What once started up as a typewriter repair shop in the Bronx and later a typewriter assembler in Agincourt (a community in Scarborough Ontario), would become one of the best known computer manufacturers in the world. It all starts with Jack Tramiel, a Polish survivor of Auschwitz.
In 1947, Mr. Tramiel moved to the land of opportunity, served in the army, and started up his typewriter repair business. While running this business, he was able to strike a deal with a company in Czechoslovakia to build their typewriters up in Canada. So to the great white north did he move, re-opening in Agincourt. As he gained experience and money, he realized that he could make more by producing his own typewriters, rather than the designs of others. By this time, however, the Japanese were invading the market, and business was getting tight. Tramiel's keen sense of business took him for a ride, and CBM was born in 1962, producing adding machines.
Tramiel did make a mistake at the start, however -- C. Powell Morgan, the president of Atlantic Acceptance Corporation, was named banker and chairman of the new venture, and his crooked business practices caused Commodore to haemorrhage cash. For his behavior in the business world, Morgan would later be condemned by royal commission, but would die of leukemia before anything could be done. The commission took a critical view of Commodore and Tramiel, but could not find anything incriminating. Needless to say, the publicity this caused did naught but cause the money woes to worsen.
But out of disaster was rescued CBM, by investor Irving Gould. Gould gave money and took a stake in the business in exchange of being made chairman. By now, the Japanese had caught up again, and it was back to square one. And as before, a new venture was taken -- pocket calculators. The first commercially available pocket calculator was a Commodore product.
And then trouble. But rather than competition from Japan, this time it was Commodore's supplier of integrated circuits, Texas Instruments. The year of this backstabbing was 1975. Tramiel and Gould learned the important lesson of trust nobody and don't outsource. Gould gave another cash infusion of $3 million, which allowed Commodore to purchase floundering chip-maker MOS Technologies. MOS was founded by former Motorola employees, and created the well known 6502 chip. It would probably be good to read their background before continuing.
With MOS now a subsidiary, Tramiel decided to enter into the fledgling personal computer market. As an attempt to remove competition, he offered to buy Apple from Steve Wozniak, who refused on the basis that the named price was $15,000 short. Had Tramiel given in, we would never had seen the birth of the Macintosh.
Upset by this but anxious to start making computers, Tramiel ordered Chuck Peddle (MOS' founder) to develop an inexpensive computer to market. The result of this was the PET. It was first shown at the Chicago Consumer Electronics Show in 1977. After the show, the name was changed to an bacronym, Personal Electronic Transactor. Peddle worked three solid days and nights to develop the machine, which generated much enthusiasm (similar to games from id Software).
The PET quickly became the weapon of choice among schools, but Tramiel still wanted Commodore in every house. The only major competition at the time was the Sinclair ZX81. To force their way in, Commodore designed and produced the VIC-20. These were sold incredibly cheaply, and with more software available, brought an end to the ZX81. At the heyday of the VIC, 9000 units were built daily and sold at $55 USD.
The year is 1982. For those microcomputer enthusiasts, Commodore was a household name. In this year, the Commodore 64 was launched, replacing the older VIC-20. The C64 is expensive compared to the competition, including the Sinclair Spectrum, which was half the price and appealed more to gamers (the 64 was more general purpose). In Europe, the machine was so unaccepted that Commodore was forced to create the C16 and Plus/4 systems, thinned-down models with only 16kb RAM. While inferior, they sold well for a while, and helped bring people on to the real thing.
As time passed, the cost to manufacture the C64 dropped, and so did the price tag. With the (still very expensive) IBM PC falling in price and gaining software, the C64 was changed by marketing into a game machine, eliminating now the Sinclair Spectrum.
But in the boardroom, there was trouble. Unhappy with the lack of control over his own company, Jack Tramiel resigned from Commodore Business Machines in January 1984. In an act of spite, he purchased the all but dead Atari from Time-Warner, hoping to beat his former business to the 16 bit future. To this end, he unsucessfully courted Amiga Inc., trying to buy it in order to gain nothing more than their technology. Less than two days before signing for the company, however, Commodore snatched it away and started work on the Amiga 1000.
During this time, the systems engineers kept busy, too. At the Hanover fair in Germany, the Z8000 personal computer was launched. It was a dud, but the company still was able to make some slight profit. They also developed their own UNIX machine.
But with Tramiel gone, Commodore was once again haemorrhaging money from every orifice. Marshall F. Smith replaced the outgoing Tramiel, and immediately initiated damage control as the computer industry hit a recession. During this time, payroll was cut nearly in half. In the holiday season of 84-85, Commodore made $339 million in revenue, but only one million stayed as profit, the rest paying off a mere quarter of the company deficit. The company ran aground in late 1985, but a one month extension from creditors allowed the company to live past Christmas, when their computers sold out, providing enough money to continue existance.
In March 1986, Thomas J. Rattigan replaced Smith as Commodore's CEO. He cut the payroll further and three plants were closed in five months. The finance department was put under strict watch to prevent sloppy bookkeeping from ruining Rattigan's rule from suffering the same fate as Smith. Within a year, Commodore was once again turning a profit, making a cool $22 million in the quarter ending December 1986. There was once again money in the bank accounts, the most since 1983. But even this was temporary, and the company started sliding back down.
Tramiel, ever the shrewd businessman, brought about the development of the Atari ST, designed from over the counter components, and aimed to smash the Amiga 1000. At about 2/5ths the cost of the A1000, this machine easily outsold the better system. Most of the latter's games were ports of Atari games anyway, which didn't help much.
Around this time, Irving Gould replaced Rattigan as CEO for fear of losing the company. Rattigan claimed that the issue was personal, that Gould didn't like that Rattigan was getting the credit for pulling Commodore back up. Gould quickly cut payroll again, and closed down five more plants.
And then the scaled-down Amiga 500 was released, using that same everything-is-in-the-keyboard design that Commodore is infamous for. It overtook the ST the same way that it overtook the A1000. Commodore was again at the top, but by now the eight-bit market had gone sour since the release of the Commodore 128. Only once more did Commodore return to the eight-bit machines, with the unreleased Commodore 65 (which actually used a 16 bit processor, the 65816). While beating their competitors, a cloud hung over the company, with low morale and beliefs that soon the dream would be over.
By now, the Amiga had become the world's best selling home computer, ever. In April 1990, the Amiga 3000 was released without any signs that it had existed before. June saw the CDTV, which I guess could be considered a game console, and was a failed attempt to get the computer into people's living rooms.
And Commodore started making serious financial mistakes, more than ever. In August, the A500+ was released, replaced six months later by the A600 (which was practially the same machine).
In 1992, management was scrapping many projects that could have kept the Amiga alive and competing to this very day. The A3000+, a souped-up version of the A3000, was demonstrated, killed, and then ressurected as the A4000. On September 11 1992 (lots of bad things happen that day), the Amiga 1200 was released, unchanged from its prototype stage and plauged by problems, yet still put out to market. The venerable C64 was entering its final stages of life, with little software still being released, and sold for about $90 USD with a disk drive in the bundle. Eventually, Commodore sounded the death knell, stating that it would only focus on the Amiga from then on. Everyone knew that the ride was almost over.
With 1993 beginning, a final effort was made to save the company. With shares at $5 each and dropping, and as much happiness as a funeral parlour, they still wouldn't give up without a fight. The CD32 game console, a vamped up CDTV matching the Amiga 1200's stats, was released. Game publishers announced the Amiga as dead, however, as further cutbacks whittled down the Amiga subsidiary of Commodore.
In 1994, the national branches of Commodore started liquidating, starting with Australia. March saw huge losses posted. April 22 saw most people of the parent company laid off. On April 25, only 30 employees remained, and two days later the remaining Commodore facility was closed. Then, on Friday April 29 at 4:10 P.M., Commodore filed for liquidation. Their announcement was short:
Commodore International Limited announced today that it's Board of Directors has authorized the transfer of assets to trustees for the benefit of its creditor and has placed its major subsidiary, Commodore Electronics Limited, into voluntary liquidation. This is the initial phase of an orderly liquidation of both companies, which are incorporated in the Bahamas, by the Bahamas Supreme Court. This action does not affect the wholly-owned subsidiaries which include Commodore Business Machines (USA), Commodore Business machines LTD (Canada), Commodore/Amiga (UK), Commodore Germany, etc. Operations will continue normally.
June 20, 1994, saw the death of Jay Miner, the man who originally created the Amiga. He died at the El Camino Hospital in Mountain View, California. He had been fighting against illness for a while, and eventually died from heart failure due to kidney complications.
For almost a year, the carcass of the once-great empire was picked at by vultures of the computer industry. This battle was between Dell and Escom, the latter, a German computer manufacturer, being the victor of the battle for Commodore's assets. Escom itself died in 1996, and the only remains left, those of Amiga, eventually ended up with Gateway 2000, in 1997.