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Jack Tramiel

by Michael Swaine

Generic image illustrating the article
  Auschwitz survivor, self-made man, co-founder of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, and the founder and driving force behind Commodore, a company that produced not one but several of the most important machines in the history of the personal computer.  

Paul Freiberger and I are currently writing the third edition of Fire in the Valley, our history of the personal computer—to be published by The Pragmatic Bookshelf, naturally. As we go back over the material, we keep finding threads that run through the whole narrative. I am sharing some of these as brief history articles here in PragPub.

One thing that we’re particularly concerned with in writing the third edition is that we address readers’ complaints about the previous editions. These generally fall into one of two categories. Because the presentation is thematic rather than strictly chronological, we loop back to topics as they become relevant in different contexts. Personally, I like that, but it did lead us into some awkward repetition. We’re working on eliminating the repetition without losing the important point that certain people and companies and themes play a role in more than one part of the story.

The other thing that we hear is that we didn’t do justice to Commodore and Jack Tramiel. It’s a valid criticism, and we’re addressing it. But in a broader sense, doing justice to Jack Tramiel would take a whole book. Maybe, though, we can do a little justice right here in PragPub. What I’ve been doing in these little essays in the magazine is focusing on exactly the point I was making above: how some people keep coming back in different parts of the personal computer story. Jack Tramiel is definitely one of those people.

Knowing Jack

Let’s get the pronunciation out of the way first. It’s TRA-MELL, not TRA-MEEL. I no longer remember when I got corrected on that or by whom, but I kind of suspect it was at our first interview with Jack. That was a long time ago and the scars have healed by now, but I still remember thinking that Jack was one scary dude.

He was a lot more than that. Auschwitz survivor, self-made man, co-founder of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, and the founder and driving force behind Commodore, a company that produced not one but several of the most important machines in the history of the personal computer. He may also be the only major figure in personal computer history who once worked as a New York cab driver.

Jack Tramiel died last spring at the age of 84. This short article is not an obituary, nor is it intended to relate all of his accomplishments, or to place Commodore in its rightful place in personal computer history. Its purpose is simply to point to a few of the places that Jack shows up in that history.

The Calculator Wars

The personal computer was born, I claim, with the Altair computer from MITS, revealed to the world, or at least to an eager audience of electronics hobbyists, in the January, 1975 issue of Popular Electronics. There had been other computers that could be called personal before this, but the Altair took the target audience by storm, and that audience was the engineers and programmers who had the skills and interest to use the Altair as the jumping-off point for starting their own companies and tossing their own inventiveness into the new industry.

What drove Ed Roberts, the head of MITS, was a similar interest in hobby electronics, but there was something else much more exigent.

Roberts had bet his hobby electronics company on the calculator industry back in the early 1970s, and it had been a disastrous bet. At the time Roberts put MITS on the calculator track, calculators sold for hundreds of dollars. But with the new semiconductors that were coming out, all the functionality of a calculator could be put on one chip. Whap a case around it and you’ve got a calculator, the chipmakers figured, and they got into the calculator business themselves. TI in particular jumped in heavily, cutting the cost of a calculator to tens of dollars rather than hundreds. It killed the industry for independent companies like MITS.

So Roberts decided to create and sell a computer. How that was supposed to help is a story for another place, but Roberts wasn’t the only person to react in just this way to this challenge.

Commodore International was a Canadian electronics products firm founded and run by Jack Tramiel. In the early 1970s it was heavily focused on selling pocket calculators using TI chips. When TI jumped into the industry itself, Commodore went from 60 million dollars in annual sales to a five million dollar loss.

Tramiel’s reaction was to move the company to Palo Alto, purchase a chip company and hire its lead designer, and empower him to build a computer. By early 1977, Chuck Peddle’s PET computer debuts, competing well against two other new computers, the Apple ][ and Radio Shack’s TRS-80.

Personal Computers

In 1982, Paul and I were working at InfoWorld, covering this rapidly-changing personal computer industry. For us, that era, when IBM was legitimizing personal computers for the corporate world, and VisiCalc and Lotus 1-2-3 had given business users a reason to buy the things, and the command line still ruled, and mice and windows were still rodents and architectural features, and Jobs and Gates would return our calls, that era still seems like the real personal computer era.

And during that time, the best-selling computer was the Commodore 64. Within a year Tramiel had cut the price to $200. He had different ideas about pricing than, say, Steve Jobs.

Then came the GUIs. After the release of Apple’s Macintosh the command-line interface was dead. Knock-offs of the software behind the Mac were coming out from Microsoft and Digital Research and IBM, among others. And machines designed to leapfrog the Mac came along: the Commodore Amiga and the Atari ST.

And Jack Tramiel was involved, in highly complicated ways, with both. But I’m going to stop now. You get the idea.