Paul Laughton

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This is a transcript of an audio interview. This transcript may contain errors - if you're using this material for research, etc. please verify with the original recorded interview.

Source: ANTIC: The Atari 8-Bit Podcast

Interviewer: Kevin Savetz

KS: In this interview episode of ANTIC, the Atari 8-bit podcast I interview Paul Laughton. Paul wrote some programs you might have heard of. Paul wrote Apple DOS 3.1, he wrote Atari BASIC, and he also wrote the file system handling routines on the Atari. He's also one of the cofounders of Optimized Systems Software which is the company that brought us BASIC XL and Action! and lots of other good stuff. I conducted this interview with him on September 5th, 2014 over Skype. The Skype connection was a little flaky here and there, but good enough.

KS: So in case you missed the announcement, what we're doing for a while at least on this podcast is we're doing the interviews separately, as separate interview episodes. We're going to do one or two a week until we get through the massive backlog of great interviews done and the regular monthly episodes are going to be pretty much the same except without interviews, we'll use that time for other things.

KS: OK, so, here is Paul Laughton.

KS: So yeah, I'm excited to talk to the person who pretty much coded Atari BASIC, is that right?

PL: That is correct. I did most of the work, my wife did the decimal math routines.

KS: I've heard she's Kathleen, right?

PL: Yes.

KS: You and Kathleen still together?

PL: Yes we are, she's a computer science professor at San Jose State these days.

KS: Awesome. I'm not sure where to begin, except that, Atari BASIC is a program that every Atari 8-bit user in history has used. It's probably the first program they see, if not. And so it's kind of a seminal part of everything, can you tell me a little about... I've read the story in the Atari BASIC Source Book about how you got the contract and everything but how do you go about starting just going from nothing. Here's this computer that's not even out yet and we want you to write a language for it. Go do that, thanks!

PL: Well, to give you a little bit of prehistory. Before Atari came and asked for BASIC, I had been contracted to Shephardson Microsystems to write a BASIC for Apple. They were planning on coming out with a product called Apple Lanny which was going to have BASIC in a cartridge. And I was contracted to write that BASIC. At some point, I got delayed writing the Apple DOS and then they canceled the contract. So I had a basic shell for a BASIC created when Atari came along. So I basically started with that work that I had been doing for Apple.

KS: OK. So was it the first time you'd thought about this sort of problem?

PL: Well I had worked for almost ten years for IBM Service Bureau Corporation on a project called CALL/360, CALL/370. It was a timesharing system where you had terminals in your home or business, and you could write BASIC, PL/1 or FORTRAN programs. So I worked on all aspects of CALL/360 including the BASIC for it. And I have written a number of various kinds of compilers for CALL/360.

KS: Did Atari, ask you, I mean did they want specific, specifically ask you for things, that, graphics commands and sound, and things that would bring out the power of their particular hardware or is that something that you felt you needed to do, or is it part of the spec?

PL: Well there was never really a spec written for Atari BASIC. I'm not even sure I saw a contract for it. It was all done mostly I think on a handshake. They wanted interfaces to their graphics and sound and so I provided that. They didn't specify what it would look like or anything like that.

KS: How long did it take?

PL: Given that I was ... I had a head start. I probably [had] a month's head start in how planning out the BASIC and starting to write the BASIC syntaxer. So, I think it was October when Atari came to us, and we had it available in January as I recall. I think Bill Wilkinson's history gives the actual timeline. And it was written on the Apple II.

KS: Wow. So you wrote it on the Apple II, and then, you moved it to real hardware to test, or could you actually run it on the Apple II at some point?

PL: I created dummy interfaces and then when the hardware was available I started going over to Atari to do testing. I also had to test the file management system at the same time.

KS: So you also created that simultaneously, is that right, more or less?

PL: Exactly.

KS: So when you say the file management system, from a user perspective, is that basically the DOS.SYS file?

PL: Yes. I'm not even sure then I called it a DOS, because a DOS is much more than just a file management system. And what I created was a file management system.

KS: So you didn't do the menu interface that we would call the DOS, where you can copy files and things, it was more of...

PL: No, I think I actually did that. When I think of an operating system, it not only includes things like the disk, but putting information on the screen, reading the keyboard, serial interfaces, things like that. So the base operating system has all those things, the file management system basically manages the files on a disk.

KS: OK, so I'll ask you. Why 8.3 file names, why no lower case?

PL: Why no lower case? I really don't remember, did the Atari do lower case at the time?

KS: The Atari could, but not in filenames. Filenames are case insensitive.

PL: Why, because it was easier, and got done quickly.

KS: OK, fair enough. I'd thought I'd ask. So you'd also done Apple DOS before that, correct?

PL: That's correct.

KS: So DOS 1.0 on the Apple II?

PL: I think they called it DOS 3.1 when they released it.

KS: OK. So we're you still involved at that point when they came out with DOS 3.3. Had Apple taken over at that point or were you still working on it?

PL: Actually, after the initial release, I gave the source code to a guy named Dick Houston and I was never involved again.

KS: Walk away.

PL: Walk away.

KS: So when you were doing the Atari file system and the Atari BASIC, you were at a company called SMI, it that right?

PL: It was called Shephardson Microsystems Incorporated.

KS: And then, eventually you ended up at O.S.S.?

PL: After sometime in 1980, maybe, I actually went to work for Atari. I became the manager of the operating systems group for the home computer.

KS: So how did that come about? How did you end up in that position?

PL: Atari made me an offer I couldn't refuse. At the time I was getting very good pay being a contractor. I really didn't want to go to work for somebody, but they made me an offer I couldn't refuse, so I went there.

KS: How long were you an Atari employee?

PL: For maybe a year and a half. And then my manager at Atari, a guy named Lou Garnee, went to a company called Fox Video Games. And he invited me to come along, and I invited six members of the team to come along. And so we all went to Fox Video Games.

KS: So let's talk about that year and a half at Atari. What did you say your title was?

PL: It was first manager of systems software in the home computer division, and then it was manager of software development, including applications and everything else.

KS: So what did you do on a day-to-day basis at that time?

PL: Managed teams of programmers. We did things like updating BASIC. We were working on a debugger for the Assembler/Editor. We created, I think it was the 5200, the next generation home computer, we were working on the operating system for that. And we found there were other applications that being developed as we went along.

KS: The 5200 was the game system without a keyboard.

PL: There was a follow on product after the 400/800.

KS: The XL series.

PL: And so we worked on things like, for example marketing wanted a help key on that system and no software had any interfaces to a help key. So what we did was if you didn't have any cartridges in it and you pressed the help key, it would run a self-test. And whenever you saw an XL in a store, what you saw was it running that self-test.

KS: It said on your web page (I'm kind of jumping around here a little bit). It said Kathleen, your wife, single handedly wrote the code for the Atari Assembler/Editor cartridge.

PL: That's correct. She actually took the BASIC source code and transformed it into an assembler/editor. This was doable because the syntax that I wrote was written... Do you know what BNF is, Backus normal form?

KS: No I don't.

PL: It is a way of describing a syntax for a language. It was created by a guy named Backus for use with the development of FORTRAN. I used it to describe the syntax for BASIC. And actually created a macro compiler that would create/tranform the BNF into a syntaxer. If you read Inside Atari BASIC it tells more about it. Anyway, she transformed that into the Assembler/Editor.

KS: That's incredible.

PL: Yeah, she's quite a gal.

KS: Did she get to lord it over you that you got to write the high level language but she got to write the assembly editor?

PL: You know, we don't have that kind of relationship. We're partners.

KS: So tell me a story about working at Atari. What was interesting about it?

PL: During the time I worked at Atari there was a transformation. One of the things that brought me to Atari was that in the home computer division they hired a very senior and respected software vice president, a guy named Bruce Irvine. And they also had a senior Ph.D.-type as president, a guy named Roger Badisher. And that staff actually made me attracted to Atari. They seemed like a very professional organization. And so I wanted to work with them. Over time things changed. Roger Badisher decided that he wanted to start an IBM PC clone company called Mindset. So he and Bruce Irvine left. They were replaced by friends of Kassar, Ray Kassar who was the president. The software vice president became a twenty-four year old kid named Chris Horstein, who had absolutely no experience managing software development. So the very reasons that I went there disappeared. So I left.

PL: There was also some interesting things going on with the games division The programmers being withheld their bonuses, Ray Kassar saying that games developers were nothing but a bunch of high paid prima donnas. When he said that to the local newspaper, a friend of mine created a t-shirt that soon spread around Atari that said "You're nothing but a high paid prima donna."

KS: I've heard that story. That's incredible.

PL: A guy named Mike Albaugh created it. I work with Mike Albaugh now at the Computer History Museum.

KS: I've talked to Mike. That means you're in the Bay area and volunteer at the [museum]. It's in Mountain View, right?

PL: Yeah. Mike and I both do the demonstrations on the IBM 1401.

KS: At what point did you end up at Optimized Systems Software?

PL: Well, actually, O.S.S. was formed while I was still at Atari. Bill Wilkinson and Mike Peters and my wife and I formed the company together. We incorporated it together. I got permission from my manager at Atari to do it. I was actually still working there. However my involvement became pretty much... I was working a whole lot and didn't have time so Kathy and I pretty quickly bowed out of formal O.S.S. involvement. Eventually they bought us out. While we were there we did the Inside Atari BASIC, and the file management book.

KS: So you left Atari, you went to a video game company you said?

PL: Fox Video Games. It was video games created by 20th Century Fox, and their objective was to take Fox properties and make video games. Things like M.A.S.H. and The Attack of the Killer Tomatoes and things like that.

KS: So what did you do there?

PL: I was the director of software development. I had a diverse team of engineers and graphics artists and sound engineers and we tried to develop games for many machines at once. So we developed a game concept and did it on the 2600, the 400/800 the Commodore, the TI, that pretty much covers it I guess. Fox Video Games was losing money, they produced more cartridges for a game than could possibly ever sell. When it got up to eighteen million dollars, Fox cancelled the project.

KS: There seems to be a lot of that going around back then.

PL: Oh, yeah. There were lots of game companies flooding the market. Including Atari.

KS: Do you still own an Atari machine?

PL: No I don't. It's been a long time since I've owned one. A few years ago when I was working as a volunteer at the tech museum, they had a silent auction and I bought one and brought it home. This was around 2000, 2001. I played with it for a while and then gave it away.

KS: [You] don't feel any real nostalgia for it, it was just a work project and that's it?

PS: Yeah, I kind of like my notebook computers and Arduino's and things like that these days. I did at one time make a robot using an Atari 400. I used it to drive the motors of the robot. I programmed it and ran it around with the joystick.

KS: Oh neat. Was this just a personal project?

PL: Yeah, actually I've still got the base of my robot here in my garage. Nothing to drive it with.

KS: Speaking of things in your garage. As part of what I'm doing in addition to the interviews is I am working with and we're trying to save as much computer history as possible. I'm particularly interested in the Atari stuff. So my question to you is do you have anything that hasn't been published, or made available, source code or apps, programs, disks that might not have seen the light of day, or might have gotten lost over the years?

PL: No I don't. I don't think I have any remnants of Atari. The major things that I did, like the file management system and the BASIC have been published.

KS: Right. Which is amazing. I thought it was amazing then and it is amazing now that that could happen. Oh yeah, here's the source code to our language.

PL: Shephardson, SMI, retained the rights to the source code for it. And Rob Shepherdson transferred the rights to Bill at O.S.S.. So he was able to publish it. It's no more amazing than Microsoft retaining the rights to MS-DOS when they did it for IBM.

KS: I guess you're right. That worked out well for them.

PL: Very well indeed.

KS: If you could send a message to the Atari computing community that still exists, and you can right now, what would you tell them?

PL: What would I tell them? One of the highlights of my career was the software that I did for Atari. Not only was it the highlight in terms of being just a fun project, but the terms of the contract was very lucrative. I think I ended up with a ten thousand dollar bonus. That was back in 1979, so it was a lot of money.

KS: That was the bonus that was alluded to on the website for getting it done early.

PL: Yes. Another interesting tidbit, I don't know who would be interested, but I'll tell you. The manager who hired me at Atari, he at the time was the manager and I was hired as a senior engineer. That manager is Kathleen O'Brien's ex-husband, a guy named Brian Johnson. Brian and I are still good friends today.

KS: That's kind of amazing. That's cool.

KS: I'm looking through my list here to see if I have any other questions. Frankly, I'm just fishing for stories about writing BASIC and about working at Atari, and that sort of thing. So I'm open to just anything.

PL: One of things, while I was going over to Atari doing testing. I was talking... The guys who were working with me were the same ones who went off to form Activision. They were complaining at the time that they had been promised a bonus, but Ray Kassar withheld the bonus because the company produced a whole bunch of 2600 machines that didn't get sold for Christmas. So he withheld the bonus because the company lost money that year. In January, they sold all those machines and became very profitable and these guys were very, very angry. They were all good 2600 programmers, so what they did was they decided to go off and form Activision.

KS: David Crane and those guys.

PL: Yes. I ended up with all their engineering notebooks looking though to see if they stole anything from Atari.

KS: So you were manager in the computing realm at Atari. Was there any drama like that that you had to deal with?

PL: Not until Bruce Irvine and Batisher left, and Chris Horstein came along. It became an Italian fire drill.

KS: I've talked to several people who've said something similar, they got there, it was one thing, and then the environment completely changed over time as management changed.

PL: Yeah, exactly.

PL: I don't know if it's relevant, but I went on to do voicemail in the eighties. In the nineties I worked for Logitech developing digital cameras. I was project manager for the first consumer digital camera. And then in conjunction with Logitech and Kodak, I was a project manager for Kodak's first consumer digital camera. So I ended my career on digital cameras.

KS: Excellent. And today you said you volunteer at the Computer History Museum?

PL: Yes.

KS: What else do you do to keep yourself busy?

PL: I'm an amateur radio operator, so I play with... Radios today are what they call software defined. All that stuff that used to be in a radio is now done in software. So I play around with that.

KS: I've been familiar with SDR. I'm a ham too. I've been familiar with SDR for a while. Recently I went to a conference and they had... I guess I didn't realize you could buy an SDR on a USB stick now for twenty bucks and it came with an antenna and I bought one and its been so fun. It seems like magic, frankly, to me, that a radio can tune into multiple frequencies at the same time. You can just see the whole spectrum.

PL: I got one of those also, the USB dongle. I have an SDR transceiver, its a Flex 1500 and I love it. Every time I think about getting another rig I think, why, this does everything that a three thousand dollar rig does.

KS: Right, there's something... I always love looking at the ham rigs that are just those big transceivers with the big dials and buttons and stuff but it's just like, completely, hardly necessary any more when you can just do it on a laptop.

PS: Exactly. I do all of my transceiving from a laptop.

KS: I just thought of another question about Atari BASIC. So getting back to the day of Atari BASIC, did you ever hear from end users? Did you get fan mail, or people writing to you about bugs, or did that just all go to Atari?

PL: Well, actually, a lot of it went to Bill Wilkinson, because not only did he create O.S.S. and the follow on products, but he was a monthly author for COMPUTE magazine. He had a regular Atari column. So a lot of questions and so forth went to him.

KS: Sure. More of a public face.

PL: Exactly. I very seldomly hear from people about Atari BASIC.

KS: Do you hear from people about Apple DOS?

PL: Yes I do. Particularly in the last year or so because the Computer History Museum did an oral history on Apple DOS. I had a listing and we went over the listing together and so forth. And then the first thing that came out was an article about the unknown thirteen thousand dollar disk operating system. That got a lot of attention. A lot of people in my neighborhood read it. That was quite well known.

KS: Are you familiar with a conference called KansasFest?

PL: No I'm not.

KS: It occurs every summer. It's an Apple II conference. I've gone two years in a row, and there's like fifty to sixty people there who are really into the Apple II. It's at Rockhurst University every year. I bet they would love, love to hear what you have to say.

PL: KansasFest, I'll look that up.

KS: KansasFest. It's in Kansas City, Missouri. I'm sure they would just adore having you there next summer.

PL: Well, I just looked it up in my notebook and saved it.

KS: I recently discovered that someone had... years ago, it's just a new discovery for me, made something called Turbo BASIC for the Atari. It was fully compatible with Atari BASIC, yet they added a bunch of commands like for drawing circles and doing quick fills and this and that and it was faster and you could compile it very easily and it had a bunch of neat features. But it was really cool because it was completely backwards compatible with your language.

PL: Interesting. It'll be interesting to see the internal design of that, if they picked up on my syntaxer or went in a completely separate way.

PL: Another interesting fact is that several years ago I wrote a BASIC that runs on Android. I kind of advertised that I was the author of Atari BASIC, creating a BASIC for Android. It's had 70,000 downloads. It's free and open source, and right now I do very little work on it but there are several other guys who continue to work on it. I kind of look on it as reliving my youth.

KS: So do you program in BASIC any more? Even on your Android?

PL: Well, when I was heavily working on it I created a lot of sample programs. The BASIC was delivered with about forty sample programs that demonstrated various features. So I did a lot of programming there, but not a whole lot these days.

KS: So on the Atari BASIC, were there any features that you really wanted to add or some cool thing that you thought should have been there but you couldn't do, or that you tried to do but didn't work out?

PL: No. Basically, what I put in was what I wanted to put in. And then there wasn't much space left over for anything else.

KS: So who else worked on it, you said Kathleen did the floating point?

PL: Yeah, Kathleen did the decimal floating point. I think it's important to note it's decimal. And, I guess that was it. After it was taken over by Atari a guy named Lane Winner worked on it. Another thing, for O.S.S., I did a language called Prolog, which they sold minimal copies of.

KS: Prolog for the Atari?

PL: Prolog for the Atari.

KS: I don't think I'm aware of that. When I think of O.S.S., I think of BASIC/A+ and Action! and things like that. I know a little bit about Prolog, I read a couple of books about it for the IBM PC in the nineties. Was it basically compatible with that same sort of language?

PL: Well it was compatible through the lines of Prolog. It had special functions in it to do graphics and things like that. It was asically a standard Prolog image. I think there was another Prolog written for the Atari 800 besides the one I wrote.

KS: Because you need competition in the busy Prolog programming space.

PL: If you look up, maybe, O.S.S. Prolog.

KS: I'll have to research this later. Interesting.

KS: I guess that's about all I have. Thank you very much.

PL: You're welcome very much. Interesting reminscing.

KS: Thank you so much for your time.

PL: You're welcome.