Remembering Jack Tramiel

Commodore founder Jack Tramiel died this week. His legacy of computers for the people and dreams for a better future live on.
Written by Violet Blue, Contributor

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.

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