A brief history of the ST.

by

The Atari ST was unveiled to the public In January 1985 at the CES in Las Vegas. To see what the ST was though, we need to go one year back, to the ousting of Jack Tramiel from the company he founded, Commodore. We’ll skip the intrigue that surrounds that event and we’ll just say that Jack didn’t go alone, but also brought with him the engineer behind the 64, Shiraj Shivji.

When Jack lost his position at Commodore, he founded a company called Tramiel Technologies and Shiraj Shivji started working on a new 16-bit machine. How far the development had gone is at this moment unknown. What we know for a fact was that, as per the Atari Historical Society’s documents [1] and as dadhacker describes in his blog [2], he bought Atari with the dream to make this new computer that would bring the 16-bit revolution in power but without the price. That computer would eventually become the ST, we all know and love, but since the details are sketchy to say the least, Low Res decided to boldly go to the one person that knows more about Atari than Atari ever knew for itself.


The original 520 ST*

Curt Vendel is the man that created the Atari museum, founded Legacy engineering [3] and got the new Atari reinterested in their legacy with the Flashback 1 and 2 consoles. If there is one person respected and admired by all Atari fans, regardless of their favourite poison that would be him. We are therefore honoured that he agreed to answer a few questions.

Low Res: We’ve read the descriptions of dadhacker, who worked in TOS development but from those we can’t tell if the Tramiels had come to Atari with just an idea of a computer or if its development had already reached a good level. Rumour has it that it was the Amiga deal and Lorraine that actually forced Atari’s hand in both the ST’s design and the rush to the market. Are those two rumours true and if so to which extend?

Curt Vendel: Those rumors are completely false. Tramiel setup shop in May of 1984 in some office space in California where Shiraz went to work on his design for a new low cost computer (Codenamed – “RBP” for Rock Bottom Price). The Tramiels knew nothing about the existing contract between Warner owned Atari Inc and Amiga Corp, this relationship had been on going since late 1983 and Atari and Amiga went into contract in late Feb 1984 and paid Amiga an upfront advance of $500,000 towards the development of the Amiga chipset. Amiga would then receive $3mill from a stock buy by Atari when Amiga delivered the chipset to Atari at the end of June 1984.

Low Res: When was the Atari ST sent to the production lines?

Curt Vendel: “RBP” was in design and development within Atari from July 1984 through its showing at the 1985 Winter CES were it was shown to the public. Through the spring of 1985 the custom chips were being finalized and initial runs of the chips were made in May & June. Atari User Groups and Developers received small quantities of sample units in June 1985. Full production began in July through August 1985 and Retailers began to see shipments in late September 1985.

To speed up time to market, the “TOS” (The Operating System, or Tramiel Operating System) was initially delivered on diskettes as the new OS rom chips were not masked and ready in time for production release.

Low Res: You’ve written in the Atari Age forum that the ST was to be fitted with the AMY chip but instead it got the YM 2149. Were there any other corners cut in a bid to rush to the market? Was the ST supposed to have more such as hardware scrolling, sprites etc?

Curt Vendel: I wouldn’t called them “cutting corners” it was more of a strategic decision. AMY was and even today, still is a very remarkable audio chip design. However it still had bugs in its designs and time was running out to get it ironed out and then integrated into the ST design, so it was moved to be put into an XE series computer – however it would never make it into that computer design either. “SHIFTER” and “GLUE” were pretty much unchanged in their features and designs from what Shiraz envisioned them to what came out, so with that and from engineering notes and internal emails, it doesn’t appear that graphics features were cut back on in the initial design.

Low Res: The ST was marketed as a rival to the Macintosh, and truth be told it was a better machine. The result proved the Tramiels right since only the “business machines” survived, but what was the rationale behind it?

C.V. : Everything became a casualty of the X86 Win/PC machines. Once Windows 3.1 came out, it began to spell the doom for most computer platforms that were not X86/Windows. Even Apple in the 1990’s nearly went under and came close to stepping out of the PC business. The ST’s however had a simple design with intelligent features like a PC compatible disk drive design, color graphics, decent sound and built in ports for all basic needs from a computer user. Its ASCI port was actually SCSI done slightly better as devices self-assigned ID’s to themselves. Overall the ST was a good machine.

LR:The ST case design is.. interesting. Somebody thought to put the joystick ports underneath the keyboard. What were they thinking?

C.V.: I was never a fan of the Gray cased ST/XE look. It was so foreign to what Atari products looked like and should look like. Cost wise- doing an all in one case may be good, but visually I found it ugly. These are my own personal opinions of course. Yes the positioning of the joystick/mouse ports was a poor/clumsy choice, but given that most space around the sides was already occupied, there wasn’t much choice. I gained a lot more respect for the ST’s when the Mega ST line of “pizza box” styled systems and hard drives. It was an attractive look. Most importantly – a detachable keyboard that everyone wanted and expected in a computer by that time. Of course then the design went back to the 1040ST styled case again. The Mega Ste and TT030 were unusual looking systems, they had a unique look to them. I did like the fact that the TT030 came in an off-white appearance, it was much more pleasant looking then the dull gray color.

LR: Any other interesting insight we forgot to ask?

C.V: I think you asked some good questions.

TOS, The Operating System or Tramiel Operating System as it has been nicknamed was developed in a very short time on an Apple Lisa and in the offices of Digital Research. Anyone with any OS experience from Atari was sent there, they were given the x86 source code and the giant hack that is TOS became a reality. The descriptions of working there are an interesting read. Go to dadhacker’s blog and read them.

Atari actively marketed the Atari ST as a Mac beater and an IBM undertaker but unfortunately that didn’t really take off. The war would be with the Amiga. Atari had the fame of a home computer maker, at least in the United States and so had Commodore.

Ads like this:

would do little to change the climate and the first battle with the Amiga would be on the TV set of a show called computer chronicles[5]. The war that included various schoolyard battles, angry magazine writing campaigns and other favourite childhood memories was started then and ended… well it pretty much goes oon various internet forums where grown men (and women) can be kids again and behave like such😉.

Links


1. Atari Museum
2. Dad hacker blog
3. Legacy engineering
4. Atari ST vs Amiga

*ST image compliments of the Atari museum.

5 Responses to “A brief history of the ST.”

  1. Factor6 Says:

    Thanks for this article!

  2. Steve Ellesmore Says:

    Fantastic article on the ST and this is my favourite part of Issue 2. Always found the history of the ST and Amiga fascinating but never realised the Atari machine was a competitor to Apple but the market had other ideas for it’s future.
    Keep up the good work.

  3. ChrisTOS Says:

    I am glad you liked the article. Though I tend to look more to the present and the future and what is done with these machines today or will be done tomorrow, I thought that a little “in the beginning” article could help readers understand the machine a little better. Especially if you weren’t an Atari user back in the day.

  4. Simon Sunnyboy / Paradize Says:

    A great interview with wonderful insight!
    Even as an editor it is easy not to see all in advance😉

    And it really stresses what I’ve been advocating for ages, the ST was meant to be a cheap Mac and not a home computer. And as that it was comemrcially working and selling until 1992 – especially here in Germany where Atari’s strategy worked well🙂

  5. Tech News Says:

    My brother would fall in love this blog post. We were recently talking about this. lol

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