In the beginning
The Amiga was conceived by Jay Miner. Jay was working at Atari when he came up with the idea for a super games computer. At Atari Jay had done much of the design work on the Atari 800 8-bit computers as well as the earlier Atari VCS. But since Atari was making cash 'hand over fist' from the arcade craze and the home video games, it wasn't interested in his plans for an advanced 16-bit home computer based upon the Motorola 68000 CPU.
In 1982, Jay got the chance of fulfilling his dream. A colleague from Atari, who had left the company to start games publisher Activision, wanted a new challenge. He too wanted to build a super games computer. And Jay had the plans. Together with the help of some Texan millionaires (three dentists), Hi-Toro was founded. The company started with the production of joysticks. But that was just a cover. Behind the walls Jay and his team worked on a games system that would rock the world. There was, however, a slight problem. The people that provided the money wanted a pure games computer, whereas Jay and his team wanted to build a full computer. Without informing management, they included the technology that would allow the addition of keyboards and other "real computer" stuff.
When the games market started to collapse, it was then decided to turn the machine into a true computer. The computer was named 'Amiga', which is Spanish for girlfriend. The name is said to have been selected because it would get the computer listed before Apple and Atari. During this time, the term "Guru Meditation" was invented, which referred to the message which appeared whenever an Amiga program did something highly illegal (up until OS version 2). The Amiga hardware engineers would sit on one of their game controlling contraptions, which consisted of a board which could swivel around on a stand. It was originally meant as a controller for skiing games and the like, but the hardware gurus tried to sit completely still on it to relax. Hence, Guru Meditation. Despite the problems inevitably connected to hardware design, the 'Lorraine', which was the prototype's name, slowly materialized. The prototype was named after the wife of Dave Morse, one of the designers. Also, Hi-Toro was renamed into Amiga Incorporated.
So everything went right. Right? Wrong! Amiga Inc. ran into some severe money problems. A take-over seemed the only possible rescue. Atari was spoken to, which showed a little interest, but wouldn't pay enough. Just as the Amiga management was desperate enough to deal with Atari anyway, Commodore jumped in. They offered 6 times as much as Atari did. Which settled it. The company was renamed to Commodore-Amiga, Inc. and had some financial space again.
Finally, in 1985, the Amiga 1000 was released. Only the Amiga Makes it Possible! was the slogan used to promote the launch at the Chicago CES in 1985. Debbie Harry of Blondie fame sang along with the machine, and was later a model for Andy Warhol when he was demonstrating the graphic power of the Amiga. Andy continued to use the machine throughout his life.
The A1000 wasn't entirely what Jay and his people wanted. Due to some budgeting by Commodore, some features were dropped from the production units.
Essentially it was still the machine that Jay Miner envisioned. The world's first multimedia PC. The computer was based on a custom chip design; all major tasks of the machine were handled by dedicated chips (ASICs). These co-processors actually released the strain on the main CPU, which could therefore concentrate on the explicit controlling and calculating tasks.
In the casual nature of the Amiga design team, all chips had names. In the A1000, Agnus (Address Generator) handled the addressing of the chip ram - the part of the main memory that is shared between CPU and custom chips. Denise (Display Adapter) handled the screen functions, and Paula (Ports and Audio) handled er... I/O ports and audio. The custom chips gave the Amiga 4096 possible colors, 8 bit stereo sound and screen modes with up to 64 out of the possible 4096 (With the A1000 it was actually 32 out of 4096. 64 colors (the 'halfbrite' mode) was not introduced until the A500 and A2000 were launched). Additionally, there was also a mode called HAM (Hold And Modify), which provided an unlimited number of colors. Theoretically of course, because at the time the limit was the palette of 4096.
The other strong point of the computer was its Operating System, which was quite revolutionary at the time. AmigaDos featured full pre-emptive multi-tasking, which was completely new for a personal computer. Its modular approach has helped the Amiga a great deal in surviving the hard times it has known for the last few years. Everyone that saw the computer at that time was stunned. It delivered workstation performance, but for a much smaller price. But, that price was still too high for many people to buy it. The Amiga remained to be a dream computer that only a fortunate few could afford.
Amiga for the masses
It was not until the release of the A500 and A2000 in 1987 that the Amiga gained widespread popularity. It was the A500 that did the most to increase the Amiga's use.
It was for a long time the backbone of the Amiga community. The A500 and A2000 were technically very similar. There were some minor internal bandwidth compromises made on the 500 that would not show up for routine data handling. The major difference was the 500 only had one expansion slot at the side of the keyboard like case, the A2000 had a number of slots inside it's big box case. It not only featured Zorro-II (the Amiga's native expansion bus) slots, but also had some ISA slots, a dedicated video slot and a processor slot. Because of this last slot, there are still A2000s running with a Motorola 68060, which can still compete with a Pentium PC. (In fact, my own 68060 at 50 MHz keeps up quite nicely with my Pentium 120).
Powered by the A500 and A2000, Commodore reached 1990 in good shape, when it released the A3000, designed by Dave Haynie. The new machine was an absolute dream at that time. It used a Motorola 68030, probably the equivalent of 80386 in raw performance. Do not forget, however, the custom chip design of the Amiga. The actual performance of an A3000 is comparable to a 486 Wintel PC. The A3000 came with 32-bits Zorro-III slots, slightly improved custom chips and a completely new version of the Operating System. Amiga OS 2.0 was better looking, it was more stable and it had several other clever improvements over the previous version (1.3).
The 3000 also boasted a flicker-fixer card, which enabled the machine to drive a multisync monitor and eliminated flicker in the interlace screen modes. These interlace modes are, by the way, the reason why the Amiga is ideal for video applications. The slightly flickering screen (due to the low vertical refresh frequency of 60Hz NTSC / 50Hz PAL) is compatible with TV systems. As a last goodie, the A3000 also had a SCSI controller built in. The A3000 became the new Super Amiga.
Of course, the new Operating System wasn't kept to the power users only. At the end of 1991, Commodore launched the A500 plus. This machine shipped with 1 mb of chip ram (as opposed to the 512k of the original A500) and the second version of the OS. But the plus didn't get the attention Commodore had hoped for. It didn't offer much over the normal 500, which meant that an important part of would be buyers didn't exist; those that wanted to upgrade. At the time, Wintel PC's were also catching up with the machine, making the plus not incredibly interesting. After the plus, Commodore came up with the A600. It had more or less the same hardware specifications as the 500 plus, but it had a smaller case, and a keyboard without a numeric keypad. It did have an IDE hard disk controller, which gave it a slight edge over the 500 plus.
Edited and co-written by M. L. Clayton