Player 1 Stage 1: Bits From the Primordial Ooze

In the beginning, there was nothing. Well, actually, there was pinball, Skee-Ball, some shooting gallery games, a few nickel peep-show machines and those mechanical genies that would guess your weight and give a glimpse of your future. But it was probably pretty hard trying to beat your buddies at who weighs less.

Willy Higinbotham and the Paleolithic "PONG"

William Higinbotham While it is as far from the eventual commercial videogame systems that come later as a walk in the park is to a walk on the moon, a physicist trying to make the public tour of his lab a little more exciting to bored visitors designs what some consider as a precursor videogame system in 1958. Working at Brookhaven National Laboratory, a US nuclear research lab in Upton, New York, William A. Higinbotham notices that people attending the annual autumn open houses, which are held to show the public how safe the work going on there is, are bored with the displays of simple photographs and static equipment. Educated at Cornell University as a physics graduate, Higinbotham had come to BNL from Los Alamos and the Manhattan Project, and had actually been witness to the first detonation of the atomic bomb. A chain-smoking, fun-loving character and self-confessed pinball player, he wants to develop an open house exhibit at BNL that will entertain people as they learn.

Oscilloscope Pong: Coming to a nuclear research lab near you His idea is to use a small analog computer in the lab to graph and display the trajectory of a moving ball on an oscilloscope, with which users can interact. Missile trajectory plotting is one of the specialties of computers at this time, the other being cryptography. In fact, the first electronic computer was developed to plot the trajectory of the thousands of bombs to be dropped in WWII. As head of Brookhaven's Instrumentation Division, and being used to building such complicated electronic devices as radiation detectors, it's no problem for Higinbotham, along with Technical Specialist Robert V. Dvorak who actually assembles the device, to create in three weeks the game system they name Tennis for Two, and it debuts with other exhibits in the Brookhaven gymnasium at the next open house in October 1958. In the rudimentary side-view tennis game, the ball bounces off a long horizontal line at the bottom of the oscilloscope, and there is a small vertical line in the centre to represent the net. Two boxes each with a dial and a button are the controllers...the dials affect the angle of the ball Tennis for Two - Higinbotham/BNL 1958 Tennis for Two - Higinbotham/BNL 1958trajectory and the buttons "hit" the ball back to the other side of the screen. If the player doesn't curve the ball right it crashes into the net. A reset button is also available to make the ball reappear on either side of the screen ready to be sent into play again. No score is tabulated, and it is displayed in glorious phosphor monochrome on a puny 5" oscilloscope screen, but it is still a big hit with everyone who visits the display. There are people in line for hours to play it.

The game reappears for the 1959 open-house, and modifications include a larger monitor to display the action, and changeable gravity settings to show what it would be like to play tennis on another planet. After this final appearance, the system is then dismantled and its components put to other uses. Willy doesn't market or copyright his invention, thinking the idea so obvious as to be not worth pursuing. But his Tennis for Two - Higinbotham/BNL 1958testimony is called upon years later during legal attempts to break the Magnavox videogame patent obtained through the development of their Odyssey home videogame system. While Higinbotham's set-up would seem to predict electronic ping-pong games such as those featured on the Odyssey and in Atari's PONG, the courts eventually rule against it as a viable videogame system and every company hoping to enter the videogame market ends up paying some sort of settlement to Magnavox.

The exact nature of "Tennis for Two" has been called into question by some; Brookhaven National Labs and David Ahl both uphold Higinbotham's accomplishments. Ahl recalls playing the game during his tour of Brookhaven in his teens as a Grumman scholarship winner, during one of the open houses at Brookhaven. He goes on to found Creative Computing, an early, influential magazine on the industry. On the other side is Ralph Baer, filer of the first home videogame patent for what would become the Odyssey. During many years of litigation defending his patent, Baer learns of Higinbotham's creation, and he describes it as a simple, oscilloscope-based ballistics demonstration. Unfortunately, the man at the centre of this controversy cannot speak for himself: William Higinbotham, owner of 20 patents concerning electronic circuits, passes away on November 10, 1995, at the age of 84.

External Links

Brookhaven National Laboratory -

Acknowledgements - Some images and information came from the following sources, in no particular order:
Low Bit Games - William Linn -
Tribute to William Higinbotham, Inventor of PONG -
Pong: The official site devoted to the PONG story -
The Origins of Video Games -
The Real PONG FAQ -
Video Games: "One More Patent Couldn't Hurt" -
Brookhaven National Laboratory -
DOE Research and Development Accomplishments -
Plus email interviews with:
Ralph Baer

Defender - Williams 1980

Wedge vs. Needle

PDP-1 - DEC 1960
J. M. Graetz, Alan Kotok, and Steve Russell
Spacewar - MIT 1962
At MIT circa 1961 there's a group of hard core computer nerds calling themselves the Tech Model Railroad Club, and club activities include obsessively discussing the novels of E.E. "Doc" Smith, considered the grandfather of the literary SF genre. They dream up wild fantasies of special-effects-ridden movie sequences based around the writer's Lensman novels, containing descriptions of vast interstellar spaceship battles. Then comes word that MIT's aging (and gigantic) transistorized TX-0 mainframe computer is getting a slick new companion: the relatively svelte Digital Equipment Corporation PDP-1. Previous demonstration programs (like at Brookhaven, they are developed for public open house purposes) for the TX-0 had consisted of on-screen bouncing balls, user-built mazes for electronic mice to run around in, and the venerable Tic-Tac-Toe. A TMRC brainstorming session is called to create a truly taxing demo program for the enhanced capabilities for the PDP-1. Present are Wayne Witanen and J. Martin Graetz, along with 25 year-old Steve Russell, an AI specialist known as Slug by his buddies due to his tendency to procrastinate. Recalling E.E. Smith's epic space battles, they develop the idea to pit two spaceships with limited fuel supplies against each other in a missle duel. The program becomes Spacewar!, the world's first fully interactive videogame, with Russell as main programmer. Two spaceships called the wedge and the needle, according to their shapes, are rendered in rough outlined graphics. Other programmers throw aid to Russell, including a sine-cosine routine by Alan Kotok, and a very realistic star field backdrop program called Expensive Planetarium by Peter Samson. Dan Edwards develops the accurate gravity effects in the game, centered around a bright sun at the center of the screen which would draw in ships and shots alike. Graetz develops the Spacewar - MIT 1962Hyperspace feature, which can be used to get a player out of scrapes by disappearing and then randomly reappearing on the screen, but as often as not it put him right back into trouble. By spring of 1962, the game is completed, weighing in at a grand total of 9K. It causes a sensation at MIT's annual Science Open House, and a scoring system must be introduced to limit people's time at the control switches used to play. It is such a huge hit with the computer community that copies are quickly spread around to other educational facilities in the U.S. across the then burgeoning Internet precursor ARPAnet, and DEC even uses the program to demonstrate the capabilities of its PDP-1 to new clients and includes it free with every installed system. And once again, just like Willy Higinbotham, Russell doesn't seek to copyright or patent his work. Most likely because the system Spacewar! is running on is the size of a refrigerator and costs US$120,000. Due to its public domain status, the game will end up being one of the most copied concepts in videogame history, from numerous arcade translations like Computer Space and Space Wars to home console games for systems like the Atari VCS and Odyssey2. History is also made by two Spacewar! addicts at MIT who wire together the first gaming joystick devices to replace the control switches.

External Links:

Online Spacewar! -

Acknowledgements - Some images and information came from the following sources, in no particular order:'s History of Video Games -
The origin of Spacewar, by J. M. Graetz -
Digital Computing Timeline -
Electronic Nation, by Steven L. Kent -
video games -
PDP-1 Plays at Spacewar - 1962 Decuscope newsletter article by D. J. Edwards and J. M. Graetz -
The Museum of Science, Boston -
Spacewar - 1972 Rolling Stone article by Stewart Brand -
Phoenix: The Fall and Rise of Videogames, by Leonard Herman -
Joystick Nation, by J. C. Herz -

Defender - Williams 1980

The First Odyssey

Ralph BaerBorn in Germany in 1922, Ralph Baer and his family escape amidst the growing Nazi tyranny and emigrate to the United States in 1938. Baer serves three years in the US Army, from 1943 - 1946, the final two years overseas during WWII assigned to Military Intelligence. In 1949 he graduates from the American Television Institute of Technology (AITT) in Chicago with a B.S. in Television Engineering, and in 1951 is employed by electronics communication company Loral, where among other assignments he works on a new TV receiver design. It is during this project that his thoughts turn to the passive nature of television, but his idea of working an interactive game into the design meets with the expected lack of enthusiasm from Loral brass. Moving to New Hampshire based military contractor Sanders Associates in 1966, Baer continues to mull over his interactive television concept and one day while waiting for an associate at a New York City bus terminal he scratches down his concepts Brown Box prototype - Sanders 1969for a TV based videogame system, which he later transcribes into a 4 page paper. In this he outlines a low-cost device for attaching to a standard TV set, along with a list of game categories that would become staples in the industry, such as Action, Puzzle, Instructional and Sports. After drawing up a schematic Baer begins developing the system on the side in 1966 with the help of fellow Sanders employees Bob Tremblay and Bob Solomon. By December of that year they are ready to demonstrate a system that allows spots to be moved around on a TV screen. By using two circuits known as Spot Generators, they create a simple electronic game of "tag" with two spots chasing each other, if one is caught by the other it is wiped out. In January of 1967 Baer puts technician Bill Harrison to work to build the first multi-game unit. It plays chase games, has a light gun and a variety of other simple games. They call the system the Home TV Game. After demonstrating the system to Sander's Corporate Director of Research and Development Herbert Campman, the project is approved and funds for further research are forwarded. Now working alongside Baer and Harrison is engineer Bill Rusch. Rusch designs a new game, and it is perhaps not surprising that it too harkens back to an archetypal playground activity, using three spot generators to produce two onscreen Tennis - Magnavox 1972paddles along with a ball in a game of "catch". Baer and Harrison further refine the play so that the ball can be served from off-screen when it has been missed by a player, creating a simple ping-pong game. Football - Magnavox 1972In early 1968 Baer files for the first videogame patent, and by the end of that year they again demonstrate the system, capable of switching between ping-pong, volleyball, handball, hockey and even several shooting games to be used with a newly designed light-gun. But as Baer and his team continue to refine the devices, eyes are turned to the developing cable TV market, but ultimately this venue for Home TV Games is deemed not viable. Baer then gets together with Lou Etlinger, Sanders' Director of Patents. They invite all of the major TV manufacturers of the time to Sanders for a demonstration of the new gaming hardware, in hopes of finding a licensee for the technology. While several companies such as G.E., Sylvania, Philco, Motorola, Magnavox and RCA express interest, there are no takers.

Odyssey controllers But Bill Benders, a member of the RCA team, is very impressed with the demonstration, and when he takes a Vice President position at Magnavox he convinces the company of the virtues of Home TV Games. A demo by Baer and Etlinger at Magnavox headquarters in Fort Wayne, Indiana further impresses TV marketing division Vice President Gerry Martin, and Magnavox licenses the device and all rights to patents and know-how in 1971. After further developing the system they release the first ever commercially available home videogame to Magnavox dealers as the Odyssey in May of 1972. But while Baer had envisioned a cheap TV add-on retailing around US$19.95, the Odyssey sells for US$100. And with the high price of electronic components, the machine's inner circuitry is very limited. While Baer and his team had the various games displayed on coloured backgrounds, Magnavox cuts costs by going strictly black and white and no sound effects. The graphics are so rudimentary that the system comes with a set of two sizes of colour mylar overlays to put on the television screen to represent the various playfields, including Tennis and Hockey.  There are 12 different plug-in circuit boards available to make the machine play different games; they also serve as a power switch. Also included are two controllers, rectangular boxes with rotary knobs for vertical and horizontal Odyssey - Magnavox 1972control of the player spots and an "english" knob on top to put spin on the ball. Strangely, budget-conscience Magnavox increases costs by including with the basic Odyssey package a cluttered pack-in kit consisting of the overlays and six plug-in game cards, a pack of playing cards, poker chips, play money, a scorecard (as the machine itself can not calculate or display any scores) and a pair of dice.

Magnavox sells 100,000 units the first year, boosted by a TV broadcast hosted by Frank Sinatra. One problem with moving the units occurs due to the public's belief, exacerbated by the company's ad campaigns, that the game needs a Magnavox TV to play them. As well, initial distribution is limited to official Magnavox dealers, seriously limiting the Odyssey's sales potential. But thanks to the fact that they now hold the first videogame patent, along with a number of additional patents covering certain game features common to most of the following sports games, Magnavox is able to collect nearly one-hundred million dollars in license fees and legal judgements resulting from various lawsuits against companies designing their own game systems, including a $700,000 payout from Atari over PONG and foreign rights. After the outbreak of PONG, Ralph Baer's concept of a built-in TV/Videogame hybrid comes to fruition with Magavox's release of the Model 4305 television set, featuring an electronic ping-pong game available at the touch of a button. Baer himself continues to invent and develop a remarkable number of videogame and electronic toy and game patents, with many ending up on the production line and to great success. Baer's Simon for Milton-Bradley is a particular standout (see below). Some others include a prototypal system to play games through cable TV, the first VCR based "nested data" interactive TV gaming system, the Smarty Bear VCR-cued interactive plush toy, and the Bike Max talking bicycle computer.

External Links:

Ralph H. Baer Consultants -
Magnavox -
Sanders -
Milton Bradley -

Acknowledgements - Some images and information came from the following sources, in no particular order:
Magnavox Odyssey Page -
Pong: The official site devoted to the PONG story, by David Winter -
Ralph H. Baer Consultants -
Magnavox Odyssey, by Sam Hart -
Les débuts du Jeu D' -"'s History of Video Games
Videotopia - Home Games -
GOOD DEAL GAMES interview with Ralph Baer -
Plus email interviews with:
Ralph Baer

Defender - Williams 1980

Nolan Bushnell: The Zeus of the Videogame Industry

Nolan Bushnell - circa 1975
While he's attending the University of Utah getting his Bachelor of Science, a young student named Nolan Bushnell spends most of his time playing Russell's Spacewar on the PDP-1 mainframe at the university, one of only three educational facilities in the U.S. that can afford the computer monitors to display it. Working summers as a manager at an arcade in a Salt Lake City amusement park at 19 years old, he becomes convinced of the commercial viability of a videogame like Spacewar, if only the system that ran it could be scaled down from university mainframes and into a more reasonably compact version. He begins an eight year odyssey to do just that: produce an arcade version of Spacewar. He even goes so far as to move his second daughter Britta into her older sister's room so he can turn Britta's into a workshop to work on the translation.
Computer Space - Nutting 1971
When he graduates in 1970, he goes to work in Sunnyvale California for Ampex,the company that invented videotape in 1957. His starting salary is $US 12,000. Fellow co-worker Ted Dabney then becomes involved in the project to turn Spacewar into Computer Space, the world's first coin-operated arcade videogame.

Computer Space - Nutting Associates 1971 When 1971 rolls around Bushnell is convinced that he's on the right track, and he leaves Ampex to work on the Computer Space game full time.  When he finally completes it that year he finds a buyer in Nutting Associates, a manufacturer of coin-op trivia games.  1,500 of the units are built, with a futuristic design and fiberglass cabinet, but the game does not sell well.  Bushnell comes to the conclusion that the procedures of using various buttons for the thrusting and rotating of the ships are just too complicated for half-pissed bar patrons to comprehend.  He becomes convinced that any successful video arcade game has to be extremely easy to understand from the get-go.

When Nutting hears about demonstrations of a home videogame system at the Magnavox Profit Caravan trade show in May of 1972 located in the Airport Marine Hotel in Burlingame California, they send Bushnell to investigate.  There he signs the guest book and plays Ralph Baer's Odyssey ping-pong game for a good half-hour.  When he gets back he tells the company the Odyssey is no Computer Space. Bushnell's exposure to the home system later becomes the crux of a patent infringement lawsuit filed by Magnavox, over Bushnell's next foray into arcade videogames. In a strange twist of fate, Baer is attending a trade show in 1976 and sees Touch Me, a portable light and sound game developed by Bushnell. Baer goes on to develop Simon, a similar product released to great success by Milton Bradley in 1977. A patent issues to Baer and Associates for Simon which cites the operating manual for Touch Me.
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