Archive
Projects
About

See figure 1.

Retrocomputing and other indulgences.

The Commodore SuperPET: a timeline

Prehistory

October, 1977
After initially announcing it some 8 months earlier, Commodore International ships their first computer, the PET 2001. The 8k version sells for $795.
December, 1978
After a year, Commodore has sold approximately 4000 PETs in North America. At this point, the PET is the most successful of the initial wave of mass-market personal computers (Apple, Tandy, Commodore), both in terms of number of units sold and in overall revenue.1

April, 1979
At the Hannover Computer Faire (“Hannover Messe”) in West Germany, Commodore shows a variety of new, higher-end PET models and peripherals, including the 2040 dual disk drive. The long-awaited disk drive is faster, larger and more sophisticated than the comparable product from Apple, but costs more than twice as much ($1295 vs $495) and is a year late to market.

At the same show, Atari introduces their Atari 400 and 800 computers, and TI debuts the TI 99/4 personal computer.

 Commodore continues to enjoy success, particularly in Europe, but the colour capabilities of their competitors and retail presence of Apple and Tandy in North America are starting to erode their early lead.2

October 17, 1979
VisiCalc, the first spreadsheet program, is released for the Apple ][. It turns out to be an important driver of sales for that machine for the next two years, selling thousands of units of hardware just to run the software.3
late 1979
Science of Cambridge (headed by English inventor and entrepreneur Clive Sinclair) introduces the Sinclair ZX80, priced at £99. It is an immediate success, with eventual sales of about 50000 units.
April, 1980
Jack Tramiel and senior Commodore executives meet in London for a corporate planning session. Many of the leadership team feel that the company should continue to evolve the PET to focus on the business market. Tramiel disagrees; having seen the success of the Sinclair ZX80, and the results of some his other competitors in the lower end of the market, he declares that the company should aggressively pursue the home and consumer markets with low-priced products. 

This starts a battle within Commodore, which eventually leads to the ouster of several senior manager and engineers as Tramiel pursues the new strategy.4
May, 1980
Commodore introduces a variety of new high-end products, including CBM 4032 and 8032 computers and CBM 8050 dual disk drive, at Hannover Messe.5
June, 1980
The Computer Systems Group (“CSG”) at the University of Waterloo starts work on software for a 6801-based system for local terminal manufacturer Volker-Craig.6
June 15, 1980
Two barely-functional prototypes of consumer-focused personal computers are shown in private by Commodore at Summer CES. One of them (dubbed the “Micro-PET”) is chosen to go to production, and eventually becomes the VIC-20.7
September, 1980
CSG has their BASIC system running on the 6801 development board. IBM visits CSG, sees the 6801-based system, and wants to “buy” one. Since they can’t sell Volker-Craig’s hardware, CSG quickly decides to build a new 6809-based system to provide to IBM. Local engineer Jerry Krist is recruited to design and build the hardware.
late Sept, 1980
The VIC-1001 (Japanese version of the VIC-20) debuts at the Seibu Department Store in Tokyo.8
November 20, 1980
CSG and IBM sign a contract for the sale of the 6809-based system. The contract refers to the new machine as the “MICROWAT”.
December 1, 1980
Professor Wes Graham (head of CSG) decides that the MICROWAT might be useful as part of the undergraduate computing infrastructure at the University, and suggests that Waterloo fund and build 32 MICROWATs for use in the CS250 class the following fall. However, concerns about the ability of Krist and CSG to complete the machine in time are growing.
December 21, 1980
Worried that the MICROWAT won’t make the deadline, CSG contracts with local hardware manufacturer BMB CompuScience to produce a PET-based version of the MICROWAT design.
January 10, 1981
CSG proposes to the CS department that a 6809-equipped PET is the only solution that can be guaranteed for the fall. The department forms a committee, and decides that they prefer the MICROWAT despite the risks. The MICROWAT work continues.
January, 1981
The VIC-20 is made available for sale in the US, initially priced at $299 (later falling to $99).
February 4, 1981
CSG receives the prototype of the 6809-based PET board from BMB; CSG have dubbed this the “SuperPET”. Graham: “[I]t is immediately obvious that this is a possible solution for the CS250 course.”
February 13, 1981
Commodore offers to loan Waterloo 32 CBM 8032 machines for the fall. These would be equipped with BMB boards make them into SuperPETs.
February 16, 1981
Commodore executives visit CSG. They express interest in building the new hardware, but don’t think they can be in production for 6 to 12 months.
February 17, 1981
CSG concludes that MICROWAT won’t make the CS250 deadline. Work will continue on the MICROWAT, but the SuperPET will be used in the fall.
April 1, 1981
Commodore concludes a licensing agreement with CSG and BMB to build the “SuperPET”. 9

Announcement

April 8, 1981
Commodore introduces the “Micro-Mainframe” or “CBM 8032 Plus” at Hannover Messe.10
May, 1981
An editor’s note in COMPUTE! magazine announces the arrival of the new machine:

The machine’s true name is unknown at press time. It has been variously called: the “Mini-Frame”, the “Micro Mini-Frame”, the “Mini Main-Frame” and the “Micro Main-Frame”. […]

We received this information in a March 3 interview, but held off because of on-going “delicate negotiations”. These apparently over, “Super-PET” was introduced at the Hanover Faire in Germany during the first week of April. […]

The “delicate negotiations” were necessitated by the fact that all this expansion power was developed outside of Commodore. Bill McLean [sic.] and crew at BMB Compuscience in Canada were responsible for developing the hardware, and Waterloo University in Canada [sic.], developed the software. Commodore will be marketing the product worldwide. My thanks to Dr. Frank Winter at Sheraton College for his help in putting this all together.11

May 4-7, 1981
Commodore shows SuperPET in North America for the first time at the National Computer Conference in Chicago; production quantities are announced “to be available in the 4th quarter”.12
July, 1981
SuperPET Q&A in Commodore Interface magazine. Excerpts:



11. Who developed this truly unique microcomputer system?



The hardware implementation of the product was completed by BMB Compuscience and the software was developed by Waterloo Computing Systems, Limited. Both companies are located in Canada.



12. Exactly why was the SuperPET developed?



The University of Waterloo needed to unburden its large mainframe from a crunch of high volume users. There were no existing products that would be cost effective. By developing programs on a microcomputer and having the compatibility of running the same program on a suitably configured host mainframe, many of their educational problems could be solved.13

July, 1981
Commodore gives the University of Waterloo 35 pre-release SuperPETs, which are used to configure the first SuperPET-based student lab.14
August 12, 1981
IBM announces the IBM Personal Computer. Availability is scheduled for October, 1981
August, 1981
Joseph Ferrari (CBM Software Department) writes in The Transactor magazine (house publication of Commodore Canada) of testing and evaluating the “unreleased” SuperPET.15

In the Market

Sept, 1981
Commodore ships first SuperPET (implied by press release from July, 1982, see below). US pricing is $1695. The 8050 disk drive, effectively required to use the machine, also lists for $1695.
Sept, 1981
Comparable personal computers that are available at this time include:16
  • the Apple ][+ ($1530)

  • Apple III ($4340)

  • TRS 80 Model III ($999)

  • Radio Shack Color Computer ($399)

  • TI 99/4A ($525)

  • Atari 400 ($399) and 800 ($789)

  • Sinclair ZX80 ($199)

  • Osborne 1 ($1800)

  • HP 83 ($2250)

  • Xerox 820 ($2995)



(list prices)

October, 1981
Commodore shows the SuperPET at the Canadian Computer Show and Conference in Toronto:

“Exhibiting SuperPET, developed jointly by Commodore Business Machines, University of Waterloo and BMB CompuScience…”17

IBM shows their new Personal Computer at the same show.

November, 1981
Terry Wilkinson (WATCOM) and Bill MacLean (BMB CompuScience) publish articles in COMPUTE! magazine extolling the virtues of the SuperPET software and hardware.18
December 1981
PET Gazette column in COMPUTE! claims that the SuperPET has a 45 day lead time. Upgrade for 8032 owners is mentioned for the first time; available in early 1982 for “approximately $500”.19
January, 1982
Commodore-64 introduced at Winter CES.
March, 1982
Infosystems magazine carries an announcement that Waterloo Computing Systems Ltd. has introduced the microBASIC, microPASCAL, microFORTRAN and microAPL for the SuperPET, Northern Digital microWAT, and the Volker-Craig HITS 2900, 3900 and 4900 systems.20

(was VC part of NABU by this point? Other than a reference in the Waterloo Chronology, the HITS series of computers is obscure.)

April, 1982
In the first of a series of false starts, Commodore shows the CBM-II machines at Summer CES. They are periodically re-announced in various forms at trade shows until their eventual launch as the B-series in mid 1983. Despite some success in Europe (and particularly in West Germany, where they are manufactured), they fail in the marketplace.21
June, 1982
“COBOL should be available around the end of July, ’82. It will be made available FREE to all existing SuperPET owners and included with any new SuperPET deliveries.”22
28 July, 1982
IBM donates an array of equipment to the University of Waterloo, including a 4241 model II, two Series/1 model 4955, and 64 IBM PCs.23 


31 July, 1982
In a press release reprinted in Canadian Datasystems, Commodore claims to have sold 6444 SuperPETs between September 1st, 1981 and July 31st, 1982:24
  US       3067 
  Canada   2435
  Europe    539
  UK        398
  Japan       5
  

Other notes from the same article:

  • “…SuperPET was created in Canada jointly by Commodore Business Machines Ltd., Toronto, Waterloo Computing Systems Ltd, Waterloo, Ont., and BMB Compuscience Ltd., Milton, Ont. it is being marketed throughout the world by Commodore International.”

  • SuperPETs were initially assembled in Canada; production then moved to Santa Clara. After sales hardware and software support for the SuperPET was kept in Canada.


  • Canadian suggested retail price was $2795 (the $CAN was worth approximately $US 0.80 at the time, implying a price of over $US 2000)



August 1982
Terry Wilkinson, writing in Canadian Datasystems, discusses the genesis of HOSTCM.

“Since most large to medium size computers support ASCII-type terminals, the approach involved an RS232-C serial line from the micro to the mainframe. Host communications module (HOSTCM) is the interface program developed for the mainframe to service data management requests from the micro. This approach assisted programs on the microcomputer to access data files on the local disk or on a remote host with equal ease.

“SuperPET with disks and printers can support five languages and the editor with any connection to a remote computer. A SuperPET connected to a host computer might have no local devices and keep all its files on the host. It was clear that the combination would yield a powerful micro configuration with the ability to transfer information to and from the host machine.

“The IBM 370 and PDP 11 were capable of handling their part in the system. With previous knowledge of its construction, it was felt that the CBM8032 Commodore PET could be modified to do the job. Changes required were the conversion to the Motorola 6809 microprocessor chip, addition of more RAM and an RS232 serial interface. The team wanted to retain the 6502 processor and allow the machine to operate as a normal CBM8032, to preserve the ability to run existing packages for the 6502.

“The Waterloo designs were implemented by BMB CompuScience Ltd, Milton Ont., and developed into a working prototype with both MC6809 and MOS6502 microprocessors….”25

August, 1982
Commodore 64 available at retail for $595.
August, 1982
More than 2 years after the introduction of the machine, Byte Magazine reviews the CBM 8032.26 They never review the SuperPET.
September, 1982
Waterloo micro-languages are commercially available for the IBM PC; the release includes support for HOSTCM, but requires a “special” board for serial communications. The serial adapter is listed at $225, and the five language processors are bundled for $795.27

By March 1983, the requirement for the special “Waterloo” serial adapter is gone, but the marketing still touts host communications ability.28

Nov. 22, 1982
Infoworld notes the availability of the single-board CBM 8032 to SuperPET upgrade; it lists for $795.29
December, 1982
Commodore has shipped over 1M VIC-20s, and is shipping more than 9000/day at the peak of production.30

Decline

April 1983
Robert Baker, columnist for Kilobaud/Microcomputing, visits Wayne, PA offices of Commodore, and talks with Walter Kutz, SuperPET product manager; Kutz claims that “rumors of the demise of the SuperPET are untrue.”31
January, 1984
After a disagreement with the Chairman, Irving Gould, about succession and future directions for the company, Jack Tramiel resigns as CEO of Commodore.
Feb/March 1984
Commodore’s in-house magazine, Commodore: The Microcomputer Magazine features a full-page SuperPET ad.32 This is the last known Commodore print ad for the SuperPET.
late 1984
“1985 Complete Sourcebook of Personal Computing” lists the continuing commercial availablity of the SuperPET.33
Nov 1984
Last known price listing for the SuperPET in a major consumer magazine: Micro-Sys Distributors ad listing both the SuperPET ($1495) and the upgrade kit ($695).34
Feb 1985
TPUG announces the availability of their OS/9 port and associated MMU hardware for the SuperPET.35

A later article by the author of the port describes the origins of the project:


Another year passed, with very little professional software development done for the SuperPET. Only then did we become aware that Commodore had no intention of supporting the SuperPET, that WATCOM did not wish to add any new software to the list of existing programs, and that all other software manufacturers were busy writing programs for the newly-born Commodore 64. It became obvious that if TPUG, ISPUG (International SuperPET User Group) and the local SuperPET chapter did not do anything about this sad situation, the SuperPET (and most likely the PET 8032) would become a thing of the past.36



March(?), 1985
Commodore ends production of the CBM 8032, VIC-20, SuperPET, and Plus/4 as part of a larger consolidation.37
Jan/Feb 1986
Last mention of the SuperPET in any of Commodore’s in-house magazines.38
June/July 1986
The International SuperPET Users Group (ISPUG) ceases operations; final issue of the “SuperPET Gazette” published.39


  1. Brian Bagnall, Commodore: a company on the edge, (Winnipeg: Variant Press, 2010), p. 178.

  2. Bagnall, ch. 10-13.

  3. Richard P. Rumelt, VISICORP 1978-1984 (Revisited), p. 3-4, retrieved January 9, 2014.

  4. Bagnall, ch. 15.

  5. Bagnall, ch. 16.

  6. Unless otherwise noted, the Waterloo part of this chronology comes from J.W. Graham, “History of MICROWAT development”, UW Archives GA133, file 733.

  7. Bagnall, ch. 17.

  8. Bagnall, ch. 17.

  9. Ian McPhee, Letter to Dave Rosenwald, March 1, 1982, as found in UW Archives GA 133, file 1272.

  10. Bagnall, ch 33, p. 489.

  11. Robert Lock, ‘The Editor’s notes: Introducing “Super-PET”’, COMPUTE! The Journal for Progressive Computing, 3/5 (May, 1981), p. 6-8.

  12. Maggie Canon, “Addition to PET Menagerie”, Infoworld, The Newspaper for the Microcomputing Community, 3/11 (June 8, 1981), p. 1-3.

  13. “Q&A: SuperPET”, Commodore Interface, 2/2 (July 1981), p. 18-20.

  14. Harold Alkema and Kenneth McLaughlin, “PET/SuperPET” entry, Out of the Shadow of Orthodoxy: Waterloo@50 Chronology Glossary, (Waterloo: The University of Waterloo, 2007).

    See also the quote from Wes Graham in this Commodore brochure for the SuperPET.

  15. Joseph P. Ferrari, “A First Look at the SUPERPET”, The Transactor, 3/2 (August, 1981), p. 40-43.

  16. “Creative Computing Buyer’s Guide”, Creative Computing, 7/9 (September, 1981).

    See also Doll, “What Can You Buy for Under $1000”, same issue.

    Among other things, the entire issue is notable for the lack of any editorial mention of Commodore products other than the VIC-20.

  17. “Commodore Business Machines Ltd. Booth 1127, 1129, 1131, 1132”, Canadian Datasystems, October 1981, p. 174.

  18. Terry Wilkinson, “SuperPET’s Super Software”, COMPUTE! The Journal for Progressive Computing, 3/11 (November, 1981), p. 28-38.

    Bill MacLean, “SuperPET: A Preview”, same issue.

  19. “The PET Gazette: A Look At Superpet”, COMPUTE! The Journal for Progressive Computing, 3/12 (December, 1981), p. 130-132.

  20. “New Software Packages”, Infosystems, v. 29, n. 3 (March, 1982), p. 64.

  21. See Commodore B-Series Dawn.

  22. “Attention SuperPET RS232 Interfacers!”, The Transactor, 3/6 (June 1982), p. 6.

  23. University of Waterloo Special Collections. GA 133-1399. Wes Graham Fonds. Series 4.2 UW Post-1973 Files. Letter: 28 July 1982, From IBM to Prof. Wes Graham, pp. 1-2, 6.

  24. “SuperPET scores in world sales”, Canadian Datasystems, 14/10 (October 1982), p. 80.

  25. Terry Wilkinson, “Portable software runs micros and mainframes”, Canadian Datasystems, 14/8 (Aug. 1982), p. 57.

  26. Harold Dickeman, “The Commodore 8032 Business System”, Byte: the small systems journal, 7/8 (Aug 1982), p. 366.

  27. “PC Product Guide: Systems Software”, PC Magazine, 1/5 (Sept. 1982), p. 217.

  28. Stephen D. Lewis, “APL With A Canadian Accent”, PC Magazine, 1/11 (March 1983), p162.

  29. “Hardware News: new peripherals”, InfoWorld, The Newsweekly for Microcomputer Users, 4/46 (Nov 22, 1982), p. 65.

  30. Bagnall, p. 424.

  31. Robert W. Baker, “Pet-pourri: A Day In the Life”, Microcomputing, 7/7 (July, 1983), p. 10-18.

  32. “If you can’t decide which computer to get, get all of them.”, Commodore: the MicroComputer Magazine, 5/1 (Feb./March 1984), p. 84.

  33. Bowker, 1985 Complete Sourcebook of Personal Computing, (New York: R.R. Bowker, 1984). p. 11.

  34. Run, 1/11 (Nov. 1984), p. 117.

  35. TPUG Magazine, (Feb, 1985), p. 22, and Allison Cunliffe, “Computer club rescues Commodore model”, Toronto Star, 4 August 1985, p B5.



  36. Avy Moise, “The Revival of the SuperPET”, TPUG Magazine, (Nov. 1985), p. 28.

  37. “On the Wolves of the Press or, Good News is No News”, SuperPET Gazette, v 2, n 10, p 274. April/May 1986.

  38. Dick Barnes, “SuperPET Potpourri”, Commodore Microcomputer, 7/1 (Jan/Feb 1986), p. 93.

  39. “Gee, I Wish I’d Been Nicer to Aunt Tillie…”, SuperPET Gazette, 2/11 (June/July 1986), p. 303.

—   02 July 2013
(tags: SuperPET, retrocomputing)