The Commodore Clipper (and other tales of the summer 1983 CES)

The summer 1983 Consumer Electronics Show (CES) was held in Chicago, IL (USA) at the Chicago Convention Center and two hotels from June 5 through June 8, 1983.  80,000 people attended the event to see 1,200 exhibits spanning 735,000 square feet of floor space.

With the home computer wars at a fever pitch in the early 1980s, new hardware introductions at CES were of paramount importance to the players in the home computer market.  At summer 1983 CES, Atari introduced the 600XL and other models, Mattel was showing their newly released Aquarius and Coleco stole the show by announcing their Adam computer the night before CES began.  Commodore was showing their Magic Voice speech synthesis cartridge and the Executive-64 or SX-64.  Neither received much fanfare since both had already been displayed at the winter CES in January.

Commodore’s Software Division

Sigmund Hartmann

Sig Hartmann from Compute!, issue 057, February 1985

Commodore failed to make an impression with their hardware exhibit, but their big reveal was to be software instead.  In April 1983 Commodore officially formed their Software Division and Jack Tramiel appointed Sigmund “Sig” Hartmann to organize, develop and run it.  Sig was a long-time TRW executive who had actually left TRW once before to work for Commodore in a role as a general manager.  Sig’s first stint at Commodore didn’t work out, but he accepted Jack Tramiel’s invitation to come back to Commodore and run the software division.

Just a few short months after the formation of Commodore’s software division, it would make quite a splash at the summer 1983 CES.



Commodore’s major announcement for Summer 1983 CES

Commodore announced that they would be releasing 70 new software programs, all for less than $100 each.  Commodore UK’s software team, headed by Gail Wellington, contributed several titles to the list including Easy Script, the well-known word processing software.  A complete small business accounting package was licensed from Info Designs, Inc.  A team consisting of Sig Hartmann, Andy Finkel, Gail Wellington and John Campbell visited Microsoft and successfully negotiated a deal for their Multiplan spreadsheet application.  At Neil Harris’ suggestion, a range of text adventure titles were licensed from Infocom.  With the new software library taking shape, Commodore needed to do something such that Summer 1983 CES attendees would take notice.

The Commodore Clipper

On June 5, 1983 Commodore issued a press release to announce that the ‘Commodore Clipper’ had been christened.

Commodore Clipper Press Release

Commodore Clipper Press Release

The ‘Commodore Clipper’ was actually the S.S Milwaukee Clipper, a passenger steam ship and Lake Michigan car ferry originally built in 1904, then reconstructed in 1940.  The S.S. Milwaukee Clipper ended its duty in commercial service in 1970.  By 1983 the ship was operating as a floating maritime museum and convention facility, and Commodore rented it for use at the 1983 summer CES.  The ship was anchored at Chicago’s Navy Pier and the ‘S.S. Milwaukee Clipper’ naming on the ship was covered by temporary ‘Commodore Clipper’ banners.  The “Boatload of Software” pun was unavoidable, especially since Commodore’s major thrust at CES was their new software division, and a banner with the slogan was affixed at the entrance of the ship.

Commodore set up two dozen exhibits on the first deck of the Commodore Clipper to showcase their newly announced software titles.  Upstairs on the second deck, a multimedia slide show of the story of Commodore was playing.  On the main deck of the ship, there was a dining area at one end and staterooms at the other.  The staterooms were used as offices and temporary meeting rooms.

Photos of the Commodore Clipper taken by John Feagans

The end of CES and the end of a presidency

Robert H. Lane was hired as President of Commodore Business Machines, Inc in November, 1982.  He had previously held positions at ITT Grenell and Northern Telecom.  On the final night of summer CES, June 8, 1983, Bob Lane had been with Commodore just over six months.  According to Michael Tomczyk, Bob Lane missed an opportunity by not booking sales in advance or at the show, which drew the ire of Jack Tramiel  Michael was on the ship when Jack Tramiel talked to Irving Gould and got permission to fire Bob Lane. Michael asked Jack “What’s going on?” and Jack said “I’m going to fire him.” Jack walked Bob to the front of the Commodore Clipper, had a very short chat with him then walked back.  Jack, Michael and Sam Tramiel got in a limousine and left.

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