Atari ST  — History of Video Game Consoles

Atari ST
1985 – 1993


Atari 520ST Retro Computer

Above: Atari 520ST


The Atari ST is a personal computer that was commercially popular from 1985 to the early 1990s. The ST officially stands for “Sixteen/Thirty-two”, which referred to the Motorola 68000’s 16-bit external bus and 32-bit internals.

The Atari ST, based on the Motorola 68000 series of processor, with 512 KB of RAM, and a 3½” floppy disk. It was similar to other contemporary machines, which used the Motorola 68000, the Apple Macintosh and the Commodore Amiga. Although the Macintosh was the first widely available computer with a graphical user interface (GUI), it was limited to a monochromatic display on a smaller built-in monitor. Later models had the 68030, which is a fully 32-bit processor.

The Atari ST had a fully bit-mapped colour user interface. It had an innovative single-chip graphics subsystem (designed by Shiraz Shivji) which shared the full amount of system memory, in alternating clock cycles, with the processor, similar to the earlier BBC Micro and the Unified Memory systems that have become common today. It was also the first home computer with integral MIDI support.

The Atari ST was primarily a competitor to the Apple Macintosh and the Commodore Amiga systems. This platform rivalry was often reflected by the owners and was most prominent in the Demo Scene. Where the Amiga had custom processors, which gave it the edge in the games and video market, the ST was generally cheaper and had a high-resolution monochrome display, ideal for business and CAD. Thanks to its built-in MIDI ports it enjoyed success as a music sequencer and controller of musical instruments among amateurs and professionals alike, being used in concert by bands such as Tangerine Dream and 90s UK dance act 808 State. In some markets, particularly Germany, the machine gained a strong foothold as a small business machine for CAD and Desktop publishing work.

Since Atari pulled out of the computer market there has been a market for powerful TOS-based machines (clones). Like most “retro” computers the Atari enjoys support in the emulator scene.


Jack Tramiel Joins Atari

Jack Tramiel, Commodore’s founder, left Commodore over an argument of control in managing the company in 1984. Tramiel founded Commodore as a type-writer repair store in Toronto and grow Commodore to a multi-national, multi-billion dollar company before leaving.


Jack Tramiel Commodore Founder

Above: Jack Tramiel, Commodore Founder and Atari owner


Tramiel immediately formed a holding company, Tramel Technologies, Ltd., and began to visit various US computer companies with the intention of purchasing a company. Tramiel visited Mindset run by Roger Badersher, former head of Atari’s Computer Division and Amiga. Tramiel told Amiga staff that he was very interested in the chipset, but not the staff. Tramiel set his chief engineer – Shiraz Shivji the task of developing a new low-cost, high-end computer system. The original design considered using the NS32032, but in talks, National Semiconductor could not supply the chip in the numbers or price that the project required. In retrospect, this proved to be fortunate as a prototype built on the NS32032 benchmarked slower than the 16/32-bit 68000.


Rock Bottom Price

The project, codenamed “RBP” for ‘Rock Bottom Price’, began to form between April and July 1984 into a design that was almost identical to the ST that eventually shipped. The design was a combination of custom chips and commonly available parts in a highly integrated single-board design, fully equipped with standard and custom ports.


Jay Minor

Jay Miner, one of the original designers for the custom chips found in the Atari 2600 and Atari 8-bit of machines, tried to convince Atari management to invest big money into creating a new chipset and console/computer idea. When his idea was rejected, Miner left Atari to form a small think tank called Hi-Toro in 1982 and set about designing this new chipset. The company which was later renamed Amiga started selling various video game controllers and games while it developed its “Lorraine” computer system.


Atari engineer and Amiga founder

Above: Atari engineer and Amiga founder


During development, Amiga had run out of capital to complete the development of its Lorraine chipset, and the “Warner owned” Atari had paid Amiga to continue development work. In return Atari was to get one-year exclusive use of the design. Atari had plans for a 68000 based machine, code named “Mickey”, that would have used custom chips, but details are sparse.


Amiga 1000

Above: Amiga 1000



Jack Tramiel Buys Atari

The following year, Tramiel discovered that Warner Communications wanted to sell Atari, which at that point was losing about $10,000 a day. Tramiel approached Atari and entered talks. After on again/off again negotiations with Atari in May and June of 1984, Tramiel had secured his funding and bought Atari’s Consumer Division, which included the console and home computer departments, that July.

As more executives and researchers left Commodore to join Tramiel’s new company Atari Corp. after the announcement, Commodore followed by filing lawsuits against four former engineers for theft of trade secrets. This was intended to bar Tramiel from releasing his new computer.


Amiga Contracts Reviewed

One of Tramiel’s first acts after forming Atari Corp. was to fire most of Atari’s remaining staff and cancel almost all ongoing projects in order to review their continued viability. It was during this time in late July/early August that Tramiel representatives discovered the original Amiga contract.

It turned out that Amiga was supposed to deliver the Amiga chipset to Atari on June 30, 1984. The Amiga crew, having continuing serious financial problems, had sought more monetary support from investors that Spring. Having heard rumours that Tramiel was in closed negotiations to complete the purchase of Atari in several days — at around the same time that Tramiel was in negotiations with Atari — Amiga entered in to discussions with Commodore. The discussions ultimately led to Commodore purchasing Amiga outright, which would cancel any outstanding contracts — including Atari Inc.’s.

So instead of Amiga delivering the chipset, Commodore delivered a check of $500,000 to Atari on Amiga’s behalf, in effect returning the funds invested into Amiga for completion of the Lorraine chipset. Seeing a chance to gain some leverage Tramiel immediately used the situation to counter sue Commodore through its new subsidiary, Amiga, which was done on August 13, 1984. He sought damages and an injunction to bar Commodore Amiga Inc. from producing anything with that technology. The suit tried to render Commodore’s new acquisition, and the source for its next generation of computers, useless and do to Commodore what they were trying to do to him.

Meanwhile at Commodore, the Amiga team was sitting in limbo for nearly the entire summer because of the lawsuit. No word on the status of the chipset, the Lorraine computer system or the team’s fate was known. Finally in the fall of 1984 Commodore informed the team that the Lorraine project was active again, the chipset to be improved, the OS developed and the hardware design completed. This delay bought Atari several additional months in 1985 to release Atari STs to Atari User Groups in June 1985 and to go into full retail sales of the Atari 520ST in September of 1985. In March of 1987 the two companies had settled out of court in a closed decision.


Atari ST Operating System

Above: Atari ST Operating System


With the hardware design nearing completion, the team started looking at solutions for the operating system. Soon after the buyout, Microsoft approached Tramiel with the suggestion that they port Windows to the platform, but the delivery date was out by about two years, far too long for their needs. Another possibility was Digital Research, who were working on a new GUI-based system then known as Crystal, soon to become GEM. Another option was to write a new operating system in-house, but this was eventually rejected due to the risk.


Digital Research

Digital Research was fully committed to the Intel platform, so a team from Atari was sent to the Digital Research headquarters to work with the “Monterey Team” which comprised a mixture of Atari and Digital Research engineers. Atari’s Jim Tittsler was Atari key OS engineer overseeing “Project Jason”, The Operating System, for the Atari ST line of computers.

CP/M-68K was essentially a direct port of CP/M’s original, mature operating system. By 1985, it was becoming increasingly outdated in comparison to MS-DOS 2.0; for instance, CP/M did not support sub-directories and did not have a hierarchical file system. Digital Research was also in the process of building a new DOS-like operating system specifically for GEM, GEMDOS, and there was some discussion of whether or not a port of GEMDOS could be completed in time for product delivery in June. The decision was eventually taken to port it, resulting in a GEMDOS file system, which became part of TOS (Tramiel Operating System). This was beneficial as it gave the ST a fast, hierarchical file system, essential for hard drive storage disks, plus programmers had function calls similar to the IBM PC DOS.

The design shipped in June 1985 to Atari User Groups and then in September 1985 for general retail sales as the 520ST. The machine had gone from concept to store shelves in a little under a year. Atari had originally intended to release versions with 128 KB and 256 KB of RAM as the 130ST and 260ST respectively. However, with the operating system loaded from floppy into RAM, there would be little or no room left over for applications to run. The 260ST did make its way into Europe on a limited basis.

Early models shipped with TOS on disk, but were designed with ROM sockets to make for easy upgrading to the future ROM based TOS. These became available only a few months later, and were included in all new machines, as well as being available to upgrade older machines. By late 1985, the machines were also upgraded with the addition of an RF modulator, a version known as the 520STM.

Atari had originally intended to include a Graphical Device Operating System (GEM’s GDOS), which allowed programs to send GEM VDI commands to drivers loaded by GDOS. This allowed developers to send VDI instructions to other devices simply by pointing to it. However, GDOS was not ready at the time the ST started shipping, and was included in software packages and later ST machines. Later versions of GDOS supported vector fonts.

On the plus side, the ST was considerably less expensive than the Macintosh Plus and the Amiga. Largely as a result of the price/performance factor, the ST would go on to be a fairly popular machine, notably in markets where the foreign exchange rates amplified prices. Indeed, the company’s English advertising strapline of the era was “power without the price.” In fact, an Atari ST and terminal emulation software was much cheaper than a Digital VT220 terminal, which was commonly needed by offices with central computers.


Atari 520ST

The 520ST was an all-in-one unit, similar to earlier home computers like the Commodore 64. By the time the 520ST reached the market, consumers demanded a keyboard with cursor keys and a numeric keypad.

The case design was created by Ira Valenski, Atari’s chief Industrial Designer. The ST was basically wedge shaped, with a series of grilles cut into the rear for airflow. The majority of the machines had keyboards with soft tactile feedback resulting in a “cheap” feel, with rhomboid function keys across the top edge. The original 520ST design used an external floppy drive; the 1040ST-style case featured a built-in floppy drive. The power supply for the early 520ST was a large external brick while the 1040ST’s was inside the machine.

Atari later upgraded the basic design in 1986 with the 1040STF. The machine was generally similar to the earlier 520ST, but moved the power supply and a double-sided floppy drive into the rear of the housing of the computer, as opposed to being external. This added to the size of the machine, but reduced cable clutter in the back. The 1040 shipped with 1 MB of RAM, and the same design was also used for the new 512 KB 520STFM, which replaced the earlier models in the market.


Atari 1040ST

The 1040ST was the first personal computer shipped with a base RAM configuration of 1 MB, and when the list price was reduced to $999 in the U.S. it became the first computer to break the $1000/MB price barrier, and was featured on the cover of Byte Magazine. However, the ST remained generally the same internally over the majority of its several-year lifespan. The choice of model numbers was inherited from the model numbers of the XE series of the Atari 8-bit family of computers. A limited number of 1040STFs shipped with a single-sided floppy drive.


Atari 1040ST

Above: Atari 1040ST


Initial sales were strong, especially in Europe where Atari sold 75% of its computers. Germany became Atari’s strongest market, with small business users using them for desktop publishing and CAD.

To address this growing market segment, Atari came up with the ST1. First debuted at Comdex, 1986, it was received favourably. Renamed the Mega, this new machine included a detached high-quality keyboard, stronger case to support the weight of a monitor, and internal bus expansion connector. The upcoming SLM804 laser printer would not come with a processor or memory, reducing costs. It would attach to the Mega through the ST DMA port and have the Mega computer render the pages. Initially equipped with 2 or 4 MB, the Mega machines would complement the Atari laser printer for a low-cost desktop publishing package.

A custom blitter co-processor was to be included to speed the performance of some graphics operations on the screen, but due to delays it was eventually released on the Mega 2 and Mega 4 machines. Developers wanting to use it had to detect for it in their programs because it was not present on all machines. However, properly-written programs using the screen VDI commands could use the blitter seamlessly since GEM API was a higher-level interface to TOS.