The Atari 2600 (or Atari VCS before 1982) is a home video game console released on September 11, 1977 by Atari, Inc. It is credited with popularizing the use of microprocessor-based hardware and ROM cartridges containing game code, a format first used with the Fairchild Channel F video game console in 1976. This format contrasts with the older model of having non-microprocessor dedicated hardware, which could only play the games which were physically built into the unit.
The console was originally sold as the Atari VCS, an abbreviation for Video Computer System. Following the release of the Atari 5200 in 1982, the VCS was renamed to the “Atari 2600”, after the unit’s Atari part number, CX2600. The 2600 was typically bundled with two joystick controllers, a conjoined pair of paddle controllers, and a game cartridge: initially Combat, and later Pac-Man.
Ted Dabney and Nolan Bushnell developed the Atari gaming system in the 1970s. Originally operating under the name “Syzygy”, Bushnell and Dabney changed the name of their company to “Atari” in 1972. In 1973, Atari Inc. had purchased an engineering think tank called Cyan Engineering to research next-generation video game systems, and had been working on a prototype known as “Stella” (named after one of the engineers’ bicycles) for some time. Unlike prior generations of machines that use custom logic to play a small number of games, its core is a complete CPU, the famous MOS Technology 6502 in a cost-reduced version known as the 6507. It was combined with a RAM-and-I/O chip, the MOS Technology 6532, and a display and sound chip known as the Television Interface Adaptor (TIA). The first two versions of the machine contain a fourth chip, a standard CMOS logic buffer IC, making Stella cost-effective. Some later versions of the console eliminated the buffer chip.
Programs for small computers of the time were generally stored on cassette tapes, floppy disks, or paper tape. By the early 1970s, Hewlett-Packard manufactured desktop computers costing thousands of dollars such as the HP 9830, which packaged Read Only Memory (ROM) into removable cartridges to add special programming features, and these were being considered for use in games. At first, the design was not going to be cartridge-based, but after seeing a “fake” cartridge system on another machine, they realized they could place the games on cartridges essentially for the price of the connector and packaging.
In 1976, Fairchild Semiconductor released their own CPU-based system, the Video Entertainment System. Stella was still not ready for production, but it was clear that it needed to be before there were a number of “me too” products filling up the market, which had happened after they released Pong. Atari Inc. didn’t have the cash flow to complete the system quickly, given that sales of their Pong systems were cooling. Nolan Bushnell eventually turned to Warner Communications, and sold the company to them in 1976 for US$28 million on the promise that Stella would be produced as soon as possible.
Key to the eventual success of the machine was the hiring of Jay Miner, a chip designer who managed to squeeze an entire wire wrap of equipment making up the TIA into a single chip. Once that was completed and debugged, the system was ready for shipping.