Flight of the Commodore: How the iconic computer led to a golden age of geeks

The computer's influence should alter how we teach the next generation, says Rhodri Marsden.

Back in 1982, home computers didn't come with soothing start-up chimes, welcoming splash screens and airbrushed icons. Operating an 8-bit machine was a voyage of discovery, characterised by repeated stabs in the dark and precious little hand-holding. The Commodore 64, arguably the best-selling computer model of all time and 30 years old this month, presented you with a blue screen featuring the message "38911 BASIC BYTES FREE. READY."

Ready for what? Ready for code. Clacking away at the keyboard in a language the machine understood (in this case BASIC) was the only means by which you could interact with it. It seems almost laughable today as we point, click, swipe and pinch our way through rich graphical user interfaces, but the user-unfriendliness of the Commodore 64 and its cousins taught a generation of enthusiasts how to program. "It was the dawn of a new age," says Jeff Minter, legendary games programmer whose reputation was cemented by his work for the Commodore 64. "It opened up worlds of creativity to people who otherwise might never have found them."

The Commodore 64 debuted at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas in January 1982 to gasps of disbelief from competing technology firms. Its graphic and sonic capabilities seemed way beyond its $595 price tag, and when it became available in the US in August that year it quickly trounced the opposition. An aggressive marketing campaign saw it appear on the shelves of toy and department stores, contributing to a steep decline in the popularity of games consoles – but while gaming was its main selling point, you could do so much more.

"There was a huge enthusiasm for coding back then, for pushing the limits of the machine," says one former Commodore 64 owner, Steve Harcourt. "It was relatively easy to code for, and there were a vast amount of details available about its internal structure." It may well have been cutting-edge, but you could become familiar with its every intricacy if you were willing to put the hours in. And many people were. "The distance between the people who made the games and the people playing them wasn't that big," says Minter. "It was the spirit of independence. The programmers were a lot like you."

Minter's games for the Commodore 64, such as Attack Of The Mutant Camels and Sheep In Space, were ground-breaking and hugely popular (the former is soon to be exhibited at the Smithsonian Museum), but he was also just one member of a burgeoning Commodore 64 community. Compunet, an early British interactive service accessed through a Commodore 64 and a painfully slow modem, brought that community closer together. "It offered chat rooms and software downloads," says Harcourt. "This encouraged us to code, and it inspired a deeper enthusiasm for the machine beyond casual gaming."

"Compunet was fantastic," agrees Minter. "You could upload these little demos of what you'd been working on, and it was a really nice social scene – years before the internet."

That eagerness to outdo each other, coupled with the limitations of the machine itself, encouraged truly creative programming. It's notable that during the current wave of nostalgia generated by the 30th anniversaries of the Commodore 64, the BBC Micro and other machines, the people who learned to program in the early 1980s are all thankful for being in the right place at the right time.

"I taught myself BBC Basic, and by the time I was 15 I was writing programs like disc sector editors," says IT consultant Simon Guerrero. "Even if you were just playing games you had to acquire at least a basic understanding of OS operations – but now all you have to do is choose menu options."

The recent announcement by Secretary of the State for Education, Michael Gove, that the ICT syllabus is to switch from administrative skills (spreadsheets, mail merges and the like) to "proper" computer science is one that recognises a growing ignorance of computer languages. It's a move welcomed by computer scientist Dr Sue Black, who recently founded the Goto Foundation in an attempt to spark curiosity in what's going on under the bonnet of modern computers. "What we need is lots of ways of making programming accessible to people so it doesn't scare them off," she says. "I went into computing because I thought it was so exciting, but over the years as an academic I've found that people outside the industry equate computing with negative stuff – you know, like government overspends on IT projects and so on. But so much of the world around us relies on computers. And our natural curiosity in puzzles and problem-solving can easily be channelled into coding."

But it's going to be an uphill battle to reignite an interest in coding that was probably at its peak 30 years ago, when machines like the Commodore 64 just sat there awaiting instructions. "The link between code and creativity is one I think we should really emphasise, and one that we seem to have lost a bit," says Hannah Dee, lecturer in computer science at Aberystwyth University. "When you teach someone a programming language these days they want to build big stuff, and there are ways to make that easier by using programming tools like Visual Studio. But you can end up teaching students how to use the tools, rather than how to program. Programming really is building stuff out of ideas – like magic."

Jeff Minter has a similar view. "I always considered programming as being like modern-day wizardry," he says. "You could think of things in your mind and then make them happen."

But in an age where our computers require no understanding of underlying architecture or components, and computer science is still considered to be a deeply uncool subject in comparison to arts and media, how will a new generation of computer wizards discover their true calling? "If you want to play with programming," says Dee, "there are ways and means of doing it on any old computer – you can start web programming with Internet Explorer and Notepad." Indeed, the website codeacademy.com has shown that there is a hunger for this kind of knowledge, with 300,000 people currently learning how to program in JavaScript via its Code Year initiative.

But it may be the sleek, keyboardless smartphone that ends up coaxing out our inner geek. Craig Lockwood, former Commodore 64 owner and founder of appworkshops.com, has been teaching app development for just over a year and has seen interest building steadily. "Everyone has an idea for an app," he says, "and most people have a device for running them. I've been teaching children as young as nine about coding, starting with a programmable toy – Big Trak – that shows them that they can control devices using set procedures. That's the building blocks of coding."

Jeff Minter sees a parallel between app coding and his own early efforts. "Once you get over the hurdle of how to get something on the screen it's not that difficult to make apps and share them with your friends. It could end up being today's equivalent of the Commodore 64 community that we had back in the early 1980s."

The Commodore 64 a coded history

1958

Commodore International Limited founded by Jack Tramiel, typewriter repairman from New York.

January 1982

The Commodore 64 is announced at the Winter Consumer Electronics Show, Las Vegas.

September 1982

The machine goes on sale for $595. (The Apple II cost $1,395). The advertising campaign boasted: "There are virtually no applications the Commodore 64 can't handle with the greatest of ease."

December 1982

By the end of the year, over 300,000 units are sold. The C64 goes on to shift over 17 million units, making it the best-selling computer of all time.

January 1983

The SX-64 is released – it is a portable version of the original C64 which includes a five-inch colour screen.

1983 – 1986

Commodore dominates the market, outselling its competitors Apple, Atari, and IBM.

1987

Activision releases "The Last Ninja", which sells 750,000 copies, more than any other C64 game.

1990s

Sales in the US begin to drop off, but continue slowly in Europe and Asia.

April 1994

Amid boardroom squabbles and a mountain of debt, the company files for bankruptcy.

2011

The Commodore 64 is relaunched. (Sort of. It's a modern PC tucked into a C64-style case). The new model boasts 8GB of RAM and a 3.3GHz processor.

Sam Judah

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