It's possible you've heard of GameLine's Master Module, an ahead-of-its-time device for the Atari 2600 that allowed users to access games distributed over a telephone line. Or even Intellivision's PlayCable, which let Intellivision users do the same via a cable connection. They've both been the subject of various videos and articles over the last couple of decades, which have explored their origin as well as the technology behind them.
There's one other similar piece of technology, however, that's significantly less well-documented: the Delta Box for the Atari 2600. This was a device that plugged into your Atari console and allowed individuals to download video games through a terminal linked up to their cable connection.
We first heard about the device last year when we spoke to Andy Rifkin, a former Time Warner employee for an article about the Sega Channel. During that interview, he mentioned the Delta Box and explained that it functioned similarly to the Sega Channel adapter in that it allowed players to download games from a cable supplier (in this case the Time Inc. subsidiary ATC, or the American Television Corporation).
Looking online, though, we were unable to find little more than a single article from 1982 announcing the development of the terminal and the joint venture between its creators Time Inc. and Panasonic. That's in spite of the device allegedly reaching 40,000 customers in the US. So, we pressed Rifkin for a little more information on the machine, and he happily obliged.
Speaking to Time Extension, he said:
"You plugged in your cable TV coaxial cable and screwed it into the box. The games were broadcast in sections and downloaded into a ROM emulator for the 2600. We used remnant cable capacity between channels. It was a low-speed broadcast. Once you elected a game it would load it into the ROM emulator in whatever parts of the game data were available on the cyclic broadcast. So the packages of data did not need to be in order. Once the data packages were fully loaded in the cartridge emulator, the game would start.
"Upon boot-up of the Delta Box, it loaded a menu of all of the games you could select from. Using the 2600 controls you would select the game. The keypad was used as a token device, so you could just download one game at only pay for that game Or you could have the subscription and download any game you wanted."
Rifkin was able to send us some images of his own device above, which was awarded to him in 1983 upon completion of the project. He was also able to connect us with Panasonic Industrial Company's former product manager of the New Technologies Division David Nicholas, who was another person involved with the venture. Nicholas told us that the terminal wasn't just used with the Atari 2600, claiming that it was used for premium audio downloads (with a digital audio adapter) and video text and Teletext.
He also gave us a clue as to why it didn't catch on, suggesting that Atari was unhappy with its cut of the profits:
"Everybody in that group. Atari, Time Inc., ATC, and ourselves, they were making money. The problem is that Atari got greedy.
"After they saw the initial success and that 40,000 people had signed up for it and the business forecast was up to between 250,000 to 300,000 customers, the Atari folks said, ‘Hey, wait a second here, we don’t like our split.’ And Time Inc. basically said to them in so many words ‘F*ck you, we’re going to start our own game service, we don’t need you, we have the technology, we have the cable system, and you don’t.'"
Things obviously worked out well for Time Inc., as years later under the name Time Warner, it was able to revive the concept with a new partner, Sega of America, to create the much-loved Sega Channel.