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Mar 12, 2020

Today we’re going to talk through the history of the Commodore. That history starts with Idek Trzmiel, who would become Jack Tramiel when he immigrated to the United States. Tramiel was an Auschwitz survivor and Like many immigrants throughout history, he was a hard worker. He would buy a small office repair company in the Bronx with money he saved up driving taxis in New York and got a loan to help by the company through the US Army.

He wanted a name that reflected the military that had rescued him from the camp so he picked Commodore and incorporated the company in Toronto. He would import Czeck typewriters through Toronto and assemble them, moving to adding machines when lower-cost Japanese typewriters started to enter the market. By 1962, Commodore got big enough to go public on the New York Stock Exchange. Those adding machines would soon be called calculators when they went from electromechanical devices to digital, with Commodore making a bundle off the Minuteman calculators. Tramiel and Commodore investor Irving Gould flew to Japan to see how to better compete with manufacturers in the market.

They got their chips to build the calculators from MOS Technology and the MOS 6502 chip took off quickly becoming one of the most popular chips in early computing. When Texas Instruments, who designed the chips, entered the calculator market, everyone knew calculators were a dead end. The Altair had been released in 1975. But it used the Intel chips. Tramiel would get a loan to buy MOS for $3 million dollars and it would become the Commodore Semiconductor Group. The PC revolution was on the way and this is where Chuck Peddle, who came to Commodore from the acquisition comes in. Seeing the 6502 chips that MOS started building in 1975 and the 6507 that had been used in the Atari 2600, Pebble pushed to start building computers.

Commodore had gotten to 60 million in revenues but the Japanese exports of calculators and typewriters left them needing a new product. Pebble proposed they build a computer and developed one called the Commodore PET. Starting at $800, the PET would come with a MOS 6502 chip - the same chip that shipped in the Apple I that year. It came with an integrated keyboard and monitor. And Commodore BASIC in a ROM. And as with many in that era, a cassette deck to load data in and save it. Commodore was now a real personal computer company. And one of the first. Along with the TRS-80, or Trash 80 and Apple when the Apple II was released they would be known as the Trinity of Personal Computers.

By 1980 they would be a top 3 company in the market, which was growing rapidly. Unlike Apple, they didn’t focus on great products or software and share was dropping. So in 1981 they would release the VIC-20. This machine came with Commodore BASIC 2.0, still used a 6502 chip. But by now prices had dropped to a level where the computer could sell for $299. The PET would be a computer integrated into a keyboard so you brought your own monitor, which could be composite, similar to what shipped in the Apple IIc. And it would be marked in retail outlets, like K-Mart where it was the first computer to be sold.

They would outsource the development of the VICModem and did deals with the Source, CompuServe, and others to give out free services to get people connected to the fledgeling internet. The market was getting big. Over 800 software titles were available. Today you can use VICE, a VIC-20 emulator, to use many of them! But the list of vendors they were competing with would grow, including the Apple II, The TRS-80, and the Atari 800. They would sell over a million in that first year, but a new competitor emerged in the Commodore 64.

Initially referred to as the VIC-40, the Commodore 64 showed up in 1982 and would start at around $600 and came with the improved 6510 or 8500 MOS chip and the 64k of ram that gave it its name. It is easily one of the most recognizable computer names in history. IT could double as a video game console. Sales were initially slow as software developers caught up to the new chips - and they kinda’ had to work through some early problems with units failing. They still sold millions and millions by the mid 1980s. But they would need to go into a price war with Texas Instruments, Atari, and other big names of the time. Commodore would win that war but lost Tramiel along the way. He quit after disagreements with Gould, who brought in a former executive from a steel company with no experience in computers. Ironically, Tramel bought Atari after he left.

A number of models would come out over the next few years with the Commodore MAX, Communicator 64, the SX-64, the C128, the Commodore 64 Game System, the 65, which was killed off by Irving Gould in 1991. And by 1993, Gould had mismanaged the company. But Commodore would buy Amiga for $25 million in 1984. They wouldn’t rescue the company with a 32 bit computer. After the Mac and the IBM came along in 1984 and after the downward pressures that had been put on prices, Commodore never fully recovered. Yes, they released systems. Like the Amiga 500 and ST, but they were never as dominant and couldn’t shake the low priced image for later Amiga models like one of the best machines made for its time, the Amiga 1000. Or the 2000s to compete with the Mac or with entries in the PC clone market to compete with the deluge of vendors that did that.

They even tried a MicrosoftBASIC interpreter and their own Amiga Unix System V Release variant. But, ultimately by 1994 the company would go into bankruptcy with surviving subsidiaries going through that demise that happens where you end up with your intellectual property somehow being held by Gateway computers. More on them in a later episode.

I do think the story here is a great one. A person manages to survive Auschwitz, move to the United States, and build a publicly traded empire that is easily one of the most recognizable names in computing. That survival and perseverance should be applauded. Tramiel would run Atari until he sold it in the mid-90s and would cofound the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. He was a hard negotiator and a competent business person. Today, in tech we say that competing on price is a race to the bottom.

He had to live that. But he and his exceptional team at Commodore certainly deserve our thanks, for helping to truly democratize computing, putting low-cost single board machines on the shelves at Toys-R-Us and K-mart and giving me exposure to BASIC at a young age. And thank you, listeners, for tuning in to this episode of the History of Computing Podcast. We are so lucky you listen to these stories. Have a great day.