Legendary Atari engineer Steve Bristow passed away last week. One of his most interesting accomplishments was AtariTel, a line of incredibly forward-thinking “smart” telephones far beyond anything that was available at the time.
To say Steve had been integral to Atari’s rapid success during the first half of the 1980s would be an understatement. By all accounts Steve Bristow was a genius, though there were a number of those working at Atari in those days. Steve was loved and respected by his colleagues and had become known for his trademark muttonchops. He was at Atari almost from the very beginning until his departure in 1984. Bristow was an intern working at Ampex with Nolan Bushnell, when Nolan began work on Computer Space, Steve was there to help. Bristow later joined Joe Keenan at Kee Games, a faux-competitor and wholly-owned subsidiary of Atari that they created as a rouse to corner the market. At Key Games, Steve Bristow developed a legendary game called Tank (Combat on the Atari 2600) and Indy 800, a popular early racing game. When Key Games merged back into Atari, Steve Bristow underwent a succession of promotions, first to VP of Engineering at Atari’s Coin-Op Arcade Division, then to VP of Engineering at Atari’s Home Consumer Division (home games) and eventually VP of Engineering at Atari’s Advanced Technology Division where all sorts of crazy things were taking place. (Think “Skunkworks”)
Atari was looking to expand beyond video games. Deregulation of the Bell Telephone System was about to happen and people would have vastly improved choices in phones and features. Steve Bristow saw this as an opportunity. He pitched the idea of Atari developing advanced new phones based on intercom technology that plugs into power outlets and allows for communication through electrical wiring in a home. Atari’s parent company, Warner Communications, loved the idea and created a new division called “AtariTel”.
Once again, Steve was promoted. For the next two-and-a-half years Steve and his brilliant team worked in secret, creating a whole new line of consumer electronics. Steve’s new phones could store numbers, place a call on hold, and work as a speakerphone. But they were so much more advanced than what anyone had expected. AtariTel phones acted as “home controllers” letting people have phone extensions throughout the house to make and receive calls, use them as room monitors, intercoms, control power modules, home appliances, adjust the temperature of the thermostat even while away from home, turn lights off and on, manage home security systems, and expand with added features to come through the ’80s. The AtariTel LumaPhone was an early videophone, letting people make video calls and send black and white images to each other which would appear on the phone’s tiny monitor.
Atari Press releases at the 1983 CES announced “AtariTel is a new, dramatically capable home network for voice communications, communications management, appliance control, security and environmental control. The AtariTel system incorporates new technology and features not available in other residential telecommunications products.” Atari telephones would have sold nationwide in Atari Adventure stores alongside Atari computers, software and games where customers would experience these new technologies up close and hands-on, often for the very first time. Alan Alda introduced one AtariTel product in the promotional video below, Steve Bristow is the “Steve” that Alan Alda is pretending to speak to on the phone:
Unfortunately the video game crash of 1983 nearly put Atari out of business. Atari’s CEO Ray Kassar left the company amid SEC allegations of insider trading, and was replaced by James J. Morgan who was tasked with saving the company. Just as AtariTel was ready to launch, James Morgan pulled the plug as Atari could no longer afford the AtariTel project. It didn’t save the company though, six months later Warner Communications sold Atari in a “fire sale” the highest bidder and most everyone, including James Morgan, was out of a job. It’s sad to think that maybe a few innovative new products like AtariTel would have diversified Atari and helped them survive the video game crash.
Justin is an avid Atari fan and posts at the Retroist as Atari I/O. You can follow him at his website http://www.atari.io
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