Mr. Tramiel, a concentration-camp survivor and tough-talking former typewriter repairman, was an unlikely success story in the high-gloss world of Silicon Valley. Neither an engineer nor a designer, the chubby, cigar-smoking Mr. Tramiel (pronounced tra-MELL) was once considered a computer-industry visionary of the same order as Steve Jobs and Bill Gates.
As much as anyone, Mr. Tramiel transformed the computer market by figuring out how to build dependable home computers at a price that ordinary people could afford.
In 1977, he introduced the Commodore PET, the first personal computer to cost less than $1,000. Two other popular computers from competing companies, the Apple II and Radio Shack TRS-80, came on the market the same year.
In 1980, Mr. Tramiel’s company brought out the Commodore VIC-20, but he made his most lasting mark two years later, with the Commodore 64. Designed by Mr. Tramiel’s chief engineer, Chuck Peddle, the Commodore 64 was a reliable, easy-to-use computer with a then-unheard-of 64 kilobytes of internal memory. It was one of the first PCs on which games could be played.
As the price dipped below $300, millions of Commodore 64s were sold worldwide, making it one of the most popular — and influential — personal computers in history.
“Commodore was a huge factor in the early days of personal computing,” Paul E. Ceruzzi, a historian of technology at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, wrote in an e-mail. “The big impact of the Commodore 64 was its ability to play games. It had a fanatical customer base, who were also the creative driving force of Silicon Valley.”
By 1984, two years after the Commodore 64 was launched, Mr. Tramiel’s company had sales of $1 billion a year and commanded 42 percent of the U.S. home-computer market.
At the height of his success, the notoriously abrasive Mr. Tramiel had a dispute with other executives and shareholders of Commodore and abruptly quit the company he had founded almost 30 years earlier.
A few months later, he bought Atari, the struggling computer-games company founded by Nolan Bushnell, with hopes of turning it into a home-computer challenger to Commodore, Apple and IBM.
Within a month, Mr. Tramiel laid off almost 90 percent of Atari’s workers and hired a new management team, including all three of his sons. “I’m going to change this company from a democracy into a dictatorship,” he told the Toronto Star at the time.
After a short-lived turnaround, Atari’s fortunes began to falter, and Mr. Tramiel retired in 1996.
Nonetheless, the memory of his contributions, especially with the Commodore 64, remains strong among computer aficionados.
“During the wild-and-woolly early days of the PC,” Time magazine technology correspondent Harry McCracken wrote, “Jack Tramiel helped to define what a PC was.”