Atari’s “Think Tank” – Cyan Engineering


“Press Any Key…”

I recently ran across this fantastic and odd little gem – “Atari’s Cyan Engineering – Splendor in the Grass”, a largely forgotten short documentary about Atari’s famous “think-tank” shot in 1982, two years before Big Brother was supposed to make life hell (and 30 years before he actually would).


Atari VCS/2600

Atari VCS/2600


It highlights some of the work developed here that Atari became famous for such as the VCS (Video Computer System/2600), and serves as a bit of a fun time-machine to back where they tinker with ideas, peer into the future and try to predict much of what we take for granted today. Video conferencing and small portable “Briefcase sized” computers are mentioned for example, along with pointing devices (mice) & touchscreens.

Located in Grass Valley, a small Gold Rush era town in Northern California’s Sierra Nevada foothills, Cyan engineering was at the epicenter of what would soon become a hotbed of R&D engineering firms for the emerging Silicon Valley.


They were already talking about using it  inappropriately.

They were already talking about using it inappropriately.


Companies chose the location due to its proximity to the Bay Area, yet it was still remote enough to be free from the smog, noise and distractions of city life. The local culture was heavily into the creative arts which helped foster new ideas, a byproduct of being heavily populated by hippies who had relocated after the crash of San Francisco’s Haight & Ashbury “Summer of Love” movement, much to the dismay of older citizens.




The Cyan Engineering offices, later known as Atari Grass Valley, were located in an old hospital building up on a hill, in the center of a large piece of property owned by Charles Litton of Litton Industries fame, who purchased the site back in 1953. Known locally as “Old Miner’s Hospital” by many of the older residents who were born there, the area had been closed and generally off limits to the locals for decades, which spurred rumors of various military projects and “Top Secret” inventions.

An active and ever-present security force only added to the mystique of the “Building on the Hill”.


(It looked nothing like this from the back side)

(It looked nothing like this from the other side… think more sinister with fences, guards and gates)


This is where things start to go awry… adjacent to the Litton property along its back side, was the county High School, where in an attempt to consolidate and save money, thousands of students were bused in from the farthest reaches of one of the largest and rather sparsely populated counties in California. A horrible solution that resulted in kids from the furthest edges of the county riding school buses for several hours each day through all kinds of snow, floods and weather in the wee hours of the morning or the dark of night, arriving (if they made it) even more tired and angry then the average teen, if that is even possible.

As luck would have it, this was MY high school, NUHS (Nevada Union High School). And, this documentary was also filmed when I was an angry, tired Freshman at the angst ridden High School next door.

MTV was suddenly a thing, as were Friday Night Videos. Punk & New Wave were all the rage for clicks who insisted that “Skateboarding is not a Crime” – while Heavy Metal drove others to sneer, grab guitars and poke holes in our ears. (I myself tried to DIY a bull-ring through the nose – which ended very badly if you must know) And we ALL began to tease Valley-Girls while questioning “The Man”.

screaming punk


Now, just a few years earlier our small community had gotten our very first McDonalds and they were still a bit of a novelty, the cool place to bee seen.

Neither of the two adjacent towns (Grass Valley & Nevada City) wanted this commercial fast food mega-giant to spoil the down-town vibe of their Historic Gold Mining districts, so after years of debate and fighting McDonalds chose an unincorporated location directly between the two in an area known as “Brunswick”, which at one time had been famous as a wooden racing track, fairgrounds and swimming resort known as Lake Olympia, but had been closed and drained for many years.

Soon other mega restaurants also rushed-in, Burger King, Jack in the Box, Taco Bell, Rax Roast Beef – all began to compete with the smaller A&W, Foster’s Freeze, and local favorite Humpty Dumpty (which has fantastic Peanut Butter milkshakes, btw).


Humpty Dumpty


The BIG problem however was that Brunswick, this mecca of horrible food for geeky angry teens, was located over the hill on the opposite side of the Litton property. Older kids had cars, but there were no direct routes and it took a long time to drive all the way around, which usually resulted in a tardy slip. The fastest way to get over and grab a burger was to cut across the Litton property by sneaking through the trees from our lower soccer field and then trying to outwit and outrun Security.

Inevitably some would be caught, given detention or suspension, even expelled or sent to continuation schools. Litton’s Security would get so fed up they’d come over the high school to complain, and our principle would plead, warn, and then revoke our off-campus lunch privileges for the entire school for a week or a month, depending on how mad he was. The fact that we weren’t supposed to do it and could get into real trouble only added to the allure.


evil burger

“OMG, you went and got a burger? You must be a bad-ass.”

This went on for years and is still the first thing that comes to mind when many of us hear the word “Litton”.

What interests me most with this Atari documentary though, is that none of us really knew what was going on inside that old hospital. And what’s really cool is as it was being filmed – my friends and I are likely sneaking around just outside on our quest to get a highly coveted illegal burger…

Always a rush.


Atari 3

Ron Milner – “No Burgers for you!”


This film offers a taste of what local characters/engineers looked and talked like at the time, and many of the faces do look astonishingly familiar.

Now, 3 decades later, the property has been turned into a community college satellite campus, and nothing is recognizable anymore. And amusingly, according to Google Maps that secret path we forged over that forbidden hill has now become a park trail. WE WON!!


(sudden uncontrollable urge to fill ancient holes in ear with rings and shave head into Mohawk)

But really, check out the cool/odd video. Talk about a trip, man.

  • They're all weirdly smirky and smug for a bunch of Disco Era poindexters. I guess they had it to lord over those shlubbs making electric cash registers and other pedestrian items.

    "I'm working on a device that points at the screen electronically!"
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    • jeepjeff

      Eh. The weirld smirky smugness hasn't gone anywhere. That's alive and well in the tech community. Less polyester, more tattoos these days. That's about all that looks really different to me.

      • I totally expect programmers to be haughty these days. They're the golden children of Silicon Valley and San Francisco, there's Hollywood movies about the Winklevoss twins. Nerd is the Word. But in 1980 I would think programmers were about as desirable as public telephone sanitizers.

        I blame Disco. The late '70s were so hairy and macho; that, and the general sense of entitlement guys in business have always had. Now we have Brogrammers.

        (Whoah, I got some red thumbs for this? I didn't know AT had enough followers to get me down to zero thumbs! Hey! stop criticizing and go make some better comments!)

  • DellCry

    I was a high school kid at NUHS and worked at the Atari office from 1980-1984 as the office gopher/janitor. Cleaning up after the engineers and doing all the grunge work. Not the most fun job in the world, but was still a fun place to work as a teen.