Classic Computer Magazine Archive ANTIC VOL. 1, NO. 1 / APRIL 1982

Pilot Your Atari

by Ken Harms

PILOT is not just another computer language, it is designed to meet some of the needs of new programmers, educators, and children.

PILOT grew out of work by John Starkweather at the University of California at San Francisco back in 1972. He wanted a language which would make it easy to write tutorial programs for students, programs capable of recognizing responses other than the typical "1, 2, 3 multiple choice" style prevalent in current teaching programs. With PILOT. it is easy to ask, "Who was the first president of the United States?" and record and score answers such as "President Washington," "I believe it was G. Washington," "George Washington," "GEORGE WASHINGTON," "Washington". PILOT needs only three statements to accomplish this type of user interaction.

Dean Brown at Stanford Research Institute proved that teachers could understand PILOT. and students loved it. Since PILOT is word-oriented, as contrasted to BASIC's number orientation, it naturally fits the "riddle" and "tell-a-story" type of program which youngsters like. At the same time, Seymour Papert at MIT developed a new way to conceptualize and teach about geometry and shapes. This development was called "Turtle Graphics" and proved ideal for use in home computers. Atari wisely included a Turtle Graphics command language with the PILOT module. The old "Cartesian Coordinate" system required commands like this:

    Start at position X = 20 and Y = 10. Draw a line to X=40 and Y=10; draw a line to X=40 and Y=30; draw a line to X=20 and Y=30; finally, draw a line to X=20 and Y=10.

Can you guess what figure this is? How big it is? Using Turtle Graphics the same pictures can be drawn like this:

    Do this 4 times: draw a line 20 space long, turn Right 90 degrees.

The box shape is more apparent and the commands are more readily understood. Only 14 or I5 commands represent the core of PILOT. All are only one or two characters long and easily remembered--a "J" is the "jump to" command. Anyone who is not a good typist will appreciate the wisdom of short commands. Short, easy to remember commands and Turtle Graphics combined with Atari's wonderful screen editor will make almost anyone's introduction to computing more pleasurable and rewarding.

Finally, PILOT programs become naturally organized around modules. This encourages a well structured programming style. (Oh yes, PILOT includes full use of the Atari sound system--more on that in a later article.)

PILOT is available in two packages; one is just the language cartridge and users guide (about $90), the other is a well documented comprehensive package that I recommend (about $130). This package includes:

    PILOT CARTRIDGE--(love those cartridges; little fingers can't destroy them)

    STUDENT PILOT--a cleverly illustrated learner's manual for the new programmer.

    PILOT PRIMER--an instruction manual for the experienced programmer.

    DEMONSTRATION TAPES--two cassettes showing language, color, graphics, and sound.

    POCKET CHART--presents all commands in an easy-to-use format.

I like Atari's version of PILOT. There are still a few rough spots; not all syntax errors are caught, the manuals do not include indices, several commands are not explained in the manual, and a few typographical errors remain to confuse you. In spite of these few "start-up" problems Atari PILOT meets its "primary design goals"; it is "consistent and easy to allows reasonable access to the Atari system capabilities, but not at the user's expense."

We intend to help you get the most from PILOT. Watch for programming tips, warnings, and more help. Address your questions to:

K.W. Harms
297 Missouri St.
San Francisco, CA 94107