In 1971, Nolan Bushnell and Ted Dabney founded an engineering firm, Syzygy Engineering, that designed and built Computer Space, the world’s first arcade video game, for Nutting Associates. On June 27, 1972 Atari, Inc. was incorporated and soon hired Al Alcorn as their first design engineer. Bushnell asked Alcorn produce an arcade version of the Magnavox Odyssey‘s Tennis game, which would be named Pong. While Bushnell incorporated Atari in June 1972, Syzygy Company was never formally incorporated. Before Atari’s incorporation, Bushnell considered various terms from the game go, eventually choosing atari, referencing a position in the game when a group of stones is imminently in danger of being taken by one’s opponent. Atari was incorporated in the state of California on June 27, 1972.
In 1973, Atari secretly spawned a competitor called Kee Games, headed by Nolan’s next door neighbor Joe Keenan, to circumvent pinball distributors’ insistence on exclusive distribution deals; both Atari and Kee could market virtually the same game to different distributors, each getting an “exclusive” deal. Joe Keenan’s management of the subsidiary led to him being promoted president of Atari that same year.
In 1976, Bushnell, through Grass Valley, CA firm Cyan Engineering, started development of a flexible console that was capable of playing the four existing Atari games. The result was the Atari Video Computer System, or VCS (later renamed 2600 when the 5200 was released). The introductory price of $199 (equivalent to $838 in 2016) included a console, two joysticks, a pair of paddles, and the Combat game cartridge. Bushnell knew he had another potential hit on his hands but bringing the machine to market would be extremely expensive. Looking for outside investors, Bushnell sold Atari to Warner Communications in 1976 for an estimated $28–32 million, using part of the money to buy the Folgers Mansion. Nolan continued to have disagreements with Warner Management over the direction of the company, the discontinuation of the pinball division, and most important, the notion of discontinuing the 2600. In 1978, Kee Games was disbanded. In December of that year, Nolan Bushnell was fired following an argument with Manny Gerard. “[W]e started fighting like cats and dogs. And then the wheels came off that fall. Warner claimed they fired me,” recalled Bushnell. “I say I quit. It was a mutual separation.”
Development of a successor to the 2600 started as soon as it shipped. The original team estimated the 2600 had a lifespan of about three years; it then set forth to build the most powerful machine possible within that time frame. Mid-way into their effort the home computer revolution took off, leading to the addition of a keyboard and features to produce the Atari 800 and its smaller sibling, the 400. The new machines had some success when they finally became available in quantity in 1980. From this platform Atari released their next-generation game console in 1982, the Atari 5200. It was unsuccessful due to incompatibility with the 2600 game library, a small quantity of dedicated games, and notoriously unreliable controllers.
Under Warner and Atari’s chairman and CEO, Raymond Kassar, the company achieved its greatest success, selling millions of 2600s and computers. At its peak, Atari accounted for a third of Warner’s annual income and was the fastest growing company in US history at the time. However, it ran into problems in the early 1980s as interference from the New York-based Warner management increasingly affected daily operations. Its home computer, video game console, and arcade divisions operated independently and rarely cooperated. Faced with fierce competition and price wars in the game console and home computer markets, Atari was never able to duplicate the success of the 2600.
These problems were followed by the video game crash of 1983, with losses that totaled more than $500 million. Warner’s stock price slid from $60 to $20, and the company began searching for a buyer for its troubled division. In 1983, Ray Kassar had resigned and executives involved in the Famicom merger lost track of negotiations, eventually killing the deal. With Atari’s financial problems and the Famicom’s runaway success in Japan after its July 16, 1983, release, Nintendo decided to remain independent.
Financial problems continued to mount and Kassar’s successor, James J. Morgan, had less than a year in which to tackle the company’s problems. He began a massive restructuring of the company and worked with Warner Communications in May 1984 to create “NATCO” (an acronym for New Atari Company). NATCO further streamlined the company’s facilities, personnel, and spending. Unknown to James Morgan and the senior management of Atari, Warner had been in talks with Tramiel Technology to buy Atari’s consumer electronics and home computer divisions. Negotiating until close to midnight on July 1, 1984, Jack Tramiel purchased Atari. Warner sold the home computing and game console divisions of Atari to Tramiel for $50 cash and $240 million in promissory notes and stocks, giving Warner a 20% stake in Atari Corporation who then used it to create a new company under the name Atari Corporation. Warner retained the arcade division, continuing it under the name Atari Games, but sold it to Namco in 1985. Warner also sold the fledgling Ataritel to Mitsubishi.