King Pong

Atari Fan Builds a Monument to an Era

In 1996, Vendel created his own site, a monument of sorts to his collection. He called it Atari Prototypes and Vaporwares. Clearly, he was aiming for a technophile crowd. ("Vaporware" is software a company touts in press releases, but hasn't actually yet created.)

The wealth of detail in his virtual museum is overwhelming. There's a video clip of Alan Alda pitching Atari's home computers. There's a section on the different color codings of the Atari 2600 products (red) and the Atari 5200 products (blue). And there are plenty of fun facts, like the name Bushnell and cofounder Ted Dabney first picked for their company, "Syzygy," a metaphysical term referring to the alignment of three celestial bodies. The duo subsequently discovered that the name had already been claimed— by a roofing company. They settled on Atari, a move in the Japanese game go.

Or there's the fact that Apple founders Stephen Jobs and Steve Wozniak got their start by designing Breakout, the Atari game where the player wielded a paddle and tried to break up a brick wall by bouncing a ball against it. The legend is that Jobs and Wozniak began developing the Apple I with spare parts from a Breakout game. Some even say Atari's trackball— essential when outflanking centipedes— was turned on its head by Apple. Hence the mouse.

Vendel has catalogued other tech innovations that sprang directly from Atari's myriad labs: video phones, the first commercial holograms, a "data glove" that was one of the first forays into virtual reality, handwriting- recognition software, and sneakers that could record a runner's mileage.

Much of this never saw daylight as company management kept shuffling after Bushnell sold Atari to Warner Communications in 1976. Twenty years later, after several incarnations, the company's remains were in the hands of a small disk-drive company, which sold the rights to what was left to Hasbro Interactive, Inc. last year. The price was a paltry $5 million. (Atari's "coin-operated" division, which manufactures arcade games, was spun off and still exists as a division of Midway Games.) "After Warner had sold, no one really cared about it," Vendel says. "The owners wanted to wipe the slate clean and forget about it."

During the musical chairs, Vendel began flying out to California to raid the company's trash bins with local Atari fanatics. The archaeological expeditions yielded a wealth of microchip schematics, prototype video games that never made it to market, confidential memos, even test-marketing reports on how focus groups responded to joysticks. He believes he took part in about 18 raids, and was only caught— and escorted from the premises— once. During one of these exploits, Vendel found his "Rosetta stones"— twenty-two cherry red engineering notebooks.

"These," he says, brandishing one in each hand, "are my bibles." The "bibles" list the names of engineers who worked on different projects. "I go through the engineering notes, and it tells me who worked on each individual project. Then I track them down," he says. "I even know the janitor who worked at Atari."

One of the former employees he's tracked down is Don Thomas, Atari's former director of customer service who runs his own Web site about Atari and other tech innovators, Icwhen.com. "You can't talk about Atari's history without talking about what Curt has done," says Thomas. "He's been successful in getting prototypes of things I didn't know existed. For people like me, he's extremely important, because he'll listen to me talk about my past, in a huge industry that's still going on today."

Former Atari engineer Jerry Jessop recalls first getting a call from Vendel in the late '80s, after he had left Atari and was working elsewhere. "He called me completely out of the blue," says Jessop. "He tracked me down through an Internet posting I made to an Atari newsgroup."

Jessop says Vendel's fervor was no different from many of Atari's fanatical devotees, but his ingenuity and tireless efforts set him apart. A decade later, Vendel still calls Jessop weekly, sleuthing for odds and ends, project details or tips about finding other former employees. "He's pretty harmless," says Jessop, "but the guy should be working for the FBI."

Gradually, Vendel sensed that his collected data had become more than just a potpourri of knickknacks, and Atari's demise only galvanized his sense of purpose. Around that time, he changed his Web site's name to the Atari Historical Society. Exeunt Prototypes and Vaporware. He was trying to move his work beyond the rarefied air of computer geeks. "I was trying to be more actively involved in the preservation of the company and its history," he says. "I wanted to shift to a broader, more noble purpose."

He puts away his "bibles," and surveys his small office. It's not easy sharing leg room with Ms. Pac-Man and the androbots. Someday, Vendel hopes to have enough space to take the Atari Historical Society beyond the confines of the virtual world. He dreams of buying a house in northern Jersey, or maybe upstate New York. "I've told my wife there's going to be two rooms, one for my personal video arcade," he says. "And I'm going to have a second room, a physical museum." His eyes are again wandering off into the future. The MOMA has a Mac on display. Why not an Atari museum?

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