Gamechangers – Jay Miner & The Amiga Computer
The story of Amiga is not just one of a forward-thinking computer design, even though that design became the standard for the systems we enjoy even today. It is also a story about the clash of industry titans, of a series of seized, as well as missed, opportunities. And, of course, there was a dramatic, last-minute, rescue. Most importantly, it is also the story about an unsung hero of the industry, a man named Jay Miner. For without Jay, there was would be no Amiga, nor the game-changing things that followed.
Born in 1932, Jay Miner discovered his passion for working on electronics during his service in the U.S. Coast Guard. From 1950 through 1955, he installed, repaired and serviced long distance radar and radio equipment, mostly on bases throughout the north Atlantic. When his service ended, Miner moved west to attend the University of California, eventually earning a degree in Electrical Engineering. After his graduation in 1959, Jay Miner spent the first half of the 1960’s doing contract work before landing with General Micro Electronics, where he specialized in MOS CPU’s and integrated circuit design. With the success of early MOS-powered digital calculators, Jay Minor left GME to, along with others, found a new company – Synertek – in 1973. Jay’s role with the company would be the developing their MOS 65xx-series of 8-bit CPU’s.
Meanwhile, at Atari…
By 1976, Atari was swimming in cash from the success of Pong. Visionary that he is, Atari founder Nolan Bushnell pushed the company to buy a Silicon Valley engineering think-tank named Cyan Engineering. Once Cyan came under Atari’s ownership, Bushnell tasked them with designing a new home video game system. Their design would be revolutionary. No longer would users be locked into a limited number of built-in games, rather new games could be played by simply plugging in a different cartridge. To keep costs down, Atari and Cyan’s design called for as many off-the-shelf components as possible, including a MOS CPU from Synertek, which is how Atari was introduced to Jay Miner. When it became clear that a custom designed chip would be needed for video and sound output to the TV, as well as for controller inputs, Atari recruited Jay. Quickly, he was able to create the Television Interface Adapter. TIA, as it was called, was a revolutionary single chip solving all of Atari’s video/sound/input needs. The Atari new video game system was ready to manufacture. All Nolan Bushnell and Atari only needed one thing – money. And lots of it.
Atari’s competitor, Fairchild, an early leader in digital electronics, released their own cartridge-based video game system, the Video Entertainment System, in November 1976. As that year closed, Atari developed their plan and they needed to execute quickly before any more competitors joined the fray. The “Atari Video Computer System“, or VCS, would have a 3-year lifespan. The second-generation system, designed by Jay Miner and his team, would be built on faster and more capable 8-bit CPU’s, with advanced graphics and sound effects. But Atari also had a new owner. To fund manufacture of the VCS, Nolan Bushnell sold Atari to Warner Communications. In the early parts of 1977, this new marriage seemed fine. In September 1977, the Atari VCS and licensed clones were released and sold respectably well during the holiday season, but it was not a hit by any stretch. However, neither was Fairchild’s game system, which, had been rebranded as “Channel-F“. As the calendar turned to 1978, all video game sales slowed to a trickle, and it seemed very likely that it was all a fad. And that fad was rapidly ending or over already.
As sales for the VCS remained flat throughout the spring, summer and fall of 1978, Bushnell, Miner and the Cyan team pressed to accelerate development of a replacement. Warner, seeing a hundred-thousand or more unsold VCS systems, predictably thought the idea was nuts. This rift quickly developed into intra-corporate warfare between Bushnell and Warner, and Nolan Bushnell was fired in December 1978. Ironically, it was during that same holiday season that the Atari VCS finally took off and became a full-fledged smash hit for the company. Something else happened too, which was pivotal in the development of the Amiga and the legacy of Jay Miner. Across town, Apple Computer had released their own revolutionary product the Apple II.
Apple had done something similar to Atari. Released in April 1977, the Apple II had slowly built up and, by the end of 1978, had become a gigantic success. Apple had proven the viability of the emerging market for a ‘home computer’. Warner saw that and wanted a piece for Atari. While Jay Miner continued to lobby Atari to replace the VCS with his 2nd-generation 8-bit system, Atari’s new Warner-installed management saw a different opportunity. Freed from interference from Nolan Bushnell, Atari decided to fast-track a line of home computers – basically Miner’s 8-bit video game system design plus a keyboard – while postponing any VCS replacement.
Throughout 1979, Atari rapidly developed and finalized their 400 and 800 home computer models, as well as a range of perephials and accessories. All the while, Miner implored his bosses to let him begin work on a successor system, a 16-bit machine based on Motorola’s 68000 CPU. Atari management basically pointed to the money rolling in from the VCS/2600 and ignored him. More than that, Atari ordered Jay to cease any development of new systems, unless they were based on the same MOS 6502 found in the 400 and 800.
Jay hated it. In the words of Harold Lee, the Atari manager who hired Miner, “He was always designing, he never stopped designing.” Frustrated, by early 1980 Jay Miner quit Atari. He moved from designing computer chips and processors for computers and video games, to designing microprocessors for heart pacemakers. While the work was challenging and rewarding – with two patents awarded to Miner for medical implants – Jay still loved computers, and itched to make his 16-bit dream system. While alienating Jay Miner throughout 1979, Atari was doing, perhaps, an even worse job retaining other key employees, one of which is also critical in the history of the Amiga. To replace Nolan Bushnell, Warner had installed Ray Kassar, the former President of Burlington Textiles “House” division. Warner management not-so-secretly hated Bushnell, and the culture at Atari. Having no background in computers or consumer electronics, Kassar’s tenure would usher in a very different workplace and management style.
As the VCS exploded in popularity, cartridge sales boomed as well. At the time, Atari had a practice of posting the sales totals for each software title in the office, and a handful of programmers noticed a particular pattern. David Crane, Larry Kaplan, Alan Miller and Bob Whitehead were, collectively, responsible for a majority of all cartridge sales. Meeting with Atari CEO Ray Kassar in mid 1979, the four programmers demanded increased royalties and recognition for their work. Kassar, reportedly told them that they were no more important to Atari than “the guy who puts the cartridges in the boxes”. By the end of the year, each of the men, known as the “Activision Four“, had quit Atari to go off and create the first independent third-party video game company on the planet.
Activision, Larry Kaplin, and the birth of Hi-Toro…
That company, Activision, was an immediate success, releasing hit game after hit game. The investors and the Activision Four made a lot of money. By 1982 the dynamics of the video game industry had changed, but not by great leaps-and-bounds. Coleco had tapped into the arcade coin-op market with their ColecoVision system. Atari had even released a VCS successor, the Atari 5200. And, in typical corporate fashion, Atari created product confusion by renaming the VCS as the “Atari 2600“. While ColecoVision was the the more popular of the new generation system, neither had marketshare approaching the VCS/2600. After five years of working with the VCS/2600, and 2 years with Activision, co-founder Larry Kaplan was getting bored when he happened to be at-the-right-place-at-the-right-time.
With the video game industry booming, a consortium of dentists, oil barons and medical instrument distributors wanted to get in on the action, and they ran into Larry Kaplan. Kaplan remembered Jay Miner’s 16-bit dream machine and got in touch with his old colleague. The medical instrument folks were familiar with Jay through his medical implant work, and an agreement was quickly reached. Jay would create the hardware while Kaplan and Activision focused on the software and games. Even if the new company was not able to manufacturer the hardware itself, they might be able to license their designs to companies such as Atari, Mattel, Coleco, etc.
The group formed a company called Hi-Toro in mid 1982, even recruiting a Vice President from Tonka Toys, David Morse, to become CEO. But, before the end of the year, Larry Kaplan left, eventually returning to Atari in 1983. With hardware suddenly the sole focus of Hi-Toro, Jay Minor agreed to take control of engineering on two conditions: that the design be a computer, and that it be a 16/32-bit system, built around the Motorola 68000 CPU. After some initial protests from the investors, it was agreed that the design would be for a video game system, which could be upgraded to a full computer. Which, at the time meant little more than the inclusion of floppy drives and a keyboard.
Beginning in 1983, Morse, Miner and the original investors had adjusted their business plan. $7 million would initially fund the Hi-Toro, which would also sell a line of controllers and add-ons for current-generation video game systems. This allowed the company to generate some income while Miner and his team worked on the brand new, 3rd-generation video game system – codenamed “Lorraine” – to be launched in time for the 1984 holiday season. Unfortunately, 1983 had its own plans – The Great Video Game Crash. For a start-up like Hi-Toro, the Crash of ’83 calls for a pivot. Jay Miner’s insistence that Lorraine be a computer created a ‘pivot opportunity’ for the company and saved it.
Goodbye Hi-Toro, Hello Amiga, Inc…
Even while the video game market collapsed, sales of home computer systems increased and Hi-Toro’s investors agreed to continue funding the company to build a full computer system. To seal-the-deal, the company took on a new name – Amiga, because it came in the phonebook before Apple or Atari. The new Amiga, Inc., split into two teams, one lead by Jay Miner worked to finalizing the hardware design. The other, headed by Bob Pariseau, took on the daunting task of building the Amiga’s operating system. The goal – demonstrate Lorraine at the Consumer Electronics Show scheduled to be in Chicago in January 1984, and get more investors.
Lorraine’s hardware design was largely completed. A revolutionary system, powered not only by the 68000 CPU, but through a series of customized chips, to take certain tasks on themselves, freeing up the CPU. The “Agnus” chip was in charge of direct memory access, and also contained the “Copper” and “Blitter” silicon, which allowed for some amazing graphics tricks. Managing the display and graphics would be the “Denise” chip. While the “Paula” chip handled 4-channel stereo sound, as well as controlled the system’s floppy disk drives. Offering a palate of 4,096 colors and screen resolutions up to 640×400, the Lorraine’s technical specifications were unlike anything in the industry. In the PC-world, nothing like these capabilities would be available until the popularity of dedicated video and sound cards in the late 80’s/early 90’s. All that Lorraine needed was an operating system.
Bob Pariseau needed to get an operating system done, and fast. And, not unlike Jay Miner, he had a vision as well. Coming from a background in mainframe computers, and recognizing all the specialized hardware to offload tasks from the CPU, Bob began building a team to create the first multitasking operating system for a home computer. Critical to this team were Carl Sassenrath, formerly with HP’s server multitasking OS division, and RJ Mical. Carl, for his work in developing the small and lightning fast micro-kernel, and RJ for building “Intuition“, the API used for the OS’s user interface. Even then, development of the operating system was lagging seriously behind the hardware.
For the winter CES show in January, Amiga Inc. rented a small booth in the West Hall. While the prototype hardware was ready, the operating system was not. RJ Mical and Dale Luck, another important engineer in Amiga history, were forced to create a number of software demos for the system. Most famous of which was the, at the time, jaw dropping Amiga “Boing” demo. CES was a smashing success for Amiga, in terms of generating buzz about the capabilities of the hardware. But, overall, the show was a devastating failure because they left without a single new investor. To make things worse, the success of the IBM PC and the excitement over the new Apple Macintosh had given cold-feet to the original investor consortium. Jay Miner and other top management at Amiga took additional mortgages and loans to help keep the company afloat.
For the summer CES show in June 1984, Amiga went back to Chicago to demonstrate their progress, including prototypes of hardware. HP, Sony, Apple, Silicon Graphics and others, attended private screenings of the Amiga. Everyone was impressed, but no one was interested in investing. The home computer market was a blood-bath in 1984, with Commodore’s low-cost C64 laying waste to entire companies. Atari’s home computer division, in particular, had spent the last two years getting crushed by Commodore. With their revamped and low-cost XL-line of computers finally gaining some traction in the market, Atari spied a way to leapfrog Commodore into the next-generation of home computers – Amiga.
Realizing the dire straits faced by the young company, Atari made a ruthless move and offered Amiga a 30-day/$500,000 loan against the rights to Amiga’s hardware designs. At Amiga, things were desperate. With two mortgages on his home already, Jay Miner and the Amiga team took the deal. By the first week in July, Amiga needed an investor or a buy-out, or they would be out-of-business and Atari would own all their hard work.
“It was a dumb thing to agree too, but there was no choice.”
–Jay Miner, regarding Amiga’s bridge-loan from Atari.
A lot can happen in 30 days.
In spite of the runaway success of the C64, Commodore founder and CEO, Jack Tramiel, had been forced out by company’s board of directors in January 1984. Jack Tramiel deserves his own article, but, suffice it to say, the man held grudges. It’s generally believed that Commodore’s home-computer price war was largely Tramiel’s attempt (successful, to be sure) to punish Texas Instruments for things that happened in their competition in the personal calculator market during the 1970’s. On July 1st, 1984, Warner Communications shocked the industry by announcing that Jack Tramiel had purchased the Atari home computer and video games divisions. Tramiel promptly fired much of Atari’s engineering teams, bringing over hand-picked replacements from Commodore. Jay Miner and the ex-Atari folks at Amiga were stunned. In less than a week, a team of their professional rivals were due to take ownership of the Amiga hardware designs.
Commodore rides to the rescue…
As the clock ran out on the deal with Atari, who was to come knocking on Amiga’s door? Commodore.
As large swaths of their engineering staff left for Atari, Commodore was looking for a way to replace what they’d lost, and then some. At the eleventh-hour on the Atari-Deal, Commodore bought Amiga. While an infuriated Jack Tramiel, via Atari, traded lawsuits with an equally enraged Commodore, Jay and his team decamped to their offices to finish the Amiga. After a year of fighting Atari, as well as technical hurdles with Kickstart and Workbench, the Amiga was officially debuted on July 23, 1985 and began shipping the following September.
It was not a success.
Jack Tramiel’s Atari had quickly thrown together a competitor, the 520ST, and beat the Amiga to market by a half-a-year and at nearly half the price. With Atari at the low-end of the market, and the Macintosh and IBM PC at the high-end, Amiga was launched directly into a very pinched middle-market. And the Amiga’s jack-of-all-trades, external-module focused design (here a Sidecar, there a Genlock…), made it very expensive to produce or expand. Commodore decided to discontinue the Amiga 1000, in favor of a new strategy.
The Amiga 500, a smaller integrated unit, would be sold at the low-end, and the Amiga 2000, a big-box expandable PC-like unit, would target the medium/high-end. It was at this point that Amiga sales increased dramatically, quickly catching and beginning to distance itself from the Atari ST. It was also at this point that Jay Miner’s influence within Commodore began to wain. He stayed with the company for several years before quietly leaving to return to his work with medical devices.
Jay Miner passed away on June 20th, 1994, but his legacy lives on.
In retrospect, Jay Miner’s vision of a computer that uses a limited external-chassis bus for expansion, is quaintly stuck in the late 70’s/early 80’s. The Amiga 1000, while a beautiful industrial design, is a flawed computer. But the Amiga concept – of a fast and powerful multimedia computer, driven by co-processors for graphics, sounds, input/output, etc, and paired with an equally powerful operating system – was game changing. This design lived on, directly, throughout the Amiga line of computers until Commodore’s eventual demise in 1994. By that time, however, Jay’s vision and design had also been adopted by every computer manufacturer in the industry.