Commodore VIC-20: My first computer.

My very first computer was a Commodore VIC-20. At the time, I think I was interested in a new video game system like an Intellivision. My dad suggested that, for about the same money, I could get a computer instead that would do more than just play games. (Second generation game systems like Intellivison or ColecoVision were around $200.)

My desired to get a home computer was also inspired by a guy I met in one of my 7th grade classes. My new friend, Jimmy J., had shared a book on BASIC computer programming with me. We would go down to a local Radio Shack and type in programs on their TRS-80 Model 3s.

My dad began researching options, and I did the same. I ended up choosing something called a VIC-20. I was disappointed when my dad told me he had chosen a different machine – something he called the Commodore. When I realized we were talking about the same machine, it seemed like the perfect choice.

The VIC-20 marketing campaign was “Why buy just a video game?” and “A real computer for the price of a toy.” This may have actually been what got my dad thinking about a home computer in the first place. It was described as “the wonder computer of the 1980s for under $300” and “the first honest-to-goodness full color computer you can buy for only $299.95”, or so claimed launch spokesman William “Captain Kirk” Shatner.

A TV commercial for it parodied the Intellivison and the Atari VCS ads with Shatner “beaming down” between the two saying “move over for my friend VIC”. How could you go wrong with the computer that the Captain of the U.S.S. Enterprise liked?

I received my new VIC-20 sometime in 1982. It was likely for my birthday in August.

I remember hooking it up to a small color TV I had, and staying up all night going through the manual and learning how to program “CBM BASIC V2” which had a whopping 3583 bytes of memory available. Since I had no way to save any programs I typed in, I had to leave the computer on all the time else I would lose all my work. The Commodore Dataset (their expensive and proprietary cassette player)  was about $75 at the time, and that was the first add-on I wanted. I still remember the problems I had with it, and that we had to exchange it at the store a few times (all with the same problem) until we figured out you just couldn’t use it on one side of the TV. There was too much electrical interference apparently.

Custom Programs Limited

My friend Jimmy also got his first computer around this time – a Timex Sinclair. Another friend of ours, whose name I forget, had access to TRS-80s at school. Somehow we got the idea that we could offer to create custom programs for people, and thus the idea of “Custom Programs Limited” was created.

CPU Software - my first "company" in 1982.

CPU Software – my first “company” in 1982.

Jimmy suggested we change it to “Unlimited” so the initials would be C.P.U. At the time, I don’t think I even knew the term “central processing unit.” And thus was born CPU Software.

I remember we came up with an idea for a horse racing game, and each of us created a version of it for our systems: VIC-20, TRS-80 and Timex Sinclair. I do not think we ever did much after that. We probably did not realize how big home computing would become. Had we seriously pursued this venture, maybe we could have all ended up rich and living on a private island somewhere.

I did write a series of games for the VIC-20, including one that was published in a newsletter called the VIC-NIC NEWS. I believe I was in the process of having some of my video games distributed through a cassette magazine called VIXEN (renamed to FOX 20 after their first issue), but I do not recall what happened with that. I know one of the programs they considered (Factory TNT, a graphically updated version of the one VIC-NIC published) they rejected after seeing my first version already published elsewhere.

I have created a special page listing more details about my VIC-20 programs.

Life After VIC

I think I only used the VIC for about a year. I had started frequenting a local Radio Shack store while my grandmother shopped next door. I was learning about their TRS-80 Color Computer. It wasn’t nearly as colorful as the VIC, but it had a better BASIC and much more RAM. I made friends with the workers there and they would let me hang out on Saturdays, writing programs or using their TRS-80 Model III and modem to dial in to local Houston bulletin board systems (BBS). I remember they would sometimes save off programs I wrote to cassette to use to demo the machine to other customers.

The salesman I interacted with most there was a man named Don Burr. He had a CoCo himself, and I remember the time he called me to tell me they had just gotten Extended Color BASIC in. He said I needed to come by and see all the new graphics and sound commands it had. When I did, seeing the ability to easily draw a LINE, CIRCLE or PLAY a musical note was magic. Everything on the VIC was done using POKE commands. (I did have the Super Expander cartridge that added similar commands to the VIC, but they were very slow and no one could run any programs you wrote unless they had the cartridge as well.)

Don was able to hook me up with a “CoCo” (expanded to 64K) for $300, and I moved on from the VIC. As part of the deal of getting me a new computer, I had to give all my old VIC hardware and software to my dad. I don’t know what he did with it after that. After that, until recently, I pretty much never looked back. Only with the discovery of my old VIC-20 games am I starting to understand how much I actually did with that machine.

Good times.

Up next: Dissecting some of my very first programs. Will I even remember how they work?

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