First-Hand:My Development as an Engineer in the Years Before Atari


Contributed by: Allan Alcorn

The pre-university years

I grew up in San Francisco, and I was always interested, like lot of kids, in taking things apart and not always putting them back together correctly. I really liked that. And for some reason I always liked electronics so I was always building things. There was an advanced program in San Francisco schools to teach electronics called Lux Labs. So while in junior high school, I went over, tried to get in, but couldn't because it was too crowded. So I felt kind of sad about that.

My father, who was a merchant marine, signed me up for an RCA home correspondence course in radio and television repair. I was the youngest person ever to graduate from that course. Then, ironically, where I grew up, right near Haight-Ashbury before all those colorful times, my neighbor across the street owned a TV repair shop. While attending junior high school I would hang out at his TV repair shop. I learned the craft of repairing radios and televisions from that correspondence course, and then on the job at this TV repair shop. I was so young. It was all vacuum tubes. The old tube caddies were heavy. I could just barely pick them up. But I was big for my age and I'd actually go out make extra money fixing televisions.

In the shop, which was on Haight Street, S&M TV Repair--the old repairmen would get drunk in the afternoon and I would be the only sober person around. So I really ran the shop while they were in the back playing craps. So I learned a lot about repairing TVs. it was a great hands-on experience in vacuum tubes. I feel sorry for TV repairmen today. Back then vacuum tubes were always burning out and there was always work to be done; always something that could be fixed. Now things just run forever and when they blow up, you just replace a whole module. There's no real troubleshooting that has to go on. I remember well the old tube testers. In fact, I repaired them and we had a great one at the TV repair shop. This old Hickcock tube tester that had all these knobs on it. It was really a great one. Oh, I loved that. When I was in college, I wound up paying my way through Cal fixing televisions at a TV repair shop just off the campus, so it was a great skill.

I was in junior high school when I got hold of my first transistor, a 2N107. I was always fascinated by how things worked. I knew from an early age that I wanted to be an electrical engineer. I did not know what they did, but I wanted to be one.

Growing up at that age, in the Haight-Ashbury, the district high school for me would have been Polytechnic, which had the Lux Lab. However, it was the worst school in the city. My brother went there; I didn't want to go there. The only other choice I had in those days was Lowell High, which was a city-wide high school but it was college prep. It was fabulous. I also got on the high school football team, which also is very important to my story. I got a great education from Lowell. It was one of the best college prep high schools in the country--public or private and still is. But the football team was also great. I wound up being quite a good football player at the time. We actually played against O.J. Simpson and his high school team and beat them.

I was selected as an all-city football player in my senior year, and that's what got me into Cal Berkeley. I was kind of an underachiever, a B-, C+ student and I didn't have the grades. But there was one college counselor at the high school who helped me. He wanted me to go to Cal because he thought the football team would be better if I was there. He discovered another way into Cal for me. If I scored well on the SAT and scored well on achievement tests like physics and math, I would be accepted. He thought that I should take those tests. I did great on the tests and I got into UC. They wanted me to go to the Santa Cruz campus. But the football coach got me onto the Berkley campus, and so then I was set.

I played for one week on the freshman team, but I couldn't handle it. The intensity of college football was so high. I remember they had double practice at the end of summer, and I would lose ten pounds of weight every day and had to regain that by just drinking copious amounts of water while I was trying to figure out Calculus 101 and Chem 1A. I really admire a student that can do that, but I just couldn't do it. I never regretted my decision to quit the team. I don't know that I wouldn’t have been that good a football player. Engineering on the other hand was very, very good to me.

It wasn’t that common at the time being a “techie nerd” and playing football. That was the dichotomy at the time. I remember, my high school physics teacher, Mr. Koening, who was one of the great teachers of all my life, a mentor. He also ran the photographic club that had the darkroom and everything. He would take pictures of the football team. For the three years while I was on the football team, he was taking my picture. I remember when I made all-city football in my senior year, I went to him and said, “Hey, Mr. Koening, I made all-city football”. He replied, “You're on the football team?” He had no idea that I was on the team. I had always been wearing a helmet when he took my picture. He never knew it was me.

I was the first in my family to go into engineering. But my father, who was a merchant marine (chief mate), loved math and figuring out how to do navigation with the sextant and all that, but I was clearly out on the edge in terms of my love for technology and in college. And I was probably the first one in my family to even go to college. At the time my parents were divorced, but my father was very supportive my going to university. He paid my first year at Cal. Then he had a heart attack and couldn't pay anymore, and I couldn't get a student loan because of the rules of student loans, but I got this job fixing TVs at a TV repair shop, which was a piece of cake. So I could say that I worked my way through school. I made good money. I could come and go to the shop when I wanted, and I was the inside man. Here I am, a nineteen-year old college sophomore, and I was an inside TV repairman. I had something like ten years of experience fixing TVs. The inside guy had to be the guy that could fix anything, had a lot of experience and didn't have to go to the customer's home, which I didn't want to do. I could stay in the shop, but I had to be able to fix anything that came in. I couldn’t say, “I give up.” That required a lot of skill and I had that skill. So it was fortunate that I was able to work my way through school.

TV repair work taught me a lot. I learned the hard way that repairing something and designing something are different skills. Because of my economic situation I thought I'd try the work-study program, which, at Cal, wasn't featured at all. There were like fifty students in this work-study program where you worked in a real company, in your field of expertise, for two quarters, and you'd go to school for two quarters. And I got hired at Ampex VideoFile, where I learned the art of engineering. When I went back to college, I got my old TV repair job back, but now when I was faced with looking at this schematic I would say to myself, “Oh, I could do a better job than that.” But then I would think, “Wait a second, I'm not here to make a better amplifier; I'm simply here to fix what's wrong with it.” And it really was a dichotomy that showed up. I carried these early valuable lessons in design and repair into my subsequent understanding of design as it related to maintenance and manufacturability. The ability to repair and maintain devices was certainly important, but also the intimate knowledge of how things really worked in the field, especially with old TVs--vacuum tube TVs which was our first platform with Atari.

My university education at UC Berkeley

I was in the Electrical Engineering and Computer Science Department. I decided, for some reason, when I was young that I wanted to be an analog engineer--not a digital engineer. I considered digital engineering just ones and zeros, and that there was no art there. But there was art in designing broadband or narrow band amplifiers, tuned circuits, oscillators and amplifiers. I thought that analog circuits were more interesting. Berkeley required students to learn some computer programming so I took E1. All engineering students had to take this basic Fortran programming course where you wrote your program on punched cards and submitted the job for batch processing. And they also taught us more digital electronics than I thought I needed but it was very useful later.

So I learned digital logic, but I really wanted to focus on analog. And when I went to work at Ampex, indeed I was working on a high resolution video camera--very high resolution Vidicon camera.  And they had all the kinds of circuits in there that I loved--automatic gain control circuits, video amps and I learned the art there.

One time when I came back from my six months of work-study, now having done some of the art of engineering, I had to make a one-transistor amplifier, resistance coupled amplifier, as part of a lab course. An engineer, even at the lowest level, should have been able to do it in a couple of hours. But at Cal the lab course took a whole quarter to do this, and you had to use the hybrid pi model and all the rigor. And still wound up with a shitty amplifier, but it was well documented.

There was another guy in the class who was in a similar track. I forget his name but he also did work-study at Ampex also. He and I just whipped out the thing and on the first day. The TA said that this was completely wrong, because we didn't do the theoretical basis for how it worked.  So we did all that crap afterwards. I think it was a very hostile environment. He was going to flunk us, but we managed to negotiate a C out of that class.

I recommend to anybody going to school, to college, to do a work-study program. The money was a myth because I pissed it away when I made the money--but the real benefit of work-study was knowing why I needed to learn the fundamentals. . .what an engineer really did. So when I came back, there were classes that I took with enthusiasm because I wanted to learn how to make a tuned amplifier, how to do resonant circuits. I wanted to get that information. So I was very, very eager to learn that.

Now, one of the problems was the great program Spice--circuit simulation program--was invented at Berkeley when I was there. And that was a weakness because the professor was more interested in getting this program perfected than actually teaching the old fashioned way. I was kind of angry because I didn't get the basic tools I needed. We wound up helping the professor perfect their program to do this automatically.

I pursued my love analog circuits in my studies. There was one course in my senior year when really got into that stuff. It was very hard. It was half grad students and half seniors, and the average score on the people taking this class was like in the 70s, and I was in the 90s. I mean, I just loved that class. I remember one time he did a circuit explaining an amplifier with an operational amp, and I said, “But that won't actually have that performance because it will be slew rate limited.” The professor’s response was, “Well, we don't talk about slew rate limiting in this class; it's the next class that you can get.” I said, “But guys graduating will never know why it doesn’t work.

I had no interest in going to graduate school. I wasn't much for the academic. Academia involved keep up, publishing, or geting out of here because there's five guys that want your spot. And Berkeley, frankly, was a factory. It's not a nurturing environment. I had had enough of all that pressure. I wanted to get out and I really loved engineering.

This was the 60s at Berkeley. Reading, writing and revolution were going on. There were a lot of distractions. We had a closed campus for a while. But you had to do the academic work and then we were doing political stuff on the side. The engineering department at Cal was the most organized. The PolySci department couldn't act to do anything because they each had their own view. Engineers learn the art of compromise, and so we actually had the only meeting of the engineering class I ever knew…because they didn't ever meet as a group, per se; you were in this department school, but so what? And we passed the hat, got money, and were written up in the Daily Cal as the most organized.

And one of the things we did was informational picketing at the defense contractors on the peninsula like Lockheed. It wasn't called Silicon Valley then. Somewhere, I've still got a picture of me in the Berkley Daily Gazette on the front page getting a haircut. If we went down to Sunnyvale and picketed Lockheed with long hair, looking like hippies or Berkeley people, we wouldn't get respect. So we decided we were going to dress up in a coat and tie, get a haircut, look presentable, and do informational picketing. Unfortunately it was a union barbershop giving out a free haircut on a Monday. It was shut down shortly after I got my free haircut, but I got my picture on the front page.

I remember a professor at an engineering class saying, this is right after the word had come out that we have invaded Cambodia and had actually dropped bombs on Cambodia, “Look, if bombs were dropping outside our window right now, we wouldn't be holding this class; we know that. But they're not. However, we, as a country, have invaded legally another country…Cambodia, an act of war. And can we idly sit by. There was a discussion in the class.

There were about fifty students in the class. There were some Chinese students from Taiwan--and they were very anti-Communist and doctrinaire on the war. But also they also knew that they would have visa problems if the classes were canceled. So they argued for the war, but they were a minority. And so we agreed that we would not hold regular classes, but we still had to do the work. So we handed out assignments, and it was actually harder, but we thought it was important.

Because of my fixing TVs off campus, I was working at a TV repair shop on Telegraph Avenue when the Berkeley people's park riots started. I was in there working away. Oh, there was nobody walking outside. It was a no-man's land. The tear gas was flying, and I'm in the shop with the owner's wife. And we got up high in the shop to avoid the tear gas. I went home once it cleared, got my camera and took some pictures. I actually witnessed a horrible shooting. I was the State’s witness on the shooting. Alameda County Sheriff deputies were very brutal, and there was one guy shooting live buckshot at people. He killed one person, blinded another, and shot one guy in the gut right in front of me. I was a witness for the, for the U.S. government suit against that deputy.

My father, a merchant marine, was actually shipping napalm to Vietnam. One time I dropped him off at Port Chicago. I saw them loading napalm on the ship with these forklifts covered in plastic. There certainly were no sparks there. One day during the trial, my father gets home and he takes me out to a great San Francisco bar/restaurant, we had our abalone and whatnot, and then he asked me “Son, are you testifying against an Alameda County sheriff's deputy?” I said, “Yeah. He then asked, “Well, whose side are you on." I replied, “Well, Pop, the U.S. government.” He said, “What do you mean." I then explained, “Well, it's a federal civil rights trial about violating civil liberties using police authority, a police officer using a shotgun, so I'm actually testifying for the U.S. government.” He said, “Oh, that's OK, have another drink.” So we actually got along well, and we talked about it. Surprisingly, it wasn't tense. He believed in what he was doing. And, you know, he fought in World War II. So there was this culture gap, but it was never really animosity. He just thought I was perhaps misguided and I thought he was misguided, but we got along.

Amidst all the political turmoil, I barely managed to graduate. I took a “breadth” course in classics because it was a pass/not-pass course. I was aiming right for a D. But they changed the requirements mid-course, mid-semester. No you needed a C or better to pass. And I couldn't recover so I flunked. Now I was one unit short of graduating and I so took a business course at UC Irvine when I was working in Southern California. That course wasn't being taught at Berkeley. At that time they didn't allow any management courses. Business courses didn't count. Industrial relations didn't count. Engineers were not going to be entrepreneurs or businessmen. I had to kind of blackmail the dean to allow the credit. The Dean didn't judge whether it was to be allowed or not until just before the finals, and he said, “No.”I said, “That's nonsense: I've wasted all my time and money. So he gave me one unit if I passed that course. So I graduated with the one unit in 1971 - none to spare.

Working at Ampex

The economy was up and down. Ampex couldn't hire me back. They were having a bad time. I managed to get a job, through the help of my old boss at Ampex, with a company called PTI, Peripheral Technology, Inc. When Pertec purchased PT I, the operation was moved to Orange County. I was the lowest guy on the totem pole to actually get to move, and so I worked down there until '71. That's when I took my course at UC Irvine. My work at PTI focused on digital stuff. There was an engineer there whose name escapes me, he was excellent. He taught me a lot of tricks of the trade that I didn't learn in school. So I got pretty adept at doing digital logic and circuits.

And then I got a job back at Ampex. One of the things they had me do was work on a high resolution Vidicon camera; a 15 hertz frame rate with about a thousand scan lines. Ampex had a Division called VideoFile. The idea was to store documents on 2-inch wide analog video tape using computer tape drive. A mini-computer was to control a farm of tape drives and find documents. The document was videotaped. The system thus had very low noise and high resolution. Southern Pacific Railroad had their freight waybills on it. An insurance company bought one. But we really didn't sell many of them.

The displays of the Videofile system were kind of annoying because they ran at a 15 hertz frame rate, which could induce epileptic seizures in some people. It had a long persistence, orange phosphor. People complained about that. So the company had me experiment with different ideas like four to one interlace maybe, or two to one interlace. Back in those days, synch generators, television synchronization generators, were built with analog hardware. They would use linked oscillators, divide by three, divide by five, divide by sevens, and you'd chain them up. I wanted a more flexible approach. So I used my newfound knowledge of digital circuits to make a synch generator that was very flexible, using TTL parts. I first became aware of TTL when I played with flip-flops while Cal, at Berkeley. I then got a lot of on-the-job training at Pertec, making a hybrid of a very complex analog servo motor with digital controls to position a microfiche recorder, with just the minimum amount of bounce. It used digital A to D converters made by discreet parts. At Ampex, I had the big TI orange catalog of the 7400 series TTL with me. There was no other such catalog in the whole of Ampex and you couldn't get one from TI, which had such bad customer service. And people at Ampex kept borrowing my catalog because I had the best documentation on these new 7400 series TTL. I got upset because I kept losing my catalog. Finally, I got a hold of the buyer at that division and I said, “We need more catalogs.” And we had to blackmail the TI salesman to bring a catalog. And he came, and sail, “Here's your catalog.” I could not believe his attitude. I told the rep, “Gosh, we're trying to use your parts”. So I gave them out to people and said “don't borrow my catalog anymore.”

Ampex was a great place for young engineers. When I see young people coming out of college saying, “I'm going get my MBA degree and start a company”, I just think that's so wrong. I learned the art of engineering and the process of an organization in a big company, and I had all these tools. I could order any kind of test equipment that I wanted from the Ampex equipment pool. And so I got mentored under real pros who showed me how things were done. And I learned all these tricks of the trade in a couple of years. When we started Atari, we didn't have any money or any of these tools, but I knew the process. There's such a gap between what you learn in school, the academics of engineering, versus the actual trade craft. That's really important. If you do not get that, then you are missing something important. Working with some of the guys who invented video tape recording, I learned a lot. And I also learned a little bit about organizations and things that you don't learn in school, about people and how to upset people, and how not to. Ampex was a very nurturing environment.

I probably would have stayed at Ampex for a long time had it not been for Nolan Bushnell. If you had a job at Ampex or Lockheed you were set for life. That was a career. You stayed there, went up the ladder, and you got your gold watch and a pension in the end. And that was a life, and you had a good life. And so people did not leave to set up companies. That was really strange. Then there was Nolan, another young engineer at Ampex, like myself. He was an entrepreneur from get-go. Nolan had had also worked in an Amusement Park in Salt Lake City. He understood the amusement business. One day I got the word that he'd quit Ampex to go build this thing called Computer Space--the first, the first arcade video game, and we thought, Oh, poor guy. What a horrible mistake. Why would anyone leave Ampex for that? Nolan had even taken his old Ampex team friends over to see what he was doing with this video game thing.

In early 1972 Ampex suffered its first financial catastrophe. They had a loss for the year. They were heavy into pre-recorded audio tape. They sold reel-to-reel and cassette audio music. They were in the record and music business distribution, and that proved to be very treacherous for them. They had financial difficulties, some things were constricting at Ampex. I was not at risk of losing my job, but they merged other groups with us and some of the people weren't as bright as the mentors that I had at VideoFile. Not bad, but tough. And then all of a sudden Nolan Bushnell showed up and took me to lunch. Nolan and Ted Dabney, two of my old buddies were now off in this Syzygy Company. They offered me a job.

Additional Reading from this Author

The Development of Pong: Early Days of Atari and the Video Game Industry

Video Game and Computer Technology Interaction

Building a New Generation of Slot Machines: Silicon Valley Meets Las Vegas