One morning, during the summer of a year I can’t remember, I recall my father walking into the house with a cardboard box full of wires and plastic. It’s a vague memory, and surprisingly so considering the amount of change it brought to my life in both the short and long terms. My mother might argue the point, but I feel it’s safe to say it was probably the biggest influence my father ever had on my future. Contained in that box was a used, bare-bones Commodore 64 computer that he’d found at a local yard sale while searching for valuable antiques to be resold at the family’s flea market booth.
The Commodore 64 rapidly became a defining element in my everyday life. Beginning with a simple bare-bones computer connected to a black and white television my father let me keep in my room, I gradually expanded the capability of it with a cassette tape unit for loading software. When tape fell out of favor, I managed to get a floppy drive of my very own. The eight-pound wonder of the Commodore 1541 felt like magic at the time, despite its lack of capacity or speed. But to me, it was the most high-tech toy I could have wanted… until I got my very first modem.
Designed in 1981 as a successor to the Commodore VIC-20 computer, the Commodore 64 (Colloquially the C64) was released to the public in early 1982 for the then shockingly low retail price of $595. Thanks to Commodore’s ownership of MOS Technologies, manufacturer of the CPU chip in the C64, production costs were incredibly low compared to other computers at the time. Selling a remarkable and record-setting 17 million units over its lifetime from 1982 until 1994, the system was a powerful direct competitor to the Apple II, and thanks to the estimated $135 cost of production it was able to drive many competing companies from the home computer market.
Technically, the Commodore 64 was highly advanced in comparison to many early computers of the day. Its 1Mhz processor, while slower than that in other computers such as the TI-99/4a, was still on par with the more common (and more expensive) Apple II series. Additionally, the C64 included advanced audio and graphics capabilities that could be displayed on a common black and white or color TV as opposed to the specialized displays most commonly seen in use with Apple computers.
My Commodore 64 really came into its own with the purchase of my first modem, the aptly and accurately named “64modem”, which was a 300 baud device that utilized the household phone line whenever I was able to wrangle up permission to use it. With my modem, I was able to connect to local Bulletin Board System services and engage in messaging and gaming with other computer hobbyists in the community. Eventually, my 300 baud modem gave way to a more modern 1200 baud modem, that promised (and delivered!) far faster access to the BBS systems I connected to for software and messaging.
I’d like to take a moment to compare rough estimates of the difference in the speeds which I’ve been describing thus far, in particular the speeds related to communications VIA a modem. A single “baud” may eventually have been capable of transmitting multiple bits of data, but in the early days it was a direct 1:1 correlation and this is how most consumer systems in the 300/1200/2400 baud era were rated.
Using this method, my current internet connection is 838,860 times faster than that original 300 baud link between my computer and a single, dedicated machine sitting across town. This is just one aspect of the progress that has been made in my 36 years.