RIP Jack Tramiel
April 9, 2012 12:46 PM   Subscribe

Commodore International founder Jack Tramiel has died.

Jack Tramiel, born 1928, was a concentration camp survivor who emigrated to the US after the war. In 1953, while working as a New York cabbie, he bought an office machinery repair business and named it 'Commodore Portable Typewriter'.

After trading in typewriters and both mechanical and electronic calculators (each business being undercut by competitors, and in the case of the electronic calculators their original IC supplier), they turned to the business they are remembered today: computers.

First was the Commodore PET, a machine that, in a turn from some of the other computers of the time, was sold from Commodore straight to businesses and schools.

Then the Vic-20, designed for home use, and with what was intended to be a family-friendly commercial campaign (youtube link) (warning: contains Shatner). (previously)

Their success kept going with the Commodore 64, possibly the best selling computer system of all time. During the Vic-20 and C64 time, Jack was said to have coined the phrase "We need to build computers for the masses, not the classes."

In 1984, however, Jack left the company, formed another company called TTL (Tramel Technologies Limited, the 'tramel' to insure proper pronunciation of the name) and bought the smoldering remains of what had been the greatest of videogamecompanies, Atari. While he did revitalize the company for a time, including the famed (and unfinished) Swordquest (previously in MeFi) series, the company slowly declined and was sold to disk drive manufacturer JTS in 1996, a company in which he had a major interest but no controlling capacity.
posted by mephron (91 comments total) 14 users marked this as a favorite

posted by jquinby at 12:48 PM on April 9, 2012 [25 favorites]

posted by spamguy at 12:52 PM on April 9, 2012 [13 favorites]

load "$", 8, 1

posted by Legomancer at 12:55 PM on April 9, 2012 [3 favorites]

posted by He Is Only The Imposter at 12:56 PM on April 9, 2012

POKE 53281, 0
posted by Rat Spatula at 12:56 PM on April 9, 2012 [10 favorites]

Damn. The day I talked my parents into trading the Apple II for a C64 (Color! Sound!) was the best day of my young life.

It's pretty much a straight line from there to my finally getting a degree in electrical engineering as an adult.

I still have my C-64, tucked away in my basement. It annoys the wife, but she doesn't understand. I spent more time with that machine than pretty much anything else I have ever owned.

I think I'll see if I can fire it up this weekend and see what Peeks and Pokes I remember...
posted by Pogo_Fuzzybutt at 12:57 PM on April 9, 2012 [2 favorites]

The Commodore 64 was an integral part of my childhood.

posted by entropicamericana at 1:00 PM on April 9, 2012 [2 favorites]

One of the great books of my youth was the official C64 programmer's reference guide, which (if memory serves) included block diagrams, interrupt information and a slew of technical information that was way over my head. That book disappeared a long time go, but I managed to hang onto a fold-out schematic that was included in the back of the book. It was two-sided - I intend, at some point, to have a copy made of the back and then matte/frame them.
posted by jquinby at 1:01 PM on April 9, 2012 [1 favorite]

POKE 53280, 0
posted by Artw at 1:04 PM on April 9, 2012 [1 favorite]

posted by Cash4Lead at 1:04 PM on April 9, 2012

Ah, I am not the only one with a black border.
posted by Artw at 1:05 PM on April 9, 2012

Also, assides from making my first computer and the nemesis of my second computer, what a fucking crazy life. Hats off to you, dude.
posted by Artw at 1:06 PM on April 9, 2012

The Commodore 64 is the reason I have the career I have today. So thankful I had access to it growing up.

posted by jbickers at 1:07 PM on April 9, 2012 [3 favorites]

The man who computerized the American masses. IIRC, the Commodore 64 is still the top selling home computer of all time. It still blows my 12-year-old nephew's mind when I tell him that computer used to run on 64K. Not gigs, not megabytes, but 64K. Still amazing when you think about it 30 years later.

posted by jonp72 at 1:11 PM on April 9, 2012

My first machines were Vic-20, C64, SX64 and C128. If not for the beauty and ease of use of those machines I would almost certainly not have pressed on and eventually built this career. He was one hell of a guy.
posted by Clinging to the Wreckage at 1:15 PM on April 9, 2012

posted by Wolfdog at 1:17 PM on April 9, 2012

Count me as another that partially owes my EE career to the Commodore 64. I wish I still had mine. It was the only computer I ever truly understood at a technical level.
posted by rocket88 at 1:20 PM on April 9, 2012

Whoa. I was just thinking about the Commodore 64 over the past couple of days. I got to thinking about how bizarre it was that I had so much fun with Print Shop and Print Master on the C64 as a kid.

Then, at PAX, they had a Commodore 64! I was hoping to play Beach Head II and Super Huey and other games that I knew were impressive back when when my cousin gave them to me but was too young to figure out, but I could get on the machine. They had a tournament one day, and it was just very popular in general. Among people in their twenties, even.

posted by ignignokt at 1:25 PM on April 9, 2012

(Er, could = couldn't)
posted by ignignokt at 1:25 PM on April 9, 2012

Ah man, Commodore 4+ represent!
posted by jadepearl at 1:28 PM on April 9, 2012 [1 favorite]


I'm ex Atari ST owner, which is the first machine I really programmed
posted by Z303 at 1:42 PM on April 9, 2012

SYS 64738

posted by Foosnark at 2:00 PM on April 9, 2012


My favorite computer of all time (and the one I grew up with). I still have 2 working ones (and a monitor, and a couple of 1541 drives, and a bunch of accessories) in my attic.
posted by wildcrdj at 2:10 PM on April 9, 2012

A lot of people hated Tramiel's guts, and in particularly a lot of later-era Atari guys didn't have many nice things to say about him. I have a memory of reading somewhere that it was because of him, who had no interest in buying the arcade game company, that it was decided to split Atari up into Atari Inc. (makers of the Atari ST home computer, the Jaguar and the Lynx) and Atari Games (the arcade game company and later, under the name Tengen, game software publisher).

My perception of the corporate history of Atari is:
Founder Nolan Bushnell sold Atari Corp. to Time Warner, Time Warner sold Atari Inc. to Jack Tramiel and Atari Games to Namco. Tramiel eventually sold their Atari to JTS, while Namco eventually sold Atari Games to WMS, owners of the Williams, Midway and Bally gaming brands. When Infogrammes bought rights to the Atari name and the older arcade properties (I don't remember who from -- I don't think it was JTS), to avoid confusion Midway eventually rechristened Atari to Midway Games West, which was the studio's name when it was shut down in 2003.

Tramiel did give us Commodore Business Machines and, through the PET, Vic-20, C64 and C128, revolutionized the personal computer market. (From memory: the Amiga was not designed at Commodore but was acquired when they bought a company called Amiga, which then gave the computer its name, but that was after Tramiel left I think.) The C64 was one of a number of competing computers at the time (including the Atari 8-bit machines, the Apple II family and some other machines in Europe), but managed to obliterate them all on one very important level: price. The machine debuted at $595, but it wasn't long before it had dropped to $199, and that was probably due to Jack Tramiel's hard-nosed business acumen.

From the Wikipedia page "Commodore 64":
The C64 made an impressive debut at the January 1982 Winter Consumer Electronics Show, as recalled by Production Engineer David A. 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 US$135.

Note 1: Vertical integration plays a large role in former competitor Apple's success today.

Note 2: The 6502 microprocessor was invented by the same team who invented the 6800 for Motorola, who jumped ship to MOS when that company expressed no interest in a low cost design. That was the chip, along with variants, that made the personal computer revolution possible. It was in the Atari VCS/2600 (as the 6509), the Vic-20, the Commodore 64 (as the 6510), in the Apple series up to the II-C (where it was switched for the 16-bit hybrid 6520C), the Atari 8-bit line, and the Nintendo Famicom (as the Ricoh 2A03, second-sourced from MOS), among others.
posted by JHarris at 2:13 PM on April 9, 2012 [7 favorites]


When I was 7, my dad bought a Vic 20. I was an instant addict. From the included guide, I entered a program that was something like
10 print"╰●╯"
20 print"╭●╮"
30 goto 10
.. making a flapping bird on the screen. wow, what wouldn't be possible with such a machine? I started programming, and while the stuff I wrote in those early days is pretty laughable to the adult professional programmer, this was still powerful and formative stuff. Enough to chart my life's path into comp sci and then into the software industry.

In my teens I grew sophisticated enough to do things like dabble in thinks ASM-based sprite animation code. My greatest achievement was a clone of the video game "Columns" which I think probably ran with glacial slowness trying to determine what was to be erased from the well...

We were a Commodore household until the DOS PC became the obvious choice. Now I'm on Linux day and night. With modern languages like Python and modern graphical interfaces like Gtk (or all this browser-based javascript stuff that "kids these days" are doing, for that matter) there's no doubt that it's in some sense easier to program. But I sometimes wonder what, if anything, provides people the same "aha" moment as typing in a few dozen characters and getting an animated bird.
posted by jepler at 2:14 PM on April 9, 2012 [7 favorites]


It's easy to laugh at it now, but in its time, the C-64 really was a revelation. Gates, Woz and Jobs may be much better known, but Tramiel played an indispensable role in getting lots of kids and non-technical adults used to the idea that a computer was something just about anyone could afford to own, play with, and enjoy.
posted by Nat "King" Cole Porter Wagoner at 2:17 PM on April 9, 2012 [2 favorites]

He was an early client of Bill Gates's, hiring him to write the Microsoft Basic that shipped in the ROMs of all Commodore computers from the Pet through the Commodore 128. According to Wikipedia, "Bill Gates first offered it at a $3 per unit royalty fee but Jack Tramiel turned it down stating 'I'm already married', [and] said he would pay no more than $25, 000 for a perpetual license."
posted by Paquda at 2:32 PM on April 9, 2012 [2 favorites]

The first real computer I personally owned.
posted by tyllwin at 2:39 PM on April 9, 2012


I learned how to program on an Atari ST (the "Jackintosh"), which had a major effect on the direction the rest of my life took.
posted by doop at 2:40 PM on April 9, 2012

posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 2:41 PM on April 9, 2012

Oh, man. My very first computer was a second-hand Vic-20 back in the 80s. I used to stay up all night on that thing, poking around with BASIC and playing one of the two text adventure cartridges we had with it. Good times.

posted by Mr. Bad Example at 2:42 PM on April 9, 2012

I wish I had the little tab from a self-punched single-sided 5 1/4 floppy (You know, to make it double sided). I'd post that here.


posted by DigDoug at 2:46 PM on April 9, 2012 [5 favorites]

My first computer was a Commodore Vic-20, which I begged for after falling in love with one belonging to a friend's family. I was 13. I never stopped loving computers. Thanks, Jack.

posted by swerve at 2:46 PM on April 9, 2012 [1 favorite]

You should all read On the Edge: the Spectacular Rise and Fall of Commodore, along with the "it's basically an entirely new book" second edition, Commodore: A Company on the Edge.

If there's anything approaching an official history of the company and the Atari / Commodore relationship and rivalry, Brian Bagnall did it with these two books.

The first edition covers everything up through the last days of Amiga and the early 90s. The "Second Edition" has been expanded with a ton of "pre-Amiga" material and in fact stops its narrative at the introduction of Amiga; Bagnall now has enough material to split that out into its own title as well from what I've heard.

I will warn you - as you read these books, you will have multiple facepalming and "DOH!" moments.

(First computer was a TI-99/4A; I went from that to an Atari 520STfm and then to a secondhand Amiga 1000...)
posted by mrbill at 3:02 PM on April 9, 2012 [3 favorites]

An author comment:
"Think of the new book as a second edition of On the Edge. Here is what Brian had to say, "It was a long road and a lot of work to get the second edition into shape. There was so much new information from the 15 additional interviews and tons of pictures that I had to split the book into two parts. A Company on the Edge deals with the period up until Tramiel leaves and the second part (slated for 2012) will tell the post-Tramiel years with the Amiga. Each book deals with about a 10 year period, and a lot of players change in 1984 so it worked out to be a pretty good split."
posted by mrbill at 3:04 PM on April 9, 2012

While I grew up on Apple IIs I still have to respect what he did for that era.

posted by radwolf76 at 3:15 PM on April 9, 2012

My second computer was a C64. Easily the best bang for the buck of my early tech life. RIP, Jack.

posted by dbiedny at 3:16 PM on April 9, 2012

Thank you, Jack, for showing that you didn't have to be born in 1955 to help shape the emerging computer world of the 1980s.
posted by oneswellfoop at 3:22 PM on April 9, 2012

Wow. I was working at Avalon Hill during the early '80s and played with all those bad boys. Even went onto some BBBs.

I feel very very old.
posted by Bill Peschel at 3:29 PM on April 9, 2012 [1 favorite]

I am typing this on a 13" Macbook Air connected to a 27" 1080p HD monitor. Sitting beside it is a stack of other computer devices - an unused 1U blue Google Search appliance, a dev unit for a hardware platform, a Mac Mini, an iPad, a Xoom and my Android phone. I have worked with computers my entire life. I think I learned to program at age 8, on a Commodore PET.

On the other side of my desk is a C64, a 1541 disk drive and a "Video Monitor Model 1701".

I am not a sentimental person, but that Commodore 64 has as much meaning for me as any physical object I own.

Thanks Jack.
posted by GuyZero at 3:36 PM on April 9, 2012 [1 favorite]

I think I was eight when the C64 came home for Christmas. Had a 1541, decent monitor, all the toys.

Dad said that it was for education only, not for playing games. Within two weeks, we had Choplifter on cartridge and a joystick as well.

The 300 baud modem followed, then a 1200 baud. Then PCs, an early 14.4kbps (only $300!), etc... Paid $900 for a DX2/66. All money well spent.

I'm a senior developer now, with a love of gadgets, and it all started with 64k on Christmas morning.
posted by WinnipegDragon at 3:38 PM on April 9, 2012 [1 favorite]

I saved up my allowance for several months to buy an 8K memory expansion cartridge for my Vic-20.

posted by zota at 3:45 PM on April 9, 2012 [1 favorite]

This saddens me more than Jobs. The first person computer I ever laid hands on was a VIC-20. And the first one I owned was a C-64. And that was what got me into computers in general and essentially changed my life.

posted by Splunge at 3:46 PM on April 9, 2012

PersonAL. I'm a bit verklempt.
posted by Splunge at 3:47 PM on April 9, 2012


For me at least, C64 was the killer gaming platform from 1982-1987. Everyone on the block and at school was swapping floppies of heisted gamez (with help of the mighty Disector).

Blue Max, Raid over Moscow, Pinball Construction Set and dumped ROMs of cartridge-based home versions of arcade classics like Dig Dug really kept me busy as a little shaver. Just a wonderful little box.
posted by porn in the woods at 3:55 PM on April 9, 2012 [1 favorite]

I never owned one (there wasn't a computer at home until long after I had moved out), but one of my high school friends owned a C64, about which I remember two things:

* It was connected to a regular (B&W) TV, so he could change the channel to watch Animaniacs.

* He used it to create covers for the mix tapes he made when we were in high school, printed on a hella-noisy chunky dot-matrix printer.
posted by epersonae at 4:10 PM on April 9, 2012

   **** COMMODORE 64 BASIC V2 ****


Pretty much any device I own that has the capability to emulate a computer system invariably has the ability to display this message shortly after unboxing. PCs. Tablets. Smartphones. Nintendo DS. Nothing captivates more than what was capable on 8-bit computer systems, and if we exclude programming, consoles. One of my biggest childhood regrets is the sale of my beautiful original breadbox C64 with 1541 diskette drive and Near Letter Quality dot-matrix printer. Emulation scratches the nostalgia itch to a certain extent, but it isn't the same.

I had no clue who this man was back then, but having read quite a bit about Commodore and Atari in the interim, I'm surprised at how blue I am at this news.

God speed Jack.
posted by NordyneDefenceDynamics at 4:19 PM on April 9, 2012 [3 favorites]

I remember my first Commodore 64... I believe we paid $525 for it in 1983. It kind of blows my mind putting that figure into the inflation calculator: $1133 in 2011 dollars. I kind of feel that we were insane spending that much money, but I'll be damned if I didn't get my money's worth out of it over the next six years.

I got a VIC-20 the previous year at K-Mart... I don't know what we paid for it, but it was also a princely sum. In hindsight, it would have paid to wait a few more months and get the C-64.

My VIC-20, C-64, and C-128 were all running perfectly fine up until the 1990s. Fine, fine machines. The only part that ever gave any trouble was the sound chip... I had to replace them a couple of times after a power surge or lightning strike.

A nod to Jack for making my 1980s fun and interesting.
posted by crapmatic at 4:34 PM on April 9, 2012


You can see me at my Commodore 64 in my MeFi profile pic. I don't think I'd be the nerd I am today without my nerdy dad letting me play on his computer. It's sitting over the sink in the wet bar that he turned into a little computer station.
posted by fiercecupcake at 4:43 PM on April 9, 2012

posted by goodnewsfortheinsane at 4:52 PM on April 9, 2012

The first computer I ever touched was a Commodore PET. I wrote a blackjack game on it in 7th grade. Thanks, Jack, and RIP.

(and thanks to my computer class teacher at Russell Sage JHS, 33 years ago - I'm sorry I can't exactly remember your name)
posted by bashos_frog at 5:04 PM on April 9, 2012 [1 favorite]

This is a little off-topic, but Bill Peschel, I'd love to hear more about your Avalon Hill days sometimes.
posted by JHarris at 5:14 PM on April 9, 2012 [3 favorites]


Count me in as yet another kid for which the C64 was a life-changing and life-guiding experience.
posted by ymgve at 5:20 PM on April 9, 2012

well, my first introduction to computers was in 1974, when i took a data processing class and attempted to write lines of cobol on lines of green and white computer paper for several days - then had them translated into punch cards and fed into a machine, which told the computer - which, with all the tape drives, etc etc was the size of my apartment - what to do, at which point it reported there were bugs, which i didn't understand and couldn't figure out how to fix

horrific visions of me in a cubicle poring over green and white paper with a pencil trying to figure out inexplicable bugs caused me to transfer to graphic arts and write off computers for good

now if i'd had something that had made cool little flying birds with a few keystrokes, i might have been a lot more interested and realized that pencils and green and white paper were not what i was in for

you guys were very fortunate in having 8 bit computers as your introduction to IT
posted by pyramid termite at 5:48 PM on April 9, 2012 [1 favorite]

posted by Meatafoecure at 6:00 PM on April 9, 2012

posted by Aquaman at 6:12 PM on April 9, 2012

posted by lalochezia at 6:43 PM on April 9, 2012

(I found a mistake in my above comment: the Atari VCS/2600 used a 6507, not a 6509.)
posted by JHarris at 6:54 PM on April 9, 2012

I got caught skipping school in Grade 5 and was forced to "Join" the computer club which had a two month old PET that NO one knew how to use. The Club consisted of "me" and my punishment for every Wednesday for the rest of the year was to "learn this computer stuff". Week one and two was Lunar lander then... I asked if I could work every-night after school we got two more club members... and that was it. I am so glad I skipped school and got caught.

All I wanted to do was program computer games. 28 Years later, as I sit exiled in a country not my own, in a Job I hate doing (enterprise programming). I am relearning how to program games in hopes of moving on... Thanks Jack because without you I would feel as lost today as I was in grade 5. A truant who learned computers were exciting and fun... today as an exile I am slowly remembering computers are still exciting and fun!
posted by mrgroweler at 7:25 PM on April 9, 2012 [3 favorites]

Just thinking of the computerized infrastructure created by people like me who learned to play with computers in the 80s, the revolution in society, in the economy, it boggles the mind. So much of it comes down to the rather clueless parents who bought their 12 year old kid a Commodore 64. What a leap of faith to lay down $700 on a toy that they didn't understand but recognized the significance that their kids took to this new technology instantly.

You can thank Bill Gates for making it powerful and ubiquitous, Steve Jobs for making it pretty and useful, but without legions of adolescents learning to program BASIC in the 80s, there would seriously be no Internet.
posted by Slarty Bartfast at 7:28 PM on April 9, 2012 [2 favorites]

posted by fnerg at 7:37 PM on April 9, 2012 [1 favorite]

Those of you reading this reminiscing about the days programming your old Commodores and looking to recapture some of that, may I suggest looking into the Python programming language? The fact that it actually contains a print statement (print() in Python 3) I've always taken as a nod to those old 8-bit computer BASICs, even if Python itself is a lot better to work with.
posted by JHarris at 7:47 PM on April 9, 2012 [2 favorites]

posted by caclwmr4 at 7:55 PM on April 9, 2012

posted by humanfont at 8:15 PM on April 9, 2012

I wouldn't be up this late at night documenting logic errors in my FPGAs (flight hardware for NASA spacecraft) if not for that amazing room full of Commodore PETs in our public school's math section. Here's to you, Jack, with many thanks.

posted by newdaddy at 8:25 PM on April 9, 2012 [1 favorite]

The Digital Antiquarian just had a post on Tramiel, with its usual awesome quality.
posted by Sparx at 9:26 PM on April 9, 2012

posted by MissySedai at 9:27 PM on April 9, 2012

Wow, that Digital Antiquarian page on Tramiel is loaded with stuff I didn't know, and gives a good sense of the man. Good find Sparx!
posted by JHarris at 9:55 PM on April 9, 2012

A choice paragraph:
In North America Commodore’s role in the early microcomputer and game-console industries was also huge, but mostly behind the scenes, and all centered around the Commodore Semiconductor Group — what had once been MOS Technologies. In an oft-repeated scenario that Dave Haynie has dubbed the “Commodore Curse,” most of the innovative engineers who had created the 6502 fled soon after the Commodore purchase, driven away by Tramiel’s instinct for degradation and his refusal to properly fund their research-and-development efforts. For this reason, MOS, poised at the top of microcomputer industry for a time, would never even come close to developing a viable successor to the 6502. Nevertheless, Commodore inherited a very advanced chipmaking operation — one of the best in the country in fact. It would take some years for inertia and neglect to break down the house that Peddle and company had built. In the meantime, they delivered the 6502s and variants found not only in the PET but also in the Apple II, the Atari VCS, the Atari 400 and 800, and plenty of other more short-lived systems. They also built many or most of the cartridges on which Atari VCS games shipped. All of which put Commodore in the enviable position of making money every time many of their ostensible competitors sold something. Thanks to MOS and Europe, Commodore went from near bankruptcy to multiple stock splits, while Tramiel himself was worth $50 million by 1980. That year he rewarded Peddle, the technical architect of virtually all of this success, with termination and a dubious lawsuit that managed to wrangle away the $3 million in Commodore stock he had earned.

Yeah. Farewell Jack. We won't see your like again, at least that's what I hope.
posted by JHarris at 10:02 PM on April 9, 2012 [1 favorite]

My first real computer (besides an Atari XT,) was 520ST, upgraded from half a meg to a full meg of ram. I was actually a bit afraid of computers beyond "plug in cartridge/put in disc," and the GUI worried me that I would do something really dumb and fuck up a whole program or something (which I did once with a copy of Lemmings,) but it was kind of neat to be the only person in 6th grade to be handing in reports printed out on something that was not the school computer.

posted by Snyder at 10:29 PM on April 9, 2012

posted by DreamerFi at 11:22 PM on April 9, 2012

C= & /I\

posted by marienbad at 12:38 AM on April 10, 2012

First C=64 was $300 secondhand in 1987. I have no fucking idea how my parents afforded it. No disk drive, just tape. I had this on my wall. My room sounded like this. Life was pretty sweet.
posted by obiwanwasabi at 1:22 AM on April 10, 2012

posted by genehack at 3:27 AM on April 10, 2012

posted by joeycoleman at 4:21 AM on April 10, 2012

I remember playing Jet Set Willy, loaded off a tape.

posted by arcticseal at 6:31 AM on April 10, 2012 [1 favorite]

First computer I ever used in my life, at age 6 or 7, was a Commodore PET. This would be in late 1980 or early 1981. I remember at the time sort of being familiar with the idea of a computer (I was a Star wars kid; computers were part of the environment!), but actually touching one and even *using it*? Heavens, that was cool.

No surprise that I'm still in IT, an owner of several computers (and the previous owner of close to thirty others). Thanks, Jack, for contributing to the revolution. And my personal revolution, too.

posted by Edison Carter at 6:57 AM on April 10, 2012

It is no exaggeration to say that the countless hours I spent programming BASIC (and eventually even a little bit of machine language) on my Commodore 64 as a kid are responsible for me eventually finding my way back to programming as an adult. By the time I got to high school the C64 was long in the tooth but PCs still had crappy graphics and while Macs were a black box for someone accustomed to being able to just type in programs or PEEK and POKE away.

I spent most of high school and college wandering in the desert, using computers for digital artwork (Amiga represent) and word processing, but not programming; at the time there were computer science classes in school, but I had already figured out most of the fundamental concepts they covered on my own. Then the World Wide Web happened, and while HTML is not programming it has that same "tweak some code here and see what it does" instant gratification factor. I was hooked. It wasn't too hard to find a HTML monkey job in the late 90's. HTML led to JavaScript, JavaScript led to PERL, and so on... and here I am.

posted by usonian at 7:06 AM on April 10, 2012

Went from the Timex-Sinclair to a C64 then an ST. Stayed with various STs well into the twilight of the BBS days, running a board on a 520ste that I'd soldered 4mb of memory into, with a MIDI fileshare over to my Falcon030.

I owe half my friends and a good chunk of my career to Atari hardware. Thanks, Jack.
posted by Orb2069 at 7:56 AM on April 10, 2012

I wrote my first computer programs on a Commodore PET on display in Myer's department store in Melbourne. My mate and I, both in sixth form (year 12) used to go in there with a tape cassette to save our creations on and hack away until we were thrown out. I remember being terribly proud of a routine I worked out that would break down any integer you entered into prime factors.

One day Peter the sales guy told us we couldn't use the machine any more because "the cursor was broken". We all understood instantly that this was bullshit, but it took me a while to figure out that the guy in the background giving us all the fish-eye was probably his boss and that we'd worn out our welcome along with the display machine's utterly crappy keyboard, which had started to stick and creak.

I do feel incredibly lucky to have eased into IT just as personal computers were becoming A Thing; I feel like a mechanic who started out when the Model T was state of the art. It makes me quite sad to reflect that today's kids have no access to cutting-edge computing machinery as easy to understand as the stuff I was fortunate enough to have encountered at their age.

Sure, there's a lot of amazing entry-level kit available, but the things that kids see being done with apparent ease on endless game consoles, phones, tablets and PCs are so far removed from what's easily picked up by a beginner as to make learning to program much more daunting than it was for me. Less necessary, too; modern gear does so much more out of the box.

There's a lot of talk about "digital natives" and the amazing things they allegedly know how to do. As a school IT technician I get to me a lot of these people, and it seems to me that kids with an aptitude for programming are actually rarer now than they were when I was young. It will be interesting to see how the industry evolves as more and more of those who shaped it follow Jack Tramiel.
posted by flabdablet at 9:32 AM on April 10, 2012 [1 favorite]

All of this lionizing of the guy neglects that Commodore seemed to succeed in the short term because of Tramiel, but he wrecked it in the long term, bought MOS Technologies then soaked up all those profits from the 6502 lineage without properly funding a successor and thus laying waste to what was once one of the best microprocessor developers, then when the rancid fruits of his dehumanizing management style ripened he sold the company, bought half of Atari from Time Warner, then did largely the same thing there.

Whoever bought MOS Technologies would have reaped tremendous profits, and something would have to have been done with them. We might as well be talking about $THATGUY, the value of which in this universe happened to be Jack Tramiel.
posted by JHarris at 10:15 AM on April 10, 2012

As a school IT technician I get to me a lot of these people, and it seems to me that kids with an aptitude for programming are actually rarer now than they were when I was young.

You might consider seeing if your school will consider getting some Arduinos for student hacking purposes, or maybe some Raspberry Pi's.
posted by JHarris at 10:18 AM on April 10, 2012

All of this lionizing of the guy neglects that Commodore seemed to succeed in the short term because of Tramiel, but he wrecked it in the long term
The article that sparx linked to above is illuminating and depressing; I knew that Tramiel's successors had done a fine job of running the company into the ground (I still remember hearing about bankruptcy announcement, made literally 2 days after I had bought a used Amiga 2000), but I hadn't known that he set the company on that course before they took over. Nevertheless I felt the need to throw in a '.' because of the path his company's product set me on, however ill-used his gains were.
posted by usonian at 10:37 AM on April 10, 2012

It's been said above, but I am another one of the people who wouldn't have a career at all if it weren't for my VIC-20 and 64. I still have both of them somewhere…

posted by ob1quixote at 12:25 PM on April 10, 2012

There's a lot of talk about "digital natives" and the amazing things they allegedly know how to do.

I always thought the digital native was, well not the right way of looking at the use of technology. After discovered the idea of digital visitors vs. digital residents, that seemed to make much more sense and match my experience of it being less about age and more about time online.
posted by Z303 at 12:56 PM on April 10, 2012

in memorium.
posted by crunchland at 1:04 PM on April 10, 2012

Another VIC-20 user here - I spent many, many hours writing little programs in that princely 3K of RAM. I remember running out of memory once trying to write a D&D character sheet generator. Unlike many of you, despite all those hours spent in front of the phosphors I never took a computer science class beyond highschool and thus managed to avoid having an intensely marketable skill at the height of the dot-com boom.

posted by sevenyearlurk at 2:06 PM on April 10, 2012

$100 and a TV set = worlds of fun and learning.

They don't make 'em like that anymore.
posted by Twang at 3:02 PM on April 10, 2012

Commodore seemed to succeed in the short term because of Tramiel, but he wrecked it in the long term

Yes. But relative speaking, he was in terra incognita. No one ever did what he was doing. Steve Jobs had lots of examples to look back on for what not to do. The PC era was about standard designs - Michael Dell barely even thought about what his product was going to be it was so standardized. Tramiel was building what turns out to be the most complex machine ever built and he got a lot of things right. His long-term technology planning was pretty bad but he did a better job of building an affordable family PC than anyone else did at the time.

So he was a jerk. So is pretty much every other major computer industry CEO. If he screwed up, well, so did Lewis and Clark. That's what happens when you're the first.

It would have been nice if he hadn't made mistakes. Oh well.
posted by GuyZero at 9:15 PM on April 10, 2012 [1 favorite]

OK, on reading one of the links above I understand that "jerk" may not quite cover Tramiel's malfeasance and/or illegal activities. But, still, I appreciate the good things he did.
posted by GuyZero at 9:27 PM on April 10, 2012

Well, Tramiel wasn't really *that* out there. Running a personal computer business isn't that different than running another sort, it was his employees who were on the fringe, he just bought their companies, treated them poorly, and reaped the rewards. Just because other major computer CEO do it doesn't excuse him. It doesn't excuse the rest of them, either. (Funny you should mention Jobs BTW, as in his first life as founder of Apple Computer he was Tramiel's direct competitor.)

But I'm not actually trying to dump on the man, this is an obit thread after all. We should view him, not as an idealized figure, but as a man, with faults, with a history that might have crushed someone else. He didn't do it for our sake; he saw an unmet need and he set about meeting it for wealth, in the way of capitalism. But he did do it.
posted by JHarris at 11:08 PM on April 10, 2012

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