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Jack Tramiel dies at 83; founder of Commodore computers

The Holocaust survivor brought millions of people into the world of personal computers in the late 1970s and early '80s with his low-cost PCs.

April 12, 2012|By Dennis McLellan, Los Angeles Times
  • A Polish-born survivor of the Auschwitz concentration camp, Jack Tramiel began his business career with a typewriter repair shop in the Bronx in the early 1950s.
A Polish-born survivor of the Auschwitz concentration camp, Jack Tramiel… (Business Week )

Jack Tramiel, the tough and aggressive Commodore International founder who brought millions of people into the world of personal computers in the late 1970s and early '80s with his low-cost PCs, has died. He was 83.

Tramiel, who lived in Monte Sereno, Calif., died Sunday at Stanford Hospital in Palo Alto, said his son, Leonard. He had been suffering from congestive heart failure for many years.

A Polish-born survivor of the Auschwitz concentration camp who began his business career with a typewriter repair shop in the Bronx in the early 1950s, Tramiel (pronounced tra-MELL) earned a reputation as a hard-nosed, hard-driving, autocratic executive with a tremendous sense of the marketplace.

He brought Commodore International to the top of the home computer market before unexpectedly resigning as president, chief executive officer and a director of the West Chester, Pa.-based company in 1984 after a reported dispute with Chairman Irving Gould.

The company introduced its first low-cost PC, the Commodore PET, in 1977, with its two models selling for $595 and $795. It was followed by the Commodore VIC-20 in 1980. And in 1982 came the hugely popular Commodore 64, a best-seller that initially sold for $595 and quickly dropped to $199.

"Jack Tramiel is really the man who brought the average person into the computer industry," said Michael S. Malone, a Silicon Valley historian and author.

"Everyone remembers Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak at Apple, but in those early years the war hadn't been won yet by anybody," Malone said. "You basically had Apple first, then you had Commodore, Atari and later IBM. And for the first five years of the personal computer industry — 1976 to '81— it was a crapshoot as to who was going to win."

Tramiel's Commodore PET "was the low entry-level machine and he was going after home users," said Malone, adding that Tramiel's legacy "was he made the personal computer business into a real, honest business."

"He forced it to compete, he was driving prices down, he was trying to maximize profit margins. He treated it as a manufacturing industry, not simply a business for fanatics. And I think that was crucial in turning a hobby industry into a global consumer giant."

David Laws, a curator at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, Calif., said Tramiel "had an extremely important influence on the market in the early days. He hired some bright people and gave the consumers what they wanted at a price they were prepared to pay."

Laws described Tramiel as "a very tough, hard-driving negotiator. He's renowned for firing many of his employees; he was an old-school autocrat. The stories are legion of people trying to do business with Jack and the tough stances he would take."

Said Malone: "He was really as tough as you'd expect an Auschwitz survivor to be. He was absolutely the antithesis of all the T-shirted, long-haired other pioneers in personal computing."

The same year he left Commodore, Tramiel bought the consumer divisions of Atari, which included home video games and computers. He stayed with the company until 1996.

An only child, Tramiel was born in Lodz, Poland, on Dec. 13, 1928. After the German invasion of Poland in 1939, he and his parents were rounded up and sent to the Jewish ghetto in Lodz.

In 1944, the family was shipped to Auschwitz; the teenage Tramiel and his father were later assigned to a forced-labor camp in Nazi Germany. His mother, who was later sent to another concentration camp, survived the war; his father did not.

Tramiel married his wife Helen, a fellow concentration camp survivor, in 1947. He came to the United States the same year and joined the Army, where he learned to repair typewriters.

In 1955, two years after buying a typewriter repair shop in the Bronx, he moved to Toronto and founded Commodore, which originally was a typewriter and adding machine company.

According to a 1984 Times story, many observers thought Tramiel's firm would succumb in 1965 when bankruptcy and a financial scandal enveloped a closely associated finance company. Although Tramiel was a subject of the Canadian government's investigation, he was never indicted.

Tramiel entered the electronics business manufacturing calculators and digital watches after moving to Northern California in 1968.

Speaking of the success he attained after surviving the Holocaust, Tramiel told the Jewish Bulletin in 1998: "Even if you came out from hell, you can still make it."

"I like to go forward, not backward," he said. "The most important thing to me was to succeed, to build a new life."

The Tramiels were major donors to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., and Tramiel spoke to school and other groups about his own experiences.

Leonard Tramiel said it was important to his father that people understand what had happened. When he asked his father why he didn't speak more often, his father said: "When I do one of those talks, I shake for a week."

Besides his son Leonard, Tramiel is survived by his wife; his two other sons, Sam and Garry; and five grandchildren.

dennis.mclellan@latimes.com

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