Jack Tramiel

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Jack Tramiel
Jack Tramiel retuschiert.jpg
Tramiel in 2007
Idek Trzmiel

(1928-12-13)December 13, 1928
DiedApril 8, 2012(2012-04-08) (aged 83) [1]
Known for Holocaust Survivor; Commodore founder;
Atari Corporation founder and CEO
Helen(m. 1947)

Jack Tramiel ( /trəˈmɛl/ trə-MEL; born Idek Trzmiel; December 13, 1928 – April 8, 2012) was a Polish American businessman, best known for founding Commodore International. [3] The Commodore PET, Commodore VIC-20 and Commodore 64 are some home computers produced while he was running the company. Tramiel later formed Atari Corporation after he purchased the remnants of the original Atari, Inc. from its parent company.

Commodore International American home computer and electronics manufacturer

Commodore International was an American home computer and electronics manufacturer founded by Jack Tramiel. Commodore International (CI), along with its subsidiary Commodore Business Machines (CBM), participated in the development of the home–personal computer industry in the 1970s and 1980s. The company developed and marketed the world's best-selling desktop computer, the Commodore 64 (1982), and released its Amiga computer line in July 1985. With quarterly sales ending 1983 of $49 million, Commodore was one of the world's largest personal computer manufacturers.

Commodore PET home computer

The Commodore PET is a line of home/personal computers produced starting in 1977 by Commodore International. A top-seller in the Canadian and United States educational markets, it was the first personal computer sold to the public and formed the basis for their entire 8-bit product line, including the Commodore 64. The first model, which was named the PET 2001, was presented to the public at the Winter Consumer Electronics Show in 1977.


Early years

Tramiel was born as Idek Trzmiel [4] [5] (some sources also list Juda Trzmiel, Jacek Trzmiel, or Idek Tramielski) into a Jewish family, the son of Abram Josef Trzmiel and Rifka Bentkowska. [4]

After the German invasion of Poland in 1939 his family was transported by German occupiers to the Jewish ghetto in Łódź, where he worked in a garment factory. When the ghettos were liquidated, his family was sent to the Auschwitz concentration camp. He 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, [6] while his mother remained at Auschwitz. Like many other inmates, his father was reported to have died of typhus in the work camp; however, Tramiel believed he was killed by an injection of gasoline. Tramiel was rescued from the labor camp in April 1945 by the 84th Infantry Division of the U.S. Army.

Nazi Germany The German state from 1933 to 1945, under the dictatorship of Adolf Hitler

Nazi Germany is the common English name for Germany between 1933 and 1945, when Adolf Hitler and his Nazi Party (NSDAP) controlled the country through a dictatorship. Under Hitler's rule, Germany was transformed into a totalitarian state where nearly all aspects of life were controlled by the government. The official name of the state was Deutsches Reich until 1943 and Großdeutsches Reich from 1943 to 1945. Nazi Germany is also known as the Third Reich, meaning "Third Realm" or "Third Empire", the first two being the Holy Roman Empire (800–1806) and the German Empire (1871–1918). The Nazi regime ended after the Allies defeated Germany in May 1945, ending World War II in Europe.

Łódź Ghetto Second-largest ghetto in German-occupied Europe during World War II

The Łódź Ghetto or Litzmannstadt Ghetto was a World War II ghetto established by the Nazi German authorities for Polish Jews and Roma following the 1939 invasion of Poland. It was the second-largest ghetto in all of German-occupied Europe after the Warsaw Ghetto. Situated in the city of Łódź, and originally intended as a preliminary step upon a more extensive plan of creating the Judenfrei province of Warthegau, the ghetto was transformed into a major industrial centre, manufacturing war supplies for Nazi Germany and especially for the German Army. The number of people incarcerated in it was augmented further by the Jews deported from the Third Reich territories.

Josef Mengele Nazi SS doctor who experimented on prisoners at Auschwitz

Josef Mengele, also known as the Angel of Death, was a German Schutzstaffel (SS) officer and physician in Auschwitz concentration camp during World War II. He performed deadly human experiments on prisoners and was a member of the team of doctors who selected victims to be killed in the gas chambers. Arrivals that were judged able to work were admitted into the camp, while those deemed unsuitable for labor were sent to the gas chambers to be killed. With Red Army troops sweeping through Poland, Mengele was transferred 280 kilometers (170 mi) from Auschwitz to the Gross-Rosen concentration camp on 17 January 1945, just ten days before the arrival of the Soviet forces at Auschwitz. After the war, he fled to South America where he evaded capture for the rest of his life.

On November 10, 1947, [7] Tramiel immigrated to the United States. He soon joined the U.S. Army, where he learned how to repair office equipment, including typewriters. [6]

United States Federal republic in North America

The United States of America (USA), commonly known as the United States or America, is a country comprising 50 states, a federal district, five major self-governing territories, and various possessions. At 3.8 million sq mi (9.8 million km2), the United States is the world's third or fourth largest country by total area and is slightly smaller than the entire continent of Europe's 3.93 million sq mi (10.2 million km2). With a population of more than 327 million people, the U.S. is the third most populous country. The capital is Washington, D.C., and the most populous city is New York City. Forty-eight states and the capital's federal district are contiguous in North America between Canada and Mexico. The State of Alaska is in the northwest corner of North America, bordered by Canada to the east and across the Bering Strait from Russia to the west. The State of Hawaii is an archipelago in the mid-Pacific Ocean. The U.S. territories are scattered about the Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean Sea, stretching across nine official time zones. The extremely diverse geography, climate, and wildlife of the United States make it one of the world's 17 megadiverse countries.

Typewriter machine for writing in characters

A typewriter is a mechanical or electromechanical machine for writing characters similar to those produced by printer's movable type. Typically, a typewriter has an array of keys, and pressing one causes a different single character to be produced on the paper, by causing a ribbon with dried ink to be struck against the paper by a type element similar to the sorts used in movable type letterpress printing. Commonly, a separate type element corresponds to each key, but the mechanism may also use a single type element with a different portion of it used for each possible character. At the end of the nineteenth century, the term typewriter was also applied to a person who used a typing machine.


Typewriters and calculators

In 1953, while working as a taxi driver, Tramiel bought a shop in the Bronx to repair office machinery, [8] securing a $25,000 loan for the business from a U.S. Army entitlement. [9] He named it Commodore Portable Typewriter. Tramiel wanted a military-style name for his company, but names such as Admiral and General were already taken, so he settled on the Commodore name. [10]

Taxicab type of vehicle for hire with a driver

A taxicab, also known as a taxi or a cab, is a type of vehicle for hire with a driver, used by a single passenger or small group of passengers, often for a non-shared ride. A taxicab conveys passengers between locations of their choice. This differs from other modes of public transport where the pick-up and drop-off locations are determined by the service provider, not by the passenger, although demand responsive transport and share taxis provide a hybrid bus/taxi mode.

In 1956, Tramiel signed a deal with a Czechoslovak typewriter manufacturer Zbrojovka Brno NP 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 used parts from Zbrojovka's Consul typewriters and set up Commodore Business Machines in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. [8] After Zbrojovka began developing their own hardware Commodore signed an agreement in 1962 with Rheinmetall-Borsig AG and began to sell Commodore portable typewriters made from the parts of older Rheinmetall-Borsig typewriters. [11] In 1962, Commodore went public, but the arrival of Japanese typewriters in the U.S. market made the selling of Czechoslovakian typewriters unprofitable. Struggling for cash, the company sold 17% of its stock to Canadian businessman Irving Gould, taking in $400,000 [8] and using the money to re-launch the company in the adding machine business, [12] which was profitable for a time before the Japanese entered that field as well. Stung twice by the same source, Gould suggested that Tramiel travel to Japan to learn why they were able to outcompete North Americans in their own local markets. It was during this trip that Tramiel saw the first digital calculators, and decided that the mechanical adding machine was a dead end. [13]

Zbrojovka Brno fire arm and vehicle manufacturer in Brno

Pre-war Československá zbrojovka, akc.spol. and post-war Zbrojovka Brno, n.p. was a maker of small arms, light artillery, and motor vehicles in Brno, Czechoslovakia. It also made other products and tools, such as typewriters and early computers.

Warsaw Pact international military alliance of Communist states

The Warsaw Pact, formally known as the Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation and Mutual Assistance, was a collective defence treaty signed in Warsaw, Poland between the Soviet Union and seven Eastern Bloc satellite states of Central and Eastern Europe in May 1955, during the Cold War. The Warsaw Pact was the military complement to the Council for Mutual Economic Assistance (CoMEcon), the regional economic organization for the socialist states of Central and Eastern Europe. The Warsaw Pact was created in reaction to the integration of West Germany into NATO in 1955 per the London and Paris Conferences of 1954, but it is also considered to have been motivated by Soviet desires to maintain control over military forces in Central and Eastern Europe.

Irving Gould (1919–2004) was a Canadian businessperson credited with both saving and sinking Commodore.

When Commodore 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, TI decided to cut Commodore out of the middle, and released their own calculators at a price point below 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 which had also supplied Commodore with calculator ICs. [13] 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.

Home computers

Peddle responded with the Commodore PET, based on his company's MOS Technology 6502 processor. It was first shown, privately, at the Chicago Consumer Electronics Show in 1977, and soon the company was receiving 50 calls a day from dealers wanting to sell the computer. [13] The PET became 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 selling to them through a dealer network. The first PET computers were sold primarily in Europe, where Commodore had also introduced the first wave of digital handheld calculators. [13]

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 VIC-20, and then the Commodore 64, which became the best-selling home computer of all time. [14] The Commodore VIC-20 was the first computer to sell one million units. The Commodore 64 sold several million units. It was during this time that Tramiel coined the phrase, "We need to build computers for the masses, not the classes." [15] An industry executive attributed to Tramiel the discontinuation of the TI-99/4A home computer in 1983, after the company had lost hundreds of millions of dollars, stating that "TI got suckered by Jack". [16]


Gould had controlled the company since 1966. He and Tramiel often argued, but Gould usually let Tramiel run Commodore by himself. Tramiel was a micromanager who did not believe in budgets; he wanted to approve every expense greater than $1,000, which meant that operations stopped when Tramiel went on vacation. [17] Adam Osborne wrote in 1981: [18]

The microcomputer industry abounds with horror stories describing the way Commodore treats its dealers and its customers. However, Jack Tramiel has built a large and profitable organization by offering a capable product. Tramiel definitely plays hardball, but he deserves credit for what he has been able to accomplish.

Tramiel angrily left a January 13, 1984 meeting of Commodore's board of directors led by chairman Gould, and never returned to the company. What happened at the meeting remains unclear. [17] Neil Harris, editor of Commodore Magazine at the time, recalled:

Well, came that fateful C.E.S. show in January of '84 — a very strange press conference. Jack Tramiel got on stage in front of a whole ballroom full of press people to make the announcement that in the calendar year of 1983, Commodore had sold more than a billion dollars worth of products. Just phenomenal. In three years the company had grown from under $100 million to over a billion dollar corporation. Just unbelievable growth. A success story. But Jack was on stage and he didn't look like a happy man, and Jack was not someone to hide his emotions generally — it just seemed strange for some of us in the back of the room. Three days after the show, Jack announced that he was resigning from the company. Apparently there had been some falling out between him and the chairman of the board, Irving Gould, and from that day on the company was not the same place. [19]

Tramiel later said that he had resigned from Commodore because he disagreed with Gould "on the basic principles — how to run the company". [20] Their disagreement was so bitter that, after Tramiel's departure, Commodore Magazine was forbidden to quote Tramiel or mention his name. [19] Ahoy! wrote after his departure that although Tramiel's "obsession with controlling the cost of every phase of the manufacturing process" had led to record profits during the home computer price war, his "inflexible one-man rule" had resulted in poor dealer relations and "a steady turnover of top executives at Commodore". The magazine concluded "it has become increasingly clear that the company is just too big for one man, however talented, to run". [21]

During a question and answer session at CommVEx v11 (July 18, 2015), Leonard Tramiel finally revealed to the crowd his version of what really transpired between Jack and Irving Gould during the 1984 C.E.S. show resulting in Tramiel leaving Commodore: [22] On January 13, 1984 during a meeting with Irving, Jack told Irving that treating the assets of the company as his own and using them for personal use was wrong. He said to Irving, "you can't do that while I'm still president" to which Irving responded by saying "Goodbye". Three days after the show, Jack announced to the public that he was resigning from the company. [22]

Whilst acknowledging this description of events, David Pleasance (the eventual MD of Commodore UK) also states that Irving Gould told him the falling out was due to Jack's insistence on his three sons joining the board. [23]

In an interview with Fortune magazine on April 13th, 1998 Tramiel said "Business is war, I don't believe in compromising, I believe in winning." [24]


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. [25] The company was named "Tramel" to help ensure that it would be pronounced correctly (i.e., "tra - mel" instead of "tra - meal"). [26]

In July 1984, Tramel Technology bought the Consumer Division of Atari Inc. from Warner Communications. [25] The division had fallen on hard times due to the video game crash of 1983. [27] TTL was then renamed Atari Corporation, and went on to produce the 16/32-bit Atari ST computer line based on Motorola's MC68000 CPU, directly competing with Apple's Macintosh as well as Commodore's Amiga, both of 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. [27]

Despite successfully shipping the ST, Tramiel's poor personal reputation hurt Atari. One retailer said in 1985 about the ST that because of its prior experience with Tramiel "Our interest in Atari is zero, zilch". [28] A software company executive said "Dealing with Commodore was like dealing with Attila the Hun. I don't know if Tramiel will be following his old habits ... I don't see a lot of people rushing to get software on the machine." [29] (One ex-Commodore employee said that to Tramiel "software wasn't tangible—you couldn't hold it, feel it, or touch it—so it wasn't worth spending money for". [30] ) Steve Arnold of LucasArts said after meeting with Tramiel that he reminded him of Jabba the Hutt, while within Atari Darth Vader was often the comparison. [31] Another executive was more positive, stating "Jack Tramiel is a winner. I wouldn't bet against him." [32] In 1988 Stewart Alsop II called Tramiel and Alan Sugar "the world's two leading business-as-war entrepreneurs". [33]

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 suffered a heart attack, and his father returned to oversee operations. In 1996, Tramiel sold Atari to disk-drive manufacturer Jugi Tandon Storage in a reverse merger deal. The newly merged company was named JTS Corporation, and Tramiel joined the JTS board.

Later years

Tramiel was a co-founder of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, which was opened in 1993. He was among many other survivors of the Ahlem labor camp who tracked down U.S. Army veteran Vernon Tott, who was among the 84th Division which rescued survivors from the camp and had taken and stored photographs of at least 16 of the survivors. Tott, who died of cancer in 2003, was personally commemorated by Tramiel with an inscription on one of the Holocaust Museum's walls saying "To Vernon W. Tott, My Liberator and Hero". [34]

Tramiel retired in 1996 and moved to Monte Sereno, California. [35]

Tramiel died on April 8, 2012 of heart failure at the age of 83. [36]

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Further reading