Jack Tramiel, the founder of Commodore, died Sunday at the age of 83, Forbes reports. The company’s cheap computers, especially the Commodore 64, introduced many households in the 1980s to computing.
Born in 1928 in Poland to a Jewish family, he ended up in the Auschwitz concentration camp before the Allies liberated it in 1945. Tramiel emigrated to the U.S. and founded Commodore. At first the company sold typewriters, then moved into calculators. When Texas Instruments came out with a calculator in the 1970s whose retail price cheaper than the chips they were selling to other manufacturers, including Commodore, Tramiel knew he had to find another market, fast.
Fortunately, he’d just purchased a company called MOS Technologies, which made the 6502 processor. Chuck Peddle, an engineer from MOS who joined the company after the acquisition and who had already designed a small computer, the KIM-1, suggested Commodore release their own computer.
The PET formed the “Class of ’77,” of home computers, along with the Apple II and the Radio Shack TRS-80. The Apple II also happened to use a 6502 processor. The PET, however, didn’t have the flashy graphics of the Apple II, or even any real graphics at all. It found a niche, however, in educational markets.
Commodore had a breakthrough a few years later in 1980 with the Vic-20, the first color computer to sell for under $300, and the first computer to sell 1 million units.
It was the computer that followed, however, that made Commodore’s reputation: the Commodore 64. The name comes from the fact that it had 64 kilobytes of memory, which was a lot in 1982. It also had a synthesizer chip, the SID, which was also very new at the time, and it still popular for chiptunes today. The computer was great for gaming, and people could buy it at regular retail stores instead of authorized retailers, in accordance with Tramiel’s motto of “computers for the masses, not the classes.” The computer introduced millions of households across the world to computing.
But with the success came turmoil. Tramiel had established a reputation as a ruthless businessman and boss, and he left after an organizational shake-up at Commodore in 1984, helming the ailing Atari, still reeling from the video game crash that his Commodore 64 had a hand in causing. The company came out with the Atari ST line of computers, which sold respectably, becoming popular with musicians due to its built-in MIDI ports.
After years of diminishing returns, however, including the spectacular flop of the Jaguar video game system, Tramiel sold the company in 1996, and the Atari name has changed hands a number of times.
He leaves behind an incredible legacy. “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,” Martin Goldberg, who’s working on a book on early video game history, told Forbes.
He is survived by his wife, Helen and three sons, Gary, Sam and Leonard.
Photo credit: Alex Handy/Wikipedia