Remembering Jack Tramiel

Remembering Jack Tramiel

Summary: Commodore founder Jack Tramiel died this week. His legacy of computers for the people and dreams for a better future live on.

TOPICS: Apple, Hardware

Sadly, this week saw the passing of Commodore founder and Holocaust survivor Jack Tramiel.

Jack Tramiel

Jack Tramiel

At 83 he died from heart failure after a life of great impact that included pioneering the consumer market for personal computers and home gaming, and Holocaust awareness activism.

It was my good fortune to be one of the last people to interview Jack Tramiel at the San Jose Computer History Museum 25th anniversary celebration for the Commodore 64.

The forefront of home computing was where Tramiel's C64 ruled, and it is the main machine people think of when Tramiel is talked about.

What few people knew, and that I discovered in our interview, was that the entire concept driving the Commodore 64 was Tramiel's powerful vision for a future in which the Holocaust and its concentration camps (from which Jack survived but his father did not) would never be able to happen again.

Gallery: A tribute to Jack Tramiel, father of the Commodore 64

In this week's obits for Tramiel, we're getting a picture of a keen businessman who built a business getting home computers into the hands of wider consumers through competitive, low pricing and accessible marketing to make the devices feel more like the set of Encyclopedias any household should have.

This is true; equally true was the reason Tramiel structured his "business is war" approach the way he did. (Tramiel was widely-known for his "business is war" motto.)

This reason was also why Jack Tramiel spent time giving talks about surviving the Holocaust - something he said he could only do once in a while because the experience of giving these talks was so emotionally traumatic he said his entire body would "shake for a week afterward." He also founded the United States Memorial Museum.

In our interview Tramiel told me that the Commodore 64 was what he'd called the "volkscomputer" - the computer for the people. He said,

I made the market for the computer youth-driven. I went around the world meeting young people in computer clubs and showing them what the computer can do.

And I concentrated on a special country which is called Germany.

Because I am a Holocaust survivor.

And because of that I wanted to make sure that the German youth will learn from the computer what the Holocaust was all about.

And we had a piece of software which did that.

I said, so it was very personal for you.

He replied, "Very personal. We called it the volkscomputer."

Jack Tramiel was very successful making the people's computer into a household standard. He did it by keeping his prices aggressively low (Commodore's famed $199 home computer), which he told me was by sticking to his grandfather's advice of never selling something for more than twice what it cost you to make it.

That way, he felt, you could get the traction and saturation to build your brand and spread your message.

Tramiel was in the era of Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak, and competed in the same arena - but was far different than the generation trying to "find itself" in the Bay Area and Silicon Valley.

He told the 1989 Australian PC exhibition,

So I believe when a person has a goal, when a person is willing to work hard, the person does not want to become rich the same day but he looks at it in the long term, he can make it.

The key is to give first and receive after.

Born in Poland in 1928, at the age of eleven he and his parents were rounded up and sent to a Jewish ghetto, then shipped to Auschwitz in 1944; then Jack and his father were sent to the Ahelm forced labor camp.

His mother survived, and not long after his release in 1945 Jack Tramiel married his wife Helen - also a camp survivor and they came to the United States in 1947.

Tramiel coined the famous phrase, "We need to build computers for the masses, not the classes."

Knowing why Jack Tramiel was so motivated - personally - to get access to knowledge into the hands of young people around the world makes his iconic statement all the more important today.

Knowledge is power, and Tramiel knew that if people forgot history then they woud surely be doomed to repeat it - by arming young minds with free access to open, accurate information he could help right one of the biggest wrongs in history.

Thank you for all you've given, Jack Tramiel.

Topics: Apple, Hardware

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  • Jack Tramiels was a true Commodore...

    Jack Tramiel was a passionate man with a vision to enable, energize and enlighten a generation of new computer users and advocates. His mission to put affordable, entertaining and useful computers in the hands of people was a historic step in the advent of mass computing. His prophetic "business is war" analogy is born out when one sees the marketing ploys, patent lawsuits and company takeovers that permiate current computer company cultures. Unfortunately "business as war" produces its variation of holocausts. Imagine the progress that could be made if companies were more "co-operative" and endeavored to co-ordinate some of their product standards and business was focused more on innovation rather than litigation.
  • Unfortunate loss.

    As an Atari user years ago I remember despising Commodore, especially after they snatched the Amiga away from Atari, but I now realize how much Mr. Tramiel contributed to this industry and what a great loss his passing is.
    • A GEM

      By the time the Amiga came out, Jack Tramiel had resigned from Commodore and bought Atari. He was the guy behind the Atari ST line.
      Robert Hahn
      • TOS

        His business acumen was also largely responsible for the Atari ST line being crushed by the much more expensive, but less powerful Mac.
        My old STs (had the 1040ST, the MegaST and the STacey) were faster than the current Mac Plus and Mac SE, did colour graphics, were cheaper, and with my Mac emulator plugged in to the cartridge port, ran Mac software faster than the Mac. Plus it ran MS software, and read both disk formats. With all that going for it, you have to wonder how truly committed the Tramiel family was to the business side of things.
  • PET

    It is also important to note that Commodore, with Mr. Tramiel in charge, created the first all in one personal computer that helped influence the design of the Apple II (released not long after). Certainly the Commodore 64 is the hallmark given the status of being the best selling personal computer of all time, but he was at much controlling the start of the PC industry as Apple (Woz / Jobs).
    • Influenced a different Apple product

      While I disagree that the PET 2001 influenced Apple with the Apple ][ (Apple was well down the physical design by the time they showed the prototype to Commodore in hope that they would sell it, and the Apple ][ only shares having a keyboard and in a case), I do believe they influenced the Mac/Lisa line more in terms of being the 1st integrated all in one (They had not just a keyboard, but a screen and tape drive). Regardless, Tramiel's contributions to the industry were massive, including having teams instrumental in designing both the Commodore Amiga and the Atari ST.
      • Influences

        Tramiel in specific, and Commodore in general, had little to nothing to do with designing the Amiga. The Amiga was designed mostly by Jay Miner, principal hardware designer for Amiga Corporation. It was only after the prototype was debuted at CES that Commodore bought the company.
        As an aside, there was quite a bit of duplicitousness. The engineering and design work that eventually gave rise to the Atari ST was based on work that had been done at Commodore by a team Tramiel poached when he left the company, leading Commodore to sue Tramiel/Atari.
        Conversely, the Amiga was funded in large part by money paid to it by Atari, Jay Miner's previous employer, under a contract giving exclusive rights to using the platform as a video game console, and a year later, as a computer system, to Atari Corp..
        When Commodore bought Amiga, they interpreted the law to mean that all previous contractual obligations were nullified. When Tramiel found the previous contracts, however, he returned the favour, and counter-sued Commodore.
  • Apple II and C64

    The Apple II was introduced in 1977; the C64 was introduced in 1982. The PET was intro'd in 1977.
    • We're hosed

      [ul][i]The PET was intro'd in 1977.[/i][/ul]The Department of Agriculture has a big laboratory facility just outside the Washington beltway, in Maryland. In 1977 the place was full of Digital and Data General minicomputers, hooked up to things like gas chromatographs. These minis cost around $50,000 each.

      I met a guy there who had hooked up a piece of laboratory equipment to a Commodore PET, which he had bought with his own money just to see if he could make it work. He could, and it did. I watched him run a little BASIC program that made the instrument dance.

      When I got back to the office I wrote a memo to the product marketing guys that basically said, "I have seen the future and we're not in it." Ken Olsen famously said that no one would need a computer in their home, but he didn't realize they wouldn't need his computers at work, either.
      Robert Hahn
  • Help remember Jack.

    For those w/ memories of Jack, there's a page at The beta link to add memories is His page is
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  • My first computer was a VIC20

    Then C64 & C128.

    Amazing when looking around today where IT devices are everywhere. Back in the those days computers were very new, and to have one in the house previously unimaginable.

    For a lot of the world (mostly non-Europe) the commodore defined this market.

    A good life, fondly remembered.
    Richard Flude