For most of the world, the words September 11 carry some heavily negative connotations for some pretty obvious reasons. But the notorious date also belongs to an earlier and far happier anniversary, as it was on September 11, 1977 that the Atari Video Computer System, carrying a model number of CX2600, made its commercial debut.
In a world in which computers and electronic devices are prerequisites for participation in society and in which most of us carry full-fledged computers in our pockets at all times, it’s sometimes hard to fathom the kind of world the Atari 2600 was introduced into. But what a different world it was. If you wanted to see a movie, you had to see it in a movie theater or else wait two to three years for a heavily-edited cut to appear on network TV (or, if you were on the wealthier side, on HBO). Black-and-white televisions still existed and were surprisingly common. You still typed out letters and reports on a typewriter. If you wanted to play a game, you had three general options: go outside and throw a ball around, stay inside and play a board game, or head down to your local arcade to play some pinball or the handful of video games available.
For many households, the Atari VCS was quite likely the first electronic peripheral they had ever connected to their televisions, as its release predated the normalization (if not the commercialization) of VCRs by a number of years. Not discounting the considerable success of Pong and other dedicated consoles which pre-dated the VCS, there’s a pretty good chance a given family’s purchase of an Atari represented the first time they actually interacted with their televisions rather than acting as passive audiences of whatever their three or four channels had on offer.
Yes, I know we could get into a lot of technicalities about the Magnavox Odyssey’s release in 1972 or the Fairchild Channel F in 1976. But c’mon: although it got off to a slow start commercially, the Atari VCS was a phenomenon, and its 40th anniversary is one worth noting. In a significant way, its release changed how we interacted with television and set the stage for the normalization of computer technology in the home. So happy birthday Atari 2600 and thanks for the decades of pure joy you have brought to so many of us.