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Source: ANTIC: The Atari 8-Bit Podcast
Interviewer: Kevin Savetz
Kathleen O'Brien worked at Shepardson Microsystems where she wrote the Assembler Editor Cartridge and wrote the Floating Point Routines for Atari Basic. Her husband, Paul Laughton, wrote the rest of Atari Basic. She, along with Bill Wilkinson and Paul Laughton, co-founded Optimize Systems Software where she wrote much of the book, Atari Basic Source Book. I conducted this interview on February 20, 2015.
Kevin: Tell me about the first time that you saw an Atari computer.
Kathleen: I really don't remember, the first thing that's really clear is when we started working on Atari Basic and the Atari Assembler Editor and then we were given Ataris then to do our testing.
Kevin: They gave you some 800s I assume?
Kathleen: Eight hundreds, yes.
Kevin: Was Basic the first thing they wanted you to do? Or Assembler Editor or was it kind of a simultaneous thing?
Kathleen: I don't remember. They were very close together. I worked primarily on the Assembler Editor and did part of the Basic. And so the Basic may have been going on while I was doing the Assembler Editor and I got that done and then picked up part of the Basic.
Kevin: As I understand it, you did the floating point routines in Basic.
Kathleen: I did. I didn't know how to do floating point and Bill Wilkinson explained what was needed for floating point and then I implemented it.
Kevin: Okay, I was just curious how . . . and Paul did most of the rest of Basic, right?
Kevin: So, I'm curious how that conversation happens like, "Honey will you do the floating point routine?"
Kathleen: Actually, it was the boss who said, "Kathleen, why don't you do this?" And I said, "Okay, I can do that." This was at Shepardson Microsystems so we were pretty much a team. So actually, Paul, and Bill Wilkinson, and I all had a hand in it, in the Basic. In the Assembler Editor, I pretty much did that by myself.
Kevin: Can you tell me about that process, was it just . . . ?
Kathleen: I had a way to write the code. Actually I key punched, it's been so long ago. I wrote out what needed to be done. Mike Peters key punched it. We put it onto paper tape and then from that we could make an EPROM. And then we put the EPROM in the cartridge and we could test.
Kevin: Was it just a lot of iteration of that or was it . . . ?
Kathleen: Yes, of course. In any programming there is probably going to be a lot of iterations. And the way that I like to program is to do a little bit and see if it works and then do a little more and so it makes lots of iterations.
Kevin: Sure. So overall, the three of you working . . . I don't know, you got [inaudible 00:03:39] other projects before, but what was the situation, what did it feel like? Was it just another gig or was it like stressful, or deadlines, was it fun?
Kathleen: It was fun. I mean, programming is almost always fun for me. So we would . . . Bill's part was really explaining how Floating Point was done and then Paul and I did the coding. And we would work either there or at home until 2:00 or 3:00 in the morning and bring our stuff in for Mike to work on. And we would work a bunch of 12 or 14 hours days and then we would take a couple of days off and g skiing. It was a good process. Shep was a good boss. We had a lot of fun. We were in one big room. Before the days of everyone being in one room, we were in one room with a couple other guys. So there was interaction that way.
Kevin: Where did you learn computers? In college or are you self taught?
Kathleen: Mostly on the job. I had worked at Control Data. Something called Service Bureau which had been part of IBM and then was given to Control Data as part of an anti-trust settlement. And so we used all IBM equipment. And that is where I learned. Assembler was my first language. I was programming in Assembler there. And then when I went to Shepardsons, they had a different Assembly language.
Kevin: Was it unusual, at the time, did you find that it was unusual for a woman to be in that field or doing that sort of thing? Or was or was it not unusual?
Kathleen: I think IBM was good about hiring women. I mean I think they were open to that. And so there were a few other women when I was at Control Data. And I never felt that that was really an issue. I mean I did a good job and I was accepted as a programmer who did a good job and this was never an issue. And then at Shepardson I was the only woman, at the height there were probably only five of us so it didn't . . . I don't know, it always felt more like we were all programmers than that we were men and women. I think it wasn't an issue for me so it wasn't an issue for them.
Kevin: Where there any memorable people that you worked with at Atari or that you met?
Kathleen: Amy Chin at Atari. I didn't have a lot of contact with Atari, with the project. Somebody told Shep what to do and he told me what to do and I didn't interact with Atari. But I had much more interaction when Paul went to work there. And he was working on the next generation of Atari computer. One of the people there was Amy Chin and she stands out in my mind. And Lou Tarnay. Lou Tarnay was the manager and Amy Chin was a programmer. Lou Tarnay was Paul's manager and Paul was Amy's manager.
Kevin: So after OSS was founded, even Paul didn't really hang around long after it was founded. What was your capacity there for the time that you were there?
Kathleen: Well I'd had a baby, so I wasn't doing a whole lot at that point. Except that I wrote the Inside Atari Basic. A book that we thought might be successful. And so I actually used the Atari to write that. In one of my back bedrooms I wrote whenever the baby was asleep. My sister would come over and take the baby out and I would do a little bit more. and that was what I remember about OSS.
Kevin: Writing while the baby's asleep, I've done that. Inside Atari Basic, you kind of implied it was not a success, that book.
Kathleen: Well I don't know, I was only interested in writing it. Somebody else messed with whether or not anybody bought it.
Kevin: Not your problem.
Kathleen: Not my problem. I did the fun part, somebody else did the rest of it.
Kevin: Well do you have any stories or any memories that you'd like to share? Anything that pops to mind about that time?
Kathleen: Well right after our baby was born they were having a potluck at Atari. At Paul's apartment, or I guess probably Lou Tarnay's apartment. And Paul wanted me to come and it didn't seem very appropriate for me to come. So he finally told me that they were planning a surprise shower. And I say, "Well if it is a surprise, then how do you know?" And he said, "Well, Amy is planning it and Amy is very scrutable."
Kevin: Nice, so they threw you a baby shower?
Kevin: That's adorable.
Kathleen: Yes, it was very nice. So the baby and I went. She wasn't very old, a week or so maybe. I was reluctant to get out, but it was fun, they were a bunch of good people.
Kevin: All right. Any other stories or anything?
Kathleen: That's pretty much what I remember. Like I said, I didn't have a whole lot of contact with the people at Atari. It was mostly the people at Shepardsons and then at OSS when Bill worked with that. I do remember that one of the nice perks of working for Shepardson was that he would take us to lunch pretty often in his Mercedes little sports car.
Kevin: Cool, nice. Were you impressed with the Atari 800? I mean, did you think it was decent machine compared to other equipment you had used?
Kathleen: It was good. The other machine that I compare it with is the Apple II. And they were comparable. I used the Atari for writing the book because they had a little text editor that would do both upper and lower case. And at that time the Apple only had upper case. The Atari was a useful machine and I enjoyed using it.
Kevin: Well, I guess, that's about all I have.
Kathleen: That's about all I remember.
Kevin: Okay. Well thank you so much for getting out of your comfort zone and talking to me today, appreciate it.
Kathleen: All right, you're welcome.
Kevin: Have a great day.