Commodore is beautiful

Boing Boing reader Byron shares this photograph of one of our ancestors in the National Museum of Scotland:

An old Commodore PET computer (complete with tape deck for loading and saving programme and a built in monitor). I think this model was the very first home computer (as we know them) that I ever saw, when I was a wee boy, late 1970s. My dad's friend was an amateur meteorologist, had a room full of (for the time) hi-tech equipment like a HAM radio, a print out that fed him data right from a weather satellite and the like. He got himself one of these and knowing I like science fiction he thought I'd like it so he got dad to bring me round. Two or three years late I'd have my own home computer, a Texas TI-99 4/a and I've pretty much had a computer of some sort right through till today.

Thanks for sharing it in the Boing Boing Flickr pool, Byron!


  1. I used one of these in a “using computers in the classroom” course I took in the late 80s. They were already terribly obsolete, but the state university had a classroom equipped with them. (There was an Altair and a Sol 20 tucked in cabinets in the same room. The latter was very classy . . . wooden side panels!)

    * * *
    I have a back-burner project, an INFORM text adventure game, set in a computer camp. One of the things the camper character can do to get points is find the PET Cemetary, where the camp dumped its Commodores when it moved up to Apple IIs.

    1. I have a back-burner project, an INFORM text adventure game, set in a computer camp.

      I hope that at some point in the game a hollow voice says “PLUGH”.

  2. I learnt BASIC on one of those; they were great [when the cassette deck worked] by the standards of the time.  Come to think of it, that must have been the first computer I ever played games on.

  3. That is the first personal computer that I ever used, at the public library. Taught myself BASIC, and made some sort of animation with the little cursor icons.
    It was all kinda downhill from there, straight to regsrvr32.exe….

  4. We had one of these in my second grade classroom back in the 80s. I think we only ever successfully got it to do anything once. I had a ’64 at home by that point, and was sort of ill-advisedly considered the local expert.

  5. I still have one of these packed away in a box somewhere – though the cassette deck is external on mine.   Seeing this makes me want to dig it out and see if I can get it working again.

    1. No. It was one of three (called the 1977 Trinity) that was introduced more-or-less at the same time: the Apple ][ and the TRS-80 were the others. All of them were finished products, although only the PET had a completely integrated system (the Apple and the TRS-80 had separate monitors and casette tape players for storage). 

  6. I had one of these that Commodore gave me when I was writing Commodore 64 Logo. We bought a Nicolet Paratronics 16-bit logic analyzer, and Commodore (MOS Technology) gave us a special 6510 they made with an extra pin giving the I/D line out. The analyzer read the bus and the pin the PET had a disassembler that Commodore wrote that decoded the instruction and data stream.  I could set breakpoints when a certain address was modified, and could set the breakpoint up to 256 instructions *before* the event happened.  It was de luxe debugging.

    1. Now i kinda miss the old connectors, where one could hook up all kinds of specialist gear to manipulate the internal workings in real-time.

    2. (Hi Leigh – I’m a former Andy diSessa student –very former)…

      I used this computer briefly in my first job, teaching math(s) in England in 1978-9. I remember the tape drive, and that some of the keys had symbols for the different card suits (hearts, spades, etc), the better to make cool typographical pictures, I guess…

  7. From the Caption – Boing Boing reader Byron shares this photograph of one of our ancestors in the National Museum of Scotland: 

    Xeni your ancestor was a computer?
    I know my ancestors were monkeys….

  8. It also appears in Star Trek II (it’s in the background in the birthday get-together at Kirk’s San Francisco condo).

  9. I remember we had one of these in our elementary school in Michigan. If you bumped it, it lost its memory which I think was a whole 4kb?
    It could play Lemonade Stand but this was pre-Oregon Trail iirc, at least I didn’t see that game until a couple years later on Apple II’s which were way more powerful.  I must  have used the PET around 78 or 79. If you played the tapes of the saved programs on a walkman, you could hear all the sounds of the data, which was surprising slow in retrospect.

    I think all the Commodores had the funky typographical symbols, I remember that later on a friend’s Vic 20.

  10. Oh man, what a rush – thank you for posting this! My very first computer, grade five.

    I took to it like anything. Would blow through the teacher’s programming task in 3 minutes flat, then would ask if I could fool around with it for the remainder of the half hour. I remember encountering GOTO when learning BASIC, and thinking – what would happen if I looped it back to the start? There’s no way that would work. Then watching in amazement as ‘I am cool’ painted the screen and started scrolling. Awesome!

    Then it was a TRS-80 color computer – my very first machine-language program, a few POKEs and an EXEC call, and I HAD ADDED TWO NUMBERS TOGETHER MYSTERIOUSLY. Then it was on to the Commodore 64, my other great love.

    But this started it all, for me. What an awesome little machine, I wish I had one now.

  11. Sorry, but the tape drive and keyboard were just epically horrid. Abysmally bad. The keytops break off easily, and they are blank plastic, with the labels being silvery paper stickers. The legends rub off very easily. In addition to all that, the keys are smaller than typical and crammed together in a weird layout. (Not that there was an ISO standard keyboard layout at the time, but just about everyone who saw the keyboard hated it.)

    It really makes sense why the Apple II was such a market force — it had an excellent keyboard, and the tape drive was, comparatively, not bad. Yes, it did cost more, but in that case, it’s pretty clear that the hardware was the reason. Commodore did have one very clever feature — they filled the “upper half” of the ASCII character set with graphical symbols. Thus, you could do surprisingly delightful graphic pictures very easily — just type the characters into a string and print the string. (Of course, there were only about 100 graphical characters, so what you could draw was limited.)

    Apple had the other approach — “color, hi res” graphics. You could actually set individual pixels, and there were literally thousands of them on the screen. The only problem with that was that, to keep costs reasonable, Woz designed the graphics driver to require very few components, and, as a result, your program had to do convoluted math to turn an X,Y location into a memory address. Further, the “color” part of the graphics was extremely weird — certain pixels could be green, certain could be purple, and to get, say, red, you had to set four pixels to the correct values.

    1. The Apple ][ didn’t even have “red” actually. The four available colors came from dividing the chroma wheel into four equal parts, so what you got were a yellowish-green, a sort of turquoise blue, a pinkish purple, and orange. You could make the orange look red by cranking the “hue” knob on your television, of course, but that affected all the other colors too.  It was just silly.

      We had PETs at my elementary school too, and they’re probably why I grew up such a loyal Commodore kid (VIC-20, C64, and Amiga 1000.)  Ah, nostalgia!

  12. What is even cooler is the prototype PET case which had a sleek rounded case here’s one here – the website mislabels it miserably.  The case is either wood or molded plastic. I’ve only heard of the rounded model(s) having a wood case though.  Commodore to save money opted to make folded steel cases via their office furnishing/file cabinet division, but much of the style was retained fortunately.  I’m such a big fan I’ve made a couple shirt designs with the PET: 

  13. The first computer my family owned was a PET 4032 that my mom used for her home business. The later PET models had much nicer, real keyboards.  The cassette deck was also external.

  14. This was the first computer I ever used, too.  There was one in my first grade classroom.  ’80/’81.  Mrs. Warner, Angel Elementary, Ann Arbor, MI.  We would play a terrible “game” on it, something about a teepee and maybe a ghost?  In second grade we had Miner–a great game–and Oregon Trail, but can’t recall if that was still a PET or not.  We definitely loaded them on a tape drive, but I recall it being external.  When I went across town to Wines Elementary for fourth grade, there was a lab of PETs in the library.  Always thought they were much more official-looking machines than their competitors, but was too young to understand that they sucked comparatively.

  15. Ah, nostalgia – a local computer store opened (these were really rare in England in 1978!) and had one of these in the window. Two or three years later my new school had a  lab with about half a dozen 4032 models (bigger monitor, proper keyboard) in a crude network, sharing the horribly clunky 5 1/4″ floppy drive. We also had an Apple II, with the whole lot being supplanted by BBC Model B micros around 1983. 

    I learned 6502 machine code on the PET: you had to hand-assemble it and bash it in as hex, although we later got an assembler program. What with everything being in ROM, if you crashed the machine you just rebooted. Then entered it all again, one byte at a time…

    What I don’t miss is Commodore’s almost insanely baroque disk OS. OPEN 1,8,15, “I1″…

  16. Keep all the outside styling, but replace the innards with a modern system. Add a color monitor and convert the tape deck to something that lets you stream cassette tape music over the internet. The mouse should be old, square and beige.

  17. I like the industrial minimalism of the mouse but it looks incredibly uncomfortable.  I had no idea there were wireless peripherals available back then.  Infrared maybe?  This PC was truly ahead of its time.

  18. I just rescued one of these north of Toronto, just like the photo.  

    Anyone interested?

    Will take a pic soon.

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