Remembering Jack Tramiel, father of the Commodore 64

Remembering Jack Tramiel, father of the Commodore 64

Summary: Jack Tramiel, who has died aged 83, was a remarkable man, especially in the context of the computer industry. Those of us who reported it in the 1980s were used to geeky, long-haired introverts who knew how to write assembler or wield a soldering iron.

TOPICS: Tech Industry

Jack Tramiel, who has died aged 83, was a remarkable man, especially in the context of the computer industry. Those of us who reported it in the 1980s were used to geeky, long-haired introverts who knew how to write assembler or wield a soldering iron. We weren't as familiar with businessmen who had relatively little interest in technology but sold computers to make money. Commodore's founder was aware of the educational value of computers, and he pitched his home computers at the youth market, but he was a businessman first and foremost.

In my Guardian obituary, Jack Tramiel: The father of the best-selling Commodore 64 personal computer, published in today's newspaper, I described Tramiel as "a jovial, cigar-smoking, balding and somewhat portly Jewish businessman known for hard bargaining and for the slogan: 'Business is war'."

I won't repeat the details here. Suffice it to say that while he was jovial with journalists, many of us knew he had been in Poland during the Nazi invasion, and that he had survived the Auschwitz death camp. There had to be an immensely tough character inside.

Tramiel didn't intend to get into the computer business. When he was having problems getting chips from Texas Instruments, he bought a small American chip company called MOS Technology, and met a designer called Chuck Peddle. MOS Technology had developed the cheap 6502 microprocessor, and Peddle wanted to use it to create a personal computer. This led directly to the Commodore PET, though the 6502 was also used in the Apple II, the Acorn BBC micro and many other home computers.

The PET was a success, and Tramiel expanded into the computer business with the Vic-20, Commodore 64 and other machines. The C=64 was the star, selling over 20 million units, and getting roughly 40 percent of the US market. It introduced millions of teenagers to computer games, and some of them to computer programming.

Unlike Sinclair's machines, the C=64 offered a decent keyboard and an incredibly slow external disk drive, so you could actually use it for more practical purposes.

However, Tramiel fell out with his Canadian chairman and major shareholder Irving Gould, who had finance the MOS Technology takeover. He left Commodore, bought Atari's loss-making consumer business from Warner Bros, and started competing against his old company. The first result was a cheap line of Atari 8-bit machines repackaged as the 65XE and so on.

Although 8-bit computers like the C=64 and Apple II had been successful, the industry obviously needed to move on to 16-bit and 32-bit machines. Unfortunately, there was no obvious successor to the 6502 (which was why Acorn developed the ARM chip) or the other popular chip of the day, the Zilog Z80. The 16/32-bit Motorola 68000 processor quickly became the new chip of choice: Apple used it in the Lisa and Macintosh, Commodore in the Amiga, and Tramiel's Atari in the 520ST. Motorola thought it was going to replace Intel in this brave new world, though that was not how things turned out.

The 520ST was known as the Jackintosh. It ran slightly faster than the Mac, had a better monochrome screen, and cost a fraction of the price. In the UK, for example, a 512K Atari ST with disk drive, monitor, mouse and a big bundle of software cost £750. This was less than the £800 that Apple UK charged to upgrade a 128K standard Mac to a 512K "fat" Mac.

Thanks to Apple's price gouging on this side of the pond, the ST and Amiga became extremely popular in the UK and Germany, but neither Atari nor Commodore really upgraded them rapidly enough. In the 1990s, both the business and home computer markets moved to IBM-compatible PCs running Microsoft Windows. Commodore declared bankruptcy in 1994, with only Commodore UK surviving into 1995. Atari lasted until 1996.

It was always interesting to deal with Tramiel's Atari, which he ran with his three sons. They were always up for trying something new, and they were usually happy to talk about it. Their innovations included the Lynx (first colour handheld games console), the (claimed) 64-bit Jaguar games console, the Atari Portfolio (first PC-compatible palmtop), the revolutionary Transputer Workstation (using parallel-processing Inmos chips), a cheap PC designed to run Unix SVR4 (never launched, as far as I recall), and various types of Atari ST, including a laptop version.

None of these was a winner, and the days of cheap-and-cheerful products like the C=64 and 520ST had gone. People were buying cheap-and-cheerful Amstrad PCs instead.

Jack Tramiel was a back-seat driver at Atari until the president and CEO -- his son, Sam Tramiel -- suffered a heart attack. Jack soon sold the company and retired to Monte Sereno, California, with a palatial house and his two Rolls-Royces.

Although you might have missed meeting Jack Tramiel, you can get a good idea of what he was like by watching some YouTube videos. By the time he turned out for the 25th Anniversary Celebration of the Commodore 64 at the Computer Museum, he'd mellowed quite a bit, but the quintessential Jack was still going strong.

@jackschofield Commodore 64 - 25th Anniversary Celebration Jack Tramiel interviewed by Violet Blue

Topic: Tech Industry

Jack Schofield

About Jack Schofield

Jack Schofield spent the 1970s editing photography magazines before becoming editor of an early UK computer magazine, Practical Computing. In 1983, he started writing a weekly computer column for the Guardian, and joined the staff to launch the newspaper's weekly computer supplement in 1985. This section launched the Guardian’s first website and, in 2001, its first real blog. When the printed section was dropped after 25 years and a couple of reincarnations, he felt it was a time for a change....

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  • You can see the man himself in his prime in an episode of the excellent Computer Chronicles here:-

    All the CC shows are quite nostalgic now to people of my age (i.e. who remember back to the 8 bit days)!

    Didn't he also say 'business is like making love - you have to be involved'?
  • My Commodore 64 is part of a long line of products yet till it is repaired I will need to continue with this net-book computer.
  • There's no doubt that Jack Tramiel revolutionised the computer world with the Commodore 64 and other machines. These were and still are great machines, and a lot of fun to use. It's no wonder it captured so much of the market, with its vast number of software titles along with its amazing graphics (for the time).
  • Although the C64 was more popular world wide, the Atari 800 had better graphics (though not sound)!
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