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Mark Simonson

Hello from Sunny Minnesota

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Posted (edited)

TL;DR: I've used Atari 8-bit computers off and on since 1981 and recently got back into them in a big way.

 

Although I've been aware of AtariAge since the early 2000s, I've only become a member recently.

 

Last fall, I posted an article on my website about my early computing experiences on Atari 8-bit computers and how it relates to my current career as a font developer. This attracted the notice of a few folks in the Atari community and I was encouraged by @Philsan to introduce to myself here.

 

Unlike a lot of members here who seem to be GenXers who used Atari computers as kids, I was in my mid-20s when I bought an Atari 400 with 16k in 1981. I'd dabbled with a ZX80 before that and wanted something a bit more capable. The Apple II seemed like the popular choice, but it was expensive. After seeing Star Raiders at a tiny computer shop in Eden Prairie, MN, I had to have an Atari.

 

At first, I just had the 400, joystick, and a 410 Program Recorder, but I soon bit the bullet and got an 810 drive and a 48k upgrade. I also tried to improve the 400's keyboard with a stick-on device called the B. Key 400 that attempted to give you a real keyboard. (It kind of worked.)

 

In 1983, as prices were coming down, I bought an Atari 800, relegating the 400 for playing games. At one point, I had a couple of Percom drives, an Epson MX-80 printer, an 850 interface, Kraft joysticks, a KoalaPad tablet, and an Atari Touch Tablet.

 

Thanks to magazines like Compute!, Creative Computing, Byte, A.N.A.L.O.G. Computing, Antic, and Atari Connection, plus loads of books like Lon Poole's Your Atari Computer, Ian Chadwick's Mapping the Atari, Chris Crawford's De Re Atari, and many more, I taught myself to program in BASIC and dabbled in assembly language and Forth (specifically valFORTH). BASIC A+ and BASIC XL were my favorites.

 

I was also a member of the Twin Cities Atari Interest Group (T.A.I.G.) which met once a month. My dad also had an Atari 800 and shared my interest in Atari computers and programming. For whatever reason, I never got a modem or used bulletin boards.

 

My programming efforts were modest. I had dreams of writing a game in assembly language (or maybe Forth), but mostly I did graphics demos that drew random pictures, a paint program (which worked with either a joystick or touch tablet), some attempts at things like a to-do list manager, and a "15" puzzle. It seems I spent more time reading and dreaming about programming than actually doing it.

 

I used my Atari computers to create a lot of images (Micro-Painter, Fun With Art, Micro Illustrator, Atari Artist, Atari World), including some illustration jobs that were printed in magazines (see my blog post for more info).

 

The Nolan Bushnell portrait is my favorite. I did it using a joystick and my own paint program, which was based on a paint program I copied from Compute! called "The Fluid Brush" by Al Baker. I modified it to work in GTIA modes 9 and 10, to load and save files, and other improvements. The Bushnell portrait was done in mode 10. Since it needed to be in "portrait" mode (to fill a magazine page), I did it sideways, setting my tv on its side to check my progress. In order to get a good likeness, I worked from a color photo of Bushnell, enlarging it to the size of my tv screen and tracing the outlines of different color areas onto a clear plastic sheet with grease pencil, which I taped to my tv screen. The "final art" was made by photographing the screen. The illustration was done for an article about the history of Atari in the August 1982 issue of TWA Ambassador, an inflight magazine that I used to work for. If anyone would like, I could post it here. The article was also reprinted in the short-lived Hi-Res magazine.

 

Ambassador_Bushnell.thumb.jpg.44dafe7b829b7226d78161fc2be81a8c.jpg

 

In 1984, I bought the original Macintosh 128k after being blown away by its GUI and high-res screen. For a while, my computing interests were divided between these two platforms—Atari for gaming and programming, and Mac for word processing, spreadsheets, and graphic design.

 

Atari prices had dropped again by 1985, and I bought an 800XL for less that what I paid for my original 400. I also got a 1050 drive. As the Mac increasingly dominated my computer use (especially as desktop publishing took off—I'm a graphic designer by trade), I still kept my Atari stuff, but used it less and less.

 

Fast forward to 1995, I started getting on the internet. One of the first things I discovered was information and discussions about old Atari computers and that there were emulators, including one that ran on the Mac called Rainbow, by Chris Lam. I contacted him and he mailed me the app on a diskette from the UK. The online community was small, but there were a few web pages and usenet groups. Thanks to this, I learned how to make a null-modem cable and use terminal software to transfer most of my Atari floppies to my Mac as disk images that I could use with Rainbow. There were also a few Mac utilities for the Atari back then such as AtariVDEdit, which let you work with Atari disk images.

 

I was making fonts by this time on my Mac (including my first commercial releases) and decided to make three TrueType fonts based on the Atari 8-bit screen font: Atari Classic Chunky (a bit-by-bit replication), Atari Classic Smooth (flattened corners), and Atari Classic ExtraSmooth (rounded curves). I had this idea at the time that I would use it as part of a Mac program that could open, display, and edit ATASCII files, but I never got very far with programming on the Mac.

 

By the late nineties, I was dabbling in web design. My first attempt was Mac/Atari Fusion, a website where I collected resources for people like me trying to use Atari 8-bit stuff with Macs in various ways. I also made my Atari TrueType fonts available there. It was part of the Atari WebRing (if anyone remembers webrings) and got "site of the week" at Emulation.net.

 

My site got the attention of Kevin (now Kay) @Savetz who contacted me about helping him scan and OCR issues of Antic and A.N.A.L.O.G., which I did for a while. I also created a bunch of graphics and site designs for his websites atariarchives.org and atarimagazines.org in the early 2000s.

 

My interest in Atari 8-bit stuff has come and gone since then. In 2010, I sold most of my Atari stuff to Lance at Video 61, keeping my favorite stuff, like the 800XL, 1050, a few games and other software and books. At some point, I sent nearly all my Atari magazines to Kay Savetz.

 

My interest returned about five years ago when I discovered Antic, the Atari 8-bit Podcast (featuring my old buddy @Savetz, with @rkindig and @Subby). In a flush of excitement, I bought an SIO2SD device and an SIO2PC-USB from Lotharek, and a MIDIjoy interface (which I couldn't get working). I set up my 800XL and played with it a bit, but eventually lost interest again.

 

Around this time, I heard from Peter Dell, of WUDSN IDE fame. He had written to me in 2012 for permission to use my Atari fonts in his software, but was running into issues with using the low ATASCII characters. The result was a brand new version of my Atari font that is not only used in WUSDN, but also by the FujiNet device and Atari800MacX for printing and displaying ATASCII (and probably some others I don't know about). Peter also persuaded me to create a similar C64 font. (I'm not sure if or where this is available, other than in WUSDN IDE.)

 

Last year, I started discovering Atari stuff on Youtube (8-bit and More, FlashJazzCat, The Modern 8-bit Atari Computer, and others) and got interested in things-Atari again, this time completely going off into the deep end. This is how I ended up writing about it on my blog.

 

My current set up is my original 800XL, with a Sophia DVI upgrade. I also have another stock 800XL and 130XE, both acquired recently. I generally don't use real disks anymore, instead relying on either the FujiNet + a TNFS server running on my Mac, pointed at a directory containing all my disk and cart images, or the SIO2PC-USB cable + RespeQt accessing the same disk images. I also have an Ultimate Cartridge containing my favorite carts and executables.

 

I've also been using Atari800MacX for a while using the same directory of disk and cart images.

 

I've recently made some major updates to my old BASIC XL programs which I may post here. I discovered a very nice workflow where I edit and test programs in Atari800MacX (it's super easy to "print" to a text file for ease of reading and debugging source code), and then running and testing on the real Atari. Plus, I finally figured out how to get the MIDIjoy interface working.

 

I also had fun over Christmas introducing my daughter's boyfriend to Atari computer games (he's a big PC gamer), hooking up my 800XL to our plasma tv using the RetroTINK and loading games via FujiNet as well as local carts.

 

It's been so much fun rediscovering the world of Atari 8-bit and I hope to participate here regularly.

Edited by Mark Simonson
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Welcome and thank you!

 

I am looking forward to see your next projects.

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Hey Mark.

Welcome.

Very cool story. Love it.

 

I too also helped Kay convert Antic and other magazines to HTML before full-page scans were reasonable for download. It's how I learned HTML.

 

Today I spend most of my Atari-time scanning books, magazines, boxes, manuals, etc. for the Atari. If you have downloaded any manual, book, etc. odds are they are one of my scans. I do this in hopes that others use them to do new things on the Atari.

 

You don't happen to have any of the files for the art or the programs you did back in the day anymore, do you? I would love to see them on the real thing.

 

I love to see what people are doing on their Atari 8-bit computers. Games are fun but the non-game stuff is really interesting as well. A lot of great software on the Atari never was used to it's full potential. Some of it barely got used. Programs like Virtuoso, Invision, Graphics Magician, PManimator, Movie Maker, etc. There are a lot. One of my goals is to make videos explaining how to use these programs much like Thomas C. just did with Advanced Music System.

 

Allan

 

 

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That was a very cool read! Welcome and thanks for the story. Hopefully there’s more to your Atari journey.


Sent from my iPhone using Tapatalk

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I am looking forward to see your next projects.

@Philsan: You mentioned FastBasic in your private message to me... I'd never really investigated it before. It looks awesome. This may turn out to be my next rabbit hole. 🙂

 

@Allan: One of the things I love about being here in the future is how so much of the books, magazines, manuals and other materials from the Atari world of the '80s is available online, so thanks for being one of the folks who helps make that happen. And thanks for the suggestion to post some of my old image files. I would love to do that.

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On 4/9/2021 at 2:11 PM, Mark Simonson said:

I also tried to improve the 400's keyboard with a stick-on device called the B. Key 400 that attempted to give you a real keyboard.

I have a B-Key 400 which installs in place of the membrane keyboard, the keyboard you are talking about may be the Joytyper which is shown in the second picture in the linked article. The first picture is a B-Key without keycaps above an 800 for size comparison.

https://www.atarimagazines.com/v2n4/400upgrade.html

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Posted (edited)

@BillC It wasn't the Joytyper 400. There's a photo of it here: https://www.atarimagazines.com/compute/issue34/133_1_NEWS_PRODUCTS_KEYBOARD_FOR_THE_ATARI_400.php

133-1.jpg.ed50367aceafd7320a80f71ccecbc533.jpg

 

What I had looked nothing like that. Pretty sure it was the B. Key, but I think my memory of it being simply attached to the case and mechanically transferring keypresses to the membrane keyboard is wrong. Now that I think of it, I do kind of remember having to remove the membrane keyboard.

 

Would you mind posting a photo of your B. Key?

Edited by Mark Simonson

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2 hours ago, Mark Simonson said:

Would you mind posting a photo of your B. Key?

Hope this helps.  The b-key I used to have had all brown keys.

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Posted (edited)

Yep, that's what mine looked like, although some of the details look less familiar, like the console keys. I think I only had it installed until I got my 800, probably less than a year, and then restored the membrane keyboard.

 

Update: Confirmed. I found it listed in an expense spreadsheet from the '80s. Bought it from InHome in December '82 for $119.95, about four months before I bought my 800. That's probably how long I used it.

Edited by Mark Simonson
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On 4/10/2021 at 3:13 AM, Mark Simonson said:

 

@Allan: One of the things I love about being here in the future is how so much of the books, magazines, manuals and other materials from the Atari world of the '80s is available online, so thanks for being one of the folks who helps make that happen. And thanks for the suggestion to post some of my old image files. I would love to do that.

Hi Mark, welcome back!

 

I can't thank all the people who undertake the tedious work of scanning and preserving all this Atari documents enough. That's not a given and many other computer systems have far fewer resources online.

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42 minutes ago, Mark Simonson said:

Yep, that's what mine looked like, although some of the details look less familiar, like the console keys.

The B-Key 400 is still not a "stick-on" keyboard, it completely replaces the membrane keyboard using the original mounting method, what you may be remembering is installing the keycaps afterwards.

Here is a picture of the 2 keyboards in a 400 with the top case removed.

1363728689_400keyboardcomparison.thumb.jpg.8da90f02712d735cdce0a9bb36abf960.jpg

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Posted (edited)

Right. As I mentioned in one of my responses, my memory of it being "stick on" was wrong. The version in your photos is definitely what I had. The other photo above in @Stephen's post showing different colored keys is a different version apparently, which is why the console keys looked unfamiliar to me.

Edited by Mark Simonson

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3 hours ago, Mark Simonson said:

Right. As I mentioned in one of my responses, my memory of it being "stick on" was wrong. The version in your photos is definitely what I had. The other photo above in @Stephen's post showing different colored keys is a different version apparently, which is why the console keys looked unfamiliar to me.

I wish I could find the all brown version I had as my first machine way back in 82.

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My first 400 got the all brown keyboard.  The 400 I bought last year has the multi-colored keycaps which was what I had hoped to get from InHome.  I remember the keycaps coming on a separate piece of cardboard with a gummy layer that held the keycaps in place.  It made typing in magazine listings bearable as the membrane keyboard left my fingertips nearly bleeding.  I later got an 800 when Sears got rid of its demonstrator (when the 1200XLs came out).  That demo unit got a lot of abuse but the keyboard held up great. 

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Posted (edited)

One thing I neglected to mention in the interview (although I see I did mention it above) was that getting back into the Atari back in 2016 came about after learning about and listening to the Antic podcast. So, big thanks to @Savetz for the interview and for helping me rediscover the world of Atari 8-bit.

Edited by Mark Simonson
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Sunny Minnesota. Thanks for the laugh. I remember they asked Prince back in the day why he still lived in Chanhassen, MN. He said: “It's so cold, it keeps the bad people out.” :)

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Enjoyed the read Mark!  Back in the early 80's my wife and I sent a lot of pictures and forts to a company that had a contest going.

You may have heard of them...  ClipArt.  Anyway, after we sent them in (and never heard back), we bought a book and disk from them.

And there in the book and on the disk, were several of our pictures.  When we called ClipArt about it, they said that it was in the fine

print in the rules that all submissions became the property of ClipArt.  That was the first baby step for us; teaching us that piracy was 

a two headed axe!

 

DavidMil  

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Posted (edited)
On 4/9/2021 at 4:40 PM, gilsaluki said:

I am blown away at the detail of N.B.!  Great work.  I am sure Matt (Gunstar) would love it too.  

I am just reading the thread now. I've been busy lately and not enough time if at all, to go through too many threads at once. And I do like the portrait of N.B. I am very impressed. I'm not sure what graphic mode it's done in or number of onscreen colors allowed as it's hard to say how much cropping/zooming was done to fit the page. I'm guessing 9-color GTIA mode from 256 palette. It's hard to tell for sure from the video, which I skipped ahead to where the image was shown. I look forward to watching the entire video later.

 

But a warm welcome from me, to you, @Mark Simonson, I still have to read your entire first post and all the replies fully, I've only skimmed so far. I'm turning 53 this year and the first computers I used were Apple II's in Jr. High/High school and my first was a Timex/Sinclair 1000 (ZX81). I bought my first Atari 8-bit in '85 at the age of 17. I don't know if technically I'm the end of the boomers or an early GenXer, but I was in high school before I got my first computer. As a kid, for me, it was Pong and then the Atari VCS and Odyssey 2 that I dreamed of having and my parents refused to buy me. My older brother bought Pong and later the 2600 for cheap during the video game crash and that's about when I got my first T/S 1000 too. I got the Tramiel 130XE that I had for 17+ years before selling it in favor of a 1200XL with Rambo and a 48K 800. Though the 800's not the same one, those are the models I own today, both heavily upgraded and modded today.

Edited by Gunstar

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On 4/18/2021 at 3:14 PM, Mark Simonson said:

Thanks, @Gunstar! FYI, the Bushnell portrait was done in Gr. 10 using just nine colors. Photo was shot off the screen of a 10" Panasonic Quintrix, which I used as a monitor at the time.

I thought that might be the mode used, what confused me, that I *think* I've figured out now, is you drew the picture in a horizontal orientation and then the final photo was re-oriented vertically for the magazine page? Very good in any case.

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