Making the CES Show… Thirty Years Ago

This year’s CES has dredged up some memories. I had assumed that as one becomes old they are supposed to become used to memories of a young vigorous person that shared their body and memories leaving little else except some scars and some old stale socks lying around plus 2 or 3 pictures to prove it was in fact not a series of hallucinations. Turns out you don’t get used to it, you just endure.

30 Years ago was our CES: Commodore had the reputation of showing something new every CES and this was a time when a Home Computer meant a Consumer Computer. I have written before about how we endeavored to make sure other’s failures didn’t become ours and we did in fact make it, just in time, to the ’85 CES with what became our flagship computer, at least for the next 4 days.

To the Very Last Minute

When I say made it just in time I am counting people hand carrying the last ten or so homebrewed and MOS cooked 80 column chips either the night before or that very morning. The C128 computers where waiting lined up and open in the room seen below; cases agape much like a row of baby birds waiting on whatever engorgement MOS had come up with for us as the seconds counted down.

And then finally we stood on the second floor of our booth (yes they built a 2 story structure for us in a couple of hours the night before) surveying the now working computers; C128’s and the never released LCD machine, when the last “issue” before the doors opened arrived; a Marketing person (panting) telling us of “yet another C128 failure” though she couldn’t actually point to any previous computers that had failed. We wouldn’t let her continue with her complaint until she retracted the previous general statement of failure, more on principle than actual meanness.

CES "Prep" room, 30 years ago this week.
The “Prep” room now empty, every CES C128 computer came through here. Note the EPROM burner and disks taped to the wall along with a residual Coors beer can

As with most highly technical in-the-field fixes this one was something to remember. My last act of “the ’85 CES show” became the simple motion of walking up to the “failed” computer station and pressing the key changing the C128 back to 40 column mode, especially important since it only had a 40 column monitor attached to it.

End of Line

Then something happened: We were done. I felt sub-processes actually end that had been consuming both CPU and I/O for months, I was suddenly unencumbered by the next “must fix”. I didn’t have a next task to pop from the stack… the phrase “End of Line” came to mind.

I was 24, in Las Vegas and had just delivered one of the major products for the best computer company in the world to the only show that mattered to us. I started walking towards the door with the uncommonly bright Las Vegas sun streaming through the windows. There were lines of people around the block waiting to enter, but the exit was completely unobstructed.

I buried myself in Las Vegas in a way that only youth, testosterone, and adrenaline can enable.

Making the Rounds

"Leaving Las Vegas", returning home from the '85 CES show.
Thats me with the long hair and the girl (Judy Braddick, a somewhat brilliant Game Programmer). Note the bottle of Tequila and empty beer bottle sitting on the table in the Las Vegas airport. Greg Berlin is on the left standing two feet taller than normal humans. (Hedley Davis of Xbox fame in the foreground). It was a good CES.

I won’t report here much of what all was done over the next days as I understand that for some things the statute of limitations never truly runs out, but inspired by [Mike’s] reporting of visiting the suites of the companies I will relate one small tale here: I had grabbed my best friend and fellow hardware designer who was the father of the 1581 disk drive, also successfully released on this day, and headed out. With the 6’8” [Greg Berlin] (grandson of the designer of the Curtis Wright P-40 Warhawk) in tow we started hitting the floors of the local hotels looking for the suites of the “important” companies that never managed to personally invite us. We had a secret weapon that opened doors as if bribed; not in Greg’s towering presence but in the simple phrase: “we’re from Commodore”.

Doors fully opened that had previously opened only 12-14 inches only to stop on the shoe of the doorman, and 5.25” floppies were stuffed in our pockets like the $20 bills of a VIP trying to impress his date. The suite that comes to mind was that of Electronic Arts (EA). With backslaps and copies of this year’s (and a few of last year’s) C64 game floppies shoved in our pockets we were welcomed like old friends; appointments were made and more than a couple of chugging contests were held. They lost or at least didn’t better us as we were young and full of testosterone.

As we made ready to leave the good folk of EA, after making sure that we would swing by their booth the next day (we did), they asked if there was anything they could get for us. This may sound like a strange or gratuitous question but I had already spied the case of Michelob (a beer from the early days of 1 micron silicon) and was pointing to it before the question was fully uttered. EA grabbed the case with no hesitation as I turned to face the door so he could set the case of teardrop shaped bottles on my shoulder for me.

Back out into Las Vegas we went with Electronic Art’s beer on my shoulder… It was a good CES.

43 thoughts on “Making the CES Show… Thirty Years Ago

    1. Actually, this year’s CES has been pretty interesting in the “Internet of Things” space. That’s a field that’s still kind of showing the same “Wild West” flavor that resonance computers did back in the C128 days. Smart devices that can exist independently of any external OS is a pretty compelling thing… particularly because you don’t need a company of 500 engineers to innovate in this space. Just a good idea.

      1. In particular, blue jeans are just about the best thing around soldering irons. When you drop that inevitable blob on your leg, it probably just rolls off, and the tick cotton gives some good protection. I made the mistake of wearing synthetics sometimes, usually work out clothes in the years after Commodore, working on some startup thing in my home lab. A solder blob is caught by the melting fabric and sometimes makes it all the way to skin… no fun. Half of the fleece pullovers I own have soldering holes in them…

        1. Dave Haynie is also in the picture but appears as just a headless Hawaiian shirt behind Headley. I was strictly a tshirt and jeans kind of guy, having put my National Guard uniform away for good. (I was allowed a short haired wig when in uniform)

          I remember knocking an entire Bloody Mary in Judy’s lap on the airplane ride home, she took it pretty well… better than I would have.

  1. I did battle at CES 2011 with the Blackberry Playbook. The first night was a marathon applying last minute firmware updates to all the demo devices. This would happen 2 or 3 more times before CES even opened. I got about 3 hours of sleep before manning the booth as tech support… which basically meant walking the floor and rebooting any devices that were messed up. The last minute addition of a Quake 3 port was well received by the crowd. The Playbook switched chip vendors 1.5 months before CES, and it was amazing that the talent at QNX was able to write dozens of new drivers (power management, wifi, bluetooth, video etc etc) in that amount of time.

      1. Soul of a New Machine still sells pretty well, and nobody remembers (or cares about) Data General. Commodore at least has nostalgia going for it. I think it could find a market. I actually have some thoughts on how such a book could be structured, but like all free advice it is worth what you pay for it ;)

        1. Hey! I worked with those guys (not in the processor group, I did data comms hardware). Still have my copy of the book, with Tom West’s signature stamp in it. Don’t be dissin’ DG. We were (in the minds of the marketing guys, at least) A Generation Ahead.

          1. I was talking about Soul of a New Machine, so I was referring to the Nova to Eclipse MV era. I worked at two companies where we had legacy software for the Eclipse and the Eclipse MV, they were lovely machines for their day. But these days you have to look rather hard to find someone who even remembers the Eclipse at all. No diss, just how it is.

            Now that being said I think the writing was on the wall that the 88K was doomed when DG announced the AViiON, but that is just a personal opinion. ;)

          2. I have the dubious distinction of being the designer of the lowest cost Token Ring network card for the VME bus, designed for the AViiON systems, so DG could get a contract with US Dept of the Interior for AViiON GIS systems. They got it, too.
            I used some PALs to hack the TI protocol chip’s 68K interface into a VME interface, thus saving the cost of a processor on the board. We lost buffering, but the object was a cheap card, so they got what they paid for. Found a couple of bugs in other vendors’ boards in the process. And the 88K along with my Token Ring card, sailed off into the sunset.

            The 88K might not have deserved it, but Token Ring sure did!

    1. Better question would be, are there plans to resurrect “Commodore: The Amiga Years”? Bagnall did such a great job on the first book, but the next one was cancelled without comment.

  2. Keep in mind about the tine here, too… CES in January meant that we were pretty busy over the Christmas to New Years’ week. That 80 column chip (8563) was barely functional. Bil and Dave DiOrio (VIC-III chip… the guy who did the 8563 was on vacation in Texas) designed a “tower” to sync it properly. Even then, there were a couple of days of me and Ted Lenthe (head of the chip group) sorting through several hundred of these to find a few golden ones that actually worked.

    At the booth, we had arranged C128 according to how well the 8563 worked. Those with sparkly pixels were doing 40 column stuff, those with clean video did the 80 column stuff. The sync tower had to be tuned to lock in properly, and unfortunately, when you power cycled a unit, the lock point often changed and the C128 wouldn’t come up. And of course, marketing folks didn’t pay much attention to this, or the fact the C128 actually had a reset button, so they were regularly getting units to not power up. I was making regular rounds of the booth with a can of freeze spray and a plastic tweaking tool to keep them looking good.

    This was also the first CES for Commodore and Amiga, tough Amiga showings were behind closed doors. Herd and I went to the Amiga suite one night, with RJ Mical and Dave Needle of Amiga, and got to look inside. My first impression was “Hey, we have one of those too!”… the prototype Amiga 1000 had their video chip (think it was still called Daphne back then) in a tower board!

    BTW, that blob of hair and Hawaiian shirt behind Hedley is me… maybe reaching for another bottle of Tequila?

  3. Lol… I just pointed you out above. This was a different Vegas than today; It was still run by the mob, food, meals and other comps where free or very cheap, and the hotels weren’t all that glitzy. We called the Stardust the Stardump and we ended up dragging mattresses from the surrounding rooms and sleeping 4 or 5 to a room since the doors didn’t lock. (They had been forced open so many times you just gave it half a shoulder and the door would pop open). And there were roaches.

    The next year we stayed at the MGM except that someone had called the MGM and cancelled our reservations…. but thats a different story.

  4. Anyone watch Halt and Catch Fire?
    Nice to see some1 is at least trying to offer a little dramatised insight into ye olde days. I suppose the fact it exists shows there’s an interest in the nostalgia, or maybe there’s some parallel to be drawn to the small group of developers doing the most interesting stuff again today (hmm, maybe always been the case?)

    1. *shudder* One episode (the 1st) was all the psychopathy I could handle, and the armadillo roadkill in the opening sequence I took as a reference to the unreleased TI-99/8. It got worse from there. I never got to do any development back in the day, but somebody please tell me suits were not that evul, and aren’t so today.

  5. So much fun to read the war stories of bygone CES shows (any COMDEX tales out there?). I spent most of the 80s entrenched in Atari 8-bit computers and gear, but I had a lot of Commodore pals from the BBS circles. What a great time it was to be a kid who liked computers.. Apple, Atari, Commodore, Tandy, TI, Timex, IBM, DEC.. so many different approaches to home computing. Even then, it felt like a golden age.. and it was.

  6. I feel like I just wandered into the cool kids club by accident, and I’m just hoping they won’t notice me standing here and stop telling their stories. This is a fantastic post!

    Hope the stories keep coming… every generation ends up as part of history, and getting to tell your own stories is an important part of making sure those writing the history get it right!!!

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