Filled with first-hand accounts of ambition, greed, and inspired engineering, this history of the personal computer revolution takes readers inside the cutthroat world of Commodore. Before Apple, IBM, or Dell, Commodore was the first computer manufacturer to market its machines to the public, selling an estimated 22 million Commodore 64s. Those halcyon days were tumultuous, however, owing to the expectations and unsparing tactics of founder Jack Tramiel. Engineers and managers with the company between 1976 and 1994 share their memories of the groundbreaking moments, soaring business highs, and stunning employee turnover that came with being on top in the early days of the microcomputer industry. This updated second edition includes additional interviews and first-hand material from major Commodore figures like marketing guru Kit Spencer, chip designer Bill Mensch, and Commodore co-founder Manfred Kapp.
About the Author
Brian Bagnall is the author of numerous computer titles, including Core LEGO Mindstorms, On the Edge, and Maximum LEGO NXT. He is also a frequent contributor to Old-Computers.com, an online museum dedicated to recording and preserving computer history. He lives in Winnipeg, Manitoba.
Read an Excerpt
A Company on the Edge
By Brian Bagnall
Variant PressCopyright © 2011 Brian Bagnall
All rights reserved.
High-tech companies need three players in order to succeed: a financier, a technology god, and a juggernaut with a Type A personality. Commodore would require these three ingredients to take them to a new level. They had Irving Gould, with his financial expertise and deep pockets. They had Jack Tramiel, so aggressive people sometimes referred to him as the scariest man alive. All Commodore needed was a visionary engineer to take Commodore into a new field of technology.
In the 1970s, the image of a computer genius was not in the mold of the young hacker. Teenaged tycoons like Bill Gates had not yet filtered into the public consciousness. Instead, the accepted image of a technological genius was a middle-aged man with graying hair and glasses, preferably wearing a long white lab coat and working at Hewlett-Packard or 3M.
Chuck Peddle was the image of a technology wizard, with his wire-framed glasses, receding hairline, and slightly crooked teeth. At two hundred and fifty pounds, the five foot eleven inch engineer always struggled with his weight. He describes himself at that time as "totally out of shape," but he was characteristically optimistic and never without a joke or story to tell.
Peddle possessed the ability to see further into the future than most of his contemporaries and he obsessively searched for the next big innovation. His mind was always active, sometimes to the point of causing sleep deprivation. "I don't sleep much," he says. "Never did." In fact, the pattern of sleeplessness went back to his earliest days.
* * *
Peddle's last name had a peculiar origin. "My grandfather was an immigrant into Newfoundland from down near Poole in Bournemouth, England," he says. "The history of the name is very funny because there is a river just west of Bournemouth, the River Piddle. My family is apparently from there. My grandfather's family had taken the name from the river, so the family name was Piddle."
Unfortunately, the name had an embarrassing meaning. "He came to Newfoundland, Canada and discovered Piddle meant 'a little pee.' The name Piddle was an easy transition to Peddle. All the Peddles in the United States started from my grandfather."
Peddle's grandfather was a clipper ship captain, operating mainly out of Newfoundland. "He came to the United States some of the time because he jumped back and forth to support his clipper ship. My father was born in the United States."
His father was one of 21 kids. A US citizen, he lived in Newfoundland for his early life before returning to the country of his origin. "My father came to the United States to live with his brother," says Peddle. "His brother threw him out when he was 17." Peddle's father worked as a butcher, then as a farm machinery salesman, and finally a real estate broker. The poor region made it difficult to support a family. "The whole area was very depressed," he says. "My father was very poor."
Charles Ingerham Peddle was born in Bangor, Maine in 1937, one of eight children. "There were two families," he says. "The first three children were by another mother. I was the oldest of the second family, and my mother's first child. The other ones were quite a bit older. They were old enough to take care of us."
Peddle was a restless child. "My mother said that when I was young I used to lie awake in my crib. I would cry and fuss and didn't sleep as much as the other kids."
His parents raised him in Augusta, the state capital of Maine, which had a population of just over 20,000. In high school, he worked as a theatre usher. In his senior year of high school, Peddle thought he found his calling. "In high school I worked at a radio station. I wasn't getting paid. I was doing it as a way of getting trained."
Radio announcing seemed to offer a glamorous life for Peddle. "I really wanted to be a radio announcer. Now, that really doesn't mean very much, but back then was pre-TV and radio announcers were big."
Nearing the end of high school, he traveled to Boston to try out for a scholarship in broadcasting. While there, he realized he did not have enough natural talent. Returning to Augusta, he talked things over with the radio station owner, who told him, "I'll employ you as a radio announcer, but you will always be stuck in Maine because you are not good enough." Peddle walked away.
He spent some time in the military as he contemplated his future. "I went into the Marine Corps just before I got out of high school in 1955," he says. "The Marine Corps sent me to California." Peddle fell in love with "the Golden State."
During this time, his former science teacher, who had recognized a gift in his student, encouraged him to enter engineering. Peddle listened to his advice, but was unsure he wanted to enter the sciences.
In the meantime, he worked on a road crew sculpting the hillsides around roads. "I didn't want a pick and shovel job. I wasn't sure what I was going to do and I was dirt poor. Luckily, in Maine you can be dirt poor and still get by." Unable to earn enough to pay for tuition fees, he applied for student loans.
At the end of summer, Peddle entered the University of Maine and enrolled in engineering and business courses. Partway through the first year, the university required students to choose a discipline. Unfortunately, he still had no idea what he wanted to do. "I really loved physics, so I took engineering physics with an electrical minor."
At the time, computing was in a dismal state at Maine. "There wasn't a computer on campus, nor was there anyone on the campus who was computer literate." In his junior year, things began to change. "On the entire campus, there was one analogue computer, which had been bought in the last four months," he recalls. "The analogue computer was so primitive and they didn't know how to use it."
During his first academic year, he received standard engineering training, devoid of computers. Over 200 miles away, at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), a revolution was occurring which would soon change his situation.
* * *
Chuck Peddle's main influence was the legendary inventor and mathematician, Claude Elwood Shannon. Though virtually unknown to the world, Shannon was the founding father of the modern electronic communications age. He was an eccentric, who terrified students by riding his unicycle at night through the hallways while juggling.
He also built a reputation for inventions that were of little practical value to anyone. Over the years, he filled his beachside house with juggling robots, maze-solving robot mice, chess-playing programs, mind-reading machines, and an electric chair to transport his children down to the lake.
In 1948, while working at Bell Labs, Shannon produced a groundbreaking paper, A Mathematical Theory of Communication. In it, he rigorously analyzed the concept of Information Theory and how pictures, words, sounds and other media are transmitted using a stream of ones and zeros. He even coined the word "bit." Peddle was enchanted with his theories. "Today, you take this for granted, but you have to remember that someone had to dream all this up," he says. "Everyone else's work stands on his shoulders and most people don't even know it."
In 1956, Shannon returned to MIT at Lincoln Labs as a lecturer and Artificial Intelligence researcher. While there, he spread his concepts on Information Theory. "He changed the world," says Peddle. "Shannon was not only a pioneer, but a prophet. He effectively developed a following, almost like a cult." One of Shannon's cultists would soon spread the word to Peddle at the University of Maine.
During Peddle's senior year, the University of Maine accepted a lecturer from MIT who studied under Claude Shannon. According to Peddle, "He had a nervous breakdown, so he left MIT. The University of Maine was so happy to get him because he was so superior to the type of instructor they could normally get. They gave him the opportunity to teach only four classes per week between the hours of eleven o'clock and noon. The guy was being totally babied and should have been since he was a great instructor. He decided to put together a class to teach people about Information Theory."
At the time, Peddle was enrolling for his junior year. The new Information Theory class happened to fit into his schedule. As Peddle recalls, "It changed my life."
The class began with the instructor discussing the eyes and ears as the primary sensors for receiving information. "He started teaching us about Boolean algebra and binary logic, and the concept of Information Theory," recalls Peddle. "I just fell in love. This was where I was going to spend my life."
However, the topic that interested Peddle the most was computers. "Information Theory was interesting, and I've used it from time to time, but the computer stuff this guy taught me was life changing."
Peddle immersed himself in computer theory. "I got an A on my senior paper in physics class by giving a discussion on binary and Boolean arithmetic. I was trying to build an AND gate in my senior class [using early transistors] and the top electrical engineers on campus couldn't help me figure out the structures and why my AND gate didn't work." Peddle and a friend even tried growing a transistor crystal but soon gave up.
As graduation approached, Peddle began searching for permanent employment. He had married while in college and already had a family. "I came out of college and I had three kids; two and a half, actually. I had the third one right after [graduation]." The new responsibilities motivated him to find a better life.
Peddle knew he wanted to live in California and he wanted to work in computers. "At all of the companies of any size, like GE (General Electric) and RCA (Radio Corporation of America), you went to work on a training program for a year or two. You really were just interviewing to join their training program."
GE made the best impression on Peddle. "I kind of fell in love with GE," he says. "When I got my offer, I thought I would take it, because they had such a good training program."
* * *
Peddle and his young family moved to California to start a new life with GE. Before long, he was working at GE's computing facility in Phoenix, Arizona. He worked with massive mainframe computers, similar to those seen in the 1965 film Alphaville. The first computer he used was an NCR 304, which he describes as a "very old, very slow machine with small capacity."
At GE, his group was designing computers, using computers. He entered programs into the NCR 304 computer by feeding a stack of punch cards into a card reader. "I would set up long six- or seven-hour runs, drive across the city and go to bed, with the instructions, 'If this breaks, call me.' People would wake me up in the middle of the night, I would find a solution in ten minutes and go back to sleep."
In 1961, Peddle and two of his coworkers developed the concept for variable sector disk formatting. They even filed a patent for their idea. Years later, Peddle would use this idea to give Commodore disk drives more data storage than the competition.
In 1963, John G. Kemeny developed the BASIC computer language at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire, along with Tom Kurtz. They developed BASIC (Beginner's All-purpose Symbolic Instruction Code) for the GE-235 mainframe computer, and as a result, Peddle was almost immediately aware of it. "I taught BASIC the day after it was invented," he claims. "I got one of the original BASIC manuals from a guy in Dartmouth and taught my people in Phoenix."
A year later, Kemeny and Kurtz created the revolutionary Dartmouth Time-Sharing System (DTSS) for the GE-235. With the time-sharing system, multiple users could interact with the mainframe computer simultaneously using remote terminals. General Electric immediately recognized the value of this new system and used it to form the basis of a new multi-million dollar business. "Two years later, GE goes into the time-sharing business," recalls Peddle. "They're selling time-sharing to everybody. It was a big goddamned deal."
With the time-sharing business suddenly ballooning, GE sent Peddle to its largest computing center in Evendale, Ohio to set up time-sharing systems for General Electric Aircraft Engines (GEAE), which designed and manufactured jet engines. The massive computer facility contained ten IBM-7094 mainframe systems, five GE-600s, and twenty-five GE-225s. "We were running time-sharing for about 4,000 engineers and programmers." The refrigerated computing facility seemed futuristic in the mid-sixties, with white tiled walls, raised floors, and row upon row of mainframe computers.
Setting up the time-sharing systems was laborious, and Peddle often stayed at the computer facility around the clock. During this time, he picked up a habit originated by GE founder Thomas Edison. "I stole the idea of cots from him. Everyone understood that if I was tired, I would go to my office and take a half- hour nap."
The experience gave him valuable knowledge that he would later use to develop his own computers. "I got a really good understanding of what worked on time- sharing and what didn't work, and what people wanted."
While working at GE, Chuck met John Paivinen, who would later become involved with him at Commodore. "John Paivinen was my manager at GE. He's the guy who put GE in the computer business."
* * *
The time-sharing business Peddle helped develop at GE was phenomenally successful, but in the late '60s, it started failing due to increased competition. By this time, Peddle had risen to a high-level management position. Suddenly, "Time- sharing crashed. Out of business. Goodbye," he says. "Companies started figuring out how much money they were spending on these time-sharing services and it was millions. GE was just cleaning up, but it just wasn't cost effective the way it was being done, so companies kept cutting it off and they moved the computers internally."
Peddle's interest shifted to improving cash registers. At the time, shared computing kept the brains of the computer at one central location and people could only interact with the computer system using terminals, which consisted of a keyboard and monitor.
Peddle envisioned distributed intelligence, where he would transform the dumb- terminal into an intelligent-terminal that could have a printer connected to it, or other peripherals and data entry devices. "I sat down and derived the principles of distributed intelligence during a four-month period," he says. "There was a focus on five or six stations around a minicomputer in a centralized architecture. My concept was you moved the intelligence to the place where you used it."
"Then I started trying to teach GE about it." Unfortunately, in 1970 GE decided they were no longer interested in computers. "I was getting nowhere with GE because they were getting ready to sell the computer business. Two months later, they sold the company to Honeywell."
He had the option to receive a severance package or move elsewhere in GE. The decision was easy for Peddle and two colleagues, who each took a severance package. "We said, 'This is found money, so we're going to start our own business.' We had already started on the cash register business, and I had a deal with Exxon," he says, referring to the oil company.
Peddle left for Phoenix. The three partners immersed themselves in their intelligent-terminals. During this time, Peddle devised several inventions that would have made him wealthy had he chosen to patent them. "We invented the credit-card-driven-gasoline pump, the first credit verification terminal [credit card reader] and the first point-of-sale terminal [electronic cash register]." He now laments, "It's too bad we didn't patent the shit out of it because we could have been very wealthy as a result of that."
During development, he realized the distributed-intelligence terminal needed a fundamentally new component to make their ideas work. "We needed our own microprocessor." This realization would lead Peddle on an extraordinary journey that would change millions of lives.
At first, he tried to develop the technology within his fledgling company but it was hopeless without funding. "We had everything going for us, but we didn't know how to raise money." It was time for Peddle and his team to move on.
Excerpted from Commodore by Brian Bagnall. Copyright © 2011 Brian Bagnall. Excerpted by permission of Variant Press.
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