Ask anyone under 30 about Commodore and you’ll probably get a blank look. Do you know about the Commodore PET, the VIC 20, or recently departed Jack Tramiel? Gamers might, computer history buffs should.
The PET stood along side the Apple II and TRS-80 from Radio Shack in the late 1970’s. Even back then, the younger generation was trying to bring the older generation up to date. BASIC (Beginner's All-purpose Symbolic Instruction Code) was the language of the commoners and I tried to teach my dad the meaning of "GOTO".
I was one of the record million people who bought a VIC 20, tagged the Friendly Computer, trying to get my dad up to speed so he could understand something about what I worked with.
Jack Tramiel, the man behind the Commodore, died this week and with his passing comes memories of a young adulthood filled with cassettes instead of thumb drives; games such as the archaic tennis-like Pong; [a version of which was coincidentally code named Darlene]; WordStar on the Osborne; for old scribblers, and VisiCalc on the Apple II for young forward looking accountants.
Tramiel’s era took computing beyond hobbyists who tinkered with kits trying to build these new electronic toys. Now you could buy a ready-built computer off the retail shelf, plug it in and play games, write letters, do math.
The Commodore VIC 20 was a simple machine by today’s standards
Most computers at the time were bulky, cumbersome units, not slim, lightweight units we have come to expect. Nonetheless, they were the most amazing machines.
Fun with or without joy sticks!
Atari, a Commodore competitor, was seen by Tramiel as a waste of parent’s money in comparison to his computer which in addition to games helped kids learn math and computing concepts. However, he later acquired the company. Tramiel first got his hands dirty doing typewriter repairs, then founded Commodore International which built its reputation making calculators, eventually transforming it into a computer manufacturer.
Commodore computers ran off of cassette tapes
A survivor of Auschwitz and backer of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Tramiel could not be intimidated by relatively harmless computer manufacturers who competed for the same marketplace. When you said Commodore, you could choose from any number of suffixes: PET, 64, Amiga or VIC 20 with the first-ever-for-consumer color graphics. VIC stood for Video Interface Chip involved in graphics and sound, and 20 which according to Michael Tomczyk, manager of the project "has no relation to any technical feature - just my idea of a friendly sounding number. That sounds a bit bizarre looking back on it, but we did a lot of things by instinct in those days."
Those days passed. Although inexpensive compared to later competitors such as the IBM PC, Commodore along with other earlier attempts, eventually gave way to Nintendo. All computers have their brief day in the sun, each pushing the envelope, then dropping behind as others take up the gauntlet and move even farther forward.
Such, also, was the passing fame of Jack Tramiel whose game is over at age 84. Still, he had a glorious reception at the Computer History Museum in California when they celebrated the 25th anniversary of the Commodore 64 in 2007.
Over the years, Tramiel lectured publically of his experience in Poland and under the regime of Nazi Germany. His son Leonard Tramiel told the San Jose Mercury News: "It was very, very important to him that people knew the story and that they would, to use that tired phrase, never forget." Allow me to take a moment before telling you more about Tramiel’s technological achievement, to honor the life and wishes of this great computer giant with abbreviated, mixed excerpts from poems written by survivors.
Do I want to remember?
The peaceful ghetto, before the raid.
Do I want to remember, the creation of hell?
We will never forget the selections at Auschwitz
Children torn apart from their mother’s tender embrace
Fathers shaken with helpless rage.
The mass grave steaming with vapor of blood.
Gold peeled from the mouths
And the remains taken to the open pit
Where the bones are cleaned with fire,
And the fat drained for human soap.
No, I don’t want to remember, but how can I forget?
In the computer industry, we also should never forget the pioneers upon whose shoulders the current latest-and-greatest headlines are built. Computer prices fluctuate, from release, to general availability, to demise, to collectible. If you want a piece of technology history, there is a Commodore VIC 20 selling on eBay for $120, that’s $19 less than I paid for my dad's in 1983 [who says old computers lose in value? Ed.]. He’s gone now, like Jack Tramiel, but the Commodore and accessories pictured in this article is still in my garage.
And BTW, I won’t be selling it.