I first encountered the world of Atari when the
"rich" Uncle Derek brought himself an Atari VCS. I can
remember many a Saturday afternoon when he would duly thwart the Younger
Brother and I at video games he'd been practising all week.
My first 8-bit memory is walking past the Maplin store
in Westcliff-on-Sea and seeing an Atari 400 and 800 on display in the
window. One was showing a digitised picture of Miss Piggy and the other
was running the walking robot demo. These GTIA modes might pale in the
face of modern graphics cards, but at the time such
"realistic" images were truly mind-blowing.
Shortly afterwards (who can resist the lure of Miss
Piggy?) the "rich" Uncle Derek's wallet is made very slightly
lighter when he departs with the readies for an Atari 800 with all the
gubbins. Said gubbins included the Technical Reference Notes, the O/S
Source Code, the Hardware Manual and a copy of De Re Atari; all of which
might as well have been Greek texts as far as the Uncle Derek was
concerned. However I had been doing Computer Science at school and this
sounded much more exciting than programming a Research Machine's 380Z, a
Commodore PET or sending off punched cards to somewhere in Chelmsford
only to have them returned saying "data input error".
Subsequent Saturday afternoons still included the
ritual video games victory of the Uncle Derek over the Younger Brother
and I, albeit now with much better graphics and sound. However a new
activity was added to the agenda where I did a little bit of
programming. The Uncle Derek and the Younger Brother used to look on in
awe at the power of the commands I issued from the keyboard and they
were enraptured for hours (although they remember it as getting bored
after a few minutes and then going off to do something else).
One of the things that made De Re Atari such a great
book was that it was full of ideas. One such was to alternate the
display every vertical blank period to superimpose text over a graphical
display. I managed to get such a program working which I submitted to
Personal Computer World; not only was it published, but it also won the
"Program of the Month" award which was enough dosh for me to
buy an Atari 400.
Some months later, another program published in PCW
allowed me to purchase a Panasonic portable TV (this had a fantastic
picture and I only got rid of it a few years ago). A few thousand more
key presses and another PCW program buys me a disk drive. I remember
going to a local branch of Dixons who stocked Atari products and asking
for a disk drive. "A disk what?" came the reply.
Around this time I discovered Page 6 Magazine, thanks
to Steve (a friend of the Uncle Derek) who was also an Atari enthusiast.
My first 8-bit program published in Page 6 was Freeway
Ace! in issue 16 July/August 1985 and my last was Hot Blocks in
issue 46 October/November 1990.
One of my favourite Page 6 memories is when I received
a letter from Les telling me that Munchy Madness had won the Best
Program category in the 1986 Reader's Poll Awards. The letter started
something like "Dear Paul, I am pleased to inform you that Munchy
Madness has been voted Best Program in the Reader's Poll Awards and I
would like to invite you to Atari HQ in Sunnyvale to collect the
award". That was as far as I read. Next thing I'm running around
the house saying "Guess what I've won and where I'm going?".
Then I read the rest of the letter which said something like "But
unfortunately we can't afford that, so instead would you please come to
the Atari Show in London to collect it". I've never told Les how
good he got me with that one, however I have been plotting my revenge
for the last 17 years.
Page 6 was a fantastic training ground for all aspects
of programming as it catered for all skill levels and all interests. As
a programmer it gave you a means to share what you'd been developing
which further inspired you to do more. I also made a good friend through
the magazine who I am still in contact with today. The payment for the
articles was secondary but it did help, especially when I was at
In my professional career I have worked in the audio
and telecommunications industries. Currently I am working for a company
who develop in-car entertainment systems. While I might be programming
in different high level and assembly languages, the programming skills I
learnt from the Atari 8-bit computers have been invaluable.
Paul Lay, August 2003