19 June 2008

My Long, Lost Atari 800

I recently had a conversation with a young lady of nineteen years about computers from the 1980s. "They were bulky, weren't they?" she speculated from accounts she'd heard.

"Bulky" is not the half of it! Compared to computers of today, the Commodore 64s, Ataris, and other PCs of the early 1980s were barely more intelligent and powerful than the a 2008 scientific calculator. And, yes, they were quite clumsy and weighed as much as a pile of my high school textbooks. The typical 21st-century urbanite carries more computing power in her or his mobile phone and iPod, then the computers of the Eighties.

That line of thinking has brought up fond memories of my first personal computer, my long, lost Atari 800. What ever happened to that old thing? I suppose we must have disposed of it when my parents moved to a second-floor apartment while I was in college round about 1989.

I was one of the first kids on my street to have my own computer. I guess I've always been a bit of a geek for new technology. My Atari 800 was all I wanted for Christmas. My parents were not well-off financially compared to many of the kids at my high school, but they understood the educational value of my desire. My father likely foresaw the advantage I would have if I could grasp the power of this new tool at a young age. Even though he preferred to draw by hand, he agreed to shell out his hard-earned commercial artist's cash, probably close to $1000 I now realize, on my one and only Christmas present that year.

I was thirteen years old. I had never had such an incredible toy! I had the mind-swirling video game Asteroids on cartridge and a -- I kid you not -- cassette-tape loading game called Energy Czar. (Those of you who remember the Jimmy Carter years, are probably snickering right about now.) That game took 30-minutes to load from cassette player to the Atari 800's memory chip. The text-based thought game tested your wits against the statistics of population-growth, demand for fossil fuels, and nuclear energy versus solar power. . . Wait a minute! That sounds like 2008, not 1983. My, my. We still exploit the earth's resources. But, I digress.

Rats! I cannot remember the other game that I loved and played so much. It was an Atari cartridge game with the player as a space pilot in a Star Wars-like fighter who must go through hyperspace and chase down all of the bad guys. (Feel free to remind me if you recognize the game I'm describing.)

My big purchase in games during 1984 was an Atari cartridge game, Defender. I loved that one! The graphics seemed so smooth and slick. I liked it even better than the space pilot game for the sound effects and joystick steering.

My Atari 800 was not the first computer I had used, so my desire for a computer of my own was based upon experiences in school. Our gifted-and-talented program classroom had a Radio Shack TRS80. My classmates and I all took turns playing. I learned how to create a simple game in several lines of Basic. Once I got the Atari 800, I was coding all kinds of little games and images using if/then statements preceded by numbers in increments of 10. Learning Basic code seemed so high-tech. I was so proud of myself, my own geek-dom.

By 1985, I bought my first word-processing software and began to draft my school reports electronically, printed out from my dot-matrix printer. For that era my word processor was actually quite sophisticated. I could code diacritical marks, change fonts, the whole nine yards. Some of my teachers actually preferred hand-written papers to printed ones back in those days. I could no longer read my wretched cursive hand (I never really learned cursive script well). I taught myself a half-print, half-cursive style that I still use today just so I could read my own hand-writing. Do they even teach cursive today in public schools? Back then computers were so rare that most scholarship was all long-hand.

My very first serious research paper on "The Wasteland" a poem by T.S. Eliot of seven pages in length with footnotes was drafted by hand, but typed on my Atari. Well, all scholars have got to start somewhere. Little did I know at that time that I would be someday giving academic conference papers on some of T.S. Eliot's friends, artists Roger Fry and Vanessa Bell.

I stored my T.S. Eliot paper and some other assignments on 5-inch floppy diskettes. There was no hard-drive in my Atari 800, so that was the only option other than the cassette-tape drive. I had a modem, too. But never really understood how the bulletin board systems worked in the early days of the Internet. It seemed so weird and the community networking climate was all academic, all scientific lingo. Way over my 14-year-old head.

By the time I graduated from high school, I knew Basic code reasonably well for an arts and humanities student. Never brilliant at mathematics, I wisely chose a liberal arts track while studying abroad in England my freshman year of college funded by a merit-based scholarship. My college in England had only very early IBM computers, so I went back to writing papers by hand for a couple of semesters. I gave up on trying to make their outdated word processor work for me.

It's just amazing to review my own little piece of personal computer history and realize I was part of an technological revolution. A child of the 1980s, I was among the first to experience computers on a daily level. Now that is taken for granted.

And now, of course, my iPod Nano could beat up my long, lost Atari 800.


  1. The Atari 800 was an incredible machine for it's time (1979!!!). The game you forgot the name to was Star Raiders and it was essentially the killer APP for 100's of thousands of Atari computers sold!

  2. Star Raiders! Yep, that's it. My husband went online and thought that was the game I mentioned, too.
    Definitely the killer APP of its day.

    Thanks for the feedback, Jeff.

  3. Yes, we - children of the 80's - have now begun to understand that we are the children that actually are the ones that saw the computer come on a commercial level and actually grew up with it. Those 90's+ can't even grasp it. ;)