Unearthed: Kirschen’s Atari ST projects

Screen capture of Mom talking in Yaakov Kirschen's 1985 program "Mom and Me" for the Atari ST.

Screen capture of Mom talking in Yaakov Kirschen’s 1985 program “Mom and Me” for the Atari ST,

The artificial personalities “Murray” and “Mom” were among the very first entertainment offerings for the Atari ST computer. They were also the first products released by Israeli cartoonist Yaakov Kirschen’s new “LKP, Ltd.” software studio in Israel, in partnership with his American firm, “Just For You, Inc.”

Keep reading for more background on Kirschen, LKP, and Just For You, as well as details about each of these programs.

This is the third of four sets of curated disk images containing previously lost software developed by Kirschen. Stay tuned for more.

This software was rescued from 3.5″ floppy disks owned by Josh Renaud and Kevin Ng. Renaud’s “Mom” and “Murray” disks were copies he inherited from an uncle in the late 1980s. Ng’s “Murray” disks were originals with ANTIC branding and packaging.

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Background

Surprising as it might seem, cartoonist Yaakov Kirschen secured multiple direct meetings with Atari CEO Jack Tramiel in 1984 and 1985, Tramiel’s son Sam has confirmed to me. Jack Tramiel was familiar with Kirschen’s “Dry Bones” cartoon in the Jersualem Post. The first of their meetings took place at Atari headquarters shortly after Tramiel bought the company in mid-1984, possibly during the first week of July. At that meeting, Kirschen demonstrated his Apple II software to Tramiel. Kirschen and his wife Sali Ariel socialized with the Tramiels when the Israeli couple visited the U.S., and also during Tramiel’s trip to Jerusalem in 1985, Sam Tramiel confirmed.

At this time, Kirschen was developing his “just for you” concept. Instead of mass-producing cheap, identical products, he dreamed of mass-producing unique items or experiences tailored to individual users. His idea was to recombine “fit-together” parts to create apparently endless variations.

Based on this concept, Kirschen proposed to Tramiel to use the forthcoming Atari ST as the core of a kiosk system that would let users print greeting cards customized “just for you.” Tramiel liked the idea.

To finance the project, Kirschen and Ariel wanted to apply for grant funding from the U.S.-Israel Binational Industrial Research and Development (BIRD) Foundation. Kirschen had already set up his Israeli software studio as “LKP Ltd.” But to apply for a BIRD grant, he would need an American partner company. Kirschen and Ariel assumed Tramiel and Atari would be that partner. Instead, in their telling, Tramiel helped them secure a line of credit and establish their own American firm, “Just For You, Inc.” Sam Tramiel has told me that he and his father were not directors at JFY, but I found the BIRD archives include an initial grant application in which JFY is described as “a daughter company of ATARI CORP“. The application also calls Jack Tramiel a “founding director of Just for You Inc.”, and describes Sam Tramiel as “management” at JFY, though it’s possible those descriptions were mistakes or even hyperbole on Kirschen’s part. Regardless, it’s clear that in the end Jack Tramiel declined a formal partnership. Kirschen and Ariel ended up running JFY themselves.

LKP and JFY received the BIRD grant for their “computer greeting cards” project in June 1985. Kirschen originally planned to hire established programmers at LKP, but instead he and Ariel “settled on using university students who were unspoiled with traditional methods of software development.” The student programmers they hired for the Atari project included Danny Wiseburgh, who had helped Kirschen previously with his Apple II projects; Rachel Ehrlich, Kirschen’s daughter; and Yoram Biberman, who stayed on to help with Kirschen’s later music project. According to Kirschen, LKP was given one of the first dozen Atari STs manufactured.

Kirschen created an “artificial personality” to serve as the user interface for the greeting card kiosk system. He adapted the “Shuldig” character from his “Dry Bones” cartoon to serve this role, naming him “Murray.”

Ahead of the Personal Computer World show in London in September 1985, Kirschen says Atari asked him to create a standalone version of the Murray character. In Kirschen’s telling, Atari badly needed to software to demo at the show, but they didn’t want to publicly reveal the entire greeting card project yet.

So Kirschen produced a stripped-down version of the “Murray” character which could hold brief point-and-click conversations with showgoers. His demo caught the attention of the London Times, which profiled Kirschen and “Murray.”

Front cover of the packaging for Murray and Me.

Front cover of the packaging for Murray and Me.

James Capparell and Gary Yost of ANTIC Publishing saw the story, and soon after struck a deal with Kirschen to sell “Murray and Me” and a second personality program called “Mom and Me.” “Murray” and “Mom” became two of the earliest software offerings for the nascent Atari ST, first listed in the ANTIC Catalog in October 1985. ANTIC marketed them as “biotoons” — graphical chat programs in which users could hold dynamic conversations with the animated characters.

The programs got more publicity when the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, and San Francisco Chronicle all published in-depth feature stories about them in November and December 1985. Kirschen and Ariel were caught off guard by the spurt of attention.

Kirschen said that Atari and ANTIC had advised him to develop Murray and Mom in monochrome, believing that the majority of ST users would purchase high-resolution monochrome monitors, which were $300 cheaper than the low-resolution color counterparts. But after the ST went on sale in the U.S., the vast majority of customers wanted color. This led ANTIC to request that LKP produce new color versions of “Murray” and “Mom”, and find a way to fit both editions on a single disk.

Front of a Murray and Me floppy disk.

Front of a Murray and Me floppy disk.

The disks retailed for $34.95. Documents from the BIRD Foundation indicate that by May 1986, ANTIC had sold 900 copies of the original monochrome versions. ANTIC projected sales of the color versions might reach 1,000 to 3,000 units per month. But by summer 1987, LKP had earned only $1,759.82 more, which probably translates to 300 to 500 units, depending on the royalty percentage and the software price.

As for the original greeting card project, American Greetings expressed interest in Kirschen’s system. They wanted to see a standalone, coin-operated system in which the computer “personality” spoke with a human-sounding voice. To work toward this, LKP contacted Mylstar (formerly the Gottlieb arcade company) for help with the coin-op device. For the voice synthesis, they were considering switching to the Amiga computer.

However, a formal agreement with American Greetings was never reached. Without further funding, the greeting card project died, and Kirschen turned his attention to other big ideas.

The software

MURRAY AND ME

Title screen from Yaakov Kirschen's 1985 program "Murray and Me" for the Atari ST.

Title screen from Yaakov Kirschen’s 1985 program “Murray and Me” for the Atari ST.

“One minute he was enjoying a lean pastrami in a deal, the next — POW, trapped inside a 520 ST.” ANTIC marketed “Murray” as a “born loser” and your favorite Jewish uncle, a “personality without the price.”

Disk images:

Note 1: The monochrome disk bore a physical label that said “version 1.5”. The color disk had nothing to indicate a version number.

Note 2: A German edition of monochrome “Murray” later appeared on some “public domain” disks, including Atari Magazin 002 and XEST 001.

Physical:

Credits shown in the monchrome version:

ANTIC presents Just For You Inc's Murray and Me
(c) 1985, Just For You Inc.

Created by Ya'akov Kirschen
with Danny Wiseburgh, Rachel Ehrlich, and Yoram Biberman

Credits shown in the color version:

ANTIC presents Just For You Inc's Murray and Me
(c) 1985, Just For You Inc.

By Y. Kirschen
with Y. Ehrlich and Y. Biberman

Note: The “Y” in Y. Ehrlich” is certainly a mistake.

MOM AND ME

Title screen from Yaakov Kirschen's 1985 program "Mom and Me" for the Atari ST.

Title screen from Yaakov Kirschen’s 1985 program “Mom and Me” for the Atari ST.

“When’s the last time your computer made you feel guilty? Mom, a hilarious Jewish mother, will nag you until you roll on the ground in fits of laughter. (You might even start eating your vegetables, who knows?)”

Disk images:

Credits shown in the program:

ANTIC presents Just For You Inc's Mom and Me
(c) 1985, Just For You Inc.

By Y. Kirschen
with R. Ehrlich and Y. Biberman

Note: The full names are Yaakov Kirschen, Rachel Ehrlich, Yoram Biberman.

Notes about running “Mom” and “Murray”

In emulation, sometimes “Mom and Me” and “Murray and Me” generate “can’t open file” errors when Hatari boots from a hard drive rather than booting from the A: drive.

I suspect the issue has to do with the programs using relative paths (the programs are looking for files in \mm\ rather than in A:\mm\).

If you run into trouble with either of the .ST files, just download them again to start fresh, and disable your hard drive before booting.

2 thoughts on “Unearthed: Kirschen’s Atari ST projects

  1. Andrea P.

    In Italy, we got to know about the original English version of “Murray and me” because game journalist Francesco CarlĂ  (who also founded Simulmondo software house) talked about the program in his monthly column on “MC Microcomputer” magazine. He also wrote about it on “Snoopy”, a magazine aimed at young children. Both articles were written in 1987. Cheers!

    Reply
  2. Steve Fulton

    I remember these! I believe they were some of the first programs for the ST advertised in Antic.
    The images were so good that they made me want an ST just so I could tell people “my computer can do this”. That was important in 1985.

    Reply

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