This seems to be the season when microcomputer pioneers are shuffling off this mortal coil. Jack Tramiel died on April 8, at the age of 83. Until 1984, he was CEO of the manufacturer of the world’s most popular microcomputers. He was a pioneer in producing low-cost microcomputers. Although Jack’s pioneering Commodore PET competed with the Radio Shack TRS-80 and Apple II, he was from an older generation than Messrs Jobs and Wozniak.
Nazi concentration camp survivor
Jack was born in Poland in 1928. His parents were killed in the German concentration camps. He survived the concentration camps by working in them. After the war, he emigrated to the U.S., where he enlisted in the Army. At the same time he attended an IBM course where he learned to repair electric typewriters. After leaving the army, in 1953 he started a business in Brooklyn that repaired electric typewriters. He felt “the Japanese” manufacturers nipping at his heels, so he began to repair mechanical calculators. This led him to the manufacture of electronic calculators, digital watches, and eventually to the Commodore PET. He wanted a military name for his company; Admiral and General were taken, so he chose Commodore.
In the mid-1970s, Commodore discovered that their primary calculator chip vendor, Texas Instruments, was competing with them with their own line of electronic calculators. To free Commodore from this competition, Jack resolved to buy his own chip manufacturer.
Jack was not a design guy. He was a resourceful business guy who saw opportunity and seized it. His design guy, his Steve Wozniak, was Chuck Peddle. Chuck was chief engineer and a principal in MOS Technology, a Pennsylvania-based chip manufacturer that Jack’s Commodore acquired at a bargain price in 1976. Chuck designed the low-priced 8-bit 6502 microprocessor that Apple used in the Apple II. (At a time when the similar Motorola 6800 CPU sold for $350, MOS Technology sold the 6502 for $25! No wonder Woz chose it for the Apple II.) Chuck designed the Commodore PET around the 6502, before he and Jack finally split.
I bought a Commodore PET in late 1977, directly from Commodore, before they established a distribution channel. I wrote a little about it on this page. Commodore went on to produce the VIC20 and Commodore 64 personal computers, which were extremely successful and profitable. One reason: back when the PET was being designed, Bill Gates had licensed Commodore to use his Microsoft BASIC, without royalty, on any Commodore product.
In 1984 Jack resigned from Commodore. Apparently he wanted to pursue the home computer market and the board of directors wanted to pursue the business computer market. Eventually Jack bought Atari from Warner. Under his management Atari produced the ST series of home computers.
Jack led a wild life that took him from Poland through Auschwitz, New York, Canada, Pennsylvania, and California. He was a leader in many industries (even low-cost office furniture, in the 1950s) and a key player in the early microcomputing industry. In later years he helped found the Holocaust Museum in Washington DC. He was a clever negotiator, resourceful businessman, and pioneer who brought personal computing to the masses.