Happy 40th birthday, Atari [Updated]

The display of a PDP-1; the computer which set Atari on its own path.

Atari is 40 years old today. On June 27th, 1972, Atari came into existence in Santa Clara, California. In an alternate universe the company could have been called Syzygy: it was they name they had planned to use, before discovering that it had already been taken. Atari arguably kickstarted the development of the home videogames console, with their original intent being to find a way to play a game called Spacewar! at home, instead of on the $120,000 minicomputers at universities, which it was designed for. Their end result was Computer War, which they released to no real attention in 1971. 

Undeterred, Nolan Bushnell and Ted Dabney decided to continue with their venture. Then they released something called Pong, and their impact on the world of games was made. They continued to release more games. TempestMillipedeCentipedeAsteroid, and all the other big names you might have heard from the 1970s gaming industry. While Atari are famous for their 2600 console, it was not the first one to be sold on the market. Before Atari came the Magnavox Odyssey. The Odyssey released in August 1972, and it took five whole years before Atari's 2600 would follow it. While it might not be the original, it is the console people tend to think of as the genesis of the home videogame console.

Magnavox's Odyssey. While not as fondly remembered it is still a key part of gaming history.

In 2009, the 2600 was voted IGN's second greatest console of all time. For good reason, too, since they explain it as the console the entire industry is built upon. The legacy of the 2600 is massive, and Atari's legacy is arguably even bigger still. The company's recent contributions to the game industry might not be as shining, it has only acted as the publisher instead of the developer. In this sense they can explain away games such as Driv3r quickly, for these games have become Atari's modern legacy despite not having a hand in their actual development. Whatever their most recent contributions may have been and how welcome they may be, the company's history is illustrious and we cannot deny Atari has done a huge amount to shape the word of games.

If you have an older Atari console sitting around, bring it out of storage and celebrate the 40th birthday of the company which helped kickstart the industry the way they would have enjoyed it themselves. Make sure you take a look at Atari's website as well, for the company is celebrating its anniversary in a big way. Over the course of the next four days they'll have forty giveaways. The giveaways are linked with Facebook too, so you and your friends could all enter and try to win.

Perhaps you'd like a glimpse at the game which inspired Atari themselves. While only one of the PDP-1 computers that ran it is still known to be operational, you'll be pleased to know you can play it online. The game is running in a JavaScript emulator and you too can pretend you're all the way back in the 1960s, with the Cuban Missile Crisis, Vietnam and the Soviets to worry about. Alright, it isn't a perfect reproduction of the experience, but you can kill time the exact same way that they might have during the period. And what's not to love about being able to play history?

Here's some history you might even have owned in the 1980s: the wood veneered Atari 2600.

Let's also take a brief look at the PDP-1, widely considered to have been the computer which created the 'hacker' subculture. The PDP-1 was first introduced in 1960, as the first of the Programmed Data Processor computers from the Digital Equipment Corporation, or 'DEC'. The processor of the PDP-1 was roughly equivalent to 200KHz (kilohertz) in a modern processor. By way of comparison, most computers now have clock speeds of roughly 2GHz (gigahertz), if not more. The PDP-1 was the home of some of the earliest computer-created music, the first text editor, the first word processor and, as we've already mentioned, one of the first videogames.

A single PDP-1 was 120,000USD at the time. In the current economy it is 930,000 USD. Fifty-three PDP-1s were sold during their production run, which lasted nine years. Only one is known to be fully working, though in 1988 there was hope that #44 would work after it was discovered in a barn in Wichita, Kansas. #44 was subsequently scrapped though, leaving a single working PDP-1. There are three PDP-1s, all of which are owned by the Computer History Museum. Two are production machines, and one is a prototype which is not used.

The PDP-1's contribution to computing has been enormous, which is hardly surprising considering all the firsts it recorded. It is also the reason Atari's two main partners were inspired to create their own products, so the history of computing is much deeper than it might originally seem. The history of the computer intertwines with the history of the games console from the 1970s onwards and there is little to suggest the two will be pulled apart any time sooner. The PDP-1 might have been invaluable for Atari, though Atari have been invaluable for gamers worldwide in their own way.

Update: After publishing this article I was contacted by a group about a book on the Atari story. Entitled Atari: Business is Fun, the book sets out to show the origins of Atari and information about the company which might previously have been very difficult to come across. In the press release PDF I received, there is a clear observation made. At present people will ask "Do you play videogames?", but in the 1970s, people would ask if you played Atari. This is a clear showing of Atari's dominance in the market at the time, and it is just one example of the company's position during its history.

The scope of the book is certainly ambitious, having taken more than seven years to compile all the information and write the story. The book is not a retelling of Atari's origins, but instead a memoir of Atari's history over the past forty years, with the changing cultural landscape surrounding it. Further information on the book is available from their official site, and the first chapter is available as a free preview. Amazon is also taking preorders for physical copies as of today, the fortieth anniversary. This book may prove a very interesting look into the world Atari inhabited during its golden years, as well as the lives of the people who made the company what it was. Among these people was a certain Steve Jobs, who had some interactions with the company.

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