ASCII by Jason Scott

Jason Scott's Weblog

Taking the Sears Time Machine for a Test Drive —

I tried one of those experiments, where a lot of people know something might work, but nobody wants to put down the bucks to see if it will. So I decided to go for it.

Sears, that venerable chain of mail catalogs-turned-stores-turned-K-Mart-Meal, has a Parts Direct website where, in theory, you can buy anything they ever sold. Naturally, some parts become discontinued, as old parts often do. You wouldn’t be surprised to hear a warehouse dumped old items, especially old technology/computer parts, long ago. What you would be surprised about is if they still offered replacement parts for computers that have not been for sale for 25 years.

Enter the Atari 400.

Man, I get so happy looking at this thing, because it brings me way the hell back to when it first came out – I was about 11 when I would see it at the mall, and that price tag, about $500, seemed almost attainable, almost within reach. (It wasn’t; I was dirt poor at the time.) Ironically, that keyboard, that flat touch-panel keyboard, made it irresistible to me, even though older-me knows, looking at it, what an utter pain in the ass it would be to use it for any amount of time. The colors were so rich, the font so distinct, I just fell in love with it.

(As it turns out, I ended up getting the Atari 800, a more expensive model in the same family that had all the things that the 400 lacked, and I was a much happier person, if a few years past the drooling child who wanted that computer so badly.)

Here’s what the Sears catalog page for the Atari 400 looked like:

I am much older since then – in fact, it’s been 30 years since my endless staring at the Atari 400 at Service Merchandise. So imagine my surprise when I found out that the parts for Atari 400s were still available at the Sears Parts website. Along with, I might add, diagrams to help you understand the parts:

Remember, there’s a big market for used computer parts. Big, big, big. Vintage computer groups get together and trade items. People trade software, t-shirts, stickers, hardware, you name it. The better in shape, the more valuable. In nearly every trade of older hardware, be it computers or car parts or scientific equipment or tools, there’s the concept of NEW OLD STOCK, which is where something was made, at the factory, sealed up, and then never touched again. You pull it out of the bag (assuming the cultural aspects of your group allow it), and it is new, like you just stepped back in time. It is the year it came out, and you’ve stopped down to get your new toy. It’s right here. That experience can almost be priceless, although be rest assured that there is almost always an actual price. A high one, in fact.

But on this page, for a moment, it appeared that you could, against all odds and reason, order Atari 400 replacement parts as if they’d never gone out of style, never dropped out in favor of the later models and the march of progress. A lot of people might say “well, it would never actually happen” and not waste the time to go through the pain of ordering,  putting money on the line, and then waiting however long to see if New Old Stock Atari parts arrived in the mail like it was no big thing.

I am not a lot of people.

I ordered 46-33811-3 (SPEAKER ASSE), 46-353101-3 (PCB MOTHER), 46-691496-3 (TV SW BOX), and 46-353099-3 (PCB RAM BD). If you’re looking at the diagram above, that’s numbers 5 and 9 and two other parts not shown. I chose the ones that were hardest to replace with newer versions; power supplies, for example, could be reborn a thousand new ways (and have been). One exception: The TV SW BOX, i.e. RF Modulator, which could easily be replaced but was $12, so I could see how well the system worked, assuming they had actually gone through the trouble of finding a new RF modulator replacement.

Let’s not waste your time with suspense. The experiment’s result is Sears Doesn’t Have Shit.

On one hand, hooray, that’s $250 I get back. On the other hand, it means an end to my dream of having a box arrive on my front porch, with a Sears mark, and opening it to find a perfect Atari 400 part packaged like “Pac-Man Fever” is blasting on the radio behind me and I have not yet kissed anyone.

So, a small tangent to this.

Sears in the 1970s was at the end of when department stores, in general, actually gave a damn about their products, about the customers, and about doing things right. There were problems, to be sure, but some things were very, very sacred. And with a history spanning either 80 or 100 years depending on how you looked at it, Sears, Roebuck and Co. treated the maintenance of the products they sold as inherently sacred. To that extent, in the 1970s, Atari had to provide Sears with ways to repair, maintain, and inspect the Atari 400. This resulted in a repairman’s manual for same. (Thanks to Charliecron for this image);

Can you imagine many contemporary companies having this situation for, say, a hard drive or a flat-screen TV? A custom, in-house manual for their repair department to be able to take the item in and fix it back into working order? Those times are, on the whole, pretty much gone.

And they have to be – margins are smaller than ever, integration is still vertical but not in the name of making things better, and who cares, we’re going to throw all this crap out in 2 years when we add a whooziz to it.

In 2004, Sears was bought out by K-Mart, itself a venerable company but one much less aimed towards the kind of item maintenance and appliance/electronics focus Sears had from its tool catalog days. And I don’t really need to talk about how chain stores’ fortunes have risen and fallen dramatically over the past few decades, other to say that a lot of things were flung away through the fortunes raised and lost.

Apparently some of those things were Atari parts.


Categorised as: computer history

Comments are disabled on this post


  1. Kurt Mosiejczuk says:

    Just a quick Atari History nitpick.

    The 400/800 were both contemporary. The 800 wasn’t a later model, it was designed and released at the same time.

  2. Jason Scott says:

    Changed “later model” to “more expensive model”. Thanks.

  3. Cool, they even “have” C64 parts!

    I remember seeing an Atari 800 once at a friend’s house. He showed off some game that came on cartridge and was really quite impressive. Never saw it again and he bought a Spectrum48k+ and an Amiga afterwards ..

  4. Chris Barts says:

    Might be fun to point people to Javatari, the multiplayer Atari 2600 emulator written in pure Java with no dependencies on external libraries.

    You need ROMs to actually play anything, but as far as the console itself goes, the fact it doesn’t rely on external libraries means it will run anywhere you have a Java 6 JVM or higher, on into the indefinite future. (Java is a pretty safe bet in the 15-20 year timeframe, and the source code is available, too.)

  5. Nathan Prugh says:

    correction… sears brought k-mart… not k-mart brought sears…

  6. John H. says:

    Several times while I was growing up my Commodore 64 would end up developing a fault where it couldn’t stay on for long without spontaneously glitching out and locking up, often making a weird noise on the speaker and then displaying garbage on the screen. (I never did quite figure out what the problem was, it might have been the power supply.) Anyway, each time we’d pack up the machine and send it to Sears, I’d wait patiently for a few weeks, and after a while they’d ship it back. Sometimes it would work but frequently it would not, and eventually Dad would just get me a new C64. (I eventually ended up with three or four of them because of this, which I still have in the closet somewhere.) Still, it seems strange to think of a retail outlet now actually repairing something they sold.

  7. Yokel says:

    Ooooh, shucks! Halfway through your post I thought I saw where this was going … you ordered ALL the spare parts, they sent them, and you built a brand new Atari 8000. Oh well.