The Atari ST (part 1)

One friday afternoon in July, 1984 the rumor floated through the halls: Jack Tramiel had bought Atari, and we were all going to be killed. Or laid-off. Or something. My office-mate had worked at Commodore a few years earlier (where Jack had been CEO) and said “If this is true, I’m quitting. I’m not working for Jack again; he’s a monster.” I didn’t know anything about Jack, but this wasn’t a good sign.

On Monday the rumor turned out to be true. Like all important happenings at Atari — layoffs, major management shake-ups, bad financial news and so on — we found out through the San Jose Mercury News rather than an official internal announcement. The paper said that Jack Tramiel had bought Atari from Warner Communications, and he and his people were on the way to San Jose to take the company apart and kill us. Or lay us off. Or something. The Merc didn’t exactly say that Jack was a monster, but that he had a hard, no-nonsense management style. This wasn’t a good sign.

I remember spending a crazy couple of days trying to concentrate on my current project; I sure didn’t feel like doing much (I was working on a computerized Trivial Pursuit game, something we’d code-named “Trivial Compute,” and was learning a lot about data compression algorithms, but my heart just wasn’t in it). The hallways were buzzing with rumors of entire buildings-full of people who had been nuked.

It took a little while for them to get to us. On Wednesday two of Jack’s “lieutenants” arrived at our building (we consumer games folks had been co-located with the coin-op division to save money). Someone had phoned ahead and said that the Tramiels were coming over and that news spread like wildfire. When they showed up, someone said, “I see them! They’re walking in the front door!”. I dialed-up the building’s intercom system and announced:

“Imperial storm troopers have entered the base! Imperial storm troopers have — Urk!”

then hung up abruptly. (Later, one of the two said that the timing couldn’t have been more perfect; my announcement happened as they had begun marching down the main hallway on the way to meet with the people they were going to lay off…).

There were interviews. Fast interviews that might better be described as grillings. We each had about five minutes to talk with Leonard Tramiel (Jack’s son) and John Feagans (a long-time Commodore employee, and someone that the Tramiels trusted). They asked questions like: Do you have any experience writing operating systems? I told them that I’d read Lion’s notes on Unix, and about my CS coursework at Maryland and the tools work that I liked to do. Did I want to work on a new computer? Sure, that sounded kind of exciting. I might have mentioned Soul of a New Machine and stuff about compilers. My memory of this is rather vague; I recall having a private conversation with the two of them, but others have said that we were interviewed in groups of five or six. It might have been both.

A couple hours later we were told to meet in a common area. There were about sixty of us. “Do you want the news individually, or all at once?” We took a vote, and most of us (veterans of many, many layoffs) just wanted to get things over with quickly. Leonard read two lists of names. Those on the longer list, about two thirds of the people there, were the ones getting a package. Those on the shorter list would be working for the Tramiels, at least for a while. My name was on the shorter list.

It was unclear if it would be better to be laid-off or to work for these people; they were tight-lipped and nearly complete ciphers. Who were the lucky ones? There was no way to tell. I helped my now-ex-cow-orkers pack their offices and load boxes into their cars. Out of the cluster of six programmers and an artist, people who I’d worked with and survived layoffs with for years, I was the only one left.

There was a lot of stuff left behind, and a bunch of VAXes that I could mess around with nearly all by myself. It wasn’t all that much fun.

– – – –

All of us programmers got VP desks.

The Tramiels had bought a lot of stuff — by contract they could have anything they wanted of the Warner Atari’s assets — and we needed to set up our offices in the new building that engineering was being consolidated in. We were moving from the coin-op building (since Jack hadn’t purchased the coin-op business, the doors to that part of the building, now a separate company, had been locked) to a building in Sunnyvale that had belonged to Corporate Research. Most of the people in Research had been let go; Lisp Machines and Vaxes were humming away without anyone to use them. Jack wasn’t interested in academics.

It turned out that we could have nearly anything from the old Atari that we wanted, since it didn’t cost anything extra. While the Tramiels were selling the more expensive items (like the Vaxes and Symbolics Lisp Machines that the researchers had been using), more mundane stuff could be had for the asking. You could have just about anything you wanted, and as long as Jack didn’t have to write a check for it (and was something that he couldn’t sell to make quick cash), he didn’t care.

Anything?

“Well,” said somebody, “There’s this warehouse full of stuff in Santa Clara…”

So we went over there. Remember the last scene in the movie Raiders of the Lost Ark where they wheel the boxed-up Ark into a gigantic warehouse with acres of huge boxes and whatnot? This was like that, but for real. This warehouse (and others like it) was where the office equipment from all of the now-empty Atari buildings had gone; maybe fifty or sixty buildings’ worth.

I think that Jim Eisenstein, one of our graphics guys, started it. “I’ll take that one, there,” he said to one of the warehouse workers. Jim pointed at a really nice, large desk. “Okay,” said the fellow with the forklift, and he got it down. No argument. Pretty soon we had all chosen really nice, large desks (and some nice chairs) and tagged them for delivery. The guys running the forklifts didn’t care.

Dave Getreu and I shared an office for over a year (he was the guy whose version of Centipede I had bettered, but he was pretty decent about that). Our two desks barely fit, but it seemed worth it; a symbolic finger in the eye of the old, crappy Warner-Atari management. I don’t know who had used my desk before me, but it was sure nicer than anything I’d had, and my guess was that for every dollar that my efforts had earned the company that the former owner had blown at least two bucks down the toilet in bad deals and clueless management.

Rule of thumb: If your company has more VPs than it does bathrooms, you’re in trouble.

– – – –

The Tramiels had bought Atari with a plan to make a little money immediately by quickly selling off assets, and more intermediate-term money by making minor updates to the existing Atari product lines (the 400/800/1200 series of 8-bit computers), but the biggest effort was going to be a completely new line of cheap computers. There were some other products in various stages of development (the Atari 7800, whose major engineering work had actually been done outside Atari, at a small company named General Computer, a new sound chip code-named Amy, and some others) that the Tramiels kept lightly staffed.

The new computer was going to be based on a 16-bit or 32-bit processor. The Tramiels were initially pretty closed-mouthed about things; they had brought some folks from Commodore with them, and I got the impression that they didn’t trust us that much, and in addition there was a legal fight going on with Commodore over trade secrets. During the next month or two the design of the new system solidified. It was going to be based on a 32-bit processor, have a 16-bit bus (thus ST, for “Sixteen, Thirty-two”), have 256K of RAM and 128K of ROM. It was going to have a mouse and a graphical interface of some kind. At first the National 32000 series processor was a serious possibility, but in the end the Motorola 68000 won out. [In retrospect this was a good choice; National chips looked great on paper and had a nice, clean instruction set, like itty bitty Vaxes, but in reality they were very buggy and quite slow].

There were a number of candidates for the ST operating system. Leonard Tramiel gave us some GEOS documents to evaluate, as well as some specs on something called Crystal (from Digital Research Inc), and there were one or two other contenders. Frankly, none of the choices seemed all that great. Ultimately the Tramiels signed a contract with DRI to port CP/M-68K and the still-being-developed GEM user interface to our still-being-developed hardware.

The schedule for the ST was very aggressive; we were starting in August, more or less, and working systems needed to be ready for the Consumer Electronics Show in January. With lead-time for the custom chips measured in many weeks (I don’t remember exactly, perhaps 6 to 8 ), this didn’t leave much time for development. So while the hardware guys were spending 20 hour days frantically designing chips and wire-wrapping prototypes, the software guys were spending a lot of time at the beach.

No, really. The software team temporarily relocated to Monterey, 70 miles south of Silly Valley and on the California coast, which was where Digital Research was located. Initially we stayed in hotel rooms a short walk from the DRI campus, but after a few weeks Atari rented some houses for us in Carmel, just a few blocks from the world-class beaches there. I used to leave work around 5, watch the sunset over the ocean (because it would have been a shame to waste those), then go back and work really late.

Our first meeting with the folks from DRI did not go very well. One of their engineers tried to give us a chalkboard introduction to C (which I’d been using for five or six years at that point), and his “this is a for loop, this is a struct” talk didn’t go over very well (you can’t effectively teach a language in an hour like this anyway). Another engineer attempted a tutorial on assembly language (to video game programmers, ha). This attitude colored the whole Atari-DRI engineering relationship; in addition to the project’s incredibly short schedule, which put everyone under a lot of pressure, there was an uneasy division of turf: DRI got to call the shots on their code and architecture, while Atari had to make it work. Things didn’t always go smoothly; when we found bugs or design problems, egos sometimes got in the way and there was an occasional temper flare-up.

Stress: A number of us learned how to juggle. One of the DRI people had a nervous tick in the form of a “quacking” sound, and this spread through the group (a year later some of us were still doing it a little). The word “fine” became a pejorative: “Don’t worry, everthing will work out just fine.” How are you feeling? Fine, okay?

Getting access to working hardware was a problem. There was a wire-wrap prototype of the hardware in Sunnyvale, but it was flaky as hell and certainly not transportable. You could run something, have it crash, then wiggle a board slightly and have the code work just fine. There were attempts to get the software engineers hardware earlier, but they were always unreliable (e.g., big, expensive machine-wire-wrapped boards that almost worked, but that turned out to be just too dodgy to trust).

Wire-wrap: Imagine a board, say two feet by three feet, crammed with chips. On the flip side of the board are thousands of half-inch metal pins. Now, the pins have to wired-up to each other in order for the chips to talk, and the way you do this is to wrap a fine wire tightly around a one pin, run the wire up and about, then wrap it around the other pin and cut the wire. Hilarity ensues. There are thousands of wires to keep track of, and only so many colors of wire available. Little bits of wire will flake off, get buried and short out contacts. Wires will work themselves loose. Wires carrying signals at high speed will interfere with each other and cause ghost signals. Wires will break internally and invisibly, become unwrapped, mysteriously stop conducting electricity (sometimes), and this is all behavior that doesn’t include the simple boneheaded mistake of somebody mis-wiring two pins out of those thousands because they were short on sleep.

The nasty thing about wire-wrap prototypes was, if your code didn’t work, you could just shake the boards (there were three or four of them you could do this to), and if everything settled down right your code might actually run.  Or bomb in a different, exciting way.  Software progress was slow.  There were attempts to get us more stable prototypes, but they never really worked that well.

Sometime in December we started getting chips from the fabs and the real hardware began to come to life. We booted the ST for the first time (it was exhilarating to see the floppy disk spin and seek under OS control — this is something that you take for utterly for granted until you have to make it work yourself).

The original budget of 128K of ROM was blown pretty early on, and we targeted 192K. Initially this was so that the machine could incorporate a built-in BASIC interpreter. Up until this point it was virtually unthinkable that you could ship a consumer computer without BASIC in ROM (the Apple II, the Commodore line, and all of the Atari computers had built-in BASIC).

DRI had a version of BASIC available, and one of our engineers (someone the Tramiels knew) was hired and given the task of porting it. I don’t remember precisely what went wrong, but it just didn’t happen. It’s possible that the DRI BASIC wasn’t very good, or was too full of platform-specific garbage to easily port, and it’s also possible that the engineer given the job just wasn’t up to it. Regardless, we started to realize that just the operating system alone was going to use up the entire 192K (and in fact, blew past it and had to be pared down during a 2-3 week crunching period just before we shipped the ROMs), and BASIC simply would not fit.

The other thing that was clear was that the software was going to be late; the ROM version wasn’t going to make it in time for CES. We had disk-based versions of the OS (called TOS, for “The Operating System” — catchy) booting, and that’s what we showed.  The hardware guys doubled the amount of RAM in the system so the OS could live in RAM with room left over for applications.

Jack didn’t pay for all of the engineers to fly to Las Vegas, but he was willing to put us up in a hotel and get us CES badges if we arranged our own transportation, so a few of us did a road-trip. The show was fun; there was a lot of excitement and speculation about Atari’s new products. What people didn’t know is that there were only about five working ST systems in existence, and they kept dying on the show floor (possibly due to heat problems, bad connections, or barely-working custom chips going south) and had to be resurrected from time to time in a back room where techs were hidden away with soldering irons, a limited number of spare chips, and a liberal supply of invective.

We’d shown the ST to the public. Now we had to make it work.

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102 Responses to The Atari ST (part 1)

  1. ej2 says:

    Awesome story. Can’t wait for the rest.

  2. Brad says:

    This is fascinating to me. I count myself lucky to say that I saw the “rise of the machines” from the Commodore 64 era to the staggering jump of the past 25 years. Getting a look into the beginnings of things like the Atari games and ST is a real treat.

  3. rsimms says:

    I had both the 520ST and the 1040ST. I still have the 520 (works perfectly) but the 1040 was stolen. Great machines. It was fun to network with the MIDI ports and later I played around with the Mac emulator. I’d also owned the Atari 600XL and the 1200XL.

  4. buggyd says:

    Thanks for sharing this story.

  5. Volo Mike says:

    I remember my old Atari 800XL. Loved that thing to pieces. Before that, I was getting passes from the Math Dept. to program on the TRS-80 and Apple II, and when I couldn’t do that, I was writing programs on paper, praying for the day when my parents would pony up the cash for an 800XL. I don’t know why I got it over the Commodore 64 — my friends with the C64 seemed to have more fun, but I figured more cash meant a better system. Regardless, I got an Osborne book and a subscription to Softcel (or some magazine like that) and was writing graphics programs in Basic where I did peeks and pokes of the graphics chips in order to make it do sprites on the screen, and had a lot of fun with that. I loved the form factor and appearance of the 800XL over any other computer at the time, but all good things had to come to an end. Oddly enough, I have no idea what happened to that old computer.

    Now I work from home doing PHP/MySQL work on 3 Dell hand-me-down desktops and a new HP laptop. I make a good chunk of change. Who knew it would all come to this?

  6. Paul Dixon says:

    Thanks for sharing this. The Atari ST was my third home computer after the Dragon 32 and BBC Model B, and I have fond memories of them all – looking forward to the next installment!

  7. Eric says:

    I love stories from the days of wire wrap and weird business sense.

    Might want to consider shutting off the auto-emoticon, though.

  8. sassypants says:

    Can’t wait for part 2! You’re a great storyteller.

    I have to ask though… what’s a “cow orker”? :P

  9. Thimble says:

    This needs to be a book! Reading this reminds me of two other books I’ve read: Masters of Doom and Dreaming in Code.

  10. Rick says:

    I have one question. When is the book coming out? You really need to write a novel on your Atari experiences.

    Thanks again for another great story.

  11. greywulf says:

    I’m loving this. Keep it coming!

  12. Robert Thomson says:

    Fantastic story, look forward to the rest. The Atari ST is one of my favourite computers. I started with a 520STFM in 1988 then a 520STE in 1990 which I still own and still works!

  13. mishigas says:

    I am so pleased that I stumbled upon your blog today Landon. Your stories bring back a lot of memories for me and the Feynman-esque tone of your writing makes them all the better. I look forward to more of your writing!

  14. A very interesting read…I’d like to hear more internas on the early TOS development. :)

    BTW: I still actively develop for the Atari ST platform, I started with a 520STM around 1990 (which my brother bought) and now operate a 1040STE and a Falcon 030.

    STay cool, STay Atari /|\! :)

  15. sh3-rg says:

    Thanks for sharing your story, I look forward to more. The ST is still a big part of our lives and I imagine it always will be. Thanks again!

  16. mosburger says:

    Awesome writing, great story. I got here from the front page of Y Combinator’s Hacker News site.

    Hurry up and write Part 2!

  17. Eneref says:

    Like many others, your story is both inspiring and nostalgic. I still have all my old Atari mags from back in the day (I had subscriptions to Antic and ANALOG for years), and I have the issues where they announced the purchase of Atari by the Tramiel conglomerate.

    It was an exciting time for me. I had my 800XL (I still do), which was my second computer. I loved it to pieces. The ST series machines, however, were fascinating. My father, who regularly absconded with my magazines, had to have one. He bought a 520ST (first person in Georgia to own one) and later the 1040ST when it was released. The 1040 he still has in a box in the closet… and that was what began his fondness for computer art.

    I, however, learned how to use it for music, graphics, games, and coding (something I’d only really done in BASIC and Action on the 800XL).

    It was a different time…. but just know that the work you did in some small way at least led to the man I’ve become today — CEO of an Internet company after years of work with computers. All inspired by those early years.

  18. I remember meeting Jack Tramiel at the PCW show in the mid 80’s, and just drooling over the ST. It looked on paper to be the equal of the Mac, but at half the price, which was the big sell at the time.

    Sadly, the hardware and software was not on the same level as the Mac, though there was some great software developed. If anything, it seemed like the ST found a pretty decent niche as a midi-sequencer.

    Also, there was some pretty neat software like Starglider where 3D *in color* really started to make a difference to games.

    About 89, I joined Computer Concepts who produced the Calamus (?) word-processing software on the ST, but I think that was dropped, just as I arrived.

  19. Benjamin Brown says:

    what they said x 2. (o_O)

  20. I had just moved to California in 1989 and the first place I appplied for a job was at Atari and i got the job in customer service. Ever since I was about 12 or 13 my dream was to work there. I was such a fanboy. I honestly believed that every product they had was awesome. I bought a Lynx, Portfolio, STe, and Jaguar. I loved AVP! I even bought one of their PC clones. But then reality set in. It was a dying company and an awful place to work. I quit after a year, went Mac and I’ve never turned back. However, I still have my 800XL, a perfect first computer for my kids.

  21. Gordon says:

    Thanks for telling this story. I started a business selling ST software so this whole era is near to my heart. Also glad to hear that TOS was “the operating system” not “Tramiel operating system” as some have said was the case.

  22. xrayspx says:

    I had 5 8-bits and then one monster-ized 520STFM with a home-made detachable keyboard and a power supply I had to adjust with a screwdriver while running to manage crash vs. overheat + crash. I wish to this day that I hadn’t gotten rid of them. Emulation just isn’t the same.

    I was a huge fanatic at the time, obviously, but looking back, it really was a mis-managed platform from the corporate side. Reading old issues of STart, there’s just time after time that Atari cut corners and had to push something out faster rather than better. Still and all though, the 80’s was THE time to be working on that stuff it seems, things seemed a lot more fun and understandable then than they do now. (Then again, I was 12, what do I know)

    Fascinating story, keep it coming!

  23. sCAB says:

    thanks a lot for these history lessons mate, its wonderful to heat how my ol’ Atari 1040 ST was actually ‘born’, keep those stories comin’ please :)
    For example, who actually made the choice of putting in MIDI ins and outs as a standard feature of the machine?

  24. Fascinating insight. Can’t wait for Part 2! Glad to see some of the still active ST scene posting here already ;)

  25. Keili says:

    Many thanks for the look behind the scenes, really a great read :-D. After more than 25 years with the 800XL, 520ST and many more nowadays, Atari will be always be something special for me. And there is still an active and friendly community i’m proud to be part of.

  26. Laundro says:

    If you love these kinds of stories, don’t forget to have a look at the excellent write-up of Commodore’s history in “On the Edge: the Spectacular Rise and Fall of Commodore” (Amazon link)

  27. Josh Perry says:

    Wow, that is simply inspiring. I wholeheartedly concur with the previous posts regarding publishing your work in a bound volume; Blog style is great, but I would love to see a box set on my shelf, too! I would gladly pay top-dollar for a physical collection of the entries on this site, as well as for a collection of tales from your times at Atari. This kind of thing is exactly what I think the younger generations need to hear about to remind them that programming wasn’t always as simple as browsing through the STL, and drawing your programs in Visual Studio.

    Again, I am thanking you for your contribution to this industry…I know factually that I would not be where I am today, if you were not where you were all those years ago! Can’t wait for Part 2!!!

  28. Tim says:

    Awesome story. We had a 1040ST, and my own first computer was a Falcon ‘030, bought with the money I made on my paper route. It’s fascinating to hear the first ST was wire wrapped. (*I* can wire wrap. :-)) Keep writing. I love it.

    Tim

  29. Bobby Rullo says:

    Great story.

    I must be mad to contradict a guy who used to work at Atari, but the Atari 800 (or the 400) didn’t have a built in basic interpreter. If you booted the computer with no cartridge, no tape, no disk, there was this weird notepad thing that you booted into which was just a place to type text, but you couldn’t save or load anything.

  30. Ian Clarke says:

    Great story. I got a Atari 800XL when I was 8, and learned how to program from the included Basic glossary that described the function of each command. I got an Atari STfm when I was 10, and had great fun with it, although I did always wonder why it didn’t include Basic. Its amazing see the other side of

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  32. Jonah Falcon says:

    I was an Amiga teenager, myself. :p

  33. NFG says:

    My dad was an Atari fan, and after buying a 400 he started selling Atari gear, eventually opening a fairly successful store in northern Canada. Because of that I had access to all the atari machines: 400, 800, 1200xl, 600xl, 800xl, 520ST, 140ST, Mega2 and Mega4… Eventually I upgraded myself to a TT030 (still have it), and I’d probably be using it to this day if I didn’t suffer repeated harddrive meltdowns and lose all my work…

    Dealing with Atari was always a pain in the ass. The Tramiels were big stock manipulators, announcing new products to raise the price, selling stock and then cancelling the products. Getting inventory was always a chore, we were always short-shipped. Christmas with a store full of computers, and no monitors? Not cool!

    As a kid I worshipped Atari. They were the future, they were the pioneers. As an adult I see the often dirty reality, and it’s distressing, but I still have my memories… Ah, the good old days. =)

    Thanks for the post, it’s a great read and I look forward to the next.

  34. Josh Renaud says:

    Your recent Atari articles have been like water to a parched throat. I have always been a huge Atarian… Over the years I owned the Atari 2600, 800, 130XE, 520 ST, 1040STe, and the Jaguar.

    Your stories are very well-told. I’d think they would be engrossing for an average reader, but for somebody like me, it’s just rapture. :)

    Please keep them coming!

  35. Craig Schock says:

    I owned several Ataris in my day: 2600, 400, 800 XL, 520ST, 1040ST. I loved them all. I especially loved my 520. I eventually added 2 megs of RAM… no one else that I knew had 2.5 megs of RAM. :-) I still have the machine and it still runs today.

    I had the second 520ST sold in Calgary. My friend owned the first one. I think his serial number was 00000016 or something like that. He was pissed off that it wasn’t 0000009 because 9 was his favorite number. I used my ST throughout my undergrad Computer Science degree. Starting my third year of University, I worked in a lab which did speech synthesis research; we used 1040STs. They were cheap, they worked well and they had enough processing power for our needs. Eventually I left Ataris and purchased a NeXT, but I’ll never forget the ST!

    It’s quite a pleasure to read this story. I’m looking forward to the next part.

    ps. My Atari 400 (which I still have) did not have built-in basic. You had to insert the Basic cartridge to get that.

  36. xrayspx says:

    @Laundro:

    That’s something I never got. How the Tramiels caused the most popular home platform of its time, the C=64, and then cut so many corners on the ST. They could have OWNED the Amiga and Mac, if it weren’t for marketing and cut costs. Burns me.

  37. Jonah Falcon says:

    “How the Tramiels caused the most popular home platform of its time, the C=64, and then cut so many corners on the ST.”

    HUH? The C-64 had so many cut corners it could have been a dodecahedron.

  38. Antonio says:

    Ah good ATARI times…. they just worked! :)

  39. Brian says:

    I started working with an Atari 800. My high school had 400’s and 800’s, and the 800’s had much better keyboards. I had been working on a shooting type game but never finished it. Currently I have a 1040ST. However, when I bought it from Ebay I didn’t realize that there was no video cable. Can you point me to a place where I can buy/make a video cable for my 1040ST? Many thanks!

    Great story!
    Brian

  40. Josh Perry says:

    joshrenaud++

  41. Rob says:

    I agree with some previous posts. Your stories should become a book. I’ve sat here enthralled seeing comparisons to what was done back then with what we still do today. I took command of a fairly large desk just recently from a fellow cow-workers who was ousted. Nerdherding is sometimes a rough business, but you’ve just got to stake claims eventually. Anyway, i hope you consider writing a book. Memoirs of a computer dad, or something on those lines.

    -Rob

  42. John says:

    I look forward to more of your postings. I love computers of yore and the tales behind them. Unfortunately the ST is not one of the older computers I have in my collection.

  43. CiH says:

    On the author’s first encounter with the Tramiels.

    “Imperial storm troopers have entered the base! Imperial storm troopers have — Urk!”

    I laughed so hard, I’m still trying to get all the coffee stains out from my Mac keyboard, thanks a lot! ;-)

    And I do still have three original ST family machines `(two modified Falcon 030 and one STe.) The STe is running with an adaptor to turn a camera SD-card into a pretty good hard drive substitute, so yes, these machines are still very much useable even today.

  44. lp060 says:

    Fascinating read.

    I’m still doing my part trying to keep GFA-Basic a live. Still using my Atari’s to this day.

  45. Sim says:

    Great story.
    I’m sure I hardly need to remind everyone that the Atari ST was better than the Commodore Amiga ;p

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  47. Philip Martin Rusch says:

    Ha! Cool man! Atari rocked – who didn’t waste part of their college education fun(d) on Atari games (let the quarters roll!)? While Atari was cool (membrane keyboards!), I can only speak for Apple – I worked their in the late 80s. It was heaven on earth; what really pissed me off though was that no matter how cool it was, there were some guys that had been there longer than I had and would always say “Man, you should have been here ten years ago!”. I guess those days are gone – like our youth, the gumball machines that actually took a penny, no 24 hour T.V., the cassette (much less the 8-Track!), the green/amber screens, eprom burners, 5 1/4″ floppies (floppies in general!) and the ‘club’ environment of working in Silicon Valley in those days. Let the good times rock and let the products roll…

  48. Well, what can I say? You made the first portable computergame I ever played. I guess a big thanks is in order. So: THANKS! :-)

  49. offensive_jerk says:

    Awesome story!

    Lots of fun reading it. Can’t wait for more. Please elaborate more stories of being at Atari! I love hearing stories from people working at the company.

    Keep it up!

    -Andy

  50. Great story of the old days – Tramiel in hindsight was probably better at running the business. This story brings back memories – I was an Atari 800 user and had just finished about a year of developing a graphical operating system for the Atari 400/800/1200 with icons for loading apps etc when the ST hit – man was I pissed.

  51. John says:

    I have been part of more than enough ‘restructures’ than I care to admit. Thanks for the catharcism

  52. kevin says:

    When I was 11, I got a Commodore VIC20 for Christmas, and thus began my foray into the world of computers. This computer came with BASIC built in, and in no time I was writing programs. Very long programs. I soaked up anything I could get my hands on that detailed the ins and outs of BASIC programming. So, my dad thinks I’m a computer genius, and tells a lady he knows all about how good I am on computers.

    She says, “Hey, I just got a new computer but I don’t know how to use it. Could he come over and show me?” Of course, my dad volunteers me for the job. I’m thinking, “a computer is a computer, they’re all the same, right?”. RIIIIIIIIIIIIGHT.

    So, we get over to her house, and she has this new IBM PC, with floppies and a real monitor (not using her TV set) and a very cool keyboard. A very expensive system. So, I sit down in front of it, flip it on, and the screen comes up to a flashing command prompt. I start typing out BASIC code. Let the laughing commence…

    Obviously nothing worked, and i began to get very nervous. “Why isn’t this working?”, I thought. I knew I was typing the correct “syntax”. Well, after about 10 minutes of this, I just looked up at her and said “Uh, I don’t know how to use this computer”, which I thought had to be the ultimate humiliation. But she gave me 20 dollars for the time of coming out and looking at it. This was actually my first ever payment for computer work, even though no work was performed…

    Thanks for posting on your blog. I wonder if you are aware of the joy and amazement you have given to people all over the world. I was one of those little kids who derived a great bit of happiness from the sweat of your brow. Thank you…

    Regards,

    Kevin Cornett

  53. Wow. I love the story. I’m a Commodore fan from way back, and it’s nice to hear an Atari insider’s stories about the Tramiels (the opinions of the Commodore engineers are pretty well documented–I believe one of them, seeing Jack Tramiel years later, told him that he ruined his career, his marriage, and his life).

    One question. I read somewhere, probably either in Compute or Byte, that one early contender as an OS for the ST was Microsoft Windows, and that Microsoft was annoyed that DRI got the contract, and this was the reason Microsoft never developed for the ST. Do you know if there’s any truth to that story?

  54. J. SCHULTZ says:

    I love “in the video game trenches” stories from the times of yore! Thanks for this.

  55. D Legal says:

    Awesome story! It’s amazing to think that was only 25 years ago. Now days were dealing with gigabytes and terabytes, makes you wonder where will be in after the next 25 years.

  56. ReverendTed says:

    Don’t. Stop. Writing.

    (Also, to the commenter a few posts back: “So many cut corners it could have been a dodecahedron” is a fantastic turn of phrase and I’m planning to expend quite a bit of energy attempting to awkwardly work it into conversation. )

  57. Brad Fuller says:

    Gee, Landon… I wondered what happened to you…. Workin’ for the man, huh?

  58. J says:

    Thanks so much, I echo most of the great sentiments here! I had an 800xl and a 1040ST. So many hours of programming fun (remember coding in from a magazine! argh.. like 3-5 page of code!…)

    Please keep it up, this is great!

  59. Steve says:

    display list interrupts, anyone?

  60. Tom says:

    When I got my first ST I managed to borrow someone’s copy of DevPac and wrote some assembler to scroll the screen to see how fast it was. From memory it was something like

    scroll
    lea a0, TOP_OF_SCREEN
    lea a1, TOP_OF_SCREEN+SIZE_OF_ONE_LINE_BYTES
    mov d0, #SIZE_OF_SCREEN_BYTES/4
    loop
    mov.l (a1)+, (a0+)
    dbra d0
    jmp scroll

    And then sat and watched the very slow scroll vertical scroll.Even if you unrolled the loop, it wasn’t very quick or very smooth. Hmmph, Atari 8 bits could scroll the screen around faster than you could see it.

  61. landon says:

    It’s hard to beat hardware scrolling (where you’re just changing a display list pointer and maybe a register or two, and not having to schlep a bunch of bytes around).

    But I can’t resist pointing out, if you unroll the above loop into a series of MOVEM.L instructions and burn (say) everything but a counter register, source, destination and SP on intermediate values, you can get within a percent or so of bus speed (the DBRA above is costing a fair amount – remember that the 68000 doesn’t have a cache, and I’m pretty sure that even DBRA didn’t get any kind of speed-up until the 68010).

  62. Drew Lucy says:

    Reading this was just plain weird! “Damn, that sounds like Judy Bogart!” “Damn, *I* was working on Trivial Compute!” Who is this guy? Well I know who it is. I just can’t rememeber his name. Oh yeah, Landon! I haven’t thought of let alone heard the name “Dave Getreu” in 20+ years. Dave and I worked together on the aborted “Worms of Doom from OuterSpace” (working title) for the 800.

    I was only at Atari for 18 months, but memories of times that strange sure stick with you.

  63. skunkmere says:

    Thanks for the story its a “page turner” keep up the writing.
    thanks again

  64. siliconsurfer says:

    Interesting.
    The ST was really a rip-off of the Commodore Amiga without
    the custom chips. What a stingy bastard Tramiel was, but you have to give him credit for that great and affordable machine, the C64.
    I would make the ST owners envious back in the day when loading up a game or a demo on the Amiga. They would go all silent. hahaha

  65. This is such a great read! I had a pair of STFMs back in the early 90s, but until then only had a Commodore 64 with its infernal tape drive (I had a few games of the “press load, hit space and back away out of the room carefully, hoping it makes some difference and the game will work after 4 minutes of loading” variety). I only started to get programming with GFA Basic on the STs, and what a blast that was!

  66. Rihahn says:

    A very nice read.

    Having been around for those heady days of early home computer development it is refreshing to hear your insider tales.

    Early on, while I was turning time on a system 360, I decided I would side with the smaller dogs in personal computers as that was where the innovation was – and started out on the very nice-to-kitbash OSI C1P. But I kept a stable of other machines, mostly for their chipsets and languages, and both Commodore and Atari were represented.

    My favorite though had to be the Sinclair ZX81 – when I got it, it was a cardboard box-o-parts and when I was done with it years later the little plastic box was almost unrecognizable amidst all the rainbow ribbon cable and aluminum project boxes… One of which was a kitbashed robotic arm. :)

    I still use Z80 ASM nearly every day… Wonderful little process controllers.

    As for Atari I progressed though the 800XL (an awesome little machine by the way) and then agonized over schematics and details for the ST and Amiga – eventually siding with the Amiga for it’s better graphics chipset. The ST had the Amiga beat hands down on sound though, but I was more into the fledgling rendering scene at the time.

  67. Opus says:

    when I was 16 I worked at Montgomery Wards selling the TI-99, Atari 400 and 800, and C64. I sold mostly C64 (or was it Vic20 back then) because I personally played with them all, programmed in BASIC on them, and felt Commodore had the best bang for the buck. I remember those days of Compute! and typing in programs, then came the Amiga, what a powerhouse! Of course, BASIC was no longer the same, and where did my beloved PEEK and POKE go? It was at the time I left programming behind and pursued something of greater value and interest….WOMEN! =)

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  70. RAdams says:

    Utterly fascinating. Thanks for sharing all this, it’s interesting to get a look into these days from an inside view.

    I added you to my blogroll, whatever that means. When it makes you rich and famous, remember to mail me the check.

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  73. John Townsend says:

    Disclaimer: I worked at Atari from 1987 to 1993 and also worked for Leonard Tramiel in the Atari R&D group. I worked on the MEGA, STE, MEGA STE, TT, Falcon030, Panther, Jaguar, as well as things like TOS 1.4. Landon was at Atari when I was there and I joined the R&D group shortly after he left.

    This story brings back some great memories of the past. Reading about wire-wrapped boards reminds me of Jim Tittsler, an Atari Hardware Engineer that had an amazing talent in bringing new boards to life. I am sure that Landon has fond memories of Jim! I know that I do.

    I have tons of memories working on the TT boards when they first came to life. I worked on a bunch of tests for making sure that the Graphics subsystem (VDI) was working properly. I still remember having test cases that had all sorts of fuzzy video showing up and we would spray freon onto the custom chips to cool them down and the video would clear up :-)

    During the bring up of the TT prototypes, Jim and a number of people were performing their usual magic and doing all sorts of wire-wrapping adjustments to work around issues with the chips. A bunch of us on the software side were anxious to get our hands on this super fast hardware and see what it could do. At one point, we started to discuss how much revenue the TT should be generating for Atari and how much each day the TT was late was costing us. Someone came up with a number close to $10/second.

    Being the annoying kids that we were, we would stand behind Jim and remind him that each and every second that he took fixing up these boards was costing Atari $10. (hurry up, Jim.. that’s another $50! :) I am still surprised that Jim didn’t kill us.

    I have other stories of working with Jim in the labs, but I am not sure that he would appreciate us telling them :-)

    I will say that I know the feeling that Landon talks about in his message: The first time you see the OS boot successfully on a new board and see what the board can do, its truly exciting stuff. We would work crazy hours for days just to be around the board. When we only had 2 working TT prototypes, I would often eat dinner and hang out late so that I could get time to test out of the graphics subsystem on the boards and was excited to do so.

    Working with Leonard and the rest of the team at Atari was truly a memorable experience. Parts of working for the Tramiels were crazy, but I have to say working for Leonard was a great experience. If you worked at Atari, you know that some great people came through those doors over the years. And some pretty good products came out there as well.

    Anyway, thanks for sharing, Landon. Can’t wait to read the next installment.

    –> towns

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  75. Substance242 says:

    Thank you, love this.

    I myself was a Sinclair fan and user (got one in 1988), learned assembler etc, then I’ve got used ST in I think 1994 and used it for MIDI stuff (Cubase & sound librarians), and then I bought in 2000 Falcon MkII and still use it for MIDI, it is from my point of view one of the most beautiful machines all time. I am still a little sad that all this wintel won, we (Atari) were way ahead of them.

  76. postrodent says:

    Your stories are reliably fascinating. Thanks for putting in all those hours of frustration so I could run Sundog, Goldrunner, Starglider, and oh yes Degas Graphics on my 520ST.

  77. Ama says:

    I looved the Atari ST. Someone said that the Mac had better hardware. Initially this was not the case … they were pretty much on par.

    The problem with Atari is that they were too often cash-strapped and were real penny pinchers. The Mega-ST could have been promoted more and the Falcon should have been in a real computer case. The delays with the TT were a big problem … sadly both Atari and Commodore bit the dust …

    Some of us want to see Atari come back as a computer and video game company …

  78. Pocket says:

    Incredible story, thanks for sharing ! :)

  79. Tim says:

    Very nice read! I was a teen back then and my first machine was the 800XL. Shorly there after I got a 130XE and eventually a 520STm! I loved Atari computers, and even today I still like to mess around with them.

  80. Miika says:

    Loved Atari ST -> times! My Falcon should still be in working order, though not sure anymore, gotta check ;)
    Anyway, waiting for the part 2… Nice to read about what happened at that time. Keep it up!

  81. Thomas says:

    Holy f*cking crap man, you got to write a book.

  82. Roy says:

    Where is part 2

    Spent years learning basic on my 800xl before getting one of the first 520ste’s

    Must set it up again.Still around somewhere

  83. Hello:

    We are a group of Majorca (Balearic islands Spain) who we artisan made hardware for the users of Commodore Amiga, C64/128, which they need new and exclusive hardware.

    You can visit to us in our Web:

    http://www.retro-data.com

    Then that, would be a pleasure to be in contact with the enemy to comment any question on the legendary Amigas.

    Greetings, Juan J. Costa

  84. Thomas says:

    Wow – I’m late to the thread, but I just _have_ to say Thank You!

    Not just for posting this great history of the development of the ST, but also for your part in developing the machine. The ST (ST, STE and Falcon) was my main machine from 1986 to about 1994 and I still miss those times. I did a lot of programming on the ST and the internal architecture, the TOS and the simplicity of the overall concept had me in awe. It was a beautiful piece of engineering. Thanks!

  85. Where’s the 2nd one!! I wanna read the 2nd one!! We want more!!

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  87. Rjones says:

    interesting story, he has to be around my age 47 as I was in school during the 80s video craze.

    He sounds a bit bitter. Probably sick of working with idiots that he was smarter than but had to suck up to. Its been a long time, wonder if the Atari thing scarred him?
    Atari was not very good to programmers egos. Everyone knows who wrote Quake, MULE etc. Who wrote Donkey Kong for Atari???? Keep the programmers hidden so they do not get snatched up by the competition.

    Nothing that a little prozac can’t fix. :)

  88. Ian H says:

    I thought this was an absorbing and thoroughly interesting story and cannot wait for the next part, or book even! ;) I was also part of the home computer generation in the 1970s and 1980s (I’m 37yrs old this year). I started with my uncle’s homemade Nascom kit housed in a makeshift case, running a Z80 CPU, then a Sinclair ZX Spectrum 48K, later a Amstrad CPC464 and finally the Atari 1040 STe. However I have used many other computers like the Commodore Vic 20, 64, 16, +4, Oric 1, Sinclair ZX81, ZX Spectrum 128+2, Amstrad CPC6128, BBC Micro A & B, Acorn Electron, MSX 1, Psion Series 3 and many more.

    I have used many variants of ST and I currently own a 1040 STe upgraded to 4MB. Even though I have powerful PC desktop machines that can do anything I want, I really feel more comfortable and attached to my old STe and I plan to upgrade this with large hard drives or flash media. I’ll get a PS/2 mouse interface and also something to allow connection to a TFT LCD monitor. Someone once gave me a Replay sampling cartridge but I wonder, what was the very best audio expansion option for the ST? I’d love something with multitrack capability, even if it was only four tracks (I’ve tried Quartet by the way).

  89. James says:

    I started off with a Vic 20, then went to an Atari 400 (they did NOT have basic – you needed to buy a cartridge), and then the C64. Always wanted an ST, but ended up with an Amiga… man, that was a fun time – new ideas, new tech. I guess that’s why I like Linux now – I mean, the Vic 20 actually came with a WIRING DIAGRAM!!! WOW! what computer does that these days?

  90. PeterH says:

    Ahh … the prototype ST’s dying at CES sounds like the PRODUCTION Amiga 500’s I owned … 3 of them in fact. All blew their Agnus chips regularly. All the while the in-laws 520ST … yep he got one of the first with a single sided external disk drive … never faltered or missed a beat as did his 800XL. I grew to love those computers of his.

    Not long ago I decided to renew my love affair with the Atari’s of yesteryear. I now own an 800XL, 130XE, 1040STf, 1040STe and a Mega 4 along with assorted Atari drives, monitors, tape drives etc…. all working just fine. The wife just sighs when another box from EBAY or New Zealand’s equivalent auction site arrives on the doorstep.

    Oh well … back to that game of Jet Boot Jack I go.

    Happy computing fellow Atarian’s :-)

  91. Futtermania says:

    Wow, thanks for the trip down memory lane (should that be RAM lane?)! I started out with a 1040 in ’86, shortly after I got out of the navy. What an awesome machine! I remember sitting up til 3 or 4 in the morning learning all there was to know about the ST. Anyone remember Current Notes? The Atari consumer shows? I went to one in Worchester, mass in 88 or 89. Fun times ! Frustrating at the same time, watching Atari throwing away opportunity after opportunity to get the ST into the American computing mainstream due to their refusal to market it seriously. Still. Fun times.

  92. Paula says:

    G’day,

    I am trying to respond to an email sent to me by John Feagans which I unfortunately lost before I had a chance to reply. Posting here is a long shot because I see that the last entry was made two years ago so I doubt anybody is looking at this forum any longer but here goes anyway….

    John, I lost the original email you sent to me and cannot find your current email address. Anyway, yes, of course I remember you and no I never became a famous opera singer! Obviously, because if I had you would have heard about me. Right?

    Anyway, getting an email from you out of the blue after 30 years seemed a bit strange to me but now curiosity has gotten the better of me and I would like to respond.

    I did not become an opera singer but did become a graphic artist and had a career working in Silicon Valley for over 20 years in that field. So, I was always there.

    If you see this or if anybody out there knows John would you please direct him to this site and ask him to email me again at the address on my web page? http://www.petportraitsbypaula.com/

    Thanks, and sorry about this being off topic.

  93. David says:

    I strongly prefer the ST/TT/Falcon line of computers. They were with out question the fastest desktop computers of there time, having hardware video manipulation and a well written single-tasking OS.

    Some-one posted an assembly language scrolling routine here mentioning how much faster an Atari 800 can scroll text, to this I must make the fallowing two comments:

    -When text is scrolled it is usually scrolled by the character height (usually 8 pixels), witch makes a huge difference.

    -Second; both the Atari ST and the Atari 800 have chips capable of doing this type of modification in hardware (much much faster than software scrolling).

  94. Jim says:

    Oh, and Landon…. not to be a snot (loud nose-blowing sounds), but the first 520ST did ship with the 68010 — for the extra memory management features — so your statement in a response above about DBRA would not apply to the machine a consumer would have.

    Other than that it’s been a very long time and I’m not all that 68K familiar. I mostly remember using registers a lot and having a very hard time getting levels of indirection right in the addressing modes.

    I do recall however that when programmed in assembler that 8 MHz ST was actually fairly crisp. Not by today’s standards, of course. But the C compilers I used didn’t seem to do any optimization (register usage in particular), and the code produced was visibly sluggish. Disassembly of the TOS ROM revealed that much of it was done in C, and not much compiler-level optimization there either (IF I remember correctly).

    Thanks for the stories.

    • JG says:

      @Jim

      As a 520 owner and EE/programmer at the time: it definitely was a mere 68000. As was the 1040. I owned several.

      Believe me, we STers dearly wished it was a 68010 at least because then we could have put in multitasking hacks and OSes on it. Just a few assembly instructions short of easily accomplishing the deed. I was using 68000 family Unix work stations at the time for work with most of that involving C and assembly; that’s what we all wished we could make our ST machines: baby versions of Unix with X-windows.

      Many of us who had hacked RAM upgrades on our 520s schemed on ways to drop a 68010 into a 520 or 1040 but it was a bridge too far for the most part because the stack frame size would change and muck with the standard OS. Re-writing machine code to fix that through out OS and app wouldn’t work as a practical solution and the idea of processor emulators lacked an adequate HW or SW solution back in those days.

      It was only a 68000 until the TT which was 68030.

      • John says:

        Hi.

        I have old files on floppy drives created on an Atari 520ST back in the 1980s. I need to download these files. Do you have a drive that still works?

        Thanks, jf

  95. landon says:

    @Jim: Definitely not a 68010.

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  97. Landon, I remember the unbelievable amount of furniture at Atari!
    Someone, at one point, seemed to think that your furniture needed to match your title.
    So there were ‘vp’ desks, ‘manager’ desks, and so one.
    LOL!
    No wonder they were losing a million bucks a DAY!

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