  I would type away at Basic and develop advanced programs that would tell me things like, “Hello” or it would figure an advanced math problem for me like “2+2 =” and there would be the answer “4”!  But I was seeing big programs in magazines and I wanted to be able to save them.  The Commodore books themselves offered a few programs as this was just before the publication of some independent programming books – many filled with pages and pages of code for me to type in and check.

The major issue I faced was what I called, “Program loss”.  The minute I would finish testing the program, complete school homework, take care of chores and get ready for bed, it was time to turn the Vic-20 off.  As I would click that magic button on the side of the 20 that opened the entire world of computers to me, the program would die.  It would be lost to the world, to me, and most importantly the hard work I had put into typing it would be gone until I typed it again.  I had to have a way to save the programs and cassettes – those wonderful music holding little tapes of dark strips was going to save the day for me!

My mother took me to a small outside mall in Little Rock.  This was in the days when big malls were still few and far and a lot of the shopping malls were outside- No not like yesterday, that’s just these places coming back as the big malls seem to be dying off in smaller towns in the USA – these malls often had bowling alleys, skating rinks, pharmacy stores, and maybe a Sears store attached.  You could usually find a barbershop, a clothing store or two, and even some specialty stores like Radio Shack and occasionally a small parts or hobby store.   This particular mall, known as University Mall, would later transform into one of those large indoor malls and eventually become apartments and a Target years later once a bulldozer would again destroy someone else’s childhood memories of the mall.  I actually think there may be a Cheddars located close to where the store was located that we went to that day.  But I digress…the point is it was the early 1980s and the open mall was there.  Inside that open mall was a store that sold almost exclusively Commodore items.

I honestly do not remember if the store was a “Commodore” store in the sense of selling only those items or not, but I do remember they had a lot of Commodore stuff.  As we walked in, I know my mouth must have fallen open.  There were game cartridges, blank tapes, Vic-20’s, monitors, tape drives and it seemed like rows and rows of programs already on tape.  There were also books – books that told you how to do things with your Vic-20!  Needless to say, I was in heaven.

I do not remember the cost, but I remember getting the Datasette drive – which apparently was a nice way to call a cassette something other than a cassette.  I put the money down, paid the cost and walked out the proud owner of my first computer storage device.

I had the benefit of already having cassette’s at home since I used them to record my records.  Once I was home, I pulled the Datasette out of the styrofoam holder, set the box aside and plugged it into the Vic-20.  I followed the directions and within a short amount of time, the fantastic program “Hello World” was finally written and saved.  After a few tests, I determined that all was well and I could now save may 20, 30 or even 40 lines of code when typed.  Needless to say, I had no idea that the lines of code I could and would type was about to expand.

At the end of the day I had two new things on my mind.  First, I now knew that I could save anything I typed or put together on the Vic.  I also knew that there were others out there that had put together programs and they would sell them to me at that wonderful little store.  In the years that would follow I would learn about biorhythm programs, calculator programs, writing programs (something that really caught my attention) and so much more.

That first little Datasette traveled with me through junior high,  high school and college.  I used it with the Vic-20 and the Commodore 64 that would go through college with me.  I had stacks of programs that I had written and ones I had bought.  It really wasn’t until sometime later that I learned there were other types of Datasettes for the Commodore machines, but ultimately I did not need them.  To this day, if you’re working on a Commodore machine, you know you can still go to your trusty outside mall – because that is a thing again in small-town USA and buy cassettes for your Datasette.  Whereas the floppy, both 10 inch, 5 1/4, and 3.5 have gone the way of the dinosaur, you can still round up a trusty cassette to pop into your Datasette.  It’s hard to believe that has been over 35 years ago now and the Datasette still lives on in memory and in many cases at work for those of us who love the Commodore Computers.

 

Clinton S. Thomas, Th.D. is a writer and the editor for the Four States News (https://fourstatesnews.us) and the owner of a consulting company.  His first computers came from Commodore and inspired a lifelong love of computer interactions from games, to development and even to writing on them.

 

Commodore Museum of Germany

Bjoern
Bjoern in front of the Commodore Museum

The Facebook group “Commodore 64/128” recently had a post sharing pictures from the Commodore Museum in Germany.  Björn Spoo posted some pictures from his visit.  Although the Commodore 64/128 forum is great, we all know that not everyone uses Facebook – I mean there are still a few people living somewhere in the world today that do not use it!  Anyway, I reached out to Björn and asked if he would share his memories of the trip, some pictures, and tell us a little about himself for this Commodore Computers blog.  I’m happy he agreed!

 

Björn says, “On every first Friday in the month, it is possible to visit the Commodore museum in Braunschweig/ Germany. Is was an old production facility of Commodore computers which is now used as a packaging, design and logistics company (Streiff & Helmold). They operate this small museum so that the entry is free. Under many commodore exhibits, there are some pre-computer technologies which could be viewed.”

 

Thank you, Bjoern for sharing your story and pictures with us!

 

Bjoern is from Bremerhaven/Germany and works as a quality engineer on aircraft engines. His love of Commodore Computers goes back to the early 1980s when he played the first time with his uncle’s C64. In the early 1990 he got his own C64 and started to create his first text trading games in BASIC. He connects nice memories with those old computer system.
Today he handcrafts in his leasuretime Commodre packages in matchbox size and search for pictures of special editon Commodore boxes. At this moment he’s got 50 different kinds of matchboxes and hopes this collection will increase.

 

Commodore Arrives

William Shatner and the Vic 20

Commodore moved into the “Computer Wars” or the early days of the computer slowly at first, and when I received my first computer, it was the “friendly” Vic-20 that arrived.  William Shatner had advertised the new machine and apparently, my parents had seen the ads and decided the kids needed that computer.  It was under $300, so it was far below many of the other machines and it certainly beat the high prices of the Apple machines of the time.

To our collective joy, they decided that we each needed our own Vic-20.  So, on that Christmas morning, the presents were opened and besides the usual toys and other Christmas items, there were two large boxes.  Well, at least they were large to us.  All these years later the boxes seem small compared to computers that came later.  The box had fascinating words written on it like “The Friendly Computer,” Arcade Game Excitement” and “Does A Lot More”.  I glanced over the split picture on the cover that featured what appeared to be a father and his two sons playing a game.  The second picture showed the father running a checkbook ledger of some sort, apparently pleased with the results.  I quickly focussed on the game screen- realizing that it looked a lot like the popular arcade game, Space Invaders.  The back side of the box offered more words and just as importantly more pictures of games!

Needless to say, I was hooked.  My sister seemed to take the present with a grain of salt, but I had been watching William Shatner’s Star Trek since I was little.  Since William Shatner was advertising the computer, it made perfect sense to me that this machine should be able to do everything the Enterprise computer could do.  I imagined myself charting new star systems, scanning for life forms in local creeks, and writing programs to cure the world’s many problems.

I spent the next several days looking at the blue screen on the television, reading and trying to understand the Basic language and asking my parents for specific games.  Like many other early Vic-20 users, it did not take me long to figure out that the Commodore was limited.  I could type programs all day long, but the moment I turned off the machine, al the work was gone.  I may have had the computer type or say, “Hello Clint” but it quickly evaporated with loss of power.  I began to look over the friendly documentation and suddenly found a “Tape” drive was available.

With the knowledge that a tape drive was out there, waiting for my hard earned lawn mowing and allowance money, I began to plan.  I was back on track.  I would explore the universe yet and my Vic-20 only needed the tape drive to keep my programs ready and waiting for the moment Captain Kirk called on my growing computer skills to aide the Enterprise in some dangerous endeavor.  I decided I would be ready, but that’s a story for another time.  For the time being, the box was put away and the pretty white, keyboard computer known as the Vic-20 sat waiting on my desk and hooked to my small television where I knew I was destined to grow in the Commodore world!

 

Clinton S. Thomas, Th.D. is a writer and the editor for the Four States News (https://fourstatesnews.us) and the owner of a consulting company.  His first computers came from Commodore and inspired a lifelong love of computer interactions from games, to development and even to writing on them.