(This is part one of the chronicle of my 2013 Retrochallenge Summer Event submission. Challenge #1 = Learn Italian using an Atari 400. Challenge #2 = Interface a Wii controller to an Apple IIe. The mediocrity starts here.)
Challenge #1: Learn Italian using one of the Atari 400/800 Language Series programs. The program consists of five cassettes (ten sides) and a 30-page workbook / manual.
The system requirements are minimal for the Atari systems:
- Atari 400 or 800 with at least 16K RAM
- Atari 410 cassette drive
- Atari BASIC
- Atari CX4125 Conversational Italian
I’ll be using the very 400 I purchased as a teenager in the fall of 1983. By chance I spotted it on a clearance shelf at the Osco drug store in the local mall for about $130. I had been saving up for a Tandy/Radio Shack Color Computer but was only half way there. The find allowed me to get a computer that day rather than wait any longer. I didn’t know it at the time but my 400 did not include the BASIC ROM – it was sold separately. When I finally got home to plug it into the television, I was supremely disappointed to find all I could do was type in the memo pad that runs by default.
The 410 is a recent Ebay purchase. I wanted to get a cassette drive and opted for the 410 over, say, the later mode, the 1010, since it would be a good aesthetic match for the 1970’s browns and golds of the 400. To this point, I have not used or tested it. The Conversational Italian will be its maiden voyage.
The “Conversational Italian” software package was ordered from Ebay solely for use in this Retrochallenge. By luck, it arrived exactly on July 1. The condition was somewhat dusty/dirty. I cleaned up the vinyl binder with a damp cloth and, must say, it is now looking quite spry.
The Atari cassette system is a sorely overlooked marvel. One nice feature is the motor could be computer-controlled. The BASIC CLOAD command could load an initial program into memory and when executed, that program could call CLOAD again and load additional code. Clever use of this feature would allow BASIC programs to be loaded and executed in stages, performing some work, then allowing a second or third program to overwrite no-longer needed command lines. This meant you could get more than 16K of functionality on a 16K computer.
The other nice feature (and as far as I know this is unique to the Atari) is that data is stored to tape using only one of the stereo channels, and, optionally, recorded audio could co-exist on the other channel. This allows the system to play audio through the television speaker while data is loading – or – it could just play audio.
When I was young, the extent of my use of these features was limited to playing Big Country’s “The Crossing” while typing in code from Antic magazine. I didn’t have access to any commercial cassette titles and never experienced the full extent of this feature.
Examples of Early Multimedia
Here are a couple examples I found on YouTube of recorded audio being intermingled with data – you’ll want to skip the initial CLOAD to save your sanity:
Atari Kingdom (Skip to 1:04)
Atari Invitation to Programming (Skip to 2:17)
Model CX4125 Conversational Italian
The Conversational Italian package should take advantage of both features described above (incremental load and execution; and playing recorded audio through the television). If you want to take a peek, here is a scan of my manual/workbook.