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TEX history Ⅱ: Atari

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[This post continues yesterday’s story.]

The first TEX I ever used was on an Atari ST. And that was pretty exciting, if only for the fact that it was the only application I knew of that was so huge that it required you to have a hard drive as you could easily fill ten megabytes or so with all the auxiliary files and particularly the font bitmaps. Gigantic!

Back then, hard drives came in large-ish boxes back then and had impressive cooling systems that – noise-wise at least – seemed to have been designed like jet engines. Certainly exciting things that were worth having at the time.

The good thing about my start with TEX was that I didn’t have to install it. Back then, installation could have been slightly tricky and, anyway, I had absolutely no idea about the inner workings of the thing, so getting a readily installed copy was probably essential.

It came with the well-known command line tools wich you couldn’t really use in the Atari’s graphical interface, a text editor (Tempus) and, the brilliant thing, the TEX-Shell. That shell tied all the components together nicely. And if I am not mistaken it was an absolutely essential tool for making things work because the Atari wasn’t exactly a multitasking environment and, for a bit of comfort, you needed someone to switch between TeX, the previewer, possibly Metafont, and the editor for you, which the shell did.

And, with hindsight, the TEX-Shell did that rather well. Not only did it switch between the various programs you needed to run, it also redirected TEX’s editing requests to the graphical editor, provided the ability to switch between different format files (even things that are simple packages today like AMS-TEX required special format files back then and there were also ‘Big’ ones which allocated more memory and didn’t run on my computer with just 1MB of total memory). And, most conveniently, it also provided project management: You could create a list of files belonging to your project, edit all of these and set one of them to be the ‘main’ file that will be typeset. Not mind-bogglingly fancy but getting the job done.

TEX on the Atari, or at least the installation I got, had another really neat feature which I have always struggled (and right now fail) to get back in later installations: It was set up to store all the output files in separate folders: a folder for DVI files, a folder for log files and a folder for auxiliary files I think. Which in turn meant that all that junk didn’t litter the folder you had your actual files in.

Other things I remember from back then: Speed. Or, rather, lack thereof. Just processing a single page document could take quite a while. If you went multicolumn almost a minute. Which made usage of the tools quite different from what it is today. Then there was Metafont. Also incredibly slow, but luckily not needed that frequently in regular usage. Except if you wanted to fool around and try typesetting musical notation, chess diagrams custom sized cminch characters or other fancy fonts — all of which I wanted of course.

And finally there was printing. On the glorious NEC P6, one of the more noisy machines on this planet. And one that, in its high quality mode, managed to need amazingly long periods of time to print a single page. Printing had to be co-ordinated with the parents’ (and neighbours’) wishes to sleep. Which essentially meant that you had 20 pages to print, you better started around eight, so no complaints would be coming when people wanted to sleep. The print quality was quite good though. In fact, I thought that most inkjet printers I saw in the late 1990s produced worse results when not being fed hideously expensive paper (i.e. most of the time). And you could do fun things with the printer such as removing the ribbon and making paper with fake watermarks, for example.

So, despite many things being quite archaic (TEX 2, slowness, no multitastking), it’s quite amazing how many things you could already do on that ancient machine. In particular, I keep thinking that the ‘Shell’ and the simple project management it offered did a rather good job compared with many other solutions.

Next: Sidesteps

September 5, 2007, 0:03

Tagged as TeX.


Comment by d.w.: User icon

There really was something both cool and thoroughly deranged about those old dot-matrix printers. I worked in an office in the early 90’s where we had a printer that we would joke needed to be fed raw tree logs, which it would then grind, mill, and pulp into paper to be printed on. Or at least the thing was loud and slow enough that we figured that was what it must have been doing. :)

September 5, 2007, 21:43

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