The Atari ST, Part 2

My memory of the ST project is scattered and biased, but here’s how I remember it, starting in July of 1984.ย  There are a lot of details missing; for the most part I remember the bits that I worked on, but the other folks on the project almost certainly remember different or conflicting stuff.ย  Forgive my omissions in advance; it’s been a while.

July: Tramiels buy Atari and consolidate the people that they don’t lay off into a single building. The “ST” plan is bandied about, but nobody knows a whole lot.

August: The ST hardware becomes clearer. We evaluate other OSes, etc.

September: Work starts in Monterey, near the Digital Research campus.

October: Work. We get (rented) houses in Monterey.

November: More work. We barely see those houses.

December: Much more work. The ST boots TOS for the first time.

January: CES (with STs running CP/M-68K). Decision made to move to new file system (GEMDOS).

February: 16K boot ROMs written (a couple-week side effort).

March: Even more work. Two weeks to crunch TOS to fit into 192K.

April: ROMs actually work (do you know how long it takes to burn 192K of ROM, not to mention UV-erasing older chips?)
May: ROM TOS 1.0 shipped.ย  Phew!

Well, and there are some details.

– – – –

The other engineer was screaming at me: “If you’ll be patient with me, I’ll be patient with you!”

He stomped away to his office. Not his real office, which he would have been delighted to stomp back to. His real office was in Digital Research nirvana, in the buildings that we were forbidden to visit. Instead he had to be happy with stomping off to his crappy shared office in the building where he was temporarily relocated, where he had to work with . . . us. The pushy Atari guys. The hicks from Silly Valley who just wanted stuff to work.

We’d been in the satellite building next to the DRI campus for several months. Early prototype hardware was still maybe a month away (though we didn’t know that then). The pressure to get something working was intense, and the truth about what we had purchased from DRI was becoming clear: The software wasn’t technically sweet, and getting it running on the Atari hardware wasn’t a matter of just doing a port because large parts of GEM simply weren’t finished.

Theoretically you can write very portable code in C. As long as you stick to certain rules and have a reasonable degree of paranoia you have a good chance of your code running on different platforms, with minimal effort. The best way to do this is to have your code running, from day one, on several different machines using several different compilers. DRI had not done this with everything, and the resulting issues ranged from simple errors that were caught by the compiler and were easily fixed, to deeper issues that required design work if the code was going to run on anything other than an 8086. It was slow, frustrating, and there was a lot of friction. And some yelling.

That’s a dismal picture of the DRI / Atari relationship. Very often, things worked great. Some of the DRI guys were hilarious and fun to work with. But we all had our faults. If the worst of the DRI engineers thought they were programming gods who could code no wrong, then the worst of the Atari engineers were pushy bastards who just wanted stuff to work. Sometimes things clicked, but sometimes we were like scorpions in a bottle.

I forget what the “patience” argument was about. The other engineer was right, or I was right, or maybe we were both horribly wrong. An hour later we apologized to each other and sat down and just got the job done. But a couple of years later, long after we had returned to Atari’s Sunnyvale office, we still remembered that argument in lunchtime banter.

– – – –

The Atari side of the ST software team roughly broke down into six small groups:

Graphics. Two or three guys took the DRI-specified graphics layer and wrote font renderers, blits, line-drawing and other primitives. In my opinion the graphics guys were having the most fun, and since they were video game programmers (well, technically speaking, ex video game programmers now) they were running architectural rings around the rather pedestrian graphics abstractions that DRI had decided on. The graphics primitives on the ST had interesting extensions, and GEM only used a subset of what was available.

Porting Getting GEM working. Two or three more of our people were helping get GEM onto the 68000. This wasn’t just “compile, debug, rinse, repeat” deal, since GEM wasn’t really finished. These guys worked really closely with DRI engineers every day, and they were probably the most frustrated of us all.

BIOS (drivers) and OS (two guys, including me). Straight-forward systems bringup stuff. Lots of work, but mostly ho-hum.

Infrastructure: Build wrangling, source management, odd-and-ends, and pithy observations about the nature of humanity as it pertained to its use of computers, and in particular, nasty habits in source code. We didn’t use source control. I’m not sure we even used diff. Mostly we had several directories-full of source files that were compiled by a guy who knew how to do it. Rustic, but it worked.

Applications. Well, application, we had a guy working on porting the DRI Basic. It was pretty much a disaster, though the work eventually did get done. I have vague memories of an engineer hired by the Tramiels who didn’t do a very good job — I think he ran into a bunch of portability minefields, got discouraged and beat up on by management (we hadn’t truly grokked the unpolished and unported state of a lot of the DR software yet). He wound up quitting or being fired, and I can’t remember which.

Morale (in the form of a very friendly german shepherd doggie, who was capable of playing frisbee far beyond human endurance; very useful for destressing).

– – – –

Before the ST hardware started to work, we had to use existing 68000-based systems for cross development. The graphics guys had Apple Lisas that were running CP/M-68K; the Lisas had nice bitmap displays which we used as “practice” STs. The disks on these machines took forever to come back after a crash (tens of minutes). For some reason the boot code on these machines had been written to display a bitmap of a fish. You’d hear a mutter or curse from down the hall (crash), then the creaky footsteps of someone walking around, cooling their heels and waiting for their “God damned” Lisa Profile drives to boot, then a triumphant yell “CarpDOS!” and typing sounds.

The BIOS/OS guys had some Motorola VME-10 workstations that were (ahem) “Unix Ready!” (the boxes they came in said so, in large, proud letters) but instead we had them running CP/M-68K, and I’m sure they felt sad inside; I know I did. The VME-10 systems were very flaky; my own system died and needed repairs three times in six months. (A year and a half later, Gary Tramiel, the son who was heading the financial arm of Atari, asked us if we were still using the VME systems. By then we had moved all our development over to the ST itself, and the VMEs were gathering dust in a corner. “Hell no,” I said. “Fine,” said Gary, “Then we won’t pay the repair bill.” A good lesson in the Tramiel school of start-up economics).

– – – –

DRI had us housed in an old TV studio building (KMST, if you care) that was about a hundred yards from the rest of their buildings. The building was cold and creaky, and when it rained (which, during the fall and winter we were there, was a lot) the steps got pretty slippery.

Typical workday: Get up and do the usual stuff (coffee!) in our rented house in Carmel, two blocks from the beach. Usually we could hear the ocean, and sometimes I’d get quick beach fix in, if it wasn’t raining. Drive five miles to DRI, go up the creaky steps without breaking my neck. Make awful instututional-style coffee from the horrid little mylar bags of Columbian bridge-sweepings (put two in, just to make sure the coffee isn’t totally crappy).

Go into the office. Huh, the VME/10 won’t boot again. Flip power switch on and off for a while until it finally works (leave it on the rest of the day).

Make a backup right now because (a) it’s a nice, warm fuzzy feeling, especially when you can’t trust your stupid workstation to even fucking turn on, and (b) was the one I did last night at 1am really any good?

Flail about at drivers. Trace through file system code that mostly works, but sometimes doesn’t. Wish for working hardware. Try to decode the latest spec from the hardware guys. Stare at the ceiling (“That doesn’t make any sense.”) Stare at the wall (“That can’t possibly work.”) Write some more code anyway.

– – – –

There was a bug that had been causing all kinds of grief; some kind of simple botch. I’d spent half of the previous day working out exactly what was going on, and it turned out to be in some DRI code. I groaned. Not that guy again.

The DRI engineer responsible for that part of the system was notoriously arrogant. I tried to explain the problem to him, down to the offending line of code, and he was objecting all the way. But later I overheard him saying to his office mate, “Hey, I found a bug in my code that could explain that weird problem.”

This just drove us batshit.

I took a doggie break. One of the Atari engineers had a wonderful german shepard named Divot. You could take Divot outside with a frisbee and she’d play fetch until one of you dropped from exhaustion (and she could fetch for hours). It’s hard to get worked up about a screwed-up OS when someone is utterly dependent on you for the next frisbee toss.

“He’s a bozo, Divot.”


“So what if he came from HugeCorp and did systems programming on machines so big he couldn’t lift them; he’s a graduate of the Arrogant Jerk Academy and he doesn’t know how to interact with humans.”

“Woof, woof!” [Speaking of interacting, throw the stupid thing already, okay?]

I went back inside. Whereupon: Much more programming, a late-night run for chinese food of dubious quality, and work, work, work. One big happy family, hatching an operating system out of thin air and ego and fear. Oh yeah.

– – – –

CP/M-68K was an “Operating System” that had its roots in the 70s. About ten years earlier Gary Kildall had worked on some DEC PDP-11 systems, liked them, and had been inspired to write a small OS for the very early 8080-based microcomputers. For years CP/M had been a defacto standard. Gary had started a company called Inter-Galactic Digital Research to further develop and market it. MSDOS had only been out for a couple of years, and DRI (renamed — sensibly losing the Intergalatic bit so that people, especially conversative suit-types, would take them more seriously) was vying for market share with a port of CP/M to the 8086, the CPU of the IBM-PC.

CP/M-68K was a port the 68000, and was the OS that the Tramiels had contracted for.

CP/M (in any of its variants) didn’t really do a whole lot. There was a simple flat file system. There was some character-at-a-time console output (useless on a computer with a graphical interface). And CP/M could load and programs. That was about it. (By modern standards it was missing: A heirarchical file system with directories, networking, memory management, processes and process scheduling, a notion of time, synchronization and locking primitives, a driver architecture, graphics, fonts, character sets . . . you get the idea).

GEM was was bolted on top of this primitive base. Since the underlying OS didn’t support more than one task, GEM had a lot of its own stuff to enable things like “desk accessories” that could run concurrently with (say) a word processor. It was pretty clunky.

None of us liked CP/M-68K. So when we heard that someone at DRI had been doing something much better, even though it was still unfinished, we unofficially jumped at it. GEMDOS started as a skunkworks project by a DRI engineer who had a reputation for being a loose canon. GEMDOS had a heirarchical file system that was compatible with MSDOS; it had a few other improvements, but this was the biggie. But in December 1984 GEMDOS was still being written.

The STs that went to the CES show were running CP/M-68K. In late January, after a bunch of hand-wringing, Leonard Tramiel made the decision to go with GEMDOS. We’d had it substantially working for several weeks, and it looked like it was going to be fine. Notably we did not have any hard disks to try it out on, so all of our testing was done on floppy disk based systems — this would come back to hit us hard later.

– – – –

It was pretty clear that TOS was going to be late. But we had the boot code working fine, so we spent a few weeks doing a small 16K loader ROM. All it did was paint some pretty graphics, load a sector from floppy disk and run it. We sent the boot ROM images out without actually knowning if they’d boot an OS, but they worked fine.

Around the time the boot ROMs were sent off, the software team was feeling pretty blue. Things were taking much longer than we had expected; there were lots of bugs to fix, there were missing features, there were features that would never make it into the product, and it was pretty clear that the Mac had us outclassed. Also, most of us were feeling pretty burned-out.

Jack Tramiel called a meeting. We didn’t often meet with him, and it was a big deal. He started by saying, “I hear you are unhappy.” Think of a deep, authoritarian voice, a lot like Darth Vader, and the same attitude, pretty much.
Sorry, Jack, things aren’t going all that hot. We tried to look humble, but we probably just came across as tired.
“I don’t understand why you are unhappy,” he rumbled. “You should be very happy; I am paying your salary. I am the one who is unhappy. The software is late. Why is it so late?”

Young and idealistic, I piped up: “You know, I don’t think we’re in this for the money. I think we just want to ship the best computer we can –”

Jack shut me down. “Then you won’t mind if I cut your salary in half?”

I got the message. He didn’t even have to use the Force.
– – – –

We got busy again and shipped the first ROM-based systems a month or two later. My memory of this has really faded, but a few things stick:

TOS wasn’t going to fit even in the 192K of ROM. It was well over 200K (210? 220?) and still climbing. So for two weeks everyone dropped what they were doing and started removing code. It’s amazing how much stuff you can toss out if you really try. Our linker didn’t do dead-code stripping, but even if it had that wouldn’t have shown us the fat pieces of common code, the pathetic reimplementations of strlen and strcpy that were everywhere, and the useless crap and horrible layering that could be replaced with a few simple lines of code.

[I’ve since found that removing code is a great way to improve an existing system; not only do you get rid of a lot of bugs, but the result is usually easier to understand, and often runs faster. Have a large, unwieldy project that takes forever to build and you have trouble making changes to? Wade in and start deleting. Become a ruthless of constructive destruction; if you accidentally nuke something critical, just resurrect it from the project depot. Software is great!]

A little while after the first TOS ROMs shipped, Leonard Tramiel arranged a celebratory dinner for the engineers and managed to get Jack to come as well. About halfway through the meal (which was at a wonderful Chinese place called Fung Lum, in Campbell), Leonard started relating the story of how he and John Feagans had arrived at the Atari Coin-op building to interview people and see who they wanted to keep.

“Then this voice called out over the intercom –”

— oh, shit. One thing you need to know about Jack is that when he was twelve years old, he was in the concentration camp at Auschwitz. I’ve seen the tattoo. That he survived being there pretty much defined him, as far as most people were concerned. And —

“– and the voice called out, ‘Imperial storm-troopers have entered the base!'”.

Jack hadn’t seen Star Wars, not ever, and didn’t get the reference. And to him, the phrase “Storm Trooper” has a completely different meaning. It took a little while for Leonard to convince Jack that it was really a funny thing, no, honestly, really it was a joke, okay? And I’m not sure that Jack really understood. But in the end he gave a little laugh; everyone else seemed to enjoy the story.
I kept my job.

I hung on for another couple of years before going to Apple. There were some nasty bugs in GEMDOS that were never really fixed (you can download the sources — I did, a number of years ago, and found the same set of unsatisfactory fixes that I’d come up with, but that I’m not sure ever shipped). I took an ST with me, but I didn’t ever do much with it. I don’t keep in touch much with the people on the ST team; some light email, but that’s about it.

The ST community did really awesome things; some actual decent multi-tasking operating systems, a ton of music-related software and so on. It’s neat having had a part in helping all of that happen. I also know what I’d like to be able to do a second time around on a project like the ST. I’ve got this little list . . . .

Author: landon

My mom thinks I'm in high tech.

89 thoughts on “The Atari ST, Part 2”

  1. Simple great stuff. I hope you keep writing & writing as stuff comes back to you.

    As a guy who learned 6502 assembly at age 12 on an Atari 800 and bought the first (shakey) ST in Virginia with lawn-mowing money, I can’t get enough of this stuff.

    P.S. Still going strong, writing real-time operating system code and designing electronics for high speed radar systems. Funny how those childhood experiences shape you….

  2. Awesome story! I learned a lot of stuff on the Atari ST hardware, actually started with them my computer journey, as a 12 year old… Big THANK YOU for your wonderful job, for the passion to do that. That was great.

  3. I love these stories. You should get them published.

    At the end you say you’ve got ideas for another dedicated hardware platform. Out of interest, what do you think the likelihood of this happening are, in our modern day and age? Of somebody making a dedicated computer, like a new Mac platform? I often wonder about this. It’s one of my “if I won the lottery” fantasies — I’d set up a company to do it. Would I use BSD or Linux as a kernel? Or even something like ReactOS? Maybe run in two physical CPUs and sell initially at breakeven, to make a profit later… It’s quite an involving fantasy!

  4. Unfortunately, the times of new consumer-spec’d machines like the ST and the C64 are well beyond us. What I wish the ST had had:

    – An MMU. We actually did design a one-gate-delay MMU for one of the ST follow-ons; it did address translation and bounds checking, allow for a growable address space, and still meet the hairy requirements of DRAM timing (which were always a bit dodgy on the ST).

    – An OS with memory management and asynchronous I/O. There just wasn’t time to do any of this on the ST’s schedule.

    – Most of the UI layer written in an interpreted language. I think that even on an 8Mhz 68000 you could do a decent job of making the UI essentially completely mutable, rather than mostly frozen in compiled C. Imagine if the ST had shipped with HyperCard as its main UI.

    – A host of other things, including decent printer support, a networking stack (even simple UDP-like networking would have been great).

    I’m probably describing another year or two of work on top of the 9-10 months it took to paste the first ST together, and that just wouldn’t have happened.

    I guess that a lot of this kind of thing *did* happen, done by external parties after the ST shipped, and it was clear that Atari wasn’t going to deliver much of it.

    As far as modern consumer products go:

    – A trusted computing environment of some kind is a must. Yeah, this is a pro-DRM stance, but I’m not going to apologize for it. Frankly you’re not going to get good content on a platform without some way of guaranteeing that content won’t get ripped off. (How *nasty* DRM is, well, that’s another story. I’d love to see a time-locked system that was good at freeing content after a while — ID seems to have done quite well by more or less giving up its stuff after a couple of years, for instance).

    – Transactions in any local file system that you have.

    – Fungibility; you shouldn’t have to worry too much about the identity of a particular device. To the extent that you can prove you’re you, you should be able to treat one device like another. (Another direction: Geolocked content, e.g., everybody’s iPhone can run your games while you’re at your house, but not after they leave).

    There’s more, but I’m going to shut up now.

  5. After reading both posts, I am amazed at the amount of issues that you had to overcome to get the machine released in such a short time. Especially the hurdles working with wire-wrapped prototypes. I can really appreciate the amount of work in the design and construction of the Atari ST. Thank you.

  6. Another really good post, thanks. I love reading this stuff, as I grew up with the ST, although I was more of an Amiga fan. Not that I could afford either!

  7. It’s interesting what you say about embracing DRM. You’re right in that a modern hardware platform couldn’t ignore this and still get good content, but I think people would rebel against any hardware that has DRM built-in, unless the benefits massively outweighed this (here in the UK our Sky+ boxes are DRM but they’re also extremely useful, and therefore popular). I think the moral of the story is that you probably COULDN’T produce a dedicated computer platform now. All we can do is tweak stuff we already have, like PCs and Macs.

    Incidentally, you haven’t yet mentioned why the ST had such longevity — that damn MIDI port. Surely an incidental inclusion, but one that meant the platform refused to die in later years. I got my first 520ST in 1989, after I left high school. I had several more over the years because they were nearly always faulty (something else you ought to explain!). I eventually sold the last one I had in 1996 for a great price to a music buff who wanted to run Steinberg Pro 24 on it (although a lot of the price I got for it came from the inclusion of the then-rare monochrome monitor). At the time it was an 8MHz computer in a world of 200MHz Intel chips. Ironically, I had been advised by a teacher at school to get a Amiga because “that’s a lot better at music and sounds”. Goes to show that some people don’t know what they’re talking about.

  8. The Atari ST was one of the best computers ever. I spent a lot of time on it, and I remember when my friends got their VGA screens and were sooo amazed at the color, I was like “meh” seen it already.

    I have an ST emulator now and will spend some spare time once and a while on some of the old ones.

    I appreciate everyone who put time on these projects. It helped me get my start in programming.

  9. Landon, I wholeheartly would like to thank you! I can understand all the pain and suffering you and the rest of the team went through.

    I still use the ST (and Mega, TT, and Falcon) and I’d like to say that beside lots of brain-deadleness of some of its aspects, it’s a rock solid computer that gave me (amd gives) endless amounts of pleasure ๐Ÿ™‚

    P.S. I always thought that lots of the bugs/inconsistencies of TOS were due to bad specs and pressive deadlines, and you confirmed those thoughts 100% ๐Ÿ™‚ Again, thanks ๐Ÿ™‚

  10. What about the blitter chip? If one ST owner met another in 1990, the first thing one would say to the other was, “Has your ST got a blitter?”. All it did was make windows animations flicker-free (unless you did image editing, which was pretty primitive anyway). But, God, everybody wanted one.

  11. Fascinating stuff… scary to hear that all the myths and rumors about Jack Tramiel were TRUE…

    I’ve heard that Jack still has two of the four contest prizes that were going to be awarded as part of the Swordquest series for the Atari 2600.

  12. The Atari ST was the world’s first colorgraphic touchscreen Point of Sale computer. You see them all over the world these days. Atari always gave me a booth to show it off. I filled up two shoe boxes with business cards at Fall Comdex 86. You couldn’t even walk past the Atari booth that week unless you took a detour to the next aisle.

    1. You mean the “Print Your Own Business Cards!” booths you used to see in motorway service stations and the like? I do recall someone saying they actually had an STe buried away inside them (not sure why that instead of an STF, presumably it was a lot easier to add the extra RAM required by the laser printer that way?) … but it was never verified. I would have thought you’d want a higher resolution screen for that kind of application, better than 256 noninterlaced lines with full colour – so maybe an EGA or early VGA PC…

      They’d be a good fit for more normal cash register POSes though. High rez isn’t as important so long as you can fit readable labels onto the buttons, the colours have to be bold but not quite primary, and it’s beneficial to have a decent amount of local memory and some kind of rudimentary networking (such as you can do over MIDI…) without necessarily any more local backing store than can fit on a single sided floppy… or indeed, a 128k, bootable ROMcart.

      Just wonder how they implemented the touch interface? Serial port and custom decoder routines?

  13. How strange: my Atari STe just died, on the same day I find this post. It’s making a strange twitching noise and the LED is flickering (power supply?). Oh, well, I have another ST in the basement, but I’ll sure miss this machine. Good times, good times…

  14. Excellent story, brilliant style. Thanks for sharing with us.

    This piece will become my new signature:
    Stare at the ceiling (โ€That doesnโ€™t make any sense.โ€) Stare at the wall (โ€That canโ€™t possibly work.โ€) Write some more code anyway.
    DadHacker, “The Atari ST, Part 2”

    Amazing! Thank you.

  15. Excellent post!

    One suggestion:
    “…because large parts of GEM simply werenโ€™t finished.”
    “…, since GEM wasnโ€™t really finished.”
    Both times “finished” is in italics, which sounds a bit rough.

    Still, big fan off your writing.

  16. Harsh, yeah. You’re probably right.

    DRI hadn’t represented GEM as completed when the work was started. However, it was way more than just a month or so of wrap-up work and then a port; there were whole swaths of stuff that had to be done, in addition to porting a bunch of code that was very coupled to the x86.

  17. Waited with bated breath for this second installment!

    68K was so beautiful that it deeply saddens me to have seen it lose to x86.

    If only a 68K alliance could have been put together … the Industrial Design of the Sharp X68000, the chip wizardry of the Amiga team, the MIDI chops of the Atari, and the API development, documentation effort, developer evangelism, and general detail-sweating of the Mac.

    Oddly and quite ironically, Microsoft’s xbox-360 effort has got the most & best old-school DNA in it (eg. XNA Creator’s Club, free tools). A labor of love with which I’d change very little.

  18. Hi.

    Your machine was responsible for me getting my start in programming.
    I had coded a few little demos in my teens when learning assembler and I used them at a job interview to land the job. Ironically the job eventually lead to me working on the Atari 10 in 1 TV games unit at DC Studios ๐Ÿ™‚

    The ST rocked. Coding on it is still fun. If only machines like the Amiga/ST were still around today. Thanks for working on GEM ๐Ÿ™‚


    PS more stories please ๐Ÿ™‚

  19. Frank, they are ๐Ÿ™‚

    Try googling ‘Dead Hackers society’, and ‘Outline 2008’ for a couple off the top of my head for active interested people doing some new stuff for these machines.

  20. Landon, great stories. Programming never seemed so simple then, but looking back it’s amazing what we did with so little.

    Re “Frankly youโ€™re not going to get good content on a platform without some way of guaranteeing that content wonโ€™t get ripped off.”: Then we’re all screwed, because there’s no way of guaranteeing that, DRM or not.

  21. I loved my Atari computers and these posts bring it all back. Started with a 400 and a 410 Program Recorder, then moved up to an 800 a couple years later and stuck with that through high school. When I graduated in 1986, I had some money my grandparents had given me plus a little I’d saved and took about $1300 in cash to the local Atari dealer in Knoxville, TN and bought a 1040ST, a color monitor and an after-market 1200 baud modem. I used that puppy for the next five years including all my engineering coursework and projects. That’s when I discovered a nasty floating-point bug in Atari ST Basic (who wrote THAT POS?) and had to switch to Pascal for some numerical methods routines I wrote for a class in orbital mechanics.

    Ah, the memories. Thanks to ebay, I have replaced my old 400 and 800 with working examples, plus a bunch of XL machines I coveted but never owned: 600XL, 800XL and a 1200XL, plus a 130XE. Still don’t have a working ST yet, but I’ve got some emulators that bring back the green desktop when I want it. ๐Ÿ™‚

  22. I was part of the company that bought the AMY sound chip technology from Atari. We’d hoped to use it at the heart of new synthesizers. As a digital additive synth, our software and methods quite resembled the technology that would become MP3. We had very rich sounds compressed to an unprecedented degree.

  23. I did a lot of C and Assembly programming on the ST and I became more than familiar with TOS – it became obvious to me were the original programmers had to cut corners to make it all work (back then I didn’t realize the time pressure all of this was under when developed). But even with the flaws, it was far and away the most fun programming environment that I ever had! I would go back to it in a heartbeat if there’d be any money in it nowadays.

    Around 1990 I worked one summer on a 68k OS for a hardware project and that gave me a lot of first-hand knowledge on how hard it is to build a OS and make it boot on untested hardware – my hat is off to you and your colleagues who made the TOS as great as it was.

  24. ” I donโ€™t keep in touch much with the people on the ST team; some light email, but thatโ€™s about it.”

    ask them to write few lines of memories from time of building ST! we all would read it with GREAT pleasure! ๐Ÿ™‚

    best regards
    Milan Kovac

  25. Thankyou very much for taking the time to write about these early ST days. For better or for worse, I have an irrational attachment to this platform, because it was the first computer I ever owned.

    You mentioned a software “wishlist”… do you have any opinions on hardware, or anything else, that could have made the ST more successful?

    I’m not an engineer, or a professional programmer, so this could be way off the mark, but I think:
    1) Thorough programming documentation of the machine and OS… a “for idiots” kind of reference, should have been available at some point in the first year of release.
    2) “Chunky” video hardware, as opposed to planar. I don’t how expensive that would be, but for the gaming side of things (which gave significant momentum to the platform), I know demo coders worried (or worry, today!) about chunky-to-planar routines a lot, for 3d stuff. Do you think chunky video could have just brought it a bit closer to the other 16 bitters?
    3) People talk about all the stuff that the Amiga had that the ST didn’t, and discuss the stuff they wish the ST had, which would make it more like the Amiga. The ST was cheap, and we wouldn’t ave been able to afford them if they had more “Amiga” features… I think the one strength the ST had was a bit of raw computational power, with the extra clock speed. I think this strength could have been played to a little more…. I’m not sure how (small CPU cache or fast loops? a *socket* for people to easily add this cache? or a socket for a maths coprocessor, and support for it in the OS, so that people could add them if they wanted and get some benefit?)
    As 3d took off in the early 90’s, this could have kept the ST in touch for a little longer….

    Anyway, pie in the sky!
    Thanks again for the read.

    1. Chunky graphics in a byte-based system only really work if you’ve got 8-bit (or multiple-of) colour depth though, and the ST never went higher than 4-bit. Or are using EDO-type memory. Or are at least using some kind of direct colour (16 greys etc). Otherwise you don’t really get as much benefit in terms of ease of data-funging and transfer speed as you’d think, and lose the various bits of neat wide-scale trickery you can do at high speed in planar mode. And it’s even less useful for 2-bit and totally pointless in mono, which were the two main operating screen modes for almost everything other than games, art packages and the render-screens of CAD programs.

      Quite why the screen modes always stayed limited at 4-bit even in the STe is a bit of a mystery to me, though. The Amiga used presumably exactly the same spec RAM, or even slightly slower (140 vs 120ns as a minimum…) but was able to support 4-bit at 720 pixels width, not just 320, and its 6-bit overall limitation, including the HAM weirdness, was down to space for hardware palette registers (32 of em plus the halfbrite trick) and coming with 256k as standard more than anything else. On a fixed-line-rate raster based system like most TV-compatible computers, the horizontal resolution vs colour depth formula has a fixed maximum value based on the memory bandwidth. Somehow, in the Miggy, the graphics memory bandwidth was more than double that of the ST (roughly 7.14Mb/s vs decidedly less than 4Mb/s), without actually slowing the CPU *way* down? Hmm.

      Imagine if by some leap of imagination they’d managed to cram in a 256-colour mode (maybe a chunky 4-8-4 / 6-6-6 RGB or HSL direct colour one to avoid having to make up a monster ASIC with 256 colour registers), even if only at 256 horizontal resolution… but preferably at up to 384 (and who knows, perhaps even a planar, 224~320-rez 9-bit mode). Even without any other alterations, and only limited practical use, that still could have been a game changer, so to speak. Plus it would have allowed 16 colours in medrez (adding in an _official_ Amiga style interlace mode wouldn’t have been much trouble on top) for proper ANSI compatibility, and four greys in hirez, which would have extended its DTP / photo retouch lifespan. The Mac and PC crowd would have justifiably shat themselves, and the Amiga would have had to wave the Copper flag pretty hard.

      One of those things you’d like to go back and hit people around the face with a fish to try and convince them to implement, these days… would probably have been a relatively minor change to implement, with a big impact. It’s not like adding a sprite engine or the like.

      (Also take them to one side and go … for the love of christ, swap the endian-ness of your master colour palette attributes, don’t cut the corner that means your sound, floppy, printer and hard disk ports all run through the same chip, put the single sided drive’s head on the right way up, and have a quick root through the HDD code to see if you’ve accidentally left in some limitations that are meaningless in a floppy disk environment but crippling for mass storage… My ST was TOS v1.0 right to the end, and it was remarkably bug free and well-featured, we never really ran into any issues or felt short changed because of it… and in fact I sort of felt it took until W95 for the PCs to “catch up” – but those other bits were well known problems for many people, and especially for converting between ST and STe)

      And… gah, I really should stop now ๐Ÿ˜€

    2. [quote]
      โ€œChunkyโ€ video hardware, as opposed to planar. I know demo coders worried (or worry, today!) about chunky-to-planar routines a lot, for 3d stuff.

      It is true that planar graphics has its problem. For scrolling and positioning sprites you need to do slow shift operations or preshift graphics data (like many demos/games did) at the cost of more memory usage.

      But it also has it advantages, you could have easily have parallax layers of graphics without the need for “and/or”ing graphics data but at the cost of color (e.g. two layers of 2 planes with four colors (of which one color used for background or transparency).
      Or do translucency effects (e.g. one three plane layer with 8 colors and one plane that causes causes 8 translucency colors).

      But chunky graphics do have its problems too especially with bit-depth lower than 8 as with the ST. Then for example a 16 color mode would have two pixels per byte which also complicates drawing of sprites over a background.

      Do you think chunky video could have just brought it a bit closer to the other 16 bitters?

      The biggest 16-bit competitor, the Amiga, also had planar graphics although more flexible. On the Atari the planes where interleaved in memory (2 bytes plane 0, 2 bytes plane 1, .. , 2 bytes plane 3, 2 bytes plane 0, ..). On the Amiga the data of one plane was sequentially (not interleaved) and each plane could have its own memory location.

      I wonder why two features of the STE (12-bit color instead of 9-bit color and position the screen data at any address instead of a 256-byte boundary enabling easy vertical scrolling) were never part of the initial design. These seem so trivial to implement. Probably 9-bit color resulted in a cheaper color-dac but I can’t see that omitting the last byte of the screen address register would make it much cheaper or simpler.

  26. Nice articles, thanks for the posts.

    I remember buying my first Atari ST 520+ (with 1MB RAM!) in Germany with the TOS bootroms (“The Boot” as they were called in the “Hitchhikers Guide to the BIOS”) with version 0.0. I even bought the schematics (yes, this were possible) a couple of weeks before I got my real maschine.

    The German Disk-TOS I got with my ST had 196KB, but TOS 1.0 came out soon. A year later I got my Megafile 44 (SyQuest 44MB drive) an TOS-1.4. That SyQuest was really cool. Changing the meadia and listening to the disk spinning. But it was loud as hell at high frequencies.

    I developed a lot of hard- and software for the ST which was really fun. The 68k was a good choice, a really nice cpu. For someone like me, who liked the 6809 and hated Z80, that “Jackintosh” was the right maschine.

    You guys made a hell of a good job with the ST and gave lots of people lots of fun. Thanks for that.

  27. Hello Landon, thanks for the input. A question has always burned my lips, about the Shiraz Shivji’s myth. Were they true he had the ST engineered all by himself in only 6 months ? You spoke about wrapped card in the first part of your story, were they done by him ?

    I also have several questioning over the (clever) choice of GDOS font system, why TTF format was not used at that time, why the hard-disk were not fully MS compliant (thus allowing a simple inplace swap) or else…


  28. Landon, you write:

    Notably we did not have any hard disks to try it out on, so all
    of our testing was done on floppy disk based systems โ€” this
    would come back to hit us hard later.

    And never come back to that issue. Could you possibly expand a bit on that “hit us hard later”?

    1. Presumably the 40-folder and maybe the 32mb partition limit “bugs” that, respectively, could cause crashes and data corruption and were somewhat controvertial (it was almost impossible to “rescue” a drive even by deleting the 41st folder without using a special software tool … after which you were damn sure to always boot using a disc with an auto-running 40F patch on it), or in the latter case were just a pain in the ass if you had a disc bigger than 32mb as you had to subpartition it, much like the latter days of using 3Gb or larger drives with FAT16 (loads of 2Gb partitions) or LBA48 ones with Win9x and FAT32 (250Gb is your practical limit – with the “last” one sized somewhere between 121 and 127Gb so it’s not “too big” itself, but guarantees that the FAT lurks somewhere below the drive’s actual 128Gb point).

      The first one is just a minor filesystem stack size and sanity checking/error trapping oversight with potentially massive consequences, the latter is an inherent issue in using only the FAT12 filesystem (intended mainly for floppies and ancient 5 to 10mb Winchester drives) across your entire OS, rather than also cramming in support for FAT16 (with its then unimaginably massive 2Gb – or even 4Gb – limit). It’s annoying and stops you working with truly large files unless you come up with a trick method of splitting them across partitions, but at least it doesn’t cause lossage all by itself.

      And they’re both presumably symptoms of both the crushed timescale and budget, unhealthy management culture, and strange choice to go for 192k of ROM (why not 256? I know it’s relatively expensive, but 192 is a strange number, and there was 12MB of unused address space that the CPU could use but the RAM system couldn’t…)

  29. @Kochise: Shiraz headed the hardware group. He might have had a hand in some of the wire-wrap, but mostly it was the chip designers (Doug Renn, etc.) who did the work. Some of the techs, too, maybe. I didn’t see Shiraz doing much work in the lab (he had plenty of other work to do).

    TrueType didn’t exist then. Adobe was just down the street from us, in fact, a very small company at the time, and the Apple+Microsoft rebellion against Postscript fonts hadn’t happened mostly because PostScript itself didn’t even exist yet.

    About hard disks in general:

    The SCSI port (I know, it’s not really SCSI, but it was close enough for me) didn’t get exercised by the software until fairly late in the game. The first working HDD was put together by a tech; it was a shoebox-size metal thing. The ST had enough code to load a boot sector from it, but that was it.

    The problem was that Gemdos had never been tested on a file system much larger than what you’d normally expect on a floppy drive, and when we started to throw lots of files and directories at it, we discovered there were static limits on the number of directories. Fixing this wasn’t easy (even the DRI solution, that they came up with a year later, maybe two, didn’t really fix the problem).

    As for MS compliance, it wasn’t a priority, nor was it anything we (or DRI) tested.

  30. @Landon : I always thought that DRI’s expertise in OS designing (which draw Garry’s fortune) would be better than that. It’s sad to hear they were not far better than IBM’s own coder’s that had needed Microsoft’s experience (understand QDOS rip-off) to bring them a working OS. I remember the english company’s Amstrad PC 1512 (or 1640) running DR-DOS with GEM as graphic insterface, and it was a pretty decent hack according the hardware level of these machines (8086 @ 4.7 MHz + turbo, ISA bus, MFM HD, CGA/EGA VC, …). So considering the better hardware of the ST range of computer, we would perhaps have expected something better.

    I was too young in 1984 (6 yo) to remember something about pro software development, but has *nix-like OS ever been considered at first place ? Mint has brought posix compliance afterward, AmigaOS was close to rely on QNX (posix compliant RTOS) in the late 90’s, Apple has chosen to switch to another posix system for MacOS X (darwin, based on BSD). The world seems to accomodate to posix more than any proprietary OS (thinking about Microsoft’s legacy choices on that aspect).

    If I remember well, the OSes at that time mostly relied on very expensive AT&T/Bell’s Unix (X windowing system included if I recall well), CP/M (DRI) and the emerging MS-DOS (pushed by a very a very strong licensing theme). The TOS soon seemed a niche OS, not mainstream enough. Even the Amiga with it’s Workbench had trouble to open wider than its original marketplace (home-computing). Choosing a more multi-purpose OS would perhaps have helped the system to last, even though I must admit the TOS lived up to 1996 (more than 20 years) but was not licensed further than marginal ventures.

    OK, ok, I must confess that once the war is over, you can always redraw it the way you want, take lessons from the past experience and say “If I knew, I would…” Yet what was Jack’s first motives in designing the ST ? I bet it’s not an easy task at this level, creating a new computer almost from scratch + its innovative windowed OS. But when you take all these risk, I bet that you have plans for the future, further than just 2 or 3 years later. Jack’s experience at Commodore’s leading should also be regarded positively. The hardware motives were good (beside the planar video mode, someone should explain to me from a software point of view how accessing to several plans using bit-shifting and bit-masking is superior) and is not the point. The software ‘industry’ as a whole maybe had to be considered. Regarding the current experience in OS licensing nowadays, Windows (CE) or (uc)Linux for desktop (or embedded) is a kinda proof that a proprietary OS (beside very constrained requests or system) is not always the way to go if you want to sell your good.

    But probably that’s another “Maybe if I’d known before…”


  31. Unix wasn’t on the map for the ST. For one thing, the 128K (initial) ROM budget was orders of magnitude too small. For another, Unix has never been a consumer-friendly OS; Apple spent tons of money making it real for ordinary users (robust file systems, most of the admin work well hidden and automatic, etc.). Pretty much all that existed in 1984 was the AT&T System 3 stuff (I think), and the bsd variants; there were fringe spinoffs, like Genix (from National), and Xenix (from Microsoft, which was probably the best of the lot). But again, everything needed lots more code space, and practically speaking, a hard disk.

    Non-Unix multitaskers were available (obviously TriPos, which the Amiga used, but there were others, too). I think the issue here was that these OSs didn’t come with any GUI, and DRI was promising a lot more to the Tramiels.

    Paging hardware was really expensive at the time. I really wanted the ST to have a 68010, which would have allowed us to do proper fault handling (the 68000 couldn’t resume from a page fault), but the cost was prohibitive. After the first ST shipped we designed a one-gate-delay MMU (I think I wrote about that a little) that we could have run some Unix variant on, but we didn’t have the resources to really do anything with it.

    As far as “What computer did Jack want to make?” the answer is simple: A very cheap next-generation (of the time) computer. Secondarily I think he wanted to kill Commodore, and kicking the C64 out from under C= was one of his major goals.

    1. Did they ever look at Microware’s OS-9, to see what it offered and what they could do to it? I don’t think it had any kind of GUI capability at first, but I know it was a RTOS with multi-tasking capabilities. It was being ran on the 6809 processors doing just that. The 68K version came out in 1983 and the 6809 version came out earlier around 1979-80. I know that it was finally in the 90s when it made its way to the ST (ported by Recc-o-ware.)

      1. I don’t recall Atari looking seriously at OS-9. I certainly knew about it.

        The Tramiels wanted a GUI. That was the high bit; they didn’t care about the underlying OS as long as they got a mouse-driven graphical UI of some kind; a cheap Mac. (There was more to it than this, but really the OS didn’t matter — they were going to ship on CP/M-68K before GEMDOS came along).

        1. Seems to me that moving to GEMDOS instead of CP/M-68K was a good move. I can’t see using the ST with only a flat-file system and no folders. Even on floppy I used folders to organise data. On harddisks , no folders would be a disaster.

  32. OK, I also heard about the Berkeley Softworks’ GeOS including a GUI, it worked also flawlessly on bare 8 bits CPU (and was very famous on… the C64) but if I remember well it appeared in 1986… Yeap, at least the ST line on which you worked started then fueled my passion for system programming ๐Ÿ™‚ It lead me to embedded software R&D…


  33. Hi

    Nice article, I had both the STFM & STE & spent many many creative hours on them. Whether it be music,programming or attempting to create artwork. I also used it for school and college work & still have a couple of ST’s (one of which has a a nice SD to ACSI interface card).

    There were many thing I wished the ST could do but couldn’t , but it was it’s relative simplicity which made it a reliable system which allowed the user to get on with the task in hand. Unlike these days with PC’s where I am generally driven to distraction with number of unwanted annoyances which you are forced to endure as part of the modern usage experience from pressing the on switch you get a noisy fan, pages of Bios rubbish you only need to know the first time you set it up, a load of splash screens/scripts runing & are then presented with loads of redundant software taking up more space in memory than it was possible to have as a hard disk back in the ST days.

    I miss the days when the OS booted from ROM and had no way of being screwed up by the latest virus or spyware. Every time I get a PC to a state where I can just about bear to to use it It fails due to being out of date for the latest software or because the Hard disk has died from over usage, not by me the user but some program I’d rather not have installed searching for other programs I definately don’t want on my system.

    Oh for simpler times…

    1. PS. Love the story about Atari (started to produce music on Steinberg on Atari ST machines). Great part of computing history,

  34. hi
    the year is 2009 and my atari ste is still hooked up in my studio.i m telling you it handles midi performances as good as my pc does.many musicians claim even today that this machine’s midi timing is so important for their music composition as the music itself….there is one little problem though……I NEED A COMBATIBLE HARD DIIIIISC!!!!

    thank you for this great computer

    1. Pretty certain you can find a (Parallel / ASCI / ROMport) -to-SDcard adaptor out there if you look on eBay and the like, fella. Or at least an ASCI to IDE/SCSI adaptor, at which point the issue vanishes.

      Any IDE hard disk or SD card is likely to be miles faster than the available interface bandwidth, let alone what actual ST hard disks could achieve, so pop one of those in, fill it with an old 1Gb card from that digital camera in the back of your closet, and you’re laughing.

      If one doesn’t exist I’ll be exceptionally surprised because you can get them for basically every 8-bit machine ever, most consoles, and the Amiga to boot.

      Even if not IDE or SD, there should be a CF card adaptor, and although they’re typically more expensive than SD, a 1Gb one will cost buttons these days. Certainly a hell of a lot cheaper than trying to get hold of an Amiga-compatible 1 or 2Mb SRAM card!

  35. Interesting story, you need to do a part 3 where the ST’s were built in Ireland, (for a long as the Trams’ got huge tax breaks), then fired everyone over Christmas, and moved to the east, as Ireland wouldn’t extend the breaks any more.

    And I know may of those on the short list, envied those on the long list (eventually), the great days, only a few years before were now but distant memories.

    And if you’d started at the beginning, it was just now a wreck of a company, that was really interested in cheap, cheerful, and get it out the door no matter what. Which was a sad epithet to a once global inspiration.

    And you knew those glory days were never coming back.

    I remember the tax scams, the unpaid bills, the real ‘dirty’ way of doing business that Jack did. Being a ‘survivor’ seem to color his every thought, of shafting as many people as he could.

    Eventually that caught up with him, as countries didn’t want to manufacture, dealers didn’t want to deal, and the bad name the the company actually got, was all down to Jack, he actually deserved the bad wrap, as the vast majority was true.

    I often pitying those that had to deal with the fallout, and the crap that had to endure.

    God I just remembered, flyin into San Jose, and that flight was the worst, because so much of Sunnyvale was employed directly or indirectly via Atari, that the news had already broke and that was one ‘ugly’ flight.

    I also remember volunteering to be laid off, in the nth round of layoffs. It was the best decision i made, the “simply fun…” part had gone from Atari, and that was due to the great people that were there, like no other company, ever.

    I remember too many people cursing and swearing at the lame ass CEO, as he said good bye to them, while being called every name under the sun, as Jack had promised, twice before as far as i remember, ‘no more layoffs’.

    I do remember saying, I know we’re not Atari inc and have not been for a while now, but I just want to say thank you… because to have had the opportunity to work at Atari, doing the all the different jobs I did, from software engineer, to coin op, to project manager, to tech evangelist, has got to have been the best jobs that anyone could ever wanted or even dreamed of.

    I still remember that the swearing he could ‘cope’ with, but the thanks, left him in tears.

    In the end though, I mainly remember the good times, the great people, the days @ warner, the fun with DRI, (there was some too:-) and the crazy stories from Atari.

    But I also remember that because of Atari Inc, I got the best training, the best staff, the best of everything, a company that actually did value its employees, and did on the whole treat them very well (Hey Coin-Op, did eventually get their basketball court :-))

    But when all is said and done the only real Atari that will ever be really remembered aint Corp.

    Its quite fitting and right that it is and always will be, Atari Inc.

  36. Hi Landon,
    since you were working for Atari before Tramiels can you give us some comment on:

    “Another system even more impressive then Sierra was GAZA, a MC68000 multiprocessor based graphics system was also designed. Using a chipset called Rainbow, several prototypes of the GAZA system had been completed and had 2 MC68000’s working together using CP/M-68K. Originally Warner management took a liking to the project, but later on felt it conflicted with Atari’s overall purpose of being an entertainment company so the plug was pulled. When the Tramiels arrived, they had no idea that completed prototypes of what may very have been systems far superior to the ST’s and the Amiga’s were already completed. The GAZA staff was fired, two of the engineers went onto to Digital Research, Inc.”

    Does Warner Atari really have these prototypes and does Jack really did not know for them ??

    Thank you!

  37. @Milan:

    I remember the “rainbow” chip, and I vaguely remember Gaza.

    Both of these were Atari Corporate Research projects, and were never going to be a product. They may in fact have been running, but they were never seriously proposed as an actual shipping system.

    In particular a 2-CPU 68K system would have broken the bank as far as consumer product costing.

    Corporate research did a lot of this kind of thing. And I’ll be blunt, some of the people involved may have /thought/ they were doing a product, but the reality was far different.

  38. I don’t remember how or why I came to read the Wikipedia page for Jack Tramiel. And I know that Wikipedia isn’t necessarily accurate. But when I happened to read this, for some reason it really bothered me:

    “It is rumoured that Jack Tramiel currently owns the last remaining treasures of Swordquest. These include the “Philosopher’s Stone,” which was a large chunk of white jade in a 18K gold box encrusted with diamonds, emeralds, citrines, and rubies, valued at $25,000 in 1982. The “Crown of Life,” which was made of gold and encrusted with aquamarines, diamonds, green tourmalines, rubies, and sapphires, was valued at $25,000 also in 1982. The legendary “Sword of Ultimate Sorcery”, which had a handle made of gold and a blade made of silver, was valued at $50,000 in 1982.”

    If you have any history on this Landon I’d love to hear what you have to say about it,

  39. @Garu: I have no knowledge of that, nor any real knowledge of the financial structures with which he took over the Warner assets (which I am assuming the “Swordquest relics” were).

  40. I had a dream about CP/M last nite. Searched for it today and found you. I loved the ST. I had 3 versions of it.

    I was a computer expert for 50 years. I taught the first Java course in colorado many years ago. My thesis was about the early hackers.

    I maintain web sites for friends now.


  41. I got a 520ST in September 1985. The label said it was made in June 1985. It had the boot ROM and TOS on floppy. I had to order the TOS ROM separately for something like $25.

    Missing from that TOS ROM was scalable graphics for GEM, which I got sometime later on a floppy, I think for free. I think you had to boot up with the floppy to get the code module hacked in for use. I don’t remember ever having any software that used it.

    There was no blitter chip. I can’t remember if there was a socket, but I never got the chip.

    When I got the machine, there was a note in the box telling me that I might want to re-seat the MMU chip (memory management unit) after shipment. But the hardware was very reliable — until I bought an aftermarket RAM board (2 MB) that piggybacked in the MMU socket. The board just floated with no way to secure it, and a ribbon cable to the socket piggyback. After that the machine would crash fairly often, and I’d have to open it up and re-seat the MMU stack. That was the only way to add RAM.

    Then there was the aftermarket hard drive (30 MB Seagate with 300 KB/sec transfer). It was in a separate case that plugged into the external ASCI port. Made by Supra (a modem company), it was designed with the drive upside down inside the case (the one orientation forbidden by Seagate). The only way to get it right-side up was to set the whole thing upside down, with its rubber feet pointing up. It ground to a halt a very few years later anyway.

    Nevertheless, I learned how to program on that little Jackintosh, both 68K assembler and C. I even got the $300 ST Developer’s Kit. It had the DRI CP/M-68K development tools, plus TOS libraries, and a pile of documentation that was apparently photocopied by hand: CP/M-68K and tools, GEMDOS and GEM, and complete commented source code (hardcopy only, not on disk) for the entire BIOS. I still have all of that stashed away, though the 520ST itself is long gone.

    I also still have Naval Battle, a GFA-Basic game with crackup great audio that came with an issue of STart. I play it once in a while, under the Hatari ST emulator running on Linux, just to hear the audio.

    1. Ah, the GDOS vector fonts … the one thing that didn’t come with TOS 1.0 that was actually pretty useful. Or at least, could be pretty useful if you were using particular programs. Forgot all about that.

      Most people … no use for it. But it was required by certain graphics, word processor and DTP packages, most of which would include a copy somewhere on one of the setup discs. Basically anyone who didn’t have a HDD didn’t miss it ๐Ÿ™‚

      I think the more basic Degas Elite art package also used some part of it to provide additional fonts (bitmap or vector? Not sure, as I never got that bit to work, as there was no documentation with my copy), but that’s about it.

  42. Mr landon thank you for these great stories i feel like i saw a great documentary about my favourite computer the legendary ATARI ST!!!


  43. Hey ! Just to drop a line and say this is some great read. I do remember the amount of time I spend playing games with the ST. Great memories, great times and people with great attitude as well. Cheers !

  44. Hi,

    How many LOC was TOS or GEM? I started with programming on my Atari ST, Metacomco ST Basic -> 68k Assembly -> C. Just interested, the Atari ST was my entry ticket to the “digital world” ๐Ÿ˜‰

  45. Nice write up Mr Dyer….

    Just a couple of things though, regarding the RBP project which became the ST (RBP being a shortform for rock bottom price)

    Firstly was it true that M$ were in ther running to supply an O/S for what became the ST, only problem was that apparently M$ couldn’t be arsed (or bothered) to get a stable version of x86 windblows running on 68k systems

    Also it seems that a certain person on Atariage (namely retro rogue/wgungfu) seems to question whether the whole ‘storm troopers entering the base’ incident ever happened, perhaps you can put him right on that one (seeming as though you actually witnessed it taking place

    Before you left the big A to work for another big A (i.e the two steve’s), did you ever get to see the ‘EST’ (which i think was being test marketed in france as far back as mid 1987), did the EST eventually become the TT or the STe, also isn”t it wierd that you were using Apple hardware (i.e the Lisa’s) as principle development systems to design the ST (or at least it’s systems software), that’s almost a throwback to the days at SMI (shepherdson Microsystems Inc) who used Apple II’s in the development of the Atari 800 system (i.e Atari basic and Atari Dos)

    Perhaps you should have mentioned that MS DOS (of PC dos if you like) is just SCP’s QDOS in MS clothing (since MS bought out SCP and the rights to their software)

    1. Please quit misrepresenting me Carmel, I never said that. We have the event covered in the book, and what I stated was it didn’t happen at corporate headquarters like Kent described, it happened at Coin (which wasn’t anywhere near the rest of the collection of Atari buildings in and around Borregas. Likewise, Coin and Consumer were not in connected buildings as Kent describes. The confusion was that some Consumer related projects were housed over in Coin.

      I should also mention that Landon is mistaken regarding the statement “…arrived at the Atari Coin-op building to interview people and see who they wanted to keep.” It was actually to see who they wanted to hire over, not keep. Coin and it’s people were not part of the purchase.

      1. @Marty, on “keep”:

        Technically, you’re right. The people that the Tramiels did not want were kept on by Warner, and laid-off quite rapidly.

        Hmmm… I don’t recall signing a new employment contract, however there might have been one.

        Coin-op and Consumer were in the same set of buildings that that point, though there was a “Coin-op” half and a “Consumer” half of a building connected by a corridor. Very soon after the Tramiels took over the Consumer side of things, that hallway was off-limits (I don’t remember if it was locked, but we were told not to go there). It took another day or so for the network of Vaxes to be partitioned.

        (No, it probably wasn’t all of Consumer. But all of the 2600 / 5200 programmers were there).

        The “Imperial Storm-Troopers over the PA” incident occurred at the Coin=op/Consumer building. I was the one who did it. Anyone who disputes this doesn’t know what they’re talking about, end of story.

        1. Landon, are you talking about the Engineering building at 1272 Borregas? That was directly shared between Coin and Consumer like you describe, and housed all the physical hardware engineering. However, Coin’s headquarters was in Milpitas. In Sunnyvale, Coin and Consumer’s operations were spread between buildings all across Borregas, Gibraltar, Moffett, and several other streets. Likewise, the 2600/5200 programmers (Howard Scott Warshaw, Steve Woita, etc.) were all over at 275 Gibraltar (and that was directly from them) – we actually had the pleasure of interviewing a lot of those guys last April right in front of 275 over a two day period. The building is vacant now, but the property manager showed up and some of the guys talked him into letting us all go through it. Steve’s old office was still there, pretty much everything else had changed though.

          Either way, nobody was saying the event didn’t happen, that was Carmel misquoting a statement.

          As for the hiring/firing situation – you’re misunderstanding what I was saying. The point was the Tramiel’s only bought the Consumer Division of Atari Inc., Coin’s employees were not effected by that purchase. That’s why Leonard was heading over to see if they could talk certain Coin employees they wanted to come over to Atari Corp. Now some people were also later let go from the Coin Division (now under Atari Games Inc.) in ’84 when Warner started downsizing that as well. But that had nothing to do with the Consumer purchase and Jack.

          What you’re describing (about being kept by Warner and laid off) is what happened to people on the Consumer Division side of things. When the Tramiel’s took over Consumer, they had only purchased the physical assets and IP – employees were not part of it (we confirmed that with Jack before he passed away). They had their choice of hiring over personel from Atari Inc. (which had now been quickly renamed to Atari Games Inc.) to TTL/Atari Corp. Anyone that wasn’t hired to Atari Corp. was retained by Warner under Atari Games Inc. and then immediately laid off – they received their final check directly from Warner. The problem was, because Warner handled the transition so haphazardly (i.e. there wasn’t any real transition or planned out transition period) because they just wanted Consumer gone, it came off like the Tramiels just came in to Atari and started sacking all these people.

          We spent a lot of time digging in to the documentation (we have the purchase agreement) and interviewing the people involved in the deal to get to the bottom of it all.

          1. > Thatโ€™s why Leonard was heading over to see if they could talk certain Coin employees they wanted to come over to Atari Corp

            Many of the consumer and Home Computer folks had been relocated to the CoinOp building in Milpitas. That’s where this “doubled-up” building was, and where Leonard Tramiel and John Feagans did about a day’s worth of interviewing people before deciding who they wanted. The rest were indeed sacked by Warner.

            Leonard and John almost certainly went to other buildings and interviewed people, but I never set up Vax accounts for any engineers outside of those who were recruited from the Milpitas building.

          2. Your system won’t let me do a reply to your last post (too deep in the tree I guess), so I have to do it at this level. That’s correct, the Consumer programmers were temporarily shuffled over to the Coin headquarters in Milipitas by Warner after Jack’s puchase of the Consumer Division. That’s when 275 Gibraltar and a number of the other buildings were all closed down to be sold off. Only lasted for a few weeks as Leonard made offers to the Consumer programmers to stay on as contractors to finish the games they were working on.

  46. One last thing Mr Dyer

    Any reason why you didn’t port your ‘centipede’ rip off ‘myrapede’ (i.e the game that got you the job at THE BIG A) to the ST….it’s a good little game you know

    Just OOI…who was or is ‘Myra’ anyway (a female acquaintance of yours)

  47. Hi Landon, thanks for sharing this… I’ve been an ST user since 1991 and even used Atari hardware (ST, TT, Falcon) in an assignment about ‘benchmarking’ as part of my computing degree in 2001!

    The community has recently been wondering… Who owns the copyright to TOS? A friend has contacted ‘Atari’ such as they are these days, but hasn’t had a response. I suspect they don’t know or care. We’re currently supplying EmuTOS as a copyright-friendly alternative to owning a genuine TOS ROM for use with an emulator, complete with the Teradesk alternative to the GEM desktop, and open-source AES and VDI routines, but it would be much simpler if TOS could be GPL’d.

    Any pointers would be appreciated!

    1. The current Atari owns it, and yes they are very vigilant about their properties. You’d have to contact Atari SA’s legal department in New York, not Atari SA in Los Angeles. If you like, I can see about putting you in touch to get the ball rolling.

  48. @Shalroth

    I don’t know who owns the copyright on TOS, but my guess is that it’s someone who (a) doesn’t know they have it, and (b) doesn’t care.

    Have you tried asking Leonard Tramiel?

  49. We need to add in the recollections from the Facebook book. I checked a few things like if you mentioned “Crystal” for the internal name of GEM (you did). From the management side I have to add some more of the misadventures about the rental houses in Monterey.

  50. Fascinating bit of writing – great to get an insight into how a machine that defined a seminal part of my childhood actually came to be. Was already familiar with all the to-ing and fro-ing of the Amiga’s era of conception and how Commodore and Atari effectively swapped over a load of personnel during the fight to claim those hardware rights, but not the story of how it’s fuji-belogoed rival was rushed to market.

  51. I worked for the largest Atari dealer in the western U.S., and had a 520 that I bumped up to 1mb and installed TOS ROMs in, later traded up to a 1040 STE. At the time I was part of an informal club who all met on Sunday nights for “Nerd-o-Fest”. I recall one night as we dug into TOS and went through the code, cringing at kludges, cheering at brilliant bits, and laughing out loud at a few jokes that had been sneaked in there. It wasn’t perfect, but it was an amazing accomplishment, like taking a bunch of odds and ends from an auto parts store and making an orbital spacecraft. I used to love showing PC and Mac guys what my “toy computer” could do that theirs couldn’t.

  52. Do you know who designed the custom icons? While most of the icons were taken straight from DRI GEM, the busy pointer on the ST was quite different from DRI GEM. Do you recall if this was an alternate design from DRI or was it somebody from Atari? Just curious since I think the bee icon is one of the nicest unique ST icons. Thanks.

    1. Almost certainly someone from Atari. The Atari engineers changed a lot of the artwork done by DRI. Some of it looked fine on the PC but icky on the ST, and honestly there was also a fair amount of the disparagement of “the other guys” that you get on a tight team that’s under pressure.

  53. This is some most interesting writing, what I read in last years. Especially as I recently had some discussions, discoveries about Atari ST TOS, then started to talk on forums how DRI was maybe not best choice for ST GUI OS.
    I could list here some really strange and bad solutions in TOS. It was obvious that v 1.00 was made in rush. Only 2.06 can be considered as something really usable – but it had price – 256KB ROM space (at price of moving ROM address), plus game compatibility is low. It was year 1992. Too late – Atari bankrupted in 1993-1994. There were even funny HW design mistakes, which I explained with bad communication between Atari divisions. Your writing confirms it.
    Thank you for this fascinating story.

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