Sunday, July 1, 2018

[YouTube] Commodore VICMODEM

Commodore released the VICMODEM (Commodore goes all caps so I'll stick with it) in March 1982 for its VIC-20 computer, though it also works on the Commodore 64 (C64) and 128. The VIC-20 launched in 1981 for $299 and the manual states that with the modem the two combined cost under $410 so my best guess is the modem retailed for approximately $110. While other modems certainly existed at the time, it was still new technology for most home computer users. This modem varies from later dial-up modems that would have the phone plug into it and then another cable would run from the modem to the jack. For the VICMODEM, users must disconnect the line from the telephone handset and plug that into the single port. The maximum baud rate of the modem is 300 bps (bits per second). If I understand all of this correctly, a 28.8 Kbps modem -- common in the '90s and what I used when I first played Starsiege: Tribes in 1999 -- is about 100 times faster than a 300 baud modem. Broadband speeds vary but if you aren't familiar with the speeds of modems before broadband, figure a cable modem is 35,000 times faster than the VICMODEM.


Packaged with the modem was a cassette tape containing software for the VIC-20 computer on one side and the C64 on the other, and a free subscription to CompuServe. CompuServe was an early online service founded in 1969 and later owned by H&R Block. The free subscription only included one hour on its information service, though apparently using other features, such as Commodore's network, were not part of that hour. I've never used it but I believe it was comparable to America Online which I expect is far better known. I do have a variety of ads for CompuServe that I'll post to Flickr after I get through all of the game ads. There were a number of activities that the service could be used for, all things that can be accomplished on today's Internet: invest, shop, use forums, book flights, read news, etc.

I've mentioned in the past that I inherited my C64 and the modem came with it. Otherwise, I don't expect I would have even known modems existed at the time. What I did with the modem was connect directly to terminals run by other home users. People would essentially host a server, or bulletin board as they are often called, that users would call through their phone line and once connected they could access what the host provided. That could be message boards, software to download, or an online game to play. The only game I can recall was named Empire (I think!) where players attacked and defended a kingdom. It was completely text and turn-based as players would select what to do with their troops, log off, then log back in later to see what happened. So who were these people hosting servers? They could really be anybody but the majority I was calling were probably high school kids using their parent's phone. In fact, sometimes when I'd call an adult would answer rather than a computer and I'd hang up immediately, of course.


Since the modem worked like a phone, calling far away would result in a long distance charge and therefore I was calling numbers of nearby locations in Connecticut. I think I was using the modem around 1987 when I would have been 12 and it would have been my neighbor who was in high school at the time that was able to provide some numbers to call. Each host would provide a name for their site and I still have a list of 23 of the hosts I'd call when I was a kid. Some names aren't very creative, such as Paradise, Country Club, and Flipside. Others are a little more fun, like Paisley Socks, Metal Mansion, Midnight Express, and The Phantom's Opera House. Then it was likely the cool nerds with the names Thunderdome, Xanadu, Excalibur, and Demon's Domain III.

It's amazing to see where we are today when it comes to technology. For myself and likely everyone else interested in gaming, it's really been a lot of fun to be able to experience the significant growth of computers and gaming over the past four decades. For those that were born in the past 20 years, it's likely a bit difficult to understand just how slow modems were at one time and appreciate where we're at today. Though most houses have phone jacks, I'm not even sure if today's kids would know how an old telephone functions. I wish I could have demonstrated how this works but with my C64 out of commission and the fact that I don't have a phone or a landline, and there wouldn't be an active server to call either, I'm not sure if it's possible to get it to make noise. My photos lack a phone too but I do still have a phone handset cord so I added that to a few. I've got scans of much of the paperwork as well, though I only scanned the cover and first few pages of the 24-page manual since those are the most entertaining.









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