Once Upon a Time: Remembering Chuck Peddle

By Nils Dahl

Date: September 26, 2001

There is a man who did much for the computer industry. His name is Chuck Peddle. Probably not a familiar name to most people. Yet Chuck Peddle rightfully belongs on a pedestal higher than the ones we often see used for Steve Wozniak, Steve Jobs, and 'other well known individuals who will not be mentioned here'. How come?

Chuck Peddle. The first I heard of him was years ago. He was co-designer of a microprocessor. You likely have heard of this chip. The 6502 has a large place in computer history. Chuck also founded M.O.S. Technologies, the firm that made the 6502. He likely did some of the design work on the KIM-1. I'll check my set of manuals and see if his name appears. No, I am not selling them.

It is rumored that Chuck wanted to get into a computer business and approached two guys who were making hobbyist machines in a garage. But they said no and kept Apple for themselves. That worked out. So Chuck, needing something to do, approached a man who owned an office equipment repair company - Jack Tramiel. And Commodore computers were born.

Only a seasoned master designer could have produced the Commore concept. It was the first - and may be the only - true distributed processing system ever sold to the mass market. All components had their own programmable computer systems inside - and that included the floppy drive, hard drive, and printer. The bus linking the components was a serial form of IEE-488, a protocol that had long been a standard for interfacing. HP used it widely in its parallel form and may have also produced its own serial bus variant - HP1B. Not sure of that.

So here we had a toy store computer that was basically a scaled down minicomputer. The floppy and hard drives had their own file systems - with sequential, indexed sequential, and random access file formats supported. A slow serial bus can be very efficient when each device does almost all the work on its own. One could rather efficiently design and use a neat database system with very little code just because of the random access file mode. That played a major part in the PET point-of-sales system as well as in later boxes that did the same work.

And a few other companies liked the 6502. It became one of the most popular processors of all time. The other guys designed the Z80 and, possibly, instilled that famous paranoia in the guys they left behind at Intel. Zilog will also be remembered.

If the Commodore system had been just a bit easier to expand, it might have become the all time winner. And Chuck Peddle would be one of the legendary people whose name is still whispered with awe among us older people.

There is one reason for Commodore's failure in the marketplace. The design was far too sophisticated to be understood by most people. It was very poorly documented and almost never promoted properly. It was far from a throw-away cheap box but it looked like one. And nobody bothered to intelligently communicate its potential - in the USA. There was lots of very high quality support in Germany.

Today, remarkably similar serial interconnect technologies are common. ADB was supposed to be one such multi-drop serial bus. Usb certainly is such a concept. But long before those came along, Commodore had daisy-chained storage units (mix and match, more or less) that used individual ids and a very neat functionality.

There are still a multitude of direct descendants of the 6502 in use - most of them single-chip systems. So remember Chuck Peddle, the man who laid the foundation for many of the companies that exist today, both in the hardware and in the software sectors.

Just as a sidelight, the whole world of MIDI began when a ground of designers saw the potential of the Apple II and cooked up a digital interface on a card for that machine. That interface is still in use (mpu-401? - originally a Roland project). Whole worlds of technologies were based on Chuck's works - and on the wildly imaginative dreams that some geniuses made real using his little chip.

nils dahl
just an old man


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