as recalled by Eddy Carroll, August 1995

Once Upon A Time...

"I'M STARTING a club for Commodore computers, and I think you'll find it interesting." It was a warm May evening in 1983, and the voice on the phone was Eddy Evers, a dutch educator who was teaching in Ireland at the time.

I had met Eddy the previous July, at a computer summer camp he organised in Willow Park School. The computers used were VIC-20's, which suited me nicely, as I'd been programming my own VIC-20 for the past six months. I soon progressed from BASIC to assembly language, and must have made an impression, since here I was being invited to the inaugral meeting of a new user group.

I persuaded Geoffrey Reeves, the computer science teacher at my school, to come along too. St Andrew's had several Commodore PETs, and I reckoned it would be no harm to have a familiar face on hand.

As well as phoning around, Eddy had also written to one of the local newspapers, inviting anyone interested to come along. And so it was that nine of us came to be seated around a table in Willow Park, a few evenings later, none of us quite sure what to expect, but all sharing a common interest in Commodore hardware.

Other users at that first meeting were Liam Murphy, Stephen Kemp, Ian Mellor, and John White. Regrettably, the names of the remaining founders have been lost in the mists of time. Nevertheless, there was obviously interest in the idea, and we quickly decided on the goals of the group. Eddy Evers was proposed as the first chairman, while Geoff took on responsibility as Software Librarian. After some discussion, we decided to meet every second Friday, with the committee meeting on alternate Thursdays, a tradition that remained up until last October.

It quickly became apparent that the initial membership represented quite a wide range of expertise and talent. PETs, VICs and C64s were all represented, and several of the members had significant hardware design experience those were the days when owning a computer was a rather strange and unusual thing, and many owners came from a technical background. The average age of CUGI members at this time was over 30.

The Wonder Years

During its formative years, CUGI quickly attracted many enthusiastic members. An unexpected piece of luck was the availability of cheap 5.25" floppy disks direct from disk manufacturer Memorex, thanks to Liam Murphy, who worked there, and was able to negotiate a special rate for club members. At a time when floppy disks were selling for 4 each, or 33 for a box of 10, a price of 1 per disk certainly helped CUGI to attract new users!

The format of early club meetings was quite similar to those of the current day typically, several items would be presented in turn, interspersed with snippets of news and rumours, along with questions. One big difference was that it was the rule, rather than the exception, for non-committee members to get up and give a presentation!

In the early 80's, there was much to get excited about in computers; I still remember the thrill caused by Commodore's International Soccer cartridge for the C64, the night it was demonstrated at CUGI, and the fun we had hacking into the code to change the names on the team jerseys! The arrival of 1.5 Minute Backup for Commodore's 1541 disk drive also caused many heads to turn. Prior to this, we were used to waiting an excruciating 30 minutes for Commodore's 1541 Backup to do the same job!

One club hardware project that stuck in my mind was the CommTalk speech module for the PET and C64, designed and built by Ian Mellor. This predated the Amiga's built-in speech capabilities by several years, and certainly provided lots of entertainment for the members, as well as selling quite a few units locally.

We also had a series of guest speakers, including several from local computer shops. One particular shop caused not a little consternation, when it accused the club of being nothing more than a "den of piracy", and this was an image that regrettably stuck with the club for some time, despite its inaccuracy.

During this time, the club also worked on building links with other clubs around the world, including ICPUG in the UK and TPUG in Toronto, Canada. Through these links, we started to build up an extensive collection of public domain software for all Commodore machines. The C64 disks in particular proved very popular, and for several years, I produced a regular PD disk that featured the most interesting pieces of new software drawn from these sources.

Turbulent Times

After serving two years, Eddy Evers decided to step down as chairman, and in his place came Turlough McDonald. It was around this time that the club moved from its original meeting spot at Willow Park, to nearby St Andrews College, on Booterstown Avenue, a convenient arrangement organised by Geoff who ran the Computer Science department at the college.

This heralded a rather turbulent time in CUGI's history, since the committee members didn't always see eye to eye on club matters. I was serving on the committee at that time, as Software Librarian, and I well remember receiving copies of solicitors' letters in the post which were being exchanged by some of the other members - quite a thrill for someone still in secondary school!

It was also during this time that the decision was made to bar unaccompanied under-16's from attending club meetings. (Since I was under 16 at the time, it was quite interesting to be on the committee that made that decision!). In fact, the rule was very relaxed, and was really intended as a deterrent to parents who seemed to view CUGI as a baby-sitting service which allowed them to enjoy a night out on the town without having to arrange a babysitter for Junior. Things came to a head when the school fire alarm was set off by one such hothead.

In time, however, things settled down. Turlough stepped down as chairman to explore other interests, and was replaced by Terry Redmond. By this time, the club had produced three newsletters over the years, and after each issue the committee had sworn 'Never again!'. However, with the advent of affordable DTP software, laser printers, and cheap photocopying, the committee decided it might be worth one more shot. And thus was born the current incarnation of the newsletter.

The early editorship rotated between myself and Shane Broadberry. Early issues were produced in A4 format, but this was later changed to the current A5 booklet style, which reduced the amount of photocopying required, and also allowed us to add a cardboard cover, increasing the durability of each issue. Geoff also took over as editor for a spell, while I supposedly studied hard for exams.

The newsletter continues to this day, appearing every three months, and has become one of the hallmarks of the club, covering a wide range of topics, both computer and non-computer related. It has even led to CUGI authors being published in well known Amiga magazines such as Just Amiga Monthly and Amiga Shopper.

Preparing for the 90's

After Terry Redmond stepped down as chairman, Geoff was persuaded to take his place, having served on the committee from the beginning. This was about the time the Amiga 500 was starting to take-off, although Geoff was still more than happy using his Commodore 128.

In spite of that, the club slowly began to reflect the increasing popularity of the Amiga, and it became more and more common to see the new machine crowding out the C64 on the evening's schedule. Early items like the Boing! demo, Newtek's original slide show, and most memorably, the Juggler demo, made a big impression. In particular, the Juggler (and the program which it gave birth to, Sculpt 3D) led to several of the members getting very involved with 3D ray-tracing.

Just as the PET owners in the early 80's bemoaned all the attention that the C64 was getting, so the C64 owners were quite vocal in expressing their distaste for the new-fangled Amigas. But that's progress...

It was during this time that the CUGI Table Quiz was introduced. Originally planned as a one-off, it proved so popular that it soon became a regular yearly and then twice-yearly event, with members fielding a range of questions on general knowledge, audio, and video, the only restriction being: no computer questions!

The club also became affiliated with Commodore UK, and in recognition of its contributions to the Commodore community in Ireland, was granted Certified Developer status. This arrangement allowed CUGI to offer members Commodore hardware at a discounted rate, as well as getting early access to new machines and OS releases.

Unfortunately, this also led to several unhappy experiences, chronicled in past newsletters, as Commodore UK experimented with one unreliable third-party courier after another. In the most memorable instant, one computer crossed the Irish channel three separate times before finally reaching its destination in Dublin!

Probably the most maligned member was Tommy Gibbons, who waited over twelve months for his A2000 order to be correctly fulfilled! (In the end, Commodore UK threw in an A2630 accelerator at no extra charge, by way of compensation.) And of course, no discussion on Commodore UK would be complete without a special word for Sharon McGuffie, CBM's Developer Liason, who went to enormous lengths to help resolve these continuing problems.

Another development during these years was the club bulletin board. Originally running on an Amiga 500 with 2400 baud modem, an A570 CD-ROM drive was quickly added, along with the Fred Fish library on CD. Since then, the hardware has been upgraded to an Amiga 1200 with SCSI adapter, CD-ROM, external SCSI hard drive, and 28.8kbps modem, and is ably managed by Club Sysop Matthew Brookes.

In 1993, the club celebrated its 10th Anniversary. One of the more notable events of the year was a special meeting which featured every Commodore computer sold to date (with the exception of the Kim 1, which proved rather hard to track down!)

End of an Era...

Having seen the club through to the end of its first decade, Geoff stepped down as Chairman at the end of 1993. In recognition of his contributions over the years, he was presented with a one-of-a-kind CUGI paperweight, along with a nice Picasso II graphics card for his Amiga 2000 (yes, he had by then succumbed to the Amiga's charms).

The newly elected chairman was Tommy Rolfs. As lead programmer with Dublin-based Amiga games house Gremlin Graphics, Tommy had some useful inside contacts. By now, with the rise of the IBM PC, some members were starting to drift away from the Amiga, and membership numbers were dwindling.

It became apparent that Friday meetings were in danger of becoming non-events, and so Tommy proposed that the meeting times be changed to Sundays instead. After a unaminous vote from members (bar one) at the AGM, the change was approved and monthly Sunday meetings commenced in November 1994.

Shortly afterwards, Tommy was whisked off to California by Virgin Interactive Entertainment, and Karl Jeacle took over the position of Chairman. As chief postmaster, webmaster, and everything-else-master at Broadcom, a subsidiary of Telecom Eireann, Karl proved the perfect person to get CUGI wired for the 90's, and indeed much club business is now conducted via email.

Although initially somewhat quiet, the Sunday meetings were soon well attended. In particular, a special Internet meeting generated a huge amount of interest, and brought many first time visitors to the club. Other special `theme' meetings are planned for the future. We have also initiated a policy of introducing members to other platforms, including the Mac, PC, and Unix, the intent being to broaden members' horizons, and perhaps make them more aware of how unique a machine the Amiga really is.

The Unseen Future

It's a cliche, but I'll say it anyway: it seems like only yesterday that CUGI was taking its first hesitant steps as a user group. There have certainly been many interesting times since 1983, and I've met a wide variety of unusual and interesting people. While most of the early members have long since departed, I believe the core values of the club remain the same: to promote and explore the use of Commodore computers for education and fun.

Although many of our current members are less technically oriented than in the past, the membership still reflects a broad range of talent and experience. My experience has been that CUGI members are often willing to go to extrordinary lengths to help out one another with whatever problem they may have, and that remains as true today as it was in 1983.

With the recent acquisition of the Amiga technology by Escom, it looks like the Amiga will be around for a while yet, and chances are, so will CUGI. As for myself... I'm looking forward to writing the next chapter of this story 10 years from now!

Visit the original CUGI site, where the above article was first published.