Guest blog post by Kevin Savetz
When I was a kid I fell in love with computers. Specifically, I fell in love with the Atari 800, one of the first microcomputers. I wanted to know everything about it: how it worked, how to program it, about the things you could do with it. I was hungry for information about that computer, about all computers, really. I read about them constantly. With every trip to the grocery store, I bugged my parents to buy me computer magazines. With every trip to the library, I headed straight to the Dewey 000s, the computer science section. I sent away for all the free information I could get, in the form of brochures and catalogs that came in the mail. I stored the reading material and the knowledge as long as I could.
Although it’s been more than a few years, that Atari computer remains one of my favorite things, as is finding information about it. So not much has changed there. What has changed is that I can use Internet Archive to share that information with other “retrocomputer” enthusiasts, historians, researchers, and students. The amount of information that’s been archived (by myself and many others) about this niche within a niche of computer history would have boggled kid me. Heck, it boggles adult me.
Here’s the first version of the operator’s manual for the Atari 800 computer, printed in 1979. Only 200 copies were printed. It includes photos of pre-production versions of the hardware and screenshots that don’t match what the released version of the computer would actually display. As a historical artifact, it gives insight into the process of creating a microcomputer and the decisions that the hardware and software engineers were working though. It’s easy to open a couple of windows to do a side-by-side comparison with the more common released version, from later that same year, which trades some of the quaintness for accuracy.
You can also delve into development notebooks and design documents, which can provide unique perspective into how hardware and software was built. Joe Decuir, one of the designers of the Atari 800, saved his engineering notebooks from his time at Atari, and allowed me to scan them. His 1977 and 1978 engineering notebook include design concepts down to the chip level, feasibility studies, meeting notes, and teardowns of competing products.
Atari game programmer Gray Chang lent me his handwritten development notebook for his computer game Claim Jumper, which was published by Synapse Software in 1982. I was able to scan the notebook and upload it to Internet Archive. Claim Jumper is an adorable game about collecting gold nuggets in the Old West. The notebook, complete with painstakingly crafted programming code, flowcharts, hand-drawn graphics, and a handwritten draft of the manual, is a reminder of a time when one person could single-handedly create every aspect of a computer game. Many of today’s games are built by teams of dozens or hundreds of coders, artists, musicians, and writers. Gray’s notebook is testament to the fact once upon a time, it took a team of one to create a great video game.
If poring over old scribbled notebooks doesn’t whet your appetite for the history of old computers, perhaps a movie featuring children falling in love with them will. “The Magic Room” is a movie about Atari computer camps: summer computer camps for kids. Shot in 1982, the film was commissioned by Atari as a sort of documentary, sort of extended advertisement for its camp program. The title cards were made, naturally, on Atari computers. The kids are stunning in their pre-teen awkwardness. There are scenes of children riding horses at golden hour, playing basketball, and of course engaged with their Atari computers. Very little game playing is shown. These kids are programming, solving problems, thinking, and learning.
In fact, everything produced for Atari Computer Camp is hosted at Internet Archive. The application, the acceptance letter, the entire curriculum of programming classes, the instructor guide, and all the software that was available to campers. Everything. It’s far too late to attend an Atari summer camp but, using Internet Archive, you can read and do everything that those campers could do. (Except the horses and basketball.)
There’s more, of course, probably even enough information about Atari computers to keep kid-me satisfied. A curated “best of” selection of Atari-related material is in the Archive’s Atari Historical Documents collection. The Atari Computer Books collection has scans of 300 books, definitely more than my hometown library’s 000 shelf. And there’s entire runs of old computer magazines, all readable and searchable in your browser.
I’m grateful to Internet Archive for allowing me to share my passion for these computers by sharing the documents that I find with the rest of the world. And I’m grateful that the retrocomputing nerds in the rest of the world can use Internet Archive to share what they find with me.
Kevin Savetz (twitter, Internet Archive) is an Atari historian and podcaster. He is co-host of Antic: The Atari 8-Bit Podcast, where he has published more than 350 oral history interviews with people involved with the early home computer industry; and Eaten By A Grue, a podcast about Infocom text adventure games.
I still have my atari collection.
An atari 600xl, atari 800xl, atari 1010
1010 tape drive and 2 atari 2600 consoles. Haven’t played any of these since hurricane Michael, everything
Is in storage.
love the artical!!takes me way back!
The most memorable childhood device ^_^
Absolutely amazing work, thank you for sharing it with us!
Design-wise, I always felt the Atari 400 and particularly the Atari 800 were drop dead gorgeous. All other computers of the time were like flip phones and the Atari was like the iPhone. Star Raiders as a game on a home computer (shown at Winter CES in January 1980 and released in March 1980) is a staggering achievement for its time. I feel blessed that I was able to play that game at that time. It would be like getting to have one of the first rides in a flying car today… and no-one was looking… all these people playing Pacman and Galaxian and I was flying through 3d space, risking a jump through hyperspace with my sheilds down to preserve my rapidly depleting energy. And all in a slick amazing three dimentional starscape. Thank you Atari, Nolan, Al and everyone else for giving me the advance seat and setting me on this wonderful journey.
I grew up with Atari computers as well and thoroughly enjoyed your article!!
I can’t believe they thought 4k would be enough, even in 1979!
I feel blessed that I was able to play that game at that time. It would be like getting to have one of the first rides in a flying car today… and no-one was looking… all these people playing Pacman and Galaxian and I was flying through 3d space, risking a jump through hyperspace with my sheilds down to preserve my rapidly depleting energy
All other computers of the time were like flip phones and the Atari was like the iPhone
Childhood feelings awake again – thank you for this journey to beautiful memories!
I loved the article. I have not had the luck to know this computer but I am surprised to see how everything evolves over time. Who was going to tell us that now with computers we could connect to a network and even make sessions in a video chat and with a webcam to see a person who can be miles away from you and talk live. That was unthinkable years ago, the advance of technology is incredible!
Atari Designed a video phone in the 80s
I never got to use Atari computers but this gives me some serious nostalgia from those times. I didn’t get my own computer until 1983…but my enthusiasm and needs were all the same
Thanks for reminding me of those days
I can’t believe they thought 4k would be enough, even in 1979!
I never had an 800, but will never part with my 1040st. Thanks for writing the article. Very nice!
Boy, do I wish I still had at least 1 of my 2 Atari 2600s!
I got the first one because I was spending/wasting too much $$$ at arcades.
Marriage and motherhood sidelined me from it for a while.
After my son started school, I introduced him to the wonderful world of Atari. Of course, he enjoyed it for several years.
But when he was about 10 (in the 90s), his friends started getting newfangled Sony PlayStation. Of course he wanted the newest games/system. He was ashamed to have friends come over and play the ancient Atari games. Finally I could no longer stand his mocking/whining/begging/etc. Santa brought him a PlayStation.
I kept and played with the Atari a few more years, probably until he was a teenager. His embarrassment at friends even SEEING the old Atari finally relinquished it to the Goodwill donation box.
I still miss the amazing Atari. So sad that it didn’t/couldn’t keep up.
I have never been able to have half the enthusiasm for PlayStation.
Ah, you never forget your first love.
Yes. Actually… I played Atari last week at my workplace. Sweet River Raid game! 😀
My first computer was the A-800. Learning ABASIC, using the cassette drive on C-10 tapes! Loved it. Spent more time on that than I do on my machine today. Though I am still a Linux tinkerer.
amazing, thank you for sharing it with us!
i love atari when i was a kid 😀 😡
I played Atari last week at my workplace 😀
I can’t believe they thought 4k would be enough, even in 1979
We had a lot of childhood memories with Atari.
Loved the Atari 800 (programmed it in BASIC, Forth and GO).
My first professional code was a light-pen-driven Dry Cleaning clothing mark-and-price system, with receipts and inventory (age 18).
Also liked the Atari 1040ST, though not with the same level of affection.
Remember my childhood after school Atari played so much with my sister