Not long ago my parents stopped by my house and dropped off another random box of things that they had in storage which was followed up with the line “we think you might want some of this”. A lot of the Atari items I now have come from this method of delivery so I didn’t mind stowing it away until I had a chance to work through it. When I finally jumped into it over the weekend I was pleasantly surprised as not only were there a few more books and manuals I was missing but also a large collection of newsletters from the Geelong Atari Users Group – a computer club my parents had been members of and a part of my childhood that likely helped shape the direction I’d take with my career.
When you buy a computer now there’s no shortage of resources for understanding how it works or what to use it for. Even the computers themselves have enough help facilities now thanks to the OS. In the late 70’s and 80’s if the manuals didn’t help or you couldn’t find a book or magazine ith hat you needed you were stuck. But a lot of groups spring up from like minded computer owners who wanted to share that knowledge… and software too! It was from here that my parents joined the Geelong Atari Users Group (GAUG) which I believe had had spun off from another group, the Melbourne Atari Computer Enthusiasts (MACE). The group would hold regular meetings in a hall that was big enough for a few members to show off their machines and get together to chat about what’s new and interesting in the world of Atari. Being new owners of an 800XL there was a lot to learn… in the beginning we were playing games off cartridges and typing in program listings with no way to save them. It wasn’t long after that a disc drive was connected and things changed completely.
The club’s newsletter (titled “Input-Output”) was a good starting point for learning what was new and popular in the club and was full of articles from reviews of software and hardware to code listings and even the occasional article lifted from other club newsletters or magazines. One thing I remember about the content of Input-Output early on were the numerous listings for Mandelbrot set generators and the accompanying screenshots. I didn’t have the patience at the time to type one in but I’d imagine they were processor intensive on a humble 6502 CPU but they were eye catching even in black and white.
With the disc drive (a modded Atari 1050 “enhanced” density drive) another part of the client opened up to my parents… the library. There was a vast collection of games and utilities on disc for people to borrow for a nominal fee. Over the years my parents would also get involved in managing the library and as a child it was like being in a candy shop with plenty of opportunities to try out software I’d never considered before. As was the nature of computer clubs at the time there was also a fair amount of software copying taking place too. Atari 8bit software in Australia was expensive and so it was common for one person to buy a copy then share it out to minimise the cost.
Software piracy in computer clubs was rampant during this era. Whether that may have been due to cost or availability I might leave for another discussion but Lucasfilm Games had two Atari games famously pirated (Rescue on Fractalus! and Ballblazer) and events like that must have given other developers second thoughts about porting their own titles to the platform.
As the newsletter changed over time so did the tools for creating them. I had spent a lot of time designing graphics and pages for school reports using Broderbund’s The Print Shop and Xlent Software’s Typesetter which was a forerunner to desktop publishing before someone figured a Mac with a laser printer was a good idea. One of my most memorable jobs was to covert the old newsletter design over to Typesetter so the new editor could work with it. I had a lot of fun doing that… I had to throw in a couple of helicopters into the design for good measure just to make it different. I was just a couple of years into high school when I did that. There’s a lot I’ve forgotten about the club since then but I can spot my newsletter covers from a mile away. 🙂
The club went on for quite a few years and transitioned over to the ST series of machines too but the heart of it was still tied to the 8bit line. The ST was probably more popular in the country than its predecessor but it was also an easier system to learn so computer clubs weren’t as necessary to get the most out of them. My last memories of the club are very much tied to Atari’s final moments. A local computer seller attended a meeting at one stage trying to stir up enthusiasm for the Atari Falcon which was the company’s last roll of the dice in computing before it walked away and focused on the Jaguar console. That didn’t work out well for them at all and as Atari evaporated so did the club. My parents last gesture as members of the club was to buy up parts of the remaining library catalogue (a few cartridges which are still in my possession) which has become a gift I continue to be grateful for. Some of the manuals still have GAUG stamped on them to remind me of where they came from. The club was how I was introduced to games such as Star Raiders, Karateka and David Crane’s Ghostbusters which may have passed me by if not for the library.
Going through all the newsletters the question I’m asking myself now is what am I going to do with them? The first thing comes to mind is maybe I should consider scanning a few and uploading them to Internet Archive. After going through a pile of ST Action magazines a few years ago I ended up scanning a lot of them when I parted ways with them so am thinking I might share a lot of these too for everyone to check out. The newsletters also qualify as being a cool snapshot in time a computer clubs in Australia. I’ll figure it out eventually but it was another nice find digging through my family’s old computer boxes. 🙂
It’s great to hear this story! I’m bummed I was a bit too young to be able to participate in user groups; my father and brother both attended, and the enormous library of (mostly pirated) 8-bit software I still have to this day mostly came from the local club.
Page 6 (later New Atari User), which is a magazine my father, my brother and I all contributed to at various times, began as a local club newsletter and, over the years, expanded to a professional-grade subscription-only magazine and even, for a decent period, a glossy newsstand magazine. I always found that pretty remarkable; we went to visit the editor Les Ellingham on more than one occasion, and I always found it amazing that he was running a whole magazine out of his living room using nothing but Atari hardware (both 8-bit and ST) to produce it. Long live Fleet Street Publisher!
While we have all sorts of online communities today that completely negate the need for user groups like this, I can’t help but be a bit envious for those who had the opportunity to get together in person and share the joy of early microcomputer ownership with like-minded people. I bet it would have been a fascinating subculture to be part of.
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I was probably a little too young myself to fully appreciate what the club offered (especially the hardware side) but one of the members did a programming class for my brother and I to teach us the basics which was really neat. And I was crazy about drawing and art programs too! Like you said online communities have now made groups like this obsolete but it’s nice to think that at one point in time people were so enthusiastic about computers they were willing to meet up in person.
The story of Page 6/New Atari User sounds like something worth telling! Starting from a newsletter and then becoming a magazine is a hell of an achievement. I have a handful of issues around here too… they were hard to find in Australia initially but really supported the 8bit brilliantly right to the end. :).
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