Commodore: A Company on the Edge

Commodore: A Company on the Edge (2010) by Brian Bagnall is an enthralling account of the tumultuous times of the company that created the PET, VIC-20 and C64. It’s a rollicking account of how Commodore went into microcomputers, the people who made the machines and their creations. For anyone who remembers the 1980s the book provides insight into the company that produced what was, for millions of people, the first computer they had contact with.

Commodore started as a Portable Typewriter company by the Auschwitz survivor Jack Tramiel. Commodore moved into electronics and calculators. Commodore ran into trouble as Japanese firms undercut them and moved from typewriters to adding machines to calculators. They ran into trouble and were bailed out by Irving Gould, a Canadian businessman. After deciding they needed to have a chip manufacturer they bought MOS technologies and there Chuck Peddle designed the 6502 which was used by the Commodore PET, the VIC-20, the BBC Micro, the Apple II, the Atari 2600 and the Nintendo Computer family.

After Tramiel was offered to buy Apple by Steve Jobs he got Peddle to create a competitor which they did by creating the PET in 1977 in about 6 months. The PET went on to sell very well. The VIC-20 was then created in 1980 and then the C64 was released in 1982. Each machine undercut and outsold competitors including those from Apple. History tends to write more about survivors and Apple’s early inferior sales compared to Commodore is rarely described. The fact that Commodore built the chip that the Apple II was built on is not well known.

The book provides a remarkable insight into what happened in the early years at Commodore. Jack Tramiel and his ‘Jack Attacks’ where he yelled at others are quite incredible as is Tramiel’s tendency to sue, cheat and refuse to work with other companies. Peddle and others remarkable engineering talent in producing the 6502, PET, VIC-20 and C64 is well described. Tramiel’s firing or turning on his employees is also staggering. Even Peddle was pushed out by Tramiel.

The book is full of descriptions of the remarkable people who created so much at Commodore. It gives a real sense of the excitement and hard work there that produced incredible machines. The book has a bit of the feel of ‘Soul of a New Machine’.

The book stops as Tramiel is removed from the company and before the release of the remarkable Amiga computer.

The book crams a great deal into its pages. It is probably a bit too long for anyone who isn’t really interested in the creation of Commodore products. It does, however, provide a great in depth view of Commodore and shows the bias of the Accidental Empires, a book written by a former Apple employee. The book is well written and fun to read though. As well as a view of the remarkable people who created a revolutionary computer it provides a feel of the excitement that the machines created.

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