Ready. That’s what my Commodore VIC-20 told me every time I flipped it on. No “Press Ctrl+Alt+Del” or any other series of commands to get things moving. Just Ready. Ready for what seemed like the limitless possibility of high-tech adventure waiting at the first keystroke. A basic calculator purchased at the Dollar Store today likely has more computing power than my old Vic, the chunky pillow-sized box you had to plug into your television. Commodore has faded from the scene, its late founder Jack Tramiel, who passed away Sunday at the age of 83, hardly a household name with the recognition factor of Jobs or Gates. But for many of us who have grown up never knowing a world without computers as a part of regular life, the Commodore line was our gleaming key to the front door, an inexpensive welcome into the virtual world of ones and zeroes that has come to redefine history. It was ready, and so were we.
Pitched on television by none other than William Shatner, the VIC-20, introduced in 1980, was already obsolete when I unwrapped it one fateful Christmas morning three decades ago, but it cost half as much as its successor the 64. It came with a pair of game cartridges – a thinly disguised Pac-Man clone called “Cosmic Cruncher” and the frustrating “Jupiter Lander,” where the goal was to guide a collection of pixels roughly resembling the Apollo 11 lunar module across the uneven green blob of an alien world. I like many other youngsters of the era was more interested in the instruction booklet, because it included a tutorial on basic programming language, a rudimentary guide to getting your Vic to do anything. A handful of sample programs were included, my personal favourite being one that showed you how to animate a stick figure doing jumping jacks. 10 PRINT “\O/” was the first line and you can guess where it went from there. If you were really ambitious, you could get the jumping man to change colors too.
The most complicated program in the guide created a menu from which you could select one of three different dishes, the recipes for each you had painstakingly typed into the Vic’s memory, and these were the days when you couldn’t save anything. Unless you had the add-on cassette drive, which used audio tapes you hadn’t already turned into bootleg recordings of Thriller to store dozens of primitive games and anything else you could dream up to impress your friends. Can’t-miss cartoons of the day were swiftly forgotten, replaced by hours inputting commands to make the Vic do anything from drawing a happy face to calculating baseball statistics to asking trivia questions. You didn’t need a degree in coding to get the Vic to perform for you; a quick study through the manual was enough to get you going. In many ways its simplicity helped demystify and deprogram – pardon the pun – the idea of the cold, impenetrable, malevolent silicon intelligence of HAL 9000 and his cinematic siblings from the public consciousness. Now, anyone could figure these things out and make them dance. It made us feel in charge of our machines again.
Looking back the entire package was not much of a step up from punch cards and the telegraph, but that didn’t matter. What differentiated the Vic from its competitors was that with the Vic, you weren’t just playing in somebody else’s pre-designed sandbox, limited to discovering new ways to guide a frog across a highway or save a princess from an angry barrel-throwing monkey. The Vic was your sandbox – you were learning and creating. You were computing. You were laying the foundations of the next great evolution in human communication to come, even with the brown buttons and the beige box. The Vic, and its more successful cousin, the Commodore 64, gave you the ability to exercise the most important muscle of all – your imagination. All it asked was that you be ready, and at the appropriate time, type in RUN.