One day in 1982, fellow Spectrum editor Paul Wallich and I took a long lunch and walked over from Spectrum’s First Ave. offices in New York to 47th St. Photo. There, we turned over $600 each to get our hands on the Commodore 64. It was my first personal computer; I think Paul had a TRS80 but was eager to replace it. (At the Spectrum editorial offices, we tapped out articles on IBM Selectric typewriters, and we were pretty happy having such state-of-the-art technology.)
I took my C64 home and hooked it up to my TV set, and tried to figure out the mysteries of programming “sprites,” little graphical objects that I could move around the screen. I lost interest in that pretty quickly (I’m just not a coder), and, instead, lost myself in the worlds of Zork, a computer game that, though text-only, could still make me scream when the troll jumped out of the shadows. I was such a Zork dork that I moved the Commodore and a small TV that summer to a beach rental. I then discovered word processing software for the C64, and started writing my first drafts of manuscripts on its 40-character-wide display.
A year or so later, Paul and I replaced our C64s with Kaypros (though we were still using those Selectrics at work). And I shipped my Commodore 64 to a friend in Michigan, in time for her to slip it under the tree on Christmas Eve. It was her son’s first computer too.
Paul and I were among 17 million people who bought the Commodore 64, making it the best-selling single computer model of all time. And all 17 million of us have Jack Tramiel, then CEO of Commodore, to thank for bringing it to the masses. Tramiel died earlier this week at age 83.
Tramiel wasn’t a tech guy—he founded Commodore to import typewriters. But he saw tech coming, bought a chip supplier, MOS Technology, to help Commodore compete, and brought out a few toy-like computers before launching the powerful (for its time) Commodore 64. The computer had a keyboard, a CPU, graphics and sound chips, and 64 kilobytes of memory—huge. The chips for the system, designed by MOS Technology engineers, were intended for the next great video game, Albert Charpentier, who worked on the project, told Paul and me back in 1985, when we were working on an article about the C64 [Design case history: the Commodore 64, Spectrum, March 1985]. But Tramiel decided in November 1981 to scratch the video game, and instead put the chips into a new home computer to be introduced at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) just two months away. He also decided to bet that 64K RAM chips, at that point fairly expensive, would come down in price fast enough to make sense for this new machine. The engineers laid out the basic architecture in two days, and completed five working prototypes in time for CES, where it was a huge hit. Tramiel rushed the project into production, starting volume shipments in August 1982. I think Paul and I made our purchases that September.
Tramiel left Commodore in 1984, to try to revive the faltering Atari and take it head-to-head with Apple. That didn’t go so well, and his firing of most of Atari’s staff, and, let’s say, brusque treatment of the press, didn’t always endear him to Silicon Valley. He made it very clear that he saw business as war. But he also made it clear that he wanted to make computers for everyone, “the masses, not the classes.” And as one of Tramiel’s masses, I thank him.
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Tekla S. Perry is a senior editor at IEEE Spectrum. Based in Palo Alto, Calif., she's been covering the people, companies, and technology that make Silicon Valley a special place for more than 40 years. An IEEE member, she holds a bachelor's degree in journalism from Michigan State University.