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.

Building a Retro Computer that Never Existed

Sometimes you come across a build so far along you wish you could go back and enjoy it just a bit at a time. This C65 build is so far along, it’s like binge watching a retro computer build. One that never actually existed.

Okay, that’s admittedly a bit rash. But technically the C65 (successor to the Commodore C64) never saw its way through development. A good place to start looking in on the build is from the second post way back in March. The FPGA-based project is already looking promising with proof-of-concept display tests. Are we the only ones surprised by the 1920 native display resolution?

Checking back in June we see that there is some software working but a bounty of bugs will definitely keep [Paul] busy for a while. Fast forward to the beginning of September and he’s come full through to getting a network connection up and running.

The Wikipedia page on the C65 gives a good idea of how awesome this would have been back in the day had it actually made it to market. We suppose it joins the Commodore lists of would-haves and should-haves with the likes of the C128.

30 Years later TED finds his voice: A Commodore Story Part II

[Continued from 30 Years later TED finds his voice: A Commodore Story Part I]

Like parents standing on the porch waiting to see their children off to their first day of school we waited for what comes next in a release to production. Among our children: The C116 ($49 Sinclair killer), the C264 ($79 office computer), and the V364 – The computer with an interactive desktop that could speak (courtesy of [John Fegans] who gave us the lion’s share of what made the C64 software great).

Something happened then, and by something I mean nothing. Nothing happened. We waited to assist in production builds and stood ready to make engineering change notices, and yet nothing happened. It was around this time that [Mr. Jack Tramiel] had left the company, I know why he left but I can’t tell due to a promise I made. Sadly, without [Tramiel’s] vision and direction the new product releases pretty much stopped.

What happens when Marketing tries to design a computer: a TED in a C64 case known as a C16
What happens when Marketing tries to design a computer: a TED in a C64 case known as a C16.

Meanwhile in Marketing, someone came up with the idea to make the C264 more expensive so that they could then sell it for a prohibitively high price in. They changed the name, they told us to add chips, and they added software that (at best) wasn’t of interest to the users at that price. They wanted another C64, after all it had previously been the source of some success. Meanwhile the C116 and the V364 prototypes slowly melded into the random storage of a busy R&D lab. We literally didn’t notice what had happened; we were too busy arguing against abominations such as the C16 — a “creation” brought about by a shoving a TED board into a C64 case (the term inbred came to mind at the time).

Continue reading “30 Years later TED finds his voice: A Commodore Story Part II”

30 Years later TED finds his voice: A Commodore Story Part I

MOS SID Chip
MOS SID Chip Sound Interface Device

In the before-time (I’m talking about the 1980’s here), when home computers were considered to be consumer items, there was the Commodore C64. The C64 derived its vast array of superpowers from two Integrated Circuits (IC) named VIC and SID standing for Video Interface Chip and Sound Interface Device. Chip names were part of our culture back them, from VIC up to Fat AGNES in the end.

We spoke about VIC and SID as if they were people or distant relatives, sometimes cantankerous or prone to sudden outburst, but there was always an underlying respect for the chips and the engineers who made them. VIC and SID together made one of the world’s best video and sound experiences; movement and noise, musical notes and aliens.

Continue reading “30 Years later TED finds his voice: A Commodore Story Part I”

Commodore 1530 Datasette gets a Digital Counter

com-tape

Ah, the humble Commodore 1530 Datasette drive. It never enjoyed much popularity in the USA, but it was the standard for quite some time in Europe. [DerSchatten13] still uses and loves his 1530. When a co-worker showed him some 7-segment bubble LEDs, he knew what he had to do. Thus the 1530 digital counter (translated) was born.

[DerSchatten13] started out by building his design on a breadboard. He used every I/O pin on an ATtiny2313 to implement his circuit. Tape motion is detected by a home-made rotary encoder connected to the original mechanical counter’s belt drive. To keep the pin count down, [DerSchatten13] multiplexed the LEDs on the display.

Now came the hard part, tearing into the 1530 and removing the mechanical counter. [DerSchatten13] glued in some standoffs to hold the new PCB. After rebuilding the circuit on a piece of perfboard, he installed the new parts. The final result looks great on the inside. From the outside, one would be hard pressed to tell the digital counter wasn’t original equipment.

Operation of the digital counter is identical to the analog unit – with one exception. The clear button now serves double duty. Pressing and holding it saves the current count. Save mode is indicated by turning on the decimal point. If the user rewinds the tape, the counter will stop the motor when the saved count is reached. Cueing up that saved program just got a heck of a lot easier!

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The Entire Commodore 64 Library In Your Pocket

Monty

[sweetlilmre] is just beginning his adventures in retrocomputing, and after realizing there were places besides eBay to buy old computers, quickly snagged a few of the Amigas he lusted after in his youth. One of the machines that didn’t make it into his collection until recently was a Commodore 64 with Datasette and 1541 drive. With no tapes and a 1541 disk drive that required significant restoration, he looked at other devices to load programs onto his C64.

These devices, clever cartridge implementations of SD cards and Flash memory, cost more than anyone should spend on a C64. Realizing there’s still a cassette port on the C64, [sweetlilmre] created Tapuino, the $20 Commodore tape emulator

The hardware used to load games through the Datasette connector included an Arduino Nano, a microSD breakout board, a 16×2 LCD, some resistors, buttons, and a little bit of wire. The firmware part of the build – available here on the Git – reads the .TAP files off the SD card and loads them into the C64.

[sweetlilmre] posted a very complete build post of the entire device constructed on a piece of protoboard, Pop that thing in a 3D printed case, and he can have the entire C64 library in his pocket.

Reverse Engineering Unobtanium

font

If you listen to [Bil Herd] and the rest of the Commodore crew, you’ll quickly realize the folks behind Commodore were about 20 years ahead of their time, with their own chip foundries and vertical integration that would make the modern-day Apple jealous. One of the cool chips that came out of the MOS foundry was the 6500/1 – used in the keyboard controller of the Amiga and the 1520 printer/plotter. Basically a microcontroller with a 6502 core, the 6500/1 has seen a lot of talk when it comes to dumping the contents of the ROM, and thus all the code on the Amiga’s keyboard controller and the font for the 1520 plotter – there were ideas on how to get the contents of the ROM, but no one tried building a circuit.

[Jim Brain] looked over the discussions and recently gave it a try. He was completely successful, dumping the ROM of a 6500/1, and allowing for the preservation and analysis of the 1520 plotter, analysis of other devices controlled by a 6500/1, and the possibility of the creation of a drop-in replacement for the unobtanium 6500/1.

The datasheet for the 6500/1 has a few lines describing the test mode, where applying +10 VDC to the /RES line forces the machine to make memory fetches from the external pins. The only problem was, no body knew how to make this work. Ideas were thrown around, but it wasn’t until [Jim Brain] pulled an ATMega32 off the top of his parts bin did anyone create a working circuit.

The code for the AVR puts the 6500/1 into it’s test mode, loads a single memory location from ROM, stores the data in PORTA, where the AVR reads it and prints it out over a serial connection to a computer. Repeat for every location in the 6500/1 ROM, and you have a firmware dump. This is probably the first time this code has been seen in 20 years.

Now the race is on to create a drop-in replacement of what is basically a 6502-based microcontroller. That probably won’t be used for much outside of the classic and retro scene, but at least it would be a fun device to play around with.