The father of the best-selling personal computer built machines "for the masses not the classes."
The Commodore 64. Image: shane doucette/Flickr
Jack Tramiel may be the father of the Commodore 64—the best-selling computer of all time—but he was never into PR campaigns.
"Tramiel sold tens of millions of computers and really changed the marketplace, but he's relatively obscure. He wasn't interested in building an ethos and a story in the way that Steve Jobs was," David Schmüdde, a Berlin-based filmmaker who used Tramiel's computers as a kid, told me.
The Polish-American businessman made it his life's mission to make computers affordable for all, founding technology company Commodore International in the 50s. "Tramiel's push was for a computer for the masses, not the classes," said Schmüdde.
Schmüdde has set out on a quest to chart Tramiel's life in a grassroots interactive documentary called Jack and the Machine, which intertwines the story behind the birth of the personal computer with that of Jack Tramiel's own life. Schmüdde is currently hoping to get enough interest in his documentary to raise the funds to complete it.
"[The documentary] is a human interest story that we're using to piggy-back really important contemporary concepts about digital rights, privacy and whistleblowers," said Schmüdde. "We're contextualising those issues in the past by showing you how we got where we are now."
Tramiel was born in Lodz, a city in central Poland, in 1928. In 1939, Lodz was seized by the Nazis, and in 1944, Tramiel and his parents were moved from their Jewish ghetto to a concentration camp in Auschwitz, where Tramiel was known simply as #148445. Schmüdde's documentary starts by looking at the technology that was contemporary to Tramiel's life back then, long before the Commodore.
"The doc starts by examining how machines like the punch card machine in the Third Reich were an essential part of controlling and administering the war effort because [they centralised] so much power, control, and information," the filmmaker said. "The Nazi administration used tens of millions of punch cards to administer the war effort."
In the absence of computers, IBM's Hollerith machine issued punch cards to identify and track prisoners detained in concentration camps.
The American chapter of the doc starts when Tramiel moves to the US in 1947. He started out in a low-key typewriter repair shop in the Bronx before setting up Commodore International in 1955 and making it public in 1962.
Around the same time that Tramiel was setting up his computer business, Schmüdde charts how the NSA was using supercomputers for surveillance. The supercomputer, according to Schmüdde, was "the first fully automated mass domestic surveillance machine," and was found unconstitutional at the time, leading to the Church Committee, which investigated intelligence gathering in 1975.
Schmüdde argues that Tramiel's efforts to make the personal computer more widely available distributed and democratised the technology's power—allowing it to be used in non-authoritarian contexts.
"Tramiel wasn't an engineer, but a businessman interested in the market and making money. But what he eventually knew was that the computer itself was an instrument of knowledge," he said. "The significance there is that the widespread dispersal of computing was and still is the greatest anti-fascist tool that the world has ever seen. The reason for this is because unlike the radio or the television, the computer is interactive."
Whereas filmmakers usually compile all their material and spend hours in quasi-solitary confinement editing their film, Schmüdde wanted to broaden the artistic process and invite his audience along for the ride.
While he pieces together the doc with his team, he has released an interactive World War II timeline that allows visitors to click through the historical forces that shaped Tramiel's life and work. He has also written essays, launched a mailing list, and given talks around the links between Jack Tramiel and a wider historical and political context. This method, he said, prevents some of the key material from ending up on the cutting room floor and remaining unseen.
Through the lens of Jack Tramiel's life, and his own interactive approach to filmmaking, Schmüdde wants to demonstrate how the personal computer is the antithesis to the centralised control of information by corporations and governments.
"I'm trying to give the viewer a historical overview so they can understand how we got to where we are today. If you're watching this doc on an iPad, I want to say that this iPad is directly tied to the punch card machine of decades ago, and it's an evolution," said Schmüdde.
"Seeing that continuum helps us understand the machines that we're using and the power that latently resides in them," he said.