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The Lorraine Project

The Amiga started life in true American Dream style. Back in 1982 three rather eccentric guys from California got together and formed a company which they called "Hi-Toro", that was partially funded to the extent of approx $7 million by independent investors (believed to be a consortium of dentists), obstensibly to break new ground in joystick manufacture. These three, RJ Mical (who previously worked as an arcade game developer for Williams), Jay Miner (a chip designer who had helped develop the Atari 800), and Dave Morse (a marketing rep for Tonka toys), together with Karl Sassenrath who later worked on what became the AmigaDOS operating system, were good friends with Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak, the creators of the Apple Macintosh, and they would often drop in on the Hi-Toro team.

In the super sensitive, super secret world of Silicon Valley, if you are working on a ground-breaking product, you've got to have a good cover. The Hi-Toro team seem to have put as much thought into their cover story as they did into the specifications of the machine. To outsiders they were a joystick company. Not just any joysticks mind, these were to be high-tech joysticks. In order to play out the illusion, several joysticks were designed, including one which bore a striking resemblance to a surfboard, which they called the "Joyboard" that was designed to be sat on. There were many games written for the Joyboard, but one was called "Zen Meditiation" where the purpose of the game was to sit absolutely still. Surprisingly this influenced the Amiga's development in a small way, in that when things weren't going too well within the development program the designers would allegedly go and sit on the surfboard and "meditate" to relax - hence the source of the old Guru Meditation messages which indicated some form of system crash on the early Amigas running versions of AmigaOS prior to 2.0.

Their cover went even further. In case their private phones were tapped, the team used code-names to refer to the various sub-projects. It was decided that the least suspicious would be girls' names - hence Portia, Agnus and Daphne, collectively known as the PAD, were used when talking about the custom chips that gave the Amiga its power. This in turn led to the whole project being code-named Lorraine, and the development team who became known as the three Amigos, taking on a company name of "Amiga" which is close to "girlfriend" in Spanish, as least as it is used in Mexico, and alphabetically it would come before Apple and Atari. Most of the custom chips since then have also been given girls' names.

Their plans involved a highly innovative games machine that had the same ease of use as Apple's Macintosh (itself a by-product of the Xerox PARC project) but with far more processing ability. The main processor was the Motorola 68000, exactly the same as that used in the Mac, but they wanted to get more out of it. The way that they solved this problem was to develop what came to be known as the custom chips - a set of chips with specialised functions that could work independantly of the CPU chip, and leave the 68000 free to get on with other tasks. Whereas the CPUs in PCs and Macs would have to stop what they were doing at least 200 times a second to refresh the memory, refresh the screen image and check for keys being pressed etc, the Amiga left these mundane tasks to the custom chips and significantly reduced the loading on the CPU by as much as 50% or more. This was particularly true for screen manipulation where images could be moved very quickly due a co-processor (known as the copper) which only recognises 3 instructions and performs them at blinding speed.

They started with $7 million to develop the games console of their dreams, but the more they developed, the more they came up with, and soon they were moving away from a games console to a full-blown computer. After a few years they came up with a prototype board called the Zorro (this name still used today for Amiga expansions) which had disk drive connectors, keyboard connectors, printer connectors etc. They suddenly found themselves working on something larger than a $7 million project. The guys had to look for some more funding. Unfortunately this was at the time when the games console market was in decline, and even Atari was forced to dump thousands of ET cartridges for the VCS in a landfill site in the desert. Somehow, through perseverance, the money was found to finish the prototype, but by now the sharks were starting to circle. There was only one way to go - public. So a share offer was set up with an opening price of $2.

One interested party was Atari Corp, a big player in those days, under the management of Jack Tramiel, freshly arrived at Atari after defecting from Commodore, and apparently leaving them with some unpleasant tax problems. Thinking he had Amiga over a barrel he offered around $1.60. Amiga were starting to get a bit desperate, so they decided to accept his offer. But this got Tramiel thinking, and never one to miss a bargain he dropped his offer again. Then a very strange thing happened. Whether their motives were actually based on some amazing foresight or just a desire to get back at their former Managing Director will probably never be known, but at the eleventh hour Commodore stepped in and doubled the original offer to $4 per share. It was a price that couldn't be sniffed at, but for some incredible reason it was. Amiga suddenly decided they wanted an extra 25 cents per share. Commodore were a little surprised at this, but after a bit of thinking they decided to run with it at $4.25. The first thing they did was spend even more money to pay off the debts and close down the joystick part of Amiga, which was only a cover operation anyway and hadn't really contributed much to the future of computing (unless of course you think that a surfboard joystick may have had a big future). The future of the Amiga was now in hands of Commodore.


Copyright 2005 Amiga Auckland Inc. All rights reserved.
Revised: September 25, 2005.