Why I Went Back To BASICs And Bought A 32 Year Old Computer

By Darren Smith, Weekend Contributor

atari-800I previously wrote how I fired my corporate pharmacy and went back to basics. In my retrospective longings I decided to “go retro” in many aspects of life.

Some buy old muscle cars, others collect stamps, but I decided to throw out this notion of six month obsolescence of smart phones and other must have contemporary social electronics and return to the renaissance of computer geekdom.  I bought a thirty two year old 8 bit, 6502 based computer–an Atari 800.

An elegant computer, for a more civilized age.

When I was around thirteen years old, I received one of the best Christmas gifts the early 80’s could produce, an actual home computer. My parents bought me a state of the art 16K Atari 800. I was overjoyed. Not only that but they also gave me a 410 tape drive and the BASIC Programming cartridge. I immediately set it up on my desk in my room, plugged the RF cable into a switchbox on my black and white television and went right to it. I couldn’t get enough and started writing programs with a friend of mine sometimes long into the night and weekends.

Indus GT
Indus GT

I became, however, tired of the dreadful amount of time it took to load and save programs to tape, especially since the time I spent five or six hours writing a game only to have a power glitch that trashed the program because I didn’t want to spend so much time writing to tape to back it up. So I worked all summer sorting cherries in a fruit shed to buy a top of the line floppy disk drive: an Indus-GT  Drive for around five hundred dollars.


Floppy disks were around five bucks a shot back then; which was a lot of money when you made just over three dollars an hour in the sheds. But we soon discovered that some disk makers sold single-sided floppies that you only needed to punch a hole around the edge to make it double-sided. Twice the storage for the same price!

I worked my way up to buying a six hundred baud direct connect external modem and BBS’ became my friend. This was especially important after the move War Games came out and “War Dialing” became the thing.

One aspect that I can say for certain, that old computer opened up many doors for me later in life as in years prior I worked on some amazing technology in some great venues.

Yet lately, I decided to once again go retro and back to BASICs.

For the past couple months I began piecing together this old goat and buying a component here and there but this week I finally had my Atari 800 once again. This time I bought a screamer having 48K of RAM. I even managed to find an 410 tape drive, a printer, an external modem, an Indus-GT drive and a C Programming kit (Lightspeed C). These are mid-life crisis purchases for geeks. They are however much cheaper and more benign than expensive sports cars and mistresses pathetically bought by other men. And, they won’t result in divorces. And “crashes” for the geek is, alas, always survivable.

It was amazing what I remembered and forgotten about this computer. When I first plugged in the system and fired it up, the bizarre I/O sounds pumping through the TV speaker during boot-up was certainly nostalgic, as well as the fact that the printer actually had a typewriter style ribbon that somehow managed to eek out a little ink during a test run. Remember when printers actually had real metal parts? This was a beast compared to today’s. And it was slow…sooooo slow!

There is a cottage industry of folks who keep this Atari 8 bit tradition alive and I am going to delve deeply back to my new hobby. I bought a game I really liked on eBay. After over thirty years the 51/4 floppy still worked. It’s true: an elephant “Never ForgetsTM“.


By Darren Smith

Photo Credit: Bilby

The views expressed in this posting are the author’s alone and not those of the blog, the host, or other weekend bloggers. As an open forum, weekend bloggers post independently without pre-approval or review. Content and any displays or art are solely their decision and responsibility.

30 thoughts on “Why I Went Back To BASICs And Bought A 32 Year Old Computer”

  1. Tyger – I’ve been around the block a few times.

    Now its data centers containing technology infrastructure supporting 15 mainframes processing 52,000MIPS, 2300 midrange computers,
    10,200 servers, 8 petabytes of stored data, 260,000PC’s, 550,000 customer systems, 15,000 wireless access points, and 3200 networked sites.

    The Internet connection is an OC-12. LAN connections use to be 1gig speed by copper. Now its 10gig speed by fiber.

  2. Karen, oops I forgot to answer your question about how to read those disks. You can buy a USB floppy drive and use that to read most of those 3.5 inch floppies. If you search for USB floppy drive on Amazon or similar site you will find them quite easily and they are not expensive.

  3. Karen,
    Those 3.5 inch disks were still called floppy disks. The hard plastic case contained a flexible disk just like the larger floppies. Sony invented that format, and the Macintosh popularized it. They held only 400K at first on the Mac. Later they held 1.44MB on PCs. Some formats held even more data but they never became widespread.

  4. What a great article. I especially enjoyed the reminiscence about working hard to save up the money to buy floppy disks.

    Does anyone recall the next media after floppy disks? They were square plastic covering an internal small disc, and I believe they were around 4″. I have some old ones in a box, and I would like to be able to read them, but I don’t even remember what they were called so I can try to find some converter that will work on modern computers.

    1. Karen – you can get a portable drive for those 4 inch disks. Problem is they only read on older OS computers.

  5. We certainly wouldn’t want to use old 8-bit computers to browse the web, or listen to music, or run a company. But, there are things we can learn from these old machines. Simplicity, transparency, economy, etc. These machines had so little memory that the programmer needed to be clever and so applications needed to be kept simple. Nowadays computers are too complicated for people to understand and this in spite of the invention of the Mac style GUI which is supposed to make them easy to use. We don’t need to go back to 8-bit computing, but we could do a lot better than what passes for personal computing today. There are people all over the world trying to figure all this out, but market forces will probably cause all this wonderful research to come to nothing.

  6. Some buy old muscle cars,

    Darren, this is us. With the exception of my vehicle which is already 12 years old, all of our trucks and vehicles are old. The oldest being a 1962 IH Travelall (in which we have installed a 429 motor and upgraded the transmission)…the newest are 1982 GMC pickup truck and service body truck.

    People ask why we don’t buy a new car/truck.

    1. New cars are cheap plastic crud that breaks and are overly computerized which costs a fortune when repairs are needed.
    2. We can work on our cars and buy parts inexpensively.
    3. We can upgrade the cars interior and bring them up to modern standards if we feel like it and we have done so on a couple with power windows etc.
    4. We can customize and “hot rod” the vehicles as we have done with the 62 Travelall all by lowering the profile, changing the tire/wheels combo, engine, suspension, paint etc.
    5. The cost to insure and register ALL of our vehicles and trailers for an entire year is less than it would be to make two monthly payments plus insurance on a new GMC 3500 with a Duramax and Allison automatic.
    6. Our vehicles are all paid for and are appreciating in value each year.

    plus….. bonus……we look cool as heck, get all sorts of comments and get to go to auto shows where there is usually good bbq

  7. Great memories for me too. I recall the first computer I got on my own was a Commodore 64. We were amazed at the huge advancement.

    @ Jill. I forgot about peeks and pokes.

    Before that it was some sort of computer that my father and brother cobbled together from various parts….I know nothing about that stuff. Zork was the first computer game I really enjoyed playing. Learning to code and LOL….how time flies and now we carry computers with more memory and power in our pockets. We would go nuts if we had to go back to a 28 baud dial up modem and deal with such slow speeds. We are spoiled.

    But….I went really retro……just bought some more ribbons for the Royal Telstar portable typewriter that I bought last year. This way when the Zombie Apocalypse happens I can still “type”. When I bought it my 12 year old nephew was fascinated. He had never seen a typewriter!!! and asked if he could touch it.


  8. Harry, was the “lunchbox” a KayPro? I had one and it was referred to as “Darth Vader’s lunchbox.”

    As a web programmer, I’m always looking for the latest and greatest code or plug-in to speed up my sites. I can’t imagine having to put up with the slow speeds of an Atari or a Comodore or something like them. But I understand having a hobby of buying and restoring an old computer system that way. How different is that from fly fishing, or coin collecting, or breeding rare fish in an aquarium? Whatever you get pleasure from that improves your life in some way is great. Personal joys like hobbies should be impervious to any sort of criticism. When performed in moderation, or even when taken to the level of mild obsession, they can be benificial in many ways. Nice to hear you’re getting such fun out of it.

    1. Tyger – think of storing all your programs on cassette tapes. And then waiting for ten minutes or so for your program to load. If something went wrong, you loaded it again. Patience was the name of the game. 🙂

  9. We bought a Comodore 64 in the early 80s. 64K of memory and you could do “peeks and pokes” as well as basic if you knew how. I believe it had a floppy drive built in. Although we kept it in a room where the family could access it, I knew we had made a good decision when we came home and found our 15-year old son studying his dad’s old college algebra book just so he could learn to program it.

  10. I’ve been buying Apple computers since 91. They generally last ten years. Recently an I Mac purchased four years ago is starting to fail. I am wondering if Apple is turning to planned obsolescence. Any other stories out there.

    1. visitor – I remember my first TRS-80 (trash 80) with 4k of memory and how excited I was. My wife did not see me for a week while I learned to code. 🙂

  11. Karl Friedrich – This thread is about computers, not JT or Lenny Peltier. Peace be unto you, now beat it.

    I was shopping for a computer in 1980’s. It came down to a lunch box or the Grid laptop.
    Went for the lunch box computer @ $3500. But the Grid was in back of my mind.


  12. Wow! This blog has really sunk into oblivion after I predicted to all the liberal stalwarts here that there was no way in hell that the honorable professor Turley would be voting for Obama in 2012 after all his anti-constitutional executive measures that made the Bush administration look measured by comparison.

    My prediction came true, Turley more or less admitted to all his faithful that he could not in good conscience vote again (as he did in 2008) for Obama, that he was basically going to obstain for the Presidential elections in 2012, and now we’re left with weekend contributors who are so naive that they unquestionably adopt the government line in the Leonard Peltier case, something Turley would never do out of sheer principle.

    Freakin’ sad & freakin’ pathetic is what this site’s turned into.

    Res Ipsa Loquitor

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