Commodore founder Jack Tramiel dies at 83

Jack Tramiel, founder of Commodore and an influential figure in the early days of personal computing and video games, passes away Sunday at the age of 83.

Daniel Terdiman/CNET

Jack Tramiel, founder of Commodore International and former CEO of Atari International, died on Sunday at the age of 83. He was surrounded by family at the time of his passing, according to Forbes.

Famous for saying that computers should be built "for masses, not the classes," Tramiel played an important role in the early days of personal computing and video gaming, as his company introduced a line of powerful but affordable home computers, including the popular Commodore 64. The latter became the best-selling home computer of all time, with an estimated 20 to 30 million units sold, though Tramiel wasn't one to brag. In fact, he was most content when not in the spotlight.

In an interview with CNET in 2007, Tramiel said, "I'm quite happy if people do not know me." However, it's hard not to know a man whose contributions and life story are so unforgettable.

Born in Lodz, Poland on December 13, 1928, Tramiel's family was sent to the Auschwitz concentration camp shortly after Germany's invasion of Poland during World War II. While his mother remained at Auschwitz, Tramiel and his father were later moved to the Ahlem labor camp near Hanover, where he remained until he was rescued by American forces in April 1945.

Tramiel then emigrated to the United States in November 1947 and learned to fix typewriters during his stint with the Army, which led to him opening a office machinery repair shop in the Bronx in 1953 called the Commodore Portable Typewriter.

Soon, the company, which went public in 1962, went from building typewriters to calculators and finally to computers, starting with the Commodore PET in 1977 and then peaking with the best-selling Commodore 64, which debuted in January 1982.

Two years later, Tramiel resigned from Commodore, and took a brief break from the computing industry. However, he returned in July 1984 when he bought the consumer division of Atari, which was going through tough times as a result of the video game crash of 1983. Tramiel remained at Atari till 1996 and oversaw a number of products, including the Atari ST, before selling the company to the JTS Corporation.

As much as Tramiel had an impact on the computing industry and personal technology, it appears he also had a direct impact on the people who worked for him. Bil Herd, who was employed by Commodore from 1983 to 1986, told CNET he traveled all the way across the country to see his former boss one more time for the 25th anniversary of the Commodore 64. Of his time at the company, Herd said, "You learned not to give excuses. You learned to just get it done."

A sentiment that was echoed by Tramiel at the same event. "The computer business today is different than it was in 1975," said Tramiel. "In some ways it's good, and in some ways it's bad. But the important part is that we all work hard to bring it to the way it is, and people say, 'How can you live without a computer?' which is wonderful."

Tramiel is survived by his wife Helen, three sons Gary, Sam, and Leonard, and their extended families.

Got any fond memories of Commodore or Atari? Please share them with us in the comments section below.

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About the author

Bonnie Cha was a former chief correspondent for CNET Crave, covering every kind of tech toy imaginable (with a special obsession for robots and Star Wars-related stuff). When she's not scoping out stories, you can find her checking out live music or surfing in the chilly waters of Northern California.

 

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