10 Things You Might Not Know About Atari


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Forty years ago, on November 29, 1972, a startup called Atari announced the release of Pong, a coin operated “video game.” The company’s name was taken from the ancient Japanese board game Go, and vaguely translates as “to hit the mark.” In celebration, here are ten things you might not know about Atari.

1. In today’s dollars, you could found Atari for the price of a MacBook Pro.

Nolan Bushnell founded Atari in 1972 with a princely investment of $250. (His co-founder, Ted Dabney, put in an equal amount.) Within five years, the company was worth $28 million. Within ten years, its annual sales reached $2 billion. Many consider Bushnell to be the father of the video game industry.

2. There were early hints that Pong might be a success.

WIkimedia Commons

The Pong prototype was installed at Andy Capp’s, a local bar. Its coin slot came from a Laundromat. The screen was a repurposed television. Quarters dropped into a milk carton. A week after the machine went live, Atari got a call from the bar with bad news: the machine was acting up. When Al Alcorn, the engineer who built Pong, checked on it, he figured out the problem: it was overflowing with quarters. He replaced the milk carton with a bread pan.

3. “Have fun, make money.”

In 1974, an unkempt, sandal-clad hippie walked into Atari’s lobby and demanded a job. He was answering an ad in the San Jose Mercury that read “Have fun, make money.” The hippie wouldn't leave until he got a job. Al Alcorn was called in to help. “I was told, ‘We’ve got a hippie kid in the lobby. He says he’s not going to leave until we hire him. Should we call the cops or let him in?’ I said bring him on in!” The hippie would earn $5 an hour and work as a tech.

Had the personnel director called the cops, they would have arrested Steve Jobs. Other Atari employees: Ron Wayne and Steve Wozniak. The trio would, of course, go on to found Apple.

4. The Gospel According to St. Pong.

Atari’s in-house newsletter was called The Gospel According to St. Pong. (“Founded in service to the Atari family,” read the masthead.) There had been a company-wide contest to come up with a name, and “a committee of Atarians” chose from a list of candidates. Dennis Flinn of the purchasing department was the winner.

5. Wii Fit was great ... when it was invented in 1982.

Atari's Corporate Research Department created the first computerized exercise device. It was called Puffer, and was designed by Tim McGuinness. As written in an internal memo from the company: “There is a whole generation of kids (and adults) out there who aren’t into sports and/or don’t get enough exercise. At the same time there is a huge fitness market. We have seen how kids can become addicted to our video games. We are going to hook up an exercise bike to a video game, where the bike is the controller.”

6. Atari had a fierce competitor ... secretly owned by Atari.

Pinball distributors in the 1970s demanded exclusive deals for products before they would sign contracts. This would have impeded Nolan Bushnell’s ambitious plans to establish an entire industry. To get around the exclusivity requirements, Bushnell and his neighbor, Joe Keenan, secretly formed a second company that would “compete” against Atari, selling slightly modified Atari games to other distributors. They called it Kee Games. Ironically, Atari would later run into management trouble, while Kee Games continued operating smoothly and successfully. As a result, Joe Keenan was brought to Atari and promoted to president of the company.

7. Atari culture set the tone for Silicon Valley.

Atari was well known for its egalitarian work environment. It had a casual dress code, hot tub parties, and beer bashes to celebrate meeting revenue goals. “T-shirts and jeans were something of a status symbol at Atari,” wrote Bill Haslacher, a former writer at Atari. “I swear my boss had a whole T-shirt wardrobe. He even had a T-shirt with a tie painted on it.”

According to Jim Huether, a former Atari game designer, “When I started they just said, 'We want you to do a game in about six months... you have no set hours, we don't even want to see you until the game is almost done.' It was great.”

8. There have been a lot of Pongs.


Wikimedia Commons

Pong’s longevity is notable, and there have been versions of the game on just about every platform out there. In 1975, Atari built a home version that connected to televisions. Other Atari-designed variants include Pong Doubles, Super Pong, and Quadripong. Steve Wozniak programmed the prototype of a single-player version, called Breakout, in a sleepless four-day engineering marathon. Super Breakout followed. Pong’s visibility isn’t limited to consoles and arcades—Paddle 1 and Paddle 2 recently spent time on the silver screen in the film Wreck-It Ralph.

9. The magazine might have been called Atari Power.

When Nintendo’s executives decided to expand to the American market, it considered partnering with Atari for its first console, and releasing it with the Atari brand. The deal fell through, and the Nintendo Advanced Video Gaming System project was stripped of its keyboard and tape-storage, redesigned, and released as the Nintendo Entertainment System.

10. Clean out your desk, Bill.

In a million dollar deal, Atari contracted a company called Microsoft to port the BASIC programming language to the Atari 800. A young developer named Bill Gates was responsible for the project. One year later, the software had yet to be completed, and Alan Miller, an Atari game designer and programmer, took over the project. This very likely makes him the only person to have fired Bill Gates.

Special thanks to Dr. Tim McGuinness for his contribution to this article.

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Undersea Internet Cables Could Be Key to the Future of Earthquake Detection
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Considering that 70 percent of the planet is covered by oceans, we don't have all that many underwater earthquake sensors. Though there's plenty of seismic activity that happens out in the middle of the ocean, most detection equipment is located on land, with the exception of a few offshore sensor projects in Japan, the U.S., and Canada.

To get better earthquake data for tremors and quakes that happen far from existing sensors, a group of scientists in the UK, Italy, and Malta suggest turning to the internet. As Science News reports, the fiber-optic cables already laid down to carry communication between continents could be repurposed as seismic sensors with the help of lasers.

The new study, detailed in a recent issue of Science, proposes beaming a laser into one end of the optical fiber, then measuring how that light changes. When the cable is disturbed by seismic shaking, the light will change.

This method, which the researchers tested during earthquakes in Italy, New Zealand, Japan, and Mexico, would allow scientists to use data from multiple undersea cables to both detect and measure earthquake activity, including pinpointing the epicenter and estimating the magnitude. They were able to sense quakes in New Zealand and Japan from a land-based fiber-optic cable in England, and measure an earthquake in the Malta Sea from an undersea cable running between Malta and Sicily that was located more than 50 miles away from the epicenter.

A map of the world's undersea cable connections with a diagram of how lasers can measure their movement
Marra et al., Science (2018)

Seismic sensors installed on the sea floor are expensive, but they can save lives: During the deadly Japanese earthquake in 2011, the country's extensive early-warning system, including underwater sensors, was able to alert people in Tokyo of the quake 90 seconds before the shaking started.

Using existing cable links that run across the ocean floor would allow scientists to collect data on earthquakes that start in the middle of the ocean that are too weak to register on land-based seismic sensors. The fact that hundreds of thousands of miles of these cables already crisscross the globe makes this method far, far cheaper to implement than installing brand-new seismic sensors at the bottom of the ocean, giving scientists potential access to data on earthquake activity throughout the world, rather than only from the select places that already have offshore sensors installed.

The researchers haven't yet studied how the laser method works on the long fiber-optic cables that run between continents, so it's not ready for the big leagues yet. But eventually, it could help bolster tsunami detection, monitor earthquakes in remote areas like the Arctic, and more.

[h/t Science News]

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AI Remade Old Music Videos, and You'll Never See 'Sabotage' the Same Way Again
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From rewriting Harry Potter scripts to naming guinea pigs, getting artificial intelligence to do humans' bidding is the latest trend in internet entertainment. Now, we can all enjoy AI remakes of iconic music videos such as "Sabotage" by the Beastie Boys, "Total Eclipse of the Heart" by Bonnie Tyler, and "Take On Me" by A-Ha.

As spotted by Co.Design, these "neural remakes" were uploaded to YouTube by Mario Klingemann, an artist-in-residence at Google Arts. The AI model he created is capable of analyzing a music video and then creating its own version using similar shots lifted from a database of publicly available footage. The results are then uploaded side-by-side with the original video, with no human editing necessary.

"Sabotage," a spoof on '70s-era cop movies, might be the AI's "most effective visual match," at least by Co.Design's estimate. The AI model found accurate matches for vintage cars and foot chases—and even when it wasn't spot on, the dated clips still mesh well with the vintage feel of the original video. Check it out for yourself:

"Total Eclipse of the Heart," a bizarre video to begin with, spawned some interesting parallels when it was fed through the AI model. Jesus makes a few appearances in the AI version, as does a space shuttle launch and what appear to be Spartan warriors.

And finally, 11 years after the original rickroll, there's now a new way to annoy your friends: the AI version of Rick Astley's "Never Gonna Give You Up," featuring John F. Kennedy and Jesus, yet again. This one is presented on its own in full-screen rather than split-screen, but you can rewatch the original video here.

To see more videos like this, check out Klingemann's YouTube channel here.

[h/t Co.Design]

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