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History of the Commodore VIC-20

Jack Tramielelcome to those who may be new to the VIC-20, or for those who want to relive some old memories! The Commodore VIC-20 was an important computer in the history of personal computing. The VIC-20 Tribute web pages, in total, attempt to illustrate the VIC-20's importance, and record its legacy for future generations of historical computer enthusiasts.

Jack Tramiel, an Auschwitz survivor who founded Commodore as a typewriter repair service in 1954, was the CEO when the VIC-20 was introduced. Jack was known for the famous quote, "Computers for the masses, not the classes!"

In 1982, Michael Tomczyk recalled that, "The VlC-20 was first announced by Jack Tramiel - Commodore's founder and now Vice Chairman - at an international manager's meeting in London in April 1980. There, at a quaint inn on the outskirts of the city, the representatives of half a dozen 'Commodore countries' gathered to discuss problems and exchange ideas.

On the second day of the meeting, Tramiel surprised everyone by announcing his intention to develop and market a $300 personal computer. He reminded the group that Commodore was a pioneer in low-priced pocket calculators and had introduced the first self-contained personal computer - the PET - in 1976. Now it was time to introduce a low-priced color computer.

A debate ensued, with several groups talking simultaneously.  Some felt it wasn't time for a computer priced that low, others felt the new computer might undercut sales of the PET, and still others questioned whether it was economically and technologically feasible.

Finally, about twenty minutes later, Tramiel stood up, pounded his fist once on the table, and said in his deep booming voice, 'The Japanese are coming, so we will become the Japanese.' The room fell silent as he explained that several Japanese computer companies (known collectively as 'Japan, Inc.') were already poised to enter the US market. Japanese companies had already captured the television, radio, and small car markets, and personal computers were next on their list.

He said we have to compete with ourselves by making computers that do more and cost less, and that meant breaking the $300 price barrier," Michael Tomczyk [1].

The VIC-20 used the VIC-I (6560) video chip. It was designed by Commodore's MOS Technology two years prior to the design of the computer. It was originally meant to be sold to third-party manufacturers, for use in video game machines. No one wanted to use it, so Commodore decided to make their own system and recoup their losses. 

"We knew there was price resistance at the $300 price point: but how could Commodore make at $300 color computer profitably? Commodore has one terrific advantage - vertical integration, which means we design and manufacture our entire product. Most important, it means we design and make our own computer chips, and computer chips are the heart of any computer. 

Many people still don't know that MOS Technology (a Commodore subsidiary) developed the 6502 Microprocessor, the key computer chip used in Apple, Atari, and several other popular computers, in addition to Commodore. 

When it was suggested that we create a computer based on the VIC chip, some of the engineers resisted the idea, claiming the chip was too 'limited.' They scoffed at the idea of a VIC chip computer and complained that the VIC chip allowed only 22 columns on the screen compared to PET'S 40 columns.

Finally, two groups of engineers on the East and West coasts wound up in a race to build a prototype computer using the VIC chip," Michael Tomczyk [1].

At MOS in Pennsylvania, Bob Yannes, working against time, had hacked together a minimal working prototype using spare PET/CBM parts. His prototype was that of a "game machine," and was instrumental in promoting the idea of a VIC-based Commodore product.  "He put the computer in an old Commodore desktop calculator housing and used a keyboard from one of the original PET computers. The original keyboard was a calculator-style keyboard with red metallic keys. In a few days, the prototype was done," Michael Tomczyk [1].

Another prototype, brought to the show by Bill Seiler and John Feagans, had been put together after some preliminary discussion with Yannes. It bared a closer resemblance to a computer system. Feagans said, "I made the ROM software modular in anticipation of the hardware."

peddle.gif (12949 bytes)It is interesting to note that both men were chastised by Chuck Peddle, designer of the 6502 CPU, for working on a "color" computer. Peddle believed Jack Tramiel wanted business computers only. The VIC-20 project moved forward anyway, with the goal of breaking the specified price point.

The computer used a lot of 1K chips in it. This is because Jack Tramiel decreed that Commodore had a surplus of 1K chips. He didn't care how much memory it had, so long as the designers used 1K SRAMs. The designers knew they could only have a maximum of 5K of system RAM, if they were going to meet their cost goal.

"The first prototypes were taken to the National Computer Convention in Chicago in June 1980, but the new computers weren't put on display. They were set up at our booth in a room enclosed by tinted Plexiglas walls. Only a few people were allowed inside to see the new computer, but lots of noses pressed against the windows as passers-by peered in to get a glimpse of our new 'secret' computer,"  Michael Tomczyk [1].   At the time, it had no name and was simply called the MicroPET.

"The next job – my job - was to put together the marketing program to launch the product in the United States. We began with a very simple premise: computers are not perceived as being 'friendly,' so we have to make the VlC-20 as 'user friendly' as possible. A lot of people chuckled because I waved the 'user friendly' banner so forcefully. Some people even resisted the idea when I dubbed the VIC 'The Friendly Computer' and trademarked the phrase. But, in the end, 'user friendliness' turned out to be the VIC'S most important feature.

The first place I used the phrase 'user friendly' was in an engineering meeting in Santa Clara, California. I began the meeting by writing, in huge block letters on a grease board, the words, “user friendly.” I then announced quite seriously, 'Any thing that doesn't meet this criterion will not be discussed in this room.' It worked! Every time the discussion strayed, or someone suggested adding some complicated feature, I simply pointed at the board and the discussion fell right into place. It seemed that everyone knew what 'user friendly' meant.

Commodore engineers all picked up on the phrase and built some very friendly computing features into the VlC-2O, like two graphic symbols on each key. I insisted that we put color abbreviations on the color control keys (you can blame me for using CYAN instead of LT. BLUE), and included an L-shaped pound sign for our English friends. In Autumn 1980, l took the 'user friendly' banner to Japan, where we held engineering consultations and finalized the product," Michael Tomczyk [1].

The "20" in the VIC-20 name has historically been a mystery. Some have argued that it is a rounding down of the VIC-20 screen size of 22-columns. Others have said that it is a rounding down of the total amount of RAM & ROM in the system (a total of 25K). In the course of doing my research for this web page, I have uncovered that it was neither. Michael Tomczyk told me that the "20" just sounded "friendly" to him. His choice was not related to memory or screen size at all!


One of the hardest challenges was giving the VIC-20 its name. In the early days, the VlC-20 really didn't have a name.

Most of the engineers liked the name Vixen.  I even doodled some sketches using a cute little fox as a logo. The name Vickie was mentioned, too, but never seriously considered. Over the next few months we considered quite a long list of names which might be acceptable internationally. We all spent long hours thumbing through our thesauri searching for an obscure but clever name like Atari or a cute name like Apple.

[W.S. pic]Finally, we decided to name the computer after the Video Interface Chip - VIC - which became Video Interface Computer. VIC sounded naked by itself, however, so we decided to add a number.

But the only meaningful number was VlC-22 (based on its 22 columns). For some reason, the number 22 didn't seem very friendly, so we settled on the name VlC-20 because the number 20 sounded 'friendlier.' Ironically, as a side note, we originally vetoed the name Vixen because it had undesirable connotations in German, but VIC later turned out to mean something even worse. As a result, the German model was called VC-2O and translated as 'Volks Computer' (the 'People's Computer”). For a while the name 'Volks Computer' was so well-liked that we considered using it worldwide, but the only U.S. tie-in was Volkswagen, and Volkswagen [Beetles] were no longer being made. Except for Germany (VC-2O) and Japan (VlC-1001), we stuck with VIC-20. In the end, the short, snappy name turned out to be easy to remember, convenient for magazine headlines, and very 'user friendly,'" Michael Tomczyk [1].

I can remember William Shatner in the VIC-20's television commercials. This has also been a point which has been contested by some. However, I have now found someone who can set the record straight:

From: David Rogers (Commodore VIC-20 Marketing)

"It was William Shatner. I actually worked directly with him on several commercials. His manager told me that I was one of the few people that Shatner actually considered listening to! WOW. I have out takes of some of this packed away somewhere!

Oh, it was for the VIC-20, not the C-64 that Shatner worked for us. We were able to snag him between jobs and at an affordable price. Then he got a program (a police situational) and his daily costs began to sky rocket. Tramiel did not want to spend the (and rightfully, I might add) extraordinary additional fees to Mr. Shatner.

In one shoot, I actually went to Bloomingdales and tried on cloths for the shoot. I am the same size at the guy, so I chose the cloths that he then wore in the commercial!" (watch the video)

"Our advertising started out comparing the VIC-20 to our closest competition, but we soon realized that there wasn’t any competition at our price point. And those higher priced computers weren't selling very well anyway, so why compare the VlC-2O to them? Why not compare the VIC-2O to a product that was selling well, like video game machines?

After all, the VIC-20 was selling for the same price as a video game machine, and VIC software includes cartridge games as well as practical programs. In other words, why buy a video game when you can buy a full-fledged computer for the same price? That message became our advertising slogan.

Actor William Shatner of 'Star Trek' was chosen as our spokes-person, and in the first months of 1982 we kicked off the largest advertising campaign in Commodore's history. Shatner introduced the VIC as the 'Wonder Computer Of the 80s,' adding, 'it plays great space games, too.” 

Commodore also negotiated a long-term arrangement for conversion of Bally Midway coin-operated games to cartridge - including best-sellers like Gorf, and Omega Race.  Sargon II Chess gave us one of the best chess games in personal computing, and five Scott Adams Adventure games gave us possibly the best assortment of adventure games available from a computer manufacturer.

We also introduced a low-priced six-pack of games on cassette tape, with names like Blue Meanies From Outer Space. These games persuaded a lot of people to buy the VlC-20. The next step was to take those VIC-20 owners from video games to other computing. To do that, we had to cross the second obstacle to mass market computing and make computing 'friendly,'" Michael Tomczyk [1].

The first VIC-20s ended up on store shelves in 1981. During that time, the peak production rate hit 9000 units per day -- impressive even now. In 1982, sales reached $305 million. The last VIC-20 rolled off the assembly line in the first quarter of 1985.

"The Japanese Didn't Come –

We first introduced the VIC not in the United States but in Japan, where the VlC’s potential competition was already brewing. It was sort of like carrying coals to Newcastle, but we knew if the VIC succeeded in the Japanese market it would succeed in the rest of the world.

Our Japanese VIC, called the VIC-1001, included uppercase English letters, PET graphics, and Japanese characters. It was introduced in September 1980 at a major computer exhibit at Seibu Department Store in downtown Tokyo. Over 100 orders were taken the first day.

When we introduced the VIC-20 in the U.S., in the spring of 1981, we still expected some low-priced Japanese computers to hit our market by Christmas. Incredibly, that didn't happen. The Japanese didn't come! Instead, most Japanese companies ignored the low end of the market and entered the U.S. with higher priced computers in the $2000-$6000 price range. As a result, throughout 1981 and most of I982, the Commodore VIC-20 was the first and only full-featured color computer priced under $300.

VIC-20 As Home Appliance –

Computers had a hard time being accepted as retail home appliances because of the chicken and the egg phenomenon. For example, the VIC-2O couldn't be accepted as a home appliance until a housewife or student could walk into a department store and buy the VlC-20 off the shelf, like a radio or an alarm clock.  On the other hand, department stores weren't ready to put computers on their shelves until the general public was ready to come into their stores to buy computers off the shelf.

Commodore put together a consumer products team which went after the retail market and persuaded large department stores, toy stores, audio-video stores, and even discount chains to carry the VIC in large quantities.

We provided regional training for store personnel, designed an in store display fixture containing a full selection of VIC products, and put together co-operative advertising and other merchandising programs which appealed to mass merchandising chains. The result is that the VIC-20 is now being sold in places like Macy's, Toys R Us, and even K-mart, and is included on the back cover and inside Montgomery Ward's catalog.

A Computer Priced Like a Video Game –

Personal computers had been available since the mid-1970's, but by 1980 they still hadn't become a mass market item. Three major obstacles stood in the way: 1) computers were too expensive, 2) computers weren't very 'friendly' and 3) nobody knew what to do with them. The long-awaited 'Home Computer Revolution' had not caught fire, and the popular use of computers was limited to hobbyists, engineers, and classrooms.

Football.jpg (142496 bytes)Friendly Computing In Action –

Owning a personal computer used to mean you had to know how to program in BASIC.  But, user friendliness in marketing means giving the customer an item that requires little or no special expertise to use, apply or enjoy. One way to do this is to include a really nice instruction book that lets you have fun and do interesting things without expensive peripherals or packaged software.  You don't have to be an auto mechanic to drive a car, so why should you have to be a programmer to use a computer?

The user friendly manual we wrote for the VIC-20 doesn't even mention the word 'programming' until the last chapter. Our manual teaches you how to 'compute,' which we interpret as meaning 'to have fun.' So we talk about cartoon animation, sound and music, color graphics, and other topics. We also wrote the book so you can turn to any chapter and start computing from that point, with little or no experience. lf you want to write computer music you turn to the music chapter and start there. lf you want to work with color and graphics, you start with that chapter.

What we didn't say is that if you work through the book, you'll learn how to program in BASIC, by osmosis, since most of our examples included a very subtle introduction to programming. It was a sneaky - but helpful - way to ease new computer owners into the fundamentals of computer programming, and it meant new VIC owners had an excellent head start if they decided they wanted to learn computer programming. We also wrote a technical manual for programmers, called the VIC-20 Programmers Reference Guide.   This manual set the standard for future Commodore programmer's reference guides.

What Do You Do With A computer? -

The last obstacle to selling personal computers was that nobody knew what to do with them. This was the toughest challenge of all.

The key point in using a computer is that if you can find one useful, interesting, or practical application, you’ve justified its use.  However, everyone has his/her own special need for a computer, and that's what makes this challenge so difficult.

One of the answers is to provide a useful selection of software.   So, in addition to games, we introduced a Home Calculation six-pack and a Personal Finance program, and we developed some unique educational programs like the Home Babysitter cartridge, which contains three separate skill-building programs for pre-school children.

We've also found that VIC owners are coming up with their own unique applications. A ninth grader wrote a program that keeps track of his paper route. A computer artist found a way to create new designs. A container executive uses the VIC to calculate complicated paper trim percentages.

After owning his VIC for two months, one VIC owner wrote a program and sold it to Commodore. And he'd never used a computer before.

A surprising number of people are taking up computing as a hobby, but they aren't really computer hobbyists, as hobbyists were defined a few years ago. These hobbyists aren't as technically inclined as those first hobbyists were in the 197Os. And they don't have to be technicians.

Remember the 'chemistry set craze' in the 1950’s and 60’s? Nobody expected to invent medical cures or split atoms with their chemistry set, but they sure had a lot of fun with them The same holds true for the VIC-20, except that a lot of people are finding that their experiments often lead to some practical or creative applications they can use in their home, school, or business.

vm.jpg (12415 bytes)Story of The VlCmodem –

The device which lets you connect your computer to the telephone is called a mode, but modems cost as much as $400.   In 1981 we wanted to develop a 'VlCmodem' which could retail for about $100, but no one wanted to build a modem we could sell for that price. Everyone wanted to 'protect' their price levels, or felt it wasn't 'time' for a hundred dollar modem, or that it was technically impossible.

Finally, a small company that made industrial modems for food processing plants offered to help design our modem. After several tough sessions we came up with a modem on a cartridge which plugs directly into the VIC-20 and connects to any modular telephone handset. A Nonmodular telephone adapter for connecting the modem into the wall phone socket was also designed for those who didn't own modular telephones, and for users in Canada.

The final VlCmodem includes a free subscription to and complimentary hour on CompuServe’s information service (including 'Commodore Information Network,' a VlCterm terminal program on tape) and several other special offers, all for only $ 109.95. VlCmodem went on sale only six months from the day the original idea popped into our heads," Michael Tomczyk [1].

The Commodore VIC-20 was one of the most important computers of all time. It holds this high honor primarily because it was the first color computer to break the $300 (U.S. Dollars) price barrier. The VIC-20 introduced millions of people to the facinating world of personal computing all over the globe. As the VW Beetle was the people's car, the Commodore VIC-20 was a computer for the people. Indeed, it was, "The Friendly Computer."

Opposing View: Sunset Days for the VIC-20? (2/1985)

A Brief History of Commodore Business Machines

Under Tramiel's deliberate guidance, Commodore grew into a $1 billion company, growing sevenfold from 1981 to 1984. It was one of the largest suppliers of home computers in the world.

Tramiel flew in the face of the computer industry by enlisting mass merchants (K-Mart, Toys "R" Us, Target and others) to sell the VIC-20, and later the C=64. By doing so, he proved that computer buyers didn't need to rely on the hand-holding of an elite class of computer-literate sales people and their specialty store prices.

By 1984, about 4 million Commodore computers were in use around the world, and 300,000 more being sold per month. Commodore's leadership believed that market saturation was still a long way off, since only about 6% of U.S. households owned computers. This was far less than the 20-25% that owned video game machines during the peak of the home video game craze.

ChelseaFootball.jpg (20164 bytes)Tramiel Leaves

Tramiel had been known for his iron-fisted style of management. He was involved with every aspect of the company and anything or anyone he didn't like was changed or removed. This lead to a class action suit in November of 1983, which charged that Commodore failed to disclose information about its operations and did not build a strong management team.

"He destroyed me, he destroyed my family, he did all kinds of terrible things, but he gave me a chance to do something nobody else would give me necessarily. I can remember that and I thank him for it." -Commodore PET Engineer Chuck Peddle on founder Jack Tramiel in, "On the Edge: The Spectacular Rise and Fall of Commodore"

According to a statement released in January of 1984, Tramiel said, "personal reasons prevent my continuing on a full-time basis with Commodore." Irving Gould, a Canadian venture capitalist who supplied the company with $400,000 in exchange for 17% of the company and Tramiel's pledge of all receivables, recruited Marshall F. Smith from Thyssen-Bornemisza NV, a conglomerate based in the Netherlands Antilles to replace Tramiel.

At the time of Tramiel's departure, the home computer market was failing, causing Mattel and Coleco to leave the business. Another company that decided to leave the industry was Warner Communications, which sold Atari to the newly unemployed Tramiel for a pittance. Shortly thereafter, a stream of Commodore executives followed him.  Whatever happened to the Tramiels?


In an effort to make Commodore profitable, Smith took to downsizing, cutting the payroll by more than 45%. Though the company had an impressive $339 million in 1985 Holiday revenues, it made only $1 million for the quarter after paying off about 1/4 of its bank debt.

Commodore suffered through fiscal year 1985, losing $237 million, and getting into trouble with its creditors. The banks granted a much needed one-month extension on Commodore's loans, and, with the success of the company's second-best Holiday sales behind them, Commodore defied the gods of bankruptcy yet again.

The Rattigan Years

In March 1986, Thomas J. Rattigan replaced Smith as Commodore's CEO. Rattigan was hired in April of 1985 with the understanding that he would replace Smith, who remained on as a director. Rattigan's objective during the first few months of his leadership was clear - cut costs in order to stabilize Commodore's position, allowing it to rebuild. Once again, the payroll was trimmed from top to bottom, and three plants were closed in five months. New controls were added in the finance department to prevent the sloppy reporting that had undermined Smith's leadership.

Commodore continued to sell respectable numbers of its $150 C=64 throughout 1986. The Commodore 128, a successor to and more powerful machine than the C=64, was selling for $300 at the time, also helping to keep the company afloat.

Rattigan's policies worked. By March of 1987, Commodore had caught up on its loans and posted a $22 million earning in the quarter ending December 1986, It also had $46 million in the bank, the most cash since 1983, its most profitable year.

Commodore's next move was to release the Amiga line of home computers. Amiga was quickly dubbed the, "save-the-company machine."

i_love_commodore.jpg (16819 bytes)The post-Rattigan Years

On April 22, 1987, Rattigan was replaced by Chairman Irving Gould. It is unclear as to why Rattigan was replaced after turning the company around and posting $28 million in profits over the four quarters ending in March 1987. Rattigan himself claimed that he was forced out by Gould due to personality conflicts and that Gould was upset about Rattigan getting credit for the company's turnaround. Gould argued that the comeback in the U.S. was insufficient compared to its rebound in overseas markets, which accounted for 70% of its sales. In fact, despite its profitability, Commodore's U.S. revenues had declined by 54% in the same four quarters.

According to Gould's ideology, the North American operation was to be a sales and marketing extension of the company, rather than the unwieldy, semi-independent entity it had become. For the third time in Commodore's history, a new leader began his term at the helm by drastically downsizing. Under Gould's reign, the payroll was cut from 4,700 to 3,100, including half of the North American headquarters' corporate staff, and five plants were closed.

1994 - 95

On April 29, 1994, Commodore International announced that it had been unable to renegotiate terms of its outstanding loans and was closing down the business. The liquidation process lasted for months, owing largely to the far-reaching size of the corporation. In addition, the fact that the company was incorporated in the Bahamas while a large share of the creditors were from the United States made legal proceedings tense and drawn out. On April 20, 1995, almost a full year later, Commodore was sold to the German company ESCOM for approx. 10-25 million dollars. During the summer of 1996, ESCOM also fell into receivership.

As for the Amiga, production was resumed by a new subsidiary, Amiga Technologies. Petro Tyschtschenko, a former Commodore director, was recruited as president.

Like Tramiel, Tyschtschenko is an ambitious and impatient visionary. By the end of 1995, his fledgling division had produced and sold 20,000 Amiga 1200s in Europe. While Amiga initially focused on Europe, Tyschtschenko planned to aggressively enter the North American market in 1996 with the eagerly anticipated Power PC 604 based Amiga 4000 -- "Power Amiga."

Amiga Technologies sought to foster strong relationships with software developers and to be attentive to its user base. Tyschtschenko promised a full range of support, including on-line Internet services.

Apparently Amiga Technologies is still up in the air, and may be eventually sold -- again! So, only time will tell.


GATEWAY 2000 makes offer to buy Amiga Technologies; Tulip Computers acquires the Commodore brand.

2004 - present

Commodore International Corporation (OTC:CDRL), http://www.commodoreworld.com/
Commodore 64 DTV; eVIC; mPET; Navigator Combo (Winter CES 2006); on-line music sales

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References: [1] "The Story of the VIC by Michael S. Tomczyk, Product Marketing Manager, Commodore International," pp.3-10, "COMPUTE!’s First Book of VIC," Compute! Books (1982), ISBN 0-942386-07-8

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