Jack Tramiel, founder of Commodore, died on Sunday at the age of 83

on April 9, 2012 5:44 PM EDT

Jack Tramiel
Jack Tramiel (Photo: wikipedia)

Jack Tramiel, a huge figure in computer history and founder of Commodore, died on Sunday at the age of 83, according to Forbes.

Tramiel was both a visionary and controversial figure as the founder of Commodore International and former chief executive of Atari Corp. He was a Holocaust survivor and turned out to be a tough businessman. His life was like a chronicle of the tech industry.

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He was born as Jacek Trzmiel in Lodz, Poland in 1928. After the Germans invaded in 1939, his family was moved to the Jewish ghetto in Lodz, where he worked in a garment factory. His family was send to the Auschwitz concentration camp, where he was examined by the notorious doctor Josef Mengele. Tramiel survived labor camps while his family members died. At age 16, he was rescued from the camp in April 1945 by the 84th Infantry Division. In 1947, he emigrated to the U.S. and learned ho to repair office equipment in the U.S. Army.

In 1953, while working as a taxi driver, he bought a shop in the Bronx to repair office machinery,[4] and named it Commodore Portable Typewriter. Tramiel secured a $25,000 loan for the business from a U.S. Army entitlement.[5]

In 1955, Tramiel signed a deal with a Czechoslovak company to assemble and sell their typewriters in North America. However, as Czechoslovakia was part of the Warsaw Pact, they could not be imported directly into the U.S., so Tramiel set up Commodore Business Machines in Toronto.[4] Tramiel wanted a military-style name for his company, but names like Admiral and General were already taken, so he settled on the Commodore name.[6]

In 1962, Commodore went public. The arrival of Japanese typewriters in the U.S. market made the market unprofitable, and struggling for cash, so the company sold 17% of its stock to Canadian businessman Irving Gould, taking $400,000.[4] They used this cash to re-launch the company in the adding machine business, which was profitable for a time before the Japanese entered this field as well. Stung twice by the same source, Gould suggested that Tramiel travel to Japan to learn why they were able to outcompete them in their own local markets. It was during this trip that he saw the first digital calculators, and decided that the mechanical adding machine was a dead end.[7]

Combining an LED display from Bowmar and an integrated circuit from Texas Instruments (TI), Commodore released its first calculators and found a ready market. However, after slowly realizing the size of the market, TI decided to cut Commodore out of the middle and released their own calculators at a price point below the price that TI sold just the chips to Commodore. Gould once again rescued the company, injecting another $3 million which allowed Commodore to purchase MOS Technology, Inc. an IC design and semiconductor manufacturer, which also supplied Commodore with calculator ICs.[7] When their lead designer, Chuck Peddle, told Tramiel that calculators were a dead end and computers were the future, Tramiel told him to build one to prove the point.
[edit] Home computers

Peddle responded with the Commodore PET, based on their MOS Technology 6502 processor. It was first shown publicly at the Chicago Consumer Electronics Show in 1977, and soon the company was receiving 50 calls a day from dealers wanting to stock the design. The PET would go on to be a success - especially in the education field, where its all-in-one design was a major advantage. Much of their success with the PET came from the business decision to sell directly to large customers, instead of forcing them to buy through a dealer network.

But, as prices dropped and the market matured, the monochrome (green text on black screen) PET was at a disadvantage in the market when compared to machines like the Apple II and Atari 800, which offered color graphics, and could be hooked to a television as an inexpensive display. Commodore responded with the VIC20, and then the Commodore 64, which would go on to be the best-selling home computer of all time. It was during this time period that Tramiel coined the famous phrase, "We need to build computers for the masses, not the classes."[8]
Atari.

Atari Corporation

On 13 January 1984, Tramiel resigned from Commodore. After a short break from the computer industry, he formed a new company named Tramel Technology, Ltd., in order to design and sell a next-generation home computer.[9] The company was named "Tramel" to help ensure that it would be pronounced correctly (i.e., "tra - mel" instead of "tra - meal").[10]

On 3 July 1984, Tramel Technology bought the Consumer Division of Atari Inc. from Warner Communications,[9] which had fallen on hard times, due to the video game crash of 1983. TTL was then renamed Atari Corporation.

In the late 1980s, Tramiel decided to step away from day-to-day operations at Atari, naming his son, Sam, President and CEO. In 1995, Sam had a heart attack, and his father returned to oversee operations.

In 1996, Tramiel decided to sell Atari to disk-drive manufacturer Jugi Tandon Storage in a reverse merger deal. The newly merged company was named JTS Corporation, and Jack Tramiel joined the JTS board.

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