Worldly Wednesdays: The Cutting Room Floor

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?

High Score and The Ultimate History of Video Games: Two great tastes that taste great together?

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.

Nimrod, the second game computer demoed in Canada during its brief heyday as the computer game capital of the world.

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.

They Create Worlds: The Story of the People and Companies That Shaped the Video Game Industry, Vol. I 1971-1982 is available in print or electronically direct from the publisher, CRC Press, as well as through Amazon and other major online retailers.

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