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Chuck Peddle, UMaine grad whose invention paved the way for personal computing, dies at 82

Jason Scott | CC BY 2.0
Jason Scott | CC BY 2.0
Chuck Peddle

Charles “Chuck” Peddle, a 1959 graduate of the University of Maine’s engineering program whose 1975 invention of a microprocessor paved the way for the era of personal computing, died Dec. 15 at his home in California, according to an obituary his family shared with the Bangor Daily News. He was 82.

The University of Maine honored Peddle this spring with its Edward T. Bryand Engineering Award, on the 60th anniversary of his graduation from UMaine. The UMaine Alumni Association awarded him its Career Award, also in April.

“It was such an honor to meet Chuck Peddle when he returned to his alma mater this spring,” UMaine President Joan Ferrini-Mundy said. “His Maine roots and UMaine engineering education were the foundation for his truly inspirational career. His legendary vision, talent and entrepreneurial spirit changed our world. He was a personal computer pioneer and his legacy lives on.”

Peddle was born in Bangor and grew up in Augusta. After graduating from Cony High School, he enrolled at UMaine, unsure of what field to study. After enrolling in one of the school’s first-ever computer engineering classes, he quickly became a convert to the burgeoning field.

After graduating, Peddle served in the U.S. Marine Corps, and then worked for General Electric and Motorola before joining a small engineering firm, MOS Technologies, which was then purchased by Commodore Business Machines. There, Peddle and his team in 1975 invented the 6502, a microprocessor with a consumer price of just $25, far below the typical cost of a microprocessor in those days.

The 6502 attracted the attention of none other than Apple co-founders Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak, who were then members of the legendary Homebrew Computer Club in the area that is now known as Silicon Valley.

“Chuck Peddle’s contribution to the world goes much further than the start of personal computers, to countless embedded processor applications,” Wozniak told Maine Alumni Magazine earlier this year. “Chuck’s name is totally famous among techies who go back to the start of our modern tech life.”

Peddle’s 6502 drove the creation of the first widely used personal computers: the Commodore PET, which debuted in 1977; the Commodore VIC, launched in 1980; and the Commodore 64, which hit the market in 1982 and remains the best-selling computer of all time. The 6502 was later used in computers such as the Apple II and in the original Nintendo Entertainment System.

A famous anecdote in the computer industry is the story of how Peddle negotiated a deal with a young Bill Gates to use Gates’ programming language, BASIC, to power the Commodore PET. Gates agreed to a one-time, perpetual-use licensing fee for BASIC, which Gates later acknowledged was one of the worst deals of his long career.

Peddle was an early advocate for personal computing, and envisioned not just how indispensable computers would become in the lives of most people, but also foresaw the creation of the World Wide Web, and the ways in which computers could be used for education.

Peddle is survived by his partner of 35 years, Kathleen Shaeffer, and his six children, Debbie, Diana, Cheryl, Thomas, Robert and Vernon.

 

Correction: A previous version of this story misstated the name of the UMaine alumni organization that honored Chuck Peddle. It was the UMaine Alumni Association.

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