Books You Should Read: Bil Herd’s Back Into The Storm

It’s a morning ritual that we guess most of you share with us; before whatever work a new day will bring to sit down with a coffee and catch up with the tech news of the moment on Hackaday and other sites. Most of us don’t do many exciting things in our everyday lives, so reading about the coolest projects and the most fascinating new developments provides us with interest and motivation. Imagine just for a moment then that by a twist of fate you found yourself taking a job at the epicentre of the tech that is changing the world,  producing the objects of desire and pushing the boundaries, the place you’d give anything to work at.

This is the premise behind our Hackaday colleague Bil Herd’s autobiographical chronicle of time in the mid 1980s during which he worked at Commodore, maker of some of the most iconic home computers of the day. We follow him through the three years from 1983 to 1986 as hardware lead on the “TED” series of computers including the Commodore 16 and Plus/4, and then the Commodore 128, a dual-processor powerhouse which was arguably the last of the big-selling 8-bit home computers.

It’s an intertwined set of narratives peppered with personal anecdotes; of the slightly crazy high-pressure world of consumer videogames and computing, the fine details of designing a range of 8-bit machines, and a fascinating insight into how the culture at Commodore changed in the period following the departure of its founder Jack Tramiel.

Jack Tramiel’s Vision For A Low-Cost Computer

TED and processor chips on a Commodore 16 motherboard
TED and processor chips on a Commodore 16 motherboard. CommodoreFriend, CC BY-SA 4.0.

Looking at the 8-bit computers of the early 1980s from our lofty perch here in 2021 it’s tempting to believe that all the machines with similar processors were equivalent to each other and in direct competition, but in Bil’s description of the landscape from which Jack Tramiel had conceived what would become the TED computers lies a reminder that the market was very much stratified. Processors such as the MOS 6502 and Zilog Z80 may have been at the heart of so many machines of the day, but their market positions depended so much more on the capabilities of their inbuilt video and sound hardware and other peripherals than it did on the microprocessor. Commodore had a runaway success story in the Commodore 64 as a premium gaming computer at the more expensive end of the market, but lacked an effective product to head off the threat from the much cheaper and less-well-specified Sinclair Spectrum at the lower end.

Tramiel’s vision was for a new architecture surrounding the 6502 that would integrate less capable video and sound into the TED, a much cheaper single chip perhaps analogous to the Sinclair’s Ferranti ULA, and simultaneously see off the competition for low-priced gaming hardware and open up an entirely new market for a budget business computer. The TED machines would be available in a three-model range starting at $49 and going up to a fully-fledged business desktop with a numerical keypad and a talking GUI.

Bil Herd speaks with Jack Tramiel at the 25th Anniversary of the Commodore 64.
Bil Herd speaks with Jack Tramiel at the 25th Anniversary of the Commodore 64. Babylon4 CC BY-SA 3.0.

Bil describes the early TED period at Commodore as his “happy time”, and reading his account of a twenty-something hardware engineer catapulted into the position of bringing a new Commodore computer to life, it’s not difficult to see why. The tone changes over the book as the culture of the company shifted following the departure of Jack Tramiel, and for those of us who witnessed the catastrophic final years of the company through the lens of Amiga fandom it’s a glimpse into the roots of the company’s ultimate decline. He provides a candid look at Jack Tramiel’s management style from the viewpoint of someone who was really there rather than through heresay, and from that we gain a sense of how Commodore became the success story that it did.

Reading the book I’m left with the sense that we’ll never hear the true details surrounding his departure from the company he founded and subsequent piloting of Atari, so students of the later years of the home computer era will have to accept disappointment on that front. The book provides a personal view of how during this period without the founder’s vision the company fell under the spell of its marketing department, and the TED computers never appeared in the forms or at the price points which they deserved.

The Last Of The Great 8-Bit Computers

Bil Herd's prototype Commodore LCD portable machine.
Bil Herd’s prototype Commodore LCD portable machine. Bil Herd

The first half of the book takes us from 1983 through 1984 and the genesis of the TED computers, then through a short interlude with the ill-fated LCD machine. The second half follows the development of the Commodore 128 up to its debut at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in 1985. This machine was the last new 8-bit mass-produced home computer platform to be released by a major manufacturer, and the tale of its development is particularly interesting because, despite Bil and his colleagues pushing at the edge of what was possible with 6502-derived parts, he describes it in such a way as to make it readily comprehensible to readers here in 2021. In some cases he’s doing things that would be relatively easy with modern test equipment but were extra-hard in the 1980s, such as when he uses persistence of vision and an analogue ‘scope to spot a transitory echo on a PCB line. This feat resulted in the bodge wire that adorns every single Commodore 128 board. The electronic engineer’s craft demonstrated in these pages as he solves bugs in custom silicon should make this book required reading for any electronics student aside from the retrocomputing angle.

The Commodore 128.
The Commodore 128. Ismael Olea, CC BY-SA 2.0.

The Commodore 128 with its two different microprocessors and three different operating environments comes through as an engineer’s machine — designed despite the work of the marketeers rather than because of them. He describes quietly not implementing a request for a proprietary video connector that wouldn’t work with non-Commodore monitors because it would have compromised the final machine, and this is one of many running battles that were fought to deliver the best product that could be made. The thought of what might have been is a theme that pervades Commodore fandom, and here we see that the engineers were on “our” side, that of the customer rather than with those in the company who seemingly had little idea about the end users. One of the saddest parts of the story concerns the number of machines that the company developed and then never released; we mentioned the unreleased TED computers and the LCD machine above but he also makes reference to entire ranges of business machines that never saw the light of day. The Commodore story might still have ended in the 1990s had more of them been put on the market, but there’s a vast sense of waste that such poor decisions were made about such promising hardware.

Reading the book as someone with a background in the computer game business during the following decade I immediately recognise the combination of bad management, very bright teams, a frenetic atmosphere, and extremely high pressure surrounding the industry’s trade shows. It’s a world that can deliver a huge buzz at the expense of fast burnout for those who aren’t careful, and Bil’s comments about seeking the adrenaline fix continuing after he left Commodore in early 1986 ring true. I was riveted by this book and have read it again more than once during the writing of this article. I wasn’t the only one here at Hackaday who bought a copy as soon as it came out, and I can only suggest that you find yourself a copy too.

Back into the Storm: A Design Engineer’s Story of Commodore Computers in the 1980s, by Bil Herd with Margaret Morabito, can be found for sale through Amazon, at $19.96 on the Kindle and $24.99 for a physical edition.