Hello History Channel, and welcome to the video game documentary space. It’s a genre that has had more misses than hits to be honest, but I always appreciate when someone else wants to give it a try. You got some decent on-screen talent, particularly the ever insightful Raiford Guins. You did not really try to accurately capture any of the people or places you were portraying, but you made fewer factual errors than some, while admittedly still leaving in more than your fair share of howlers.
But we are not here to talk about whether or not Nolan Bushnell saw Spacewar at the University of Utah (he most likely didn’t) or if he masqueraded as a Magnavox dealer to sneak into the Magnavox Profit Caravan (he was there with two other Nutting Associates people, but he definitely didn’t pretend he had a Magnavox connection). No, we are here to talk about something much worse: writing people out of history.
Now I get that this is a ~42 minute documentary covering a lot of really complicated developments in the first decade of commercial video game history. So no, I don’t expect you to salute all the men (and a few women!) that made this wonderful industry possible. However, there is not mentioning a person, and then there is passing that person’s contributions off as the innovations of another. This is a real problem.
Roughly seven minutes into Season 2, Episode 2 of the Toys That Built America, engineer Ralph Baer has a problem. He has been desperately trying to come up with a game that will excite players of the video game system he has been developing. “We need something simpler” our fictional Baer proclaims before erasing an image on a blackboard and replacing it with two paddles and a ball. “Table Tennis!” he proudly announces to the unnamed extras in the room. Baer had found his killer app.
Now I know this is dramatization. I know you are not trying to tell us that Baer had a eureka moment just like that as he drew a concept on a blackboard. That’s not the problem. The problem is that Table Tennis on the Magnavox Odyssey was not Baer’s idea in any way, shape, or form.
I’ll let Ralph Baer himself pick up the story from here in his book, Videogames: In the Beginning:
Bill Rusch joined the project on August 18, 1967. He was an experienced engineer, an MIT-graduate normally assigned to Herb Campman’s R&D Group. Herb knew we were in trouble and hoped that Rusch could help us out.
Videogames: In the Beginning by Ralph Baer, p. 45
Rusch could be a handful to motivate and keep on task, but he was a brilliant engineer who possessed something Baer himself always admitted he lacked at that point in his life: creativity. He had previously brainstormed a few game ideas with Baer in an unofficial capacity, and it was not long before he proved his value to the project. Baer again:
Truthfully, we were also getting quite concerned about the limited scope of the Chase and Gun games in TV game unit #3. They were already beginning to get “old.” But now, with Rusch on-board for a couple of months, the concept of the third spot, touched on in the May Memo, was born. […] Bill Rusch came up with the idea of using that spot as a “ball” so that we could play some sort of ball game with it. We batted around ideas of how we could implement games such as Ping-Pong and other sports games.
Videogames: In the Beginning by Ralph Baer, p. 45
Now I know what you might be thinking. Yes, Rusch had the idea for the third spot, and yes Rusch had the idea for using it as a ball. But then the team brainstormed together! Baer could have still been the one to envision Table Tennis. Baer puts that idea to rest in his book, however, by including an image of a page from Rusch’s own engineering notebook dated 10/18/67 in which Rusch sketched out the entire Table Tennis game. Furthermore, when Sanders decided to patent the ideas and technology behind the Table Tennis game, that patent was not filed under Baer’s name like the patent for the console itself: it was filed under Rusch’s name. So History Channel and The Toys That Built America, it’s a shame that your writers failed to highlight Rusch’s critical contributions to the project, and indeed to all of video game history, while simultaneously giving credit to Baer for something he did not do. I guarantee that Baer himself, who was always quick to credit the contributions of his co-workers, would not have wanted it that way.
For more information on who all did what on the Magnavox Odyssey, I recommend Ethan Johnson’s recent deep dive into the topic, in which he examined Baer’s personal papers in greater depth, as well as my own two-partessay on the birth of the Odyssey written for this blog several years ago.
This post is part of an ongoing series annotating my book They Create Worlds: The Story of the People and Companies That Shaped the Video Game Industry, Vol. I. It covers material found in chapter 5 on pages 70-73 and Chapter 8 on pages 126-134. It is not necessary to have read the book to comprehend and appreciate the post.
Now that we have examined some of the controversial differences in memory between Nolan Bushnell and Ted Dabney, its time to turn to something far less controversial yet still incredibly murky: the sequence of events that led to the creation of Computer Space as a scaled down version of Spacewar! manufactured by Nutting Associates. Unlike some of the controversy surrounding who did what in the creation of the game, the question of when various milestones occurred is not a topic Nolan and Ted ever fought over, yet they still have different recollections of the timeframe of the project. As Computer Space occupies a historically significant place as the first coin-operated video game, its worth taking a moment to figure out to the best of our ability when and how it actually took shape.
First, the basics. The idea for Computer Space was entirely Nolan’s. This is not in dispute. After seeing Spacewar! at Stanford, Nolan decided to recreate the game as a coin-operated amusement running on a minicomputer. He enlisted Ted Dabney and programmer Larry Bryan to help with this project, and they discussed forming a partnership together. Eventually, Syzygy Company was formed sans Bryan, but work on the game ceased when it became clear a minicomputer would not work. At some point, Nolan had the epiphany that they could just recreate the game in hardware, so he and Dabney completed a scaled-down version of Spacewar! missing many key features such as two-player competition and the central star with its gravity well to create what they originally called Cosmic Combat but eventually reached the market as Computer Space. Sometime in early 1971, Bushnell learned of Nutting Associates and pitched the coin-op manufacturer on the game. He then finished the project at Nutting as an independent contractor despite also coming on board as the company’s chief engineer so he and Dabney would retain the rights to the technology. Before the end of 1971, it was released.
While these basic facts have largely gone undisputed, creating a timeline out of them is complicated by a lack of much hard documentary evidence. Before the last decade, the only vague chronological details had to be drawn from the recollections of the participants. Dabney provided an account of the early history to Marty Goldberg and Curt Vendel for their book, Atari: Business is Fun:
The first meeting was held at Larry’s house in October of 1969, where they set about trying to map out a plan for the project. First and foremost was a $350 startup contribution by each that would be placed into a checking account Ted was going to open up. Subsequent meetings were then held at either Nolan’s or Ted’s house, and it was during these meetings that they tried to hash out a name for their new venture. Originally Nolan and Ted had been considering B&D or D&B for Bushnell and Dabney, depending on who felt their name should come first. The problem they found with these though, was that both sounded too similar to the initials for Black & Decker or Dunn & Bradstreet. Larry then suggested the name Syzygy; a name used in astronomy to describe three celestial bodies aligned in a single straight line. […] With that, Syzygy was born.
While this is not a direct quote from Dabney, Marty Goldberg later explained to me in an email correspondence in February 2015 that the timeline for Syzygy and Computer Space as established in the first chapter of their book came from him. Based on Ted’s recollections that Nolan approached Ted “about a year” after starting at Ampex, Business is Fun concluded that the idea for the game and the proposing of the Syzygy partnership occurred in Fall 1969.
While not a point of contention between the partners, Nolan Bushnell provided a different timeframe when interviewed by Morgan Ramsey for Gamers at Work:
Ramsay: When did you talk to [Dabney] about starting a video-game company?
Bushnell: It was about 18 months [after joining Ampex]. I really didn’t talk that much about the video games that I had played in college for awhile. The catalyst was seeing an ad for a $5,000 computer come across my desk. The ad was for a machine called the Data General Nova 800. I thought that was a strong enough computer at a low enough price. If I could build a unique monitor—a cheap monitor because computers in those days cost about $30,000—then I would have a business.
Leaving aside the fact that Nolan did not play any computer games in college as previously discussed in this blog, Nolan gives us both a timeframe, 18 months, and a catalyst, seeing an ad for the Data General Nova. Note that Dabney’s “about a year” and Bushnell’s “18 months,” do not hugely conflict with each other, but they do introduce a discrepancy of roughly six months. So who is right in this case? This time, it appears to be Bushnell.
First of all, even if Dabney is correct about that timeframe of “about a year,” Nolan himself makes clear in his 1974 deposition in the Magnavox patent cases that he graduated college in December 1968 and joined Ampex that same month. Therefore, there is no way he and Dabney could be discussing a partnership under Dabney’s timeframe in Fall 1969. Second, two Atari corporate documents have since emerged: a 1972-73 fiscal year financial statement prepared by Arthur Young, and a prospectus created in early 1975 when Atari was considering going public. The financial statement claims the Syzygy partnership was formed in January 1971, while the prospectus explains it was formed in December 1970. While this does constitute a slight disagreement between the two sources, clearly they establish this event as happening well after Dabney’s claim of Fall 1969.
Bushnell’s deposition further clarifies the situation:
Q: I show you a document which has been marked 39-3 and 39-4 and ask if you can identify those?
A. That’s a listing that came from one of the trade journals, and I don’t remember which one it was, which listed all the mini computers that were on the market at that time, their approximate costs and how fast the cycle time was and what the architecture of the machine was. It was sort of a thing that we went through to see if there wasn’t a cheaper system that we could buy that would do essentially the same thing.
Q. Essentially the same thing as what?
A: The same thing as the Data General unit that we felt probably was as good a buy on the market at the time for what we wanted.
Q. I notice that those two documents bear the dates August 1970. Were these documents that you were considering after the date of January 26, 1971 or prior to that time? [the importance of January 26, 1971 will become clear later in the post]
A. Well, it was prior because, you know, obviously we had made a decision at the time this letter was written as to which computer we wanted and we had been looking at this quite a bit before August 1970 and was [sic] very happy when they published this because it made us evaluate a lot more units.
Q. You said you were looking into it quite a bit before August of 1970. I gather from your prior testimony that all of your activities were during the year of 1970 with respect to the building of this?
A. That is true, in terms of actually putting any hardware together or, you know, drawings.
While this passage is vague on when work actually began on the project, just placing it before August 1970, Bushnell provides more detail later on in the deposition:
Q: When did you first decide that you Wanted to use a raster scan cathode-ray tube display system in that apparatus?
A. Probably it was coincident with the time that I decided to pursue this on an active basis.
Q. What time was that?
A. It was the early spring.
Q: Of 1970?
Now, Bushnell and Dabney’s timelines are adding up a little more. If, as a thought exercise rather than a statement of fact, we assume “early spring” to mean April, then this would be 16 months after Bushnell joined Ampex, which is also fairly close to the vague estimate of “about a year” given by Dabney. While not entirely on point, this seems reasonably within a margin of error when dealing with trying to remember a series of events over forty years after the fact. When coupled with the documents indicating Syzygy was established around December 1970-January 1971, the totality of the evidence indicates that Business is Fun is in error.
Even if 1969 is the wrong year, could Dabney be remembering events correctly, but just be off by a year? Quite possibly. After Business Is Fun was published, Marty Goldberg tracked down the third person who was originally supposed to be part of the Syzygy partnership, Larry Bryan. In an interview with Marty conducted in March 2015, Larry said the following about the timeframe for his participation in the project:
Well, you can sort of find out by sub…it was like six months or so before Nutting and Nolan got together
While this is also a vague recollection dredged up forty years after the fact just like Dabney’s false memories of 1969, it does have the added benefit of fitting the documented timeline quite well. In his 1974 deposition, Bushnell discusses his departure from Ampex and his move to Nutting Associates:
Q. When did you commence your employment with Nutting Associates?
A. I think it was in March or April of ’71.
Counting back six months from March 1971 gets us back to September 1970 for Bryan’s involvement, right around when Bushnell would have seen those August 1970 sell sheets for Data General computers. This also happens to be the Fall, the exact season Dabney remembers all these events happening. While most of these remain estimates based on recollections, its amazing how nicely they all play with each other once we assume Dabney is merely off by a year.
Now that we finally have a timeframe for when the Syzygy partnership was proposed and then formed, we can now turn to the actual work on the game. For this, we must turn once again to Bushnell’s deposition, in which several early schematics for what became Computer Space were presented into evidence. While these were sadly not dated, Bushnell did attempt to establish when they were created:
Q. Do you know when you drew these documents which I just enumerated?
A. I’d say it was probably around July or August 1970. It might have been as early as February for some of them, but I think the ones that I drew in February were rougher. These are more detailed as to interconnections.
Once again setting aside that Bushnell is likely taking credit for some work actually done by Dabney, this July-August timeframe for sketching out a system also appears plausible and actually fits really nicely with Bushnell’s later recollection that he started talking up doing the game around 18 months after he joined Ampex. This also fits well with Bryan’s recollections of being recruited in the early Fall, because both Bushnell and Dabney agree that he was a later addition to the project. It makes sense that Bushnell and Dabney would first make sure they could even interface a monitor with a Nova in the way they wanted before asking a programming buddy whether he could create a timeshared version of the game. Absent contradictory evidence, we will take Nolan’s word on this one for now.
So if work started in Summer 1970, when did the first iteration of this project end in failure? Bushnell provided this part of the story to Tristan Donovan for his book, Replay:
By Thanksgiving 1970, Bushnell concluded the project was doomed to failure. “I got frustrated and decided to abandon it,” said Bushnell. “But I kept worrying about the problem and thinking about it and then I had that ‘a-ha’ moment where I thought I’m going to get rid of the computer and do it all in hardware. From that point, it just flew together.”
While Donovan did not quote Bushnell directly in the book on the date, this lines up with what Bushnell said in later interviews, such as his oral history in 2017 with the Smithsonian:
This was over the Thanksgiving holidays. My idea was I was going to finish the design over the Thanksgiving holidays. I started literally Wednesday night and got up on Thanksgiving Day, worked all morning. Before dinner at 3:00, I abandoned the project. I say, “Time’s not right. Math doesn’t work.” I don’t know whether it was the tryptophan of the turkey dinner or what have you, but you always do this after Thanksgiving dinner, you always lay down and have a nap. During my nap, my hind mind came up with the solution.
Screw the minicomputer. Get rid of it. Do it all in hardware. Make the game out of this collection, just make it a simple state machine. And the minute that happened, it was like knife through butter. Not only did I get the cost down, but what was budgeted for $1,500 worth of minicomputer, the whole damn computer cost me less than $300 in glue parts. So, I knew that I had something.
This makes for a good story, but it sadly appears not to be accurate. Just about the only documentary evidence we have in this entire mess is a letter that Nolan Bushnell penned to a salesman at Data General dated January 26, 1971, in which he planned to order several Data General computers. Back to the deposition:
Q. Just to try to fix that date as firmly as possible, Mr. Bushnell, I show you Atari Exhibit 39 about which you did give some testimony in January. A part of that exhibit is Page 39-2, a letter from you dated January 26, 1971 to Bob Washburn at Data General. At this point in time had you made this decision to drop the software approach or not?
A. No. At this point we had not completely ruled out that we would use the software approach.
Bushnell provided more detail as to what changed his mind about using a computer later in the deposition:
Q. I hand you Atari Exhibit 40 and ask you if you can identify Document 40-1?
A. This is a letter from Bob Washburn who was the sales engineer in the area for Data General. We had kind of been stringing him along because we weren’t ready to commit the dollars and we had sort of told him, “Yes, the order is coming. The order is coming.” I think this letter is to just sort of jack us up and trying to push us into a close. It was during this period that I had pretty much decided that I was not going to go the direct computer route but was going to go to a single stand-alone unit.
Q. During what period was this that you just referred to?
A. Between the time of composing that letter to the time that I got that. Because it was–I was almost ready to go but I just wanted to go back and check to make sure that the system as I had configured it made sense. I wanted to make sure the thing was doable, and so I wanted to get closer– I had found a place where I could rent a Data General computer and I had gotten a little bit closer to a guy that was there who was trying to sell me some time on the machine. He pointed out something that I had failed to take into consideration on my initial calculations and it scared me into thinking that maybe I wasn’t even going to be able to get four monitors to go. So at that I point I decided that I really needed to change one of my design at that time and that pushed me into the thinking of just doing it all hardware and not doing it software with the computer.
Q. And the period during which this occurred that you are referring to was the period between the dates of 39-2 and 40-1?
Q. What was the date on 40-1?
A. February 16, 1971.
So according to Bushnell’s testimony, a computer was not totally abandoned until sometime between January 26 and February 16, 1971, dates fixed by actual documentary evidence. So how does this track with Bushnell’s Thanksgiving recollection as well as the simple fact that Bryan had warned them off a computer solution months before this? Well, Bushnell has claimed in several interviews that they initially tried to solve the computer problem by moving some functions to specialized hardware to take some strain off the main machine. From his Smithsonian oral history:
I started working on the interface logic, the thing that would take the raw data from the minicomputer and give it in video form to the monitors. I just kept running out of time. There was just not enough compute power. But my solution for that was I would take over certain aspects and just do it in hardware, because another thing about right timing is the TTL Caterpillar chips that were the logic building blocks of flipflops, AND gates, OR gates, decoders, what have you, had just dropped in price by two orders of magnitude. What used to be fifty bucks to do a flip-flop was now fifteen cents. Talk about right timing. It was really great. Doing little circuits using digital logic and Boolean algebra, it was trivial. I mean, it was very cost effective.
The first thing I did is I took over the star field, which was part of the space, the background. Then I did the score, in which I just decoded a certain segment of the screen. Maybe I should back up. I started out knowing that the computer had to be crystal-controlled so that we would have a clock speed that was equivalent to the horizontal position of the raster, and so I determined that we would have an active screen area of 256-by-256, 256 pixels horizontally, 256 pixels vertically. So that just turned out to be eight bits. [Laughs.] So, I had eight-bit counters horizontally, eight-bit counters vertically, and it just worked. It worked out.
So perhaps augmenting rather than replacing the computer was his Thanksgiving epiphany? At this point we are well into the realm of speculation, but its as good a guess as any. Obviously, its also possible his Thanksgiving recollection is simply incorrect.
From here, the rest of the timeline becomes much simpler. Bushnell has explained in several interviews that he made contact with Nutting because he talked about the project with his dentist, who connected him to another patient of his, Nutting sales manager Dave Ralstin. As previously indicated, he joined Nutting in March or April 1971. According to his deposition, Bushnell and Dabney had a working prototype of the spot generating and motion hardware even before the January 1971 letter to Bob Washburn, and he further indicated in his deposition that there was a rudimentary playable version of Computer Space running by “April or May of ’71.” Cash Box confirms the game debuted at the Music Operators’ of America (MOA) trade show on October 15, 1971, and the first ad for the game appeared in the November 27 edition of the trade publication. This dovetails well with Bushnell’s recollection in his deposition that the game actually entered production in December. And thus was the video game industry born (well, not quite, but that’s another story).
One final strange wrinkle. In 1983, a magazine called Video Review featured a timeline of early video game history. Its an interesting document because its clear that the author must have conducted some interviews and examined some documents rather than just regurgitating what had been previously recounted in the press. This is most evident in the section on Ralph Baer and his Brown Box, which clearly draws from primary source material held by Baer that was not generally made available until decades later. For our purposes here, the most interesting claim is as follows:
On August 23, 1971, Bushnell signs an agreement with Nutting licensing Computer Space from Syzygy.
This is a claim I have never seen anywhere before. It could be incorrect, but having a specific day like this lends a certain amount of confidence to the claim. Could it be that Nutting did not actually agree to do the game when they hired Bushnell? It makes some sense seeing as all parties agreed Computer Space was a project independent of Bushnell’s employment with the company. Perhaps Bill Nutting wanted to see how the game turned out before committing to it. As Business Is Fun and Benj Edwards’article on Computer Space for Technologizer indicate, the game existed in a mostly completed state by the Summer. This date does make sense if Nutting was hesitant to embrace video games until he could actually see a living, breathing example of one. More corroboration is needed before I take this claim at face value, but it is interesting nonetheless.
So where does that leave us? Below is a rough timeline of how Computer Space came together. Note that unlike my similar Spacewar! timeline, this one contains a lot more theorizing and speculation. I would not take every entry as gospel, but its the best we have that reconciles the various recollections and documentary evidence. If nothing else, it gives us a rough sequence of events.
December 1968: Nolan Bushnell graduates from the University of Utah with a degree in electrical engineering and is hired by Ampex Corporation as a junior engineer in its Videofile division. He is assigned an office with Ted Dabney.
Spring 1970: Nolan Bushnell sees Spacewar! for the first time at the Stanford Artificial Intelligence Laboratory and starts pondering how to commercialize the game.
Summer 1970: Nolan enlists Ted Dabney to help make his Spacewar! coin-op game a reality. They begin sketching out a monitor interface and other components and evaluate the available computers on the market, settling on the Data General Nova.
Fall 1970: Needing a programmer, Nolan turns to his friend and co-worker Larry Bryan. A meeting is held at Ted Dabney’s house in which the three discuss forming a partnership named Syzygy to create the game. Larry spends a little time looking at the problem of timesharing three or four games of Spacewar! on a single Nova computer — a necessity for the venture to be profitable — and determines it cannot be done. The partnership falls apart.
November 1970: Nolan has an epiphany, possibly over Thanksgiving weekend, that the project may still be viable if he moves some of the game functionality out of software and into hardware. Bushnell and Dabney start constructing a prototype in the bedroom of Ted Dabney’s daughter.
January 1971: With a basic feasibility prototype finished, featuring an exerciser standing in for the Nova computer according to Nolan’s deposition, Nolan Bushnell prepares to order several Nova computers from Data General. With the game finally starting to come together, Bushnell and Dabney finally form Syzygy Company.
February 1971: Nolan realizes that the game will still not run on the computer even with the specialized hardware after an employee at a computer center with a Nova computer points out some errors in his calculations. Nolan realizes, perhaps with a nudge from Dabney, the exerciser can just be expanded to replace the computer entirely.
March or April 1971: Nolan Bushnell joins Nutting Associates as chief engineer. The company agrees to consider his and Dabney’s video game project, which will be completed on an independent contractor basis with the duo retaining rights to their technology.
April or May 1971: A basic version of Computer Space is up and running on the prototype hardware.
Summer 1971: A prototype of Computer Space is tested at the Dutch Goose, where it performs well. A subsequent test at a pizza parlor goes less well.
August 1971: Nutting Associates possibly only commits to building Computer Space at this time and licenses the game from Syzygy on the 23rd of the month.
October 1971:Computer Space premiers at the MOA show in Chicago.
Just wanted to make a quick note that my book annotations are not dead; I have just had a couple other projects that required immediate attention and left less time for writing. The series should continue next week.
This post is part of an ongoing series annotating my book They Create Worlds: The Story of the People and Companies That Shaped the Video Game Industry, Vol. I. It covers material found in chapter 5 on pages 70-75. It is not necessary to have read the book to comprehend and appreciate the post.
After examining the controversy around when and where Nolan Bushnell saw Spacewar!, its time to take an equally in depth look at the partnership between Nolan Bushnell and Ted Dabney that eventually evolved into Atari. For several decades, the only voice we had on the creation of Computer Space and the founding of Atari’s predecessor, Syzygy, was Nolan’s. This was not just the case in historical monographs like Game Over and The Ultimate History of Video Games, but even in contemporaneous news accounts in the 1970s. Ted Dabney was occasionally name-checked as a founder in articles about Atari, but he never spoke. Bushnell, on the other hand, spoke constantly.
This changed in 2009. Leonard Herman, the author of Phoenix: The Fall and Rise of Video Games, had already expended considerable effort to reacquaint video game history enthusiasts with Ralph Baer, who after being a constant presence in books and articles in the 1970s and early 1980s had fallen somewhat into obscurity, and he decided to do the same for Ted Dabney. He tracked the man to the mountains of California, where he had retreated to run a grocery store after a long career in tech. Herman conducted an interview with Ted, which served as the basis for an article he wrote for the 200th issue of Edge in April 2009 called “The Untold Atari Story.” That title was not an exaggeration, for the story Ted told was quite different from the standard tale told by Nolan.
Herman’s article led to something of a Dabney renaissance. Next up were Curt Vendel and Mary Goldberg, who interviewed him for their history of Atari, Inc., Business is Fun. He was also interviewed by the podcast Retro Gaming Roundup and by the Computer History Museum in short order. Shortly before he died in 2018, the oral history project I am a part of, The Smithsonian’s Video Game Pioneers Archive, interviewed him as well.
Obviously, it is wonderful that we now have a second account on the birth of Computer Space and Atari, but I feel there has also been a worrying trend to take everything Ted Dabney says uncritically. This is a natural inclination both because Nolan Bushnell has a reputation as a glory hound and because Ted’s take is untainted by years of being interviewed locking in a certain version of events in his mind. Ted, the argument goes, has never sought credit or recognition and never spent years cultivating a story in the media, so his recollections are the unvarnished truth.
This is a mistake on two counts. First, while he has not been cultivating a story in the media, he is also telling his story for the first time nearly 40 years after the fact. Memory fades over time, no matter what your intentions. Second, just because Ted may not be a glory hound does not mean that he has not internalized a narrative that portrays himself in the most positive light. We all do this, no matter how honest and forthright we are. I do believe Ted’s recollections were the truth as he remembered it and that he re-emerged in 2009 without a particular agenda, but that does not make everything he said 100% true. Business Is Fun was particularly bad about this, basically elevating Ted at every moment and always accepting his version of events over a competing view of Nolan’s, even on occasions when there was other evidence backing Nolan’s version of events. That said, Dabney did poke some serious holes in Nolan’s narrative and reinforced the simple fact that Nolan has not always had the best relationship with the truth.
As I stated in my previous post, when confronted with multiple takes on events, I tried to keep my book on a single narrative path when possible. This is a matter of simple expediency, as when one is trying to cover the entire grand sweep of a multifaceted industry, there is simply no time to stop and litigate every last controversy. That said, many of these inflection points where memories and documentary evidence differ do deserve a closer look. That’s a big part of why I decided to revive this blog. So in this post, I will turn my attention to some of the disagreements between the two gentlemen in the earliest days of their collaboration. Once I get to the appropriate chapters of the book in this series of annotations, I will return to this subject to look at their relationship in 1972-74 during the Atari years.
First, some facts that are not in dispute. Nolan Bushnell was hired by the Ampex Corporation in 1969 and assigned to the Videofile division. Ted Dabney was an older and more experienced engineer in said division, and the two shared an office. They became fast friends, and Nolan taught Ted to play Go. When Nolan decided to turn Spacewar! into a coin-operated game run on a minicomputer, he enlisted Ted’s help. They collaborated on what became Computer Space and established a partnership called Syzygy. Once Nolan secured Nutting Associates as a manufacturer of the game, they both joined the company as engineers and later left to form Atari. While these broad facts are not in dispute, they disagree on many of the details.
First, there is the matter of Nolan’s earliest money-making schemes. Dabney claims that before Spacewar!, Nolan had a plan to create some kind of pizzeria featuring robots. Per his Retro Gaming Roundup interview aired in September 2010:
Nolan had this great idea about a pizza parlor that had talking barrels and singing bears and all that kind of stuff so we started running around looking at those kind of pizza parlors and eating places.
This claim does not feel like much of a stretch. After all, Nolan would go on to establish Pizza Time Theater with its pizza and animatronic animal band. Nolan, however, takes extreme issue with this recollection. In an email exchange with Ted, Devin Monnens, Marty Goldberg and Curt Vendel that Marty later made public, Bushnell ridiculed the idea that he was running around thinking about pizza parlors.
I did not include the “singing barrel pizza parlor” story in my book because Nolan has never corroborated it. While it is true that Nolan has most likely not always been honest about the early days, I do not see any advantage that he gains by denying this story. Nolan did come up with the idea for Pizza Time, and that idea was both innovative and successful. As Nolan tends to like to push his innovative ideas to as early a timeframe as possible as evidenced by his Spacewar! at Utah claims, it seems out of character for him to deny this story if it is true. I am going to take him at his word that he was not “bouncing off the walls thinking about pizza parlors.”
That said, I do not think Ted Dabney is lying; I just think he was confused on the timeframe after 40 years. There is ample evidence that by the time Atari was founded, Nolan was indeed thinking about doing some kind of restaurant involving animatronics. Nolan himself told this to Benj Edwards for a 2017 feature on Pizza Time:
When I was starting Atari, I was actually thinking that I was going to start a restaurant alongside it, […] I got so busy that it wasn’t until later on in Atari that I decided to finally do the restaurant.
This is at least an acknowledgement that he was thinking of a restaurant in a timeframe when he and Ted Dabney were partners. Further confirmation that he was actively engaging with the idea at this time comes from his friend and fraternity brother, Randal Willie, whom I interviewed because of Nolan’s Spacewar! claims. In our interview, Randall recounted how he and Nolan would socialize in the early 1970s when both men were living in the Bay Area:
He and I periodically interacted when he was in the Bay Area. I remember having dinner with him one night. […] He had an idea for a chain of restaurants, and he mentioned the idea of using robotics to have animation, animated characters that would interact
Willie puts this dinner conversation right as Nolan was preparing to leave Nutting to focus on his own company. Even if he has conflated two different conversations, Randall moved away from Silicon Valley in Fall 1972 and never interacted with Nolan again, so that puts a cap on when the conversation could have occurred. Clearly, Nolan was thinking about Pizza Time quite early; I just don’t think it was quite as early as Ted says.
When Nolan started thinking about restaurants is a pretty minor point. Far more significant is the dispute between the co-founders over who created the core technology used in Computer Space, which was also the core technology that governed how all video games worked before the incorporation of the microprocessor. In particular, there is disagreement over the spot-motion circuitry that allowed for the placing and moving of objects on a television screen. In the book, I punted this one by just stating that they developed the technology together, which is true. I did not want to go into detail on the claims on each side, because that would have required a footnote even longer than my marathon discussion on where Nolan saw Spacewar! This blog post is a perfect place for that, so let’s have a look.
Nolan Bushnell has always maintained that he did all the digital engineering on Computer Space, including any and all circuit design. He claims Ted did the analog engineering. This meant working with the television and interfacing it with the game hardware, designing the power supply, and developing the sound. Dabney concurs that he did all of these things, but he also maintains that much of the circuit design was also his. Per Dabney to Retro Gaming Roundup:
So, one day we were sitting there, and Nolan said, “You know, on a TV set you … when you adjust the vertical control, the picture starts moving back and forth, you know. How does that happen?”
So I explained it in detail how that happened. He said, “Could we do something like that?”
I said, “Yeah we could do that, we’d have to do it digitally though. We couldn’t do it analog, we wouldn’t have any control.”
He said, “How do we do that?” So we went , I went through the counters, you know, the little different counter bits on one … on the video counter versus the synch counter. The synch counter would always have to run the same but the video counter can run a little bit faster and a bit slower.
I said, “I don’t know how that’s going to come out. We could go one bit and have the thing going too fast. I don’t know yet.”
So I breadboarded it and that was when I was working in my daughter’s bedroom. I breadboarded it and sure enough it worked! The spot was moving
Bushnell is in no way happy with this recounting of events, as evidenced in the email chain from 2013:
I was repairing television sets when I was 10 so I knew exactly what vertical hold did. I never asked Ted that….in fact I did 100% of the digital engineering myself.
So according to you Ted, you calculated the clock frequency, designed the clock circuit, designed the counter circuits and the boolean logic for creating the sync. Then the motion circuits and graphic manipulations so that a Rocket could be displayed. And basically did it all while I was bouncing off the walls thinking about pizza parlors.
A few points to take away from this. First, Bushnell claims that he had extensive knowledge about televisions because he had been repairing them for many years. This claim is worth digging into further. Unlike many of Nolan’s depictions of his past, this one only starts showing up recently. He did not mention it in Robert Slater’s 1987 book Portraits in Silicon, which is probably the first extended examination of Nolan’s early years; it does not come up in David Sheff’s 1993 tome Game Over, which has a chapter on Bushnell that also briefly explores his early years despite being largely focused on Nintendo, and it is absent from Kent’s Ultimate History of Video Games in 2001, which likewise takes a few moments to delve into his background. All three of these tomes had direct participation from Bushnell in the form of interviews, so its rather remarkable that it never comes up.
I cannot guarantee that I have seen every interview that Nolan has ever given, but the earliest claim of repairing televisions as a child I have seen comes from a February 2013 appearance on a program called The Startup Grind. In this interview, Nolan claims:
I graduated to TV Repairman. It turns out that I kinda figured out how to fix TVs. I mean in those days it was a matter of finding the tube that was bad and it wasn’t exactly rocket science. I found out that letting a 10-year-old kid get in the back of a television set […] was tough, so I decided I would charge fifty cents per house call [..] but I found out that I could really jack up the price of the tubes I replaced.
That is a remarkable claim considering the age, and its a claim that he only started making after a slew of interviews by Ted Dabney between 2009 and 2012 started to cast doubt on Nolan’s comprehension of how televisions work. This claim did not impress Dabney. Back to the old email exchange:
Nolan never was “repairing television sets”. This is something he just made up to support the other stories he tells. A 10 year old would need a lot of help to replace a picture tube. They have a lethal voltage even when they’re removed from the TV. Changing vacuum tubes in TV sets in 1953 was not an easy job. You would have to know what the problem is and which tubes may cause it. Sometimes a burned out filament can give you a clue but too many had the filaments wired in series. Only the glass tubes could give you a hint (12BA6 Remote-cutoff pentode) but the metal ones couldn’t (6F6 Power pentode) which were sometimes used to drive the deflection yokes. I did a lot of this when I lived on Shotwell St. in SF. My friend Art called it ‘easter-egging.’ I don’t think a 10 year old could have access to as many vacuum tubes as one would need to do this stuff. I know I didn’t and I was 17. Art and I would just go buy what we thought we might need. Art was pretty good at diagnosing a problem.
More recently, perhaps in response to this criticism, Nolan has tempered his claim a little bit. In 2018, the Smithsonian institution conducted an oral history with him as part of the Video Games Pioneer Archive, an initiative for which I serve as the head researcher. When the conversation turned to TV repair, Nolan stated the following:
For example, my TV repair business was really, when I look back on it, pretty pedestrian. I was a tube swapper. But if it was something where a capacitor or a resistor had gone out under the chassis, that was not my meat. Ted could go in and he could—that was his meat. He could do that standing on his head.
He also ups the age from 10 to 12.
So did Nolan really have a history with TVs, or was this a later fabrication after Ted got to talking? Probably a little bit of both. In a deposition in the Magnavox case in January 1976, Nolan did discuss a history with televisions:
Q: I think you stated that for a period while you were in college you were employed by Barlow Furniture doing TV and appliance repair work and delivery?
A: That’s correct.
Q: Could you outline the nature of your duties concerning television repair?
A: I was really good at switching tubes around. I didn’t have the capital equipment to do some of the heavy repairing. That was left up to some other people.
Q: You say you didn’t have the capital equipment?
Q: Were you working as a contractor for Barlow essentially or —
A: No. I was just employed on a salary. Hourly, actually.
Q: But were you using your own equipment, your own television repair equipment?
A: Yes, I had my own pliers.
Q: Prior to that time that you worked for Barlow did you have any background in television service or —
A: […] I just always fooled around. I fixed my own TV’s and then pretty soon started fixing the neighbors’ TV’s and, you know, it just kind of mushroomed. I worked for Barlow, incidentally, all during high school. It was just one of those evolutionary things.
Q: While you were working for Barlow all during high school during that entire period you were involved in fixing and repair of televisions?
A: That’s true. It wasn’t my primary responsibility. I’d say I was a better washerman. We were at RCA at the time.
As this account is given under oath, provides no tangible benefits to his case if he is lying, and was told closest to the events in question, it feels the most accurate to me. So Nolan did start fooling around with switching tubes in TVs, and his neighbors indulged him. Then, in high school, he did a small amount of TV repair for Barlow, though that was not his primary job. He did not have his own business at a young age, nor was fixing TVs ever his main focus. I therefore find it believable that Dabney had to give him some explanation of how a television worked. There is no shame in that, and Nolan can still take credit for having the idea to manipulate the vertical hold of a television in the first place. Conversely, Dabney’s insistence that Bushnell could have never done any TV repair does not stand up. Clearly he did.
That said, another point raised by this email exchange is who actually created the spot motion circuitry. Here, all we have is a “he said, she said” situation. Only one piece of documentary evidence survives that could point toward the truth. As part of his Magnavox deposition, Nolan brought certain schematics with him that dated to the creation of Computer Space. While these evidentiary copies do not apparently survive, they are described over the course of the deposition. From March 1976:
Q: The drawing is entitled “Position and Line Counter Cosmic Combat drawn by S.F. Dabney, January 26, 1971, Syzygy Co., San Jose, California.”
A: I believe this part of the game that was later known as Computer Space.
That position and line counter sounds an awful lot like the basic motion circuitry described by Dabney in his interviews. And if Dabney is drawing the schematic, then its probable he was also the designer. Its not definitive, but its the best we’ve got. For what its worth, Dabney does not claim he did all the engineering, and that Nolan took his initial circuitry work and created the actual PC boards. Per Ted in a contentious exchange between Nolan and Ted on the Atari Age message boards in 2010:
The “slip counter” as he calls it was a joint venture between us. I breadboarded it and controlled it with toggle switches but Nolan engineered it into the game so it could be controlled digitally.
Its possible they are really just arguing over semantics, but its a contentious argument nonetheless, and one Nolan is apparently still bitter about.
One final piece of the Nolan and Ted story before we bring Part I to a close: the two also disagree on where the work was done. Nolan Bushnell claims they created their initial prototype in his daughter’s bedroom. This is a story that goes back nearly to the beginning. Per a November 1973 profile on Atari in Systems Engineering Today:
[Bushnell] converted a bedroom as a lab and developed a prototype of the game that was later sold as Computer Space.
But when Dabney finally spoke up, he said they worked in his daughter’s bedroom. This became a central point of the aforementioned back-and-forth on the Atari Age forums in which Bushnell claimed Ted did not even have a daughter. Later, he admitted he was wrong on that point, though he still maintained they did the work at his place. Later still, when speaking to Retro Gamer for an article on the creation of Computer Space in issue 93, he moderated his recollections a bit:
The real answer [to whose daughter’s bedroom they created the game in] is that it was both. […] Ted was doing his work and I was doing mine. Quite frankly, I had forgotten he was working in his daughter’s bedroom as well. The blogs got carried away. I fueled it by saying once that I didn’t think he even had a daughter.
In the same article, Dabney remained unmoved:
My daughter Terri used to babysit for Nolan, so he knew I had a daughter, and his wife back then, Paula, would not let him do anything in the house. He didn’t even own a soldering iron.
So what to make of this? Well, I am partial to Dabney’s account of this one. Its unlikely that they really both displaced their daughters to set up workshops for a project they were collaborating on, and the fact Bushnell blinked after the 2010 confrontation and acknowledged work being done in Dabney’s house is as close to a retraction as we are likely to get on the matter. Furthermore, Curt Vendel and Marty Goldberg actually interviewed Dabney’s daughter to see what she remembered. While she is obviously going to be biased towards her father’s account, her specific recollections of what she remembered seeing, including thinking at the time that the integrated circuits looked like bugs, lends credence to her account. I think Nolan co-opted this story in his early days of promoting himself as the major force behind Atari.
So for those keeping score, that’s two points for Bushnell for not thinking about pizza parlors befor video games and having experience working with TVs, and two points for Dabney for designing the original motion control circuit and for the early Computer Space work taking place in his daughter’s bedroom. There is not definitive proof for any of these claims, but these are the interpretations of the evidence we do have that seem to fit best to me. Others may disagree. In a few weeks, we’ll keep this little competition going as we delve into Nolan and Ted matters relating to Atari.
This post is part of an ongoing series annotating my book They Create Worlds: The Story of the People and Companies That Shaped the Video Game Industry, Vol. I. It covers material found in chapter 5 on pages 68-70. It is not necessary to have read the book to comprehend and appreciate the post.
Now that we are through all the early experiments, its time to start examining the beginning of commercial video games. And its here the stories start to get more complicated. There really is not much disagreement in the sources about who did what in Spacewar! or Tennis for Two, but when it comes to the launch of Computer Space and Pong, there are three major participants and what feels like ten different stories. In writing the book, I tried to construct a single coherent narrative out of this mess, which means that I made certain choices about which information I found reliable and which I did not. In some cases, where that was impossible, I included footnotes explaining where the stories diverged. The single longest footnote in the book explained why I was confident Nolan Bushnell did not see Spacewar! while a student at the University of Utah in the 1960s. So let’s expand that footnote into an even longer blog post.
The standard story Nolan Bushnell tells about his first encounter with video games basically goes like this: in 1965 or 1966, soon after transferring to the University of Utah from Utah State, a buddy or a fraternity brother informs him there is something really cool he needs to see. Sometimes they just head on over to the computer lab, other times it plays out like the world’s geekiest heist story as they sneak in late at night. Either way, he beholds Spacewar! for the first time at the University of Utah Computer Center, where its running on a big mainframe, either an IBM 7094 or a UNIVAC 1108. Bushnell is entranced and is soon playing the game all night long whenever he can.
Also working as an arcade manager at the Lagoon Amusement Park at the time, Bushnell thinks to himself that the game would be perfect as a coin-operated product if it were not running on such an expensive computer, but alas, there is nothing to be done. He goes on with his life, playing his Spacewar! and even programming a few of his own games like a “Fox & Geese” program until he graduates in 1968 and moves to California. An avid go player, Bushnell meets a man named Jim Stein at a Stanford University go club, who takes him over to the Stanford Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (SAIL) and reconnects Nolan with Spacewar! Soon after, Nolan sees a sales sheet for a Data General Nova, realizes computers may now be cheap enough to run a coin-operated video game, and the rest is history.
Bushnell has consistently told this version of events for fifty years, and while some of the details get embellished as time goes on, the core story remains unchanged. I fully believe that today, Mr. Bushnell considers the above to be a true and accurate account, as memory is a funny thing and the more we relay a certain set of facts, the more real they become in our own minds. Sadly, this account is almost certainly false, save for the last part where Jim Stein introduces — rather than reintroduces — Nolan to Spacewar! at Stanford.
So why lie? Why does it matter whether Nolan Bushnell first saw Spacewar! in 1966 at Utah or 1970 at Stanford? Either way, he played a complex computer game relatively early and took inspiration from it to play a key role in launching commercial video games. Well, the answer to that has to do with patent litigation. As has already been mentioned more than once in this series, when Ralph Baer and company developed the prototype of what became the Magnavox Odyssey, they filed patents relating both to the invention of video games generally and to the invention of a system in which two objects electronically rendered on a screen collide and one of them changes vectors specifically. Once those patents were issued in 1972, Magnavox, as the sole licensee of Ralph Baer’s technology, could theoretically claim patent infringement against any electronic game in which a human-controlled object and a computer-controlled object displayed on a screen collided and one of them changed vectors, which basically describes any of the dozen or so ball-and-paddle games that took the coin-operated world by storm in 1973 after Atari launched Pong. The best way to avoid paying damages for patent infringement in this scenario would be to show that your own invention predated the work of Baer and his team to some degree. As Bill Rusch came up with the Odyssey table tennis game in late 1967 and the collision patent was filed in 1969, suddenly whether Nolan Bushnell was inspired by Spacewar! in 1966 or 1970 becomes incredibly important.
Meanwhile, in Summer 1973, Nolan Bushnell gave his earliest known interview in which he discusses the origin of his fascination with computer games. The venue is a short documentary called Games Computers Play that chronicles the birth of arcade video games through Bushnell’s Computer Space and Pong as well as the fascination with Spacewar! at SAIL. In this documentary, a very young Nolan Bushnell states the following:
We used to play Spacewar a lot at the AI project at Stanford, which is a big computer complex, and one day it just hit, you know this is a lot of fun, you know I oughta be able to package it and sell it for a price.
No mention of Utah or amusement parks or long-standing dreams of a coin-operated video game empire. He was just hanging around Stanford and one day realized people just might pay money to experience this fun computer game. After Nolan reveals his inspiration, the documentary transitions from talking about Atari to talking about Spacewar! at SAIL, and the narrator begins the new segment with the following words: “The AI Project, where Bushnell first played Spacewar…” While this statement does not come straight out of Nolan’s own mouth, clearly the understanding of the documentarians based on their interview with Bushnell is that he first saw Spacewar! at Stanford.
By November 1973, Nolan Bushnell is singing a different tune. A profile of Atari in a trade publication called Systems Engineering Today recounts the following:
During the early part of the Spacewar craze, Nolan Bushnell was pursuing an EE degree at the University of Utah and working summers as manager of the games department at an amusement park. He was familiar with Spacewar, and from his amusement arcade background he believed that it would be a great arcade game. The only problem was the price: a computer, even a mini, would cost far more than any amusement arcade operator would spend for a game.
And there it is, the Spacewar! at Utah story fully formed. A story from which Bushnell would never deviate in all the years to follow.
So what changed between Summer and Fall 1973? Well, another November 1973 profile of Atari, this one in Business Week, provides the answer:
Magnavox Co., which introduced its Odyssey games that can be played on home TV sets last year, also plans to require companies marketing coin-operated TV games to obtain a license. But some people in the coin-operated game business believe that the Magnavox patents pertain primarily to the home TV market.
So by Fall 1973, Magnavox is making noises about enforcing its patents against companies producing coin-operated video games, and said companies are already trying to figure out their response to this threat. Interestingly, Bushnell takes his Utah story a step further in Business Week as well. Says Bushnell:
The idea for Pong really goes back to my time at the University of Utah. I used to go into the computer center late at night and think up games to play with the computers.
Now, Nolan is not just playing games in the mid 1960s; he is dreaming them up too. And, he claims this is the lineage of Pong, a lineage that is now being conveniently established in a time well before the Magnavox Odyssey existed.
In 1974, Magnavox finally pulled the trigger, suing Atari and several other companies for patent infringement. In the depositions that followed, Nolan continued to refine his Spacewar! story. From a deposition given by Nolan Bushnell on January 13-14, 1976:
Q: Were you personally involved in any activities prior to December 31, 1969 related to apparatus for playing of games which utilized cathode ray tube displays?
A: Yes, I was.
Q: What was the first such activity of that kind that you can recall?
A: I recall playing a game on the computer at the University of Utah.
Q: When did that activity occur?
A: I have been trying to pinpoint that. I think it was in the neighborhood of 1965. It was shortly after I came to the university of Utah.
Q: By shortly after you came to the University of Utah, how long a period to you mean by shortly?
A: I really don’t recollect. […] I had a friend in the engineering department that I used to play chess with that said, “There’s some great games over at the computer center.” And we went over one night and played.
Q: Could you describe the game which you saw on a computer at the University of Utah, this first game you saw?
A: Yes, It was a game which was called Space War.
Q: Using a computer?
Q: What kind of computer was being used?
A: I’m not sure. That’s one of the things that I can’t put the time on it. It was either a Univac 1108 or an IBM 7094. The University of Utah changed computers while I was there and I’m not sure which it was, really.
This exchange establishes two things: that Nolan Bushnell is now swearing under oath that he saw Spacewar! at the University of Utah around 1965, and that his testimony is as vague as possible. He does not remember exactly when he saw it, and he does not remember on exactly which computer he saw it. In fact, he does not even really remember the person who showed it to him. From the same deposition:
Q: What was the friend’s name?
A: His name was Jim Davies, I think.
Q: And you knew him through your work at the University of Utah?
A: No. I knew him through the chess club.
Q: Do you know where Mr. Davies is located today?
A: I have no idea. I’m not really sure that Davies is his last name. In fact, just a second. I’m not sure that Jim Davies isn’t another guy. It’s Jim something, and it started with a D, but I’m not sure.
This vagueness would continue in a followup deposition given on March 2, 1976.
Q: Mr. Bushnell, in your testimony in January you referred to a Jim Davis or someone with a name like that and then referred to him as Jim D. Have you determined with any great specificity who that individual was?
A. No, I haven’t. In fact, I– No.
Q. This was an individual who you said showed you a game being played on a computer at the University of Utah; am I correct?
A. That’s correct.
Q. Have you made any effort to determine who that individual was?
A. Yes, I have.
Q. What have you done in that regard?
A. I went to the university and went through the rogues’ gallery. They have a listing of the graduates for each school year. I attempted to match a face with a name.
Q. Did you personally go to the university and do that?
A. Yes, I did.
Q. Where is the rogues’ gallery maintained at the University of Utah?
A. On the second floor in front of the Electrical Engineering department.
Q. In what office or department?
A. It’s in the hallway. It’s actually right in front of the computer center.
Q. Did you do anything else to try to establish who Jim D. was?
A. Yes , I did.
Q. What else did you do?
A. I talked to some of the people in the computer center attempting to find some people that had been around at approximately the same time.
Q. Were you able to find anyone?
A. No, I wasn’t.
Q. When did you make this trip?
A. It was in the middle of January.
Q. Of 1976?
A. Yes. Sometime shortly after the deposition.
Q. Did you prepare any report on your trip?
A. No, I did not.
Q. Any memoranda of any kind?
A. No, I did not.
Q. Were you able to find–
A. Well, memoranda? I wrote the names down in my notebook here.
Q. Nothing other than that?
Q. Were you able to find any document that would support your testimony concerning Jim Davis showing you a game played on a computer at the University of Utah in 1965?
A. No .
Q. Did you find any documentation that would support your testimony that a game was played on a computer at the University of Utah in 1965?
Q. Did you find anything other than documents tangible, that would support your testimony that a game was played on a computer at the University of Utah in 1965?
A. Excuse me just a second . No.
Q: In your earlier testimony you indicated that you weren’t certain whether the computer was a UNIVAC 1108 or an IBM 794 [sic] that you saw a game played on. Do you know which of those two it was?
A. No, I don’t.
Q. Did you make any effort to find out at the University of Utah?
Q. Did you make any effort to find out what computer was at the University of Utah in 1965 at the time you say you saw a game played on a computer there?
After this alleged first encounter with Spacewar!, Nolan claims he did not encounter the game again for some time. Back to January 1976:
Q: After this first occasion when you saw Space War shortly after going to the University of Utah what was your next activity with relation to the apparatus for playing games using a cathode-ray tube display?
A: Well, it was about, oh, somewhere around a year later and one of my fraternity brothers got involved in the computer center a little bit more and introduced me to several of the people and we got to talking about the games and I thought it would be kind of fun to learn how to program games.
Q: Did you see any Space War games between the first time that you saw it and the time approximately a year later when your fraternity brother got involved in the computer center?
A: No, I didn’t.
This second encounter supposedly led to more engagement with computer games at Utah and then to a senior thesis in 1967 in which he first put forth his ideas to create his own video game system that could be played at an amusement park. Again, from the deposition:
Q: Did the paper include any description of the types of games that might be played on it?
A: Yes, it did.
Q: What kind of games were described?
A: Space War.
A: Hangman, which is a word game. […] A baseball game.
Q: Any other games?
A: I think those were the only three that I described.
As with his claim of being introduced to Spacewar! by the elusive Jim Davies, Nolan was unable to provide any proof that this senior thesis ever existed. Per the March 1976 deposition:
Q: Mr. Bushnell, you testified about a paper that you prepared while at the University of Utah on games. Have you made a further effort to find a copy of that paper?
A: No, I haven’t.
Q: I think you said the paper was done in conjunction with a course of Professor Atwood; is that correct?
A: I believe that’s true.
Q: have you contacted Professor Atwood as you indicated I think that you were going to do?
A: No, I haven’t.
Q: Do you have any better information today than you had at the time of your last deposition session with respect to that paper or its contents or its location at the present time?
I’ve thrown a lot of quotes at you, so this is probably a good time to summarize the historical record so far. In early 1973, Nolan Bushnell indicated that he first saw Spacewar! at the Stanford Artificial Intelligence Laboratory. Later that year, Magnavox publicly declared it was looking to exploit its patents by extracting licensing fees from all the companies making coin-operated video games, including Atari. As the patents were filed in 1969, an individual or company looking to avoid liability in a patent suit would need to prove that their video game activities started before that date. Nolan did not see Spacewar! at SAIL until spring 1970 at the earliest, however, a timeframe established in another part of his deposition. This would not do.
In late 1973, Nolan suddenly starts talking about all the game ideas he had at the University of Utah after seeing Spacewar!. In depositions given in 1976, he further explains that he first saw the game in 1965, first seriously engaged with it in 1966, and wrote a senior thesis all about playing computer games on a system tailored for use in amusement parks in 1967. If true, this new narrative would give his work priority over the work done by Ralph Baer and Bill Rusch. However, when pressed for details by the attorneys, Nolan was as vague as possible on the names of the people involved and the computer system on which he played the game. He was also unable to provide any documentation proving that he saw Spacewar! at Utah during the period in question or that his thesis on playing computer games in an amusement park ever existed.
That about does it for Bushnell’s own words on the matter and why he might have an incentive to distort the truth, but it still leaves us with the fact that he did testify under penalty of perjury that he first saw Spacewar! at Utah. So would he really lie under oath? Well, his answers were vague enough that he would probably avoid a perjury charge, and indeed the lawyers did not seem particularly interested in trying to catch him in a perjury trap, content to let his vague and flimsy recollections stand on their own. After all, if he was lying, his sparse recollections backed by zero documentary evidence would be unlikely to convince the judge in the case — the matter was not being decided by a jury — that Bushnell really was designing video games in the 1960s, but if he was actually telling the truth and an investigation did uncover additional documentary evidence, then it could be problematic for the Magnavox case. For the lawyers, it was far better to just let it be.
But would Nolan lie about his role in early video game history with or without the threat of legal consequences? Sadly, we know the answer to that question is almost certainly yes. While there is no conclusive proof that Nolan’s Utah statements were false since it is nigh on impossible to prove a negative, we do have other examples of him not being completely honest.
The prime example of Nolan’s aversion to the truth comes from another aspect of the Magnavox case: to wit that he saw the Magnavox Odyssey in Burlingame in May 1972 when it was being demonstrated ahead of release. Nolan admitted as much in his deposition — it was hard not to when Magnavox presented as evidence a guestbook from the event with his signature in it — and these days he even admits publicly that he told Al Alcorn to do a ping-pong game as a test project because he saw the Odyssey. He even tries to downplay any controversy thereof by claiming it was no big secret. For example, in a post he made on the Atari Age forums in 2010, Bushnell stated:
I saw the Burlingame demo of the odyssey and thought it was crap and it was. I signed the register with my own name and have never denied it. It did spark the idea that the ping pong idea could be an interesting game if it were done well.
However, while Nolan did cop to the visit in his deposition, in public he denied it for decades. From Video Invaders by Steven Bloom in 1982:
“Pong was no coincidence,” Baer says firmly. “Later on in the mid-’70s, when we negotiated with Atari to get them under license, it came out that somebody over there had actually seen Odyssey sometime during the course of 1972. I don’t know how they did it, but they saw it. So, Pong was a derivative of Odyssey – not the other way around, by any means. The coin-op games are derivative of what we did here back in the ’60s!”
Surprisingly, Bushnell barely counters Baer’s assertions. “It’s really hard to say,” he replies. “I think he can say that even though I had not seen an Odyssey game at that time. But if you do look at the time frame, Pong was actually on the market before Odyssey. I remember being quite surprised to see Odyssey.”
And nearly two decades later in Steven Kent’s The Ultimate History of Video Games:
What they’ve always alleged was that there was a meeting or a distributor show somewhere in the valley, and I should have, would have, could have been there. So it’s one of those pissing matches.
Nolan was never honest about this until Ralph Baer wrote his own book and included a copy of the guestbook signature for all the world to see.
A second fabrication from these early days concerns Bushnell’s own history, or lack thereof, creating games before Computer Space. As far as I know, Nolan still maintains to this day that he was not just playing games at the University of Utah, but also creating his own. In particular, he is proud of a Fox & Geese game. Per another post in 2010 at the Atari Age forums:
Did you program a game in college called Fox and Geese? Could you tell us about the game and the experiance [sic] of programming the game?
I programmed several games but the one that played the best and was sent around the country was Fox and geese. In the game the fox could move in any direction at twice the speed of the geese there was only one fox. The geese could move up to the right or the left. If a goose was alone the fox could eat it. If there were two geese adjacent he could not. The object was for the fox to either eat all the geese or escape past them. The geese won if they trapped the fox against the upper part of the screen. The number of geese was variable. 3 geese almost always lost 7 geese always won.
Bushnell has also described creating this game to Kent and other interviewers as well. Under oath in 1976, however, a different picture emerges:
Q: Do you recall any games other than Space War specifically at the University of Utah?
A: Space War was really the only game I was interested in at the University.
So where does this Fox & Geese story come from if he was not involved with any other games at Utah by his own admission? The deposition answers this question as well:
Q: Do you recall seeing or playing any other games played with a computer and a cathode-ray tube display either at that conference [the Spring or Fall Joint Computer Conference circa 1969] or at the AI project or at the University of Utah prior to the time you left your employment at Ampex?
Q: What other games do you recall?
A: There was a game called Fox & Geese. That was a game where the fox would chase geese and the geese would, you know, run away from the fox and you would attempt to trap a goose in a corner and eat it. I think the geese were hollow circles and the fox was a filled-in circle. That was definitely at the AI project [SAIL].
Can you fix the time of the fox and geese game any closer?
Q: A: I’d say somewhere between the spring and summer of 1970.
Q: How do you fix that time?
A: I fix it pretty much coincident with when Jim Stein was working there, who was my key to the door to get into the place.
So not only did Nolan not program any games at Utah by his own admission nor play any games there other than Spacewar!, but the Fox & Geese game was just a game he saw at SAIL. Notice this portion of the testimony also establishes he was not visiting SAIL before 1970, hence the need to concoct earlier encounters with the game at Utah to avoid patent infringement.
So now we have established that Nolan both had a motive to stretch the truth and a history of doing the same. What other evidence can we bring to bear?
Well, first of all, we can establish just what computer hardware the University of Utah owned during the events in question. If there was no system capable of playing Spacewar! between 1965 and 1968, the years Nolan attended the institution, then he could not possibly have played it there. Fortunately, Utah has put many of its internal university records online. One such record is a report made by David Evans in November 1966. At the time, Evans was just beginning the research that would put Utah on the cutting edge of graphical technology and provide breakthroughs in everything from polygonal rendering to virtual reality. According to the report:
The Computer Center has replaced the IBM 7044 computer by a UNIVAC Type 1108 computer and has undertaken the system programming required to interface with the graphics laboratory.
The major computing facility is the 1108 system, which was delivered during November and is undergoing hardware and software checkout. It is expected to be in service beginning early in December.
This report is interesting for two reasons. First, it does corroborate Nolan’s claim in his deposition that the Computer Center changed hardware while he was there and upgraded to an 1108 system. They upgraded from a 7044 rather than a 7094 as Bushnell stated, but that can easily be explained away by screwing up the similar model numbers in his head. More importantly though, it confirms that the only computer in the Computer Center in 1965 and 1966 when Nolan claimed to have played Spacewar! was an IBM 7044. As explained by Atari historian Marty Goldberg in a since-deleted blog post from 2014 in which he delved into some of the same issues, the 7044 was an older machine that could not be interfaced with a graphics terminal or monitor; it was strictly a teletype system. Therefore, it is simply impossible for Bushnell to have played Spacewar! in the computer center in 1965 or 1966 as he claims.
For the sake of argument, let’s say Nolan was mistaken about the timeframe. Could he have actually seen the game on the UNIVAC 1108 before graduating college in 1968? Again, this does not appear possible. While the 1108 was hooked up to a PDP-8 to create a graphical system, Marty Goldberg and a graduate teaching assistant at the University of Utah named Sarah Bell did a deep dive into David Evans’ project reports from that time period and learned that by the end of 1968, Evans was still struggling to get basic shapes up on his kludged-together system, making it highly unlikely anyone was running Spacewar! on it. Utah was on the brink of becoming a major center for advanced graphics research when Nolan Bushnell graduated, but it was not quite there yet.
Another strike against Spacewar! being at Utah in the 1960s is that no other faculty member or alumnus has ever claimed the game was playable at the university. In fact, in 2020 my colleague Ethan Johnson specifically asked noted Utah alum and Spacewar! enthusiast Dr. Alan Kay about his first encounter with the game. Kay stated he saw the game while a graduate student at Utah, but he had to visit MIT to do so. Kay was at Utah from 1966 to 1969, worked closely with Evans, and knew Spacewar! well enough that Stewart Brand quoted him on the influence of the game in his seminal 1972 article for Rolling Stone, yet even he had to travel elsewhere to see the game.
Finally, the game never appears in the University of Utah student newspaper, which is available online for the years in question. At both MIT and Stanford, the student newspaper reported on the game soon after it appeared, but the Utah newspaper is completely silent on any game playing on Utah computers before the 1970s.
Finally, I will leave you with another piece of evidence that I discovered in my own research. In describing his second encounter with Spacewar! in 1966, Nolan Bushnell states the following in his January 1976 deposition:
Q: What did you do as a result of your thinking that it would be fun to program games?
A: Well, I asked for a listing of the current Space War game, I think I wanted to understand how they had done what they had done, you know, and made some modifications.
Q: Who did you ask for this?
A: Randall Willey.
Q: Who was Randall Willey?
A: He’s the fraternity brother.
Q: How do you spell Willey?
A: W-i-l-l-e-y, I think.
So here we have a name of someone else involved in the supposed Spacewar! scene at Utah, one that feels far more tangible than Mr. Jim with a D. As soon as I first saw this deposition back in 2015 or so, I honed in on Mr. Willey as a person that might be able to shed some further light on the situation. Unfortunately, he appeared to have vanished without a trace.
Flash forward to 2018, when I realized the Utah student newspaper was available online. A search within revealed that Nolan was wrong: his fraternity brother’s last name was actually spelled W-i-l-l-i-e. Armed with the correct spelling, I soon managed to locate Mr. Randall Willie and conducted a phone interview with him. The following exchange comes from that interview:
Q: So at that early stage in the Utah Computer Center were there any games there, was any game stuff going on?
A: There might have been, I don’t recall a lot of that. I don’t recall any games going on.
While its not an outright denial of any games at the university whatsoever, it is a complete denial of his own involvement with such. Its hard to believe that someone so enmeshed in that scene that according to Nolan he knew where to go to get game code would have no recollection of any computer games after the fact. It appears we may have caught Bushnell red-handed, though he needn’t fear, as the statute of limitations for perjury has long since expired. Regardless, while it is impossible to completely disprove a negative, I think the weight of the evidence speaks for itself. Nolan Bushnell did not encounter Spacewar! at the University of Utah in the 1960s; he encountered it at Stanford University in 1970.
This post is part of an ongoing series annotating my book They Create Worlds: The Story of the People and Companies That Shaped the Video Game Industry, Vol. I. It covers material found in chapter 5 on page 68. It is not necessary to have read the book to comprehend and appreciate the post.
This week, as we reach Chapter 5 and prepare to delve into some of the first real controversial material that I had to wade through regarding the respective roles of Nolan Bushnell and Ted Dabney in the early days of Atari, I want to pause for a brief moment to discuss the writing process of the book a little bit and share a little material that did not make it into the final draft.
There is surprisingly little cut content in They Create Worlds. The goal of the book all along — a goal that my publisher supported — was to be an “everything but the kitchen sink and maybe that too” look at the history of the video game industry. Obviously, this does not mean that every last fact about every last person or game was going to be shoved into the thing indiscriminately, but it did mean that size was probably not going to be an issue. I had as many as 600-620 pages to play with in volume I, and I ended up coming in comfortably under that count.
The volume that I completed was actually my third attempt to write a book on video game history. I started this project way back in 2006 after reading Rusel DeMaria and Johnny Wilson’s High Score, 2nd Edition (my first video game history book, acquired and read in 2004) and Steven Kent’s The Ultimate History of Video Games. At the time, I was new to the topic and took both tomes at face value, but I was frustrated by their limitations. High Score was a coffee table book with a nice layout and interesting pictures, but was comparably light on narrative. This satisfied the objectives of the book’s authors, but not my personal desire for in-depth knowledge. Despite this, it had a lot of great information on early computer game companies like Sierra, Brøderbund, and Electronic Arts. Steven Kent’s book was narratively longer and richer, but it ignored computer games almost entirely. What if, I naively thought, I could smash the two books together, add a little embellishment from a website or two, and create something more comprehensive?
At first, I was not sure what that something more comprehensive would be. Probably not a book at this point, but maybe a Wikipedia article? I started toying around with a structure, but it quickly became apparent that what I was trying to do would result in the longest Wikipedia article in history by a fair margin, so I scrapped that idea pretty quickly. Then, I started writing what could generously be called a book. I still have that draft, last modified April 7, 2008, and no you cannot see it. Its 263 single-spaced pages in Microsoft Word and goes up to about 1998, which is a reflection on when I abandoned it as opposed to a cutoff in years. It really is just a mashup of High Score and Ultimate History of Video Games with a few tidbits from the Internet. There are no copyright violations — the words are entirely my own — but its incredibly shallow. As I did more research and learned more about the industry, I realized this would not do.
So I started over. By now, my research was becoming more sophisticated as I mined online newspaper databases and online interviews, and even conducted a few interviews of my own in 2009. I took the original manuscript and started rewriting it section-by-section to go into more depth and rely more on primary sources than Steven Kent. The good news was I felt it was morphing into an original story with new insights rather than kludging together the work of others. The bad news was that I had settled on a level of detail that I knew would never result in a single volume of publishable size. In 2013, this draft was abandoned as well (and no, you can’t read it either).
At this point, the idea of the three-volume history took shape. This approach would allow me to maintain the level of detail I wanted while not having a single work ballooning to 2000 pages. This time, I started over completely from scratch rather than rewriting a previous draft on the fly. I did not outline the work, but I had a vague idea volume one would take me through the crash. I also believed, laughably now, that the first volume would be in two roughly equal parts divided by the launch of Space Invaders. This was due less to a lack of imagination than to a lack of sources on 1970s video game history. As my research deepened, Space Invaders was pushed later in the text.
One advantage of my years of false starts was that by the time I started attempt number three, I had a good sense of the scope of the work before me and the level of detail I wanted to achieve. Therefore, the book changed very little between the first and final draft. Grammar and mechanics were tightened, footnotes were polished up, and the occasional late discovery such as Bouncing Ball as computer game was snuck in, but very little material ended up on the cutting room floor.
Most cuts were small and resulted from doubts that I really had the sources to back up a claim. A good example of that comes from chapter 3 and my discussion of the Nimrod computer. Originally, when discussing the exhibition of the computer, I wrote that Nimrod “premiered at the festival on May 4, 1951, and remained on display until the exhibition closed in October, after which it was displayed for three more weeks at the Berlin Industrial Show and made a stop in Bertie’s hometown of Toronto before being dismantled.” That last part about Toronto is no longer in the book. It was a claim I found on the Internet in a couple of places, but as I finalized my manuscript, I realized I had no good proof this had ever happened from contemporaneous primary sources, so I took it out. Of course at that point, the oft-invoked Ethan Johnson was poking around archive.org and found two sources reporting on Nimrod’s triumphant arrival in Canada. So that piece of cut content has transformed into a piece of errata. Such is life.
Outside these small tweaks, there were only two large passages cut from the book. The first appeared in Chapter 5 and interrupted Nolan Bushnell’s story to provide a brief history of Silicon Valley. The material was not bad, but it was not exactly on point with the story being told in the chapter. Furthermore, its a story that is more about the development of the American technology sector rather than video games specifically. While many video game companies have called Silicon Valley home, the story of how the region slowly became a technology hub has little to do with video games and more to do with vacuum tubes, transistors, computers, and the Internet. Its a topic that deserves its own book, and my little summary did not really do it justice. Unlike my early book drafts, I will share this material in this blog post. I will probably do the same with the second large passage when we get there. For those keeping score at home, this section would have started on page 68 after the paragraph that ends with the sentence “Anxious to leave Utah, Nolan travelled to Northern California shortly before graduating in December 1968 to look for work among the high concentration of technology companies in a region that would soon be christened “Silicon Valley” due to the large number of semiconductor manufactures in the area”
In the 1920s, the San Jose Chamber of Commerce christened California’s Santa Clara Valley the “Valley of Heart’s Delight” to highlight the idyllic pastoral setting dotted with orchards full of plum and apricot trees that had become the largest fruit production and packing region in the world. Even at this early date, however, the region had already experienced its first brush with high technology. In 1885, businessman Leland Stanford decided to establish the Leland Stanford Junior University as a tribute to his teenage son, who had died the year before. Opening for its first term in 1891 at a campus halfway between the cities of San Francisco and San Jose, Stanford University aspired to become the “Harvard of the West” and looked to attract top talent across all academic disciplines. The study of electricity proved especially important to the region, as California found itself in the middle of a population boom in the early twentieth century and needed to electrify rapidly by transmitting power over greater distances than required on the East Coast. Therefore, the Stanford electrical engineering school, established in 1894, worked closely with local businesses to develop better techniques for long-distance electric power transmission.
Electric power transmission gave way to wireless communication in 1909 when former Stanford electrical engineering student Cyril Elwell established the Federal Telegraph Company in San Francisco to commercialize the arc transmitter, greatly improving the efficacy of wireless transmissions. The next year, Elwell hired Lee DeForest, whose work with vacuum tubes and electrical signal amplification at Federal Telegraph and elsewhere would prove instrumental in the development of not only the wireless industry, but also both the first national telephone network and early radio broadcasting. Elwell and DeForest presided over a brief period of technological dominance in the San Francisco Bay Area that ended after World War I when the Federal government decided a nationwide wireless communication network was too important to entrust to a few upstart companies on the West Coast and therefore aided General Electric in acquiring most of the important wireless patents, after which GE established a new public company in 1919 called the Radio Corporation of America (RCA) to control the field.
Meanwhile, Stanford University continued to churn out capable electrical engineering graduates only to see the best of them leave the region after completing their studies to work for one of the big East Coast companies like GE, Westinghouse, Raytheon, RCA, and AT&T. One professor at the school desired to change that. The son of a Stanford professor himself, Frederick Terman earned a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering and a masters in electrical engineering from the university before heading east to study with Vannevar Bush at MIT. After Terman received his PhD in electrical engineering in 1924, he was offered a job at the Institute and would have most likely remained on the East Coast like so many electrical engineers before him if he had not suffered a string of serious illnesses while visiting his family back in California that led him to take a part time teaching position at Stanford instead. Over the next thirty years, he rose from professor to electrical engineering department head to dean of the School of Engineering and finally to University Provost and vice president all while significantly improving the reputation of the school so as to attract top students that he worked to keep on the West Coast.
Even after GE and RCA took over the bulk of the US wireless industry, the Bay Area continued to house a small vacuum tube manufacturing industry spearheaded primarily by two firms, Eitel-McCullough and Litton Engineering. Terman decided to harness this industry to transform Stanford into a center for vacuum tube research and therefore enticed Litton Engineering founder Charles Litton to join the electrical engineering faculty in 1936. Litton, who specialized in manufacturing equipment used to shape the glass found in vacuum tubes, helped establish a vacuum tube laboratory on campus that attracted significant attention from East Coast companies and also provided a grant that helped Terman bring two of his favorite students back to California, Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard.
Without Terman’s intervention, Hewlett and Packard would have almost certainly departed the West Coast like countless electrical engineers before them, as Packard, who graduated Stanford in 1935, immediately took a job with GE, while Hewlett, who graduated a year earlier, matriculated to MIT to pursue a master’s degree in electrical engineering. Armed with a $1,000 grant from Litton, however, Terman lured Hewlett back to Stanford after he completed his master’s in 1936 for a project to build a new type of oscillator. Soon after, he brought Packard back on a leave of absence from GE to assist in the project, which led the two friends to explore going into business together. On January 1, 1939, the duo established an electronic test equipment business called the Hewlett-Packard Company (HP) in the garage of a duplex they were renting. Today, this event is considered the symbolic birth of Silicon Valley.
In the late 1930s, Stanford’s increasing expertise with vacuum tubes resulted in the development of a device called the klystron in 1937 by brothers Russell and Sigurd Varian, the first high-power vacuum tube that could amplify signals in the microwave range and therefore proved crucial to the emerging technology of radar. During World War II, the Varian Brothers, Charles Litton, and Fred Terman consequently all ended up at various East Coast laboratories that were working with the new technology. At the war’s conclusion, Litton and the Varian Brothers returned to California and each established a microwave tube manufacturing company, Litton Industries (1946) and Varian Associates (1948), transforming Northern California into a leading hub for the technology.
Terman, meanwhile, returned to Stanford as the dean of the engineering school. Realizing that government funding for scientific research would only increase after the key role science had played during the war, he initiated a master plan to secure government money for projects by Stanford students who could then continue their work through the growing private industry base in the region. He decided to focus these efforts on microwave tubes, which continued to be important in the sophisticated radar and electronic countermeasure projects being developed by the United States military. He therefore joined the board of directors of Varian and helped secure lucrative contracts for Litton Industries. Terman’s efforts culminated with the establishment of the Stanford Industrial Park in 1951, a university owned office park catering to technology companies. Hewlett-Packard and Varian Associates became early tenants.
The final important piece of the Santa Clara Valley technology puzzle was the arrival of Shockley Semiconductor in 1955, which established itself in Palo Alto so William Shockley could be close to his mother. When the “Traitorous Eight” formed Fairchild Semiconductor two years later, they located their company in Palo Alto as well. In the 1960s, Fairchild spawned its own group of spinoffs dubbed the “Fairchildren,” thus cementing the region’s role in the semiconductor manufacturing business. This led to the moniker “Silicon Valley,” which first appeared in print in an article written by Don Hoefler in January 1971 for Electronic News. For an ambitious young electrical engineer like Nolan Bushnell, there was no better place to seek employment.
This post is part of an ongoing series annotating my book They Create Worlds: The Story of the People and Companies That Shaped the Video Game Industry, Vol. I. It covers material found in chapter 4 on pages 43-59. It is not necessary to have read the book to comprehend and appreciate the post.
After three chapters depicting a motley assortment of AI experiments, military simulations, and demonstration programs, chapter four finally arrives at the inflection point for the birth of commercial video games: the creation and proliferation of Spacewar!, conceived by Steve Russell, Martin Graetz, and Wayne Wiitanen and largely programmed by Russell with support from Graetz, Peter Samson, Dan Edwards, Alan Kotok, and other hackers hanging around the PDP-1 at MIT. While Spacewar! itself was not commercialized in its original incarnation, its direct influence on the first commercially released video game, Computer Space, and the first significant video game company, Atari, give it pride of place in any history of the video game industry. While the book already discusses the creation of the game, this annotation will explore what we know of the chronology of the game’s creation in a little more detail.
Before the last few years, there were three significant sources discussing the birth of Spacewar! The first was an article written by famed Whole Earth Catalog creator Stewart Brand for Rolling Stone and published in October 1972. While the intersection of computers and counterculture is somewhat overblown in some monographs discussing the early days of personal computing, there was significant collision between these two forces in the San Francisco Bay Area and the adjacent Santa Clara Valley, where the summer of love and the free speech movement mingled with the prestigious technical degree programs at UC Berkeley and Stanford. Brand himself was Stanford educated and embraced the counterculture values of individual empowerment as a tool for social justice and ecological renewal. The Whole Earth Catalog was one aspect of this empowerment drive, a how-to guide and catalog of useful items for self-sufficient living off the land, which was a key tenet of the commune movement.
For Brand, liberating the individual from the shackles of modern society was about more than farming and communal living; he also felt it important to expand the mind. An associate of Ken Kesey, Brand experimented with LSD and other mind-altering drugs in the 1960s as one means to this end, but by the 1970s he became convinced computers possessed even more potent mind-altering powers. To Brand, learning to use a computer was another path towards taking control of one’s own destiny, and nothing showcased the power of a computer like a game. As he put it in a 2016 retrospective about his 1972 article: “I saw them having some kind of out-of-body experience. Their brains and their fingers were fully engaged. There was an athletic exuberance to their joyous mutual slaying. I’d never seen anything like that.” Of course, he was referring to people playing Spacewar!
By 1972, Spacewar! had become so enmeshed in university electrical engineering and computer science departments, government think tanks, and corporate research facilities that no less a personage than Alan Kay, then at Xerox PARC, opined that “The game of Spacewar blossoms spontaneously wherever there is a graphics display connected to a computer.” The game certainly did not escape the notice of Brand, who encountered it again and again as he toured computing centers in the Bay Area to come to grips with this exciting new technology. In 2016, he still remembered his enthusiasm: “I was intrigued at the quality of game design intelligence these guys had from the very start. You were balancing skill versus luck, and not only dealing with the threat of your opponents, but the threat of losing control and being slurped into the sun. And hyperspace was an astonishingly brilliant breakthrough.”
Brand’s love of the design for Spacewar! echoed his larger appreciation for hacker culture, which brought the same do-it-yourself mentality of the commune to the computer lab. He became determined to document the hacker movement for the general public using Rolling Stone as his vessel, and he chose Spacewar! as his — and the reader’s — entrée into the hacker world. He convinced Lester Earnest, the manager of the Stanford Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (SAIL), to shut down the premises for an evening to hold a competition he dubbed the “Intergalactic Spacewar Olympics” in which an assortment of students and researchers faced off in a multiplayer variant of the game that had recently been created by Ralph Gorin. After a series of 2v2 preliminary matches, a final five-player free-for-all determined the champion. Brand and photographer Anne Leibowitz were on hand to capture all the action, including the triumphant winner of the affair, Bruce Baumgart, standing next to a terminal with a huge grin on his face as he celebrated his victory.
While Brand focused most of his article on what may have been the first esports competition, he did spare a few paragraphs for the creation of the game, complete with quotes from Steve Russell. Brand captured the barebones story that Russell created the game in 1961-62 at MIT on a PDP-1 after being inspired by E.E. Smith’s Lensman novels, that Peter Samson added the “Expensive Planetarium,” and that Dan Edwards and Alan Kotok also pitched in, but he missed the equally important contributions of Graetz and Wiitanen to the whole affair. That would have to wait for the August 1981 issue of Creative Computing, in which Martin Graetz himself took a stab at detailing the origin of the game.
Of all Spacewar!‘s many fathers, Graetz was the most literary minded, having been an avid reader and writer of science fiction since his secondary school days and even managing to have a story published in a pulp magazine at one point. Therefore, he took on the mantle of semi-official Spacewar! historian. As Graetz revealed to me, he was an employee at DEC when company co-founder Ken Olsen set up a small company museum featuring a few old computer systems that soon after moved to a public exhibition space in Malboro, MA, and served as the genesis of what is now the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, California. Graetz helped restore one of the few surviving PDP-1 computers for the museum and made sure Spacewar! ran on it. He also contacted David Ahl at Creative Computing and pitched the idea of doing an article on the history of the game to commemorate the twentieth anniversary of its inception in 1981. Ahl loved the idea and commissioned the article.
In “The Origin of Spacewar,” Graetz gave the first complete telling of the Spacewar! story, which he based not only on his own recollections, but also on the memories of his fellow hackers and several of MIT’s computer custodians like Jack Dennis and John McKenzie. Here we learned for the first time of the “Hingham Institute” consisting of Graetz, Russell, and Wayne Wiitanen, roommates and co-workers at Harvard’s Littaeur Statistical Laboratory who were reading E.E. Smith novels and watching special-effects-laden b-movies out of Japan from Toho Studios. As Graetz tells it, he moved on from Harvard to take a job with Jack Dennis at MIT in summer 1961, at which point he learned DEC would be donating a shiny new PDP-1 computer to the university in the fall. Wowed by the graphical demo programs already extant on the forerunner to the PDP-1, the prototypical TX-0 housed in MIT’s Research Laboratory of Electronics (RLE), he convened the Hingham Institute to do them one better.
In Graetz’s telling, Wiitanen becomes the real hero:
With the Fenachrone hot on our ion track, Wayne said, “Look, you need action and you need some kind of skill level. It should be a game where you have to control things moving around on the scope, like, oh, spaceships. Something like an explorer game, or a race or contest…a fight, maybe?”
“SPACEWAR!” shouted Slug and I, as the last force screen flared into the violet and went down.
With that, Graetz informs us that Russell returns to MIT from Harvard, tells everyone about this neat demo idea, and finally gets to work on the game after Alan Kotok provides some sine-cosine routines directly from DEC that imploded the last major excuse Russell had been clinging to so he did not actually have to put in the work. Then Samson adds his starfield, Dan Edwards is given credit for bringing gravity to the match, Graetz himself programs a hyperspace feature, and Kotok and Bob Saunders, members of some organization briefly identified as the Tech Model Railroad Club, create some custom control boxes to make it all much easier to play. By an MIT open house in May, Spacewar! is done and makes its public debut.
Those wanting further insight into this “Tech Model Railroad Club” (TMRC) would have to wait three more years when the third and final significant source on the creation of Spacewar! was published: Steven Levy’s Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution. Taking up where Brand left off, the book attempts to chronicle the birth and spread of hacker culture from the insular nerds at MIT to the more open counterculture crowd in the San Francisco Bay Area, and finally to the business-minded hackers like Ken Williams and Doug Carlston who established the computer game industry. While his version of the creation story largely follows Brand and Graetz, he spends considerable time fleshing out the history and motivations of the TMRC hackers and provides profiles on some of the supporting characters in the Spacewar! story like Samson, Kotok, and Saunders. While Kotok and Samson in particular are elevated in this account, Graetz and Wiitanen fade once again into the background, presumably because they were never really part of the TMRC hacker scene that Levy is so eager to chronicle. While the text indicates an awareness of the Hingham Institute, Levy joins Brand in focusing Russell as the key figure in not just programming the game, but also in conceiving it.
Hackers and “The Origin of Spacewar” defined the Spacewar! story in the historical record for the next thirty years. Steve Bloom’s Video Invaders, which predates Hackers, essentially regurgitates the Creative Computing story that had just come out the year before. Steven Kent’s Ultimate History of Video Games cribs from Hackers, supplemented by Kent’s own interview of Russell. As is typical, however, Kent cannot help but introduce a tiny error in the narrative when he refers to Russell’s love of “Doc Savage” stories when other sources clearly demonstrate this should have been a reference to the Lensman books written by Doc Smith. Rusel Demaria and Johnny Wilson return to the Creative Computing story in High Score as befits their own close affiliation with early computer magazines, while Tristan Donovan’s Replay hews closest to Hackers with its emphasis on Russell and his place in the larger TMRC hacking scene.
While the Brand, Graetz, and Levy renditions of the origin of Spacewar! place their emphasis on different people, they largely agree on chronology. In this tale, word of the PDP-1’s imminent arrival comes in the summer of 1961, the computer arrives in the fall, and Steve Russell finally gets to work on the game in December. In early 1962 other programmers like Samson and Edwards add a host of new features like an accurate starfield and gravity, and the whole affair is wrapped up in time for an MIT Open House in May. This general account, based entirely on the memories of the participants anywhere from ten to twenty years after the fact, appears to be generally correct, but as more documentary evidence has become available in the past few years, this timeline has been tweaked.
The first breakthrough in cracking open the Spacewar! chronology came from Austrian web developer Norbert Landsteiner. Around 1996, Landsteiner became a pioneer in Java game programming, releasing takes on several classic arcade games like Space Invaders and Pac-Man that could be played within a browser. In the early 2010s, he began collecting paper tape and original code of Spacewar! variants to recreate them on his website, and managed to get his hands on some of the earliest extant code for the game. In particular, he made the remarkable discovery of Spacewar 2B, which is now the earliest known “complete” version of the game, i.e. the version that appears to have all the pieces present at the reputed public debut of the game in May 1962. Two versions were discovered, one dated March 25, 1962 pulled off an original paper tape, and one dated April 2, 1962 reconstructed from .bin files. The two versions are largely identical save for a few minor settings parameters. These files show that the renderings of the ships, the basic controls, the gravity of the sun, and the starfield were all implemented as of March 25. They further give an exact date for the integration of Samson’s Expensive Planetarium, patched in according to the comments on March 13, 1962. There is also a space carved out to “put [in] more bells and whisles [sic], like hyperspace,” but the functionality is not actually present. Landsteiner did also discover the separate hyperspace patch in a version dated May 2, 1962.
Landsteiner’s work has been invaluable for determining when the original version of Spacewar! reached a finished state, but it did little to enhance or corroborate the narrative around when the game was conceived and when programming began. Narrowing down the first point is where my own work took center stage. In 2015, I tracked down Wayne Wiitanen on the Internet and emailed him several questions that he was kind enough to answer. To my knowledge, this was his first contribution to the historical record outside his uncited contributions to the Graetz article, though he has given at least two interviews since. I had little hope he would be able narrow the timeline much after over fifty years, but I was proven wrong. As Wiitanen explained it: “It had to be summer, but before August 10th (the date when my recall orders issued) as I had to report to Ft. Bragg in October and didn’t have time to get involved in detailed design or programming.” So while we still don’t know exactly when in the summer the brainstorming session occurred, we do know it happened before August 10th, a hard date fixed by Wayne’s recall orders. This matches up with the recollections of both Graetz in his article and Alan Kotok in Hackers that the MIT community became aware of the impending computer donation at that time.
So when did Russell’s work on the game actually begin? Russell himself in a 2008 oral history with the Computer History Museum remembers the development environment, including display, being in place by fall 1961 and development beginning before the end of the year. Hackers further pinpoints the date to early December 1961. Graetz states “Slug produced the first object-in-motion program in January 1962,” which does not explicitly contradict the early December start date, but does cast it into serious doubt. Graetz also makes another curious claim that no other person, in articles or oral histories, has ever made, which is that the display “was scheduled to be installed a couple of months after the computer itself.”
This remained the state of our knowledge on the matter until 2017, when fellow researcher and frequent collaborator Ethan Johnson made one of his trips to the National Archives facility in Chicago. This facility is home to much of the original Magnavox patent suit, which was adjudicated in federal court in Chicago. As discussed previously, the defense to this lawsuit resolved around invalidating the Baer and Rusch patents through proving the existence of “prior art” in video games, which naturally made Spacewar! one of the focal points of the trial. Representing MIT in this case was John McKenzie, the engineer charged with keeping the TX-0 and PDP-1 in working order at the time of the events in question. Mr. McKenzie’s deposition in the case, taken in 1975, was still extant in the court records when Ethan pulled the files. Not only did McKenzie testify to his own personal knowledge of events, but he also brought with him the log books for the PDP-1. As time on the computer had to be signed out, this meant that he had with him a complete written record of who did what with the computer throughout 1961 and 1962!
The main dates McKenzie’s testimony firmly establish are the dates both the computer and its display were delivered. According to the logs, the computer arrived September 15, 1961, and the monitor was installed on December 29, 1961. So Graetz was right: the monitor really was installed a few months after the fact! This calls into question large portions of Russell’s recollections, namely that he was partially inspired to finally start creating the game by the so-called “Minskytron” graphical demo program and that he started coding the game in 1961. The Minskytron could not have existed before Marvin Minsky had a display to actually program, and Russell himself is unlikely to have begun programming in December without a display to work with. This appears to confirm the Graetz account that programming on the game commenced in January 1962.
Later on, McKenzie provides another gem:
McKenzie: On page 8, the middle of the page, it says “Monday 19 March 1962. Clock equals 2694. 7.” Some more beyond that, at 0345, “Power off. installed user’s IOT input to I/0 on IOT11.” That was initialed RAS, which would have been Robert Saunders.
Q: Does that entry have a meaning to you?
McKenzie: Yes; very significant. The students built up two control boxes; and at this time the control, some became optional with a sense switch setting, determining whether you wanted to take input from the earlier mentioned test word switches or from the control boxes. These control boxes, the state of the switches in the control boxes was, the term — the computer term is strobed or brought into the computer on the execution of an IOT11.
So thanks to McKenzie’s meticulous record keeping, we know the custom control boxes were installed on March 19! Note the installation was done by Bob Saunders. In “The Origin of Spacewar” Graetz credits the boxes to both Saunders and Kotok, but in a 2018 oral history with the Smithsonian, Saunders took sole credit for developing the boxes. The log book does not necessarily corroborate Saunders’ version of events, but it does provide support for the idea that at the very least he took the lead on this project even if Kotok helped him scrounge up some parts.
McKenzie also remarks on another aspect of the game’s creation that has nothing to do with chronology, but is worth mentioning here. In describing the people behind Spacewar!, McKenzie says:
Some of the people who were most involved would have been Peter Samson, Daniel Edwards, Alan Kotok. Steven Russell I did not see as frequently. He was a Harvard student, and was not around during the day. I knew of him, I had met him; but not frequently.
Note he identifies Russell as being affiliated with Harvard. He was not a student — that’s a provable error — but this contradicts Graetz’s assertion that Russell had returned to MIT at the time he created Spacewar!. McKenzie’s testimony is not the only source of contradiction on this point, as Russell himself describes his career history in his 2008 oral history:
At some time around, I think it was 1961, late 1961, early 1962, I had gotten bored with working on Lisp and got a job at Harvard. And part of that involved my not having a deferment anymore, so I went into the Army Reserve. […] I had to go off for six months of active duty; I came back, management had changed; new management was not nice, and […] about the time I was convinced that I didn’t want to continue working for Harvard, John was moving to California, to Stanford, and offered me a job at Stanford, which I took. So I ended up at Stanford in the fall of 1962.”
Practically every account of the creation of Spacewar! describes Steve Russell as an MIT student at the time of Spacewar!‘s creation. This claim is so widespread I half expect his tombstone will read “Here lies Steve Russell, noted MIT graduate.” In fact, Steve Russell never attended MIT and never earned a degree from any college. He attended Dartmouth for four years, but failed to graduate because he never got around to writing a senior thesis. In the meantime, he had done some work for MIT professor John McCarthy on the side and secured employment at MIT in 1958 in the newly formed AI Lab. He joined TMRC in 1960 despite not being a student, thus further confusing the historical record, before gaining employment at the Littauer Statistical Laboratory at Harvard by mid 1961 (while Russell is unsure of the sequence of events, he was at Harvard at the same time Graetz was there and Graetz was back at MIT in summer 1961). He stayed there — minus six months of Army Reserve duty — until he departed for Stanford in the Fall of 1962. If you take nothing else away from this blog post, please, please come away with the knowledge that Steve Russell never attended MIT and was no longer even an employee of the university at the time he took the lead on creating Spacewar!
Anyway, the McKenzie deposition appeared to fix the rest of the Spacewar! timeline, and indeed these were the last new chronological revelations that I incorporated into my book. Alas, history is a frustratingly fluid discipline despite being stuck in the past, and Ethan Johnson made an additional discovery after I had locked my manuscript. It turns out the MIT student newspaper, The Tech, is available in its entirety online, and it eagerly announced the impending public unveiling of Spacewar! in the April 25, 1962 issue:
For Parents’ Weekend the PDP1 will run [Spacewar!] for parents and their Techmen between 12 p.m. and 6 p.m., with a special version designed for this purpose. As an example of the whimsical uses of computers this is something parents shouldn’t miss. As a simplistic preview of future war games, it might well be classified were this report to fall into the wrong hands.
At first glance, this does not seem to change anything. In fact, it further confirms that Spacewar! made its debut at that famous May open house that keeps coming up. However, if we delve further into the same issue, we learn that Parents’ Weekend is coming up on Saturday and Sunday. April 25 was a Wednesday, so Parents’ Weekend is actually April 28-29!
This may seem like a minor shift in the timeline, but it has important implications. The surviving version of Graetz’s hyperspace patch is dated May 2, 1962, three days after the Parents’ Weekend concluded. This strongly implies hyperspace may not have been available at the public unveiling. The May 2 revision is not the first implementation of this code if the version number is any guide, so it is possible an earlier version of the patch found its way into the game. This is unlikely, however, because a full description of how Spacewar! works is included in the April 25 article and hyperspace is not mentioned at all. Was it patched in over the next few days? Possibly, but I am inclined to believe it just missed the public unveiling. Alas, my book will need to be corrected.
So now that we have explored all the sources, here is the Spacewar! timeline as best as it can be figured at present:
Summer 1961: Members of the hacker community at MIT, which includes new university employee Martin Graetz, learn that DEC is about to donate a PDP-1 computer to the university. Graetz wants to create a new demonstration program for the machine and enlists his roommates, Harvard employees Wayne Wiitanen and Steve Russell, to brainstorm ideas. Sometime before August 10, they decide to create a game featuring spaceships shooting at each other inspired by their love of the Lensman series of novels by E.E. “Doc” Smith.
September 15, 1961: The donated PDP-1 is installed in the RLE.
Fall 1961: Russell, who still comes around to hang out with his TMRC buddies on evenings and weekends despite no longer working at MIT, starts bragging about the cool program he has dreamed up for the PDP-1 display. Everyone gets excited and starts pressuring him to implement it once the display arrives.
December 29, 1961: The display for the PDP-1 is installed.
January 1962: Steve Russell begins coding Spacewar!, and before the end of the month he has created the first motion object for the game “a dot which could accelerate and change direction under switch control.”
February 1962: Work continues until by the end of the month a barebones version of the game exists consisting of “just the two ships, a supply of fuel, and a store of ‘torpedoes’ — points of light fired from the nose of the ship. Once launched, a torpedo was a ballistic missile, zooming along until it either hit something (more precisely, until it got within a minimum distance of a ship or another torpedo) or its ‘time fuse’ caused it to self-destruct.”
Early March 1962: AI Labs programmer Dan Edwards, who was instrumental in helping Russell get the ships up on the screen, takes it upon himself to add gravity to the game to make it more strategic after Russell pleads lack of skill to make the addition himself.
March 13, 1962: Peter Samson’s “Expensive Planetarium” is patched into the game, providing a scrolling starfield that accurately depicts the actual position and relative brightness of the stars visible from North America [Note: As there is no exact date tied to the gravity addition, its possible that Samson’s contribution came before gravity. I have placed them in this order because Brand’s Rolling Stone article did so. Being written in 1972, it is the earliest source on the matter, meaning memories were presumably freshest.
March 19, 1962: Bob Saunders installs control boxes of his own design on the PDP-1 to make playing Spacewar! less arduous.
March 25, 1962: Spacewar! exists in a largely completed form by this date in a version designated 2B. Ships, torpedoes, gravity, and starfield are all present and operational.
April 2, 1962: Version 2B is slightly modified. Gameplay remains unchanged.
April 28-29, 1962: Spacewar! is played in a public setting for the first time during the annual MIT Parents’ Weekend.
May 2, 1962: Martin Graetz completes a patch adding a hyperspace feature to the game.
This post is part of an ongoing series annotating my book They Create Worlds: The Story of the People and Companies That Shaped the Video Game Industry, Vol. I. It covers material found in chapter 3 on pages 38-42. It is not necessary to have read the book to comprehend and appreciate the post.
So here we are again talking about firsts. Despite two out the first three annotations in this series dealing with the first this or that, who did something first is not really a preoccupation of mine or of the book. It can be fun to research firsts, and people certainly have fun learning about them if the amount of media devoted to firsts on a given topic is any guide, but at the end of the day being first does not say much about the world. As my post on the Father of Video Games should make clear, I am far more concerned with who inspired whom than in who might have done something first in a vacuum. That said, the first three chapters of the book are about the earliest video game experiments, so its only logical that the annotations pertaining to those chapters examine some of these firsts in a little more detail.
The point of this post, however, is not really to get to the bottom of who we should call the “father of real-time games,” but rather to illuminate how my book is a product of not just my own research, but of a wonderful collaboration among professional enthusiasts and amateur historians exploring video game history. Most of these individuals that I interact with are members of the Gaming Alexandria and Video Game History Foundation Discord communities, which I would encourage anyone interested in this history to join even if they are not active researchers or content creators. The GA discord is free to everyone, while the VGHF Discord does require a small donation to gain access. I assure you, the work Frank Cifaldi, Kelsey Lewin, and their team is doing to preserve video game history is worthy of your support. Anyway, on with the show.
The question of who created the first real-time video game, that is a video game in which the display updates quickly and continuously in response to user input to give the impression of seamless action, is of some consequence, for some people would argue that real-time action is what truly separates video games from earlier, pen-and-paper, board, and card games. One could make the argument that Bertie the Brain or the British Nimrod computer are just quaint adaptations of existing manual games and not harbingers of a new medium. Readers of my first annotation will already know I reject that notion, but even I admit that without real-time action, the video game medium would not have flourished. While there have been plenty of successful turn-based games, the history evolves in very different directions if Space Invaders is a strategy board game or Tetris is just a static puzzle like the pentominoes game that inspired it. So while not a critical question in video game history, it is an interesting one.
So what was the first real-time video game? Well, for decades the answer to that question would have been Tennis for Two, the 1958 game by Willy Higinbotham of the Brookhaven National Laboratory in which two players engage in a tennis match. Its funny that such an early milestone would be a tennis game when Odyssey Ping-Pong and Pong jointly launched the video game revolution just over a decade later, but it is truly a coincidence. Higinbotham only displayed his game at two rounds of Brookhaven visitor days in 1958-59, and no one associated with Sanders Associates, Magnavox, or Atari came anywhere near those exhibitions. Indeed, the game looks and plays completely differently, with a side rather than a top view and no paddles or rackets visible on the screen. Instead, the graphics consist merely of a horizontal line representing the court, a shorter vertical line representing the net, and the arc of the ball. Rather than a dial to move a paddle up and down, the players spin dials to select the angle of their return and press a button to cause the ball arc to change trajectory. All of this action does happen instantaneously in response to input, so it qualifies as a real-time game.
Tennis for Two earned its pride of place in video game history because even though none of the pioneers saw the demonstration, a budding young electronics enthusiast named David Ahl did. Ahl’s career is covered extensively in the book, so I won’t go into all that here, but one of his many pioneering feats was founding Creative Computing, the first magazine dedicated solely to the personal, hobbyist use of computers. Ahl was a high school student in Malverne, New York, in 1958, a Long Island community just 50 miles away from Brookhaven. One of the perks of a scholarship he received was a trip to one of those Brookhaven visitor days, where he played Tennis for Two. In 1982, as interest in the history of video games was starting to percolate for the first time, Ahl sent one of his writers, John Anderson, to Brookhaven to interview Higinbotham based on that memory, and in the October 1982 issue of Creative Computing, Anderson boldly proclaimed Higinbotham the “Grandfather of Video Games” (take that Bushnell and Baer!). Thanks to this publicity, Higinbotham’s game was featured in nearly every video game history book to follow, even if it was usually treated as a footnote (quite literally in the case of Steven Kent’s Ultimate History of Video Games).
Tennis for Two remained the gold standard in early real-time gaming for over thirty years, at least for the general public. In truth, an even earlier real-time game had already been rediscovered in the 1970s during the Magnavox video game patent lawsuits. These legal contests pitted the Magnavox Corporation and its new parent company, Philips, against any and all individuals and companies that attempted to create a coin-operated or home console video game without paying a licensing fee. The Magnavox claim of primacy in the video game space hinged on the work of Ralph Baer in the 1960s to create a video game system at Sanders Associates. Baer and his team filed several patents relating to their video game technology and then granted Magnavox the sole right to exploit the technology. Anyone else who wanted to play in the new video sandbox was required to pay Magnavox for the privilege.
Contrary to popular belief, the Magnavox patents did not really make a defensible claim to the sole right to exploit video games generally, but they did advance a claim that Baer’s fellow engineer Bill Rusch had invented a system in which a player-controlled dot and a machine-controlled dot rendered on a CRT collide and one of them changes vectors. Therefore, any video game that accomplished this same feat was infringing on said patent. The best defense against this claim was to show that other inventors had done this before Rusch, thus invalidating the patents due to the existence of “prior art.” Lawyers and legal interns working for companies like Atari, Midway, and Williams poured through old patent filings and technical journals to unearth earlier examples of real-time graphics with collision detection.
One game discovered through this process was a pool game developed in 1954 at the University of Michigan to demonstrate the capabilities of a computer called MIDSAC. MIDSAC pool featured graphics for balls and a cue stick rendered on a CRT, though the table had to be drawn on to the monitor with a grease pencil. Once a player took a shot with the cue stick, the balls would bounce off each other and the sides of the table in real-time while exhibiting realistic ball physics. One of the student creators of the game, William Brown, was called to testify in the first Magnavox patent trial in 1977 and described the creation of the game in some detail. Ultimately, it was not found to be prior art, presumably because it did not render its images through use of a video signal.
The documents from this case remained buried in legal archives until Ralph Baer unearthed a trove of materials from the case that had, if memory serves me, been sitting in a storage locker owned by one of the law firms involved with the case. Baer shared these files with a few places, and in 2011 scanned copies were posted on the website of the Franklin Pierce Center for Intellectual Property of the University of New Hampshire School of Law. They remained relatively unremarked upon until 2013, when they were publicized by Keith Smith (no relation).
At the time, Keith was deep into working on a new edition of his still-yet-unpublished opus All in Color for a Quarter, which tells the history of the coin-operated video game industry from its inception to about 1985. Astute readers of my book will notice references to this work throughout, and I can safely say my own book would be sorely lacking without his research. By tracking down rare trade publications and interviewing obscure pioneers, Keith has crafted the most comprehensive examination of this subject ever attempted and has done much to correct a legion of misconceptions regarding the birth of the video game industry. I only hope all of you get to read it some day as well.
In 2013, Keith wrote a blog post in which he commented on all the early video games identified by the parties in the lawsuit, many of which were unknown at that time. This is the first significant mention of MIDSAC Pool that I am aware of in historical scholarship. Two years later, Keith tracked down Brown’s trial testimony, which for the first time gave us an idea of how the game actually worked. Some time after that, when the Chicago Tribune launched a complete digitized archive online, I unearthed an article reporting on the actual demonstration in 1954. I also discovered some pictures of the game that had been sitting in an online photo archive maintained by the University of Michigan. Tennis for Two, while still an interesting real-time game, was no longer first.
After Tennis for Two‘s thirty-one year reign, MIDSAC Pool only held its title for four years. As I was writing my own book, I was forced to think more deeply about how to define a video game and what early programming experiments I should identify as such. I was hardly the only person on the Gaming Alexandria Discord thinking about these subjects, and in September 2019, a few of us had a discussion on all the early video games we knew about. During the course of this discussion, my friend Dale, who goes by QuarterPast, asked about Bouncing Ball. The Bouncing Ball program was known to me, as it featured prominently in the account of the creation of Spacewar! written by Martin Graetz in 1981 for Creative Computing. In the article, Graetz described how when a person ran this program on the Whirlwind computer at Lincoln Labs “a dot appeared at the top of the screen, fell to the bottom and bounced (with a “thok” from the console speaker). It bounced off the sides and floor of the displayed box, gradually losing momentum until it hit the floor and rolled off the screen through a hole in the bottom line.” Graetz reckoned it was the first computer program that displayed a moving object on a CRT, but he dismissed it as merely a demo. So did I. Dale did not.
In our September 2019 conversation, Dale asked me straight out what I thought of Bouncing Ball, and when I once again dismissed it as a demo, he pointed me to a 2013 book by a gentleman named Jon Peddie called The History of Visual Magic in Computers: How Beautiful Images are Made in CAD, 3D, VR and AR. Nestled in this unassuming textbook was a remarkable claim I had never seen before: “Charles W. Adams, assistant professor of digital computers at MIT, and John T. (Jack) Gilmore Jr., one of the first systems programmers in the Mathematics Group at Whirlwind, were intimate with Whirlwind. They generated the first animated computer graphic by creating a program that would generate a bouncing ball on MIT’s Whirlwind’s CRT in 1949. Adams expanded the program so the operator had to adjust the display’s controls such that the bouncing ball would find a hole in the floor and drop in. This was the first interactive computer graphics game.”
This was stunning. Out of nowhere, a new candidate had emerged for not just the earliest real-time game, but also the earliest digital computer game, beating Bertie the Brain by one year! At the time, I remained unconvinced that this was a true game, as there was no evidence of authorial intent to create an entertainment program in this floor-adjusting mechanic. I was also incredibly suspicious of the year, as other sources intimated that the Bouncing Ball was created in 1951, and Whirlwind itself was still incomplete and barely operational in 1949. Still, this claim needed to be run down.
A search on the Internet turned up another person making a similar claim about Bouncing Ball as game, celebrated computer graphics pioneer Alvy Ray Smith. In a 2016 article for the IEEE Annals of the History of Computing, Smith wrote a piece called “The Dawn of Digital Light” on early computer graphics in which he examined Bouncing Ball and revealed that “anecdotally, Adams and his colleague Jack Gilmore modified the bouncing dot (“ball”) animation into a sort of game, perhaps in late 1950. The players (or player) would interactively alter the frequency of the bounces with the winner being the first to make the ‘ball’ go through a hole in the floor—a gap somewhere along the horizontal axis. The published code doesn’t show that this was a cycling program that awaited the next player’s move—in other words, that it was truly interactive. It appears instead to have been a program that was restarted each time with a different three initial conditions.” This statement appeared to provide the proof of authorial intent needed to satisfy my definition of a video game, but the use of the word “anecdotally” gave me pause. Was there proof that this game variant existed or wasn’t there? Smith did cite a source for this claim, a 2008 book called The Engineering Design Revolution: The People, Companies and Computer Systems That Changed Forever the Practice of Engineering by D.E. Weisburg, but it provided no further insight. All it contained was an uncited assertion that “Adams wrote a short program that displayed a bouncing ball on the display. This was done by solving three simultaneous differential equations. A little later, probably in late 1950, Adams and Gilmore wrote the first computer game. It consisted of trying to get the ball to go through a hole in the floor by changing the frequency of the calculations.”
Finally, after a little more searching I found the source of all these anecdotes: the panel proceedings of the 1989 SIGGRAPH Conference. In a panel entitled “Retrospectives: The Early Years in Computer Graphics at MIT, Lincoln Lab and Harvard,” Norman Taylor, who was actually at MIT at the time of the events in question, told of how Adams and Gilmore created the Bouncing Ball in 1949 and that “a little later Adams and Gilmore decided to make the first computer game, and this was also in ’49. This is a more interesting display. You see that the bouncing ball finds a hole in the floor and the trick was to set the frequency such that you hit the hole in the floor. This kept a lot of people interested for quite a while and it was clear that man-machine interaction was here to stay. Anyone could turn the frequency-knobs.” He even provided a slide of the bouncing ball in action! This seemed to lay the debate to rest: Bouncing Ball really was a game. One lingering question remained, however: was it really created in 1949?
At this point Dale and fellow GA researcher and author Ethan Johnson dug even deeper into this question. Turns out that MIT has a lot of old Whirlwind documentation up on its Dome online archive. Searching through this material, Ethan discovered a project report from February 1951 announcing that a student named Oliver Aberth has created a new bouncing ball program. This not only locks in a date, but also gives us a creator, and its not Adams or Gilmore!
So why is the program always associated with Adams? Well, even if Adams was not involved in its creation, he sure ran with it, making the program a standard part of the courses he taught on computer applications. These classes were probably the first exposure many MIT students had to the program, and they presumably naturally assumed the course instructor wrote it. Sadly, Aberth died mere months before this discovery, so we could not obtain more information from this newly discovered pioneer.
So now we know when the program was created, but did it feature at its inception the all important hole in the floor that turned it into a game? Probably not. The program is described in detail in the programming manual for the computer released in July 1951, complete with a drawing, and there is no indication of a hole in the floor. Dale examined the code of the program and theorized the hole was added later due to a bug that would eventually cause the ball to fall through the floor and no longer bounce. By providing a hole, the ball can gracefully exit the stage before the bug takes hold.
So when was the hole added? Sadly, we cannot say for sure. The only evidence that we have right now is a series of MIT course descriptions that feature the game. Adams was using the program in his classes by early 1952, but the hole is not explicitly mentioned in descriptions until February 1953. Based on the limited documentary evidence, Ethan speculates that the game variant was created sometime between late 1951 and the last third of 1952. Even if it did not come into existence until the first documentary proof in 1953, however, it beats MIDSAC Pool, so its undoubtedly the first game with real-time graphics.
Ethan, Dale, and I had these conversations in early October 2019. My book was released in late November 2019. Thankfully, while my manuscript had been turned in months ago by this point, we were still in the final stages of proofing it, so I was able to sneak these new discoveries into chapter 3. Because of the last minute nature of this addition, there is a small error where the creators of the game variant are just identified as “Adams and Gilmore” rather than by their first and last names. This is because they had previously been referenced earlier as the creators of Bouncing Ball before we discovered Aberth, and when I took that reference out it did not occur to me that they were no longer properly introduced in the text. Still, I am pleased we were able to get this info into the book at such a late date. The goal of the book is to be comprehensive while offering new insights into the history of video games, and being the first published video game history book to reveal the earliest real-time game application fit both of those goals.
This post is part of an ongoing series annotating my book They Create Worlds: The Story of the People and Companies That Shaped the Video Game Industry, Vol. I. It expands on material found in Chapter 1 on pages 1-7. It is not necessary to have read the book to comprehend and appreciate the post.
One of the goals of They Create Worlds is to place advancements in video games in the proper context of the technological and economic situations of their times. To help meet this goal, the book occasionally delves into general computer history. This is especially true in the early chapters of the book, for I felt it important to demonstrate why Spacewar!, the game that started us down the path towards a new pastime and entertainment industry, could not have been born and spread until the early 1960s. Still, the book is a history of video games, not a history of computers, so I had to be careful not to get too sidetracked by this more general history, fascinating though it may be. Therefore, this annotation will give a little more context to early computer history.
What we call a “computer” today bears only a small resemblance to what the pioneers in this field would have considered a computing device. As with most modern appliances, the computer was created to automate a task already being performed through manual labor, in this case the work performed by people known as computers, a moniker that has existed since at least 1646. These days, if one is aware of human computers, they most likely associate them with the book and movie Hidden Figures, which traced the exploits of several female African American computers who contributed to NASA’s mission to put a man on the moon. While a great story, Hidden Figures does perhaps unduly glamorize this profession and places too much emphasis on individual ability when generally a human computer was just a small cog in a much larger machine.
The computer job developed in tandem with the scientific and industrial revolutions that spread throughout Western Europe between the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries. Its rise is most closely associated with the logarithm, a mathematical concept first espoused by Scottish mathematician John Napier in 1614. The introduction of logarithms essentially allowed complex multiplication and division of incredibly large numbers to be accomplished through the addition and subtraction of small numbers instead, thus greatly reducing the time needed to complete these calculations and allowing mathematical modeling of a whole range of phenomena that had previously been too complex for existing algebraic or trigometric functions. This led to advances in numerous fields, including not just pure mathematics, but also navigation, astronomy, and surveying.
Divining the log of a number quickly in a time before calculating machines required the use of mathematical look-up tables. Mathematical tables had existed for centuries before the introduction of the logarithm, with the first trigometric tables dating back to ancient Greece, but the use of logarithms allowed for more precise tables than previous efforts and turned the production of tables into a literal cottage industry. One example is the Nautical Almanac, a book of navigational tables commissioned by the British government in 1766 and updated annually ever since. The creator of the Almanac, Nevil Maskelyne, employed retired clerks and clergymen across the country to complete the tables in their own homes.
Because creating tables involved performing computations, the individuals doing these calculations were called computers. These were not mathematicians boldly coming up with new formulas or proofs, scientists discovering how the universe works, or even engineers using mathematical and scientific principles to solve real-world problems. They were more akin to bank clerks hunched over a ledger entering figures while preforming basic arithmetic. They had to be somewhat quick of mind, but required only a small amount of specialized training. Working in computing was really little different from, say, spinning cloth save that it required mental rather than manual dexterity. Therefore, just as cottage industry in the textile industry was displaced by factories during the Industrial Revolution, so too was it ultimately displaced in computing.
The first noteworthy computer factory was created in France in 1791 by Gaspard de Prony, who was engaged by the French National Assembly to create an extensive set of mathematical charts to aid in a new national survey of all the land in the country. A mathematician who believed the division of labor principles of Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations could be applied to mathematical table creation, de Prony gathered his computers in a single building and divided the labor into three parts. At the top were a handful of brilliant mathematicians who specified the formulas and basic parameters of the tables. Next, were a group of lesser mathematicians who performed the most important calculations, started each table, and instructed the third tier of employees, the computers, how to proceed. These computers then completed the tables using nothing more than rudimentary addition and subtraction.
While de Prony’s computers were drawn from all walks of life, many were either unskilled laborers or professionals in fields that did not involve math. For example, many were hairdressers left unemployed as the aristocratic heads upon which they practiced their trade were lopped off by Madam Guillotine at an ever increasing rate. As the work progressed, de Prony discovered there was no correlation between level of intelligence or education and accuracy and that computing had therefore truly been reduced to a basic unskilled task. This does not mean all computers henceforth were unskilled laborers. As the problems tackled by computers became more complex in the 20th Century, more and more education was required to do the job well. Indeed, Katherine Johnson, one of the principle protagonists of the aforementioned Hidden Figures, was a college-educated math prodigy who’s early career arc would have probably been very different if she had been a Caucasian man instead of an African American woman. Still, most computers were not Katherine Johnson, and the job was generally considered akin to low-level clerical or secretarial work at best.
The first machines that we would today call computers were conceived as part of an effort to automate table making in the same way the spinning mule automated thread production. Indeed, Charles Babbage, the mathematician and gentleman scholar who envisioned the first such machine, was well acquainted with de Prony’s factory. Babbage felt that England had fallen behind mainland Europe in mathematical sophistication and visited Paris multiple times beginning in 1819 to consult with esteemed members of the French Scientific Academy. He also oversaw an astronomical table project in his native country beginning in 1820 that operated in much the same manner as Maskelyne’s Nautical Almanac through the use of freelance computers in a cottage industry model. Frustrated with the process, he resolved to build a machine that would automate the table making and printing process based on the principles of de Prony’s factory. Once he completed a design on paper for this “Difference Engine,” he started work on a more general-purpose mechanical calculating machine called the “Analytical Engine” that could perform all four basic arithmetic functions and store numbers in a form of memory during the process. Though never built, this Analytical Engine idea would influence early computer designs in the mid twentieth century.
Charles Babbage was unable to build any of his computing devices both due to a lack of funding and due to a lack of mechanical parts with sufficient precision to perform the processes he required of them. This latter problem ceased to exist by the late 19th Century due to advances in manufacturing technology. This led to a new category of machines that we would call analog computers today, though at the time the term “computer” was usually only applied to a person rather than a machine. These analog computers evolved in parallel with human computers rather than replacing them and were used to simulate real-world phenomena when mathematical equations and models were not sufficient for the task at hand. As stated in my book, perhaps the most celebrated analog computer of the nineteenth century was Lord Kelvin’s Tide Predictor, which used a system of levers, pulleys, and gears to simulate tidal forces and allowed for the creation of far more accurate tide tables for seaports around the world than previous methods.
By the beginning of the 20th Century, the computer profession was expanding as differential equations were increasingly used to generate mathematical models of phenomena that could not be easily observed with the naked eye such as electromagnetic wave transmission and atomic structure. As these equations became longer and more complex, armies of human computers ran numbers through these formulas to aid in a variety of scientific and engineering fields. Analog computing continued to develop in tandem, for when an equation proved too difficult or too complex to solve through computing, a physical model of the phenomenon being studied would be created instead. That way, even if the math behind a physical process was not fully understood, it could still be simulated and measured to solve a variety of practical problems.
As touched on briefly in the book, by the early 20th century, analog computing had become an indispensable tool in building power grids. Power transmission was a particular area where the differential equations were so complex that it was easier to simulate processes physically over a small area and scale up the results rather than solve the equations mathematically. This is how computing machines became inextricably linked with university electrical engineering departments in the United States before the establishment of computer science as a separate discipline rather than with math or physics departments. The vast geographic distances in the American West required solving a plethora of problems in transmitting electricity that were not being encountered anywhere else in the world at the time, and analog computers provided many of the solutions to these problems.
Electrical engineer Vannevar Bush was perhaps the first person to steer analog computing more directly into the realm of the human computer when he completed the first practical differential analyser, so-called because it uses mechanical parts to solve differential equations via integration. The theory behind the machine was developed in 1876 by Lord Kelvin’s younger brother, James Thompson, but he proved unable to build a working model. Many of his principles were incorporated into his brother’s Tide Predictor as well as several other analog computing devices, but these remained special-purpose machines tuned for specific tasks. Bush, an electrical engineer working on power transmission problems at MIT, built a device called a product integraph in 1924 that simplified the solving and plotting of first-order differential equations and then expanded it between 1928 and 1931 in conjunction with Harold Hazen, who suggested the device could be improved to solve second-order equations as well. The resulting differential analyser was a general-purpose device that could solve a wide variety of differential equations. Before long, engineers in other parts of the world had constructed their own differential analysers, setting in motion the eventual replacement of human computers with machines.
Most of the early digital computer projects, in which mathematical modelling completely displaced physical simulation, were started to solve differential equations. This included Howard Aikens’s Harvard Mark I, John Atanasoff and Clifford Berry’s unfinished prototype later dubbed the Atanasoff-Berry Computer, or ABC, and the ENIAC at the University of Pennsylvania. Indeed, ENIAC, short for Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer, is the device which best brings together the disparate threads of this article. The co-creator of ENIAC, John Mauchly, worked in weather prediction and yearned for a device that would allow him to solve complex equations. After viewing an electric calculator displayed by IBM at the 1939 World’s Fair, he believed he could build a similar device for his purposes and immersed himself in the study of electronics. After giving a lecture on his ambitions at the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Decmeber 1940, he connected with John Atanasoff, who invited him back to his home base at the University of Iowa and showed him the work he had done on the ABC. Soon after, Mauchly took a position at the University of Pennsylvania and bonded with a graduate student named J. Presper Eckert, who was interested in developing high-speed calculating devices using vacuum tubes.
Meanwhile, Mauchly’s wife was running a training program for human computers that were being funneled to the U.S. Army’s Ballistic Research Laboratory, which was harnessing a differential analyser and an army of human computers to create artillery tables that would allow artillery commanders at the front to compute the proper trajectory for their guns to hit targets miles away without the need to solve complex trigometric equations on the fly. Just as Charles Babbage saw a need to automate the creation of astronomical tables in the 1820s, Mauchly envisioned speeding up the complicated and time-consuming process of producing artillery tables using an electronic computer that worked in a similar manner to the differential analyser only much faster. Though completed too late to be of much use in World War II, ENIAC, reduced the time needed to generate an artillery table to just 30 seconds as compared to 15 minutes for a differential analyser or 20 hours for a team of human computers. While ENIAC did not exert much influence on future computer design, it was the first completed general-purpose electronic computer that was publicly revealed, thereby playing an outsized role in stimulating further computer research at other institutions.
Human computers reached their apex in the 1940s as scientific advances played a key role in ending World War II. Because so many able-bodied men were serving as soldiers, the field came to be dominated by women. Furthermore, since educated women had few options for careers at the time, this also meant that a greater percentage of computers had advanced degrees in mathematics than in the time of Gaspard de Prony. Computers continued to play an important role in performing calculations into the 1960s, as Hidden Figures plainly attests, but as electronic computers continued to become both more sophisticated and cheaper, the occupation eventually faded away. Analog computers continued to play their part into the 1960s as well, and even into the 1980s in specific fields, but were likewise eventually obsoleted by their digital brethren. Electronic computers, meanwhile, continued to expand beyond mere calculating devices to encompass a wide variety of tasks. Much of this was due to the work of artificial intelligence pioneers like Claude Shannon and Alan Turing, which is where early computer history and early video game history intersect through the tic-tac-toe, nim, checkers, and chess programs of the 1940s and 1950s that are the subject of the first two chapters of the book.
This post is part of an ongoing series annotating my book They Create Worlds: The Story of the People and Companies That Shaped the Video Game Industry, Vol. I. It covers material found in the prologue on pages xviii-xx. It is not necessary to have read the book to comprehend and appreciate the post.
Choosing where exactly to start They Create Worlds was a challenge. My goal was to document most of the early experiments using a television and/or a digital computer to play a game, but starting at the chronological beginning of these efforts does not make for a compelling opening. Its great that in the late 1940s Alan Turing and Donald Michie wrote chess programs that were never implemented or that Thomas Goldsmith and Estle Ray Mann liked to pretend in the lab that a cathode ray beam might be the arc of a missile, but there is no throughline from either of these experiments to the $150 billion industry that exists today. These primordial works are examined in the book, of course, but they did not feel appropriate as a hook to draw the reader in. Clearly then, the book should not start at the beginning, but it still needed to focus on a beginning.
So I opened on a bus station in New York City on August 31, 1966, when Ralph Baer thought to himself it might be neat to control objects displayed on a television set rather than passively consuming network programming. Its nice to have a firm date like that to commence the narrative, though its not nearly so firm as one might think. Ralph Baer was a careful record keeper as befit the meticulous, detail-oriented personality that shines through in his various interviews and in his autobiographical examination of his work in the video game business. For this reason, we do know that he transformed his crazy bus station idea into a formal memo on September 1, 1966. In interviews, Baer usually stated he did so back at his office the day after his brainstorm, but the timeframe may not line up. After all, he was down from his native Nashua, New Hampshire, to meet a business client, and Google tells me that’s a good four hour trip in the modern day by car. A 1966 bus was probably taking it even slower than that. Did he really have a meeting with a client in New York City that afternoon and then immediately scurry back up to Nashua? Its not impossible, but maybe a tad improbable. Nevertheless, that’s his story, so we are sticking to it.
Whether this brainstorm happened on August 30 or August 31 though is really a minor matter of little consequence. A more important statement to analyze is the claim I make at the end of this little vignette: “But Baer was the first person to suggest creating an interactive entertainment experience by conveying game data to a display through use of a video signal, so even though he never used the term in any of his subsequent documentation or patents, he is nevertheless the progenitor of what we now call the video game.”
So there it is right? Extra, extra read all about it! Alexander Smith says Ralph Baer invented the video game! Baer himself would have certainly been pleased to see those words in print had he lived long enough to see this book published, as he always claimed the mantle “Father of Video Games” and defended that title against all comers. Repeatedly. And in detail. I don’t begrudge him any of that: the man was absolutely a key cog in the transformation of video games from backroom lab experiments to mass market entertainment, and he lived in the shadow of Nolan Bushnell much longer than he deserved. But did he really, truly invent the video game or have a valid claim to its paternity? Well, despite my glib pronouncement in the prologue of the book, the answer is a little more complicated.
Before ruling on Baer’s case, we must decide what the heck constitutes a video game anyway. Ralph Baer would tell us there is a simple technical definition we can go by: if you are playing a game on a screen and that game data was conveyed to said screen by a video signal, then you have a video game; otherwise you don’t.
So then what is a video signal? A video signal is a modulated electromagnetic wave that conveys image data, with the frequency of the wave determining the chrominance, or color, of the image and the amplitude defining the luma, or brightness. This signal provides instructions to the cathode ray tube (CRT) of a television, which focuses a stream of electrons on a single point on a phosphor-coated screen, causing a sustained glow at that point. A magnetic field generated by coils within the CRT allows this beam of electrons to sweep back and forth across the entire screen, one horizontal line at a time, to create a complete picture from this collection of individual dots according to the parameters of the incoming signal. This is the process Baer is describing when he tells us a video game must, by definition, use a video signal.
Right away, Baer’s definition presents a problem by excluding a set of early products that were widely defined by the public and within the industry as video games in their own time: coin-operated vector games like Atari’s Asteroids (1979). The graphics in these games are drawn by a vector generator that takes direct control of the CRT and instructs it to aim at a specific point on the screen and then move on a specific vector until a command is given to deflect the beam in a different direction. The CRT is still receiving and responding to a signal, but it’s not a video signal. There is no doubt, however, that even the most conservative modern definition of a video game would include Asteroids, so Baer’s simple straightforward technical definition must already be set aside.
But once we open up the definition, where do we stop? Well, we have to include the vector games clearly, so it logically follows that any time a player interacts with images drawn by a CRT, it counts as a video game. But why stop at a CRT? Modern video games played on a high-definition television or monitor hooked up to a PlayStation 5 or an IBM PC Compatible certainly must count too. While Baer hews to an old-school definition of a video signal that presumes an analog system, digital displays are also driven by a video signal, albeit in a slightly different way. The prime difference between the two is that a digital signal consists of a series of ones and zeroes that provide instructions to draw a complete bitmapped image all at once rather than the analog method in which the image is drawn one scanline at a time. These digital images are pulsed to the television at a specific, constant frequency that determines how many times a second the display will be updated with a new image, the so-called “frame rate” as measured in frames per second (FPS) that is the obsession of high-end graphics connoisseurs. Its still video, so it counts.
So now we know we have a video game whenever someone interacts with objects on a screen, right? Well, not exactly. One problem with merely focusing on the screen is that in the coin-op world, games with “screens” of one form or another existed as early as the 1920s through the use of film projectors. What do we do with driving simulators like Auto Test (1954), shooting games like Nintendo’s Wild Gunman (1974), or even the Nutting Associates Computer Quiz (1967), all of which use a film projector to display images with which the player interacts?
Furthermore, what do we do with old computer games that outputted data to a teletype or some other display that does not incorporate a screen? Baer would tell us these are “computer games” rather than “video games” and that these are overlapping, but not identical, categories. Practically speaking, this feels like a meaningless distinction. After all, if one plays Adventure (1977) on a teletype instead of a CRT terminal, is this truly a different experience considering the computer executes the same code and the game proceeds in an identical manner either way?
Fellow video game historian Ethan Johnson and I pondered this topic at length, and he came up with a critical discriminating element. He did a whole blog post about this, but the relevant portion is as follows:
“[R]ather than needing a certain sort of signal, a display for a video game must be arbitrary. This means the display as a whole has to have a direct relation to the program underlying it and is able to achieve a number of different states rather than just “on” or “off”. In the early tic-tac-toe games for instance, while an individual state of a square only has a boolean value, the board as a whole has hundreds of different possible outcomes which are ultimately not pre-determined. The individual state of a screen in Computer Quiz only has two possible variables: Light on or light off, and therefore can not be said to be using a display in the same way as video games.”
Well that does for Computer Quiz at least, but it does not necessarily answer the question for a more complex game like Wild Gunman, and it only gets us a little closer to solving the conundrum of games on early computer systems that lacked a CRT. Furthermore, by opening up our definition to include all computer games with an arbitrary display, we are forced to address how to treat analog computing devices like the Nimatron displayed in 1940 at the World’s Fair, or Claude Shannon’s chess-playing Caissac machine from 1949. These are unquestionably both computers that play games, but does that really make them video games too? Do we now extend the history of video games all the way back to 1912 and the Spanish El Ajedrecista chess-playing automaton? Clearly, we need to establish some other limiting criteria.
The easiest way to distinguish these edge cases from video games is to distinguish between the internal components that generate the game elements. A game like Wild Gunman uses electro-mechanical components, that is wipers, switches, and contacts facilitate the completion of electrical circuits to create playfield action by powering relays, steppers, and other mechanical parts. All video games by the Baer definition, including his own Magnavox Odyssey and Atari’s Pong (1972), use electronic components instead, with streams of electrons directed through a series of logic gates determining what happens over the course of the game. This allows us to distinguish not only electro-mechanical coin-operated games with screens from video games, but also allows us to remove early electro-mechanical analog computing devices from the equation.
Now that we have defined two critical technological elements, we need to add a couple of conceptual components to complete our working definition of the term video game. First, we need to define the user’s place in this interplay between logic circuits and a display. The easiest way to do this is focus on the commonly accepted definition of “playing a game,” which requires active participants rather than passive viewers. For video games, this means the game needs to unfold through direct user interaction via a control scheme allowing the players to directly manipulate objects on the display. There is really no need to elaborate on this element any further: so long as this interaction is happening, the how of it is unimportant.
Finally, we need to define exactly what interactions between a user, some electronic logic, and a display constitute playing a game. If we don’t, then a word processor or a DVD menu is just as much a video game as Pong. The best we can do here is define a video game, which is generally understood to be a leisure activity, as a product intended to provide entertainment. This is the most subjective part of our definition because different people find different things entertaining and even a DVD menu could be turned into a game by a particularly bored individual. The best we can do is point to the intrinsic purpose of the product as determined by authorial intent. If the program was produced or marketed with the primary goal of entertaining a person, then its a game. If the entertainment value is secondary to serving some other function, then it’s not. This is not a perfect test. For example, a product primarily designed to educate might also be deliberately crafted to entertain to hold the user’s interest. More work needs to be done on this element of the definition to clarify gray areas, but I will leave that for others to work out.
Now we have a serviceable, though still imperfect, definition of a video game that eliminates many, though not all, of the edge cases: A video game is an entertainment product played on a device containing electronic logic circuits in which the players interact with objects rendered on an arbitrary display.
So now that we have identified the child, who is the father? There are a few ways to look at this. One is to employ our newly articulated definition and look for the first product that meets all these criteria. That might lead us to 1947 and the prototype cathode-ray tube amusement device (CRTAD) patented by Estle Ray Mann and Thomas Goldsmith. I personally feel CRTAD does not really hold together under our definition of a video game, but that is a discussion for another time and another annotation. Regardless, I feel comfortable ruling that these two engineers are not the fathers because they probably never built a finished product, certainly never displayed the system publicly, and did not influence any of the projects that came afterwards. By the same logic, we can also dismiss the dueling chess AIs created by Michie and Turing in 1948, which were complete computer programs on paper, but were never implemented on an actual computer.
So if the first conceived games do not make the cut, what about the first fully operational and publicly displayed product? That would lead us to Bertie the Brain, a custom tic-tac-toe computer built by Josef Kates and demoed in 1950. There is no doubt that this is the earliest known publicly played device that meets all our criteria for a video game, but is being first really all its cracked up to be? Bertie was displayed at a single Canadian trade show and received virtually no press. It may have been played by a decent number of people — the show draws over one million attendees every year — but it did not stick in the collective memory and was only rediscovered by scholars in the 2010s. Furthermore, it was solely intended to demonstrate the workings of a new type of vacuum tube and was not marketed as a new form of entertainment. Once again, I think our father — an appropriate term only because all our early pioneers in this field were men — needs to do more than bring a simulation into the world; he needs to understand he is creating something that could change the face of entertainment. Clearly, Kates wanted the attendees to be entertained while using his computer, but that is not quite the same thing.
So how about that master of physics and entertainment, “Wonderful Willie” Higinbotham? There is a solid case to be made that his tennis game, retroactively dubbed Tennis for Two (1958) by historians, marked the first time a video game was created solely to entertain the public. Therefore, he is our first real contender for the title “father of video games.” Once again though, I believe we need to exclude him because he did not start a wider movement. Our father is no good to us if his child failed to have children of its own.
So what about the first entertainment program that could be acquired by the general public? Right now, the earliest known game to fit that definition is a baseball simulation created by IBM employee John Burgeson in 1960-61 and briefly requestable as part of the program library for the IBM 1620 computer before being withdrawn from the catalog in 1963. There are a couple of problems here. First, this program only barely meets our definition of a video game because the only player interaction happens at the beginning when creating a team by selecting from a pool of players. More importantly, it appeared and vanished so quickly that it failed to have any sort of impact.
Then maybe its Steve Russell et al. and their Spacewar! (1962), which certainly achieved popularity across a select group of universities and research institutions and itself birthed the first commercial video game, Computer Space (1971)? Now I think we are getting closer. Baer would discount this game because it uses a point-plotting display, which functions in essentially the same manner as a vector monitor except that instead of drawing lines it draws each point individually. As Baer might say, “no video signal, no video game.” But we have already moved past that narrow definition. The main strike against the game is that it did remain confined to a small number of locations and was not commercialized. One could argue that since video games did not capture the imagination of the general public until commercial models were available that anyone could gain access to for a reasonable price, then our father needs to be someone that brought video games into the mass market. I find that argument flimsy, but it can be made.
So now we come at last to the final two contenders, Ralph Baer and Nolan Bushnell. Among the general public, I think the debate really comes down to just these two. The controversy over which of them birthed the video game has literally existed for as long as people have written about video game history, with Steven Bloom’s monograph Video Invaders debating this very topic as early as 1982. Both have strong claims to the title. Nolan Bushnell came to market first with Computer Space, but Ralph Baer started work on his system earlier and had largely completed it by 1968. Bushnell also debuted the first successful product, Pong, but the game only came about because he saw the table tennis game on the Odyssey.
Which person one prefers really depends on how you define the parameters. Is it first conceived that matters or first released? Is it enough to dream up a system, or does said system also need to capture the public’s imagination? Certainly Baer and Bushnell themselves expended most of their energy trying to prove who came up with the idea of commercializing video games first during a series of patent lawsuits in the 1970s. Baer, with that meticulous streak, was able to provide a plethora of verified documentation from 1966-72 elucidating every step along the way from initial spark to final product. Bushnell could only counter this by claiming he wrote a paper in college in the 1960s about playing games on a computer after he saw Spacewar!. When asked to submit the paper as evidence, he proved unable to do so. The courts rightly sided with Baer, but winning a patent suit is not quite the same thing as winning a paternity suit.
So now that we have a video game definition and a list of the major contenders for our parental figure, is Ralph Baer the “progenitor of what we now call the video game”? Not really. I feel the video game really has two sets of parents, Russell and friends, who created the first video game to gain a significant following across multiple installations, and Bushnell and his partner Ted Dabney, who were inspired by the work of the Russell group to engineer the first commercial video game product. This leaves Baer the odd man out despite the pride of place I gave him in the book. Baer himself would have certainly not been pleased to see these words in print had he lived long enough to see this blog post published. That said, he really was the first person to follow through on the idea that manipulating objects on a standard television set could be fun; he was the first person to realize it was possible to create a hardware system to do so that was cheap enough it could be commercialized for home use, and he worked out how to interface this hardware system with a television set using an RF modulator and a video signal. These were the building blocks upon which the entire home video game industry was built, and that in itself is a monumental achievement. So while I am not entirely comfortable calling Baer the “father of video games,” I will gladly cede him the title “father of the video game console” and give him pride of place at the beginning of my three-volume history. Baer’s bus stop brainstorm may not have been the beginning, but there is no doubt it was quite a beginning.