Retro computing fans, especially Commodore and Atari enthusiasts, all know the story. Jack Tramiel left Commodore, the company he founded, in early 1984 at the height of its success. Then, within a few months, he gained control of Commodore rival Atari.
What we know
Jack Tramiel and Irving Gould had a tumultuous relationship. Both men could be hard to get along with, so it stands to reason they would have had trouble getting along with each other.
The two men had some disagreements. Gould spent money lavishly, whether it was his own money or Commodore’s money. Tramiel was more restrained, and once he was at Atari, Tramiel was not too proud to sell office furniture to keep the company afloat during lean times.
At the time Tramiel left, he and Gould got in an argument. Tramiel left suddenly, word got out that he resigned, and that was it for Tramiel and Commodore.
Jack Tramiel rarely spoke about the departure, and when he did, he said, “We had a disagreement,” and left it at that.
For years, rumors circulated about Tramiel’s departure.
One rumor was that Tramiel wanted to turn the company over to his sons, and Gould didn’t want that. The problem with this rumor was that not all of Tramiel’s sons even worked at Commodore at the time.
Another rumor was that Gould decided that Tramiel wasn’t capable of taking Commodore to $10 billion in revenue after reaching $1 billion in revenue in 1983. Commodore only made $1 billion in revenue one time again–in 1991, and that year, Commodore’s profit on that billion dollars was a slim $15 million. No one else who tried knew how to get Commodore to $10 billion either.
In Brian Bagnall’s book On the Edge, on page 339, he quotes Tramiel as saying “Just because we were a billion dollar company, we did not have to throw money out the window like a billion-dollar company… The man I worked for was of another opinion.”
Leonard Tramiel’s story
Speaking at Commvex 2015, Jack Tramiel’s son Leonard told his version of the story. Leonard Tramiel said the disagreement happened at CES in Las Vegas, not at a board meeting.
Commodore was celebrating its 25th anniversary and its billion-dollar year. There was a party. His sons had just bought him a new Corvette and surprised him with the gift in front of the hotel.
During CES, Tramiel and Gould had a meeting. And a confrontation. Tramiel told Gould that he was treating Commodore’s money and assets as if it was his own. He said that was wrong, and as long as he was president, he said Gould couldn’t do that.
“And Irving said, ‘Goodbye,'” Leonard Tramiel said.
It was convenient that suddenly Jack Tramiel had this new car and could leave right away–no cooling off period. He went back to his hotel room, he and his wife packed their things, and they went home.
Bil Herd said Leonard Tramiel had told the story to some ex-Commodore employees, but had never told the story publicly until 2015.
Leonard Tramiel’s story meshes with the account Bagnall found.
With Tramiel out of the way, Gould was free to hand Tramiel’s job to whoever he wanted. None replicated his success. Leonard Tramiel said that watching Commodore’s demise was painful. Commodore went bankrupt and liquidated in 1994. Gould died in 2001. Years after Gould’s death, some of Commodore’s creditors still had lawsuits pending against Gould’s estate.
Tramiel’s story is more complicated. This may have been a long time coming.
In 2015 when Leonard Tramiel told the departure story, Bil Herd alluded to this but was very careful about what he said. Commodore had a project called the Commodore 900, also known as the C900, Z-series, or Z machine. It was going to be a 16-bit machine running Coherent, a Unix clone, using a Zilog Z8000 CPU.
Commodore took three spins at the C900. The second incarnation of the machine was a secret project in 1983 and early 1984 that replaced the Z8000 with the much more famous and commercially successful Motorola 68000 CPU. The engineers on this project followed Tramiel to Atari after he left.
The C900 wasn’t quite dead though. Commodore gave it another shot after that team left and even produced a few hundred Z8000-based development machines working but cancelled it soon after buying Amiga. The two machines filled different niches but Commodore didn’t have the resources to build both of them.
Commodore sued after the key engineers defected to Atari, accusing Atari of stealing the C900 design. Atari countersued, saying Commodore’s purchase of Amiga violated a contract Atari had with Amiga. Few details emerged publicly. The only mention I can find in the press said Commodore accused Atari of stealing the C900 disk drive. Of course, the C900 was a lot more than a disk drive, and Atari didn’t need the drive. Atari did return some file cabinets and tape backups to Commodore.
Dave Haynie, another Commodore engineer, is less careful about what he says about the Atari ST. Well, as long as the Tramiels aren’t around.
“The Atari ST was an awful lot like rev 2 of the Z8000 machine. And it’s hard to imagine how that could have happened. The interesting thing of course is that the rev 2 of the Z8000 machine didn’t work,” Haynie said. “They [Atari] got it to work. They basically walked out of the door with a particular architecture that just magically showed up later with a 68000 in it. You can’t really prove that that happened but everyone knows it did.”
No paperwork exists to prove the Atari ST is the C900-68K with an Atari-designed video chip and Digital Research’s GEM graphical user interface. However, both Bil Herd and Dave Haynie have observed that the Atari ST’s hardware closely resembled the skunkworks 68000-based C900, except the ST worked.
I bring this up because it suggests Tramiel may have seen it coming. Some Atarians bristle at the notion that Tramiel stole parts of the ST. But I don’t know why anyone who knows the rest of Commodore’s story would blame him if he did.
Jack Tramiel left Commodore, and we’ll be able to argue about what-if forever. A lot of people have ignored it, but fortunately some of the people who saw these things happen are still around to talk about it.