Try the PILOT Programming Language for the Atari 8-Bit Computers (15-60 mins)

Task: Try the PILOT Programming Language for the Atari 8-Bit Computers

Needed: Web Browser, Emulator, and/or PILOT Cartridge

Time: 15-60 mins


I received the Atari Programming Inquiry, Learning, or Teaching (PILOT) programming language cartridge for Christmas in 1983 or 1984 and absolutely loved it. The PILOT language was developed in the 1960s and released for the Atari in 1981. It was developed specifically for kids with a very simple syntax. For example the command T:Hello World will print Hello World to the screen. The Atari version of PILOT uses line numbers like BASIC.

PILOT was popular with kids because of the intuitive ‘turtle graphics‘ which made drawing graphics on the screen really easy. For example, drawing a line on the screen can be simply done by typing the command GR:DRAW 20. The 20 indicates 20 steps of the turtle.

The goal of this project is to boot PILOT and give it a spin with a nice little demo.


If you plan to use original hardware you can purchase an original loose PILOT cartridge on eBay for $10 to $20. A boxed version might go for more than $20. These are pretty common and there are usually around 5-10 on eBay at any one time.

You can download the ROM file here for use on an SD card device like FujiNet for use on original hardware or with the Altirra emulator on your PC. This will run on any of the 8-bit machines as the ROM is only 8k in size.

The following is a simple program for drawing some overlapping and offset boxes in different colors. You can type in the program on original hardware and hit RUN. Or, you can copy and paste into Altirra and RUN. Here is a zip file with the ATR file with the demo (DEMO.ATR), the PILOT ROM, and an Atari ATR file with some demos extracted from original cassettes (CX4113).

20 C:#N=0
30 *L
40 C:#N=#N+1
60 C:#C=(#N\3)+1
70 J(#C=2):*Y
80 J(#C=3):*B
100 J:*D
110 *Y
130 J:*D 
140 *B
160 *D 
170 J(#N<74):*L
180 GR:DRAW #N-3

For a good reference book to work through I recommend the PILOT Primer published by Atari. There is also the book Atari PILOT for Beginners which includes some nice chapters on joysticks and saving programs. Here is a nice reference card with the commands.

PILOT Demo Graphic
PILOT Demo Graphic


This is a really fun language to play around with. It doesn’t take long to learn it. Of course, it is not designed for serious programming like BASIC or Action!.

You can also try PILOT on twitter through the 8-Bit Bot.

The source code for Atari PILOT is available if you are curious.

Here is an article on PILOT from Compute! magazine (Feb., 1982).

A sequel, Atari PILOT II, was developed but never released to the public. You can download this version from Atarimania.