NOTE: This was taken from a 1989 Australian interview and Jack’ last name is misspelled as Trammel by the author so I have not corrected it to Tramiel.
Presenter: I don’t know if you like computers or if you use computers but computers are so much a part of life that it’s hard to resist them I think and Commodore 64 is still the best selling home computer in Australia, in fact the whole world, and my next guest is the man who created the Commodore 64, Jack Tremmel. He’s now heading another computer company which is called Atari, he actually bought up the company in 1984 and we’ll learn about that in a moment, but when he took over Atari the company was said to be losing an enormous amount of money every day, but within only a couple of years it was out of the red, into the black, and Atari is churning out more than 70-million dollars worth of profit these days, which is pretty healthy indeed.
Jack Tremmel is here in Australia to open the PC ’89 exhibition at Darling Habour which starts today, and he’s given us a little bit of time in the studio this morning. Good morning.
Jack Tramiel: Good morning.
Presenter: We work our guests hard when they come to Australia and you’re finding that out, aren’t you?
Jack Tramiel: I do yes.
Presenter: You’ve had a very busy time.
Jack Tramiel: But I’m enjoying it.
Presenter: Are you?
Jack Tramiel: Yes.
Presenter: Well I’m glad to hear that. In fact we’ve got a line of Americans in this hour of the program which is interesting because it’s a lot of people from your part of the world making their way to our shores. Commodore 64 is big here, it’s big just about everywhere isn’t it?
Jack Tramiel: Yes it is.
Presenter: Did you really invent it?
Jack Tramiel: No I’m not the engineer. I’m a businessman, but I do know what the public wants and I know how to bring technology and people together. And by living in Silicon Valley where the technology was born I know it’s available, I know how to bring like I said people together and sell volume to bring the price down that the average person can afford to buy. In this we’ve made the 64 so successful.
Presenter: Commodore started out as a fairly small company I think didn’t it? What did they start out as?
Jack Tramiel: Well I founded Commodore and that was in 1955 in Toronto Canada.
Presenter: Where did you get the name from?
Jack Tramiel: From the back of a Opal Commodore of a car.
Presenter: It was as ordinary as that was it?
Jack Tramiel: I was sitting in a taxi cab and I was trying to get the name for the company which I was building, and I was really looking to make it call it General, I’d just come out of the army and I was in the army for three years and seven months, so I was looking for something strong, so I was looking for a name like General which I couldn’t get because it was taken. Then I was looking for a name like Admiral, and that was taken, and as I was talking to a friend of mine in the cab right in front of me this car with the name Commodore. I said well let’s try this one.
Presenter: And that was it.
Jack Tramiel: And that was it.
Presenter: What a wonderful story, I love it, I love it. We’re back in 1955, let’s go a little bit further back, life started for you in Poland, is that right?
Jack Tramiel: Yes I was born in Poland, I was born in 1928, in 1939 the war started and that’s the time when I to a certain extent left Poland. Auschwitz was still in Poland but it was not Poland for me.
Presenter: When you were in Auschwitz.
Jack Tramiel: Yes.
Presenter: For how long?
Jack Tramiel: I was in the camps altogether for five years and a few months.
Presenter: And then America?
Jack Tramiel: Then I spent two years in Germany from April 10th 1945 till November 19th 1947. In November 1947 I left Germany and went to the United States.
Presenter: Did you have a lot of money?
Jack Tramiel: I had absolutely no money at all when I arrived in the States, I’m Jewish, that’s the reason I was in camp, and a Jewish organisation paid for my ticket and they also gave me 10 dollars spending money. And when I arrived I was in a hostel like which was done by the Jewish Immigration Association and for three weeks I had to find my own way and I started to work for whatever job I could find. But when I did arrive in New York I did not believe that I’m in the United States.
Jack Tramiel: Because it was just like being back in Poland, same language, the area I was in it was lots of immigrants and it had the same smell of pickles and of herring and all that which was very nice but this is not what I came for. And I made a decision that the United States was extremely good to me, I was liberated by the Americans and I felt I wanted to learn more about America so I joined the army.
Presenter: Where did you fight, or did you not fight? Did you go to Korea?
Jack Tramiel: No I didn’t go anywhere.
Presenter: You just joined the army.
Jack Tramiel: I joined the army and it did me a lot of good to learn all about America because it was a peopledom. Washington State, from California, from Texas and from New York and black and green and white – all kinds of different people, and I found that America is not New York City only, there is much more to it.
Then I left the army and after two years and the Korean War started and I was recalled, but I was still lucky that I was not shipped to the front and there the second time around I made a decision that I’d better learn a trade, and the army gave that opportunity to start repairing office equipment like typewriters and adding machines etc. And before I left I was in charge of the First Army Office Equipment Repair Department which we had something like 25-thousand pieces of equipment in there for repairs. And when I left the army I actually continued working in the same field.
Presenter: And that was the genesis of your interest in computers.
Jack Tramiel: Correct. And so during the day I was working in an office equipment repair shop, at night I was driving a cab to be able to feed my family and after a while I decided I’d better use my allowance which I received from the United States Army I was entitled to borrow 25-thousand dollars from the bank with a government guarantee. And I actually took that money and I started my own business, my own little shop. And after I have done that I found that New York City in which I was in the Bronx, it was just a little too big, people were too smart and 25-thousand dollars which is not enough. And my wife had lots of family, she’s also a survivor, also from Poland, and she had a lot of family in Toronto and we used to go there every once in a while, so we decided to move to Toronto. And there I repaired again the typewriters and adding machines in a company by the name of Sears Roebuck liked my services and they asked me if I’d possibly could find a way how I could assembly a typewriter for them. Being young enough and foolish enough I figure it’s an easy task, as long as you have money you can do almost anything. Well I get 176-thousand dollar loan from Sears and I started to try to find a license to build typewriters. Well no American or West European country or company wanted to give me a license, so I wound up getting a license from Czechoslovakia.
And I actually brought 50 technicians over the counter, we started building typewriters. And we built so many that we could not sell them all in Canada and I had to start exporting them back to the States and that’s the way Commodore started.
Presenter: That’s a fantastic story and it tells me because you haven’t said this, but it tells me that you’re a man of great determination, that you don’t think that any obstacle can get in your way. Do you feel that?
Jack Tramiel: I don’t feel that. When I look back you know there must be something you know. In the camp that I told you I was in there was 10-thousand people in 1944, and we moved from Auschwitz to Hanover and when the war came to an end of these 10-thousand there was only 60 left.
Presenter: 60 individuals?
Jack Tramiel: 60 individuals from 10-thousand people. I was one of those 60. So from there on nothing was difficult to me.
Presenter: No, having survived that.
Jack Tramiel: Right. So I believe when a person has a goal, when a person is willing to work hard, the person does not want to become rich the same day but he looks at it in the long term, he can make it. The key is to give first and receive after. We live in a society today that’s just the opposite.
Presenter: Everybody wants to take, take, take don’t they.
Jack Tramiel: Right now.
Presenter: Instant gratification.
Jack Tramiel: But if you are willing to invest your time, your effort and you’re willing to serve society, society will reward you in time.
Presenter: Extraordinary, an amazing story. And you’ve got a very happy face. Are you a happy person do you think?
Jack Tramiel: Well a very happy person because I, I’m just looking at that in 1945 I was reborn, I don’t look back, I do remember but I don’t have any hate in me. I have built a company, I have built a family, I have three sons and four grandchildren and they all know about my background and about success and they’re all working together with me, my three sons are part of my company, and we are very happy with what we’ve accomplished.
Presenter: Well welcome to our country, I hope you have a happy stay, and I hope they don’t work you too hard, not in this humidity anyway.
Jack Tramiel: Thank you