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Commodore founder Jack Tramiel dies at 83

Auschwitz survivor who built best-selling PC

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Obituary The founder of Commodore, one of the driving forces in the early history of the personal computers, has died at the age of 83.

Tramiel, born in 1928 as Jacek Trzmiel to a Jewish family in Poland, emigrated to the US after the Second World War after losing his parents in Hitler's camps. Tramiel spent time at Auschwitz and at a German labor camp before it was liberated by the US Army in the closing stages of the war. He came to the US and joined the army before setting up his own business, Commodore Business Machines, selling typewriters.

The firm switched to making pocket calculators and ended up buying its own chip business, MOS, to provide its parts, before making an early move into the personal computer market. Commodore reportedly turned down an offer from Steve Jobs to build the Apple II and produced the Commodore PET (Personal Electronic Transactor), in 1977.

The PET featured a 1MHz MOS processor, between four and eight kilobytes of RAM, and had a built-in monochrome monitor with an integral cassette player to allow software to be loaded onto the machine. Later versions included a green-screen monitor, integral disc drives, and a full-sized keyboard.

Commodore CEO Jack Tramiel

Tramiel (left) celebrating one million VIC-20 systems sold

The PET proved popular, and was followed up by the VIC-20 systems, the first PC to sell more than a million units, and the Commodore 64 (C64), which was the bestselling PC of its era.

In the mid-1980s, the C64 was the dominant personal computer in the industry, outselling IBM, Apple, and other contenders. It developed a huge following and was one of the first computers to be sold by retail chains rather than via specialist electronics shops. An estimated 17 million units were eventually sold.

The C64 was much loved, particularly by the gaming community for its ability to handle relatively complex graphics with ease. It proved so popular that a new version, designed to look like the original, is now being sold as a dual-core Atom system, with higher-end versions also available. There's also a C64 emulator available for the iPhone, including some classic games.

Commodore USA VIC-Pro

Commodore for the modern age

"Jack Tramiel was an immense influence in the consumer electronics and computing industries. A name once uttered in the same vein as Steve Jobs is today, his journey from concentration camp survivor to captain of industry is the stuff of legends," says Martin Goldberg, a writer working on a book about the Atari brand, speaking with Forbes.

"His legacy are the generations upon generations of computer scientists, engineers, and gamers who had their first exposure to high technology because of his affordable computers – 'for the masses and not the classes'," he said.

Commodore's success proved hard for Tramiel, as he was blamed for kicking off a price war in the computing industry that saw many players either bankrupted or leaving the industry.

In 1984, Tramiel was forced out of the company he founded. Later that year he bought Atari's struggling computer division and began shipping new systems, including the Atari ST, its first 16-bit computer. The company went on to produce PC clones for the general market, and made a foray into the gaming sector with the Atari Lynx and Jaguar brands.

Tramiel stepped back from day-to-day operations at Atari and let his son Sam take over, although he returned to the helm briefly after his son had a heart attack. The company was eventually sold to Atari Inc. in 1996.

He is survived by his wife Helen and three sons. ®

Feature The Commodore 64 at 30

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