Calculators, codes, and hidden messages

by Leonard Tramiel Looking at a list of the chips used in Commodore calculators we see some letter and number combinations that are quite meaningful, if you know the stories. Some of the most sophisticated processors that Commodore made were based on a custom chip set that used a common processor and different ROMs (or two) that contained the code for that particular model. I wrote the firmware for a few of those. Like this one: Photo credit: Dave  McMurtrie One of my favorite memories is the way those ROMs were programmed, as described here . This processor was a fully custom chip and it required a LOT of engineering work, time, and money. When my father, Jack Tramiel, was persuaded to approve the project he told the person in charge "God help you" if this doesn't work. The chips all have product names the contain GHU for God Help Us. The first set of calculator chips that Commodore engineers developed included as much of the circuitry as thought possible into a single

An Inexcusable Failure

by Leonard Tramiel After my first academic year in graduate school, I came home for the summer where I returned to the PET program at Commodore. One of the tasks I was given was to review a box of software that been submitted so that Commodore would sell the software. I didn't recommend that Commodore take  any of the software. One piece of software deserves special attention. I said that this piece of software wasn't worth selling because there was nothing that it could do that couldn't also be done by a nearly trivial BASIC program. One reason for having this view was that nearly all of the discussions that I had had with the people involved in producing the first personal computers centered around the primary use being to learn programming. So I was biased to think that everyone that used a PET would be able to write simple programs. The program I'm talking about was VisiCalc. I hope you've all stopped laughing by now. There is an interesting "plus" to

Becoming Commodorian

by Neil Harris They say that life begins at 40, but for me it really began at 25. It was January, 1981. My mother called me up to tell me that she heard on the radio that Commodore was holding an open house hiring event in the Philadelphia suburbs. That was exciting news, with a few reservations. My former boss and mentor, Gene Beals at AB Computers, had told many stories of Jack Tramiel terrorizing Commodore’s employees, firing people at random, and that no one lasted as long as a year. And my current boss, George Willbanks of Computerland, sneered at the idea of leaving a small company for what he termed “the corporate umbrella.” I had never worked for a large company, and being a manager in a computer store did not seem like the greatest career. And lasting more than a year seemed like an interesting challenge. I arrived at the open house and met one of Commodore’s human resources team members. She asked what I was looking to do. “I am a programmer, worked in stores selling computer

Burning Down the House

by Neil Harris By the later part of 1981, I spent much of my time on the road, helping the sales executives whose mission was to get Commodore home computers into the mass merchant channel. I was a sort of sales engineer, even though that role had not been defined in our industry just yet – my job was to demonstrate the machines and describe what they could do in terms that lay people would understand. Along with VP of National Accounts David Harris (no relation), I showed off our systems to major chains like Kmart, Montgomery Ward, and Sears, along with regional chains. One day this found us at the headquarters of Kiddie City, a mid-Atlantic toy seller that was eventually wiped out by Toys’R’Us. Aside from the VIC-20 and new software, I was to demonstrate the forthcoming VICmodem. I had learned through experience to always arrive early and test everything before the demo. In the worst case, if something was not working, we would simply not mention it – everything we talked about worke

If Looks Could Kill

by Leonard Tramiel At one of the many computer trade shows over the years I had a really funny interaction with Bill Gates. I was doing demos on the PET and answering the questions of those that walked by. I noticed a large group of people approaching, but at first I didn’t recognize anyone. As they got closer I saw that it was Bill Gates leading the others around. There was a translator repeating what Bill said into Japanese. When they reached me Bill walked up to a PET and typed WAIT 6502,10. This caused the machine to hang and he froze. I said, quietly enough in the loud hall that only he could hear, “Bill, there’s nothing at 6502 so that’s just going to freeze”. He turned and gave me a look that was a perfect example of a look that could kill. I knew what he was doing so I turned to the group and said something along the lines of, “Microsoft BASIC is a valuable part of this machine”. Bill relaxed and the group left the suite. The WAIT command in Microsoft BASIC was an unusual addit

Programming by Tweezer

by Leonard Tramiel In another post I mentioned that one summer I wrote the firmware for a couple of Commodore’s calculators. Commodore had a wide variety of proprietary calculator chips that they used for an even wider range of calculators. The earliest example I can think of is what I think was Commodore’s first calculator that had only one chip. Prior to this there were two chips. One that did the computations and one that provided the drive current for the LED display. I won’t go into the details but a clever engineer figured out how to get the computation chip to also drive the LEDs. it required a pretty basic change to the way the display subsystem worked but wouldn’t make the calculation chip more complex. This was code named RBP (Rock Bottom Price). The designer was sure that the chips would be opened to figure out how this was done so he added the letters FKU to a corner of the die. I used to have a few of these actual chips but I can’t find them. The chips used in the calcula

Jack Tramiel and Mike Tomczyk

  by Leonard Tramiel Much of the impetus for this blog is the deluge of misinformation that is “out there”. One of the best defined, single instances, is Michael Tomczyk’s story of a Commodore management meeting near London, England. He characterizes it as a marketing meeting. Given my father’s complete disdain for the term “marketing”, and everything that goes with it, I can confidently dismiss the idea that this is how it was referred to, at least in Dad’s presence. There was an extremely informative exchange during the visit to my Dad’s home by the crew for The 8-bit Generation: The Commodore Wars documentary. There was a break and the film makers, I think looking for extra material, asked about “the famous London marketing meeting”. My father responded with a look of confusion. I knew what they were talking about. Despite my Dad’s prediction that Tomczyk’s book wouldn’t reach many readers (see below), it did. The story in it of a marketing meeting near London where a large group o