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.
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 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.
Four years!?! Where has the time gone? The answer is to working on a variety of projects that required me to step away from this blog.
First, the big one: The first volume of my literally years in the planning history of the video game industry has been published! They Create Worlds: The Story of the People and Companies That Shaped the Video Game Industry, Vol. I 1971-1982 is now available from CRC Press. It can be found on the publisher’s website and major online retailers such as Amazon.
Fair warning: its a bit pricey. A mainstream publisher was never going to tolerate three 500-600 page volumes of in-depth video game industry examination, so going into the academic world was really the only option. I also wanted to avoid self-publishing, as I see my books as important foundation works for more research into the industry, and self-published tomes by unknown authors lack credibility. This meant I had to engage an academic publisher, but going that route does mean the final product ain’t cheap. I certainly understand if that makes anybody think twice. What I will promise is that if the price is not an obstacle, this is the most in-depth examination of the early industry ever written with many stories that have never been told before in print.
I have also continued the They Create Worlds podcast with my friend and collaborator Jeffrey Daum. We have been posting two episodes a month every month without fail since late 2015. We strive to provide deep dives into all facets of video game history backed up by thorough research, and I would recommend it to anyone interested in the history of the video game industry. More information is available from our website.
So where does that leave the blog? Well, it started as a way to just get me writing as a motivator to get my books finished. It certainly served that purpose. But I still have two more books to write over the next four years, so I have no time to continue updating this beast (not that I have for five years at this point anyway). I may at some point do a final entry on the creation of Pong, which will make this a nice set chronicling all the technological developments that led to the birth of the industry. After that, I may return from time to time to write about specific topics of interest, or to explain why I choose to interpret the sources the way I do to draw particular conclusions, some of which are out of step with previous narrative histories of the industry.
Regardless of the fate of the blog, video game history remains my passion, and I expect I will be studying it and commenting on it for decades to come. I appreciate all of you coming along for the ride.
Wow, it’s hard to believe nearly a year has gone by since I last posted on this blog. When I started “They Create Worlds” a few years ago, the idea was that I would use this space to highlight my sources and organize my thoughts for the books I currently plan to write on video game history. The text seen here is not the text of the book itself, which will be narrative rather than so heavily focused on reporting what the individual sources say, but it has served as an incubator for some of my thoughts and theories.
Once I started writing the first book in earnest, I realized there was no way I could realistically undertake both massive writing projects at the same time. Therefore, I have spent the last year focusing on actually writing the book, which I hope to have finished sometime next year (hopes of completing it by the end of this year proved overly optimistic, but much progress has been made). I do plan to return to this blog at some point, however, because I believe the source evaluation I am doing here is valuable for other researchers and historians and will serve to explain some of the narrative choices I make in the books themselves, which are less concerned with highlighting all the contradictions in the underlying sources.
In the meantime, I will be updating the posts already on here from time to time as I make new discoveries in my research, and I continue to podcast twice a month on various topics in video game history (like so much on this site, the podcast listings I maintain here are out of date and more recent episodes can be found on the podcast website). I thank you all for your continued interest in my work.
Hard at work on the next blog post, which will cover the early years of Ralph Baer and the development of the Brown Box, but I just wanted to take time out again to mention my new podcast, as today we posted our first look at a substantive issue in video game history after two introductory episodes. Entitled “What Makes an Industry?” the episode explores how the distinct video arcade, home console, and home computer game industries ultimately merged into the global video game industry we know today. Check it out here. New podcasts on the 1st and 15th of every month.