Commodore 64 Turns 30

The beloved machine is still the best-selling personal computer of all time.

by / January 3, 2012

Thirty years ago the battle for the home computer market was just getting under way. There were a number of companies selling machines, each claiming their’s was designed for use at home. The idea that a work computer and home computer could be the same machine hadn’t yet reached acceptance. So at the time, consumers could choose from distinctly different home computers offered by companies like IBM, RadioShack, Apple, and Atari. And while fans remain of home computers like the Apple IIe and the Atari 800, no computer from that era has inspired more passionate devotees than the Commodore 64.

The Commodore 64 debuted at the 1982 Consumer Electronics Show, 30 years ago this month. The computer, as its name implies, boasted 64K RAM, a 1 MHz MOS 6510 processor, 16-color display capabilities, advanced audio processing and a host of ports and peripherals. The C64’s debut changed the home computer industry because of its $595 list price, which was possible thanks to Commodore’s purchase several years earlier of MOS Technology — which made many of the C64’s components. Comparable computers from Apple, Atari, Texas Instruments and others cost $1,000 or more. Commodore soon began selling the C64 at retailers like Kmart in addition to specialty computer stores. This allowed the company to lower the price further — to $400 — and even begin offering $100 trade-in credits for anyone who exchanged their current video game console or computer for a new C64. This resulted in a price war among home computers that would eventually claim a number of computer makers as well as spark the “North American video game crash” of the mid-1980s. 

The C64 — like most other computers of the day — ran a version of BASIC. The C64’s load command – LOAD "*",8,1 – is fondly preserved today on T-shirts, coffee mugs and other souvenirs. The C64 was famed for its superior video and, even more so, it’s audio prowess. The C64’s three-channel sound synthesizing SID (Sound Interface Device) chip led to previously unheard of music in computer games and also made the C64 a hit with audio editors and the electronic music set.

But it was the C64’s video games that made it legendary. Software publishers took advantage of the C64’s capabilities and produced many games that put down the foundation for what exists today. Though ultimately some 10,000 software titles were written for the C64 — many of which were business products such as word processors and spreadsheets — the C64’s existence eventually came to be that of a video game machine. Most (male) thirtysomethings today no doubt recall games like Impossible Mission, Winter Games (especially the Hot Dog event), Pit Stop, Ultima, and A Bard’s Tale.













The C64 is also remembered for its numerous peripherals, such as the 1541 floppy drive, the 1530 tape drive, the VIC-II modem, the famous Commodore mouse, an external hard drive, a light pen, and even a music keyboard. Many of these peripherals took advantage of the C64’s numerous ports. Available ports included a cartridge expansion slot, RF output, composite video output, a serial bus, cassette tape, a modem port, and two controller ports (typically used for joysticks).

The Commodore 64 continued to sell until the company’s bankruptcy in 1994. In all, the Commodore 64 sold at least 17 million units, making it the bestselling personal computer of all time.

Do you have memories of the Commodore 64? If so, share them in the comments section below.

Photo Credits:

The original Commodore 64: Shane Doucette
The famous Commodore 64 load screen: Regorius
A Commodore 1541 floppy drive: Nathan Beach



Chad Vander Veen

Chad Vander Veen previously served as the editor of FutureStructure, and the associate editor of Government Technology and Public CIO magazines.

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