Atari System V UNIX Saga – Part I – Intro

(note this is a guest post from tenox)

SONY DSCA long long ago, my father had a printing business. An emerging technology called Desktop Publishing (DTP) was just taking to the mainstream. I have been involved in migration from Linotronic typesetting machines (see above) to more modern and GUI driven Atari TT with Calamus. Those were fun times. Long story short, I became an avid fan of Atari. Unfortunately as time progressed, Ataris got in turn obsoleted by Macs with Quark Xpress and Photoshop. I myself started exploring world of Unix and ended up selling my Atari to be able to run Linux. Bit of shame from time perspective as there were plenty of Unix flavors for the Atari: Minix, Linux, NetBSD and MiNT. Unfortunately they were released after I parted with the platform.

Atari System V on Cebit

Fast forward 20 years, Atari own UNIX version surfaced the earth. It was originally released in mid 1992 but died shortly after, no one ever heard about it. It has been lost to humanity. Only two good souls had working versions of the system and under pressure of the community finally made disk images of their installations. Some time after a documentation set has been found and digitized. Now I’m in process of trying to restore last existing set of damaged installation tapes. You can find little bit more history of the efforts on this thread.


Out of nostalgia and the fact that Atari TT has been designed as a Unix Workstation, but never got a chance to play with it in this role, I decided to purchase one for myself. I have turned to Best Electronics who is a local Atari dealer around the corner. They sell Ataris like brand new, assembled from spare or reconditioned parts. I paid a small fortune for it, but I got myself a brand spanking new Atari TT, factory sealed and smelling like new after 20 years. It was fitted with latest motherboard revision, TOS, 1.44 MB FDD, 4 MB ST RAM and 16 MB TT RAM.


I was told to just hook it up to a VGA monitor and viola, it will work. Which it did… except to my utter shock in a whopping resolution of 640×480. It looked absolutely horrible stretched on a 19″ LCD panel. I don’t have any pictures but it looked like this. For games maybe OK but not for Unix or any sensible applications.

Using TTs professionally in DTP I certainly didn’t remember them suffering in the resolution department. So what was I doing wrong? Aha! In the old days we used to use special high resolution VME graphic cards.  So I went to search for one on eBay and Atari Forums. These obviously proven to be impossible to find… obviously. Additionally I learned that Atari UNIX does not support any of these as they required special TOS/NVDI drivers. In order to run ASV X11 with a decent resolution, one needs a special high resolution monitor called either TTM 194 or 195. These were “professional” 19″ monitors specifically for DTP work. They worked with the built-in graphics card in a special black and white mode at 1280×960, which is actually decent even in modern standards. In a fact we did have these monitors at the printing shop.

Unfortunately these are very old, bulky CRTs and weight 50 lbs. My wife would kill me if I brought one home and even if she didn’t I would hate having one of these on my desk. So why won’t the “TT High” mode work on a standard VGA LCD which normally supports 1280×1024? Well back in a day VGA standard didn’t support such resolutions and Atari had to make the monochrome monitors using ECL signal similar to old SUN/3 and HP monitors. Higher resolution modes were only added later by VESA BIOS extensions.

Researching the topic a lot of people were actually looking for an ECL to VGA signal converter but one did not exist. Some managed to use old EIZO CRTs with ECL support and with decent results, but still these are 50 lbs CRTs and I wanted to run ASV on a LCD panel. An adapter to convert ECL signal to a real VGA has actually been tried before but with rather awful results. Something had to be done!

TenoxVGA was born. And this will be covered in the next post… 😉

6 thoughts on “Atari System V UNIX Saga – Part I – Intro

  1. Hahaha, I don’t think so. I have a feeling that if I ever built an OS not many people would use it. I would also love to support all the legacy hardware, which takes time to develop for. There are so many new operating systems already under development, and none of them complete. I wish all these people came to an agreement and built one OS that actually works. But this will never happen.

    • Well, I’m a Linux kernel user but even the Debian OS isn’t 100% working. If there was an OS that was complete, it would either be the last OS version made, or quickly obsoleted by demand for new features. No one in 1993 thought that hardware (not just the CPU/memory) virtualization would be needed. Look at the PCI(-E) passthrough issue in newer OSes and simulators.

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