Atari didn't only make games consoles. We look back at the computer system also known as Colleen.
In 1979, if you thought Atari, the chances are you thought of the company that produced Pong, the Atari 2600, and above all, games. Gaming wasn't the company's only foray into IT, however, with a line of personal computers that stretched all the way to the highly popular Atari ST line. Before we get there, however, Atari had to start with a simpler system, or in fact a pair of sister systems - the Atari 400 and Atari 800.
What kind of hardware did the Atari 400 run on?
The humble MOS 6502 once more makes an appearance under the Atari 400's hefty metal casing, making it a sibling of systems such as the Commodore VIC-20. The MOS 6502 in the 400 ran at 1.78MHz with a top output resolution of 160 x 96 pixels.
Unlike many of the systems of the day which ran Microsoft's BASIC, the 400 had to make do with an Atari implementation for size reasons, as memory restrictions meant it would have to fit within 8KB, and the 6502 version of MS BASIC was a whopping 12KB.
For all you youngsters out there, ponder that for a moment. A Microsoft operating environment that fit inside 12KB. Looking at the minimum specifications for Windows 7, which specify at least 16GB hard drive space, you could fit the 6502 MS BASIC inside there at least 1,333,333 times.
What were the other notable features of the Atari 400?
It was solid, bulky and effectively splash proof, way before anyone really thought about "rugged computing" that way. This was the function of serving two purposes. Firstly, in order to accommodate US regulations regarding interference, the 400 and 800 systems were built inside big metal Faraday cages. In other words, you don't want to drop one on your foot unless you're looking for a disability payout.
The more expensive 800 system came with a full keyboard, but mindful that they were pitching the 400 as a kid-friendly computer system, Atari's engineers equipped it with a flat rubber membrane keyboard. This made it impossible for small children to choke on keys, as well as allowing it to be wiped clean after use. Children, after all, can tend to be rather sticky creatures.
Also rather cheeky creatures, something Atari recognised in 1981 with this Atari 400 advertisement
Were the Atari 400 and 800 really "sisters? How do computers have gender anyway?
At least in one respect they were female, although the reasons why do show a big shift in attitudes from the 1970s to the current day. So the story goes, the 400 and 800 systems were originally codenamed. The 400 was "Colleen" and the 800 was "Candy".
Why were they Colleen and Candy? Well, aside from the well known IT habit of strange code names for products (Microsoft Chicago, anyone?), it was because those were the names of two "attractive" secretaries at Atari at the time.
Like we said, this was back in the 1970s. Don't throw your shoes at us.
Whatever happened to the Atari 400?
The 400 gave way to more feature rich systems, and thanks to changes in US regulations, slightly lighter ones that didn't require inbuilt Faraday cages. Production on the Atari 400 officially ceased in 1983.
Why was it relevant?
The Atari 400 was intended to be the 2600's replacement machine, and the stepping stone into the emerging home computer market for Atari. The design team was also significant in that it included such luminaries as Jay Miner, who had designed the display hardware chip for the 2600 and later went on to co-found Hi-Toro Corporation, later known as Amiga Corporation.
What's it worth?
Like last week's VIC-20, there aren't a lot of complete 1970's era computer systems around any more, and as such they do command a relative price premium. Atari 400 games cartridges tend to go for around $10 a piece. We found a few systems on offer, typically going for $100-$120 each.
[Main article image source: Wikipedia]