The Atari 130XE was my first computer. Not the first computer I used, but close. I got it around 1986, when I was in 4th grade. My dad and I bought it at some store, probably Sears. I paid part of the money for it, and he paid part.
I think he planned to use it for word processing, since he also got the one piece of commercial software I ever had for it, AtariWriter Plus. We also picked up one game for it, some kind of space battle thing on a cartridge, with a special controller, and a huge, clunky trackball. That game never worked (maybe it was for some other model of Atari?), so I was stuck with playing with programming in BASIC. The Atari had a nice manual that made this very fun to learn.
At some point in here, I think in the first year I had it, disaster struck. I had a cup of OJ at the computer and it fell onto the keyboard. I didn't know that you could just toss a computer in a sink and take it out and blow-dry it and it'd be fine, so I did nothing. Until keys began to not work, and others to repeat over and over. Not sure if the OJ etched the circuit board, or just gummed up the connections, but the Atari was out of operation.
A bit later, I'm not sure how long, "I" wrote to someone at Atari's offices in Sunnyvale, CA, asking if I could get it fixed, and "I" sent it out there and miracuously they sent back a completely new Atari. I knew it was new, because it was much cleaner than the one I sent out. I'm not sure why I remember doing this, since it seems likely it was really my parents writing the letters and doing the shipping. I am still grateful to that unnamed person at Atari, who may have known at the time he was at the last days of the company's heyday, and sent that replacement to an already out of date and out of warantee machine.
The several years after I got it back were probably my most productive on the Atari. I wrote a lot of games and other programs. Often I'd see some program on another computer, like the original Tetris, or Lode Runner on a C64, and write up my own clone on the Atari. I did a lot of semi-original stuff too.
I was a pretty horrible programmer, by the way. I remember whaling at code over and over, pretty much at random, until I randomly found something that sort of worked. Well, hey, it was just BASIC.. At one point I found a book at the library about Atari game programming. It had one thing that blew me away; some weird ATASCII characters that if entered just right, in the middle of a BASIC program, would let you redefine the Atari's character set, so you could use characters for sprite based graphics. That was some precompiled assembly code, and while I used it, I had no idea how to change it, or write anything like it. By the time I learned what assembly was and started looking for an Atari Assembler, it was too late to buy one.
Anyway, the key thing was that, if I didn't write the software, I didn't have any software. Especially a few years later there was no chance of even buying any, and without a modem, I wasn't tied into any BBS scene. The Atari was its own little island, with its own little colony of unique programs growing up without fear of competition. That, and the lack of an assembler to get really low-level (though I did plenty of PEEKs and POKEs), defined my early programming time, and have probably defined where I went and what I did since.
I remember when this ended. My dad got a second computer, a 286 laptop, and I started getting ahold of programs from friends at school and putting them on it. At one point I got ahold of Battle Chess, and I realized that here was a game that I couldn't hope to replicate myself on the Atari. For the first time I compared my attempts on the Atari to the wider world, and found them wanting.
The last program I wrote for the Atari was in 1992, when I lent it to Mary Calhoun to use as a display in the waiting room of her office and wrote a program to handle that. This is also the only program that has my name on it, and even a copyright notice. By then I had moved on and was clearly trying to do programs that were more like the stuff I was seeing on the PC.