Category Archives: Tramiel

Logo for Atari, a video game company

Atari Is Born, 40 Years Ago Today

Out of the ashes of Computer Space, an unpopular first attempt at an arcade video game which was  released by Nutting Associates in 1971, 27-year-old Nolan Bushnell, along with partner Ted Dabney, incorporated Atari, Inc. today in 1972.  Their next attempt, the first game released by the new company, would be a slightly bigger success: PONG.

Bushnell and Dabney had created Computer Space under the auspices of an informal company they dubbed Syzygy, pronounced siz-eh-jee, a term meaning the Earth, Moon and Sun in perfect alignment.  Thankfully a candle-making commune had already registered that name, so Bushnell took a term from the Japanese game Go he liked to play, and Atari was born.

Atari co-founders Ted Dabney (left of PONG) and Nolan Bushnell (right of PONG), with Al Alcorn far right


PONG was an instant success, a quicky paddle-ball video game hammered out by Atari employee Al Alcorn, the immense profits of which would carry the company for years.  Five years later Atari would create the Video Computer System (later renamed the 2600) home console, which initially struggled but would eventually come to define home video games after the licensing of the Taito/Midway hit arcade game Space Invaders for the games machine.  Bushnell eventually sold Atari to Warner Communications, and was muscled out by management in 1978.  The name Atari became synonymous with home video games, with the company ruling the roost until the great video-game crash of 1983-1984 would utterly destroy the entire industry.

Atari was eventually split into two companies: industry stalwart Jack Tramiel, fresh off his departure from Commodore, would pick up the consumer division of Atari in 1984 to form Atari Corporation, with Warner continuing the arcade division separately as Atari Games, Inc..  They would eventually sell to Namco in 1985.  The Tramiel-led Atari would move more deeply into computers with the Atari ST line, while Atari Games made such arcade games as Marble Madness (1984), Super Sprint (1986) and Hard Drivin’ (1989).

Logo for Atari Games, a video game company

Atari Games logo, 1998


Tramiel eventually merged Atari Corp with hard drive manufacturer JTS, who in turn sold remaining assets to Hasbro in 1998 for a paltry 5 million dollars.  French software maker Infogrames would end up purchasing Hasbro in 2000, and rebrand the entire company using the Atari, Inc. name in 2001.  Coming around in a neat circle, Nolan Bushnell eventually joined the board of Atari in 2010.

So raise a glass to the company that created the video game industry, 40 years young today.

As always, for more history of Atari and the games that helped define it and the rest of the video game landscape, consult your local The Dot Eaters article.

Jack Tramiel, former CEO of both Commodore and Atari

Jack Tramiel, 1928 – 2012

One of the leading figures of the early computer revolution, Jack Tramiel has passed away at the age of 83.

Born Idek Tramielski in Lodz, Poland, in 1928, Tramiel would survive the horrors of the Nazi invasion and the Auschwitz concentration camp, eventually emigrating to the U.S. and repaying his liberators by joining the U.S. Army in 1948.  While stationed at Fort Dix in New Jersey, Tramiel was put in charge of the office repair department, fixing typewriters.  After leaving the Army in 1952, a $25,000 U.S. Army loan enabled him to open his own typewriter repair shop in the Bronx.  In order to draw some comparisons to large appliance firms with military names such as Admiral and General, Tramiel took the model name of a Opel brand of car he noticed while riding in a taxi one day, and the Commodore Portable Typewriter company was born.

Commodore adding machine

Moving to Canada to capture exclusivity rights in importing Olivetti typewriters, Tramiel set up shop in Toronto and embarked in some shady deals with Canadian financier C. Powell Morgan which almost landed him in jail.  A trip to Japan persuaded Tramiel to enter the burgeoning electronic calculator field, riding to great success on the wave of microprocessor technology. Texas Instruments eventually figured out that it should be making its own devices instead of supplying Commodore with microchips,  and undercut Tramiel’s prices with their own brand of calculators.  Vowing to never be trapped by the whims of a supplier, he purchased chip maker MOS Technologies in 1976 and secured Commodore’s future as a manufacturer of cheaper electronic devices.

Commodore PET

With the MOS acquisition, Tramiel also got the services of employee Chuck Peddle, a visionary design wizard who built the PET or Personal Electronic Transactor for Commodore, one of the first mass-produced personal computers that entered the market in 1977, along with the Apple II and the TRS-80 from Tandy.  Leverageing the success of the PET, Tramiel pushed his team to create low-cost colour computers, resulting in perhaps his greatest legacy: the blockbusters VIC-20 and Commodore-64.  The 64, in particular, was an enormous success, eventually becoming the greatest selling computer of all-time.  It is incalculable how many games were sold on this platform, and how many game designers cut their teeth on the system.

Commodore 64, the popular home computer from Commodore 1982

The paradigm-shifting Commodore 64


In early 1984, with Commodore at its apex, Tramiel’s clashes with company chairman Irving Gould resulted in his ousting from the company.  Ten years later, Commodore itself would pass into oblivion, entering liquidation after a series of disastrous mistakes. A few months after his departure, Tramiel would buy Atari’s consumer division from Warner Brothers, desperate to unload the ashes of the once great gaming company, felled by the cratering video game industry.  Tramiel trash-canned planned next-generation game consoles at Atari to focus instead on home computers, but was stymied by his former company’s purchase of Amiga, Inc. from under his nose, a company who’s Amiga computer line of revolutionary 16-bit computers would help keep Commodore afloat.  Tramiel would fight back with the Atari ST line of 16-bit computers, which powered Atari Corporation through the rest of the decade and into the 90’s.  In 1996, Tramiel would merge Atari with a hard drive manufacturer, resulting in the company JTS.

Tramiel and Sons

Leaving behind his wife Helen, as well as their three sons Gary, Sam and Leonard, Jack Tramiel also leaves behind an industry that owes him a great debt for helping to popularize their landscape.