Computer Science Electrical Engineering Entertainment Issue I Volume III

Founding Fathers of Video Games

About the Author: Joseph Hogue

In Spring 2002, Joseph Hogue was a sophomore studying computer science at USC with an interest in all aspects of gaming, including programming, graphics, design, sound, and, of course, user testing.

The video game industry has a world wide sphere of influence. Whether you are hanging out at home with your friends playing the newest FIFA soccer game, communicating over headset with someone around the world to team up and take down an enemy, or in line at the grocery store playing Angry Birds, your gaming experience can be attributed to the work of numerous engineers in the past few decades. Despite simple beginnings, technology has evolved to include motion sensing, hand-held devices, multi-player options, and more realistic graphics, and this technology is constantly changing and improving each day.
What was your first video game experience? Perhaps it was Pac-Man at a local hangout, or Super Mario Brothers and Tetris at a friend’s house. What were the beginnings of video games?
Today’s multi billion dollar video gaming industry has its origins in the work of four engineers. Here, we trace the individual contributions that each made to the early development of games and game technology, beginning from an obscure, interactive physics game to the widely popular Pong.

The First Video Game: William Higinbotham

Bayo/Wikimedia Commons
Figure 1: The table tennis contraption created by Higinbotham and his team at Brookhaven National Laboratories.

The first reported video game was presented at a demonstration to visitors touring Brookhaven National Laboratories in 1958. Consisting of a five inch oscilloscope display connected to a Donner analog computer, the contraption was hard coded to play table tennis see Fig. 1. The machine itself relied on mechanical relays for much of its internal functions, such as making the ball bounce off the floor and paddles. When a ball bounced or was struck, the contraption would emit a satisfying click as relays snapped open or closed. Two players would control the direction and timing of the swing with an analog dial and switch cased together in a rather large controller.

The rudimentary display consisted of two lines and a dot drawn on the oscilloscope. One line ran the width of the screen and represented the court, while the other branched upward from the middle for the net. The dot represented the ball and would bounce realistically off the ground and randomly off of the net. When the ball left play, a reset button would return the game to its initial state.
This machine was the brainchild of William Higinbotham, a physicist at Brookhaven. Assisted by a fellow scientist Robert V. Dvorak, he constructed it over three weeks to demonstrate that computers, while able to perform complex mathematical operations, could also have a more enjoyable side.
This was the extent of Higinbotham’s exploration into video games. The machine was eventually dismantled and salvaged for parts. Higinbotham never patented any aspect of his game (although he holds about 20 other patents), since at the time the technology was not practical enough for commercial use [1]. Few knew of the contraption, until it was found by Nintendo in 1985 and presented in a lawsuit [2]. The ideas Higinbotham presented, however, sparked the imaginations of those who played.

The First All-Digital Computer Game: Steve Russell

The innovator Steve Russell was a student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the early 1960’s and a member of a techie group called the Tech Model Railroad Club. Together with Wayne Witanen and J. Martin Graetz, Russell programmed a game for one of MIT’s DEC PDP-1 computers, refrigerator-sized boxes costing $120,000 [3]. The game was more complex than table tennis: two space ships would square off in a dogfight, each ship equipped with missiles and a limited amount of fuel. Vector graphics were displayed on a black and white cathode ray tube monitor. His game came to be called “Spacewar” in 1962.
Spacewar became a popular way to waste a university’s expensive computing facilities. About a hundred copies of the original game circulated among the academic community nationwide over the then developing ARPAnet (the precursor of the Internet). System administrators would have to fight to keep the games off their systems, in order to save processing time for more scholarly activities.
Spacewar was the first game played on a video screen and on a fully digital computer, a more modern representation of video games. Most important about Russell’s Spacewar is that the game saw widespread access, marking the development of a public interest in video games. Due to the paucity of computer hardware and the nonexistent market for video games, Russell saw no reason to patent his invention. Spacewar remained in the public domain and has since inspired hundreds of clones.

The First Video Arcade Games: Nolan Bushnell

One inspired user of Steve Russell’s Spacewar was Nolan Bushnell, a student at the University of Utah in 1962. Bushnell observed the great economic potential of video games and sought to bring them to the public. In 1965, Bushnell worked in a carnival arcade in Salt Lake City. There, he envisioned future arcades packed with video games, but current computer technology rendered the idea unfeasible at the time. It wasn’t until 1970 that Bushnell created a prototype for an arcade version of Spacewar. Unsatisfied with his work at Ampex, an electronics firm in Sunnyvale California, he discussed his ideas about widespread video games to a fellow engineer, Ted Dabney. Together, they converted his daughter’s bedroom into a workshop, where they built a working model, dubbed Computer Space. Bushnell’s company was acquired by Nutting Associates, then a manufacturer of mechanical arcade games. Together they built 1,500 Computer Space units, packaged in a futuristic fiberglass cabinet. However, the units did not sell well. Bushnell determined that the complicated controls for rotating, thrusting, and firing were too complex for a widespread audience, let alone the inebriated patrons of bars where the machines were initially deployed [4].

Pargon/Wikimedia Commons
Figure 2: An arcade machine created by Bushnell.

Bushnell parted from Nutting to start Atari in 1972, determined to create a simpler game that would exhibit a widespread appeal. Bushnell hired Al Alcorn, an inexperienced programmer, and had him create a simple tennis style game as an exercise. The result would eventually become Pong. Together, they built a working Pong arcade prototype, see Fig. 2. It was packed in a small wooden red cabinet, small enough to fit on a table or bar top. It had a small black & white screen and two knobs on the front so each player could control a paddle. A sawed-off milk carton was inside to collect coins; a single line of instruction on the front read “Avoid missing ball for high score” [4].

The prototype machine was set up in a local bar, Andy Capp’s tavern. The patrons were first puzzled by the machine, with its odd appearance and cryptic instructions. The situation soon changed; two weeks after installation, the bar owner called Alcorn to report they now had customers waiting outside before the bar was open for a chance to play Pong. He also reported that the machine might be in need of a few repairs. When Alcorn arrived, he opened the coin bucket and found it overflowing with quarters. The coin drop had been jammed full and wouldn’t allow for any more games.
After this initial success, Bushnell and Atari started churning out more and more Pong machines, shipping 6,000 units in 1973 alone [4].

The Beginning of the Video Game Industry: Ralph Baer

In 1949, while working for Loral Electronics, Ralph Baer was instructed to build the “best television set in the world.” Baer proposed to implement an interactive game into the set, but the idea was rejected by management. But this was only the beginning of Baer’s foray into home gaming.
Baer started actively researching interactive television games again in 1966. The company he was working for at the time, Sanders Associates, was open to his suggestions and gave him free reign on the matter. By 1967, Baer and his team had successfully developed an interactive television chase game. It consisted of two squares on the screen that could be controlled by the players. They also created a table tennis game and a light gun for shooting games. Sanders Associates patented his device, dubbed the “Brown Box” in 1968 [2].
When Magnavox licensed these patents in 1970, Baer joined up to develop a home game system with television connectivity. The end result was the Odyssey, released in May of 1972, which sold over 100,000 units over the rest of the year [2]. Simple by today’s standards, the Odyssey consisted of 40 transistors and 40 diodes on a printed circuit board. Its simplistic black and white display could only display five items at any time–a ball, two paddles, a vertical line (for a net, perhaps) and a large gray rectangle that made up the background. This background was used to illuminate the plastic color overlays that one would need to stick to the television to play different games [5].
This humble beginning would eventually beget a multi-billion dollar home video gaming industry. Baer’s Odyssey spawned many clone machines, all offering various improvements. These machines and their successors would eventually force Magnavox out of the same gaming market it had created. But the legacy of the Odyssey was not forgotten; even today it commands a small cult following of game collectors and hobbyists.


    • [1] “Video Games–Did They Begin at Brookhaven?” Internet:​accomplishments/vide​ogame.html, 2000.
    • [2] R.H. Baer. “Personal email to”. Internet: http://www.pong-stor​
    • [3] W. Hunter. “The History of Video Games”. Internet: http://www.designboo​​pong.html. 2000.
    • [4] B.I. Koerner. “How Pong invented geekdom”. U.S. News & World Report, vol. 127, pp. 67, 1999.
    • [5] S. Gegan, D. Winter. “Magnavox Odyssey FAQ”. Internet: http://www.pong-stor​, 1997.
    • [6] D.H. Ahl. “Editorial”. Creative Computing Magazine, vol.1, 1982.
    • [7] L. Herman, J. Horwitz, S. Kent, and S. Miller. “The History of Video Games”. Internet: http://www.gamespot.​com/gamespot/feature​s/video/hov/​ml.
    • [8] D.S. Bennahum. Extra Life: Coming of Age in Cyberspace. New York: Basic Books: 1998.
    • [9] J. Anderson. “Tennis Programming, the first videogame”. Internet: http://www.pong-stor​​

Similar Posts

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *