Worldly Wednesdays

Nolan versus Ted, Part I

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.

Computer Space, a game with two creators who seem to have ten different stories about its creation.

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.

Nolan had the Pizza Time idea early, but probably not quite that early.

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?

A: Yes.

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.

The Dabney home where Computer Space most likely took shape.

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.

Worldly Wednesdays: Nolan Bushnell and Spacewar!

This post is part of an ongoing series annotating my book They Create Worlds: The Story of the People and Companies That Shaped the Video Game Industry, Vol. I. It covers material found in chapter 5 on pages 68-70. It is not necessary to have read the book to comprehend and appreciate the post.

Now that we are through all the early experiments, its time to start examining the beginning of commercial video games. And its here the stories start to get more complicated. There really is not much disagreement in the sources about who did what in Spacewar! or Tennis for Two, but when it comes to the launch of Computer Space and Pong, there are three major participants and what feels like ten different stories. In writing the book, I tried to construct a single coherent narrative out of this mess, which means that I made certain choices about which information I found reliable and which I did not. In some cases, where that was impossible, I included footnotes explaining where the stories diverged. The single longest footnote in the book explained why I was confident Nolan Bushnell did not see Spacewar! while a student at the University of Utah in the 1960s. So let’s expand that footnote into an even longer blog post.

The standard story Nolan Bushnell tells about his first encounter with video games basically goes like this: in 1965 or 1966, soon after transferring to the University of Utah from Utah State, a buddy or a fraternity brother informs him there is something really cool he needs to see. Sometimes they just head on over to the computer lab, other times it plays out like the world’s geekiest heist story as they sneak in late at night. Either way, he beholds Spacewar! for the first time at the University of Utah Computer Center, where its running on a big mainframe, either an IBM 7094 or a UNIVAC 1108. Bushnell is entranced and is soon playing the game all night long whenever he can.

Also working as an arcade manager at the Lagoon Amusement Park at the time, Bushnell thinks to himself that the game would be perfect as a coin-operated product if it were not running on such an expensive computer, but alas, there is nothing to be done. He goes on with his life, playing his Spacewar! and even programming a few of his own games like a “Fox & Geese” program until he graduates in 1968 and moves to California. An avid go player, Bushnell meets a man named Jim Stein at a Stanford University go club, who takes him over to the Stanford Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (SAIL) and reconnects Nolan with Spacewar! Soon after, Nolan sees a sales sheet for a Data General Nova, realizes computers may now be cheap enough to run a coin-operated video game, and the rest is history.

Bushnell has consistently told this version of events for fifty years, and while some of the details get embellished as time goes on, the core story remains unchanged. I fully believe that today, Mr. Bushnell considers the above to be a true and accurate account, as memory is a funny thing and the more we relay a certain set of facts, the more real they become in our own minds. Sadly, this account is almost certainly false, save for the last part where Jim Stein introduces — rather than reintroduces — Nolan to Spacewar! at Stanford.

Nolan Bushnell playing a very different game from Spacewar! at the University of Utah.

So why lie? Why does it matter whether Nolan Bushnell first saw Spacewar! in 1966 at Utah or 1970 at Stanford? Either way, he played a complex computer game relatively early and took inspiration from it to play a key role in launching commercial video games. Well, the answer to that has to do with patent litigation. As has already been mentioned more than once in this series, when Ralph Baer and company developed the prototype of what became the Magnavox Odyssey, they filed patents relating both to the invention of video games generally and to the invention of a system in which two objects electronically rendered on a screen collide and one of them changes vectors specifically. Once those patents were issued in 1972, Magnavox, as the sole licensee of Ralph Baer’s technology, could theoretically claim patent infringement against any electronic game in which a human-controlled object and a computer-controlled object displayed on a screen collided and one of them changed vectors, which basically describes any of the dozen or so ball-and-paddle games that took the coin-operated world by storm in 1973 after Atari launched Pong. The best way to avoid paying damages for patent infringement in this scenario would be to show that your own invention predated the work of Baer and his team to some degree. As Bill Rusch came up with the Odyssey table tennis game in late 1967 and the collision patent was filed in 1969, suddenly whether Nolan Bushnell was inspired by Spacewar! in 1966 or 1970 becomes incredibly important.

Meanwhile, in Summer 1973, Nolan Bushnell gave his earliest known interview in which he discusses the origin of his fascination with computer games. The venue is a short documentary called Games Computers Play that chronicles the birth of arcade video games through Bushnell’s Computer Space and Pong as well as the fascination with Spacewar! at SAIL. In this documentary, a very young Nolan Bushnell states the following:

We used to play Spacewar a lot at the AI project at Stanford, which is a big computer complex, and one day it just hit, you know this is a lot of fun, you know I oughta be able to package it and sell it for a price.

No mention of Utah or amusement parks or long-standing dreams of a coin-operated video game empire. He was just hanging around Stanford and one day realized people just might pay money to experience this fun computer game. After Nolan reveals his inspiration, the documentary transitions from talking about Atari to talking about Spacewar! at SAIL, and the narrator begins the new segment with the following words: “The AI Project, where Bushnell first played Spacewar…” While this statement does not come straight out of Nolan’s own mouth, clearly the understanding of the documentarians based on their interview with Bushnell is that he first saw Spacewar! at Stanford.

By November 1973, Nolan Bushnell is singing a different tune. A profile of Atari in a trade publication called Systems Engineering Today recounts the following:

During the early part of the Spacewar craze, Nolan Bushnell was pursuing an EE degree at the University of Utah and working summers as manager of the games department at an amusement park. He was familiar with Spacewar, and from his amusement arcade background he believed that it would be a great arcade game. The only problem was the price: a computer, even a mini, would cost far more than any amusement arcade operator would spend for a game.

And there it is, the Spacewar! at Utah story fully formed. A story from which Bushnell would never deviate in all the years to follow.

So what changed between Summer and Fall 1973? Well, another November 1973 profile of Atari, this one in Business Week, provides the answer:

Magnavox Co., which introduced its Odyssey games that can be played on home TV sets last year, also plans to require companies marketing coin-operated TV games to obtain a license. But some people in the coin-operated game business believe that the Magnavox patents pertain primarily to the home TV market.

So by Fall 1973, Magnavox is making noises about enforcing its patents against companies producing coin-operated video games, and said companies are already trying to figure out their response to this threat. Interestingly, Bushnell takes his Utah story a step further in Business Week as well. Says Bushnell:

The idea for Pong really goes back to my time at the University of Utah. I used to go into the computer center late at night and think up games to play with the computers.

Now, Nolan is not just playing games in the mid 1960s; he is dreaming them up too. And, he claims this is the lineage of Pong, a lineage that is now being conveniently established in a time well before the Magnavox Odyssey existed.

Nolan Bushnell in Games Computers Play, the one time he indicated he first saw Spacewar! at Stanford.

In 1974, Magnavox finally pulled the trigger, suing Atari and several other companies for patent infringement. In the depositions that followed, Nolan continued to refine his Spacewar! story. From a deposition given by Nolan Bushnell on January 13-14, 1976:

Q: Were you personally involved in any activities prior to December 31, 1969 related to apparatus for playing of games which utilized cathode ray tube displays?

A: Yes, I was.

Q: What was the first such activity of that kind that you can recall?

A: I recall playing a game on the computer at the University of Utah.

[…]

Q: When did that activity occur?

A: I have been trying to pinpoint that. I think it was in the neighborhood of 1965. It was shortly after I came to the university of Utah.

Q: By shortly after you came to the University of Utah, how long a period to you mean by shortly?

A: I really don’t recollect. […] I had a friend in the engineering department that I used to play chess with that said, “There’s some great games over at the computer center.” And we went over one night and played.

[…]

Q: Could you describe the game which you saw on a computer at the University of Utah, this first game you saw?

A: Yes, It was a game which was called Space War.

[…]

Q: Using a computer?

A: Yes.

Q: What kind of computer was being used?

A: I’m not sure. That’s one of the things that I can’t put the time on it. It was either a Univac 1108 or an IBM 7094. The University of Utah changed computers while I was there and I’m not sure which it was, really.

This exchange establishes two things: that Nolan Bushnell is now swearing under oath that he saw Spacewar! at the University of Utah around 1965, and that his testimony is as vague as possible. He does not remember exactly when he saw it, and he does not remember on exactly which computer he saw it. In fact, he does not even really remember the person who showed it to him. From the same deposition:

Q: What was the friend’s name?

A: His name was Jim Davies, I think.

Q: And you knew him through your work at the University of Utah?

A: No. I knew him through the chess club.

Q: Do you know where Mr. Davies is located today?

A: I have no idea. I’m not really sure that Davies is his last name. In fact, just a second. I’m not sure that Jim Davies isn’t another guy. It’s Jim something, and it started with a D, but I’m not sure.

This vagueness would continue in a followup deposition given on March 2, 1976.

Q: Mr. Bushnell, in your testimony in January you referred to a Jim Davis or someone with a name like that and then referred to him as Jim D. Have you determined with any great specificity who that individual was?

A. No, I haven’t. In fact, I– No.

Q. This was an individual who you said showed you a game being played on a computer at the University of Utah; am I correct?

A. That’s correct.

Q. Have you made any effort to determine who that individual was?

A. Yes, I have.

Q. What have you done in that regard?

A. I went to the university and went through the rogues’ gallery. They have a listing of the graduates for each school year. I attempted to match a face with a name.

Q. Did you personally go to the university and do that?

A. Yes, I did.

Q. Where is the rogues’ gallery maintained at the University of Utah?

A. On the second floor in front of the Electrical Engineering department.

Q. In what office or department?

A. It’s in the hallway. It’s actually right in front of the computer center.

Q. Did you do anything else to try to establish who Jim D. was?

A. Yes , I did.

Q. What else did you do?

A. I talked to some of the people in the computer center attempting to find some people that had been around at approximately the same time.

Q. Were you able to find anyone?

A. No, I wasn’t.

[…]

Q. When did you make this trip?

A. It was in the middle of January.

Q. Of 1976?

A. Yes. Sometime shortly after the deposition.

Q. Did you prepare any report on your trip?

A. No, I did not.

Q. Any memoranda of any kind?

A. No, I did not.

Q. Were you able to find–

A. Well, memoranda? I wrote the names down in my notebook here.

Q. Nothing other than that?

A. No.

Q. Were you able to find any document that would support your testimony concerning Jim Davis showing you a game played on a computer at the University of Utah in 1965?

A. No .

Q. Did you find any documentation that would support your testimony that a game was played on a computer at the University of Utah in 1965?

A. No.

Q. Did you find anything other than documents tangible, that would support your testimony that a game was played on a computer at the University of Utah in 1965?

[…]

A. Excuse me just a second . No.

[…]

Q: In your earlier testimony you indicated that you weren’t certain whether the computer was a UNIVAC 1108 or an IBM 794 [sic] that you saw a game played on. Do you know which of those two it was?

A. No, I don’t.

Q. Did you make any effort to find out at the University of Utah?

A. No.

Q. Did you make any effort to find out what computer was at the University of Utah in 1965 at the time you say you saw a game played on a computer there?

A. No.

After this alleged first encounter with Spacewar!, Nolan claims he did not encounter the game again for some time. Back to January 1976:

Q: After this first occasion when you saw Space War shortly after going to the University of Utah what was your next activity with relation to the apparatus for playing games using a cathode-ray tube display?

A: Well, it was about, oh, somewhere around a year later and one of my fraternity brothers got involved in the computer center a little bit more and introduced me to several of the people and we got to talking about the games and I thought it would be kind of fun to learn how to program games.

[…]

Q: Did you see any Space War games between the first time that you saw it and the time approximately a year later when your fraternity brother got involved in the computer center?

A: No, I didn’t.

This second encounter supposedly led to more engagement with computer games at Utah and then to a senior thesis in 1967 in which he first put forth his ideas to create his own video game system that could be played at an amusement park. Again, from the deposition:

Q: Did the paper include any description of the types of games that might be played on it?

A: Yes, it did.

Q: What kind of games were described?

A: Space War.

[…]

A: Hangman, which is a word game. […] A baseball game.

Q: Any other games?

A: I think those were the only three that I described.

As with his claim of being introduced to Spacewar! by the elusive Jim Davies, Nolan was unable to provide any proof that this senior thesis ever existed. Per the March 1976 deposition:

Q: Mr. Bushnell, you testified about a paper that you prepared while at the University of Utah on games. Have you made a further effort to find a copy of that paper?

A: No, I haven’t.

Q: I think you said the paper was done in conjunction with a course of Professor Atwood; is that correct?

A: I believe that’s true.

Q: have you contacted Professor Atwood as you indicated I think that you were going to do?

A: No, I haven’t.

Q: Do you have any better information today than you had at the time of your last deposition session with respect to that paper or its contents or its location at the present time?

A: No.

I’ve thrown a lot of quotes at you, so this is probably a good time to summarize the historical record so far. In early 1973, Nolan Bushnell indicated that he first saw Spacewar! at the Stanford Artificial Intelligence Laboratory. Later that year, Magnavox publicly declared it was looking to exploit its patents by extracting licensing fees from all the companies making coin-operated video games, including Atari. As the patents were filed in 1969, an individual or company looking to avoid liability in a patent suit would need to prove that their video game activities started before that date. Nolan did not see Spacewar! at SAIL until spring 1970 at the earliest, however, a timeframe established in another part of his deposition. This would not do.

In late 1973, Nolan suddenly starts talking about all the game ideas he had at the University of Utah after seeing Spacewar!. In depositions given in 1976, he further explains that he first saw the game in 1965, first seriously engaged with it in 1966, and wrote a senior thesis all about playing computer games on a system tailored for use in amusement parks in 1967. If true, this new narrative would give his work priority over the work done by Ralph Baer and Bill Rusch. However, when pressed for details by the attorneys, Nolan was as vague as possible on the names of the people involved and the computer system on which he played the game. He was also unable to provide any documentation proving that he saw Spacewar! at Utah during the period in question or that his thesis on playing computer games in an amusement park ever existed.

That about does it for Bushnell’s own words on the matter and why he might have an incentive to distort the truth, but it still leaves us with the fact that he did testify under penalty of perjury that he first saw Spacewar! at Utah. So would he really lie under oath? Well, his answers were vague enough that he would probably avoid a perjury charge, and indeed the lawyers did not seem particularly interested in trying to catch him in a perjury trap, content to let his vague and flimsy recollections stand on their own. After all, if he was lying, his sparse recollections backed by zero documentary evidence would be unlikely to convince the judge in the case — the matter was not being decided by a jury — that Bushnell really was designing video games in the 1960s, but if he was actually telling the truth and an investigation did uncover additional documentary evidence, then it could be problematic for the Magnavox case. For the lawyers, it was far better to just let it be.

But would Nolan lie about his role in early video game history with or without the threat of legal consequences? Sadly, we know the answer to that question is almost certainly yes. While there is no conclusive proof that Nolan’s Utah statements were false since it is nigh on impossible to prove a negative, we do have other examples of him not being completely honest.

The prime example of Nolan’s aversion to the truth comes from another aspect of the Magnavox case: to wit that he saw the Magnavox Odyssey in Burlingame in May 1972 when it was being demonstrated ahead of release. Nolan admitted as much in his deposition — it was hard not to when Magnavox presented as evidence a guestbook from the event with his signature in it — and these days he even admits publicly that he told Al Alcorn to do a ping-pong game as a test project because he saw the Odyssey. He even tries to downplay any controversy thereof by claiming it was no big secret. For example, in a post he made on the Atari Age forums in 2010, Bushnell stated:

I saw the Burlingame demo of the odyssey and thought it was crap and it was. I signed the register with my own name and have never denied it. It did spark the idea that the ping pong idea could be an interesting game if it were done well.

However, while Nolan did cop to the visit in his deposition, in public he denied it for decades. From Video Invaders by Steven Bloom in 1982:

“Pong was no coincidence,” Baer says firmly. “Later on in the mid-’70s, when we negotiated with Atari to get them under license, it came out that somebody over there had actually seen Odyssey sometime during the course of 1972. I don’t know how they did it, but they saw it. So, Pong was a derivative of Odyssey – not the other way around, by any means. The coin-op games are derivative of what we did here back in the ’60s!”

Surprisingly, Bushnell barely counters Baer’s assertions. “It’s really hard to say,” he replies. “I think he can say that even though I had not seen an Odyssey game at that time. But if you do look at the time frame, Pong was actually on the market before Odyssey. I remember being quite surprised to see Odyssey.”

And nearly two decades later in Steven Kent’s The Ultimate History of Video Games:

What they’ve always alleged was that there was a meeting or a distributor show somewhere in the valley, and I should have, would have, could have been there. So it’s one of those pissing matches.

Nolan was never honest about this until Ralph Baer wrote his own book and included a copy of the guestbook signature for all the world to see.

The infamous guestbook, as presented in Video Games: In the Beginning by Ralph Baer

A second fabrication from these early days concerns Bushnell’s own history, or lack thereof, creating games before Computer Space. As far as I know, Nolan still maintains to this day that he was not just playing games at the University of Utah, but also creating his own. In particular, he is proud of a Fox & Geese game. Per another post in 2010 at the Atari Age forums:

Did you program a game in college called Fox and Geese? Could you tell us about the game and the experiance [sic] of programming the game?

I programmed several games but the one that played the best and was sent around the country was Fox and geese. In the game the fox could move in any direction at twice the speed of the geese there was only one fox. The geese could move up to the right or the left. If a goose was alone the fox could eat it. If there were two geese adjacent he could not. The object was for the fox to either eat all the geese or escape past them. The geese won if they trapped the fox against the upper part of the screen. The number of geese was variable. 3 geese almost always lost 7 geese always won.

Bushnell has also described creating this game to Kent and other interviewers as well. Under oath in 1976, however, a different picture emerges:

Q: Do you recall any games other than Space War specifically at the University of Utah?

A: Space War was really the only game I was interested in at the University.

So where does this Fox & Geese story come from if he was not involved with any other games at Utah by his own admission? The deposition answers this question as well:

Q: Do you recall seeing or playing any other games played with a computer and a cathode-ray tube display either at that conference [the Spring or Fall Joint Computer Conference circa 1969] or at the AI project or at the University of Utah prior to the time you left your employment at Ampex?

A: Yes.

Q: What other games do you recall?

A: There was a game called Fox & Geese. That was a game where the fox would chase geese and the geese would, you know, run away from the fox and you would attempt to trap a goose in a corner and eat it. I think the geese were hollow circles and the fox was a filled-in circle. That was definitely at the AI project [SAIL].

[…]

Can you fix the time of the fox and geese game any closer?

Q: A: I’d say somewhere between the spring and summer of 1970.

Q: How do you fix that time?

A: I fix it pretty much coincident with when Jim Stein was working there, who was my key to the door to get into the place.

So not only did Nolan not program any games at Utah by his own admission nor play any games there other than Spacewar!, but the Fox & Geese game was just a game he saw at SAIL. Notice this portion of the testimony also establishes he was not visiting SAIL before 1970, hence the need to concoct earlier encounters with the game at Utah to avoid patent infringement.

So now we have established that Nolan both had a motive to stretch the truth and a history of doing the same. What other evidence can we bring to bear?

Well, first of all, we can establish just what computer hardware the University of Utah owned during the events in question. If there was no system capable of playing Spacewar! between 1965 and 1968, the years Nolan attended the institution, then he could not possibly have played it there. Fortunately, Utah has put many of its internal university records online. One such record is a report made by David Evans in November 1966. At the time, Evans was just beginning the research that would put Utah on the cutting edge of graphical technology and provide breakthroughs in everything from polygonal rendering to virtual reality. According to the report:

The Computer Center has replaced the IBM 7044 computer by a UNIVAC Type 1108 computer and has undertaken the system programming required to interface with the graphics laboratory.

[…]

The major computing facility is the 1108 system, which was delivered during November and is undergoing hardware and software checkout. It is expected to be in service beginning early in December.

This report is interesting for two reasons. First, it does corroborate Nolan’s claim in his deposition that the Computer Center changed hardware while he was there and upgraded to an 1108 system. They upgraded from a 7044 rather than a 7094 as Bushnell stated, but that can easily be explained away by screwing up the similar model numbers in his head. More importantly though, it confirms that the only computer in the Computer Center in 1965 and 1966 when Nolan claimed to have played Spacewar! was an IBM 7044. As explained by Atari historian Marty Goldberg in a since-deleted blog post from 2014 in which he delved into some of the same issues, the 7044 was an older machine that could not be interfaced with a graphics terminal or monitor; it was strictly a teletype system. Therefore, it is simply impossible for Bushnell to have played Spacewar! in the computer center in 1965 or 1966 as he claims.

For the sake of argument, let’s say Nolan was mistaken about the timeframe. Could he have actually seen the game on the UNIVAC 1108 before graduating college in 1968? Again, this does not appear possible. While the 1108 was hooked up to a PDP-8 to create a graphical system, Marty Goldberg and a graduate teaching assistant at the University of Utah named Sarah Bell did a deep dive into David Evans’ project reports from that time period and learned that by the end of 1968, Evans was still struggling to get basic shapes up on his kludged-together system, making it highly unlikely anyone was running Spacewar! on it. Utah was on the brink of becoming a major center for advanced graphics research when Nolan Bushnell graduated, but it was not quite there yet.

Another strike against Spacewar! being at Utah in the 1960s is that no other faculty member or alumnus has ever claimed the game was playable at the university. In fact, in 2020 my colleague Ethan Johnson specifically asked noted Utah alum and Spacewar! enthusiast Dr. Alan Kay about his first encounter with the game. Kay stated he saw the game while a graduate student at Utah, but he had to visit MIT to do so. Kay was at Utah from 1966 to 1969, worked closely with Evans, and knew Spacewar! well enough that Stewart Brand quoted him on the influence of the game in his seminal 1972 article for Rolling Stone, yet even he had to travel elsewhere to see the game.

Finally, the game never appears in the University of Utah student newspaper, which is available online for the years in question. At both MIT and Stanford, the student newspaper reported on the game soon after it appeared, but the Utah newspaper is completely silent on any game playing on Utah computers before the 1970s.

Articles in the MIT student newspaper, The Tech, and the Stanford student newspaper, The Stanford Daily, announcing the arrival of the hot new Spacewar! game on April 25, 1962, and May 16, 1963, respectively.

Finally, I will leave you with another piece of evidence that I discovered in my own research. In describing his second encounter with Spacewar! in 1966, Nolan Bushnell states the following in his January 1976 deposition:

Q: What did you do as a result of your thinking that it would be fun to program games?

A: Well, I asked for a listing of the current Space War game, I think I wanted to understand how they had done what they had done, you know, and made some modifications.

Q: Who did you ask for this?

A: Randall Willey.

Q: Who was Randall Willey?

A: He’s the fraternity brother.

Q: How do you spell Willey?

A: W-i-l-l-e-y, I think.

So here we have a name of someone else involved in the supposed Spacewar! scene at Utah, one that feels far more tangible than Mr. Jim with a D. As soon as I first saw this deposition back in 2015 or so, I honed in on Mr. Willey as a person that might be able to shed some further light on the situation. Unfortunately, he appeared to have vanished without a trace.

Flash forward to 2018, when I realized the Utah student newspaper was available online. A search within revealed that Nolan was wrong: his fraternity brother’s last name was actually spelled W-i-l-l-i-e. Armed with the correct spelling, I soon managed to locate Mr. Randall Willie and conducted a phone interview with him. The following exchange comes from that interview:

Q: So at that early stage in the Utah Computer Center were there any games there, was any game stuff going on?

A: There might have been, I don’t recall a lot of that.  I don’t recall any games going on.

While its not an outright denial of any games at the university whatsoever, it is a complete denial of his own involvement with such. Its hard to believe that someone so enmeshed in that scene that according to Nolan he knew where to go to get game code would have no recollection of any computer games after the fact. It appears we may have caught Bushnell red-handed, though he needn’t fear, as the statute of limitations for perjury has long since expired. Regardless, while it is impossible to completely disprove a negative, I think the weight of the evidence speaks for itself. Nolan Bushnell did not encounter Spacewar! at the University of Utah in the 1960s; he encountered it at Stanford University in 1970.

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.

Worldly Wednesdays: The Father of Video Games

This post is part of an ongoing series annotating my book They Create Worlds: The Story of the People and Companies That Shaped the Video Game Industry, Vol. I. It covers material found in the prologue on pages xviii-xx. It is not necessary to have read the book to comprehend and appreciate the post.

Choosing where exactly to start They Create Worlds was a challenge. My goal was to document most of the early experiments using a television and/or a digital computer to play a game, but starting at the chronological beginning of these efforts does not make for a compelling opening. Its great that in the late 1940s Alan Turing and Donald Michie wrote chess programs that were never implemented or that Thomas Goldsmith and Estle Ray Mann liked to pretend in the lab that a cathode ray beam might be the arc of a missile, but there is no throughline from either of these experiments to the $150 billion industry that exists today. These primordial works are examined in the book, of course, but they did not feel appropriate as a hook to draw the reader in. Clearly then, the book should not start at the beginning, but it still needed to focus on a beginning.

So I opened on a bus station in New York City on August 31, 1966, when Ralph Baer thought to himself it might be neat to control objects displayed on a television set rather than passively consuming network programming. Its nice to have a firm date like that to commence the narrative, though its not nearly so firm as one might think. Ralph Baer was a careful record keeper as befit the meticulous, detail-oriented personality that shines through in his various interviews and in his autobiographical examination of his work in the video game business. For this reason, we do know that he transformed his crazy bus station idea into a formal memo on September 1, 1966. In interviews, Baer usually stated he did so back at his office the day after his brainstorm, but the timeframe may not line up. After all, he was down from his native Nashua, New Hampshire, to meet a business client, and Google tells me that’s a good four hour trip in the modern day by car. A 1966 bus was probably taking it even slower than that. Did he really have a meeting with a client in New York City that afternoon and then immediately scurry back up to Nashua? Its not impossible, but maybe a tad improbable. Nevertheless, that’s his story, so we are sticking to it.

Whether this brainstorm happened on August 30 or August 31 though is really a minor matter of little consequence. A more important statement to analyze is the claim I make at the end of this little vignette: “But Baer was the first person to suggest creating an interactive entertainment experience by conveying game data to a display through use of a video signal, so even though he never used the term in any of his subsequent documentation or patents, he is nevertheless the progenitor of what we now call the video game.”

So there it is right? Extra, extra read all about it! Alexander Smith says Ralph Baer invented the video game! Baer himself would have certainly been pleased to see those words in print had he lived long enough to see this book published, as he always claimed the mantle “Father of Video Games” and defended that title against all comers. Repeatedly. And in detail. I don’t begrudge him any of that: the man was absolutely a key cog in the transformation of video games from backroom lab experiments to mass market entertainment, and he lived in the shadow of Nolan Bushnell much longer than he deserved. But did he really, truly invent the video game or have a valid claim to its paternity? Well, despite my glib pronouncement in the prologue of the book, the answer is a little more complicated.

Ralph Baer (L) and Bill Harrison demonstrate their video game prototype. Are they the proud parents of the video game?

Before ruling on Baer’s case, we must decide what the heck constitutes a video game anyway. Ralph Baer would tell us there is a simple technical definition we can go by: if you are playing a game on a screen and that game data was conveyed to said screen by a video signal, then you have a video game; otherwise you don’t.

So then what is a video signal? A video signal is a modulated electromagnetic wave that conveys image data, with the frequency of the wave determining the chrominance, or color, of the image and the amplitude defining the luma, or brightness. This signal provides instructions to the cathode ray tube (CRT) of a television, which focuses a stream of electrons on a single point on a phosphor-coated screen, causing a sustained glow at that point. A magnetic field generated by coils within the CRT allows this beam of electrons to sweep back and forth across the entire screen, one horizontal line at a time, to create a complete picture from this collection of individual dots according to the parameters of the incoming signal. This is the process Baer is describing when he tells us a video game must, by definition, use a video signal.

Right away, Baer’s definition presents a problem by excluding a set of early products that were widely defined by the public and within the industry as video games in their own time: coin-operated vector games like Atari’s Asteroids (1979). The graphics in these games are drawn by a vector generator that takes direct control of the CRT and instructs it to aim at a specific point on the screen and then move on a specific vector until a command is given to deflect the beam in a different direction. The CRT is still receiving and responding to a signal, but it’s not a video signal. There is no doubt, however, that even the most conservative modern definition of a video game would include Asteroids, so Baer’s simple straightforward technical definition must already be set aside.

According to Baer, this is not a video game.

But once we open up the definition, where do we stop? Well, we have to include the vector games clearly, so it logically follows that any time a player interacts with images drawn by a CRT, it counts as a video game. But why stop at a CRT? Modern video games played on a high-definition television or monitor hooked up to a PlayStation 5 or an IBM PC Compatible certainly must count too. While Baer hews to an old-school definition of a video signal that presumes an analog system, digital displays are also driven by a video signal, albeit in a slightly different way. The prime difference between the two is that a digital signal consists of a series of ones and zeroes that provide instructions to draw a complete bitmapped image all at once rather than the analog method in which the image is drawn one scanline at a time. These digital images are pulsed to the television at a specific, constant frequency that determines how many times a second the display will be updated with a new image, the so-called “frame rate” as measured in frames per second (FPS) that is the obsession of high-end graphics connoisseurs. Its still video, so it counts.

So now we know we have a video game whenever someone interacts with objects on a screen, right? Well, not exactly. One problem with merely focusing on the screen is that in the coin-op world, games with “screens” of one form or another existed as early as the 1920s through the use of film projectors. What do we do with driving simulators like Auto Test (1954), shooting games like Nintendo’s Wild Gunman (1974), or even the Nutting Associates Computer Quiz (1967), all of which use a film projector to display images with which the player interacts?

Is Computer Quiz a video game? It has a screen.

Furthermore, what do we do with old computer games that outputted data to a teletype or some other display that does not incorporate a screen? Baer would tell us these are “computer games” rather than “video games” and that these are overlapping, but not identical, categories. Practically speaking, this feels like a meaningless distinction. After all, if one plays Adventure (1977) on a teletype instead of a CRT terminal, is this truly a different experience considering the computer executes the same code and the game proceeds in an identical manner either way?

Fellow video game historian Ethan Johnson and I pondered this topic at length, and he came up with a critical discriminating element. He did a whole blog post about this, but the relevant portion is as follows:

“[R]ather than needing a certain sort of signal, a display for a video game must be arbitrary. This means the display as a whole has to have a direct relation to the program underlying it and is able to achieve a number of different states rather than just “on” or “off”. In the early tic-tac-toe games for instance, while an individual state of a square only has a boolean value, the board as a whole has hundreds of different possible outcomes which are ultimately not pre-determined. The individual state of a screen in Computer Quiz only has two possible variables: Light on or light off, and therefore can not be said to be using a display in the same way as video games.”

Well that does for Computer Quiz at least, but it does not necessarily answer the question for a more complex game like Wild Gunman, and it only gets us a little closer to solving the conundrum of games on early computer systems that lacked a CRT. Furthermore, by opening up our definition to include all computer games with an arbitrary display, we are forced to address how to treat analog computing devices like the Nimatron displayed in 1940 at the World’s Fair, or Claude Shannon’s chess-playing Caissac machine from 1949. These are unquestionably both computers that play games, but does that really make them video games too? Do we now extend the history of video games all the way back to 1912 and the Spanish El Ajedrecista chess-playing automaton? Clearly, we need to establish some other limiting criteria.

El Ajedrecista, the analog computer that could figure out how to mate a lone king with a king and a rook. Is this the beginning of video games?

The easiest way to distinguish these edge cases from video games is to distinguish between the internal components that generate the game elements. A game like Wild Gunman uses electro-mechanical components, that is wipers, switches, and contacts facilitate the completion of electrical circuits to create playfield action by powering relays, steppers, and other mechanical parts. All video games by the Baer definition, including his own Magnavox Odyssey and Atari’s Pong (1972), use electronic components instead, with streams of electrons directed through a series of logic gates determining what happens over the course of the game. This allows us to distinguish not only electro-mechanical coin-operated games with screens from video games, but also allows us to remove early electro-mechanical analog computing devices from the equation.

Now that we have defined two critical technological elements, we need to add a couple of conceptual components to complete our working definition of the term video game. First, we need to define the user’s place in this interplay between logic circuits and a display. The easiest way to do this is focus on the commonly accepted definition of “playing a game,” which requires active participants rather than passive viewers. For video games, this means the game needs to unfold through direct user interaction via a control scheme allowing the players to directly manipulate objects on the display. There is really no need to elaborate on this element any further: so long as this interaction is happening, the how of it is unimportant.

Finally, we need to define exactly what interactions between a user, some electronic logic, and a display constitute playing a game. If we don’t, then a word processor or a DVD menu is just as much a video game as Pong. The best we can do here is define a video game, which is generally understood to be a leisure activity, as a product intended to provide entertainment. This is the most subjective part of our definition because different people find different things entertaining and even a DVD menu could be turned into a game by a particularly bored individual. The best we can do is point to the intrinsic purpose of the product as determined by authorial intent. If the program was produced or marketed with the primary goal of entertaining a person, then its a game. If the entertainment value is secondary to serving some other function, then it’s not. This is not a perfect test. For example, a product primarily designed to educate might also be deliberately crafted to entertain to hold the user’s interest. More work needs to be done on this element of the definition to clarify gray areas, but I will leave that for others to work out.

Now we have a serviceable, though still imperfect, definition of a video game that eliminates many, though not all, of the edge cases: A video game is an entertainment product played on a device containing electronic logic circuits in which the players interact with objects rendered on an arbitrary display.

Sorry Nimatron, you are not a video game.

So now that we have identified the child, who is the father? There are a few ways to look at this. One is to employ our newly articulated definition and look for the first product that meets all these criteria. That might lead us to 1947 and the prototype cathode-ray tube amusement device (CRTAD) patented by Estle Ray Mann and Thomas Goldsmith. I personally feel CRTAD does not really hold together under our definition of a video game, but that is a discussion for another time and another annotation. Regardless, I feel comfortable ruling that these two engineers are not the fathers because they probably never built a finished product, certainly never displayed the system publicly, and did not influence any of the projects that came afterwards. By the same logic, we can also dismiss the dueling chess AIs created by Michie and Turing in 1948, which were complete computer programs on paper, but were never implemented on an actual computer.

So if the first conceived games do not make the cut, what about the first fully operational and publicly displayed product? That would lead us to Bertie the Brain, a custom tic-tac-toe computer built by Josef Kates and demoed in 1950. There is no doubt that this is the earliest known publicly played device that meets all our criteria for a video game, but is being first really all its cracked up to be? Bertie was displayed at a single Canadian trade show and received virtually no press. It may have been played by a decent number of people — the show draws over one million attendees every year — but it did not stick in the collective memory and was only rediscovered by scholars in the 2010s. Furthermore, it was solely intended to demonstrate the workings of a new type of vacuum tube and was not marketed as a new form of entertainment. Once again, I think our father — an appropriate term only because all our early pioneers in this field were men — needs to do more than bring a simulation into the world; he needs to understand he is creating something that could change the face of entertainment. Clearly, Kates wanted the attendees to be entertained while using his computer, but that is not quite the same thing.

Sorry Messieurs Goldsmith, Turing, Michie, and Kates. You are not the father.

So how about that master of physics and entertainment, “Wonderful Willie” Higinbotham? There is a solid case to be made that his tennis game, retroactively dubbed Tennis for Two (1958) by historians, marked the first time a video game was created solely to entertain the public. Therefore, he is our first real contender for the title “father of video games.” Once again though, I believe we need to exclude him because he did not start a wider movement. Our father is no good to us if his child failed to have children of its own.

So what about the first entertainment program that could be acquired by the general public? Right now, the earliest known game to fit that definition is a baseball simulation created by IBM employee John Burgeson in 1960-61 and briefly requestable as part of the program library for the IBM 1620 computer before being withdrawn from the catalog in 1963. There are a couple of problems here. First, this program only barely meets our definition of a video game because the only player interaction happens at the beginning when creating a team by selecting from a pool of players. More importantly, it appeared and vanished so quickly that it failed to have any sort of impact.

Then maybe its Steve Russell et al. and their Spacewar! (1962), which certainly achieved popularity across a select group of universities and research institutions and itself birthed the first commercial video game, Computer Space (1971)? Now I think we are getting closer. Baer would discount this game because it uses a point-plotting display, which functions in essentially the same manner as a vector monitor except that instead of drawing lines it draws each point individually. As Baer might say, “no video signal, no video game.” But we have already moved past that narrow definition. The main strike against the game is that it did remain confined to a small number of locations and was not commercialized. One could argue that since video games did not capture the imagination of the general public until commercial models were available that anyone could gain access to for a reasonable price, then our father needs to be someone that brought video games into the mass market. I find that argument flimsy, but it can be made.

Sorry Willie, you are not the father. Steve, we’ll get back to you…

So now we come at last to the final two contenders, Ralph Baer and Nolan Bushnell. Among the general public, I think the debate really comes down to just these two. The controversy over which of them birthed the video game has literally existed for as long as people have written about video game history, with Steven Bloom’s monograph Video Invaders debating this very topic as early as 1982. Both have strong claims to the title. Nolan Bushnell came to market first with Computer Space, but Ralph Baer started work on his system earlier and had largely completed it by 1968. Bushnell also debuted the first successful product, Pong, but the game only came about because he saw the table tennis game on the Odyssey.

Which person one prefers really depends on how you define the parameters. Is it first conceived that matters or first released? Is it enough to dream up a system, or does said system also need to capture the public’s imagination? Certainly Baer and Bushnell themselves expended most of their energy trying to prove who came up with the idea of commercializing video games first during a series of patent lawsuits in the 1970s. Baer, with that meticulous streak, was able to provide a plethora of verified documentation from 1966-72 elucidating every step along the way from initial spark to final product. Bushnell could only counter this by claiming he wrote a paper in college in the 1960s about playing games on a computer after he saw Spacewar!. When asked to submit the paper as evidence, he proved unable to do so. The courts rightly sided with Baer, but winning a patent suit is not quite the same thing as winning a paternity suit.

Clash of the Titans. Ralph Baer and Nolan Bushnell duke it out for the title Father of Video Games in this drawing by Howard Cruse found in the book Video Invaders by Steve Bloom.

So now that we have a video game definition and a list of the major contenders for our parental figure, is Ralph Baer the “progenitor of what we now call the video game”? Not really. I feel the video game really has two sets of parents, Russell and friends, who created the first video game to gain a significant following across multiple installations, and Bushnell and his partner Ted Dabney, who were inspired by the work of the Russell group to engineer the first commercial video game product. This leaves Baer the odd man out despite the pride of place I gave him in the book. Baer himself would have certainly not been pleased to see these words in print had he lived long enough to see this blog post published. That said, he really was the first person to follow through on the idea that manipulating objects on a standard television set could be fun; he was the first person to realize it was possible to create a hardware system to do so that was cheap enough it could be commercialized for home use, and he worked out how to interface this hardware system with a television set using an RF modulator and a video signal. These were the building blocks upon which the entire home video game industry was built, and that in itself is a monumental achievement. So while I am not entirely comfortable calling Baer the “father of video games,” I will gladly cede him the title “father of the video game console” and give him pride of place at the beginning of my three-volume history. Baer’s bus stop brainstorm may not have been the beginning, but there is no doubt it was quite a beginning.

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.

Announcing a New Regular Feature: Worldly Wednesdays!

No, your eyes do not deceive you, its a new blog post in 2021! I started this blog many years ago after a couple of false starts at writing a book as a way to jumpstart my writing process, organize my sources, and get a sense of what topics I would need to cover to write a comprehensive video game history. I updated it semi-regularly for a time, but once I actually secured a book deal, I knew I could not write detailed blog posts and three 600 page books simultaneously. Therefore, the blog languished as I focused my attention on both the books and my video game history podcast (new episodes twice a month without fail since 2015).

Now that my first book has been out for just over a year, I am ready to return to the blog with a new regular feature. One week from today, I will post the first of what should be a regular weekly column I am calling “Worldly Wednesdays.” In this column, I will provide a series of annotations for my book, They Create Worlds: The Story of the People and Companies That Shaped the Video Game Industry. These essays will be deep dives into my research in which I further expand on where my information came from, where and why I agreed with or strayed from the existing historical record, and where the historical record is so convoluted its difficult to determine what actually happened. They will also serve as errata for the book, as I am constantly developing new sources and learning new information about video game history.

While these annotations will follow the structure of the book, they will be written as deep dives into specific topics in video game history, so it will not be necessary to own the book or follow along with its text to find value in the blog posts. I look forward to starting this new journey with all of you next week!