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.
I was going on my second week as a young upstart engineer working for Commodore in the offices above the MOS chip fab building, when the head of engineering and my boss, [Shiraz Shivji], pulled me into his office. It had been a blusterous two weeks with un-imagined technology ever-present and spilling out from the offices as one roamed the halls. Video games played in one out of every two doorways causing one to wonder how many people were working, how many just goofing off, and how many were doing both at the same time.
I had already been on my own whirlwind tour of duty in that short time. 25 years after I went to work for Commodore I found out by reading [Brain Bagnal’s] book On the Edge that I had been hired only as a lowly technician. I had been immediately upgraded to programmer on my first day to fill in for a programmer who was out on vacation. They put me in his chair in a small office with 2 other people. All of the offices held three people at most; if we could have dispensed with the door we undoubtedly would have had four stuffed in the same space.
This office was unlike any other office. This office had a large collection of spider plants. I felt blessed to be working at Commodore and even more so sitting in the only office with green growing things.
I didn’t get any of my software assignment done, I literally couldn’t sit in a chair with so much wonder in the air, I kept ending up in the hardware labs. On Friday of the first week I became the victim of what we called back then a “drive-by”. The head of engineering was passing by me in the hall when he stopped my foursome wanting to talk about chip yield. Somehow out of this group I was the guy picked to represent the Engineering R&D Department at that particular moment.
I must have done well, and I’m sure I’ll share that full story another time. The short of it was that I solved a problem rather than just having averted blame. The next time I was pulled into [Shiraz’s] office felt like another drive-by. I sat down attentively ready for my new mission. What I lacked in training and experience I was going to try and make up with exuberance.
[Shiraz] opened a Commodore-made file cabinet (and you thought we just made computers) and showed me a Timex/Sinclair Spectrum. There it sat on my side of the desk; the competition, those that would steal our lunch money to feed themselves. The Enemy.
I was put in charge of the newest computer in that moment, no doubt as punishment for spending all my time in the hardware lab. I was introduced to TED, the Text Display chip, our newest single chip computer system. I didn’t mention that we had previously met, afraid that the wrong words would get me thrown off the project as quickly as I had just come on board.
A bit more of the conversations and issues surrounding the Commodore TED family can be seen in this video I made a few years back.
The standard stories aside, something happened this year when I found a rare version of the TED machine and took it to VCF with me. This TED was different from most, this one could speak to you.
This is back in the day when only one device was known to speak, the TI Speak and Spell. So naturally Commodore went and hired, or stole, maybe coerced, the very engineering talent that gave the Speak and Spell his voice. And now TED would speak with that voice, I still remember the day TED cleared his throat and spoke, he mispronounced a few words but it was a wholly wondrous moment in time, or least in my life.
What did TED have to say? That’s a story for a different day. Keep reading with Part 2 of my story.
[Photo of MOS Building courtesy of Fran Blanche]
[Photo of C64 Motherboard courtesy of Bill Bertram]