#241 – An Interview With Chuck Peddle – Charismatic Chipmaking Coryphaeus

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Chuck Peddle

Welcome Chuck Peddle, inventor of the 6502 and the father of the personal computer revolution!

  • A lot of Chuck’s timeline can be seen on the Commodore history site and on his wiki page
  • The 6502 was used in seminal personal computers like the PET, the Atari 2600, the original Nintendo, the C64 and the Apple II.
  • Chuck started thinking about distributed intelligence (vs centralized) with cash registers. In a similar manner, Exxon wanted centralized gas station payment terminals.
  • The early intelligent terminal systems used 8K shift registers from National Semiconductors.
  • Motorola started making high end controller chips for the Viatron CRT screens.
  • Intel was making the 4004 / 8008 for calculator chips.
  • Bennett was at Motorola making the 6800 and called Chuck (at GE) to come work with him on it.
  • They added the PIA – a universal I/O device (with Bill Mensch)
  • After the 6800 was threatened by a low cost device, they let Chuck go and he moved over to MOS technology (spelled out letter by letter) to start working on the 6502. The 6501 was a game – it was a version like the 6800 to help test out the market.
  • The VIA replaced PIA and the packaging went from ceramic to plastic to help save on cost. The price was $25 vs $300 (for the 6800).
  • They started selling them one at a time at a show (for $25). Steve Jobs came and bought one to start working on their first computer. Jobs/Woz had a contract with Atari to make a game. Chuck credits Breakout as the first non-violent video game.
  • The KIM-1 can be considered the first single board computer.
  • When the Apple-1 didn’t work, they asked Chuck to bring the development system and come help troubleshoot their system. 
  • Chuck bet Bill Gates in Albuquerque who made basic for 6502.
  • Started development on the Commodore PET, which was named to sound “friendly”. It also influenced the ascii standard. After the first 127 alpha numeric characters, there are a bunch of the PET drawing characters.
  • The PET had support for an IEEE-488 bus (HPIB/GPIB)
  • That year CES was in Chicago with a -50 windchill. It was so cold that Vegas came in and lobbied to move to their city (and it never came back to Chicago).
  • Adam Osborne book on how to get a CRT to work (also famous for “The Osborne Effect”).
  • In 1975 Commodore bought MOS technology, which was originally started by Allen Bradley.
  • Commodore gave up on calculator biz when TI sued for $1M and then the Japanese companies introduced low cost LCD calculators.
  • In the Computer Boutique at a Dallas show, they gave demos in a basement. They also took pre-orders for the PET for $550 a piece and there was a line out the door. 
  • Later that year, Radio Shack came out with the TRS-80. It failed because it was too low on memory and could only run TinyBasic. It used a Z80 processor instead of at 6502.
  • Tramiel offered to buy Apple but Markel had funded Apple so they turned it down.
  • Woz said users wanted to program assembly and he wrote a compiler called SWEET16, but that flopped. Eventually they licensed and put BASIC on the Apple machines. They paid a lot more than Commodore and Radio Shack paid double that when they finally extended their memory.
  • Clive Sinclair and his computing company debuted the ZX80 for $99.
  • Tramiel asked Chuck to design a machine to kill the Apple when they got a call from the Grass Valley Group, part of Atari.
  • When Chuck wanted to build an MSDOS machine with power, Tramiel fired him for it.  He started Sirius Systems Technology and with his team won “Computer of the year” four times.
  • Sylar, Stark and Patterson are all credited by Chuck as being crucial to getting computers off the ground. They worked with floppy disks, CRT screens and hard disks..
  • CP/M was the dominant operating system before DOS. For a while, Sirius shipped machines with both CP/M and MSDOS.
  • Chuck has a 1962 patent on hard drive zoning that is still referenced.
  • When Sirius included a 5 MB hard drive, Gates said he couldn’t do MS DOS on the new machine. Sirius did it and added it as a contribution to DOS (Dave thought it was v2). 
  • IBM had to redesign and came out with the XT.
  • These days Chuck has been working on new tech that uses not fully utilized DRAM or Flash die. They have a patent to pair up bad chips and make a good chip. Then they started buying bad silicon and repairing dram from Micron.
  • The real invention is taking bad flash and using it. You can view the patent hereThey are hoping this will provide super quick memory and low cost computing in the near future, especially on new platforms like Windows 10.
  • Dave pointed out that Win10 will be free to upgrade, even if it’s a pirated copy.
  • Chuck’s company has a factory in Sri Lanka, where they require high school education (at the country gov’t level) or else the parents get punished. This is similar to Singapore’s system.
  • Chcuk thinks that China will continue to up their innovativeness. He points to Lenovo, whose stated goal was to be innovators.
  • 3D printers and robots interest Chuck as new Macro trends.
  • The Computer History museum has a program where they record videos of industry experts called “Oral Histories” of Silicon Valley, including one of Chuck!
  • During a brief (and ill advised) stint at Apple, Chuck worked with Jobs on the Lisa.
  • The conversation about education led Chuck to talk about Apprenticeship and the need for skilled workers in the future.

Wowsa, that was another marathon show! How could we consider stopping though?

Many thanks to former guest Bil Herd for introducing us to Chuck!

Comments

  1. Dave says

    Great interview! I love hearing the stories. Was Chuck saying “computer illiterate” when he meant to say “computer literate”, or am I just totally confused?

    • says

      I…had a hard time understanding as well. I think he might have been saying it opposite to how I understand it, but it could have just been how he pronounced it.

  2. says

    When Chuck started talking about GE timeshare programs in BASIC it really hit home. I was a technician in 1979 in an inertial navigation lab and we were still running our data-reduction programs over a GE Timeshare link with a teletype. So one day they rolled in a HP 9845 that sat around for a while as they needed a programmer to translate the GE BASIC timeshare into the new machine. I offered to translate the programs for them and it was a turning point in my career.

    Ah BASIC. Great memories

  3. Viesturs says

    Absolutely amazing interview! One of the very best episodes so far, thanks guys!

    It is great that you are concentrating on having guests, especially people like Chuck with such vast experience and stories to tell.

    • Viesturs says

      Only, what was the China story?! How can one talk about freedom of information and telling the truth only to go off the microphone for a secret story telling the very next moment?

    • says

      It was interesting to hear them talk about the archived interviews that the Computer History Museum is doing, because all during the interview I was thinking that some day this (and other) episodes of TAH will be used for someone doing a biography or a history. Probably more than once. Archiving these interviews here is a service to the industry and to historians.

    • Paul says

      Your statement is flawed. I know of some master machinists who have died. You meant to say, “Not all master machinists have died.”

      However, it does appear to be dying art.

  4. Frank says

    Awesome! Thank you for not stopping Chuck at the 1 hour point! Great guest, great stories, great show! Love it!

  5. rasz_pl says

    Great show!

    ps: Really Chris? a dial tone? I hate you! :))))
    Story about China and telling the truth? There is a joke right there, everyone who did any business in Asia will know whats that all about.

  6. says

    I always get a bit of cognitive dissonance when you go on about 3D printing. Because there was a commercial one in the lab when I did my MSc in software for CAD/CAM/CAE in 1992, 3D printing is in my ‘pre-WWW technologies’ mental category along with MSDOS, CRTs, Walkmen and discrete transistor radios rather than being ‘the hot new thing’ you describe it as.

  7. John Man says

    Annoying Australian interrupted Chuck way too often to make this an enjoyable listen.

  8. says

    I very much enjoyed listening to this on my 56th Birthday yesterday. So as such, I was there, deep into S-100, CP/M, then the 8080 Bugbooks, then the KIM-1 at YSU where I was earning my EE degree. That was an exciting time, exiting the really boring 1970’s, and interviewing at Intel, HP, AMD, Moto, TI, etc. all because a handful of people like Chuck that started a fire that keeps on burning!

  9. Daryl Owen says

    Best 3 hrs of my life was spent listing to Chuck Peddle on this interview. Thanks guys!

  10. ludwig says

    loved the first 2 hours and 50 something minutes, and then i got my teeth kicked in.
    secret china story? my “beeeeeep”. doesnt make anyone look good.

  11. Jason Howard says

    I suspect the correct Grass Valley company should have been Cyan Engineering, instead of the Grass Valley Group. Both were located in Grass Valley, CA at the time period mentioned, but Cyan was a R&D arm of Atari. I ran across this short documentary about Cyan:

    • says

      Very interesting to hear his take on those times. I worked for Chuck at Sirius/Victor in their manufacturing design group in Scotts Valley. I built PCB burn-in ovens and remember Chuck standing up on a table talking to the entire company about a recent announced by IBM, something called the IBM PC. Of course the Sirius was a vastly superior machine (bitmapped 800×400 graphics display, voice CODEC, 1Mbyte variable speed floppies, dual booted CP/M-86 and MS-DOS.)

      I was in high school (Los Gatos High) at the time, programming in BASIC on the PET Commodore while my father was the CFO at Zilog on Bubb Road, next door to a small startup named Apple. A classmate of mine at Los Gatos was Bushnell’s daughter. I had grown frustrated programming in Forth on my HP 41CV and wanted a bigger computer I could write ASM and C on (teaching myself C using K&R) so I bought a Sirius/Victor 9000 and some Victor stock with my earnings from the summer job.

      It was a bad-ass machine and I used it throughout my undergraduate studies (Turbo-Pascal and Turbo-C FTW!) while my peers had their PCs, Osbornes, etc. My system was way better:

      http://oldcomputers.net/victor9000.html

      Ironically, I now live in Grass Valley. It really is a small world!

  12. Andy Smith says

    Listening to this whilst at work writing SQL queries and amazing coincidence it returned 6502 rows.

    Remember many hours spent on my BBC Master writing 6502 assembly.

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