A history of the Atari ST and Commodore Amiga

A while back I wrote my “Reminiscing” series of posts talking about the history of the machines I used growing up, as I remembered it. I came upon a few materials on reddit over a period of about a month that gave more authoritative histories of the Atari ST and Amiga. They’re really neat to look at. Atari and Commodore were fierce competitors since they both got into the computer market in the late 1970s, up until they both stopped computer production in 1993/94. There were the same flamewars during those years about which computer was better between devoted camps as there are now about which operating system, or system of software development (open source vs. closed source) is better. That competitive, beat your opponent to a pulp spirit still lives on.

The Atari ST

The Atari ST
The Atari ST, from Wikipedia.org

Landon Dyer has a blog called DadHacker. He’s written a two-part series on the building of the Atari ST, as an on-the-ground engineer. He gives a kind of blow-by-blow of what he could recall of the events of the time, and the issues they dealt with in developing it in a very short time period. Here are part 1 and part 2.

When I was getting my undergraduate CS degree at Colorado State University one of my dormmates, Darryl May, had worked at Atari under the Tramiel “regime” before coming to school. As I recall he had done customer support, among other things. He was not high up on the totem pole, and so was not privy to a lot of the stuff that was going on, but he told me a few stories.

The higher-ups in the company hierarchy were not entirely sealed off from everyone else. He said there were a few times where he just happened to bump into Jack Tramiel in the men’s bathroom.

Another story was that there were framed pictures put in odd places on some of the walls. He said they were where Jack Tramiel had caused a “dent” by punching them with his fist–just releasing stress…

I used to really like Atari computers, 8-bit and ST, and one of the aspirations I had was to maybe work at Atari one day. After hearing this, and maybe a few other tales I can’t remember, I lost interest. I didn’t conflate this with the machines themselves. I still liked them, and I have fond memories of them to this day. It’s just that the company culture didn’t sound so hot, and I began to see why there was such a love/hate relationship with Atari back then among the devoted.

In 1993 I had the opportunity to attend a Falcon 030 presentation given by David Small, the inventor of the Magic Sac and Spectre GCR/128 Macintosh emulators for the ST. The Falcon had started to ship a short while before. As I recall, and my memory’s fuzzy on this, he told a tale of how the Falcon development team was treated. One of the things I remember him saying is after promising to pay the engineers for their efforts, rather than paying them in cash, they were given company stock…which at the time was probably trading as a penny stock. I remember it hovered around $1 a share, often going under that amount, with really no hope of it getting any better. Small winced as he delivered the punch line, and drew audible sounds of disgust from the audience. We all knew what the situation was with Atari.

The impression I’ve gotten from listening to first hand accounts is that Jack Tramiel was a “penny wise, pound foolish” hard ass. I don’t get a sense that he had a creative spirit. His strategy, as it was when he was at the helm at Commodore, was to sell machines to a mass market. For whatever reason, it worked out for several years in Europe, where Atari was one of the dominant sellers of computers. In the U.S. it didn’t work out. I remember asking Darryl about this, and in his view Atari was just a tax write-off for the Tramiels. Jack Tramiel was set to retire, and just didn’t have the motivation to really make Atari do well. That was his theory anyway.

Giving credit where it’s due, in an interview I saw on a British computer TV show from the 1980s, Jack Tramiel revealed that one of his goals when he ran Commodore was to keep the Japanese out of the U.S. PC market. He did this by undercutting them on price. Maybe he succeeded, since I remember there was talk in the 80s about the Japanese working on low-end MSX machines to sell to the U.S. market. Somehow that never got off the ground. Incidentally, MSX was Microsoft’s attempt to do for low-end 8-bit computers what it did for IBM PCs and clones: create a standard OS. Apparently Tramiel was someone who fought to keep computer production in the U.S. We can thank him for that, though in hindsight he just delayed the inevitable. From what I remember, Atari shifted computer production to Asia, even under Tramiel’s management. Today a lot of the PC production lines are in Asia, though I’m sure there are still some here.

As I’ve mentioned before, Atari stopped producing computers in late 1993. The company continued on, trying to compete in the video game market, but dying a slow death, until it was finally “retired” in its sale to JTS (a disk drive manufacturer) in 1996.

The Amiga

The Commodore Amiga
The Commodore Amiga, from Wikipedia.org

I found a couple videos that cover the history of the Amiga. What’s intriguing to me is there are some juicy tidbits about what went down between Amiga Corp. and Atari. This was something I had read about, but never completely understood.

Amiga started out as its own company developing video game peripherals. As I recall, and parts of this may be wrong, at some point Atari started giving funding to Amiga, back when Atari was owned by Warner Communications (now called Time Warner), and expected to get first dibs on some technology that was being developed (maybe the chips). There came a point where Amiga was running low on cash, and put itself up for sale. Amiga wasn’t satisfied with the way they were being treated by Atari. Commodore appeared to be interested. Amiga pursued a deal with Commodore, and eventually reached an amicable price per share with them. I’m not clear if the Tramiels were in on the negotiations with Amiga. From what I read it sounded like the deal with Commodore was either near completion when Jack Tramiel bought Atari, or it was already overwith. They tell the story in the video (below) so I’ll leave the details to them, though they don’t talk about who was in charge at Atari.

Commodore bought Amiga, and Atari’s working relationship with them went out the window. Atari sued, citing their agreement, but ultimately lost. The Amiga computer went to Commodore. As I recall the Tramiels already had some ideas about a 16-bit machine they wanted to develop by the time they bought Atari, but they had to work fast to get it out in time to compete with the Amiga.

(Update 4-5-2010: The above was an account from memory of the relationship I had read about between Atari and Amiga. Apparently it was in the ballpark, but not precise. You can read more about the Atari-Amiga contract here under the subheading “Amiga Contract”. Martin Goldberg, who apparently worked for Atari at the time, left a comment to this post (see below) about what went down between Atari and Amiga. Martin strongly disputes RJ’s account (given in the video below) of the Atari-Amiga-Commodore negotiations.)

From what I read one of the main players at Amiga was Jay Miner, though according to the video below he was the head guy. He used to work at Atari, and developed the graphics chips for their 8-bit computers in the late ’70s. Maybe he did more than that, but I don’t recall. He brought the same know-how to the Amiga computer project, creating the famous graphics (and sound?) co-processors that gave the Amiga real pizzaz.

The video below is the story of the founding of Amiga Corp., and the purchase of Amiga by Commodore, as told by the original guys and gals who made it all happen.

Another neat thing about this video is they show the CES mock up of the Amiga Lorraine (its code name) that I remember reading about in Compute! Magazine back in 1984. I remember they told the story of the Amiga’s appearance at CES with a great sense of foreboding that the machine looked revolutionary, and if it became anything more than vaporware it would represent a next generation leap in computing. This is interesting in retrospect, because Compute! did not greet the Apple Macintosh, which was a final product ready for sale at the time, with the same sense of excitement. They covered the unveiling of the first Mac, but then they were like “on to the next subject…”.

You have to remember that back then what was considered “standard” was a computer that when you booted it up would greet you with a command line interface, and the only machines most people knew about that had high resolution graphics combined with a “large” color palette were the IBM PC and the Apple II.

I would say that all three, the Apple Mac, Atari ST, and the Commodore Amiga represented the next generation of popular computing at the time. Each came at it from a different angle, and none of them turned out the way their visionary creators anticipated. All three pursued the business computing market, thinking it would help establish the machines with a healthy customer base, but none of them made large inroads in it. Instead each found a following in creative businesses. The Mac was adopted for professional (paper) publishing. The Atari ST was adopted by musicians for its MIDI hardware and software. The Amiga was adopted by video production studios since its hardware capabilities fit in well with what they needed. Video production software followed suit.

A show I heard about during my last year in college (’92-’93) that used Amigas with Video Toaster cards for the special effects shots was Babylon 5. It’s the reason why I got interested in the show in the first place. But wow, the storywriting in the series held my attention. It told a tale of epic proportions. They only used Amigas for the first season though. I heard that Amiga/Video Toasters were used for the effects shots in the SeaQuest DSV series as well.

I can’t help it…Diversion into trivia: Two actors in the Babylon 5 TV series also starred in the movie Tron. What were the actors’ names, and what characters did they play in the movie? They’re both in this fan video. See if you can find them. One of them is pretty easy to pick out.

Here’s a video of an Amiga production plant being shut down in 1994, when Commodore shut its doors for good. Not much to see here. Pretty boring, but it gives you that sense that things are coming to an end.

Update 5/30/08: I found this video of a 25th anniversary commemoration of the Commodore 64, presented by the Computer History Museum. Finally the C-64 gets its due. It was really kind of a get together of some people who defined personal computing in the 1980s. At first it was just a one-on-one chat with Jack Tramiel. Later they brought up Steve Wozniak (representing Apple), a guy who used to work for IBM during the IBM PC days, and another guy who worked for Commodore. They reflect a bit on what happened at Apple and IBM at the time as well. Interesting discussion.

On a lighter note, a reminder of how far we’ve come since then. 😐

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9 thoughts on “A history of the Atari ST and Commodore Amiga

  1. Nice article. Regarding the Mac, Amiga, and ST trying to get into the business market, you’d have to think they were only a killer app away from doing so (eg good spreadsheet, word processor?), because I can tell you I’d rather use an ST for “business” purposes (using software that wasn’t released at the time) than an IBM of similar vintage.

  2. What I remember is there wasn’t much business software released for the ST that was unique to it. There were a few desktop publishing packages that were professional quality, which became reasonably popular in the late 1980s, but that was the only business software of note. Coupled with the ST’s laser printer, which used the computer’s ultra-fast (at the time) DMA port, it was a cheap but productive solution. The only thing was none of the DTP solutions used Postscript. They used some scheme that ran more efficiently on the ST. So they were incompatible with any other DTP platform.

    A year or two after the ST came on the market WordPerfect was released for it. It used the GUI, rather than requiring all of the keyboard combinations (though keyboard shortcuts were kept in it). I’m pretty sure there were simple database solutions for the ST (probably non-relational, with just simple keyword searches), though you’d have to really pay attention to find out about them. I think ST users went to PC emulators if they wanted to use something like DBase or Foxpro. I can’t remember if VisiCalc came out for the ST. I don’t remember there being an ST version of it. There was at least one ST spreadsheet I knew of that was compatible with Lotus 1-2-3 files. I’m pretty sure there were multiple spreadsheets available, but again, you’d have to be paying attention to know about them.

    So if you were looking for productivity software that was professional grade the only real choices were a few DTP packages, WordPerfect, and a few spreadsheets which were not well known.

    The killer app. for the ST was MIDI. From what I remember, more professional artists and producers than I could count used the ST’s MIDI capability in professional music and sound effects productions (like for TV shows). There were several professional-grade MIDI sequencers that were written for the ST. ST’s were sold out of music stores. They were that popular with musicians. The reason being, from what I heard at the time, was that Atari had the best computer MIDI hardware around, and it was a low-price machine. I used to hear complaints about the MIDI capability on the Mac and the Amiga, I think because MIDI on those machines was an add-on adapter. It would get plugged into a serial port or something. Whereas the ST had dedicated MIDI hardware.

    Thanks for stopping by!

  3. Mark, couple of things.

    1) There were two different Atari companies. Atari Inc., the original Atari which ceased to exist after the split in ’84, and Atari Corporation – the company formed when the Atari Consumer properties were merged in to TTL. TTL itself was renamed to Atari Corporation.

    2) The problem with that video is just about everything coming out of RJ’s mouth in that video during his stage presentation is a fabrication. He wasn’t directly involved in any of the deals with Atari Inc., that was Dave Morse. Amiga never put itself up for sale, they were looking for investors. Amiga was treated very well by Atari actually, it was Dave Morse who got cold feet because he was worried Warner/Atari would change the terms and he wouldn’t be able to sell off the company down the line (which was his ultimate goal with Amiga). There was no dropping stock negotiation was was portrayed either.

    The ST was almost completely planned out by the time they bought Atari Consumer, and in fact the wire wrap was started in August and completed by the end of the month/beginning of September. The lawsuit in mid August was by Jack’s Atari Corptation, not Atari Inc., and it was done as a counter suit. Commodore had sued and put injunctions against Shiraz and several other ex-Commodore engineers that early July, keeping them from working on any computers for Jack. Jack’s son Leonard found out about the Amiga deal in late July when he found the canceled check from the original loan. Jack had the deal signed over to him from Warner (who the deal was actually done through) and launched his suit in mid August.

  4. Thanks for keeping this history alive. My buddy was into Amiga for their gaming and graphics and I did the St for the music (midi interface) I remember running my Paint Contracting business on the ST. They had book keeping software, A DTP, I even had WorfPerfect. I remember sync-ing my Foster 8 track reel to reel to the ST via a SMPTE time code striped on one track of the Fostex. I had 7 analog tracks synced to (i Think) 64 midi tracks, I felt like a GOD. All this equipment running in sync. I cant tell you how many hours I spent with this equipment. I enjoyed hooking it all up and building a large and larger Midi recording studio as much as I enjoyed actually recording with it. My ex said there was a 3 year period that she never saw me because after work I went in the studio till I couldn’t stay awake anymore. No surprise why sees now an ex. NO worries the equipment was much more enjoyable,, 🙂 When we broke up, the first time, in a bought with major depression I dumped all the Atari stuff I had collected. A couple of STe’s and A couple of STf’s, games, software and all the accessories. Extremely depressing. I still have somewhere an ST emulator board for the PC i got to help reminisce about my beginning days of personal computing.

  5. Pingback: The 150th post « Tekkie

  6. What a pity Atari did not survive through development of the falcon. It would have easily been equal to the mac. Great machine for upgrading the hard and software. We called it : ”the poor man’s mac” over here in Europe.

    Lots of great software done by people from all over the world. I used my falcon with ”Magic”, a program written by some german guys.
    It speeded up the whole thing pretty much. And there was Cubase which started on the atari. Those were the days my friend…………

    greetings : Carl Vanderwall

  7. Pingback: Jack Tramiel has passed away « Tekkie

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