Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Jack Tramiel

Jack Tramiel, founder of Commodore International, died last weekend. In the video game world, he was best known for bringing the Commodore 64 to market. The machine was one of the earliest examples of mass market computers. Its low price and relative accessibility introduced an entire generation of people to video games and to computers in general.

I like learning about the medium's history, but I have to admit I know less about Tramiel and Commodore than other early figures. Commodore doesn't hold the same cache as Atari or Nintendo, and Tramiel wasn't as much a rock star as Nolan Bushnell. Despite all this, Tramiel's leadership and aggressive business tactics helped video games sneak their way into millions of American homes. Ask any designer over a certain age about where they got their start and you'll hear the name Commodore again and again.

My family was a bit slow to adopt the home computer lifestyle, so I never owned a Commodore 64. Without any first hand experience, I'll have to rely on others to describe their experiences with the company and the man who ran it. A quick search reveals Brian Bagnall's Commodore: A Company on the Edge, might be a good place to start. However, I'm also interested in less formal recollections. If any of you all have Commodore-related memories, please don't hesitate to share them in the comments. Even the history of digital media relies heavily on the stories we pass down.

I have a hard time wrapping my mind around what Tramiel experienced in his life. He survived a concentration camp and immigrated to America. He grew up in a pre-penicillin world where having electricity in your home was by no means a given. He saw computers transform from room-size behemoths under military control into mass market consumer goods. He saw the birth of the microprocessor, the rise of the web, and the proliferation of smartphones. He and his contemporaries made Silicon Valley (and who knows, maybe even the world?) what it is today.

If you get a chance, read a few of Jack Tramiel's posted obituaries. By all accounts he had a long life. I hope it was a good life. It was most certainly an influential one.


  1. Wow, strange coincidence, I wrote an essay about Jack Tramiel and other gaming pioneers today. Scared the crap out of me when I saw this pop up in my feed. Some sort of retro-effective Death Note-type Google doc? Strange.

    But yeah, it seems like he was a great man, and as a player of emulated C64 games, I won't be forgetting his effect on gaming soon.

  2. A lot of his employees deeply hated Tramiel's guts. He single-handedly destroyed what was at the time of the best chip fabricators in the world (MOS Technologies), and this resulted in no real successor to the 6502 while Motorola and Intel's chips went onward and upward. I hesitate to heap flowers on this guy's grave.

  3. Without Tramiel's Commodore buying MOS Technologies, it would have failed within months and there would have been no more chips from the facility -- even 6502 era chips.

    Because of Tramiel's decision to bail the company out, it became a major player in the early technology business -- supplying the brains behind the best-selling personal computer of all time (the Commodore 64) as well as living an additional several years as a producer of the custom chips behind Commodore's Amiga series (released after Tramiel's departure).

    That's a much better legacy than failure and liquidation in the late 1970s, which was the alternative.