This page is my attempt to assemble a complete history of Atari (collectively referring to Atari Inc., Atari Corp., and Atari Games) in one easy-to-find location. As far as I've been able to determine, this is the first time such a beast has ever been assembled; the Atari-related FAQs and sources I've seen have covered different portions of Atari, but none has provided a picture of the entire whole.
So here's my try at it.
This document is not -- cannot -- be a highly-detailed account of the lives and deaths of Atari. It is, instead, supposed to be a high-level view; only notable moments and notable people are mentioned here. Moreover, critical aspects in the Atari history are highlighted in bold text; these are areas that I feel have had the greatest impact for good or bad.
Of course, this is a growing document, and far from complete. Corrections, additions, and comments are definitely welcome -- send me mail!
1971 - Before Atari
- Nolan Bushnell sells Computer Space, a space combat game based on Steve Russell's 1962 game Spacewar, to Nutting Associates. 1,500 units are made, but Computer Space fails to sell.
1972 - The Founding of Atari
- (June 27) Nolan Bushnell and Ted Dabney start their own game company, Atari Incorporated. Atari (a term from the Japanese game Go) was chosen after the first choice, "Syzygy," wasn't available.
- Al Alcorn writes a video ping-pong game called Pong. Pong is playtested at a bar called Andy Capps; players love it so much that the coin box is jammed with quarters.
- (November) Atari sets up assembly facilities in a former roller skating rink, hires local hippies for labor, then begins manufacturing Pong for mass distribution.
- Pong is an unprecedented success. Eight to ten thousand units are made, more than three times the number of a typical pinball machine at the time.
- Ted Dabney panics about competition. Bushnell buys Dabney's half of Atari.
- (June) Bushnell forms Kee Games (named after and managed by friend Joe Keenan) to provide "competition" for Atari. The presence of two game companies allowed Bushnell to circumvent the existing distributor-exclusivity networks and sell more games as a result.
- Atari reaps $3.2 million in earnings for the year.
- Atari creates video games in rapid succession; a new game is made every six weeks just to cover expenses. Assembly-line employees, disgruntled at low pay, begin stealing game components and selling them to competitors.
- Kee Games, at the height of its success, releases Tank, invented by Steve Bristow. It becomes a major success, and the distributor-exclusivity networks are dissolved as dealers insist on getting it.
- Atari "merges" with Kee Games, and publishes Tank under its own label. Joe Keenan is made President of Atari.
- Al Alcorn creates Home Pong, a dedicated home console to play Pong.
- Nolan Bushnell demonstrates Home Pong at a toy industry show. It is Atari's first public display of a home console.
- Sears signs on as an exclusive distributor for Home Pong. Sears agrees to provide money, advertising, and distribution for the console, in return for exclusive rights.
- Home Pong is a major success, selling 150,000 units.
- Atari reaches $40 million in sales, $3 million in profits.
- Squeezed in arcades by larger pinball companies, Atari begins development of pinball machines.
- Atari buys Cyan Engineering, a local think-tank. It is renamed to Grass Valley and incorporated it into the Research & Development staff.
- In response to Fairchild's Channel F programmable home video-game console, Atari develops "Stella," a prototype console that accepts cartridges. Joe Decure, Ron Milner, and Steve Meyer are the creators, under the supervision of Jay Miner.
- Nolan Bushnell hires Steve Jobs to create Breakout. Jobs joins with Steve Wozniak and design the game in five days. Bushnell pays Jobs $5,000; Jobs pays $350 to Wozniak, and takes sole credit for Breakout.
- (October) Seeking funds to finish Stella for manufacturing, Nolan Bushnell sells Atari Inc. to Warner Communications for $28 million. Bushnell is named Chairman of the Board, and Joe Keenan remains as President.
1977 - The Arrival of the VCS
- Warner Communications invests $100 million in Atari Inc. to develop Stella.
- (October) Atari Inc. releases the Atari VCS (Video Computer System), with a suggested retail price of $200. It is initially released with nine games, which are home versions of Atari's popular arcade titles.
- (December) Hand-held electronic games cut into Christmas console sales. Atari Inc. survives with financial support from Warner Communications, but is deep in debt.
- Warner Communications hires Ray "The Czar" Kassar as president of Atari's consumer division. Bushnell and Warner disagree over the direction to take Atari Inc., especially on the topic of whether to form a home computer division.
- (October) Atari releases Football for the arcades, the first game to use a track-ball controller.
- (November) Bushnell arranges to be fired. Ray Kassar takes over as CEO of Atari Inc. Changes are immediate -- focus shifts from development to marketing and sales. R&D and overhead take deep cuts, discipline and security are strict. Stifling attitude angers many employees, who quit.
- Atari launches its home computer division. The home video-game console and home computer divisions are deliberately kept separate.
1979 - The Golden Age of Atari
- (January) Warner realizes that video games can be sold beyond the Christmas shopping season. Atari VCS games are released and promoted all year round.
- (January) Atari debuts the Atari 400 and Atari 800 home computers (code-named "Candy" and "Colleen," respectively) at the Winter CES.
- Atari quits the pinball business.
- Taito's Space Invaders arrives in America. Interest in video games skyrockets.
- Ray Kassar dismisses Atari's engineers as "high-strung prima donnas," angering the remaining staff.
- (August) Atari releases Lunar Lander, by Howard Delman, for the arcades. It is Atari's first game with vector graphics.
- (October) Atari releases the 400 and 800 line of home computers.
- (November) Atari releases Asteroids, by Lyle Rains, Ed Logg, and Howard Delman. It becomes a major hit, eventually reaching 70,000 units, and dethrones Space Invaders in arcades.
- Atari sells 400,000 VCS consoles. Gross income is marked at over $200 million, operating income at $19 million.
- (January) Atari releases Space Invaders for the Atari VCS, the first home license of an arcade game.
- Atari releases Adventure for the VCS, the first game to include a hidden "Easter Egg" credit for the programmer, Warren Robinett.
- (April 25) Activision is founded. Founded by four former Atari employees -- David Crane, Alan Miller, Bob Whitehead, and Larry Kaplan -- it becomes the first third-party video-game developer.
- Atari sues Activision, alleging its members with violating non-disclosure agreements.
- (November) Atari releases Battlezone, by Howard Delman, Roger Hector, and Ed Rotberg. It is the first arcade game from Atari to feature a first-person view. Atari eventually sells 75,000 units.
- Atari's gross income is marked at $415 million, operating income at $77 million. Atari forms one-third of Warner Communication's total annual income and becomes the fastest-growing company in the history of America.
- Atari releases Asteroids for the VCS, the first game to use "bank-switching" to double its ROM address space.
- Atari announces Cosmos, a holographic game system, and a streamlined, wireless version of the Atari VCS. Both products are never released.
- Atari releases Tempest for the arcades, the first game with color vector graphics.
- (October) To avoid a shortfall of games and increase profits, Atari asks distributors to commit to ordering games for all of 1982. Not wanting to be caught short, distributors place huge orders for next year.
- (November) Atari home computers are released with the GTIA graphics chip, enabling more colors and additional screen resolutions.
- Atari's annual sales are $35 million.
1982 - The Height of Hubris
- Atari licenses Pac-Man from Namco, and announces plans to release a version for the Atari VCS. Wall Street analysts predict $200 million in sales.
- Atari wins its lawsuit against Magnavox for its K.C. Munchkin video game, a copy of Pac-Man.
- Atari releases Pac-Man for the Atari VCS. Bad gameplay, bad graphics, and bad sound cripples Atari's credibility.
- Atari settles a lawsuit from Activision, and allows the development of third-party video games in return for royalties. Dozens of companies begin making games for the Atari VCS.
- Atari's upper management suffers severe turnover rates. Ray Kassar's autocratic management style is blamed. Kassar is not reprimanded.
- Atari releases E.T. for the Atari VCS. Confusing gameplay and bad design further disillusion the public. Game sales plummet; Atari's reputation is diminished further.
- Distributors are stuck with excess games due to their commitments from last year.
- Atari releases Earthworld for the Atari VCS, the first title in a planned four-part adventure series, along with an accompanying contest. The series is never completed.
- Atari releases the Atari 1200XL home computer. Incompatibility problems causes the public to rush out and buy Atari 400 and Atari 800 computers before they're discontinued.
- (December 7, 2:41 p.m. EST) Ray Kassar sells 5,000 shares of Warner stock, with a net worth of $250,000 and a profit of $81,000.
- (December 7, 3:04 p.m. EST) Warner Communications reports a 10% increase in earnings from the fourth quarter. Lower Atari sales -- due to unsold games and increased competition -- are blamed. Stock analysts, previously promised a 50% earnings increase, are enraged.
- (December 8) Warner's stock drops 33% in one day. Warner closes the quarter with profits down 56%. Dealers cancel orders en masse. Warner's stock drops another 7% the next day.
- (December 14) CEO Ray Kassar and vice-president Dennis Groth are investigated for insider trading. Wall Street investors shy away from Atari and Warner.
- Under pressure from the Mattel Intellivision and the Colecovision, Atari releases the Atari 5200 (and renames the Atari VCS to the Atari 2600). Though the 5200 is essentially an Atari 400 computer in a new case, inter-division rivalry causes the 5200 to be incompatible with the Atari 400 computer.
- Atari's annual sales reach $203 million, but profits are low. Rumors of a video-game crash begin to circulate.
1983 - ...And All Fall Down
- Sales of the Atari 5200 are lower than expected. Because it is incompatible with the Atari VCS, many consumers decide to buy the Mattel Intellivision or the Colecovision instead.
- (February) Atari announces My First Computer, a keyboard/computer attachment to the Atari 2600, along with peripherals and software. It is never released.
- (March) Atari announces plans for the formation of Ataritel, a division to develop integrated computer/phone/video systems. Atari lays off 600 employees and moves its manufacturing facilities to Hong Kong and Taiwan.
- (April) Atari closes its El Paso manufacturing plant. Fourteen trailer trucks filled with unsold games are dumped in an Alamorgordo, New Mexico landfill and buried in concrete. Atari claims the games were defective.
- Atari announces the formation of AtariSoft, a division to make games for competing video game and computer systems.
- (June) Warner reports second-quarter losses of $283.4 million, the worst quarter in the company's history.
- The market for Atari VCS games becomes oversaturated. New games are dumped on the market at unprofitable prices, which cut into the sales of other titles and prevented new games from being developed.
- (July 7) CEO Ray Kassar resigns over mounting allegations of illegal insider-trading activity.
- The Securities and Exchange Commission accuse Kassar of trading stock with illegal insider knowledge. Kassar settles, returning his profits without acknowledging guilt or innocence.
- (September 6) James Morgan is named CEO of Atari Inc.
- Atari replaces the 400/800/1200XL line of home computers with the 600XL and the 800XL.
- Atari posts losses of $536 million. Rumors of daily losses of up to $2 million are reported.
1984 - The Tramiel Transition
- Atari restructures again, and moves most operations overseas.
- CEO James Morgan announces that Atari will only announce new products that can be delivered in three months' time.
- (January) Commodore Computers fires president and founder Jack Tramiel.
- (May 21) Atari announces plans to release the Atari 7800, a game console for $140. Peripherals and games are also announced.
- (June) Rumors circulate that Warner Communications is looking to sell Atari Inc.
- (July) Atari announces the Mindlink, a "mind control" peripheral for the Atari VCS, and cancels the Atari 5200.
- (July) Jack Tramiel buys Atari Inc.'s home computer and home video game divisions. The new company is called Atari Corporation. The Tramiel family owns 51% of Atari Corp.'s stock; 25% is kept by Warner Communications, and the remaining 24% is open to the public. Atari Inc.'s arcade division is retained by Warner Communications and renamed Atari Games.
- Ataritel is sold to Mitsubishi and became Luma Telecom. A number of engineers from Atari continue to work with Luma. A number of Luma videophone prototypes were developed but never released.
- (July) Jack Tramiel fires over one thousand Atari Corp. employees, including CEO James Morgan. Jack Tramiel is elected as CEO of Atari Corp., and his son Sam Tramiel becomes president.
- Nintendo of Japan seriously considers selling its Famicom video game console in America. Nintendo floats the idea of having Atari sell Famicoms under the Atari label. Jack Tramiel rejects the offer, as it is not in line with his plans to remake Atari into a computer company. Nintendo eventually releases the Famicom as the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) in 1985 and quickly dominates the home videogame market.
- Atari Corp. tries to license the Amiga home computer system. Commodore Inc. intercedes with a better offer. Atari eventually licenses the GEM computer operating system from Digital Equipment Corporation instead.
- (November 13) Atari Corp. announces plans to produce inexpensive 8-bit computers, along with new 16- and 32-bit home computers to compete with the IBM PC and Apple Macintosh. The fates of the Atari VCS and 7800 are not mentioned.
- (April) For the first time ever, Atari Corp. skips the summer Consumer Electronics Show.
- Atari replaces the 600XL and 800XL home computers with the 65XE and the 130XE computers.
- Atari releases the Atari ST line of home computers.
- Financial difficulties forces Atari Corp. to lay off more employees. Remaining staffers take pay cuts up to 20%.
- (January) Atari Corp. displays the Atari VCS, 7800, and home computers at the winter Consumer Electronics Show.
- (June) Atari Corp. releases the Atari 7800 console, with three(!) games: Joust, Ms. Pac-Man, and Asteroids Deluxe. Three more titles were soon released, but later titles started to slip in release, prompting suspicion from critics.
- (January) Atari Corp. announces the XE Game System (XEGS), a home console version of the Atari 65XE computer.
- (June) Atari Corp. announces more games for the Atari VCS, most of which are re-releases of earlier games from third-party developers. Critics denounce the move.
- (October) Atari Corp. acquires Federated Electronics, a chain of retail electronics stores in California.
- (November) Atari Corp. releases the XE Game System. Critics attack the system for recycling games and hardware from five and six years ago.
- Atari announces combined VCS, 7800, and XEGS console sales of 1.5 million units.
- (June) Atari Corp. announces the signing of Nolan Bushnell to develop games for the Atari VCS, along with plans to release 45 titles for the company's three game consoles.
- (December 12) Atari Games/Tengen sues Nintendo over Nintendo's clauses for third-party game development. Tengen also announces the discovery of a way to create NES-compatable games that bypassed Nintendo's lock-out circuitry.
1989 - Portable Dreams
- Atari Corp. files a $250 million anti-monopoly lawsuit against Nintendo. The courts find in favor of Nintendo.
- (June) Atari Games/Tengen and Nintendo release NES versions of Tetris. Each company claims they have the rights to the title. The courts rule in Nintendo's favor, and Tengen is ordered to stop selling its version.
- (June) Atari Corp. announces the Portable Color Entertainment System, a hand-held color video game console for $149. The machine is later renamed as the Lynx, with a suggested retail price of $180.
- (October) Atari Corp. releases the Lynx. Delays and shortages cause it to be released in limited numbers in New York and Los Angeles.
- (November) Atari Corp. sells Federated Electronics.
- (December) Due to the shortage of Lynxes, Atari misses the Christmas shopping season. Nintendo's Gameboy dominates the portable video-game market.
- (March) Atari Corp. releases the Lynx nationwide, with five games. It is soon caught in a war between the Nintendo Gameboy and the NEC TurboExpress.
- (January) Atari Corp. announces a deal with Flight Video, allowing airline passengers to rent Lynx consoles for flights.
- (April) Atari Corp. reduces the price of the Lynx to $149, and begins to sell the Lynx for $99 in a "bare bones" package. Atari also announces plans to release a smaller, lighter Lynx. Rumors surface of an advanced 32-bit game console from Atari, code-named "Panther."
- (May) Atari Corp. confirms the existence of the Panther, but does not show it at the summer Consumer Electronics Show.
- (May) Atari Games/Tengen is ordered by a preliminary injunction to stop the sale of NES-compatable games.
- (June) Atari Corp. announces that work on the Panther has stopped, and that work proceeds on a 64-bit console called the "Jaguar."
- (July) Atari Corp. releases a smaller, lighter version of the Lynx.
- Atari Corp. announces that Lynx sales have doubled from the previous year.
- Mediagenic/Activision files for Chapter 11 bankruptcy.
- (February) Atari Corp. sues Nintendo for $160 million lost to monopolistic practices, citing Nintendo's 80% market share from 1986-1990 as evidence. The jury finds in favor of Nintendo.
- (December) Atari announces that the Jaguar, a 64-bit cartridge-based console, will be released in the summer of 1993 with a suggested retail price of $150.
1993 - Enter The Jaguar
- (August) Atari Corp. unveils the Jaguar to worldwide press coverage. Atari announces that 50,000 units would be sold in New York, San Francisco, Paris, and London in October, with worldwide release in 1994. Suggested retail price is $200.
- (October) Atari Corp. releases the Jaguar in limited distribution for $250. All available units are quickly bought, but critics question if Atari can support the console.
- Atari Corp. sues Sega for patent infringements.
- (April) Atari Games/Tengen and Nintendo settle various patent infringement lawsuits. Tengen is re-admitted as a Nintendo licensee.
- Warner Communications and Time Life Inc. merge to form Time-Warner. Atari Games is folded into the new Time-Warner Interactive.
- TWI announces plans to incorporate Atari Corp.'s Jaguar technology into its arcade games. The first "CoJag" game is eventually released as Area 51.
- Atari Corp. releases Tempest 2000 for the Jaguar. The game quickly becomes a best seller, and eventually reaches total sales of over 350,000 copies.
- Atari Corp. stops supporting the Lynx.
- (September) Atari Corp. announces plans to release a modem for the Jaguar. It is never released.
- (September 28) Atari Corp. and Sega settle their infringement lawsuit. Sega pays Atari Corp. $50 million for patent rights, and buys 4.5 million shares of Atari Corp.'s stock, valued at $40 million.
- (May) At the Electronics Entertainment Expo, Atari Corp. announces a joint venture with Virtuality and unveils the Jaguar VR headset. The only product of that venture ever released is Missile Command 3D.
- (June 26) Atari hires Ted Hoff. Rumors of powerful leadership and prompt decisions soon follow.
- (September) Atari Corp. releases the Jaguar CD-ROM player for $150.
- Time-Warner Interactive is sold to WMS (Midway).
- (June) Atari Corp. enters a "reverse merger" with JTS, a maker of computer disk drives. JTS acquires Atari's $50 million, and the Tramiels are able to liquidate their holdings in Atari (per SEC Rule 144). Atari Corp.'s operations are absorbed by JTS; Atari Corp. lives on for tax purposes, allowing for the licensing of game titles and patents. Most of the remaining Atari employees are released.
- (February 23) JTS Corporation sells all of its Atari assets to Hasbro Interactive for $5 million in cash.
- (May 14) Hasbro announces that they have released all rights to the Jaguar to the public; independent hobbyists and developers are thus able to develop Jaguar games and peripherals without fear of legal repercussions from Hasbro.
- (May 15) At the Electronic Entertainment Expo in Los Angeles, Hasbro officially relaunches Atari as their home video game label, a subdivision of Hasbro Interactive. Updated versions of classic Atari titles like Pong, Missile Command, Star Raiders, and other games for the Sony PlayStation and Nintendo 64 were announced.
- (December 6) Hasbro sells all of their Atari assets to the European video-game developer Infogrammes Entertainment for $95 million in stock and $5 million in cash. Infogrammes begins using the Atari name on their video game titles for the Sony Playstation, Nintendo Gamecube, and Microsoft XBox consoles.
In addition to the author's own notes and recollections, some of the information in this timeline came from the following sources:
"Videogame Myths: Fact or Fiction?", Next Generation #26
February 1997, Imagine Publishing Inc. Brisbane, CA, 94005
Phoneix: The Fall & Rise of Home Videogames
Leonard Herman, 1994, Rolenta Press. Union, NJ, 07083
Leonard Herman, 1995, Rolenta Press. Union, NJ, 07083
Zap! The Rise and Fall of Atari
Scott Cohen, 1984, McGraw-Hill Book Company. New York, NY, 10020