12 Things You Didn't Know About the Commodore Vic 20

Maximum PC Staff

Picture, if you will, the year 1981.  A year prior the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan; in 1981, the first Space Shuttle, Columbia, blasted off into orbit; a royal wedding, involving a Prince Charles and Diana Spencer, took place; MTV was born; personal/residential satellite dishes are approved by the FCC; the first HIV/AIDS deaths were reported; Pac Man is exported by Japan in a successful attempt to sabotage US worker productivity; President Ronald Regan is shot and takes his frustrations out on Libya, sending ships to the Gulf of Sidra to the outrage of “President” Colonel Momar Khadafi; and a small business machine company called Commodore introduced its second personal computer, the Vic 20, and a legend was born.

The Vic 20, even by 1981 standards, was very...underpowered.  Consider that the first IBM PCs also began shipping in 1981, and compare the two machines:

Vic 20
IBM Personal Computer 5150
5 Kb
16Kb, expandable to 64Kb
16 Kb
64 Kb
Commodore BASIC
MOS 6502A
Intel 8088
Math Co-Processor
None Intel 8087 (optional)
1.0227 MHz
4.77 MHz
Video Screen: 22 columns by 23 rows. Character dot matrix: 8 by 8 or 8 by 16 (User programmable). Screen dot matrix: 176 by 184 with up to 16 colors. Depends on installed Graphics card. Typically: Text mode 40 / 80 character X 40 lines) Graphic mode: Monochrome CGA was common (320 X 200 or 640 X 200)
Color Palette 16 Colors Monochromatic
Sound 3 + Noise
Price $300 $1,595 - $3,000

There were a couple things going for this little machine: it was small and plugged into a TV, and it was cheap and made personal computing accessible to nearly anyone.  As the Vic 20 was my first computer, this is my list of factoids that you may not have known about the venerable Vic 20.  Enjoy!

1. The VIC in VIC20 stood for Video Interface Chip, and was originally designed to be used in arcade gaming machines.  When no one wanted to buy the chip, Commodore engineers built a computer around the chip.

2. The ‘20’ in Vic20 is thought to have stood for several different things:
o    A reference to the 22 maximum characters per line on the screen
o    Or a reference to the maximum amount of memory the system had (5k + 16k = 21k)
o    But according to Michael Tomcyzk, an ex-Commodore employee, “it just sounded good.”

3. The Vic20 accomplished a number of ‘firsts’ in the computer industry:
o    It was the first computer to sell over 1 million units
o    It was the first home computer to sell for under $300
o    It then became the first colour home computer to sell for under $100
o    The VicModem was the first modem to sell for under $100, and the first modem to sell 1 million units.
o    It was the first computer K-Mart sold.
o    It was the first computer many consumers ‘upgraded’ from, when they bought the new Commodore 64.

4. For many geeks, it was their first computer.  On this esteemed list include the likes of Linus Torvalds, and MPC’ers Gordon Mah Ung and EIC George Jones.  Mr. Torvalds had this to say about his Vic 20:

“The VIC-20 was indeed my first computer. It's a long time ago, so I won't say I
remember what my first program I wrote was, but I assume it was the same old

20 GOTO 10

that everybody wrote in BASIC ;)”

He goes on to say that playing the game Money Money, which displayed machine-code ‘flakes’ on the side, made him realize that there was something behind BASIC and that realization, amongst other factors, led him to begin programming in machine language on the Vic20.

5. In Germany, the Vic20 was sold as the VC20, a play on a popular Volkswagen brand. This was also done for practical reasons, as the German pronunciation of “Vic” sounded an awful lot like the German pronunciation of “f*ck”

6. William Shatner was hired to be the official spokesperson for the Vic 20, and from there, went on to champion numerous other products like Priceline, Loblaw’s here in Canada, World of Warcraft, and of course, became the champion of colonary regularity with Kellogg’s Bran Flakes.

7. The amount of free memory on the Vic 20 (3583 bytes) is roughly the equivalent number of characters on a typed sheet of paper.

Despite the Commodore 64 being the far more powerful computer, the Vic20 was still a popular seller, due to its very low price, $595 vs. >$300

9. Commodore sold memory expansion cartridges of 3K, 8K, and 16K. 32K and 64K were also available, but from 3rd party resellers for the low,low price of $149 for 64K!

BBS services such as CompuServe could be accessed with the Vic20

The Vic20 was popular not just because it was cheap, but because its cartridge system gave it a plug and play usability which was infinitely faster than loading software from the tape drive.

12. Yes, it used a tape drive. Nothing said slow like waiting for Moon Patrol to load up to play.

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