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Tracing the History of the Computer - Jack Tramiel, Founder of Commodore International


Jack Tramiel (born 1928) is a businessman, famous for founding Commodore International, manufacturer of the Commodore 64 and Commodore Amiga home computers.

Pre-computer days

Tramiel was born in 1928 in Lódz, Poland, as Idek Tramielski. After the Nazi invasion in 1939 his family was transported to the Jewish ghetto in Lódz, where he worked in a pants factory. When the ghettos were liquidated his family was sent to the Auschwitz concentration camp. He was examined by Dr. Mengele and selected for a work party, after which he and his father were sent to the work camp Alum near Hanover, while his mother remained at Auschwitz. His father died of Typhus in the work camp like many other inmates, although Tramiel believes he was killed by an injection of gasoline. Tramiel was rescued in April 1945 by the U.S. Army.

In November of 1947, Tramiel emigrated to the United States and soon joined the army. In the army he learned how to repair office equipment, including typewriters. In 1953, while working as a taxi driver, he bought a shop in Bronx to repair office machinery, and named it Commodore Portable Typewriter. He then later started a business importing typewriters from Europe, and in 1955, to circumvent import restrictions, he set up Commodore Business Machines in Toronto. Tramiel wanted a military-style name for his company, but names like Admiral and General were already taken, so he settled on the Commodore name.

In 1962, Commodore went public. During the 1960s the Japanese started producing low-cost typewriters and Commodore could no longer compete in that market. He then turned to adding machines, but it was not long before the Japanese were entering this business as well. Commodore's main investor, Irving Gould, sent Tramiel to Japan to learn ways to compete, but when he returned he had a different idea instead.


In 1970 he started work on electronic calculators, and in the early 1970s Commodore became a major supplier of calculators based on a Texas Instruments chip-set. In 1975 TI decided to take over the market, and started producing their own complete calculators which sold at a cost lower than the price of the chip-set alone. This drove most manufacturers out of business, but by this time Commodore had enough of a war chest to survive.


Tramiel started looking for a chip producer to buy, thereby guaranteeing a supply of chips in the future. The obvious solution was MOS Technology, a small company in Pennsylvania that had been set up as a second-source of the TI chips, and was currently stuggling with cash-flow problems. MOS was bought in 1976, becoming a part of Commodore.

Microcomputer business

One of the engineers at MOS was Chuck Peddle, the man who had designed the ground-breaking 6502 chip. Peddle convinced Tramiel that the calculator was a dead-end as a product, that the computer would take over, and that the 6502 was the first in line for success. Peddle showed him a "test system" using the 6502, the KIM-1, and while Tramiel was interested he demanded that it be put into an all-in-one form in time for the COMDEX in six months.

Combining the KIM with a new display driver chip, 4kB of RAM, a version of Microsoft's BASIC programming language, and an all-in-one case including a monitor and cassette tape drive for storage resulted in the PET 2001. At $599, it became a hit, notably in schools where its tough construction was a major advantage over technically superior machines like the Apple II and Atari 8-bit family.

The C=64

Although Peddle left the company in 1980, improvements were made to the platform. In 1980 a new graphics chip with basic color output and a RF modulator for television display produced the Commodore VIC 20, which became a huge seller. In 1982, a new graphics chip and more RAM resulted in the Commodore 64 (C64), which was an even bigger seller and went on to become one of the most popular home computers in history, with about 22 million units shipped. In 1984, its sales surpassed US $1 billion.

The success of the C64 was based on a massive manufacturing effort that cost a huge amount of money to set up - borrowed money that should have been easy to pay off in profits on the sales. However, Texas Instruments was also in the market, and it appears that Tramiel was so upset about their earlier dealings in the calculator market that he decided to kill them in this one. He started a price war, with the C64 quickly dropping from $595 to $199. While sales continued to skyrocket, profits plummeted, and Commodore's cash flow along with it. It seemed Commodore would soon be in command of a market worth nothing. By late 1983 the company was on the verge of bankruptcy, Tramiel and the head of the Commodore's board had a huge argument and Tramiel quit.


Tramiel's own personal fortune was enough that he was able to buy the home division of video game company Atari. (Tramiel did not acquire the arcade game division, which became known as Atari Games). Atari, once the "golden child" of Silicon Valley, had been destroyed by the video game crash of 1983 and their owners, Warner Communications, were desperate to sell it off. Tramiel attempted to turn Atari into the 'new Commodore' and all but ignored the video game market that would soon rebound with Nintendo's entry into the U.S. field. Tramiel focused almost excusively on the home computer market, launching the Atari ST line. The ST's main competitor was the Commodore Amiga. Although moderately successful, the ST line eventually gave way to the IBM PC-compatible juggernaut.

Tramiel has a large gold and stainless steel sword from Atari's SwordQuest contest in his living room. It was not awarded to a player due to the company's sale and an apparent lack of interest among gamers and corporate staff. The sword was part of an elaborate video game contest of multiple golden and gemstoned prizes worth several thousand U.S. dollars; the sword itself when created was worth $50,000 (although the dip in the price of gold has no doubt lowered its value). The contest abruptly ended when the Tramiels took over, leaving three of the five prizes unawarded. The other two prizes are a golden crown and a jewel box, with large opal inside.


Commodore International

Commodore 64


MOS Technology

Chuck Peddle

6502 Microprocessor

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