Author Archive | Benj Edwards

Atari Oddities

Atari OdditiesForty years ago this June, Nolan Bushnell and Ted Dabney founded Atari, Inc. in California. And with it, they founded the video game industry as we know it today. Since then, the name Atari has become synonymous with the golden age of video games and a sense of Generation X nostalgia that will never fade.

If you’re reading this, I suspect you know the Atari 2600, 5200, and 7800 consoles. You’ve played the hit arcade video games, and you may have even used an Atari 8-bit or ST computer. But the story of Atari is filled with many unseen and little known oddities. Here are 13 examples of weird Atari products and strange Atari marketing you can use as trivia at your next 1970s or 80s theme party. When they ask, “How’d you know that?”, just tell them Benj Edwards sent you.


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Why History Needs Software Piracy

Amid the debate surrounding controversial anti-piracy legislation such as SOPA and PIPA, our public discourse on piracy tends to focus on the present or the near future. When jobs and revenues are potentially at stake, we become understandably concerned about who is (or isn’t) harmed by piracy today.

I’m here to offer a different perspective, at least when it comes to software piracy. While the unauthorized duplication of software no doubt causes some financial losses in the short term, the picture looks a bit different if you take a step back. When viewed in a historical context, the benefits of software piracy far outweigh its short-term costs. If you care about the history of technology, in fact, you should be thankful that people copy software without permission.

It may seem counterintuitive, but piracy has actually saved more software than it has destroyed. Already, pirates have spared tens of thousands of programs from extinction, proving themselves the unintentional stewards of our digital culture.

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Computer Space and the Dawn of the Arcade Video Game

Forty years ago, Nutting Associates released the world’s first mass-produced and commercially sold video game, Computer Space. It was the brainchild of Nolan Bushnell, a charismatic engineer with a creative vision matched only by his skill at self-promotion. With the help of his business partner Ted Dabney and the staff of Nutting Associates, Bushnell pushed the game from nothing into reality only two short years after conceiving the idea.

Computer Space pitted a player-controlled rocket ship against two machine-controlled flying saucers in a space simulation set before a two-dimensional star field. The player controlled the rocket with four buttons: one for fire, which shoots a missile from the front of the rocket ship; two directional rotation buttons (to rotate the ship orientation clockwise or counterclockwise); and one for thrust, which propelled the ship in whichever direction it happened to be pointing. Think of Asteroids without the asteroids, and you should get the picture.

During play, two saucers would appear on the screen and shoot at the player while flying in a zig-zag formation. The player’s goal was to dodge the saucer fire and shoot the saucers.

Considering a game of this complexity playing out on a TV set, you might think that it was created as a sophisticated piece of software running on a computer. You’d think it, but you’d be wrong–and Bushnell wouldn’t blame you for the mistake. How he and Dabney managed to pull it off is a story of audacity, tenacity, and sheer force-of-will worthy of tech legend. This is how it happened.

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4004!

4-bit. 2300 transistors. 740 kHz.

On November 15th, 1971–forty years ago this Tuesday–Intel publicly unveiled the world’s first single-chip microprocessor, the 4004. It was a modest start to what would become a grand silicon empire led by Intel. So modest, in fact, that many would quickly forget the 4004 as Intel churned out more powerful chips throughout the rest of the 1970s–the predecessors of the ones inside every current Windows PC and Mac.

Few commercial products used the 4004. Let’s rediscover seven of them, and learn about the chip’s history along the way.


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iPod Oddities

Ten years ago today, Apple unleashed a potent musical force upon the world. I speak of the iPod, that tiny white box of a thousand songs that captivated the world for years after its introduction.

In honor of this anniversary, I decided to look back weird accessories, strange artistic tributes, and other odd sidelights of the world’s most iconic digital music player. So put in your earbuds and zone out from civilized society — it’s time for iPod Oddities.


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IBM PC Oddities

Thirty years ago this Friday, IBM announced its very first Personal Computer, the 5150. The tech press, in a rare unified act of prescience, immediately recognized a new computing standard taking shape before its eyes.

For three decades, the platform created by the IBM PC has served as the bedrock for computing progress and innovation. Most of us use still PCs that retain some compatibility with the first PC. That’s amazing.

The true tale of the IBM PC is too complex to convey with a mere historical narrative. You need to see the hidden world of back-alleys, dead-ends, and detours that is…IBM PC Oddities.


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Donkey Kong Oddities

Thirty years ago this month, Nintendo released Donkey Kong to arcades across the United States. The game’s American version went on to sell tens of thousands of units, saving the then-struggling US branch of the company and paving the way for Nintendo’s future success on Western shores.

Without Donkey Kong, we would have no Mario, and without Mario, it’s hard to imagine what Nintendo would look like today. That makes Donkey Kong, above all others, the most pivotally important video game Nintendo has ever released.

So it’s time to celebrate–which I did by rounding up a bunch of weird, odd, and interesting stuff about this beloved game.


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Sonic the Hedgehog Oddities

Twenty years ago, Sega took a bold gamble in its bid to unseat Nintendo as king of the console realm. The company released Sonic the Hedgehog for the Sega Genesis on June 23rd, 1991, unleashing the company’s speedy mascot onto the world for the first time.

The iconic spiny mammal saved Sega’s console in its hour of need and spawned a massive franchise that spans dozens of releases for every Sega console (and plenty of non-Sega platforms since 1998). And whether we like it or not, Sonic started a trend of animal game characters with ‘tudes that continues to this day.

To celebrate the anniversary, I dove headfirst the annals of Sonic lore to pull out oddities for your entertainment.


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John Linnell of They Might Be Giants: A Technologizer Tech Interview

Few musical acts have the power to excite tech enthusiasts like They Might Be Giants. The band’s attention to detail, appreciation for humor, and perennial refusal to follow the status quo strongly resonate with nerd-folk (think: engineers, programmers) who rely on minutiae and unconventional thinking to do their jobs.

Their unique approach has earned the band two Grammy awards (and three nominations) in the last 10 years for work with Malcolm in the Middle and a string of well-received children’s albums. Of course, with 15 studio albums under their belt, they aren’t exclusively an act for kids. While perhaps best known in the adult world for the 1990 album Flood, it’s impossible to choose a single TMBG record that represents such a large and diverse body of work.

At the core of TMBG is a 29-year partnership between two good friends: John Linnell, 52, and John Flansburgh, 51, who function like two halves of the same brain. Flansburgh delivers culturally-reflective philosophical works in broad strokes, while Linnell often sings through the character of an insecure, paranoid introvert that explores subjects in elaborate detail.

TMBG are known for their eager adoption of technology in creating and marketing their music. The group first relied on an electronic drum machine before adopting a full live band, then adopted computer sequencing in production work. In the mid-1990s, TMBG quickly set up a strong presence on the nascent Web, and they crowned that era by releasing the first full-length MP3-only album in 1999. To this day, they continue their high-tech track record by embracing online distribution, email newsletters, and podcasting as a way to reach out to fans in the post-label era.

As a student of computer and video game history, I often interview people who helped to make the information technology industry what it is today. But I think it’s also important from a historical perspective to explore the impact of technology on the rest of the world. That’s why I asked John Linnell to recall his earliest experiences with such machines and to reflect on how computers have impacted his profession.

In early May of this year, Linnell and I spoke at length over the phone about these subjects while also touching on his fruitful partnership with Flansburgh and how it has ensured the continued success of their band.

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The Secret World of Alternative Operating Systems

When it comes to desktop operating systems, there are three obvious choices: Windows, Mac OS X, and Linux. But a whole world of alternative OSes lies below the mainstream radar.

These little-known products are actively or recently developed, and some folks actually use them to get things done. Here are twelve of these strange beasts, all of which run on modern x86-based PC hardware, and many of which can be downloaded for free. Impressively, none of them are based on Linux.


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