Willy Higinbotham and the Paleolithic "PONG"
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.
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 trajectory 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 testimony 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.
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 control 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.
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.
Atari Continued -->