Thursday 12 April 2012

In memory of Jack Tramiel

471px-Jack_Tramiel_croppedThis blog entry is a repost of an entry from my own personal blog at

Jack Tramiel was a man whom I never met, and yet he was a huge influence in my life. For those who are unaware of who he is, Jack Tramiel is the man who started Commodore Business Machines; the company that made the world’s most popular computer of all time, the Commodore 64. What is remarkable is that Commodore was one of the pioneers of the home computer revolution, right in step with Apple and others, and that this company was started in Toronto, Ontario, Canada – a true Canadian computer company. Consider that the Commodore 64 was the single best selling computer of all time (between 12.7 and 17 million units), it’s clear that Jack Tramiel made a huge impact on the industry and on people’s lives. I wrote this blog post as a reflection on the impact he made in my life.

I was born in the early 70’s. During this time, computers and science fiction played a huge role in the culture of the day, and I was taken in by all of it. I marvelled at my father’s digital calculator, and was amazed the new video games like Pong. I soon learned that computers were very expensive, and unless I had a lot of money, I was unlikely to get the opportunity to actually use one of these technical wonders until well into adulthood. Jack Tramiel was the man who changed this for me.
I grew up in the village of Pontypool, in an unremarkable blue-collar subdivision with residents who largely earned their living from the troubled automobile industry in Oshawa, a 20 minute commute away. The school I went to was very rural; surrounded by farmer’s fields, it didn’t have the funding of the city schools. In spite of this, in my grade 6 year, they did get computers. The computers they got were Commodore PETs. Mr. Tramiel’s Personal Electronic Transactors were really the only computers my school could afford; without him or Commodore, I believe we would have had nothing. Fortunately, the PET’s looked very futuristic in their sleek metal cases, which only further spurred my interest.

IMGP9906Computer time on the PET was very limited, as we had only a handful of them. I would write a bit of a BASIC program, and save it on the B side of a mix tape I kept in my Walkman. By the time I was in grade 8, my interest exceeded the limited time I had. I wasn’t as quick as some of the other kids; I needed to spend time with the computer to really learn what I wanted. I didn’t want to just play some games, but I also wasn’t a genius who could spit out binary at birth. I was the guy who wanted to dig deep, learned what made computers tick, and take all the time I wanted in doing so. Jack Tramiel made this possible with the Vic 20.
Thanks to Jack Tramiel, I was able to own my very own computer at the young impressionable age of 13. This was a real computer, not some junky toy, even though the price of around $120 for the Vic and the Datasette drive might have suggested as such. It made a wonderful, affordable gift from my loving working class parents.
My new Vic 20!
Jack Tramiel made computers affordable to the masses, not just the classes. I believe this played a significant role in how computers evolved today. For me, it meant that a boy with a paper route in a rural village could afford to explore what was then the new world of computers. I could write programs, save them reliably, study them, improve them, and explore new dimensions of computer technology with the inexpensive VIC modem. Thanks to Jack Tramiel, I understood Boolean algebra in the 8th grade, without even knowing the word Boolean existed. Without Jack Tramiel, I would not have had my own computer when I was a kid. Jack Tramiel made my biggest childhood dream real for me, and for that, he will be always remembered as a very special man.

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