Wed, 7 October 2015
Dr. Priscilla Laws, AtariLab
AtariLab was a hardware and software package for the Atari 400 and 800 computers. The AtariLab Starter Set with Temperature Module was released in 1983. The Light Module add-on was released in February 1984.
AtariLab was developed at Dickinson College under the direction of physics professor, Dr. Priscilla Laws. Dr. Laws joined the faculty at Dickinson in 1965. She has dedicated herself to the development of activity-based curricular materials and computer software to enhance student learning in introductory physics courses — which started with AtariLab.
This interview took place May 14, 2015
“I saw somebody dip a thermistor into cold water — ice water — and a real-time cooling curve was appearing on the screen. And it blew me away.”
“So, Ron said: ‘I watched Ray Kassar open the safe, and he pulled $200,000 in bills out of the safe. He handed it to the woman and he said “Please say no more.”’”
I remember when articles about AtariLab first appeared in the Atari magazines. This was shortly after the Atari Hardware Manual became available at stores in Canada, some time in 1983(?), and I was quick to pick up a copy. I didn't do much with the information directly, I was more interested in playing games that writing them. But my friend Oliver Kenkel had that creative spark and I became a sort of walking encyclopedia, telling him about the latest trick of the system I had read about, only to find he would develop it into some sort of program in a couple of days. In this case an article appeared in Creative Computing (IIRC) about how to make a light pen for the Atari using a common pen flashlight from Radio Shack. I dove into the Hardware Manual to understand how it worked, and then described it to Oliver. He proved uninterested in the light pen (which never worked anyway, the value jumped all over the screen) but quickly adapted the concept for a microphone input. At first he tried to make a voice input system, but found he couldn't sample it nearly fast enough to do anything useful. However, Oliver was very much into lucid dreaming, so he adapted it as a trigger that would turn on the cassette drive whenever he made enough noise, with the program also logging out when it turned on and for how long. He would press record on the tape deck and run the program before turning in. He was fascinated by the resulting recordings of his mumbling, although the rest of us found it a bit boring. When AtariLab was announced a few months later we considered packaging up what we had as a Sound Module. We tried to contact Atari and reach the people behind the system, but Atari was in turmoil and we were two poor 15 year old kids, so that's as far as that went. Given how trivial it was to adapt the POT inputs to act as generalized voltage sensors, I find it surprising that such devices were not widespread and available earlier.