2013 Retrochallenge Summer Event, Retrochallenge

2013 Retrochallenge Summer Event – Post 03

(This is part three 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, Snag #2

Several nights ago, I ran the first side of tape number one of the Atari Conversational Italian program without any problems. I thought the interleaving of recorded audio with the program was pretty dang cool.

Then I made a big mistake. I hit the rewind button and since it seemed like it was going to take a bit, I stepped outside the room. When I returned I found the tape had fully rewound but the drive motor was still spinning away. I assumed it would automatically click off when it ran out of tape.

I didn’t think much of it until I tried loading lesson two a few days later. The take-up spindle would rotate about half a turn then stop, struggle, rotate, and stop. I could imagine the tape getting tangled under the door. Again, I disassembled the tape drive. It appears to be a problem on the side of the drive I couldn’t access due to the stubborn philips screw I mentioned in a previous post.

So using the best fitting screwdriver I could find, I ended up mangling and stripping the screw. Hmm. My friend suggested using a Dremel tool to fashion a flathead notch on the screw head. Sounded like a good idea, however, I was worried about tiny metal filaments flying everywhere, so I grabbed a large refrigerator magnet and positioned it to catch the debris.

The magnet worked well. But the notch I made ended up getting stripped, too. Using the last bit of metal left on the screwhead, I cut a much deeper channel, praying there would be enough material to hold everything together. Finally it moved and I was able to gain access to the opposite side where the take-up spindle resides.

Atari 410 Part
Philips-to-Flathead Conversion using Dremel

After some inspection and spinning the pulleys around, I discovered I had flat-spotted a rubber cylinder that transfers rotation from the large flywheel to the take-up spindle. I thought about applying some sort of rubber or glue to the flat-spot to add some roundness but it seemed risky.

Atari 410 Part
That little flat-spot may not seem like much but it has Tourette’s and a drinking problem.

My solution was to wedge something small under the flat-spot, between the plastic spool and the rubber, hoping it would increase the radius just at that location. The “something small” ended up being a lead from a resistor that I’ve been flicking and spinning like a propeller instead of letting it live its life as intended, converting current to heat and such.

Atari 410 Part
Resistor: “I just don’t think you understand me.”
Atari 410 Part
Don’t laugh. It worked.

Thankfully I was able to get everything back together with no broken parts. Tested and it’s working again. Well, rewind doesn’t but I can flip the cassette over and fast-forward instead. I’ll live with that. Whew. Back in business. But I’ve lost a lot of time.

2013 Retrochallenge Summer Event, Retrochallenge

2013 Retrochallenge Summer Event – Post 02

(This is part two 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, Snag #1

I loaded tape #1 into the cassette drive. The tape had been streamed to the end of side 1 by the previous owner so it needed to be rewound. I hit the “REWIND” button on the 410 tape drive and could hear a whirring noise within its bowels but no activity in the little plastic tape window. No spindle movement. This was supposed to be the easy challenge.

A quick search revealed the 410 is susceptible to belt failure. I dismantled the drive and found a very weak belt and the infamous 410 kink where the belt deformed around the very small drive wheel.


After searching forums and eBay, I decided to contact Best Electronics and glad I did. Not only did they have a set of replacement belts for the 410 in stock, they also had several 800XL parts I’d been wanting for some time. And they were able to get it to me in just a few days.

So, I’ve replaced just the main drive belt. The small counter belt seemed fine and I stripped a stubborn Philips screw trying reach the third belt. Thankfully, replacing the main drive belt was sufficient to get the 410 working again.

Back in business.

2013 Retrochallenge Summer Event, Retrochallenge

2013 Retrochallenge Summer Event – Post 01

(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.)

Atari-400-Setup The Setup

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.

Early Multimedia

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.

Link to PDF of manual
2013 Retrochallenge Summer Event, Retrochallenge

2013 Retrochallenge Summer Event – Initial Post

For my second Retrochallenge, I will be making the monumental mistake of undertaking two endeavors.

  1. Learn conversational Italian – using an Atari 400 computer, 410 cassette drive, and the Atari CX4125 software package. I will deem it a success if I can get the programs to run and complete the 5 cassette tape course.
  2. Interface a Nintendo Wii nunchuck controller to an Apple IIe via Arduino. It’ll be a success if I can control the helicopter in Dan Gorlin’s classic game Choplifter by raising, lowering, rotating, and tilting the controller.