Jack Tramiel was born Idek Tramielski in Poland in 1929 and spent most of the Second World War in concentration camps. In 1947 he emigrated to America, where he served in the US Army for four years until 1952. Tramiel worked briefly in a repair shop mending army typewriters but left in 1953 and opened his own typewriter repair shop in the Bronx, New York.
He named the company Commodore (because he wanted a military connotation) in 1954 and in 1955 relocated to Toronto in Canada to manufacture typewriters and adding machines (US import restrictions prevented him importing foreign typewriter parts into America).
In 1971 the company, under the name Commodore Business Machines or CBM, launched its first pocket calculator and up to the late 1970s produced a wide range of calculators, especially 'scientific' models, which sold very well.
By September 1976 Commodore was valued at $60 million but at this time the selling price of calculators had dropped to the point that there was virtually no margin in them. Desktop computers were just beginning to appear, though not in a user-friendly form, and in September of 1976 Commodore bought MOS Technology (often called MOSTEK).
MOSTEK's Chuck Peddle had developed a microprocessor called the 6502 and was selling a very simple computer trainer based around it, the KIM 1. This was soon rebadged as a Commodore product, who around this time relocated their base to California.
In June 1977 Commodore launched one of the most influential desktop computers, the PET 2001. Unlike most other computers of the time the PET came as a single unit of keyboard, monitor, tape deck and electronics in a smart metal case and could be just plugged in and used. It was also competitively priced. Soon after the PET went on sale Commodore withdrew from the calculator market.
Also around this time Commodore briefly entered the developing market for electronic, liquid crystal display, watches, selling the model pictured right. Surprisingly this one, bought for about £6 in 1977, is still working in 2007, though the digits appear to have 'smudged'.
The PET 2001 and its descendants sold mostly to businesses for use as a word processor and database, and to schools, but Commodore's next computer, the VIC-20 of 1981, was aimed at the emerging home games market and featured colour graphics and sound. The VIC-20 itself was rather limited, particularly by a small memory capacity, but an improved version called the Commodore 64 which came out in late 1982 went on to become the best selling model of computer ever, with at least 20 million units shipped. In 1983 Commodore's computer sales were worth $1 billion and Commodore had manufacturing and sales divisions worldwide.
In January 1984 Jack Tramiel left Commodore and in July that year bought Atari, but Commodore continued to prosper and in August 1984 bought a small business called Amiga Corporation which was developing a next-generation high performance desktop machine but was short of capital. In 1985 the new computer arrived as the Commodore Amiga 1000.
The Amiga had groundbreaking display and sound capabilities, and a genuinely multitasking operating system, but was a little too expensive for the mass market. The later and cheaper Amiga 500 and Amiga 600 models were very popular in the late 1980s to early 1990s, mainly as home games consoles. Amiga sales passed one million units in 1989.
During late 1985 and 1986 Commodore got into financial difficulties but a programme of severe cost cutting and continuing popularity of the Commodore 64 allowed them to return to profitability in 1987. Most of their profits came from overseas rather than US sales.
Commodore developed several upgraded versions of the Amiga, with faster processors, more memory and even more advanced graphics. These had a very impressive specification but were generally too expensive for the home market, which mostly stuck with the less capable but competitively priced A500, A600 and A1200 models. Whereas many home computer manufacturers of the 1980s seemed to make the mistake of not bringing out new and improved models, if anything Commodore had the opposite problem. They developed a wide range but perhaps spread their efforts too thinly and did not put enough care into finishing off the designs and properly marketing them. The new products did not sell in sufficient numbers to recoup the considerable development costs, and there also tended to be a lack of software to use the new capabilities.
Although the Amiga had a large share of the home computer market, and was also popular with computer artists, it never fulfilled Commodore's hope of being accepted into the business world, which had standardised on the initially much less capable IBM PC compatibles. Sales of the Amiga remained strong into the early 1990s but dedicated games consoles like the SEGA Megadrive were becoming popular, and for serious uses IBM PC clones were displacing the Amiga even in homes. Sales of the Amiga slipped, Commodore's debts grew unmanageable and the company went into liquidation on 29th April 1994.
Commodore had brought out some of the most innovative, successful, usable and technically advanced desktop computers, often by designing their own custom integrated circuits to handle functions such as graphics and sound, but like most other computer makers eventually lost out to the vast size of the IBM PC compatible market.
The Amiga continued to be sold for a while by a company named Tulip but production has now ceased. However there have been several attempts by new companies to bring out modern versions of the Amiga, and Amiga emulators are available to run under WindowsTM. Even new software for the Amiga is still being written, so it is not dead yet. Jack Tramiel is living in retirement in California.