Commodore founder Jack Tramiel dies at 83
Auschwitz survivor who built best-selling PC
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.
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 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. ®
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Whenever I see documentaries on the beginnings of home computers they invariably focus on Apple/Steve Jobs and Microsoft/Bill Gates. They usually ignore the likes of Tramiel/Commodore or at best make them out to be people who produced "games" machines of little relevance.
Yet as someone who was around at the time, Steve Jobs was a fringe figure selling hardware at eye watering prices to a tiny market and Bill Gates sold dull business software for use on equally expensive computers. It was the likes of Tramiel who ignited the publics interest in computers. Tramiel, Sinclair, Sugar, Curry were all people who bought computer to the masses. They produced hardware that was accessible and affordable.
Tramiel was a real power. At one stage Commodore were building 400,000 C64's a month, selling 17 million in total. He then went to Atari and had a major feud with his former company. He also launched the ST and turned around Atari who had never really recovered from the early 80's video game crash.
Granted he wasn't an engineer, but he recognised the need and made the business decisions to get Commodore into the market and pushed for the development of machines like the C64 because he saw the need.
Yes the man had faults and was a hard nosed businessman but now isn't the time. Apple, Microsoft et al all owe Tramiel and people like him a huge debt of gratitude for putting the foundations in place for their empires.
Please, El Reg & Iain Thomson, please fix that implication that the PET was some kind of reaction to the Apple II; chronology doesn't support it:
January 1977: in the mainstream (then as now) CES show in Chicago, Commodore introduces the PET.
April 1977: Commodore ships the first PETs, priced at $595.
April 1977: The Apple I's price is reduced from $666 to $475 (which of course doesn't include many of the PETs features, such as a screen or a cassette deck).
April 1977: at the West Coast Computer Faire, Apple introduces the Apple II.
June 1977: Apple ships the first Apple ][, priced at $1298 excluding monitor, etc.
These days the fiction that the Apple II was "the first" home computer seems pervasive, just as the equally fictitious notion that the Mac was "the first" WIMP machine seems to be common.
And that's unfortunate, because it's people like Jack Tramiel that showed Apple what to do.
So long and thanks for everything your company did to enhance my childhood years. A true pioneer of modern day computing.
I owe you my career. Without your invaluable and incredible contribution to mainstream computing in the form of the C64, I wouldn't have got into computers and wouldn't have the skills I have today, and I'm sure many of us here can say the same. Rest in peace, sir, and may your legacy long endure.
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