Genealogy and your ATARI

By William A.Benbow


Issue 30

Nov/Dec 87

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William A. Benbow reviews three software packages for your 8-bit Atari that will help you trace your ancestors

The combination of the study of one's genealogy with the power of the computer makes for a fascinating hobby. I have traced my line back to that great British hero, Admiral John Benbow (1653-1702), and written and published his biography. All on my Atari 130XE.

If you are interested in learning more about your roots, about your family history, then you should know about some very practical ways your Atari can help you.

The task of searching for and finding your ancestors is much like that of solving an Agatha Christie mystery. You start with some known facts, find clues along the way, and piece together a picture much like you would a jigsaw puzzle. With genealogy however, you find very quickly that you are overwhelmed with data and spend most of your time searching through your own notes. The computer can bring order to this chaos. It is superbly suited to store data, sort it, search for relationships, and print reports.

Over the years genealogists have developed two basic forms to organize family history data. The first is a Family Worksheet which is used to record essential identifying information for each nuclear family, that is a husband, wife and children. Included in such a record are the names of their parents and dates and places for everyone's birth, marriages, and death. The form may also include additional notes such as occupations, hobbies, and military service. It does not take long to develop hundreds of these family worksheets as your ancestral tree doubles with each generation. Genealogists also use a second form, the Pedigree Chart, to show these generations pictorially. Such a chart usually has room for four or five generations starting with yourself and working backwards through your parents, grandparents, etc.


With a bit of imagination you can easily use a standard database program like Synfile to store your data. All of the information lends itself to being stored and sorted as fields. The drawback is that a standard database program is not designed to sort genealogical data in a pedigree format, so several programs have been developed specifically for Atari 8-bit computers, to do just that.

The simplest is FAMILY TREE by Harry Koons and available through Antic Magazine for $19.95 US plus $6 for surface or $10 for Air mail shipping. Write to The Catalog, 544 Second Street, San Francisco, CA 94107, USA. This program is excellent for beginners as it is quite user friendly. It is written in Basic, requires 40K RAM, and produces four generation pedigree charts. Detailed and clear documentation is provided on the back of the disk. It states: "The FAMILY TREE program lets you enter and display the names, births, marriages, deaths, and a short biographical note for each person in your family pedigree. The screen displays a tree with a unique cursor. You move the cursor about the tree using a joystick or the keyboard to select a person from the chart. Their historical data can than be displayed or edited on the screen."

Although a total of 24 generations may be stored on one disk, they must be broken down into separate files of 6 each. Pedigrees cannot be made which overlap files, so it is not possible to make a chart of your great-grandparent unless you start a new file with him. This involves a fair bit of duplication. Also, although charts may be printed in 10 characters per inch, they are best printed in compressed mode (17 characters per inch) for readability. The greatest limitation is that this is not really a database program. Data cannot be sorted by fields, and is quite restricted. Family worksheets are not utilized so you cannot store information on siblings, cousins, etc. With FAMILY TREE you are limited to pedigree charts.


To do more you need much more powerful programs. BRANCHES and its companion program TWIGS is just that. It is a genealogy database program specifically developed for Atari computers by Sysco Software, 939 Bross Street, Longmont, CO 80501, USA. Cost is BRANCHES $45, TWIGS $25. I am not sure of shipping costs.

This program is also written in Basic and requires 40K RAM plus an Epson compatible printer. BRANCHES is the main database program and utilizes both individual and family worksheets. From this information it produces five generation pedigree charts, however no more than five generations can be stored on a disk, so pedigrees which overlap disks will involve a lot of disk swapping. On the positive side disks can store a large number of children's records, including up to 160 children for the 16 great-great-grandparent families. Disk space is also committed to a unique time line feature which gives brief accounts of selected events for dates between 1400 and 1969, to provide historical perspective.

The companion program TWIGS is designed to produce a descendants chart which shows children, grandchildren and great grandchildren of a given individual. It can also store data on cousins, nieces, nephews etc. and allows you to find the relationship between any two people on the same disk.

This is an easy to operate and view program, well written with complete step by step manuals. The main limitation is the restriction to five generations per disk and, being written in Basic, you may find searches a bit slow.


A third program available for Atari computers, has been produced by William C. Walden of Direct Lines Software, 4755 Bamboo Way, Fair Oaks, CA 95628, USA. Titled FAMILY HISTORY, it is available for $39.95 US.

It requires 48K RAM and is the most powerful of these programs. There is no limit to the number of family member records you can keep. Multiple disks are possible, with each disk capable of storing 350 individual records of 41 fields each, Each record can contain up to four spouses and 15 children per marriage. It produces a five generation pedigree chart for any individual in the database, and a Family Group Chart on any individual, including all immediate family member's names. As well it will print a report of all data from all records in the file and an index sorted by individual number or name.

A nice feature of this program is its easy to use menu and its capacity to compress data by removing the empty spaces between records when you make a back up copy. The main advantage, however, is its open-ended storage capacity. It is not limited to five or six generations so is much more flexible. Speed is another asset, since the original Basic program has been 'compiled' and now runs ten times faster. It also supports double density.

The pedigree chart is a bit disappointing in that it does not include place names or marriages. The FAMILY TREE pedigree chart is much superior, but is limited to four generations. Also I had difficulty figuring out a good numbering system. The computer will assign numbers to individuals automatically, but since it allows a personally devised system, some greater instruction would be helpful.

Of the three programs, I prefer FAMILY HISTORY because of its open-endedness. However, BRANCHES AND TWIGS has the added features of a time line to give context to one's ancestors and also offers more in terms of tracking indirect relations such as cousins. FAMILY TREE is the easiest to use program and produces the best pedigree charts.


So there you have three programs which you can use on your 8-bit Atari to help in researching your ancestors. Perhaps you will find the search for your roots an exciting mystery to delve into, and you too may find an ancestor, such as my Admiral Benbow, worth writing about.

William A. Benbow is from British Columbia in Canada and is indeed a descendent of the famous Admiral Benbow. He has written several articles for genealogical journals and computer magazines and recently published a biography of his famous ancestor produced entirely on his 130XE.