The Commodore Vic 20, released in 1981, was the first computer to sell over 1 million units. It was a personal computer that was designed to be affordable and easy-to-use. The Vic 20 was also smaller and lighter than comparable computers of the time.
The Commodore VIC-20 was one of the earliest home computers released in 1980 that could be purchased at retail stores. It was developed by Jack Tramiel with the goal of competing with the Apple II, which had become popular and with the worldwide sales over 1 million units with the success of VisiCalc in 1979. Robert Yannes, an engineer at MOS Technology, helped design the MicroPET and a prototype was finished with help from Al Charpentier and Charles Winterble.
The VIC-20 had an 8-bit architecture with KBROM+5KBRAM (expandable to 32KB), 3.5KB for BASIC (expandable to 27.5KB).It also came packed with 16 color composite palette and 3 square and 1 noise channels as well as being designed to be compatible with other Commodore systems like the PET, C64, C16, and MAX Machine. It had a 1.02 MHz clock frequency for NTSC displays and could be connected to television sets rather than monitors for ease of use. These features enabled it to become the first computer of any type to reach 1 million units sold – a remarkable achievement when compared to competitors from the same era.
In the early 1980s, Jack Tramiel wanted to create a commodore computers that could compete with the burgeoning Apple II series. Chuck Peddle and Bill Seiler collaborated on the development of the TOI, which underwent a name change to The Other Intellect. However, their efforts were quickly thwarted due to their reliance on expensive MOS Technology 6564 chips for the necessary 80-column character display. This presented an obstacle which paved the way for a different computer entirely.
By taking advantage of falling prices in computer hardware at this time, Tramiel set out to develop a lower cost home computing system that appealed to novice users instead of professional or electronics-minded crowds. The end result of their efforts was the TRS-80 Model I in 1980. Featuring both an affordable price tag and increased accessibility, it became a widely available solution that featured ROM cartridges for software and connected to standard TV sets. Ultimately, this gave rise to the equally successful Color Computer soon after its release in 1981.
The VIC-20, released in 1980 as the first true home computer, has gone through a few changes and updates throughout its lifetime. After the initial model was released, there were two variations made during 1981: one that shared a keyboard with early version of the Commodore 64, and the other featuring PET-style keys but with the same blocky font.
In 1983, a new revision was introduced – it had the C64 keyboard with gray function keys and featured a revised motherboard. It also had an updated power supply that was similar to the C64 PSU albeit with slightly lower amperage output. This power supply could be used on Revision B VIC’s but if any external devices were plugged in such as cartridges or user port accessories it was not recommended due to overdrawing of available power. There is a difference in power requirements between older Revision A VIC-20s and C64 PSUs, which makes them incompatible with each other.
The Commodore Business Machines (CBM) created the Commodore PET computer in 1977. It quickly became a popular computer for its accessibility and affordability. However, Robert Yannes at MOS Technology had a vision for a new personal computer that could expand on the capabilities of the PET. Along with engineering help from Al Charpentier and Charles Winterble, Yannes created a prototype called the MicroPET.
Jack Tramiel of Commodore was shown the MicroPET and liked it so much he immediately ordered it to be mass-produced with a limited demonstration at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES). The parts required for completion came from various sources, such as Robert Russell who included an operating system, characters set, joystick interface, and ROM cartridge port. Glen Stark also provided an IEEE-488-derivative CBM-488 interface based on cost savings, cable size reduction, and compliance to imposed regulations. This collaboration between different talents quickly moved the development process of CBM’s new computer forward leading to what we now know today as the Commdore VIC-20.
The VIC chip (6560/6561) is the graphics component of the VIC-20 computer system. It has some limited but flexible capabilities which allow for graphical designs to be created. On initial bootup, a 176×184 pixel screen is displayed, with a fixed solid color border around the edges of the screen. This results in a 4:3 width-to-height ratio, giving each VIC pixel a distinctive wider than tall size. Normally, the dimensions of this screen are 22 columns and 23 rows of 8-by-8-pixel characters; however it is possible to increase these up to 27 columns although at this point some of the characters would run off either side of any associated monitor display. Two 256 character sets are also supported on this system that include both uppercase and graphics as well as upper and lowercase. These can all be reversed too. Usually, when programming or playing games within this system they will take advantage of high-resolution mode whereby each character will be 8×8 pixels in size and just one single color used throughout drawings or images created with code uniquely found via assembly language on such systems as BASIK and MBASIC.
The VIC-20’s Legacy
The Commodore VIC-20 computer was a pivotal development in the early 1980s that jumpstarted the expansion of personal computing. It provided an accessible and affordable platform for programming, which attracted kids looking to explore software development. Some of these children grew up to be influential figures in tech, such as John Carmack of id Software fame. Carmack started tinkering with the machine and pushed its limits through innovative techniques like progressively loading multiple programs off of tape drives.
It’s clear that the VIC-20 had a lasting impact beyond its time in production, and its legacy lives on today through people who have been in direct contact with this system since their youth. The importance of the VIC-20’s influence can be seen even now as countless programmers rely on their childhood experience on this desktop computer to develop new technologies and software solutions. The VIC-20 was a major milestone in the history of personal computing that made programming accessible and helped to shape the future landscape of software engineering.
How to Try the VIC-20 Today
The Commodore VIC-20 is a classic desktop computer system that has turn 40 years old this year and deserves to be celebrated. It was an incredibly popular machine in the 1980’s, so if you’d like to get a taste of the same vintage experience today, there are some options.