Sunday, April 15, 2012

So Long Jack Tramiel

Somewhere in a loft, in the fair and mighty county of North Yorkshire, there rests my greatest teenage dream. In 1987 I turned 12 and, apart from being besotted with the female of the species, I had a craving for technology, any technology, and when the Atari ST came into my sights it was love at first sight. 

The following year I was extremely lucky and managed to snag myself a 520 Atari STFM – it had a built in disk drive (still the half meg version) and TV modulator! 

And how I loved it. 

Jack Tramiel - Apparently as hard headed as a business man could be...

I used that computer day and night – pixel art in Degas Elite, writing in First Word Plus, cranking out poems with some weird automated poetry writing software, failing to learn to program with STOS, even sound sampling – which really meant recording things then playing them backwards or at different pitches. And, of course, games, great great games, like Stunt Car Racer, Dungeon Master, Midwinter, Populous and the Secret of Monkey Island. Work (sort of) and play all in one perfect package. 

That ST got used so much that the left mouse button stopped working with any reliability within a year, so my dad swapped the wires around so the right mouse button got all the action. Soon I had to get a new mouse altogether, a Naksha mouse, still the best mouse I’ve ever owned. The power supply even flaked out after a few years of merciless heat and had to be replaced, which is still the pinnacle of my electronic engineering endeavours. 

The man that made this machine possible was Jack Tramiel, a survivor of Auschwitz and founder of Commodore. Under his reign Commodore made and sold a little computer called the Commodore 64, which is a blockbuster by anyone’s standards, bringing a proper computing into tens of millions of homes. 

Corporate wrangling left Jack on the wrong side of the Commodore board room door, so he set up a new company, acquired the computer half of Atari and drove too hard a bargain trying to purchase the Amiga, allowing Commodore to step in and make a sensible offer for the technology instead. Incapable of admitting defeat, Tramiel and Atari cobbled together the ST from off the shelf parts (not like any shelf I ever had) and made my decade. 

I’ve been working in video games development for nearly 17 years now, using skills I half learned with a clunky mouse and my first full keyboard. When people say “you know computers” to me, it’s Jack Tramiel and the Atari ST that deserve the credit. 

Thank you Jack, for making the machine that made me, I will forever be in your debt.