Atari Logo

Atari History


In the late 1960s Nolan Bushnell studied electrical engineering at the University of Utah and often used the university's mainframe computer to play games. Around 1971 he produced a self-contained game called Computer Space and sold a few to amusement arcades, but the controls were too complicated for players to learn quickly.

His next game was therefore the much simpler Pong which just consisted of a 'ball' to be hit by a vertical line (the 'bat') on a TV screen. In 1972 Bushnell started the company Atari (the name comes from a move in the Japanese board game Go) with $250 to market his game, which proved popular but was often copied. Gradually more complex 'arcade' games followed and produced a good income. Steve Jobs (who later co-founded Apple) worked briefly for Atari in the early 1970s, designing video games, though it is said he had considerable help from Steve Wozniak.

In 1976 Atari was sold to Warner Communications for $28 million. The following year Atari released the VCS 2600 home video game console, which could take cartridges with different games on and sold for $199.

Atari VCS2600Atari VCS 2600, with fashionable woodgrain effect case.

In 1978 and 1979 a total of 800,000 VCS 2600s were sold but unfortunately Atari had overstocked and the unsold machines cost the business a considerable amount, as a result of which Nolan Bushnell left the company. Even so Atari's turnover was $512 million in 1980 and $1.2 billion in 1981.

In 1979 Atari entered the nascent home computer market with the Atari 400 and 800. As might be expected the graphics and sound capabilities of these machines made them excellent for playing video games.

A very popular game in the arcades at this time was Pac-Man and in 1982 Atari produced a cartridge for a home version, but it turned out to be badly programmed, with clunky animation and poor sound effects, and sales were low. Next a game based on the film ET The Extraterrestrial was launched but it was rushed out with insufficient time for programming and is considered one of the worst computer games ever.

Millions of ET and Pac-Man game cartridges had been made in the expectation of high sales but it is rumoured that eventually they were crushed and dumped in a landfill. Atari's profitability slumped and in July 1984 it was sold to Jack Tramiel (who had previously been president of Commodore International) for $240 million.

Under Jack Tramiel Atari launched the technically advanced ST range of computers in 1985 whilst also remaining in the video games market, producing the Lynx handheld games machine in 1989.Atari Lynx

In 1993 however, after disappointing sales of the Atari Falcon desktop computer (an updated version of the ST) Atari left the computer hardware market to concentrate on games.

Atari was later bought by the French software company Infogames but the latest news, as of February 2006, is that Atari had a poor trading year and that its share price is $0.72, down from $127.50 in 1996. The intellectual property rights of Atari are likely to be sold off.



Chronological listing
Back to chronological list

Home Page
Home Page

 


1