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Becoming Commodorian

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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

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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

Intro to PET

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by Neil Harris It was March of 1978 and I was in love. We had been dating for a year, and it was time to get serious. I knew that because she told me so. “I won’t marry you until you get yourself on a career path.” I was young and directionless until that point. I had learned to program computers in high school and had spent every free moment there writing games and other programs. But programming for a living seemed boring, so when I went on to college I did not study computer science and, before long, had dropped out. I worked odd jobs – driving a taxi, working in a drugstore, even as an ice cream man one summer. I did work as a programmer for a while, for a small company that wrote accounting software for local businesses – and it was as boring as I expected. But I was in love. So, I got a proper haircut and a new suit and checked the want ads in the newspaper.  One ad caught my eye right away: “Sales help wanted for calculator and home computer store. Mr. Calculator, 1700 Sansom St

Creating PETSCII

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by Leonard Tramiel When Chuck Peddle was given the go ahead to bring his ideas of what would become the PET computer into reality many of the ingredients were only loosely constrained. One example is the character set. It would clearly need to have alpha-numeric characters and the basic punctuation. But that was far  too limiting for many recreational uses of the machine. It should be possible to create a set of graphics characters that would allow a wide range of images to be created yet still have the hardware simplicity of a character based system. He knew that one of the likely uses of the computer was going to be card games. The game of Blackjack was a favorite of both Chuck and my dad. That meant the only thing that was well defined about the set was that it needed to have the four suits; hearts, clubs, spades and diamonds. He gave me the task of designing that character set. Each screen location would store an 8 bit number, 256 possibilities. The top bit would swap on and off pi