A legend turns 30 - the Atari ST

In June 1985 - my year of birth - a legend came into the world of computing - the Atari ST.

Member of the 8-bit family

The ST, which which stands for 'Sixteen/Thirty-Two', is a reference towards the ST's CPU Motorola 68000 and its 16 bit external bus and 32 bit internals. Atari and the ST delivered something completely new to the consumer market: a affordable personal computer with a bitmapped GUI. Additionally to its innovative GUI, Digital Research's GEM run via Atari TOS, it offered that together with a powerful hardware and an outstandig price of 799.99 US$ for the Atari ST with a monochrome display and 999.99 US$ for the Atari ST with a color monitor.

Especially in Germany the Atari ST was extremely successful as a small business machine, serving as a CAD- or desktop publishing-station, as well as among professional and amateur musicians because of it's build in MIDI and the powerful music-sequencer software as a controller of musical instruments.



Motorola 68000 16-/32-Bit @ 8 MHz (16kB cache)


Low resolution: 320 × 200 (16 color), palette of 512 colors / Medium resolution: 640 × 200 (4 color), palette of 512 colors / High resolution: 640 × 400 (mono), monochrome


512 kilobytes (up to 1 MB)


Yamaha YM2149 Programmable Sound Generator


Single-sided 3½" floppy disk drive (360 kB)


TOS [^1] v1.00 with GEM [^2] WIMP [^3] GUI

Nowadays these specifications do not sound impressive but 30 years ago the specifications were enough to make this computer a serious competitor for the Apple Macintosh and the later released Commodore Amiga as well as the IBM AT/XT/PC.

Another remarkable fact is that Atari needed only less than a year from the first concepts to deliverance of devices to the shops and saved the Atari Corporation from brankruptcy.

The 520ST was followed by the 1040ST, the Mega ST (Mega 1, Mega 2 and Mega 4), the slightly enhanced STE version of 520, 1040 and Mega.

The end of a legend

Despite the huge success of the ST product line with ultimately selling more than 5 million units mostly in Europe it was never able to outsell the biggest competitor, the Commodore Amiga. When the non IBM compatible PC were losing ground to the IBM and IBM compatible PCs Atari eventually released a product line of IBM PC compatibles but were never able to gain a foothold in the IBM PC market. 3 years before the closure of the Atari Corporation the production of the ST product line ended in 1993.

Born into the Atari world

For me the ST product line by Atari Corporation has a very special meaning. The Atari Mega ST was the very first personal computer I was using. I wrote my first presentation on it. I remember sitting at it, writing about the white shark, as if it were only yesterday.

And I will never forget the fun we had playing our first computer games on it. We even used Amiga and Atari 2600/5200 emulators for some games like Missile Command.

Wanting a business simulation game I found one which caught my interest printed in the form of Basic source code in a TOS magazine. Typewriting its source code and compiling it for my Mega ST was additionally my very first contact with programming languages.

And because it was my dad's first personal computer which he used as a programmer to further finance his student life we had quite a big collection of many different programming languages available for the Atari Mega ST.

Sad I did not continue to program or at least typewrite source code. Nevertheless I made my first steps on a personal computer with this Mega ST which is why I have these special ties to Atari in general and the Mega ST in particular.

Myths about Atari

There is a myth going around which is linking Atari's closure with a video game which is referred to as the worst video game of all times at many places, it's E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial I am writing about.

There is a documentary available about this which is called Atari: Game Over. You can find it on Netflix and possibly at other services as well. When I watched that documentary it awakened some nostalgic emotions so be prepared for them, especially if you once played and worked with some of Atari's devices.

Additionally you will learn that it does not really deserve that title regarding the special circumstances under which it was developed. Howard Scott Warshaw, the designer and programmer of the video game, was given only 2 months for the complete development process.

Further reading


Published by

Pierre Böckmann

Born 1985 in Berlin, I am Software Developer, Blogger, Author, Open Source Enthusiast, openSUSE member and passionate openSUSE Leap user.