The first LowSpec Processor
San Francisco, 1975. The biggest electronic show of the year had just started and the crowd had already broken down into chaos. The culprit? A new product, that had promised the impossible. A processor so cheap that it could usher a new era for consumer technology. But what none of those excited attendees knew, was that this was but one step in a yearlong battle that a group of rebel engineers were fighting for the very soul of technology. And to prove that the future is LowSpec. And we’re still feeling the consequences of that fight today. This is that story. Brought to you by the CuriosityStream and Nebula bundle.
Our story starts with an unlikely hero, a certain young engineer from Maine, United States, currently going through a training program for General Electric. He may not know it yet, but he will touch the lives of millions of people, many of which will never know his name. For the moment, a more pressing issue is happening. The year was 1960, and one topic was dominating every part of United States culture: Spaaaaaceeee.
The Soviet Union had taken the world by surprise by launching their first artificial satellite, the result was a race between the world's biggest powers to conquer the stars. And nothing pours money into new technology than a rivalry between two nuclear capable superpowers. This was the world where Chuck suddenly found himself as a training engineer, designing tests and systems for missile and space vehicles. And this inevitably, got him in contact with the growing world of electronics. As he advanced on his engineering career, one trend was beginning to capture his attention. At the time, it was common for computers to be enormous room-sized systems that people would connect remotely on, but Chuck thought it was obvious that this model of centralized intelligence was flawed.
And a more ideal case would be distributed local intelligence, where every device was a computer of its own. Unfortunately, General Electric had decided to jump out of the computer business entirely, liquidating the entire section he worked on. Undeterred, he took the severance and decided to start his own company but Chuck quickly ran into the inevitable technological wall.
As much as electronics were progressing, it was still ridiculously complex to run the system he envisioned. The missing piece was some sort of central chip able to run programs, what we would call today a microprocessor. Without it, the idea will never work. There was no way he could develop something like that in his small company. And yet, this technology felt like the inevitable future. But of course, he was far from the first to realize this. And a number of companies were chasing the same technology for the same reason. Including: Motorola. Motorola was one of the many companies tremendously benefited from the cold war and the space race.
This iconic line that you probably have heard before was sent from the moon using a Motorola transponder. Tom Bennett, a Motorola designer, had started a project to create exactly what many had dreamed: a single chip capable of running custom instructions. Knowing of Chuck's failure to create his dream product, Tom made him an offer: come work with in Motorola and help me develop the technology that we both dream of. The result was the Motorola 6800 microprocessor. Which, will not be the first microprocessor.
Because in a completely different company, a completely different team, chasing a very similar idea had put out the first microprocessor: the intel 4004. The story of some of the people who worked on that is pretty freaking crazy and I already made a video about that, so I would just leave that in the corner. But this was still an entirely new category of product and if Motorola could catch up, they could essentially own a part of the duopoly for an entire industry. But the problem with an entirely new class of product is that it can be a bit tricky to sell. Chuck Peddle was mortified to discover that the marketing team for Motorola could not figure out a strategy on how to convince their clients to buy a 6800. In fact, they could barely understand what the product
was supposed to be themselves. And could rarely conceive use cases outside calculators. After many attempts to train the marketing department with absolutely no success, he came to a resolution. Fine... I'll do it myself. For almost six months, Chuck's job was to accompany the marketing guys into different companies and explain what a microprocessor was and what it could be used for. And quickly he discovered why
the marketing guys were having so much trouble. The 6800 was a $200 device and every time he reached the matter of pricing, the engineers of every company will visibly lose all the interest. So, as any good engineer does, Chuck worked on the problem. “Ok, okay, okay. Guys, I get it. Tell me what you all need.” “We need something cheaper man! The price you're asking for that is exorbitant” “Look, I get it. But it's expensive to add functionality for all of these instructions on one chip.
We have to make our money somewhere.” “We don't need all those fancy instructions; we will barely use all that.” And that was the light bulb moment he did not expect. At that moment Chuck realized that they had this whole thing wrong. Motorola had been so focused on including functionality in one chip, that what they had produced was a bloated expensive mess. It was time to start from the bottom. “Okay everyone, forget about the 6800 for a minute, all right? What do you need?” Company by company, Chuck started noticing a pattern. The instruction set the engineers actually needed for their products was always much smaller than he expected.
And engineers were perfectly willing to use several simpler instructions to make a complex functionality, rather than pay for a bloated processor. Determined, Chuck convinced some people on his team to start designing a new product. A microprocessor made to work on that reduced instruction set, that would be extremely affordable. The first LowSpec CPU, a microprocessor for every project. The product Motorola truly needed.
All he needed was the approval of his superiors in Motorola. This was a slam dunk of a product, so he had no doubt this would be easy. But this, would not be an interesting story if that wasn't the case. So, the marketing team Chuck traveled with, was not delighted at this “forget the 6800” skit. Repeatedly, they alerted their superiors that Chuck had been using their marketing trips to shoot down the 6800 rather than sell it. Chuck pleaded his case for a cheaper product alternative to a shockingly uninteresting executive team, they had bigger problems to attend to. The year was 1974. And the entire country economy was in crisis.
A series of unfortunate events, starting with an oil blockade, the cost of war and changes to the US currency; led to a shock that the semiconductor and entertainment industry was really feeling. Side note: yes, this is exactly the same economic crisis that I have mentioned for like three videos in a row. It was way more impactful than you would imagine. Anyway, Motorola executives were way too busy dealing with this recession. And the last thing they wanted was to make a cheaper processor with microscopic margins. Why in the world would people need a cheaper processor anyway? This was a product meant for cars, industry or business machines. The answer from Motorola was clear. Chuck received a letter demanding he stop all work on his cheap processor and stop competing with the 6800.
“Fine. I quit. I'm going to do it myself. Again.” With the company in disarray over changes during the crisis, Chuck was able to convince some of their best engineers to leave Motorola. Their objective was to find a company that could hire them to build their dream ultra-affordable processor. Most companies they reached out were afraid to anger Motorola by working directly with this renegade team. But eventually, there was one group desperate enough to hear them. A company they would change forever. Back when the pocket calculator was the hottest electronic gadget in the world, and companies like Texas Instruments were fabricating the chips that enabled those calculators, an entire micro industry of companies popped up that would buy those chips, design a calculator and sell it.
One of those companies was MOS Technology. Eventually, Texas Instruments realized they could cut the middleman, produce calculator themselves for cheaper and destroy the entire mini-industry. The few companies have survived this mini apocalypse did by finding other products to manufacture. MOS Technology was barely hanging on from the calculator apocalypse by making products for other companies such as Pong chip systems for Atari. Maybe it was this delicate position that made them, against all odds, accept this highly talented team of ex-Motorola engineers with their absolutely crazy plan of making a 25$ processor. Heck, MOS provided some of their own
critical engineer and layout design staff to finally get it done. Chuck team had one shot and they intended to use it. Pricing an integrated circuit in those days came down to a certain size on a certain fabrication process, they had a maximum dimension they needed to fit everything on. For this, they would pull from Chuck's conversations with engineers on what they actually needed.
And would limit the device on implementing the most essential of instructions. Working from these constraints turned out to be a magic formula and a fantastic design discipline. And not only did the design team managed to get it done on time, but the prototype worked on the first try. And their creation was ready for the big leagues. The first set of the chip was called: the 6501, a processor that fit into the exact same socket as the Motorola 6800. A device that would allow them to jump in and convince existing Motorola clients to switch to a cheaper option.
And a much-improved variant, with its own unique pinout: The MOS 6502. The microprocessor they wished they could have made in Motorola. The first LowSpec processor. But the best product of the world will die in obscurity, if no one knew it existed. And the team at MOS did not have the budget for some huge marketing campaign. But they had a plan, if people were going to find them, they needed to be strategic, they needed people to pay attention, they needed one big splash.
Are you tired of microprocessors costing hundreds of dollars? Wouldn't it be great to have a microprocessor on every device? Forget about Motorola, forget about Intel. The MOS 6501 microprocessor beats ‘em all. The MOS 6502 saves more money! You can get a 6501 for 20$! You can get a 6502 for 25$! And this is only the beginning. Don't miss MOS at Wescon. Try either product on Wescon75, booth 1010. Yep, these ads are real. It was a brilliant marketing plan. Western electronic show and convention, aka Wescon. For years this trade show has been one of the best places to announce new chips
and the perfect chance for MOS to make themselves known to the world. But, after they had run the ads and prepared their booth, MOS received notice from the Wescon organizers that it is forbidden to sell products directly at the show. The team at MOS had to come up with a last second adjustment. As the convention center opened its doors in September 1975, attendees rushed to the MOS booth. The buzz regarding this impossibly cheap microprocessor was palpable. And everyone wanted a piece of their action. After arriving, booth attendees were informed that MOS was indeed selling their microprocessors to anyone interested. And all they had to do,
was take one short bus from the convention at the civic center, to the Saint Francis Hotel, where MOS had set up a secondary booth. Soon, busses were overwhelmed with people asking if this was the right route to get to the Hotel. What awaiting them in the MacArthur suite was an impressive display that MOS had set up away from Wescon regulations. Rows of impressive demos, jars of fresh processors, a documentation desk manned by Shirley Peddle (who also happened to be Chuck's wife) selling all the manuals for shockingly low prices. Now, there were several marketing shenanigans at play here. Those jars full of chips? At least half of those were defective units from failed production runs.
But they needed to give the impression that they had perfected production at this point and boy did it work. Before long, their alternate booth was the talk at Wescon. Among the conference attendees was a duo of young men buying a copy of the documentation from Shirley. They were both called Steve, one Wozniak and one Jobs. Keep an eye out on this pair, they might go places.
After the show, the phone at MOS would not stop ringing. And Chuck Peddle was ready to talk them all. Hello hello, is the awesomely named Joe Dakota, he represents a company doing research for Atari. They are planning a new revolutionary product and they feel their MOS processor will be perfect for it. Atari! Freaking Atari! One of the most exciting and powerful consumer tech companies in the country, wanted to use their microprocessor. They had done it! The small company was now getting contracts from the big boys and was ready for the big leagues. But while they celebrated, miles away,
the Motorola executives plotted. They had been ignoring this irritating group of rebels for too long. And now, they were causing trouble. It was time they were taught a lesson. At the time, Atari was known as a powerhouse for Arcade and single game systems. But they had been secretly developing an exciting project. A console with games stored on ROM cartridges to take Atari into the home. Atari had been in negotiations with both Intel and Motorola to procure a microprocessor for their project. And had been shocked to discover just how expensive their products were. There was no way they
could make a mass market product with these prices. And then at WesCon, MOS had introduced exactly what they needed. The public announcement by Atari that they had gone to MOS for the project, felt like a bucket of icy water at Motorola. For them, MOS was nothing more than a gimmicky startup and they could not conceive that a company of the size of Atari would abandon their negotiations for them. Literally the next day after Atari makes the announcement, Motorola sues MOS. Claiming patent infringement
and misappropriation of trade secrets. And actually does an additional lawsuit to each of the engineers individually. In corporate culture, this is considered a dick move. Chuck Peddle was furious. He knew how this industry worked. He had explicitly instructed everyone in the team to throw away every material they had from Motorola. They didn't use it. They didn't need it. He knew what this was, this was Motorola pushing around the legal system to kill a smaller competitor.
But he did not copy anything. They had nothing on him. “Hey Chuck. Do you think this might be a problem?” “What the f*** is that?” “Ammm. I’m a layout engineer. These are the drawings I did while working on the 6800” “Did- did I not tell you to throw away everything that belong to Motorola??” “Oh. Oh, this, this is not Motorola’s stuff. I am an artist; this is my artwork… which happens to be the layout used by Motorola”
“YOU DENSE MOTHERF-” Over a million dollars in lawyer fees, 300.000$ in damages to Motorola and an order to stop production of the 6501 that used the Motorola socket. It was 1976 and MOS was broken again and hanging by a thread. Luckily, part of MOS strategy was to get Motorola to focus their rage on the 6501, leaving the 6502 with its unique socket still legally available for sale.
However, they were nearly out of money. They did have a big Atari contract on the way and the capacity to make the superior cheap microprocessor. All they needed was just one final miracle. And right as the year was coming to a close, an unexpected savior would show up at dawn... with some conditions. One of the many calculator companies that had been nearly drawn to bankruptcy when Texas Instruments decided to undercut all of its clients was known simply as Commodore. Led by polish immigrant called Jack Tramiel, when Texas Instruments started undercutting his company, he tried buying chips from their Japanese competitors and came back empty-handed. So, he had learned
a simple lesson from the Texas Instruments debacle: he who controls the silicon chips controls the universe. And with the creators of the hottest, cheapest microprocessor nearly bankrupt there was a perfect opportunity for Commodore to score a big win. Jack Tramiel had a reputation for being a shrewd and ruthless businessman, that could turn any circumstance into an advantage. The exact negotiating circumstances Jack used to acquire MOS are somewhere between reality and legend. But according to the research done in “Commodore a company on the edge” by Brian Bagnall, the most accepted story is interesting. MOS had supplied Commodore with a number of calculator chips and apparently a small bug had been discovered in a certain patch. While the problem was small,
Jack argued this was a major issue and refused to pay MOS from the order, starving them of vital cash they needed to cover their growing legal expenses. And right as the company reached desperation, Jack would kindly offer to forget everything about the defected chip and bail out the company from bankruptcy. And so, in 1976, Commodore acquired MOS for a scandalously low price. Commodore was now free to make its own calculator chips and compete again. But going back to such
a growingly outdated product felt like a step behind for many. Chuck was unhappy. Right before the lawsuit, he had been working on what he expected to be his next big thing: an official 6502 personal computer. Even as back as his time in General Motors, he observed how many engineers would become proficient using computers through BASIC, a high-level computer language that, for the time, was very simple to use. For most of these workers, they would write programs in huge computer mainframes owned by companies and universities. Now, right around that time, a cottage business of tiny companies creating kits for people to assemble their own computers was springing up around the world and mainly in the US. However, there were not a particular hit among
many of the engineers who had the programming skills to use computers but not the electronic skills to make their own computers, even from a kit. They wanted a product they could take home, plug in and make work. And while not exactly his original application idea, Chuck could perfectly see how the 6502 could enable this product. Sadly, with MOS now going to make calculator chips for Commodore, it seemed that Chuck once again had to leave a company to pursue his vision somewhere else. As Chuck packed his things and started sending his goodbyes in the lobby, he was intercepted by one of Commodore’s employees. It was very alarming that one of their best talents was jumping ship immediately after the purchase, so he immediately called Jack. Aware that this might be his last chance,
Chuck went for the hard sale. He went through his observations and experiences and pitched his deeply rooted belief that home computers were the next big thing for his chip. “A computer huh? Say Chuck, have you ever considered putting the energy towards calculators?” “With all due respect sir, calculators are on their way out. Texas Instruments has all the momentum, the Japanese keep making them cheaper and everyone in 10 years will have forgotten about calculators.
There's a revolution brewing right under your nose and you are about to miss out.” Jack could not help but smile. While he was still solidly convinced that more advanced calculators were the future of his company, Commodore had received a certain secret project to make a product for another company that sounded shockingly similar to this. And it seemed that he had found the perfect person to carry the project forward. Chuck's happiness to be back on the computer project was quickly overtaken by nerves. The secret project deadline for a prototype was basically months away.
There was no way to design a computer from scratch in time. But maybe he didn't have to. What if he could convince Jack to buy a company that almost already had one? Of all the companies making kits to build your own computer, there was one running in a garage that had caught Chuck's attention. Led by the very young man in glasses Chuck had noticed buying manuals during the original launch and his company weirdly called Apple Computers. Chuck had already briefly met the team at Apple Computers
during a short visit. What he found was a company made up of a tiny team that was led by the two Steves, Steve jobs and Steve Wozniak, making a computer kit they called the Apple 1. Steve jobs was not particularly good or smart about computers or electronics, Chuck words not mine, but seemed to have a good feel for what people will pay money for. Wozniak however,
was the complete opposite. Terrible with speaking, but with a good feeling for electronics and Chuck was delighted to offer his help and knowledge to get them to solve several of their issues with the chip. Their computer was a bit of a hack, but Chuck spent the afternoon helping Wozniak get the processor running. At the time he had thought nothing of it. Apple was one of the many computer kit companies. But shortly after Woz was already hard at work on a prototype for a fully ready plug-and-play computer called the Apple II, that also used a 6502. It was perfect. If Chuck could convince Jack to swoop in and buy this garage company, they could repurpose the Apple 2 for their secret project. Hopeful, a meeting was set between Jack Tramiel and Steve Jobs.
“Look man, you might be used to getting your way no matter what, but the price you're offering me is ridiculous.” “Ridiculous? Young man, I have been founding company since you were in diapers.” “Exactly, you're too old to realize what we're doing. We're doing art here”. Chuck would have been horrified, if he was not having his own clashes with Steve Wozniak, but this time of a technological nature. “BASIC? No- no, I don't want my computer to run BASIC, I wrote my own interpreter so people can write machine code.” “Look, if you want people to buy a computer you can't give them anything that complex.”
And on and on they argued. Up until his last interview around 2014, Chuck insisted Wozniak status as the inventor of the personal computer is absurd, since he did not seem to get what people actually wanted to buy. Damn, that must have been one hell of an argument for them to continue talking about it more than four decades later. Either way, the Apple deal was off before it even started.
With Apple out of the picture, they needed to move fast and eventually settle with buying a device developed by a friend of Chuck for apparently computerized sprinkle control, which they deemed they could adapt fast enough into a computer. Go figure. Time was running out, because the deadline for meeting the client of this project was right around the corner. And that client was a chain of stores you might have heard of before. RadioShack, a legendary electronic retailer that would sell anything from electronic components for hobbyists to radios. But RadioShack executives were worried that they were starting to be left behind by specialized stores selling computer kits.
John Roach, an executive on the company, was tasked with finding a way to get RadioShack back into the race. John had reached the same conclusion as Chuck. The future did not lay on computer kits to assemble, but on mass-produced computers ready to plug and play for the mass consumer.
But this was a sophisticated project that needed a technological partner to create it. So, they had reached out to Commodore to get it developed. Which had ignited this whole race. January 1977, CES show in... Chicago? That was the last time before they moved to Vegas, huh. The meeting with RadioShack initially started well. Roach was convinced enough by the prototype to approve things moving forward, but Jack... well, Jack always uses every opportunity to gain more leverage. “Say, John, if this project moves forward both companies stand to make a lot of money, wouldn’t you say? A computer in every RadioShack? How about we sweeten the deal a little bit?” “What do you have in mind?” “How about you have RadioShack make a larger order of Commodore calculators?” This was a miscalculation.
John Roach had already seen the writing on the wall for the calculator business and was only interested in the computers, but Jack was relentless. The deal was off. Worse even, RadioShack’s holding company would go on to produce the computer themselves. And inside it, was not a MOS 6502, but an entirely different inexpensive microcontroller built by a new company called Zilog, of which I dedicated the last video.
MOS was no longer the only LowSpec microprocessor game in town and if they were not careful, the revolution would start without them. After all the effort, all the struggle, it seemed like the project had been for nothing. Except, a miracle had happened. During this whole process, Commodore had intentionally leaked information and photos of the computer to a magazine, and immediately, Commodore’s stock prices had doubled. There was mass market demand for this thing. And so, to the relief of everyone, he allowed the project to move forward. Commodore would release the computer themselves. The first West Coast Computer Faire was set for April 16, 1977. And it would be a show that would indirectly change the world forever. The ready to use home computer for the masses was no longer a dream.
On one booth, the Apple II by Apple Computers. A revolutionary product that would propel Apple into a million-dollar company and create an entire game industry. On another booth, the Commodore PET, the first of many computers by Commodore. The home computer was here to stay. In June of that very same year,
Atari revealed the Atari 2600, the device that would create the idea of what a home video game console is. An idea that would persist to this day. And inside every one of these devices was a MOS 6502, the original LowSpec processor, the invention that helped bring technology to people.
Chuck Peddle and Commodore would continue to have fascinating stories in computers and video games, that would easily cover many other videos. But the story of how one team of engineers believed that simpler, cheaper technology was the road to advancement; is maybe something we should keep in mind even today. One extra piece of the story is, that in the process of getting this computer working, Chuck clashed horns with another computer legend at the time, the one and only, Bill Gates. And how Chuck would actually get Bill to make one of the biggest business mistakes of his whole career. So, that is the story that I have chosen this time for this month’s episode of SideQuest. SideQuest is a show where I explore tangential stories from these videos.
So, if the main video is about how the Nintendo DS was supposed to be vastly different device, the SideQuest episode is about the one Japanese company that glued together its own prototype to make a hit game. And SideQuest is only part of the exclusive high-quality content I am uploading to Nebula, a streaming service put together by creators for creators, so we can create our best content without dealing with the limitations of YouTube. And one of the secrets of Nebula´s incredible success has been just how cheap and easy we made it to get in. We have a bundle going with CuriosityStream, the internet's best service for documentaries and nonfiction content, so if you sign up to them using my link in the description or the button that will shortly appear on screen, you get a Nebula subscription thrown in for free. And an exclusive 26% discount on yearly plans. That means that you are paying a little over
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