Commodore founder, tech pioneer Jack Tramiel dies at 83

By Luke Plunkett on April 10, 2012, 12:40 AM

RIP, the Man who Helped Get me Into Video Games

When I was four years old, my father took me out to a local electronics store and said we were buying a computer. OK, I thought, not really knowing why that was such a big deal. Twenty-seven years later, I now know it was one of the most significant days of my life.

That day we brought home a Commodore 64, my first ever video game system, the device which first kindled my lifelong passion for video games and which, ultimately, has led to who I am and where I am today.

So it's sad to learn today that Jack Tramiel, the founder of Commodore International, has passed away at the age of 83.

Born in Łódź, Poland in 1928, Tramiel's early life was, like that of fellow video game pioneer Ralph Baer, dominated by the aggression of Nazi Germany. Following Poland's rapid defeat in 1939, he would spend the next six years in German captivity, first working at a garment factory and later as a labourer.

Liberated from his work camp by US infantry, Tramiel would, again like Baer, end up in the US Army, where he specialised in the maintenance of office equipment and typewriters.

This experience enabled him to establish the Commodore Portable Typewriter Company in 1954, and when the typewriter business began to go sour a few years later, he deftly switched both his operations and company name to Commodore Business Machines, Inc., and began producing calculators instead.

Then in 1977 Tramiel was able to switch lanes again, and recognising that the future of home electronics lay in computers, had Commodore (now known as Commodore International) engineer Chuck Peddle come up with the PET (Personal Electronic Transactor), an all-in-one device which was popular in institutions like schools.

Schools alone wouldn't pay the bills, though, and Tramiel's now-famous line "We need to build computers for the masses, not the classes" led to two of Commodore's greatest successes.

In 1981, they released the VIC-20, which at the time became the biggest-selling computer of all time. Its success was based on its versatility: it could play games, yes, but it could also be used for more practical purposes like family budgets. At USD$300, it was also "affordable", at least by the standards of the day for such equipment

In 1982, though, they went one better, and released the Commodore 64. It was, for the time, the perfect machine, striking a balance between performance and affordability that would see it sell over 20 million units. To this day it remains the single biggest-selling personal computer system of all time.

What made the C64 so impressive was the way it blew away the competition in terms of both graphics and, more importantly, sound (indeed, the C64's unique architecture means its still a favourite of chiptune artists today). This led to some of the most memorable games of the 1980s appearing on the platform, from Last Ninja to GI Joe, Elite to Little Computer People, Summer Games to Way of the Exploding Fist. And that's before I even get to Cities of Gold, Pirates! and Aztec Challenge.

I adored my system, and its massive catalogue and raw performance meant it survived as our home computer until 1992. Even then, people were trying to make the system relevant, with ports of contemporary games like Street Fighter II.

Tramiel left Commodore in 1984, and in a strange quirk would go on to buy the remains of Atari. It was Tramiel's son Sam, in fact, who oversaw the development of the Atari Jaguar, the company's last important contribution to the home video game market.

A lot of farewells, and as this medium matures we're only going to need to write more of them, end up either sad or, sadder still, acts of discovery as the masses only find out about how important a person was when they pass.

This time, though, I just want to say thank you, Jack. I know you weren't the only person involved in the creation of the C64, but you were the man in charge, and without you I wouldn't be who I am today. So, yeah. Thanks.

Republished with permission. Luke Plunkett is a contributing editor at Kotaku.

User Comments: 10

Got something to say? Post a comment
Guest said:

All i can say is i am a great fan of the C= 64 and the following architecture it led to with custom chips and a great community the days of BBS's and 2400Baud modems my first was actually a 300bps modem which was suffice for the C= 64.

Such a pioneer won't be easily emulated i think that generation of giving the user what the user / masses need or want is over and we are in a different era now sadly.

I for one still hammer away at C= 64 games on my emulators CCS64 and VICE and i no doubt will for years to come as do my children and they adore the games on it and the C= amiga emulator WIN UAE.

Salute to the great Jack Tramiel and peace to the fellow C= generation

Guest said:

Here's what Jack always had to say when it came to Commodore.

One man who actually considered the masses and not the classes!

RIP Jack Tramiel.

avoidz avoidz said:

The author must be some kinds of prodigy to remember a shopping trip at four years of age. Who else remembers anything from that age? Are you trying to sound clever? I was nine years old when I was given a Sinclair ZX Spectrum in 1983.

Darkshadoe Darkshadoe said:

10 print "RIP Jack Tramiel"

20 goto 10

load "*",8,1

Guest said:

My first computer was a Commodore 128*

* Runs in C=64 mode.

I ran a C-NET 128 BBS, learned BASIC programming, played games, had a Commodore repair business. The Commodore really launch my IT carreer. Thanks to Jack and all the folks at Commodore for many years of fun.

Guest said:

I, too, got where I am today because of my Commmodore 64. I can't say enough. Thank you.

Guest said:

I wish I could have shaken this man's hand and said thank you for all that has developed from his humble beginnings. My life would be very different if not for what he did.

Vrmithrax Vrmithrax, TechSpot Paladin, said:

I have such fond memories of Commodore... My introduction into coding on a C=64. Scrounging every penny for what seemed like ages (as a teen) to buy an Amiga, and all of the gaming fun I had with that platform. Working with some friends in college who did video editing and commercials as a sideline, playing with the Video Toaster and LightWave.

I often wonder how different my love of computers and gaming would be now if Commodore had not been an early influence for me.

wcbert said:

I had C-64 too and it was my computer where I learn computer programming. At that time the college I was attending to learn programming was using a IBM mainframe and I had to use cards and punch out with computer commands to run my program. Then hand over the deck of cards to person who would feed them to the mainframe and then I had wait an hour for a print out to see if the program would run or not.

On the C64 I could get Pascal computer language install on it. Run my programs and more importantly experiment, try new ideas because I had the time. Instead of wasting a hour waiting on results I could try various ideas on my C64 with that same hour.

The C64 computer has a special place in my heart. Rest in peace Jack Tramiel.

Tygerstrike said:

I still have my C64 sitting in a box in my closet. Complete with giant 5" floppy drive. There are many days when I will think back to what got me into gaming. 2 systems come to mind. The C64 was my first one. The second was a Tandy computer. I miss both. The C64 had games on it that you could make yourself. Provided ofcourse that you had the basic "reciepe" out of a published programmer magazine.

This gentleman goes right on up there with Stan Lee in my box. Someone who through their actions changed and defined the world we now live in.

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