The Untold Story of Atari Founder Nolan Bushnell’s Visionary 1980s Tech Incubator

Friday, February 17th, 2017

The Story of Nolan Bushnell

Up now on FastCompany.com is my latest piece in a series of deep-dives into little-known tech history. (I wrote this last year – it’s been simmering on the backburner for quite some time.)

My article is about Nolan Bushnell’s Catalyst Technologies, a pioneering high-tech incubator in the 1980s:

In the annals of Silicon Valley history, Nolan Bushnell’s name conjures up both brilliant success and spectacular failure. His two landmark achievements were founding Atari in 1972–laying the groundwork for the entire video game industry–and starting Chuck E. Cheese’s Pizza Time Theatre in 1977. But there’s another highlight of Bushnell’s bio that has long gone undocumented: pioneer of the high-tech incubator.

In 1981, Bushnell created Catalyst Technologies, a venture-capital partnership designed to bring the future to life by turning his ideas into companies. In the era of the TRS-80, Betamax, and CB radio, startups funded by Catalyst pursued an array of visionary concepts–from interactive TV to online shopping to door-to-door navigation–that created entire industries decades later. “I read science fiction, and I wanted to live there,” Bushnell explains.

In researching the history of Catalyst, I found that it was far more successful than most people think, and that Bushnell’s post-Atari track record, despite several high-profile failures, is not as bad as one might assume from the negative media coverage he once garnered. It’s time to reconsider his post-Atari legacy, in my opinion, and this article is the first stop in doing so. Hope you enjoy it.

[ Retro Scan ] Disemboweled IBM PC 5150

Thursday, June 30th, 2016

IBM PC 5150 Apart Components Inside Advertisement Scan - 1982Is somebody gonna clean this mess up?

Here we have a biggole two-page IBM PC 5150 advertisement spread from 1982 — published not long after the launch of IBM’s first PC in August 1981.

It looks like IBM is trying to play up the bare-metal technical angle for Byte readers, who likely were building their own PCs from kit parts just a few years prior (and some still were doing it then).

The result, quite frankly, is a huge mess (looks like my workbench). And the advertisement didn’t come out too well in the magazine print run, which makes the image dark and muddy. It’s not my fault, I swear!

I particularly like the phrase “the RS232C interface that gives you the world” in the advertising copy. It implies using the serial port for networking — that is, in connecting to remote computers. It’s funny because back then, that statement was a hyperbolic boast that was not meant literally. Online services were limited to a teeny-tiny fraction of the world population and their capabilities were limited. Today, networking does really give you the world.

[ From Byte Magazine, February 1982, p.24-25 ]

Discussion Topic: Have you ever broken a computer while you were taking it apart? Tell us about it.

[ Retro Scan of the Week ] The Magnavox Odyssey 2

Friday, May 11th, 2012

Magnavox Odyssey 2 Ad - 1981The Excitement of a Game. The Mind of a Computer. The Soul of an Edsel.

The Odyssey 2, released in 1978, ranks among the most misunderstood video game consoles. It boasted more CPU intelligence than the Atari 2600, but it lacked the licensed arcade titles and third-party developers to make it competitive over the long run. While its games were mostly clones of popular games on other systems, the console played host to a few interesting curiosities like The Voice, a speech synthesis module, and The Quest for the Rings, a beautiful board game that tied into the Odyssey 2 console.

The Odyssey 2 also included a built-in keyboard (a very poor membrane model), which I believe might be the only time such a thing has happened — unless you count certain home PCs as video game consoles.

[ From TIME, November 2, 1981, p.24 ]

Discussion Topic of the Week: What’s your favorite Odyssey 2 game? If you have one, that is.


If you liked this, check out these related Retro Scans:

IBM PC 30th Anniversary Extravaganza

Friday, August 12th, 2011

Can You Do Real Work With The 30-Year-Old IBM PC 5150? at PCWorld.com

If you haven’t heard by now, the IBM PC platforms turned 30 years old today. On August 12th, 1981, IBM announced its new PC, the 5150, at a press conference in New York. It was a big deal then, and it’s an even bigger deal now. For the last 30 years, most of us have been using computers descended from a standard set in motion 30 years ago.

To celebrate this momentous anniversary, I’ve put together a few articles for PC World and Technologizer. The first is titled, “Can You Do Real Work With the 30-Year-Old IBM 5150?” A few weeks ago, I locked myself in a room with a vintage IBM PC 5150 to see if I could use it for real, modern computing work. That article spells out the results.

The second is something more predictable: IBM PC Oddities over at Technologizer. It’s the latest in my Oddities series of interesting and bizarre trivia slideshows for that site. If you’ve ever used a PC, you should enjoy it.

Then there’s the stuff at VC&G. I just posted a few thoughts on the IBM PC’s anniversary and an essay on history’s treatment of the IBM PC, and on Monday I posted a new Retro Scan of the Week that features a 1982 IBM PC ad. In turn, that Retro Scan post lists previous Retro Scan entries that deal with the PC.

Happy Birthday, IBM PC!

The Beleaguered IBM PC in History

Friday, August 12th, 2011

The IBM PC 5150

From the 1990s until very recently, the press has been generally unkind to the achievements of the first IBM PC. Due to the PC platform’s utter dominance of the personal computer market, popular accounts of personal computer history commonly paint IBM as the slow, lumbering, clueless enemy while cheering on spunky underdogs like Apple. I’m not even going to cite specific examples: Google “computer history.” Read. You will see it.

But that perspective is not fair at all. IBM truly pulled off something smart, savvy, and remarkable in designing the IBM PC 5150 (and the machines that followed it, into the PS/2 era). With the 5150, a team of 12 people took the machine from concept to shipping product in less than a year. And yet many focus on how IBM supposedly lost its way.

IBM PC KidMuch ballyhoo has been made, for example, about how IBM lost its grip on the PC’s direction as clones flooded the market. From a different perspective, that runaway-freight-train-of-a-platform is a success story for IBM.

While Big Blue lost market share to clone manufacturers, you have to keep in mind that IBM’s percentage shrank as the market size exploded. IBM fostered a rich PC standard that it kept reaping until it sold its PC division to Lenovo in 2004. IBM may not have kept steering the ship, but they sure made a lot of money in the cargo hold.

And if you think IBM’s influence on the PC standard ended in the early 1980s, think again. Real history is not so cut-and-dry. The PS/2 era (which dawned in 1987) gave us stalwarts like the PS/2 mouse/keyboard ports and, ah yes, that minor display technology called VGA. You can also thank the 1990s ThinkPad line for its part in streamlining the modern laptop.

Apple vs. IBM

The popular narrative of IBM vs. Apple in the 1980s, with its strong contrasts of Good vs. Evil and Hero vs. Villain was largely a creation of Apple’s marketing department. The image of Apple’s David verses IBM’s Goliath got repeated so many times that the press started using the supposed rivalry as the basis of dramatic stories. Humans need narratives to make sense of history, and writers have forced the PC market story into that archetypal mold.

Sure, IBM and Apple competed for dollars — and they may have even done it vigorously — but business is business. It’s not swashbuckling. The first thing you learn when actually studying computer history (i.e. interviewing folks) is that just about no one involved in creating these products thinks they were doing something so incredibly amazing that it should be turned into a movie. They were just doing their jobs, developing good products, and trying to make money like everyone else. When the project was over, they moved on to other things. That story is incredibly boring if you don’t dramatize it.

By using the IBM PC for a week for a recent article, I learned firsthand that the original PC really was an amazing machine for its time. It wasn’t just a generic box that happened to have an IBM logo on it, as some people argue. Sure, it didn’t have flashy graphics or a GUI, but it was solid, reliable, well-designed, and it was definitely the most qualified personal computer for getting work done in 1981. There is a reason it became a standard, after all — everyone imitated it, and they imitated it because it was amazing.

A Few Thoughts on the IBM PC’s Birthday

Friday, August 12th, 2011

The IBM PC Turns 30

When the IBM PC turned 20 back in 2001, I said to myself, “Really? It’s that old already?” I was honestly surprised. Now that the PC platform is 30 (as it just turned today), that age seems obvious. (“Thirty, you say? Sounds about right.”)

Computer technology has come a long way since 1981, and the last 10 years in PC land have been just as eventful as the first 20. We’ve seen the Internet’s social explosion, juice-sipping Intel Atom processors, netbooks, powerful sub-$500 desktop PCs, the iPhone, the rise of the consumer tablet computer, and — oh yeah — Macs are more like IBM PCs than ever, living their lives in an x86 world. PCs aren’t necessarily beige metal desktop boxes anymore (as they still were in 2001) — in fact, folks are more likely to buy a thin laptop computer in 2011.

My point, I guess, is that I’m glad the IBM PC is 30. It is probably time to move away from the paradigm set in motion by the Wintel duopoly in the 1980s, although we may never fully escape it on the desktop. That is not necessarily a bad thing, but it’s time to try some new ideas in personal computing. And we are. With non-x86, non-Windows tablets and smartphones as influential as they are now, the winds of computing seem to be blowing 180 degrees away from the Intel-Microsoft PC platform. It’s exciting to think where those winds will take us in the future.

[ Retro Scan of the Week ] Software Piracy

Monday, February 9th, 2009

Software Piracy - Byte - May 1981It’s the software Vikings!

Heh. And you thought digital piracy was a new problem. It’s actually as old as the PC software business itself. Some of the earliest evidence of this comes from a famous February 1976 open letter to the Homebrew Computer Club in which Bill Gates (then “General Partner” of a small company called Micro-Soft) protested the rampant “theft” of his company’s popular Altair BASIC.

Reflect on that date for a moment: February 1976 — less than a year after the Altair 8800 launched the personal computer revolution, people were already illegally copying Microsoft products with great abandon. (Some things never change.) Of course, selling pre-programmed software for personal computers was a new concept back then. And heck, personal computers were a new concept back then.

But as time passed and PCs grew in influence, the piracy problem didn’t go away. In fact, it continued as a hot-button topic throughout most of the 1980s. BYTE magazine devoted its May 1981 issue to the subject, commissioning its regular cover artist, Robert Tinney, to provide a visual hook for the monthly theme. Meditating on “software piracy,” Tinney concocted a potent and iconographic image of a fierce viking ship cutting through rough seas, its massive floppy disk sail standing at full mast. To this day, the image (seen above) remains Tinney’s most famous illustration from the BYTE years.

If his prints of this image hadn’t sold out long ago, I’d buy one in a heartbeat.

[ From BYTE, May 1981 ]

Discussion topic of the week: Do you pirate commercial software? Why or why not?

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