On the Significant of General-Purpose Software

Destiny Hunter is a tribute to the pioneering year of 1977 that introduced the first 8-bit Personal Computer to the mass-consumer market, with an all-in-one general-purpose hardware (1MHz 6502, 40×25 screen, keyboard, RAM, cassette) and software (BASIC and ML monitor) solution for under $1000: the Commodore PET. Why this is important? Continue reading…


The “trinity” of Personal Computers “happened” at the end of 1977: Commodore PET, Tandy TRS-80, Apple ][. But these systems did not “just happen.” The device they had constructed represented the cumulation of many pioneers from the prior 50 years. Contemporaries in 1977 did not immediately realize the full impact of what had just been introduced to the world.

In the 1970s, “computers” were still massive machines, requiring a team of experts to use and multiple air conditionings to support. Those machines were neither general or personal, each being fairly specialized towards their intended purpose, and time-shared by specialist users. The few that did exist were guarded, not accessible to the general public, and so relatively few people had ever seen these “hulking giant” computers.

So what had happened? Software had become a new form of media, as a means to programmatically convey interactive “stories.” Not just calculations, but the systems were functional and robust enough to provide entertainment. Perhaps like the transition from essential stone tools for hunting, to the creation of leisure musical instruments. Computers just “computed” during their initial construction (1950s – 1960s). But once artists and content creators got their hands on a general software re-programmable computer, the world was never the same with the dawn of Digital Communication.

The concept was theorized in 1935 (Turing’s essay) but not realized until 1948 (University of Manchester): using binary encoded instructions to electronically compute an answer. Software, as a means for expressing algorithms, guided the space missions throughout the 1960s. But along the way, 1962 was another pioneering year: the use of software to produce an interactive-gaming experience (Spacewar), albeit a piece of software that only worked on maybe 25 computers in the world at most (but it was ported and cloned, the media still exists even now today). Then the early 1970s saw specialized hardware, essentially hard-wired to offer a single experience (such as Pong). But it was finally in 1977 that all the pieces came together to make an affordable, general-purpose programmable device that we came to call the Personal Computer.

That “generality” is the key. You can have software to sort information and calculate totals, or calculate the necessary thrust for controlled decent. Or, you can use the same hardware to run software that allows you to “paint” pictures. Then, you can animate those pictures, to tell a story. Then, you can monitor keyboard inputs, and coordinate a human-mind intention to interact with the story: move left, move right, fire now.

That potential is what the first Personal Computer represents. It took several years for clever people to recognize and capitalize on that potential. Not surprising, since it also did require some curiosity, reading manuals, understanding the system, and building intermediate tools to help construct larger software. But as of 1977, this was no longer done in closed special floor of some University: you could produce this Software in your home or office, right there on your desk.

What the hardware geniuses had integrated was a wonderful system. But to them, the utility of the system wasn’t necessarily what drove them to build. Truly, no one had any idea what the system could or would be used for. And that’s the 2nd page in the history of Software: from the theory of binary mathematics and logical expressions, and the creation of RAM to electronically maintain state-data, a whole new media was born: a digital personal experience that was never possible before 1977.

Consider this scenario: Running VisiCalc in the morning, printing invoices. Playing Solitaire on that same equipment mid-afternoon. Loading a music application that evening, again on the same equipment. Tomorrow, using VisiCalc again to check numbers. Mid-afternoon, running a new Flight Simulator. We take such experience for granted today, but that was absolutely brand new and revolutionary in 1977, with no equivalent parallel in life just a few years earlier. Yes, the initial capabilities were primitive, but software as a form of media had arrived.

An event as significant as the development of Writing itself, and the journey has just begun!

The Commodore PET was the first Personal Computer, a single-board all-in-one system, reliable enough to still be operating now over four decades later. And so this is why Destiny Hunter is dedicated as a tribute specifically to that system. The source code, however, is general enough to be portable to other systems, which represents the true power of Software — to express an intent in essentially mathematical terms, and have it realized for other people to experience on their systems.

Throughout the 1980s, there was often the question, “What is Software?” It’s a distinction that is never quite clear, as software ultimately relies on hardware in order to even exist. I view it similar to the early days of airplanes, “What is a Pilot?” Something, that the world at large hadn’t yet wrapped its head around.

My analogy is that hardware is like the streets of a city, they allow things to happen in a somewhat orderly fashion. But the bits, the cars, the information that travel on those streets, that’s software. Some hardware may have narrower streets that aren’t compatible with certain vehicles, like large buses. This represents the kind of incompatibility between software and hardware. But adjustments, one way or the other, can be made – an emulator can be made to function on some hardware, or the software can be reconfigured to be natively compatible with a piece of hardware. Complex software then becomes a “system within the system”, with layers of software assigned to specific tasks (“middle-ware”). But through all this, the Software Engineer is like an artist, and also like a musical director, orchestrating the system to efficiently and pleasantly provide a service, or a computation, or some desired form of an interactive experience.

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PART 2: On the significance of the Commodore PET

Despite the playful “PET” name, from the very beginning the Commodore was more oriented as a business machine. The “PET” name was more of an American-market gimmick, whereas in the European market the device was labeled CBM: Commodore Business Machine (this was also for legal reasons in that market, but the point remains: Commodore was focused on their target audience being educators, government/military, bankers, scientists, business managers). Those markets prefer “all in one” solutions for purchase orders, making the accounting easier. Meanwhile, Atari and Apple initially covered the “gaming market” (along with ColecoVision and IntelliVision), with devices that plugged into television (reducing their cost, but also they were not re-programmable).

Being business focused, specifically this meant Commodore had the superior Microsoft-derived BASIC that included the 9-digit floating point support. Out of the box, this facilitated financial (e.g. accounting, compound interest) and scientific software (e.g. quadratic equations, area functions). PETs were used in the early development of the General Dynamics F-16 Fighting Falcon!

In terms of bringing the “arcade game experience” home, the initial “2001 model” PET was not the Holy Grail system-of-choice for that purpose: no audio support, no vector or color graphics support, and a bizarre calculator-style keyboard. Still, the new Gold Rush for the Digital Age had begun, as technical-shops quickly realized the potential of this new software media.

The market need for the PET eventually ended within a few years, as the bulky size of the PET was no longer practical for shipping and servicing (not to the scale that the “computer industry” had then grown up into). The preference shifted to personal computers that could be connected to televisions (even though they had appalling video resolution, it was suitable to the performance of those early machines, and it kept costs down — appropriate compromises for small business owners). Commodore themselves transitioned to this style with the introduction of the Commodore VIC-20 and C64, which were a more “entertainment oriented” system that did offer color video (and standardized joystick ports).

The Commodore PET was the original pioneer to that “computer at home or in your office” concept, and the world was never the same since. The Commodore did offer a charismatic Character Set, which could be used to support a variety of “entertainment software” (games!), especially card games.

Another good reference on the history of the PET:
http://www.the8bitguy.com/4839/commodore-history-part-1-the-commodore-pet/

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