The life and times of the Atari ST series part 1

In the beginning...

Atari STfThe birth of the ST came about in a time of strife, the Tramiel family had effectively been ejected from the company they founded (Commodore), and the head of the family Jack, wanted revenge.  With a small band of loyal staff that followed him from Commodore they founded Tramiel Technologies in 1984, and among this small band of technologists was former Commodore employee Shiraz Shivji, who was given the task of designing a new computer based around the National Semiconductor NS32032 processor chip.

There were problems though, Tramiel Technologies had no distribution arm, no production or storage facilities and for a company that was effectively  coming into a market considered by many to be closed to all newcomers (Remember that by this time, many computer companies had come and gone and the console crash was still in full swing at this time), getting access to these facilities for an unknown company was going to be pretty difficult.  With this in mind, Jack Tramiel started looking to acquire a technology company or a distribution company to get his new product into the hands of consumers, once it was available.

By sheer coincidence, Warner were wanting to get rid of the home computer section of Atari, the reason for this was that with the console crash and the bottom falli9ng out of the home computer market, Atari's computer division was pushing Warner into the red financially, losing over two million dollars a day, which was a huge amount of money in 1984.  When Jack Tramiel came calling after hearing Warner wanted to sell, talks were swift and Atari was sold to Tramiel Technologies in late 1984.  Jack was a shrewd businessman, as part of the deal he had also negotiated a loan from Warner, which was to be paid back over 5 years.

In the meantime, the hardware design was becoming finalized, though the processor had been changed to the Motorola MC68000 after fears that National Semiconductor would not be able to supply enough processors to supply a production machine, also RAM prices were beginning to fall, so the machine was to have 2 models, a low end 128K machine and a higher end 256K machine. With the news filtering through the company that they had acquired their former rival Atari, Ira Valenski was given the task of designing a series of cases to give the range of computers to be supplied by the new Atari Corporation, including the as yet unannounced Atari ST.

With the paperwork completed and Atari now owned by Tramiel Technologies, Jack and his team started going through Atari's books and started cutting the company down to a more manageable size. Some estimates put the staff cuts at about 70%, but there are no doubts that many talented people were lost and as a result, the ST may not have been the machine it could have been. In and among the projects under development at Atari were 2 machines based on the Motorola MC68000, these were codenamed Gaza and Sierra and were in advanced prototyping stages and both had custom chips which were more advanced than anything in the ST. Sadly these machines were overlooked, mainly due to a deal being negotiated with Amiga Technologies at the time of the takeover involving the prototypes and technology of the machine that would become the Amiga. Jack Tramiel had also been in discussion with the company before aquiring Atari, and while he expressed an interest in the technology, he did not want to take on the staff and as a result, Amiga Technologies went elsewhere to try and get their technology into production. As part of the deal with Atari, a loan had been granted to continue development of the Lorraine chipset with a condition attached, the loan had to be paid back before a specified date or the technology ownership would default to Atari to do with as they pleased. Jack tried to put pressure on Amiga Technologies by dropping the offer for the company and its technology, but in an unusual twist of fate, Amiga Technologies was bought by Commodore for more money than was initially asked for, and in addition, the loan was paid back to Atari with literally hours to spare. Jack Tramiel was furious and ordered design of his machine to be completed as soon as possible, meaning that technology that could have enhanced it was overlooked, including the legendary AMY sound chip.

There was no operating system, so Atari started looking around and were approached by Microsoft, who offered to port their operating system to the new Atari platform, but as Microsoft were still a long way from finishing their operating system Atari decided to look elsewhere (And anyone who has seen or used Windows version 1 will know it was a wise decision and a lucky escape), and discovered Digital Research, who were developing an operating system called Crystal. Atari sent a group of programmers to Digital Research to port Crystal to the ST and the Graphic Environment Manager (G.E.M.) was born. Running over a port of CPM renamed Tramiel Operating System (T.O.S.), the fledgling Atari ST now had an operating system.

In 1985 Atari showed a revised range of 8 bit computers in a re-designed case at the ComDEX show, which appeared to be a hit, but in a corner there was something new. On a table in a booth just away from the main exhibits was a prototype 130ST, but as the hardware had not been finished and would not fit within the case, the case was empty, except for a huge connecting cable, connecting the hardware to the mouse and monitor via the case. Demonstrations were limited as the system was prone to crashing, but people were impressed, even more so at the price when compared to its nearest rival, the Apple Macintosh.

Due to the exhibition, Atari realised that 128K was not enough as the operating system was going to take up more space than that, so the minimum spec was raised to 256K before fate once again stepped in. RAM prices fell once again and it was no more expensive to fit 512K of memory, so at the last minute the minimum specification was raised, however many 260ST badges had been created and some 256K machines had been shipped to developers to create software before the machines launch.

In June 1985 the ST launched in Europe, and many people were amazed to see the newly adopted MIDI ports on the side of the machine. Many people initially ignored these as unless you were a keyboard player, you had no real use for them, but the 260ST was now out and available for public consumption, and unbeknown to many was about to play an important role in music production.