Commodore History

The early years:

Commodore co-founders Jack Tramiel and Manfred Kapp met in the early 1950s while both employed by the Ace Typewriter Repair Company in New York City. In 1954, they formed a partnership to sell used and reconditioned typewriters and used their profits to purchase the Singer Typewriter Company.  After acquiring a local dealership selling Everest adding machines, Jack convinced Everest to give him and Kapp exclusive Canadian rights to its products and established Everest Office Machines in Toronto in 1955.

Jack saw some of the first electronic calculators in the late 1960s and pivoted from adding machines to marketing calculators produced by companies like Casio under the Commodore brand name. In 1969, Commodore began manufacturing its own electronic calculators. Commodore soon had a profitable calculator line and was one of the more popular brands in the early 1970s, producing both consumer as well as scientific/programmable calculators.

1975: Texas Instruments, the main supplier of calculator parts, entered the market directly and put out a line of machines priced at less than Commodore’s cost for the parts. Commodore obtained an infusion of cash from Gould, which Jack Tramiel used to purchase several second-source chip suppliers, including MOS Technology, Inc., in order to assure his supply.  

1976: Jack agrees to buy MOS, which was having troubles of its own, only on the condition that its chip designer Chuck Peddle join Commodore directly as head of engineering.  Chuck Peddle convinced Jack to turn their attention to home computers. Peddle packaged his single-board computer design in a metal case, initially with a keyboard using calculator keys, later with a full-travel  QWERTY keyboard, monochrome monitor, and tape recorder for program and data storage, to produce the Commodore PET (Personal Electronic Transactor).

1977: The PET computer line was used primarily in schools, where its tough all-metal construction and ability to share printers and disk drives on a simple local area network were advantages, but PETs did not compete well in the home setting where graphics and sound were important.

1981: The PET was replaced by the VIC-20, which was introduced at a cost of US$299 and sold in retail stores. Commodore bought aggressive advertisements featuring William Shatner asking consumers “Why buy just a video game?” The strategy worked and the VIC-20 became the first computer to ship more than one million units. A total of 2.5 million units were sold over the machine’s lifetime and helped Commodore’s sales to Canadian schools.  In another promotion aimed at schools (and as a way of getting rid of old unsold inventory), some PET models labeled “Teacher’s PET” were given away as part of a “buy 2 get 1 free” promotion.

1982: The Commodore 64 was introduced in January and was a remarkable market success. Volume production started sometime in the spring of 1982, with machines being released on to the market in August at a price of $595 USD.  The Commodore 64 sales totaled 17 million units, making it the best-selling single personal computer model of all time.  The Commodore 64 dominated the market with between 30% and 40% share and 2 million units sold per year, outselling the IBM PC clones, Apple computers, and Atari computers.   Commodore went on to produce a long line of successors to the C64.

1984: Commodore 16 was release to compete with other sub-$100 computers from Timex Corporation, Mattel, and Texas Instruments. Timex’s and Mattel’s computers were less expensive than the VIC-20.  Also in that year, the Plus/4 was released.  Unfortunately, it was incompatible with the Commodore 64’s software and some of its hardware. Although the Commodore 64 was more established, the Plus/4 was aimed at the more business oriented part of the personal computer market. While the Plus/4 had some success in Europe, it was a failure in the United States, where it was derided as the “Minus/60”.

1985: The C128 was release and was a significantly expanded successor to the C64, with nearly full compatibility. The newer machine has 128 KB of RAM in two 64 KB banks, and an 80-column color video output. It has a redesigned case and keyboard. Also included is a Zilog Z80 CPU which allows the C128 to run CP/M, as an alternative to the usual Commodore BASIC environment. The presence of the Z80 and the huge CP/M software library it brings, coupled with the C64’s software library, gave the C128 one of the broadest ranges of available software among its competitors.

By mid 1985, Commodore release the Amiga line of computers that were reasonably successful, however none could rival the sales and popularity of the C64.

Commodore officially went into liquidation in 1995 however it’s brand name was purchased and sold a few times before being acquired by Gateway Computers in 1997.   Although no new computers have been released since the late 1990’s, the brand name is still alive today.

Retro enthusiasts who want to experience the VIC-20 and C64 can purchase the original hardware or by the new “The C64 and The VIC20“.


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