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.
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.