Hall of Fame: Amiga 500, the computer that showed consoles how it's done

Part computer, part games console, entirely awesome. The Amiga 500 was the computer that was too cool for school work
Amiga 500

20 years since I last used an Amiga 500, the thing I still think about most is balls. Bouncing balls.

Your mate would turn up at your house after tea with a blue diskette in his blazer pocket. The label would be torn off and the legend “DEMO” scrawled across it. You’d slot the disk in and boot up. Moments (OK, several minutes) later, a cacophony of crunchy, 16-bit rave would be blasting from your speakers and, on screen, a chrome ball would be floating over a checkered board. 

You’d watch in silent awe, Space Dust crackling in your open mouth.

In the early years of home computing every wave of technology was its own mini-revolution. But there was one period that introduced more innovation than a dozen Apple keynote events.

Towards the end of the 1980s, after the Sinclair Spectrum but just before PCs became popular, it was the age of the Amiga.

Back to the Future

Amiga Logo

In 1982, three Florida dentists had US$7 million to invest. Video games were scorching hot at the time; the future of entertainment. 

They would provide the seed capital for David Morse, a former Marketing VP from Tonka Toys, and Atari alumni Jay Miner to start a new company to build a killer games console. It was a radical idea, but Miner’s ambitions went above and beyond.

“I had wanted for years to build a super personal computer based around the Motorola 68000,” Miner told Amiga User International in 1988. “Atari had turned me down and here was my big chance.”

Conveniently, Miner’s team neglected to tell their investors about this part of the plan.

Two years later, with the US$7 million spent and debts mounting, Amiga had a prototype codenamed “Lorraine” to show off at CES. Typical of engineering lead design, the Amiga architecture was all there, but the machine didn’t yet have a case. It was still a bunch a components laid out on plugboards.

But it worked. Miner’s team wrote a multi-tasking demo at the show, dubbed “Boing”. It displayed a 3D ball with real-time physics, bouncing on a grid. In 1984, it was the most advanced demonstration of graphics and processing capability on a system of its size. The show’s collective gobs were smacked.

The buzz created by “Boing” was too late for the dentists, though. In an extraction as brutal as any wisdom tooth removal, they pulled their funding. 

It was the best thing that could have happened for the Amiga 500. 

Commodore sails to the Rescue


“Commodore came along and bought Amiga and saved us,” Jay Miner told Amiga User International in 1988. “Commodore was very good in the beginning.”

Canadian company Commodore had a strong track record in home computing. According to RJ Mical, a lead software engineer at Amiga, the new owners invested US$27 million into R&D. Feeling flush, the team’s first step was to quickly polish up the Lorraine prototype, put it in a box and bring it to market as the Amiga 1000. That was done and dusted within 12 months.

The second step was to strip back and optimise the Amiga 1000, creating the compact home computer system Jay Miner had envisaged right from the beginning. Five years in the making, the first Amiga 500 shipped in 1987.

The Amiga 500 boasted a wedge-shaped design with an integrated keyboard. It was a popular form factor at the time, shared with contemporaries the Acorn Archimedes and the Atari ST. 

With an RF adaptor that enabled you to plug the machine into any telly, joystick ports at the back and an integrated floppy disk drive, the Amiga 500 was compact and lightweight enough to chuck in your school bag. Armed with a stack of contraband disks, cracked by pirate crews like RZR or Paradox, it was all you needed for a Saturday afternoon of black market gaming round your mate’s crib (actually, his bedroom).