Exhibit / February 1, 2017
The computer camp concept was pioneered in 1977 by Dr. Michael Zabinski, a physics and engineering professor at Connecticut’s Fairfield University. Zabinksi had received “several federal grants to train teachers at the University to integrate computers into their classrooms,” and wisely thought of merging summer camp and computer training to reach young people. The first National Computer Camp was held in 1978. The first Atari computer camps took place in the summer of 1982, coinciding with the release of upgraded versions of the Atari 400/800 series of home computers.
According to Bob Kahn, Director of Special Projects at Atari from 1982-1984, The Magic Room was filmed at the University of California, San Diego campus in 1982. (Other Atari camp locations included Lakeland College in Sheboygan, Wisconsin; East Stroudsberg State College in Pennsylvania; and Asheville School in Asheville, North Carolina.) Kahn “was responsible for the entire computer portion of the summer camp program—curriculum, staffing, equipment and materials, library, etc. for both Atari Computer Camps and the Atari-Club Med project in the summer of 1983.” Kahn’s brother Ted created the Atari Institute for Educational Action Research, “which awarded major grants of Atari home computer products and consulting services to individuals, schools, and non-profit organizations.”
The camps were incredibly expensive: $890 for two weeks, $1690 for four weeks, or $2950 for the full eight weeks (the Atari 400 retailed at $250 at the time—$622 in today’s dollars). The daily schedule balanced computer education with sports and other recreational activities, including a field trip to see Tron, which featured sound effects created by the Atari 800. It’s interesting to note the relative diversity of the campers and the number of girls present, with a young woman (Karen Okagaki) employed as one of the two instructors. Atari “very consciously tried to attract young girls” to computers and computer camp, featuring them prominently in ads and brochures. Unfortunately, the male computer whiz stereotype established in the early early 1980s stuck, and the number of women majoring in computer science peaked in 1984 at about 37%, about twice what it is today.
Although some of the footage is clearly staged, overall The Magic Room is a spontaneous and charming portrait of kids at the brink of the computer age, and the pair of kind and dedicated teachers that helped guide them through it, if only for a few weeks. For anyone who was young and Atari-obsessed in the summer of 1982, the film is also a poignant reminder of the magic that hung in the air at a time when personal computers still promised poetry and exploration. “I tell the computer what to do,” says Enrique, one of the campers, “and that comes from me—from inside, I think it comes. What’s up on the screen—it’s me.” As head instructor Richard Pugh predicted at the end of the film, the experience would prove to be indelible:
I think that, if they look back upon this summer—10, 20, 30 years from now—they’re not going to remember all the commands, perhaps. Maybe this is the last time they even see a computer. But I bet you they never forget what they programmed.