When I was young, my parents wanted to encourage my interest in computers, but couldn’t afford a new machine, so they bought a used Atari 800XL from a friend, and mostly let me have my way with it. My dad writes about being shocked when I took it apart. Of the many things I learned how to do with that Atari, war-dialing BBSes was one of my favorites. It was through these proto-online experiences that I learned about the Atari ST computers. I remember being shocked that the “1040” was a computer more powerful than mine — because my floppy drive had the moniker “1050.” That year, I asked a mall Santa for an Atari Falcon.
For more than two decades, I’d lusted after these fabled 16-bit Atari machines, but their relative rarity in North America meant they were too expensive to justify. I finally found a fellow nerd who traded my restored Apple IIGS for his Atari Mega ST 2. My excitement faded fast as I figured out why Atari didn’t survive as a purveyor of home computers…
My Mega ST set-up came in stackable parts: the main computer, an external Megafile hard drive, and a high resolution gray-scale monitor. 2 of 3 parts were very yellowed, but in otherwise great cosmetic condition. The monitor sprang to life clear and sharp, the hard drive spun true, and the Atari itself booted quickly — but screamed the whole time. I figured this would be an easy repair, if that was the only issue.
Dissembling the monitor proved too difficult to be worth it, so I tried a new retro-brighting technique: mostly a pure sun bath, combined with periodic painting on of some lightly diluted 40v liquid. The color was mostly restored, and there was no bleaching or staining. The Mega was easier to take apart — save for the ridiculous amount of metal shielding. The keyboard was similar, although I was horrified to find that each individual key-cap had its own separate rubber plunger, most of which rolled away and had to be chased across the rec room. My standard gentle retro-bright bathe cleaned these parts up nicely, and the color match with the monitor was spot on. While they were apart, I re-capped the logic board and power supply, and check continuity on the keyboard solder points and cable — since the screaming sound appeared to be a “stuck key” indication.
Next came the hard drive. Amazingly, the case color was still quite close to original, and even more incredible, the factory warranty stickers were unbroken. I decided it was best not to mess with it, and settled only for a warm cloth wipe down, and a gentle baking soda rub on a few stubborn spots.
Once everything was dry, I re-assembled it all and powered it back up. Same quick response, same screaming sound. I purchased a new keyboard cable from someone online, and waited to try again. Weeks later, same result. After repeated attempts, I found that 2-3 times in 10 boots, there’d be no scream, but any text entry field would immediately fill up with garbage character input from the keyboard. And 1 in 10 boots everything would work fine. Occasionally disconnecting and re-connecting the keyboard after booting would solve the problem.
A YouTube video indicated a possible short or unintended ground on the logic board might be the culprit, but running the Mega bare on a static mat had no impact, and a close inspection with a loupe could find no bad traces. A fellow nerd suggested maybe a bad oscillator crystal on the keyboard, but swapping that fixed nothing. A replacement keyboard could only be sourced from Europe, at great cost, and with significant delay due to the pandemic’s impact on shipping. Finally a member of a Facebook group who’d purchased a previous restoration from me volunteered to send me a cap-less junk keyboard that I could use to narrow down the problem. Sure enough, the Mega was happy with that keyboard… unfortunately, the caps from my bad keyboard were not a fit, so I couldn’t combine them. Instead I swapped every significant electrical component from the working-junk keyboard with the bad-but-beautiful original. No change.
Determined that this project wouldn’t be a complete loss, I purchased a hard drive emulator (unfortunately dubbed the “UltraSATAN”) so I could load up some games… only to find that the disk would get corrupted within minutes of use. Discouraged, I found and purchased an Atari 1040ST to try to compare and isolate this problem. Eventually, I learned through forums that reliable hard disk access would require an OS upgrade. Incredibly, Atari’s approach to software updates was to replace ROM chips inside the computer — I ordered some from eBay, and after two tries, got a set that worked. I found a decent list of games that claimed to work in high-resolution mode, and curated a hard disk image using the Hatari emulator. About half the games were playable, but even less were fun. Oh well, maybe I need a color monitor for the fun ones…
This, it turns out, required an expensive custom cable, so it was back to eBay for an Atari video to SCART cable. Fortunately, I had an SCART to HDMI adapter that had served me well in the past. Unfortunately, the hand-made cable arrived with a short in it, and within minutes of plugging it in, smoke was pouring out of my HDMI adapter. The seller replaced the cable, and I bought a cheaper adapter on Amazon… which only showed one color. I returned it, and bought the more expensive adapter again. Finally, Atari in color on a modern monitor… at this point, I was so far in the hole on this project, that it was impossible to justify it to my wife/accountant.
My original goal had been to play with some MIDI software. I used to play piano quite well, and remember when I first learned about MIDI keyboards and got excited about this union of two of my interests. While our current Clavinova does MIDI, its of the USB variety, and adapters from USB to classic MIDI are unreasonably expensive. The only use case left was to try out some more games… unfortunately, the Atari joystick that had been in storage since my youth only had one working axis. Off to Amazon to order a replacement.
We did finally manage to try out a few games and have a little fun with the beast, but most of the joy, and all of the excitement was gone. Off all my restorations, this one is most clearly a failure. The Mega ST 2 looked and ran nice, and I found a buyer for it who already had a working keyboard, so I’m sure he was happy. The Megafile hard drive worked great, and another buyer got a decent deal to add to his collection. After selling, I got close enough to the break-even point that the boss allowed me to continue with other projects. And I still have the monitor and the 1040ST to play with… but those are another blog post.