Atari History

Computer Systems

Student writing a thesis with the Atari 800XL, an upgraded version of the Atari 800 with a new sleek look.


In Atari's early days, one of the video game designers and his rather odd friend worked many late nights on a new arcade game called "Breakout". While working on this new video game and playing other arcade games all through the night these two friends were busy on the side designing and building (from "borrowed" Atari parts) a personal computer system. They approached Nolan Bushnell with their new creation to see if it would be a product that Atari would sell and support. At the time Atari was concentrating on getting its new home version of Pong out the door and all resources were tied up, with no spare capital to devout to such a costly and risky product, Nolan Bushnell referred the two budding entrepreneurs to some venture capitalists to finance their new product. Who was this former Atari employee? None other than Steve Jobs. Who was his rather odd friend? Steve "The Woz" Wozniak and their creation was the Apple Computer.

Atari's new Home Computer Division was so hastily started that office trailers were brought in and set-up behind Atari's offices while work progressed on the new computer designs. Working in these rather cramped quarters Atari's new HCD engineers & designers went to work on designing the worlds first personal computers to use custom IC's to handle graphics, sound and communication. In 1978 the team that had finished the Atari VCS was at work on a new high-end video game console chipset. Atari was now owned by Warner Communications since its sale in 1976 by its original owner/creator Nolan Bushnell for $28 million. Atari was now run by Raymond Kassar who wanted Atari to compete in the home computer market against Apple and its Apple ][e computer. The new high-end chipset was "frozen" for use only in the newly created Atari Home Computer Division.

Atari's first two computers were called the Atari 400 and Atari 800 Personal Computer Systems. These computers had a large assortment of "Intelligent" peripherals which communicated through a custom bus called the "SIO" (Serial I/O) which compared to today standards is a rather simplistic version of the USB (Universal Serial Bus). In fact the USB and the Atari SIO have a lot more in common then many would think. One of Atari's original computer engineers, Joe Decuir who created the Atari SIO bus is also one of the team of engineers at Microsoft to help design and holds patents on the USB.

While the Atari 400 was designed for children, it also featured the precursor to the USB drive and many other innovations.

Atari 400

The Atari 400 Personal Computer was Atari's entry level computer. Designed for younger children with its clean simple design and more importantly its tactile membrane keyboard to prevent damage from food and small objects. Also the keys could not be removed and swallowed by small children. The Atari 400 during is design conception originally was to have only 4K of memory which is how its number designation was determined: 400 (Also it was nicknamed Candy). When it began to ship it then came with 8K, finally Atari offered it with a base memory of 16K which allowed it to run almost all cartridge and cassette based software. Due to its low memory range, using a disk drive was not practical, so the Atari 400 was teamed up with its own peripheral, the Atari 410 cassette recorder. Also the Atari 400 did not have a composite monitor port and could only be connected to a standard TV via is RF modulator cord. Atari later offered an Authorized Service Center 48K upgrade for the Atari 400 and so did many 3rd party memory expansion companies. Also hardware hackers soon learned how to install composite output back to the Atari 400. Alternative keyboards and even a detachable keyboard were sold for the Atari 400 making it nearly as powerful as its big sister Colleen (The Atari 800). The Atari 400 lacked the RIGHT hand cartridge slot which was almost never used on the Atari 800 and getting into the inside of the Atari 400 was not nearly as easy as the Atari 800 with its pop-top design. The Atari 400's unique wedge shape is very eye catching. No other computer company ever cloned the look of the Atari 400, it holds a style all its own.

To make the Atari 800 more appealing to first time computer buyers, it was designed to looked similar to the "standard" home typewriter.

Atari 800

In 1978 Atari was working on a new chip set for an all new high end video game system. Ray Kassar became the new CEO of Atari and decided that Atari should produce a line of computers to compete against Apple in the home computer field. It was decided that the new chip set was to be "frozen" and used only for the new computer systems.   Atari's all new computer division was born.

Atari would introduce a new line of personal computers based around the MOS 6502 8 bit Processor. Using the new graphics/audio chip set the computer would come packaged with graphics and sound never before seen in a personal computer system. Capable of producing up to 128 colors using the CTIA chip (Colleen Television Interface Adapter) and later updated to 256 colors using a GTIA chip (General Television Interface Adapter) and with a maximum resolution of 320 X 192 the new line of Atari computer systems would have spectacular graphics for a system released in 1979.

The Atari 800 case was designed by Kevin McKinsey of Atari's industrial design group, he wanted to give the Atari computers a warm familiar and friendly look. The new Atari 400 and 800 computers would look very similar to a standard home typewriter. The Atari 400 and 800 got their number designations from their original memory configurations which were 4K for the 400 and 8K for the 800.   Also the Atari 400 and 800 were nicknamed after some very well endowed secretaries named Candy and Colleen.

The Atari 800 was designed to be an expandable system with its easily removable top case cover. The original run of Atari 800's had two little plastic latches that you could turn to unlock the top case then you simply lifted it off to reveal the internal system bus slots, a total of 4 slots were available from 0 through 3. Slot 0 was reserve for the OS card, slots 1 through 3 were used for RAM card originally, but many inventive 3rd party companies produced not just RAM cards, but RAM Disk cards, 80 column video cards and even a modem interface card. Later models had the cover closed with 2 screws with washers.

The original Atari OS personality card and Atari 8K and 16K memory cards were packaged into nice plastic/metal cases, this caused an overheat problem in the 800's, service centers received bulletins to remove the boards from their cases and discard the cases when systems came in with overheating problems, later Atari 800's were released from the factory with their OS and RAM cards not packaged into these little cases.

The front of the Atari 800 was equipped with 4 controller jacks which were compatible with all of the Atari 2600 joysticks, paddles, and keypads. These jacks were analog and digital input and output ports and were used for many functions. One company called Corvus designed a hard drive interface which used ports 3 & 4, another company made a modem which plugged into ports 1 & 2, other company's made Real Time clock cards and other companies made robot arms, and Atari itself later had a science lab kit called Atari Lab which could measure temperature, light and sound. Analog magazine, an old Atari 8 bit computer magazine even had a home-brew project to build a voice synthesizer for joystick ports 1 & 2. The Atari 800 was a very versatile and usable computer system.

The Atari 800 computer was sold from 1979 through 1982 and was then replaced by the Atari 1200XL home computer. Boosting 64K it was to be the all new future of Atari computers. Unfortunately it had no expansion slots, no external bus connector and lost 2 of its 4 controller ports.... It was a bomb, Atari 800 sales actually increased because people ran out to buy an Atari 800 before they were all gone.

During the development of a new lower cost Atari computer system to replace the Atari 800, a new motherboard was designed, this new all in one motherboard replaced the seven (7) boards that made up an Atari 800 computer. This new motherboard was nicknamed Collette and was a one piece 64K version of the Atari 800, it was never sold.

Atari also developed a 64K RAM card for the Atari 800 to replace all 3 16K RAM cards, this card too was never sold. 
Although the system is now almost 20 years old, the Atari 800 is still one of the most powerful, useful and versatile 8 bit home computers ever produced.   Even though it has limited memory capacity and a slow 1.79MHZ 8 bit processor, many tried and true Atari users still fire up and use their Atari 800's to this day.

Through the years, Atari engineers continued to expand the performance and capabilities of personal computers.

Other Platforms

The Atari 400/800 line was cancelled in 1982 to be replaced by a new sleek high-tech looking computer called the Atari 1200XL. The computer had an incompatible OS, no external expansion bus and little enhancements over the original 400/800 line and due to these shortcomings, the sales of the Atari 800 computer increased while people rushed to buy them before supplies ran out. The 1200XL was quickly replaced by the Atari 600/800XL line of computers. These computers fixed many of the 1200XL's shortcomings and had a Parallel Bus Interface for external expansion options. Several other computers were planned with voice synthesizers, built-in modems and built in disk drives but were never officially sold.

In the works in 1983, Atari had several new high-end computers including one called the 1600XL which would be a dual processor system with 6502 and 80186 for IBM compatibility. Another System called "Sierra" with a high-end audio/video chipset based on the MC68000 processor. Yet another project in the works was another system called "Gaza" which also used a high-end chipset and MC68000 processor. These systems would never make it past prototyping as Atari would be sold in 1984.

On July 2, 1984 Atari's Consumer Electronics Division and its Home Computer Division were sold to Tramel Technologies Limited and the company was renamed Atari Corporation. Leonard Tramiel adds: "Our name Tramiel was constantly being mispronounced as "Tra-meal" and my dad hoped that the other spelling would get people to say "Tra-mell" (it rhymes with "done well"). It didn't work."

The Atari XL line of computers was cancelled and in 1985 a new line of computers to replace the XL line called the Atari 65XE and 130XE computers were introduced.

Atari also introduced an all new line of computers called the Atari ST line. These new computers would use the Motorola 68000 processor, come with 512K of memory, use 3.5" disk drives, RGB monitors and a graphics user environment based on CP/M 68K and Digital Research GEM. Originally the processor for this new line of computers was to be the National 32016, however its spped and its availability was in doubt, so the MC68000 was chosen.

Atari would, over the course of 8 years improve upon its ST line of computers with such lines as the Mega ST, STe, Mega STe, TT030 and Falcon030 line of computers. Atari also introduced a laptop called the STacy and had in the works an under 5 lb. laptop called the STBook as its replacement. A pen based touch tablet version of the ST called the STpad or "STylus" had been shown in prototype form but was never sold. Atari introduced an assortment of peripherals from disk drives to very low cost and feature rich laser printers for its line of ST computers.

In 1987 Atari introduced a line of IBM compatible computer systems starting with its Atari PC-1 which was an all-in-one IBM XT compatible computer with built in disk drive, built in serial, parallel, keyboard, mouse and video ports (video could be configured for CGA, Hercules, EGA and other settings). An internal bus port on the motherboard allowed for an expansion card to use the Atari Mega ST "Megafile" hard disk system. Atari also introduced other PC compatible systems as well as a 386sx laptop and also an IBM XT palmtop computer the size of a VHS video tape.

The Atari Falcon030 was Atari last computer system to be produced. All company resources were directed towards the creation and completion of Atari's 64-bit Interactive Multimedia System called the Atari Jaguar 64 which was sold in 1993.