Jack Tramiel

Once you’re done changing, you’re done.
Jack Tramiel

Jack Tramiel (1928-2012)
Jack Tramiel (1928-2012)

In early 1976, Jack Tramiel (1928-2012), the founder of Commodore Business Machines, had a talk with Chuck Peddle (1937-2019), the lead designer of MOS Technology Inc., an IC design and semiconductor manufacturer. Commodore, one of many electronics companies selling calculators, had just bought MOS Technology, trying to form a vertically-integrated calculator line in order to decrease its expenses. When Peddle told Tramiel that calculators were a dead end and computers were the future, Tramiel told him to build one to prove the point. And Peddle proved it, and how!

Commodore PET series
Commodore’s first personal computer, the PET (an acronym of Personal Electronic Transactor), the first model of which was the PET 2001, was officially announced in the middle of 1976 and Tramiel gave Peddle six months to have the computer ready for January 1977 Consumer Electronics Show. Peddle coped with his task and the working PET 2001 prototype was shown to the public at the Winter CES 1977 in Las Vegas in January, where its concept, added to a futuristic design, caused an enormous sensation. The first hundred units were shipped in October, at an initial price of $495. Following the initial PET 2001, the design was updated through a series of models with more memory, a better keyboard, a larger screen, and other modifications. The systems were a top seller in the American education markets, as well as for business use in Europe. The PET line was discontinued in 1982 after approximately 220 thousand machines were sold.

Commodore PET 2001
Commodore’s first personal computer, the PET 2001

PET 2001 had a 6502 processor, controlling the screen, keyboard, cassette tape recorders, and any peripherals connected to one of the computer’s several expansion ports. It included either 4 KB or 8 KB of 8-bit RAM and was essentially a single-board computer with discrete logic driving a small built-in monochrome monitor with 40×25 character graphics, enclosed in a sheet metal case. It also included a built-in Datasette for data storage located on the front of the case, which left little room for the keyboard. The data transfer rate to cassette tape was 1500 baud, but the data was recorded to tape twice for safety, giving an effective rate of 750 baud. The computer’s main board carried four expansion ports: extra memory, a second cassette tape recorder interface, a parallel (“user”) port that could be used for sound output or connection to “user” projects or non-Commodore devices and a parallel IEEE-488 port which allowed for daisy-chaining peripherals such as disk drives and printers.

Commodore was the first company to license Microsoft’s 6502 BASIC, known as Commodore BASIC 1.0, but they changed the startup screen and prompts, added I/O support, the SYS command for invoking machine language programs, and fixed numerous bugs. The PET had somewhat of a competitive advantage over its Apple II and TRS-80 rivals as both were using relatively primitive integer BASICs for their first six months on the market while the PET had a full-featured BASIC with floating point support, a sophisticated screen editor, and lowercase letters, the last being a feature that the two competing platforms would not have for a few years.

Commodore 64
In 1981, Commodore’s engineering team proposed to Jack Tramiel a true low-cost sequel to the PET series. Tramiel dictated that the machine should have 64 kB of RAM. Although 64 KB of DRAM cost over 100 USD at the time, he knew that DRAM prices were falling, and would drop to an acceptable level before full production was reached. In November, Tramiel set a deadline for the first weekend of January, to coincide with the 1982 Consumer Electronics Show. The team that constructed the new computer consisted of Bob Russell, Bob Yannes, and David Ziembicki. The design, prototypes, and some sample software were finished in time for the show after the team had worked tirelessly over both Thanksgiving and Christmas weekends. The product was codenamed the VIC-40 as the successor to the popular VIC-20. When the product was to be presented, the VIC-40 product was renamed C64 in order to fit into the current Commodore business products lineup which contained the P128 and the B256, both named after a letter and their respective memory size.

Commodore C64
The remarkable Commodore C64 home computer

The C64 made an impressive debut at the January 1982 Winter Consumer Electronics Show, as recalled by Production Engineer David Ziembicki: “All we saw at our booth were Atari people with their mouths dropping open, saying, ‘How can you do that for $595?'” The answer, as it turned out, was vertical integration; thanks to Commodore’s ownership of MOS Technology’s semiconductor fabrication facilities, each C64 had an estimated production cost of only $135.

The 8-bit home computer Commodore 64 (commonly known as the C64 or C=64), was a machine with remarkable market success. Volume production started sometime in the spring of 1982, with machines being released onto the market in August at a price of $595. During his lifetime, sales totaled some 17 million units, making it the best-selling single personal computer model of all time. For a substantial period of time (1983-1986), the Commodore 64 dominated the market with between 30% and 40% share and 2 million units sold per year, outselling the IBM PC clones, Apple computers, and Atari computers. Sam Tramiel, a son of Jack Tramiel and a former Atari president said in a 1989 interview “When I was at Commodore we were building 400000 C64s a month for a couple of years.”

Commodore 64 with monitor and floppy
Commodore 64 with monitor and floppy

Part of the Commodore 64 success was because it was sold in retail stores instead of electronics stores, and these machines can be directly plugged into an existing home television without any modifications. Commodore produced many of its parts in-house to control supplies and costs. Improving the reliability, as well as reducing manufacturing costs, eventually, it cost only about $25.00 to manufacture, and the consumer price of the C-64 dropped to around $200.00. Another part of the Commodore 64 success was that approximately 10000 commercial software titles were made for it including development tools, office applications, and games. C64 is also credited with popularizing the computer demo scene. The Commodore 64 is still used today by some computer hobbyists.

The Commodore 64 home computer (see its Users Guide) remained in production from August 1982 as late as until April 1994. The Operating system was Commodore KERNAL/Commodore BASIC 2.0. The CPU was MOS Technology 6510, working at 1.02 MHz (NTSC version) or 0.985 MHz (PAL version). Memory: 64 kB RAM, 20 kB ROM. Display: 25×40 text. Graphics VIC-II (320×200, 16 colors, sprites, raster interrupt). Sound was SID 6581, with three channels of sound. Ports: TV, RGB & composite video, two joysticks, cartridge port, serial peripheral port. Peripherals: cassette recorder, printer, modem, external 170K floppy drive.

Biography of Jack Tramiel

Jack Tramiel (1928-2012)
Jack Tramiel (1928-2012)

Jack Tramiel was born Juda Jacek (aka Yehuda or Idek (“little Juda”)) Trzmiel (trzmiel is the Polish word for bumblebee) on 13 December 1928 in a Jewish family in Łódź, a city in central Poland. He was the only child of Abram Josef Trzmiel (1902-1944), a subcontractor for a shoe manufacturer, and Rifka Bentkowska (aka Regina Silberman). Idek grew up celebrating Shabbat at his maternal grandfather’s home, but with the 1939 Nazi invasion, life turned upside-down.

After the German invasion of Poland Trzmiel’s family was transported by Germans to the Jewish ghetto in Łódź, where Idek worked in a garment factory. When in 1944 the ghettos were liquidated, his family was sent to the Auschwitz concentration camp. Jacek was examined by Josef Mengele and selected for a work party, after which he and his father were sent to the labor camp Ahlem near Hanover, while his mother remained at Auschwitz. Like many other inmates, his father was reported to have died of typhus in the work camp in Dec 1944, but Tramiel believed he was killed by an injection of gasoline. Idek was rescued from the labor camp in April 1945 and remained in Germany, taking odd jobs including one in an American Army kitchen. In the middle of 1947, he met in Hanover and married Helen (Hinda) Goldgrub (1928-2019), also a Polish Jew, survivor, and Lodz native. They had three sons: Sam (b. 1948), Leonard (b. 1953), and Garry.

On 29 October 1947, Jacek departed from Bremen, Germany, and on 10 Nov 1947, he entered Ellis Island, New York, changing his name from Jacek Trzmiel to Jack Tramiel (if you wonder why, get an English speaker to say Yatzik Tʂmjɛl 🙂 In New York, Jack (not knowing the language and only having $10 on him), got a job in a Fifth Avenue warehouse, with the help of the Hebrew Immigration Aid Society. He learned English from watching movies and in 1948 joined the U.S. Army. Helen joined him in the U.S. in 1948. Soon the Army put Jack in charge of repairing office equipment, at the same time he attended an IBM School for Office Technology. Upon leaving the army in 1952, in 1953, while working as a taxi driver, Tramiel bought a shop in the Bronx to repair office machinery and started importing typewriters from Italy, founding his first company—Commodore Portable Typewriter.

The young Jack Tramiel and Helen Goldgrub-Tramiel
The young Jack Tramiel and Helen Goldgrub-Tramiel

In 1956, Tramiel signed a deal with a Czechoslovak typewriter manufacturer,  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, Canada. In 1962 Commodore signed an agreement with Rheinmetall-Borsig AG and began to sell Commodore portable typewriters made from the parts of older typewriters. In 1962, his business was hit by the arrival of Japanese typewriters in the U.S. market. Thus Tramiel re-launch the company in the mechanical adding machine business, which was profitable for a time before the Japanese entered that field as well. Stung twice by the same source, Tramiel departed to Japan to learn why they were able to outcompete North Americans 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.

A part of the company was bought in 1966 by Irving Gould (1919–2004), a Canadian financier, and when it released its first calculators, combining an LED display from Bowmar and an integrated circuit from Texas Instruments (TI), it found a ready market. However, after slowly realizing the size of the market, in the middle 1970s, TI decided to cut Commodore out of the middle and released their own calculators at a price point below the Commodore’s cost of just the chips. Gould once again rescued the company, injecting another $3 million, which allowed Commodore to purchase MOS Technology, Inc. an IC design and semiconductor manufacturer, a company that had also supplied Commodore with calculator ICs.

Jack Tramiel and his sons
Jack Tramiel and his sons: Leonard (right), Sam (front), and Garry (left standing)

In 1976 Commodore entered the computer business and was one of the world leaders when in Jan 1984, Tramiel resigned from the company because of a “disagreement” with the board. After a short break from the computer industry, he formed a new company named Tramel Technology (TTL), in order to design and sell a next-generation home computer. In July 1984, TTL bought the Consumer Division of Atari Inc. from Warner Communications. TTL was then renamed Atari Corporation and went on to produce the 16-bit Atari ST computer line based on Motorola’s MC68000 CPU, directly competing with Apple’s Macintosh and Commodore’s Amiga, which also used the same CPU. Under Tramiel’s direction, the Atari ST was a considerable success in Europe, and globally in the professional music market. In the late 1980s, Tramiel decided to step away from day-to-day operations at Atari, naming his eldest son, Sam, President, and CEO, and his other sons as financial and software managers. In 1995, Sam suffered a heart attack, and his father returned to oversee operations. In 1996, Tramiel sold Atari to disk-drive manufacturer Jugi Tandon Storage. The newly merged company was named JTS Corporation, and Tramiel joined the JTS board.

Jack Tramiel was a big, ebullient, tough, brawling businessman who had no fear and only one item on his agenda: winning the game. Under his rough brand of management, Commodore became the world’s first computer company to reach a billion dollars in sales and a million units sold. Unfortunately, Jack burned so many suppliers and employees in California, they had to leave. Vendors just did not want to sell to him. This cutthroat reputation would dog him the rest of his business life.

Jack Tramiel retired in 1996 and moved to a palatial estate atop a foothill in Monte Sereno, California, where he died of heart failure on 8 April 2012, aged 83.