Atari Archaeology Without Digging Up Landfill Sites

We are fortunate to live in an age of commoditized high-power computer hardware and driver abstraction, in which most up-to-date computers have the ability to do more or less anything that requires keeping up with the attention of a human without breaking a sweat. Processors are very fast, memory is plentiful, and 3D graphics acceleration is both speedy and ubiquitous.

Thirty years ago it was a different matter on the desktop. Even the fastest processors of the day would struggle to perform on their own all the tasks demanded of them by a 1980s teenager who had gained a taste for arcade games. The manufacturers rose to this challenge by surrounding whichever CPU they had chosen with custom co-processors, ASICs that would take away the heavy lifting associated with 2D graphics acceleration, or audio and music synthesis.

One of the 1980s objects of computing desire was the Atari ST, featuring a Motorola 68000 processor, a then-astounding 512k of RAM, a GUI OS, high-res colour graphics, and 3.5″ floppy drive storage. Were you to open up the case of your ST you’d have found those ASICs we mentioned as being responsible for its impressive spec.

Jumping forward three decades, [Christian Zietz] found that there was frustratingly little information on the ST ASIC internal workings. Since a trove of backed-up data became available when Atari closed down he thought it would be worth digging through it to see what he could find. His write-up is a story of detective work in ancient OS and backup software archaeology, but it paid off as he found schematics for not only an ASIC from an unreleased Atari product but for the early ST ASICs he was looking for. He found hundreds of pages of schematics and timing diagrams which will surely take the efforts of many Atari enthusiasts to fully understand, and best of all he thinks there are more to be unlocked.

We’ve covered a lot of Atari stories over the years, but many of them have related to their other products such as the iconic 2600 console. We have brought you news of an open-source ST on an FPGA though, and more recently the restoration of an ST that had had a hard life. The title of this piece refers to the fate of Atari’s huge unsold stocks of 2600 console cartridges, such a disastrous marketing failure that unsold cartridges were taken to a New Mexico landfill site in 1983 and buried. We reported on the 2013 exhumation of these video gaming relics.

A tip of the hat to Hacker News for bringing this to our attention.

Atari ST image, Bill Bertram (CC-BY-2.5) via Wikimedia Commons.

14 thoughts on “Atari Archaeology Without Digging Up Landfill Sites

  1. Wow! [Christian Zietz] put a lot of effort into recovering that data, and found a treasure trove in the process!
    Kudos, sir! Thank you for helping to preserve a little bit of fascinating computer history and converting it to a format that can easily be read by the rest of us.

    I feel old now (don’t I always?): I’ve used Fastback and the DWG format, though I can’t for the life of me remember precisely when or what for.

  2. I miss my ATARIs… Back in time I was a dismantle-all kid, and all of my old gear went under heavy hacks…

    I had an ATARI 130XE that ended in the bin from extensive dismantle/remantle cycles, an ATARI 1024 STE which had several TOS EEPROM swapped and finally unsoldered 68000P4 to replace by a 68000P12 before dying from unknown reasons, and one of the most unfoundable of the ATARI beasts, a STACY which was the first portative (not portable) of the brand if I’m not mistaken, and GOD I f*****g eat my fingers from killing them in my young age… if I had those still around…

  3. My highly modified ST was without question one of my very favorite computers. Even with 9 bomb crashes. First off I bricklayered another 512k of ram onto my stock 520 (Model number, 512k stock ram.) Then I laid out over $200 for an adaptek SCSI to IBM 205 drive adapters. Add TWO Lapine 20 MEG hard drives and I had an unheard of 40 MEG worth of hard disk storage. Not counting of couse my blinding fast 2400 baud modem.
    Sounds truly archaic… But at the time it kicked butt over anything the Mico$oft based PC’s were offering. The system was full multitasking. I could (and did) play with my Neochrome art package while I listened to music on internal synth and downloaded a file from my GeNie BBS account. Micro$oft didn’t even come close till Windoze 3.11!

      1. Not fond of horror stories… But I’ll bite.
        I am aware that Apple wasn’t too happy about the ST. (Especially the Macsack dongle, which I also bought.) But Atari paid Digital Research for the GUI rights they implemented. Windoze was -is- a blatant rip off of it. But the whole concept stems from the Xerox Park developments.

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