Task: Conduct Experiments with AtariLab
Needed: AtariLab Starter Set
Time: 30-60 mins
One of the coolest peripherals for the Atari computers was the AtariLab that was developed by Atari in collaboration with Dr. Priscilla Laws who was a professor at Dickinson College. I never had one of these back in the day but was able to get the Started Set and Light Module a few years ago on eBay. The Started Set comes with a temperature probe that plugs into an interface module that plugs into the joystick port. There is a really good technical description of how this work on Wikipedia. One of the really neat things about this hardware is that the temperature probe readings can be read with a POKE statement in BASIC allowing custom software to be written.
The Starter Set comes with the temperature probe, the interface module, a real thermometer for calibration, a 16K cartridge with the software, and a 140-page manual with experiments that can be run. The experiments are pretty simple and involve things like adding ice to water and tracking the temperature change. Perfect for young kinds. The software allows a virtual thermometer to be shown on the screen with the temperature reading in Fahrenheit and Celsius. You can also go into experiment mode where readings are taken over a period of time and plotted as a graph that can printed to an Epson printer. Unfortunately, the printing doesn’t work with Atari computers. I tried both a 1020 and 1025. No dice. Seems weird that Atari helped develop this product but didn’t make it compatible with Atari printers.
The Light Module kit cam with a light sensor that plugs into the interface module, a light source, the software on a 16K cartridge, a set of filters, a test tube for holding liquids, a light stick, a glow panel, and a plastic light stand. There is also a 100-page manual with a set of light experiments to carry out. Interestingly, several other modules were planned including a lie detector and a biofeedback kit. These others were never released due to the chaos of the video game crash and sale of Atari in 1984.
Brand new AtariLab Starter Sets can be purchased for $15.95 from Best Electronics along with the various pieces and parts. You can also find them on eBay for around $20 to $30.
I would have loved these back in the day. By 1983 when these came out I was already in high school and probably too old fully appreciate them. They would have been great at age 8-10. Sometime I hope to do some coding to see what interesting software I can make with these devices. I certainly had fun playing with it now.
Note that the Wikipedia article was heavily influenced by an ANTIC podcast interview (#86) of Dr. Prescilla Laws by Kevin Savetz. Here is an Antic Magazine article on AtariLab from 1984 (volume 3, number 3) with a great photo of Dr. Laws. Here is some info about AtariLab on the Dickinson University website. Here is the cartridge ROM for the Starter Set on Atarimania. Note that you can’t use the software on an emulator because it looks for the devices before it starts.