My earliest memories of programming are directly related to the pain of not being able to save my work.
The first proper computer my family owned was a Commodore Vic-20. I guess my parents bought it in 1984 or 1985 but it might have been earlier. The Vic-20 came out years before but this was recession hit 80’s Ireland. I’m pretty sure the computer was bought in O’Callaghan’s shop, where the betting shop is now on Pembroke Street.
I remember copying a flying bird BASIC listing from the Vic-20 manual one school morning, and I think I made it fly left and right too. What made it stick in my mind was the anguish I felt because I couldn’t save it. We had a Vic-20 you see but we didn’t have a datasette that could record or play back data on cassette tapes. I left the machine on while I went to school which was risky because they had huge heavy power supplies that had a tendency to overheat (not that I knew that then!) Thankfully we did get a datasette later because I remember playing Wacky Waiters on it. Or it might have been some sort of interface that let me plug a regular cassette player into the Vic-20. Chip Electronics sold them in clear plastic bags I think. All a little hazy now unfortunately!
So, thanks to this site I was able to track down a scanned copy of the Vic-20 manual and immediately jumped to the Flying Birds bit. A little bit of rose tint nostalgia on a murky Friday evening almost 30 years later.
What got you into programming?
I have fond memories of the original 48K ZX Spectrum. Even though it had a tiny rubber keyboard it suited my much younger and smaller hands. I do recall the “Symbol Shift” key got stuck a few times making it hard to type in BASIC code but I guess I opened up the machine and cleaned the keyboard membrane when that happened.
On the off chance you haven’t read it yet there’s a great article on the Sir Clive Sinclair’s machine in the first issue of Retro Gamer that came free with the 100th.
At the time many 8 bit machines used tapes to load their software. Disks were a rare luxury. The loading sounds became so engrained in our minds that even now they’re recognisable and someone created an iOS app that recreates them. (Thanks Conor!)
Or the real thing. It takes a while …
Edit: Conor noticed that google.co.uk has a new Google Doodle for the day that’s in it:
I have a collection of around 300 Commodore 64 5 1/4 disks. They were last used around 1995 and were kept in an unheated, sometimes damp room in my family home. It’s not all bad, I kept them in proper disk boxes so the disks were mostly upright during that time and not horizontal and pressing down on each other. For a long time I wondered about transferring the disks to more permanent and modern media.
When I had an Amiga I joined it and the C64 together using some sort of serial cable and an ASM programme I painstakingly typed into my C64 from the Amiga. Then when PCs became popular I hooked my 1541-II disk drive to the parallel port of my 486 and transferred over some of my own demos but nothing else. Unfortunately with the passage of time parallel ports became as rare as the Dodo and more complicated cables are now required which discouraged me from trying to build them.
So I did a little shopping last month.
On Ebay France I found an old Commodore 1541-II disk drive in pristine condition. The Irish Ebay site was useless and I couldn’t find any local drives. I bought a Zoom Floppy from Jim Brain in the USA. That’s a USB interface you can use to connect the 1541 to a modern PC. You can use the ordinary IEC cable that came with the 1541 or a parallel port variant to “nibble copy” protected disks.
Shortly after ordering both of those I read this post saying it was too late to archive disks. The author, Jason Scott, warned that we had left it too long to move everything off old floppy disks and other magnetic media. Too much time had elapsed. The magnetic signature of the data would have degraded, the media dirty and unusable. I was worried.
Back in the day I had swapped disks with people all over Europe and further beyond. It was my first contact with people from Germany, Denmark, Poland, Belgium and elsewhere. Stuck on those disks were notes and personalised collections of demos and programmes that couldn’t be found online.
The disk drive arrived first, then a few days later the Zoom Floppy interface. Was it too late? Thankfully no.
I’ve transferred 243 disks now and I’m not finished yet. I couldn’t rescue all the disks I tried. In some the media had stuck to the outer covering. In others the magnetic media was so dirty it wasn’t readable. By the time I got to 180 double sided disks done the disk drive packed it in giving the ominous “74, DRIVE NOT READY” error. All it took was a swipe of an alcohol swab over the drive head and all was right with the world again. Then I retried one of Iain’s disks and it died again so that disk will remain uncopied! As luck would have it some of the disks that would inevitably fail were those I used often and had snippets of code, graphics or music on them! I guess less than 10% failed however which isn’t bad for 20 year old magnetic media.
After a number of failures I went searching online for disk images when I recognised directory listings. CSDB is invaluable, and the Binary Zone disks section lists all the disks they offered. I remember buying demos from there so it was great to get the disk images. I sent Kenz a PayPal donation to thank him for his efforts.
I found many interesting things, including stuff that isn’t online. Some of it I have to talk to a few people about but I found something called DMSREAD (and related utilities) for creating disk images. The nice thing about it was that it would break up the image into smaller files so you could squeeze in an extra disk at the end of a double sided disk. Very important when you had to pay postage! Nothing about the C64 version online that I can find.
Setting up the Zoom Floppy was easy. It comes with no documentation (beyond a copy of the GPL) but the xum1541 homepage has the required install files. I used CBMXfer and GUI4CBM4WIN, both frontends to the Open CBM library to read the disks.
Also read about Rob’s experiences with the Zoom Floppy. I definitely recommend it if you need to connect a Commodore drive to a modern PC!
Once I’m satisfied with my archive I’ll probably throw out the disks but can they be recycled? I presume so. I’ll miss them though. A directory listing of D64 images can’t hope to compete with the variety of disk covers and hand written labels!
This 5 years of my personal data amounted to less than 130MB of data. I’ll run through that amount of space today in half an hour of taking photos so I shudder to think how much storage I’ll need in another 20 years time. I use 1.6TB of the space on an external 2TB drive and I find that external USB drives fail every 2-3 years. I’m currently waiting on a new 2TB drive to replace two 1TB drives that died recently (they mirrored each other so no data lost, unless this 2TB drive dies. Gulp!) but I’ll probably go down the route of a gigabit network and a NAS when I can afford it. Any suggestions for a quiet NAS enclosure are more than welcome in the comments section please!
This isn’t the first time a Commodore 64 laptop has been made but it’s probably the coolest one. Commodore’s original SX 64 was built in 1984 and featured a tiny 5 inch CRT screen with a hardly portable body weighing in at 10kg!
I actually saw an SX 64 years ago in Cork Micro, the small computer shop run by the late Sean Bossang in Cork.
A couple of years ago there was the Picodore, a tiny little laptop built from the innards of a C64 DTV joystick. The keyboard’s a little small for my tastes though!
And finally, Benjamin has created a real, “normal sized” laptop from the motherboard of a C64C, the final version of the C64 built by Commodore.
It uses the original keyboard too, and “1541-III DTV” to emulate the original 1541 disk drive. This device takes FAT32 formatted SD cards so you can copy D64 images from your PC on to it, insert the card in the laptop and load them immediately. Judging by the movie below, he needs an Action Replay cartridge or something to speed up loading. The emulated drive emulates the slow loading of the original drive too well methinks.
Nice to see Thunderblade make an appearance. I’m sure I have the original C64 tape of that game around here somewhere..
More info on Ben’s post.