King Pong

Atari Fan Builds a Monument to an Era

Curt Vendel witnessed the final death rattle of Atari. It happened like this. Early last year, the 32-year-old Staten Islander got a call from a friend in California who told him the last remains of Atari, Inc., were about to be liquidated. Permanently. The news of Atari's demise was not a shock. The company hadn't been a force in the video game industry for several years, and the memory of the once billion-dollar video gaming empire that sharpened the hand-eye coordination of a generation had mostly faded to black.

But not for Vendel. As Atari's unofficial, guerrilla historian and the online impresario of the Atari Historical Society, he had spent 14 years chasing down former employees, scouting for artifacts, and Dumpster-diving behind the company's Sunnyvale, Califoria, headquarters. With the end at hand, he booked a flight west.

Two days later, he found himself standing at a warehouse in San Jose, on a dry California morning. He sneaked inside for a quick peek. All that was left was four or five dozen cardboard boxes, stacked in the lonely shadows of the mostly empty warehouse. Vendel opened a few of them. There were no game cartridges. No vintage copies of Asteroids. No Centipede. No obsolescent joysticks wrapped in wire. Just paperwork packed with legal details he could hardly understand.

"The company had dwindled down to a few dozen boxes of paperwork," recalls Vendel. "That was the final marker." For most people, Atari's demise was reason enough to forget the company. But not for Vendel.

"There are so many technology companies that are seeded with former Atari employees, and there are so many technologies themselves that were originally patented and brought out from this company," he says, explaining his mission. "I think it's important that everyone should know where all this has come from. What is it they say on the X-Files? 'The truth is out there.' "

Curt Vendel is a normal guy. Mostly. By day, he works as a computer engineering consultant for Manhattan investment banks. He has a wife. He has a dog named Gizmo. Then there's his other life. He estimates he spends about $15,000 a year on Atari, and when he starts talking about the company his dark brown eyes can wander a bit, as if fixed on a higher purpose. His calling— preserving Atari's history— might sound odd, or funny, or just a tad obsessive. Who cares about Atari anymore anyway?

Take a look on eBay. Enter "Atari" and you'll find 1411 items on the block, not far behind the 1533 for "Playstation." (Of course, Sony Playstation still actually exists.) There are too many Atari-related Web sites to count, and hobbyists' clubs from Edmonton to Australia. Vendel has positioned himself as something of a shepherd among true believers, and maybe even some of the uninitiated too. Visitors to his site, atari-history.com, generate between 500 and 1000 hits a day. And numbered among his fans is Atari founder Nolan Bushnell.

"For those of you who weren't there," Bushnell wrote in a letter recently published on Vendel's site, "this may be the closest you will get to experiencing 'Camelot.' "

Vendel's virtual version of Camelot started with a collection. He began building it in the early '80s, bartering and bantering with other Atari enthusiasts on a series of electronic bulletin boards the hobbyist community used to contact each other, before starting his own message board in 1986. His Atari arcana grew to the point that he had to rent three separate storage units. But he keeps his prized possessions at his home base.

The Atari Historical Society sits off I-278, about midway between the Verrazano and Goethals bridges. From his second-floor office in his condo, Vendel, a big guy, neatly dressed in a dark blue Old Navy pullover, jeans, and a Playstation baseball cap, can hear the buzzing cars from 278. Rows of cookie-cutter town houses are framed by a slip of window. But the most compelling sight is the Atari 5200 dealer display kiosk. The monitor is cued up to Ms. Pac-Man; the lemon-hued nymphet is smiling coquettishly, as always. The display gets your attention. It's seven feet tall. "My wife hates that," Vendel says.

Ms. Pac-Man is just the beginning. Vendel got his first taste of Atari growing up on Staten Island. A junior high buddy introduced him to Adventure, a primitive video variant of Dungeons & Dragons. He got hooked, and the following Christmas his parents bought him the Atari 2600, the faux-wood-grained gaming flagship that launched the entire industry. Now he's got Atari coffee mugs, an Atari belt buckle, faceplates from arcade versions of Asteroids and Defender. He's got a failed remote-control game system, with joysticks that work from 30 feet away. That was pretty cool, unless any of your neighbors happened to have one too.

And there are big-ticket items, like the "androbots," sad-eyed, clunky white droids that are about four feet tall and have octagonal heads. (Think C3PO, only shorter, paler, and less fleet of foot.) Androbots were built in the early '80s by another company funded by Nolan Bushnell, with help from Atari. They were supposed to teach kids basic programming skills, and apparently, they still do. Vendel has two, and recently fixed a third that belonged to a New England elementary school. (He's probably the last guy on the east coast who can hold forth on the variations between the "TOPO1" and "TOPO2" models.)

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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