Historical Interlude: The History of Coin-Op Part 4, From Sportlands to Playlands

Pinball ruled the roost of the 1930s arcade, selling in numbers that no other coin-operated amusement could approach, but it was hardly alone.  Sports games, shooting games, athletic machines, crane games, and a whole host of other exotic contraptions continued to exist alongside pin tables under the catch-all categories of “novelty amusements” or “arcade pieces.”  After pinball’s decline in the 1950s due to bingo machines, gambling stigma, and the Johnson Act, many of these products came out from pinball’s shadow to take center stage in the industry.  Pinball did not vanish, of course, continuing to contribute significant revenues, but it was no longer the dominant game in production.  Instead, it was the novelty products that drove the industry, with new concepts like shuffle alleys and bumper pool briefly taking the market by storm and then being superseded by the next big thing.  At the same time, the decline of the inner city and the rise of suburbia coupled with the onset of the Baby Boomer generation signaled a shift in arcade venues once again.  While the big inner city arcades did not disappear entirely, by the end of the 1950s coin-operated amusements had dispersed across fun spots like bowling alleys and skating rinks and shopping venues like department stores and discount houses while exhibiting a new focus on children’s entertainment.  This helped precipitate a period of rapid consolidation that left only five major producers of coin-operated games by 1965.

This is part four in a six part series examining the history of the arcade industry from its earliest days until the dawn of the video game era. Principle sources this time around were Automatic Pleasures by Nic Costa, Arcade 1: Illustrated Historical Guide to Arcade Machines by Richard Bueschel and Steve Gronowski, numerous articles in Billboard Magazine from the 1950s and 1960s, the website pinrepair.com. and the forthcoming book All In Color For a Quarter to be published by Keith Smith (no relation).

Bats, Balls, Pins, and Pucks


The playfield of All American Baseball, the first pitch-and-bat style coin-operated baseball game

The first novelty games to achieve prominence in the late 1920s were the floor-model sports cabinets like the Chester-Pollard football and golf games that fueled the new Sportland arcade.  This genre enjoyed its peak popularity between 1927 and 1931, after which the high cost of the cabinets and the nickel playing price left an opening for the penny play pinball machines to begin their rise to dominance.  Nevertheless, new sports games would continue to appear from time to time during the Depression, complimenting the pinball and crane games that dominated the decade.  After World War II, with pinball on the decline and crane games banned entirely by the Johnson Act, sports games began appearing in greater numbers, although they were never one of the main selling points of the arcade.  While at least one game for just about every popular sport in the U.S. was released over the next two decades, the most widely emulated sport was baseball.

The first known coin-operated baseball game was created by Californian George Miner in 1929.  Both an avid baseball fan and an accomplished coin-op engineer, Miner combined his interests in the All American Baseball Game.  Clearly inspired by the Chester-Pollard output, All American Baseball featured manikins displayed in a large wooden cabinet and a bat controlled by a lever similar to the one on the Play Football game.  Holes in front of each fielder represented outs, while a series of troughs along the back of the cabinet represented everything from a foul ball to a home run.  For a nickel, the player could keep swinging at balls until he made three outs.  Miner established the Amusement Machine Corporation of America in Nevada in 1930 to sell the game, but in 1931, he sold the rights to Harry Williams when the sports game market went south.  Williams remained enamored with baseball games for the rest of his career and became one of the principle drivers of the market both before and after establishing the Williams Manufacturing Company in 1943.  In 1935, after he joined Bally, he and Miner prepared to create an updated version of All American Baseball for the company, but these plans were cut short when Miner died in a plane crash on October 7.  When Williams moved to Rockola in 1937, however, he brought the Miner patents and tooling with him and created World Series 1937, which proved a modest hit.

After World War II, Bally ushered in a new era of baseball games in 1947 with Heavy Hitter, for which it purchased the rights from its inventor, a Royal Oak, Michigan, cab driver named Jimmy Keller.  Key to the new game’s popularity was the fast, unpredictable delivery of the ball, accomplished through a mechanism that launched it from under the table.  Several imitations followed from companies like Gottlieb and United, but the Williams Manufacturing Company seized leadership of the genre.  Beginning with a game called Box Score in 1947, Williams manufactured a new baseball game nearly every year through 1973.  Innovations by Williams over those twenty-five years include the first “running man” unit, which circled the bases as the player recorded hits, on Super World Series in 1951, one of the earliest games with multiple pitch types, Deluxe Short Stop, in 1958, the first game to allow additional playing time for reaching a certain score, Extra Innings, in 1962, and the first game to use electronic sound, Action Baseball, in 1971.  United remained a close competitor and often copied Williams innovations, though quite possibly with the permission of Harry Williams himself seeing as he and United owner Lyndon Durant were old friends.


Ten Strike, a popular manikin bowling game from H.C. Evans and Company

While baseball remained the most enduring sports game of the period, manikin cabinets devoted to other games appeared from time to time.  One of the most popular — both before and after World War II — was a bowling game called Ten Strike produced by H.C. Evans Company.  Originally founded by Edwin Hood in 1892 as a carnival supplier, H.C. Evans became a pioneer of console gambling games under the founder’s son, Dick Hood, with the wildly popular Galloping Dominoes unit in 1936.  By 1939, Evans was really feeling the heat of the anti-gambling lobby and decided to produce a console game incorporating skill-based elements, which led to the development of Ten Strike.  In this game, the player uses a knob to position the arm on a mannikin holding a steel ball and then presses a button to launch the ball at a set of miniature bowling pins.  The game remained in continuous production from 1939 to 1953 — with the exception of the war years — and entered production again in 1957 as the two-player variants Ten Pins and Ten Strike from Williams after that company bought the rights from Evans in 1955.

Another company to invest heavily in sports games was International Mutoscope, known for being one of the premiere innovators in the field of coin-operated novelty machines.  In the early 1940s, the company deployed the earliest known coin-operated hockey game, Play Hockey.  Presaging the the ball-and-paddle video games that rose to prominence in 1973, this game placed two players in control of manikin hockey goalies at either end of a long table.  Each player could swing his goalie’s stick by rotating a knob, and the objective was to knock a ball into the opposing player’s goal.  In 1948, the company deployed another unusual sports game, a boxing title called Silver Gloves.  In this game, each player controls a boxer through a lever that allows him to move left and right and a trigger that allows him to punch.  The goal is to knock the opposing player’s boxer down.


Goalee, a hockey game by Chicago Coin

Perhaps the company that experienced the greatest success with non-baseball manikin sports games was Chicago Coin.  The story of Chicago Coin is intimately tied to that of Genco, as the founder was yet another brother of the three men that established that company and was actually responsible for getting the family into the industry in the first place.  Samuel H. Gensburg was born in Russia in 1893, but the family immigrated to the United States when he was three years old and settled in Pittsburgh.  A natural businessman, Gensburg helped out in his father’s grocery store for a time until he decided he wanted to open his own store at sixteen.  Before long, his store was outperforming his father’s, and he opened a second store the next year followed by a nickelodeon cinema the year after that when he was just eighteen.  At roughly age 20, Gensburg left Pittsburgh to seek new opportunities in the Western United States, but those plans ended in Chicago when he met, fell in love with, and ultimately married Dora Wolberg in 1919.  He worked as an order filler for Sears for a time and then moved to Iowa to run a grocery store.

Eight years later, Sam learned about a company up in Milwaukee that had installed a
coin-operated machine that vended Hershey bars and decided to install one in his store. When it proved successful, he bought 100 of the machines and relocated to Chicago to place them in bars and taverns in partnership with his brother, Dave.  In 1929 or 1930, the Gensburg brothers were introduced to the Little Whirlwind machine developed by coin-op innovator Howard Peo.  Like the early pinball games, Little Whirlwind was a countertop unit in which the player launched steel balls onto a playfield and hoped they landed in scoring holes, but it had a vertical orientation rather than a horizontal one and featured spiral lanes rather than pins, taking inspiration from the allwin gambling games currently popular in Europe.  Figuring the game would be a nice addition to his route, Sam contacted another of his brothers, Louis, a manufacturer of prizes for Cracker Jack boxes, who built a copy of Peo’s game called Hearts that the Gensburg brothers sold for a cheaper price.  When Peo threatened legal action, the trio brought in a cousin who had invented an electric pencil sharpener and a bicycle coaster brake, to build a new version that did not run afoul of Peo’s patents.  Based on this arrangement, Louis, David, and their brother Meyer established Genco in 1931, while Sam joined with his brother-in-law, Sam Wohlberg, and a third partner named Lou Koren, to establish a trade-in business for used coin-op machines dubbed the Chicago Coin Machine Exchange.

Before long, Sam decided that he could make better pinball machines than his brothers and established Chicago Dynamic Industries as a manufacturer of games marketed under the Chicago Coin name.  The company started making replacement boards for popular existing games like Ballyhoo before deploying its first original pin table, Blackstone, in 1933.  Two years later, the company experienced success with Beam-Lite, the first pinball game with a lighted playfield and a 5,000-unit seller.  Like Genco, Chicago Coin prided itself on improving on the ideas of others rather than making important technological innovations itself, so the company rarely had a leading game in the market.  One of its pingames, however, a 1947 flipperless release called Kilroy, sold a remarkable 8,800 units, the most of any pin game between World War II and the first licensed games of the mid 1970s.

In addition to pinball, Chicago Coin aggressively entered every novelty category in existence, which guaranteed that even though few of its products were leaders in their field, the company remained generally successful based on the sheer volume of its output.  Therefore, it is no surprise that the company quickly embraced sports games after World War II.  In 1946, Chicago Coin released a game called Goalee [sic], an enhancement of the International Mutoscope Play Hockey game that replaced the dials with levers and included an electric motor, thereby allowing a single player to challenge a hardware-controlled opponent.  Popular for years after its debut, Goalee brought Chicago Coin over half a million dollars in revenue.  The next year, the company expanded its sport line into basketball with Basketball Champ, in which one player controlled a player trying to make a shot on the basket and the other player controlled a defender attempting to block the shot.  While manikin sports games like these achieved some popularity, however, it was larger table sports games that fueled a new expansion of coin-operated amusements into bars and taverns in the 1950s.

Bowling, Bumper Pool, and Shooting Galleries


Shuffle Alley from the United Manufacturing Company, which ushered in a whole new category of coin-operated amusements

The decline of pinball in the postwar era was not just due to the game being outlawed in major markets like New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago.  Just as damaging was the continuing stigmatization of the game as a front for organized crime due to the production of payout models such as Bally’s bingo games.  As a result, many legitimate businesses were hesitant to allow any pingames on their premises, denying distributors and operators the same access to bars and taverns they had enjoyed during the Depression.  Therefore, coin-operated amusement manufacturers urgently needed to develop new table games to stay relevant in postwar America.  The solution to this problem came from Lyn Durant and his United Manufacturing Company, which had the good fortune to develop a new type of game just as a new fad began sweeping the country.

In October 1949, United deployed a bowling game called Shuffle Alley in which the player launched a small metal-cased object similar to a hockey puck down an eight-foot lane to trigger switches on the playing field that would cause suspended pins to retract to simulate being knocked down.   Similar coin-operated games had appeared as far back as the 1890s, but had never really caught on in a big way before.  This time, however, things were different.  For one, United melded its bowling game with some of the most popular features of the pinball table such as electromechanical engineering, totalizer scoring, and a colorful, lighted backglass.  More importantly, however, American Machine and Foundry (AMF), a major defense contractor looking to diversify its business, deployed the first automatic pinsetter for bowling alleys in 1951.  Spurred by this innovation, bowling quickly became one of the most popular competitive sports in the United States, and new bowling alleys opened across the nation.  With bowling so popular, bar owners that would never think of hosting a pinball table due to their sinister reputation were soon clamoring to have a shuffle alley in their establishments.  United sold over 10,000 units of its Shuffle Alley  game and was quickly joined in the market by other companies like Chicago Coin and Genco, but the dominant company in the field was Bally, which by the mid-1950s was releasing a new game every other month in a variety of configurations to fit the needs of bars and taverns of all shapes and sizes. Although introduction of new models declined after 1955 as the market neared saturation, shuffle alleys continued to be produced into the 1990s.

Just as the shuffle alley began to decline, another new concept appeared to keep the tavern market going.  Before the Great Depression, the game of pocket billiards had been one of the most popular table games in the United States.  So popular, in fact, that in the late nineteenth century betting parlors — called “poolrooms” at the time — often featured billiard tables so patrons could pass the time between horse races.  As a result, Americans soon began referring to the game of pocket billiards as pool.  During the Depression, pool entered a long period of decline that continued after World War II and did not end until the 1960s.  In the meantime, manufacturers looked for other ways to keep the pool table relevant.

In May 1955, a Bay City, Michigan, company called Valley Manufacturing, originally established as a shuffleboard manufacturer in 1944, introduced a new billiards game called bumper pool.  Rather than featuring pockets around the perimeter of the table, this game features just two holes set into either end of the table, one for each player.  Upon inserting a dime, each player is provided a cue stick and five balls, which he has to shoot into the hole on his opponent’s side of the table.  In the middle of the table are eight strategically placed bumpers to make shots more difficult.  In 1954, no coin-operated pool games had been introduced into the market, but after Valley’s game took off, a whopping thirty games debuted before the end of the year.  In 1956, the number of new games jumped to 52, by far the most models introduced of any type of amusement machine that year.  Subsequently, the number of new bumper pool models declined precipitously as the brief fad ended.  In 1957, however, both Valley and another firm called Fischer Manufacturing put a coin slot on a traditional six pocket pool table, bringing coin control to the standard billiards industry.  As interest in pool revived in the 1960s, coin-freed pool tables became one of the pillars of the coin-operated amusement industry.


Air Raider from J.H. Keeney and Company, a popular target shooting game during World War II

Another game that experienced increasing popularity both during the Depression and in the post-war period was the coin-operated target shooting game, in which a player uses a gun-shaped controller to aim and shoot at targets.  Shooting galleries were a popular destination in Victorian England, so it should come as no surprise that the earliest coin-operated rifle games appeared — like so many other coin-operated machines — in Great Britain in the 1880s and 1890s.  The earliest known game of this type, in which inserting a coin would release the firing mechanism on an actual rifle that fired either pellets or real bullets, was created by Englishman William Reynolds in 1887, but it proved unsuccessful.  Over the next several years, innovations in the field centered around the countertop trade stimulator models until the next major breakthrough in full-sized target shooting, the electric rifle, was patented by Englishman J.L. McCullogh in 1896.  This rifle did not fire a projectile, but could be attached to a target via wires and register hits by determining the position of the gun relative to the target through the use of wipers and contacts.  Popular in both Great Britain and the United States at the turn of the twentieth century, electric rifle games ultimately faded from the public consciousness as the arcade fell out of favor in the 1910s.

In the mid 1920s, the electric rifle returned to prominence in the United States thanks to the efforts of William Gent.  Born in Rockford Illinois in 1871, Gent entered the coin-operated machine business in 1903 through the Buffalo firm of Mark Wagner & Company.  In 1906, Gent moved to Cleveland to become the manager of the United Vending Machine Company, which was reorganized as the William Gent Vending Machine Company in 1917.  As coin-operated games returned to prominence in the 1920s, Gent, by then one of the most influential entrepreneurs in the coin-op industry, decided to redesign the old electric rifle concept by replacing the plain circular target on a cast-iron lollipop stand with a wooden cabinet featuring an array of targets such as ducks that “quacked” when hit and planes with propellers that would spin when they were shot.  Gent marketed this game as the Electric Rifle.

In 1929, a Canadian inventor named Henry Clavir created his own twist on the shooting game with Radio Rifle, the first game to employ targets projected on a screen.  In this game, a rifle sits atop a large metal box housing a roll of film and a projector.  Upon the insertion of a nickel, the projector turns on and beams the top image on the film roll onto a surface.  The player receives five shots, and each time he pulls the trigger, a needle inside the machine synced to the position of the gun punctures the film, which looks like a bullet hole on the projected image.  After the player takes all his shots, the machine cuts the target off the film roll and vends it to the player as a souvenir.


The Rayolite Rifle Range, perhaps the first target shooting game utilizing a light gun

Gun games using contacts and needles were ultimately superseded by guns using light sensing technology.  The earliest patent for a light gun was filed in 1920 by an Englishman named W.G. Patterson, but he appears not to have created any games based on his invention.  Instead, a small Tulsa, Oklahoma, firm called the Rayolite Rifle Range Company pioneered the light gun game.  Established in 1934, the company was built around the Ray-O-Lite System, patented by Charles Griffith in the same year the company was founded, in which a specially-made gun shoots a narrow beam of light when the trigger is pulled that is picked up by a solar cell attached to a target to register a “hit” on the object.  The company created the Rayolite Rifle Range around this system with a duck as the target, which was manufactured starting in 1935 by the Seeburg Corporation.  When the game proved successful, Seeburg continued to create other popular light gun games over the next decade and a half such as Chicken Sam (1939), Shoot the Bear (1947), and Coon Hunt (1952).

With World War II looming in Europe by the end of the 1930s, the light gun reached the apex of its popularity as games with a military theme took center stage, led by the releases of J.H. Keeney and Company.  In 1939, Keeney deployed Anti-Aircraft Machine Gun, which featured a large metal machine gun replica and targets projected onto a screen. The game proved so popular that a number of variants were released over the next two years such as Air Raider and Shoot Your Way to Tokyo.  Meanwhile, Seeburg created war-themed variants of its popular Chicken Sam game like Trap the Jap and Hit the Siamese Rats. The popularity of these light gun games peaked in early 1942, after which the production of new amusement machines was curtailed by the entry of the United States into the war.  Light gun games failed to enjoy the same success after the war, superseded by a new gun game concept pioneered by an engineer named Eldon Dale.


An early Dale gun game manufactured by the Exhibit Supply Company

A native of Missouri living in Long Beach, California, Dale developed his own twist on the old electric rifle game by having the gun swivel on a stand attached to a metal rod extending under a greatly truncated playfield. If the player lined up the rifle perfectly with a target, the metal rod would touch it, and a pull of the trigger would complete a circuit to register a hit. To give the illusion of a large playing area within the small cabinet, Dale used a mirror to reflect the targets in a manner similar to a submarine periscope.  Before the Dale system, both light gun and electric rifle games required a great deal of space to place enough distance between the player and the target, making them suitable only for larger venues.  The Dale game, however, fit in a cabinet no larger than a pinball table, making gun games suitable for a variety of locations.

Dale created his gun game at his own Eldon Dale Manufacturing Company, but it was released nationally by the Exhibit Supply Company as Shooting Gallery in March 1950.  Once the game was in the field, however, Exhibit discovered that the Dale mechanism could easily shock the player, so the company redesigned it and released a whole line of games in October 1950 featuring the same basic setup but different themes and cabinet art.  Before long, Genco and United were making versions of the Dale gun game as well.  Production of Dale games peaked in 1954, a year in which fifteen different gun games were released and manufacturers built over 7,000 cabinets in just seven months.  Although fewer games were produced per year after that, target shooting games remained an important draw not just at arcades, but at a wide variety of new venues that began appearing by the end of the 1950s.

Fun Spots and Playlands


Gun games and a sound recording booth at the Wonderland Arcade in Kansas City, Missouri, 1968

Throughout the 1950s, the United States experienced great population shifts as the development of the Interstate Highway system and the rise of an automobile-centric culture led many families to leave life in the big city for rapidly developing suburban communities.  As a result, traditional arcades once again entered a period of decline, trapped as they were in newly blighted inner city neighborhoods.  Simultaneously, as the youth population of the United States exploded through the onset of the Baby Boomer generation, all manner of new entertainment venues opened their doors in suburbia such as bowling alleys, roller and ice skating rinks, public swimming pools, drive-in theaters, and amusement parks.  Collectively referred to as “fun spots,” there were an estimated 21,093 such venues around the country by 1958 taking in $2 billion annually.  With the inner city arcade once again falling by the wayside and many bars only amenable to select pieces like shuffle alleys, these fun spots were vitally important to the continued well-being of the coin-operated amusement industry.

During the Depression, coin-operated amusements had catered to adults looking to forget their troubles for an hour or two through the relatively cheap thrills of the penny arcade.  With amusements expanding heavily into fun spots in the 1950s, however, the emphasis shifted to providing fun for the whole family — and especially for children.  Therefore, sports games, gun games, driving games, ball bowlers (a variation on the shuffle alley first introduced by United in 1956 that sported longer lanes and miniature balls rather than pucks), snack vending machines, and novelty pieces like instant photo booths and voice recorders all played an increasingly prominent role in the industry.  Perhaps the greatest indicator of the importance of children to the new amusement arcade, however, was the rapid development of a new segment of the business during the decade, the kiddie ride.

In 1931, Otto Hahs, owner of the Hahs Machine Works in Sikeston, Missouri, decided to build a mechanical horse to entertain his children.  Before long, children from around the neighborhood were showing up in droves to ride this contraption, so Hahs decided to attach a coin chute and a timer to turn it into a commercial product.  Hahs experienced some success in selling his rides to arcades and amusement parks — as well as exhibitors at the 1933 Chicago and 1939-40 New York World’s Fairs — but they remained a niche attraction.  In 1949, however, the Exhibit Supply Company engaged Hahs to design kiddie rides that it would mass produce, signalling a new phase in the business.

Initially, Exhibit followed Hahs’s lead in selling the rides to amusement parks and arcades, but the company soon felt that a better target for the product would be department stores, which generally hosted rides such as trains, boats, and ferris wheels in their toy sections during the Christmas season to lure in holiday shoppers.  Store owners were skeptical at first, but a 22-year-old entrepreneur named Matty Carbone ultimately convinced the Chicago department stores Goldblatt and Weiboldt to install a few kiddie horse rides, which proved to be a great draw, often taking in $100 per horse per week.  Other stores quickly installed their own rides, and by 1953 there were 8,200 kiddie rides in operation around the country, mostly horses, but also other conveyances like cars, boats, and rocket ships.  Exhibit Supply remained a leading firm, but Bally invested heavily in kiddie rides as well.  By 1959, the popularity of kiddie rides and similar amusements had paved the way for yet another new arcade venue, the playland, which would be situated in a high traffic area of a department store, discount house, or shopping center and offer a full range of coin-operated rides and games aimed at children.

Hank Ross

Hank Ross, co-founder of the Midway Manufacturing Company

The new demand for arcade pieces to fill fun spots and playlands aided the growth of the last significant coin-operated amusement manufacturer founded before the dawn of the video game era, and the first such company since the start of the Great Depression not established to focus on pinball.  Mechanical engineer Marcine Wolverton, who went by “Iggy” because many people considered Marcine to be a girl’s name, designed aircraft ordinance during World War II and then entered the coin-op industry after its conclusion, briefly working at jukebox maker Wurlitzer before landing at the United Manufacturing Company.  In 1947, he was joined there by electrical engineer Hank Ross, who had previously worked for Exhibit Supply.  When United began to encounter difficulties in the late 1950s, Wolverton and Ross, regarded as two of the company’s top designers, decided to strike out on their own.  Scraping together $5,000 dollars, they formed an equal partnership in October 1958 based in the Chicago suburb of Franklin Park, Illinois, called the Midway Manufacturing Company, named for the nearby Midway Airport.

Wolverton and Ross planned to survive as a small company in the highly competitive coin-op industry through a low overhead factory operation that would allow them to undercut competitors on price.  To that end, they leased a small 5,000 square foot manufacturing facility and fabricated most of their factory installations and game parts themselves.  Working long hours at the plant during the day, both men also attended night school to brush up on business.  In January 1959, the duo began production of their first game, a shuffleboard with a rebound feature called Bumper Shuffle, followed in May by a unique game called Red Ball in which the player presses buttons to launch balls at a bingo-style play field in the hopes of arranging them in various configurations to score points.  In 1960, the company scored its first major hit with a pellet shooting game called Shooting Gallery and thereafter focused largely on gun games and pitch-and-bat baseball games, also adding a shuffle alley line in 1966 after moving to a larger facility in nearby Schiller Park.  In 1964, Midway introduced two important innovations to Dale-style shooting games through a wild west themed game called Rifle Champ, automatic speed control that causes the targets to speed up as the player scores more points and targets that appear to glow through the use of fluorescent paint and a black light.   Glowing targets became standard in most target shooting games going forward, one of the few major innovations in an industry beginning to show signs of stagnation.  By 1965, Midway’s innovative game designs and manufacturing skill had brought the company enough success that the trade press recognized the firm as one of the “big five” manufacturers of coin-operated amusements alongside Gottlieb, Bally, Williams, and Chicago Coin, the only significant companies to survive — and sometimes just barely at that — a brutal shakeout of the industry in the late 1950s.

Historical Interlude: The History of Coin-Op Part 3, Pinball

Many novelties, attractions, and games have graced the arcade over the course of 140 years, from peep shows, to music players, to target shooting games, to video games, but only one has endured from the industry’s earliest days to the present day: the game of pinball.  While the modern form of this classic game bears no resemblance to the earliest bagatelle games that pioneered the form in the 1870s, the idea of guiding a ball around a playfield full of obstacles to score points has resonated with the arcade-going public like nothing else introduced by the inventors and moguls in the field of coin-operated entertainment.  From the trade stimulators of the 1890s to the wildly popular pintables of the 1930s to the flipper machines of the 1950s and the solid state machines of the 1970s, pinball has been redesigned many times only to fall on hard times and then return again stronger than before.  With the general decline of the arcade in the western world in the present day, pinball no longer wields the influence it once did, but it is probably fair to say that without the allure of the silver ball during the dark days of the Great Depression, the video arcade game industry would have never existed, and the evolution of the interactive entertainment industry would have been vastly different.  Here then, is the history of pinball from its origins through the bingo machines of the 1950s.

NOTE:  Here is another historical interlude, the third in a six-part series on the history of the arcade before the dawn of the video game era.  Principle sources this time around were Automatic Pleasures by Nic Costa, Pinball 1: Illustrated Historical Guide to Pinball Machines by Richard Bueschel, the Encyclopedia of Pinball Vols. One and Two by Richard Bueschel, Pinball! by Roger Sharpe, Bally: The World’s Game Maker by Christian Martels, and the articles “Ballyhoo,” “A Visit With Harry Williams,” “Evolution of the Bumper,” “The Evolution of the Flipper,” and “Pinball Literature (Part 2)” by Russ Jensen.



Montague Redgrave’s original Improved Bagatelle Board from 1871, the immediate forerunner of pinball

In the sixteenth century, a wide variety of lawn games gained favor in both England and France that incorporated mallets, balls, arches, and pins.  Perhaps the most prominent of these were lawn bowling and several early variations of what eventually became croquet.  Over time, these games were miniaturized and transformed into table game variations that could be played indoors.  One of the most popular of these new table games was billiards, a croquet variant in which a mallet was used to knock a ball around a table through various scoring arches and holes.  After Louis XIV of France became an avid billiard player, variations of the game began to spread rapidly, including a 1710 version called “Scoring Pockets” in which the scoring holes were protected by pins to make shots more difficult.  In 1777, a further variant incorporated a steeply inclined table and a flat cue stick while featuring a pin layout that made direct shots at the scoring holes impossible.  Instead, the player would shoot the ball up the side of the table, which would then fall back through the nest of pins and, hopefully, land in one of the scoring holes.  Debuted at a party held for Louis XVI of France by his brother, the Comte d’Artois, at the Château de Bagatelle, the new game of bagatelle soon became a sensation.

When France intervened on the side of the colonists in the American Revolution, many French soldiers brought Bagatelle tables with them, introducing the game to what would soon become the United States. The game became fashionable among landed gentlemen in the new Republic and could be found in inns and taverns across the nation.  It also proved popular as a game for soldiers, helping bagatelle spread across the ever shifting American frontier.  By the 1830s, the game was being miniaturized again, transformed into a tabletop game for children.  France and Great Britain dominated this new segment of the industry, while the United States slowly grew to be the leader in bagatelle tables, fueled by the growing number of bars and saloons that accompanied Western expansion.  This process culminated in the work of a British inventor living in the United States named Montague Redgrave. In 1871, Redgrave, then living in Cincinnati, patented what he called his “Improvements in Bagatelle” in which he replaced the clay balls common in toy variants with glass marbles and incorporated a spring-loaded plunger to replace the cue stick.  Redgrave’s improvements allowed the large, bulky table game to be reimagined as a countertop game, which spurred continued growth in the game’s popularity not only as an amusement, but as a gambling device as well.


The Log Cabin from Caille Brothers, one of the first popular coin-operated bagatelle games

In Europe, where fully automatic games of chance faced greater restrictions than in the United States, bagatelle-style gambling games rose to prominence in the 1890s.  Like bagatelle, these games featured Redgrave-style plungers and a nest of pins, but the playfield sported a vertical rather than a horizontal orientation, which was derived from fairground “drop case” games in which a ball would be dropped onto the playfield and navigate a series of pins before settling into a scoring trough along the bottom of the cabinet.  The first widely popular gambling game of this class was the Tivoli, deployed by leading British firm Haydon and Urry in 1892.  In this game, a player inserted a coin that would come to rest against a spring-loaded plunger.  The player would then launch the coin onto a playfield, where it would navigate through rows of pins before being deposited into one of several troughs.  Some of these would deposit the coin directly in the cash box, four of them would return the coin to the player, and one would trip a lever to deliver a cigar.  In 1900, British inventor John Pessers deployed a popular drop case variation called the Pickwick, in which the player controlled a movable cup and tried to catch the ball after it navigated the pins.  Various drop case games remained in production in Europe into the 1930s.

While the pin-based gambling games of Europe presaged interest in coin-operated bagatelle, their vertical orientation and extra features such as cups ultimately placed them in a different class of product.  The first known coin-operated bagatelle game was developed by Charles Young, a York, Pennsylvania, billiard hall owner.  A former newspaperman, Young had already deployed a cast iron cigar cutter of his own design before turning his attention to the bagatelle table.  In 1892, young patented his “Coin Game Board,” the earliest known device to incorporate an inclined horizontal playfield enclosed in glass and covered in pins, a spring-loaded plunger, and a coin acceptor.  Few inventors followed Young’s lead, but one bagatelle-style game particularly popular in the period was the “Log Cabin” trade stimulator released by Caille Brothers in 1901, which combined the gambling elements of the drop case games with a horizontal bagatelle field.  Bagatelle trade stimulators were largely overshadowed by the more popular slot machines in this period, however, and the penny arcade remained primarily a venue for peep shows and testers, so the appearance of Log Cabin and a few similar games ultimately failed to lead to a wider adoption of coin-operated bagatelle in that time period.  Once the arcade became a place for games of skill in the late 1920s, however, coin-operated bagatelle returned and quickly prospered.

The Birth of Pinball


Whiffle, the game that launched the pinball craze

Shortly before Christmas 1930, a Youngstown, Ohio, carpenter named Arthur Paulin was cleaning out his barn when he discovered an old board with carved out holes and roughly thirty nails in it. After fiddling around with his discovery for a few days, he came up with the basic design for a Bagatelle-like game he called Whiffle. With Youngstown particularly hard hit by the Depression due to the closing of several steel mills, Paulin’s finances were tight, so he decided to make the new game a Christmas gift for his daughter, Lois. When neighborhood kids began lining up around the house to play the game, Paulin thought he might be able to sell it and approached a friend named Myrl Park, who operated a drug store. Park did not think the game would sell as a consumer product, but figured it might take in good money if transformed into a coin-operated game. Paulin therefore took the board to another friend, electrical salesman Earl Froom, who helped him design a coin slot, a ball return, and a glass enclosure among other features. Completed around the middle of January 1931, the final game consisted of a sloped playfield encased in glass with a series of scoring holes surrounded by pins.   For a nickel, the player received ten balls that he could launch with a spring-loaded plunger that would deflect off the pins and into the holes, which each had a specific point value. The game was test-marketed in Park’s store, and after it took in $2.60 of nickels in a single hour, the three formed a partnership called Automatic Industries on January 28, 1931, to sell the machine all over the country. Before long, they were booking orders for over 2,000 Whiffle games per month, but could not manufacture boards fast enough to meet the demand.

Whiffle was the first coin-operated pin game to be sold in the 1930s, but it was actually the second one developed.  Belgian immigrant George Deprez worked as a janitor in Chicago, but he was a carpenter by trade and interested in building and marketing his own children’s toys.  In the summer of 1929, Deprez created his own marble pin game, and when it proved immensely popular at parties, he had it patented under the name Whoopee, then a hit Eddie Cantor-fronted Broadway show.  The Depression ended Deprez’s hopes of raising capital to sell the new game himself, but in June 1930, Whoopee piqued the interest of a tenant in Deprez’s building, Nick Burns, who ran a shooting gallery and marketed games with his brother through their In & Outdoor Games Company.  Burns bought the rights to the game and placed it on test in several Chicago hotels.  At the Chicago Loop Hotel, the Western Advertising Manager for coin-op trade publication Billboard, Jack Sloan, discovered the game and not only advised Burns to attach a coin slot to the table, but also hooked him up with several local area coin machine industry suppliers to help transform Whoopee into a coin-operated amusement.  First tested in August 1930, Whoopee became the first nationally marketed pin table when Billboard ran an advertisement for the game in its March 28, 1931, issue, with copy written by Sloan himself.

Whiffle and Whoopee were both popular, but they were also expensive — selling for over $100 per cabinet — and their creators were not able to manufacture them quickly enough to keep up with demand.  Together, these two factors opened the door to competition.  Perhaps the most intriguing of the early copycats was Charles Chizewar.  Born in Warsaw and trained as a locksmith, Chizewar immigrated to Chicago in 1916.  After being fired from a job for asking for a raise, Chizewar established his own machinery repair shop in the early 1920s and soon expanded into light manufacturing.  In 1929, he established the Hercules Novelty Company to enter the coin-op field and experienced immediate success with a popular grip tester.  With the arrival of the new pin games, Chizewar deployed his own version in May 1931, the Roll-a-Ball.  Chizewar established an economic model more suitable for the Depression, selling his tables for a mere $16.50 and releasing a version that gave the player five balls for a penny instead of the traditional nickel.  Unfortunately, while Chizewar’s machines were cheap, he could not manufacture them any faster than his competitors — quickly falling behind the demand — and his tables were not well crafted.  Therefore, while the Hercules innovation of penny play proved vitally important to the industry, the company ultimately failed.


Baffle Ball, the game that launched the pinball industry

Throughout 1931, pin tables were gaining adherents in certain parts of the United States, but a lack of reliable manufacturers served to inhibit the game’s influence and reach.  The man who finally transformed the pin table business from a struggling cottage industry into a dominant force in coin-operated amusement was David Gottlieb.  Born in May 1900 in Milwaukee to Russian Jewish immigrants, David Gottlieb served in World War I and then spent two years at the University of Minnesota. Gottlieb left school in 1920 to work as a movie theater booker and traveling salesman based in Minneapolis before relocating to Dallas, Texas, two years later, where he rode the rails bringing punchboards, pressed paper boards full of holes each containing a slip of paper that listed a cash or merchandise prize, to isolated oilfields. Tired of lugging around suitcases full of coins and sleeping with a gun under his pillow, Gottlieb soon turned to the motion picture business instead, carting a film projector around Texas in a Model T to show films in towns too small to have their own cinema, while also pedaling slot machines and countertop games.  When Texas cracked down on slot machines, Gottlieb acquired the rights to produce a countertop grip tester. On the advice of his childhood friend Al Walzer, who owned a coin-op manufacturer and distributor in Minnesota, he relocated to Chicago, where with a loan from Walzer he formed D. Gottlieb and Company in 1927.

Gottlieb initially worked with Chizewar to manufacture the tester at his machine shop, but when it proved popular, Chizewar established Hercules to sell the machine himself.  Gottlieb subsequently began his own manufacturing operation to create and market a competing product called the Husky Grip Tester. College educated and business savvy, Gottlieb grew his business rapidly, moved into a new modern factory on Chicago’s West Side in 1930, and gained a reputation for a well-run manufacturing operation.  This attracted the attention of entrepreneurs Nate Robin and Al Rest.

Robin, a Jewish immigrant, operated a small coin-op repair shop and refurbished slot machines.  When he first saw Chizewar’s Roll-a-Ball, he realized there could be great profit in designing his own version of the pin game and partnered with Rest, a key player at the Lawndale Sash and Door Company, to create his own version called Bingo.  The pair set up a small manufacturing operation, but like so many others before them quickly fell behind demand.  The pair therefore gave Gottlieb exclusive manufacturing and distribution rights to Bingo, which he completely redesigned to improve the quality and make it easier to manufacture.  First advertised by Gottlieb in September 1931, Bingo proved so popular that not even he could keep up with the orders, so he subcontracted manufacturing to another firm managed by Jack Keeney.


Jack Keeney, one of the earliest coin-op distributors

Born in Jefferson, Iowa, in 1892, Keeney learned the coin trade early from his father, John B. Keeney, who began operating Mills slot machines at the turn of the twentieth century and established the J.B. Keeney Company, one of the first regional coin-op distributors, to sell machines across Northern Iowa.  When Jack and his brother William entered the business, John Keeney changed the name of his company to Keeney & Sons.  Jack gave up what could have been a promising football career to work for his father at age seventeen after graduating high school and led the expansion of the company into Minnesota.  As the Keeney family continued to grow its business over the next few years, their distribution territory eventually spanned from Detroit to Seattle.  In 1916, Keeney & Sons moved from Jefferson to Chicago to be closer to the coin machine manufacturers and inaugurated a mail order distribution business that allowed the company to sell machines across the entire United States and become the largest distributor in the nation.  John Keeney retired in 1926, but the firm continued to operate under Jack and William until November 1933, when it was terminated.  A new firm, J.H. Keeney and Company, replaced it in January 1934.  In 1931, the Keeney brothers were just starting their own manufacturing operation, so they were happy to take on Bingo for Gottlieb.  With both Gottlieb and Keeney producing Bingo, the pin game soon became one of the leading coin-operated products in the Midwest.

With Bingo proving such a massive hit, Robin and Rest reneged on their exclusive deal with Gottlieb when they were approached by a Chicago tool and die maker named Leo Berman, who started manufacturing the game in competition with Gottlieb.  Unlike Gottlieb, Berman made deals with distributors across the United States to sell the game, allowing the pin game to break out of the Midwest and become a national sensation for the first time.  Faced with this new development, Gottlieb returned to the drawing board and created his own pin game called Baffle Ball, which was better engineered and used higher quality components than Bingo.  He also set up a more efficient manufacturing operation based on the assembly line method that had transformed the automobile industry, making Baffle Ball the first pin game to achieve true high volume production.  Released in November 1931 through Keeney, with a Gottlieb version following soon after, Baffle Ball‘s combination of high quality and assembly line production allowed it to dominate the competition and become the first blockbuster pinball table.  Before long, Gottlieb had taken over 75,000 orders for Baffle Ball, and even at a manufacturing peak of 400 cabinets a day, could only fill roughly 55,000 of them.


Ray Moloney, the founder of the Bally Manufacturing Company

In 1931, when Whiffle Board and Bingo started spreading around the country, no pinball games were shown at the annual coin machine trade show. In 1932, with Baffle Ball a national sensation, roughly sixty games crowded the show floor, and over one hundred pinball games were introduced over the course of the year. Of the many people to enter the market that year, two stood above the rest: Dave Rockola and Ray Moloney.   A Canadian by birth, Rockola owned a cigar store as a young man, but he moved to Toronto and then Chicago to work in the slot machine industry when he realized that the slot machine at the store counter took in more money than the store itself.   In 1927, he established the Rockola Scale Company to market his own coin-operated scale, which later changed its name to the Rock-ola Manufacturing Company. In the middle of 1932, Rockola released a pinball game called Juggle Ball that gave the player a limited amount of control once the ball entered the playing field via a sliding arm mechanism with a metal bumper that ran through the middle of the cabinet. While this game proved a failure that left Rockola $120,000 in debt, he convinced his creditors to lend him more money to produce a more traditional pinball game, released in August 1933 as Jigsaw, which sold over 73,000 units and became a hit not only in the United States, but in England and France as well. In 1934, Rockola had another huge success with a baseball-themed game called World Series that moved over 50,000 units.

Born in November 1899, Raymond Thomas Moloney, Sr. spent his early adult life
wandering the country while tackling a variety of jobs, trying his luck in the oil fields of Texas and Oklahoma, harvesting crops in California, and working in sugar refineries in the South.  Ultimately, he returned to Cleveland to work in a steel mill where his father served as the foreman. After losing that job, Moloney relocated to Chicago in 1921 where his brother-in-law secured him employment in a print shop making punchboards like those Dave Gottlieb was hauling around Texas.  He became close friends with a co-worker named Joe Linehan, so when Joe and a partner named Charlie Weldt bought out the firm to create the Joseph P. Linehan Printing Company, they placed Moloney in charge of the punchboard operation in 1922. The trio named the new punchboard subsidiary the Lion Manufacturing Company after deciding to make use of stationary ordered from Linehan Printing by a company of that name that had never picked it up.  In 1925, the trio bought out one of the suppliers of prizes for its punchboards and established the Midwest Novelty Company as a subsidiary of Lion to distribute coin-operated products such as slot machines and trade stimulators via mail order.  Moloney served as president of Lion and Midwest Novelty, while his partners remained focused on the printing business.


Ballyhoo, the game that launched Bally

When Baffle Ball took off, Moloney realized the future of the industry was in pin games — at least in the short term — and attempted to secure a steady supply of Baffle Ball cabinets for Midwest Novelty.  When Gottlieb could not supply games fast enough, however, Moloney hatched a scheme to manufacture his own.  At first Linehan and Welt refused to back a manufacturing operation, but Moloney persuaded them to provide limited funding on the condition that they could pull out as soon as they recouped their initial investment.  All three partners believed they were just taking advantage of a passing fad and planned to end manufacturing when they had cleared $100,000.  In November 1931, Moloney began working his network of coin-op contacts to find a new game design, leading freelance designers Oliver Van Tyle and Oscar Bloom to walk into his office looking for a royalty deal on a new pingame.  Moloney liked their game, but felt the prototype was too plain to sell as is.  To make the table more eye-catching, he designed a colorful playfield based on the cover of the December 1931 edition of satirical magazine Ballyhoo.  Not wanting to risk their existing business, Moloney, Linehan, and Weldt incorporated a new subsidiary of Lion to produce the new machine on January 10, 1932, and named it the Bally Manufacturing Company.  Released under the name Ballyhoo and backed by aggressive advertising, Moloney’s game rocketed Bally to the top of the industry as the firm sold 50,000 units in just seven months.  A second hit, Goofy, followed before the end of the year, and the next year, Bally released a third hugely successful game called Airway that played a critical role in expanding the popularity of pinball to Europe and included the first example of a primitive totalizer, which allowed the player to keep track of his own score.  In Airway, each scoring hole could only be entered once, which would cause a reel to flip and display the value for the hole.  At the end of the game, the player could add up the exposed values to determine his final score.

Several factors aided the rise of pinball to the top of the new coin-op amusement industry. First, unlike most contemporary coin-op games like the elaborate diggers and Chester-Pollard sports games, pinball cabinets were cheap. Ballyhoo and Baffle Ball only cost $16.50 per unit, and machines from smaller outfits could run even cheaper. Therefore, even at the height of the Depression a would-be operator could scrape together the funds to buy a few machines and enjoy a significant return on investment via coin drop.  Indeed, a significant number of entrepreneurs lost their businesses in the early years of the Depression, but did not necessarily forfeit their entire savings, and many of them invested in pinball machines and other countertop games to make a living, leading to a surge in operators and jobbers of coin-operated equipment.  Furthermore, pin tables were small and able to fit on a countertop, making them suitable for many different types of business establishments desperate to try anything to lure customers into their shops.   Finally, with no moving parts other than the plunger, early pinball machines were easy to keep in working order.   As a result, pinball could be found nearly everywhere, not just in Sportlands, arcades, and amusement parks, but also in roadside stands, bus and rail depots, gas stations, cafés, drug stores, tobacco stores, and barber shops. The game received its biggest boost, however, when Prohibition finally ended in 1933 and pinball became a staple of the bars and taverns that could once again operate legally.

Pinball Evolves


Harry Williams, brilliant pinball innovator

With pinball so popular and competition so fierce among the two hundred or so companies that released at least one pinball machine during the 1930s, it did not take long for the simple game to become increasingly sophisticated as engineers began looking for any edge to help them stand out from the crowd.  As a result, by the end of the 1930s, pinball had evolved from a small, simple game with few moving parts to an action-packed electromechanical exhibition of flashy sights and sounds.   Several people and companies contributed to this transformation, but the most important pinball innovator of the decade by far was Harry Williams.

Born in New York City in 1906, Williams moved with his family to Los Angeles when he was fifteen years old. Although he graduated from Stanford with an engineering degree, Williams took employment as an artist in the advertising industry, but found himself out of work with the advent of the Depression in 1929. He supported himself by turning to carpentry, set design, and the occasional bit part in Hollywood films, but the recently married engineer had great difficulty making ends meet.  Desperate for a better source of income, Williams answered an ad offering sales of a new coin-op game called Jai-alai, in which the player attempted to flip a cork ball into a basket.  The salesman for the game convinced Williams that all he needed to to was plop a game on location and financial success would follow, so he bought five of the $100 machines, which used up all his savings.  In reality, his machines fared poorly.  Some time later, Williams observed a long line of people waiting to play Whiffle Board in a lunchroom near Universal Studios and realized he had backed the wrong horse, but at this point he had no money to buy any more machines. He therefore decided to try building his own pin game and bought out the owner of a company called Automatic Amusements in early 1933.
Williams’s first product was a replacement board for a Mills game called Official that he sold for five dollars and could be substituted in existing cabinets. He then created his first original game in the second half of 1933, Advance, which he sold to Seeburg. Advance contained the first of many Williams innovations: a metal ball on a pedestal that would dislodge if the player banged on the cabinet too forcefully in an attempt to make his ball enter a scoring hole.   According to Williams, he initially called this innovation the “stool pigeon” until he observed a patron exclaim, “Damn it, I tilted it” after activating the device and decided it should be called the tilt mechanism, though this story may be apocryphal. Regardless of the origin of the name, the tilt soon became a standard device on all pinball machines, although later games replaced the ball with a pendulum device. Despite the innovation, Advance did not sell particularly well, and Williams received little in royalties on the game from Seeburg.


Contact from Harry Williams and Pacific Amusement, the game that set pinball on its modern path

With the failure of Advance, Williams entered a period of financial difficulty and felt that he needed to create something particularly innovative to survive in the coin-op business. After contemplating the problem for some time, he finally had a eureka moment when he decided that the ball should have more “action” and that he should use electro-magnets to provide it. The game Williams crafted around this idea, called Contact, used a device called a solenoid, a coil with a magnet inside that creates opposing magnetic fields when energized with electricity, to kick the ball back onto the playfield once it entered a scoring hole, giving the player an opportunity to score more points. Williams used dry cell batteries to power his game and created a large cabinet that stood on its own legs rather than resting on a countertop, both uncommon features that would soon became standard in the industry. To manufacture the game, Williams turned to a former carburetor manufacture named Fred McClellan who had recently entered the pin game business through a new venture called Pacific Amusements. The game proved successful almost immediately, leading to constant sales calls and an idea for a practical joke. With McClellan’s phone ringing all the time as new orders came in, someone in the showroom decided it would be funny to hook up an electric doorbell to one of the solenoids in one unit so that when the ball was ejected back onto the playfield a bell that sounded just like McClellelan’s telephone would ring and he would rush to answer it. The bell proved to be an excellent attraction feature and became a standard component on the increasingly popular game. Originally able to only produce about ten units of Contact a day, Pacific Amusement opened a new Chicago plant in Spring 1934 and eventually sold over 23,000 units priced at $75.00 each. While Contact was not the first pin game to include electricity, playfield action, a tilt mechanism, or sound effects, no other game had included all of these features in one package.  Contact, quite simply, redefined the game.

In 1935, Williams left Automatic Amusements in the care of his father and headed to Chicago to work for Rockola.  While there, he designed a game called Flash that featured the first instance of a feature that would become central not only to pinball, but also to video games, the awarding of an extra play when the player reached a certain score.  The idea came about because Williams wanted to create a reward that did not involve a payout, a new fad sweeping the pinball industry that Williams was dead set against, and was implemented by a young assistant named Bill Bellah, who came up with the actual mechanism to make the concept work after four weeks of tinkering.  A mechanical genius, Bellah might have become one of the great pinball designers, but just a few months later he suffered a serious head injury during a mugging and had to be committed to an asylum.


Bumper from Bally, the game that popularized the bumper and totalizer scoring

Electricity spearheaded additional innovations on pinball machines, with the most important coming from a small Utica, New York, manufacturer called the Pacent Novelty Manufacturing Company. In 1936, an inventor named W. Van Stoeser created a completely new scoring device called the bumper, which Pacent incorporated into a bowling-themed game called Bolo. The game simulated knocking down ten pins represented by the bumpers, ten long, thin rods attached to coil springs. The goal was to make contact with every bumper, and each time the ball hit one, a corresponding pin on the backglass of the cabinet would light up to indicate that the pin had been knocked down. The new bumper concept proved immediately popular, but Pacent did not have centralized manufacturing capability and had to farm out the building of the game to several local companies, leaving an opening for others to fill the void. As a result, when Bally’s Ray Moloney saw the game in operation, he charged a man named Donald Hooker to develop an improved bumper for Bally, which was incorporated into a 1936 table called, appropriately enough, Bumper. Unlike Bolo, Bumper used traditional pinball scoring with bumpers replacing pins and holes and popularized the totalizer method of keeping score, in which a score reel on the backglass updated each time the ball made contact with a bumper.  Bally’s Bumper game helped move pinball forward in exciting new directions, but another innovation by the company proved to be a giant step backwards.

Pinball Backlash


New York Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia topples a pinball machine confiscated by the NYPD

In 1933, a New York distributor named Herman Seiden added a dry cell battery to a Bally Airway table in order to power a connected payout slot, which would dispense money if the ball landed in the proper scoring holes.  Seiden shared his innovation with Bally, leading company engineer Herb Breitenstein to develop a game called Rocket, the first purpose-made gambling pinball machine.  The table proved such a massive hit that Moloney decided to buy out Linehan’s and Weldt’s shares of Lion and its subsidiaries and fully commit the company to coin-op manufacturing.  Soon, all the major pinball manufacturers were releasing payout machines alongside their regular games. With the success of these prize games, Ray Moloney took further steps to bring Bally into the coin-operated gambling business with the introduction of two full-fledged gaming machines in 1936, an automatic dice machine called Reliance and the company’s first slot machine, Bally Baby. The success of these machines convinced Moloney to fully enter the gaming business with a full line of slot machines, further blurring the line between coin-operated amusements and coin-operated gambling and setting up the pinball industry for serious difficulties.

Even without payouts, pinball had already been attacked in many circles as a game that incited juvenile delinquency and petty crime and corrupted the youth. Now with the gambling connection as well, it drew attention from crusaders against organized crime, which had already taken advantage of the cash only nature of the slot machine business to take in large sums of untraceable money to fund other illicit operations. With slot machines already pushed to private clubs and casinos by law enforcement efforts to wipe out the industry, politicians believed that pinball machines were an attempt by organized crime to circumvent laws against slot machine operation, and the move to payout models only reinforced these suspicions. As a result, newly elected New York City Mayor Fiorella LaGuardia launched a campaign against pinball machines in 1934 as part of his larger fight against organized crime and began confiscating machines all over the city, while Chicago, the center of the industry, became the first major city to enact a complete ban on the operation of the machines in 1936, with Los Angeles following suit in 1939.   A group of pinball operators subsequently challenged LaGuardia’s actions in court, leading to a major victory for the New York City mayor in 1942 when New York Supreme Court Justice Aaron Levy upheld an earlier ruling from a magistrate that pinball machines were gambling devices and therefore properly subject to seizure. The ruling effectively made the operation of pinball machines illegal in New York City, although they were not formally banned by the city council until 1948.  As a result of these actions, pinball manufacturers and operators would be linked with organized crime in the public mind and be forced to wage constant battles over the legality of pinball for more than thirty years.

While the long-term effects of pinball being linked to organized crime were devastating, the entry of the United States into World War II in December 1941 provided a more immediate threat to the industry. With raw materials and parts needed for military production, the government effectively banned the manufacturing of new pinball machines by deeming the amusement industry non-essential to the war effort, so the major pinball manufacturers turned to war-related work for the duration. To fill the void, a small number of designers began creating refurbished games by recycling old cabinets and parts and combining them with new playfield designs. One of the leaders in this field was consistent pinball innovator Harry Williams. While working for Rockola, Williams met a young engineer named Lyndon Durant who quickly impressed him with his design for a new type of score totalizer. The duo left Rockola for Bally in 1937 and then joined Exhibit the next year, but with the start of the war they decided to go into business for themselves and established the United Manufacturing Company in 1941 both to refurbish old games and to seek out lucrative war contracts. In 1942, however, Williams decided to strike out on his own and sold his share in United back to Durant. The next year, he established the Williams Manufacturing Company, which refurbished old games and built radar components for the remainder of the war.

The Flipper 


Humpty Dumpty from Gottlieb, the first flipper pinball game

With the conclusion of World War II in 1945, the coin-op companies returned to pinball once more and soon began taking the game in new directions.  In 1948, Williams introduced a new type of bumper in its Saratoga game called the pop bumper that would violently kick the ball in a new direction when it made contact, which provided considerably more action on the playfield.   More importantly, however, Gottlieb’s chief designer, Harry Mabs, came up with an idea for a new type of bumper in 1947 he called the flipper bumper that would bat the ball in a new direction when activated. In November 1947, Mabs’s new bumpers debuted on his Humpty Dumpty machine, which featured three pairs of flippers on different parts of the playfield. On the original prototype, these flippers would activate automatically when the ball made contact with a switch, but Mabs discovered that it was more entertaining for the player to activate the flippers himself by pressing a button. This simple tweak transformed pinball from a game of pure chance into one that could be influenced by the skill of the player, and the entire industry immediately recognized that flippers could be the salvation of pinball and insulate the game from accusations of being a gambling device operated by organized crime. Consequently, all the major companies quickly released flipper games into the market, which became so popular that non-flipper games were rendered obsolete nearly instantly. While every company experimented with varying numbers and locations for their flippers, however, a standard configuration soon emerged from one of the smaller companies in the industry named Genco.

Brothers Louis, Meyer, and David Gensburg established Genco Incorporated in Chicago in 1931 to produce coin-operated amusements. Rather than innovate in coin machines, Genco prided itself on taking concepts developed by other companies and then building higher quality versions to carve itself a niche in the crowded pinball market.  The company’s primary pinball designer throughout the 1930s and 1940s was an engineer named Harvey Heiss, but when Humpty Dumpty hit the market, Heiss was in the hospital, and it fell to his young assistant Steve Kordek to complete a new flipper game for the company.   Kordek had only entered the pinball industry by chance in 1936 after dropping out of college to support his family during the Depression and being offered a job at the company while taking shelter from a rainstorm in Genco’s doorway. Kordek started as a solderer on the assembly line, but because he had previously worked at Zenith in high school and studied circuitry during his one year in college, he soon used his knowledge to help the game testers fix faulty designs and was placed in the engineering department as an electrician.   Heiss then took Kordek under his wing and taught him every aspect of making pinball games. The owners of the company therefore came to Kordek with Heiss incapacitated and told him to have a flipper game ready by the coin show in January.

With so little time, Kordek copied Mabs’s basic flipper design, but because Genco was a small company and Heiss had taught Kordek to be conservative in his use of parts, he decided to include only two flippers at the bottom of the playfield. Even more importantly, Kordek chose to power the flippers using direct current rather than alternating current as Mabs had done.   As a result, Kordek’s flippers were far more powerful and could propel the ball across the table unlike the weaker ones used by Gottlieb. Released as Triple Action, Kordek’s game featured flippers that faced out from the center of the table, unlike in modern tables, but in 1950, Mabs created a game for Gottlieb called Just 21 in which the flippers faced inwards, bringing pinball machines to the basic form they still exist in today.


Bright Lights by Bally, the first bingo machine

Between flippers and pop bumpers, pinball changed radically once again as the ball ricocheted around the table at high speeds and the player did his best to keep the game going through a well-placed flipper shot. By this time, however, the reputation of the game had already suffered considerable damage due to payout machines, and it had been shut out of many major cities around the United States. Indeed, not long after the first flipper machines were hitting the market, the industry became the focus of negative attention again as Bally introduced the first Bingo machine in 1951, Bright Lights. Unlike flipper games, Bingo machines required the player to try to complete a successful bingo by launching the ball with the plunger and hoping it landed in the proper holes. A bingo resulted in the player winning a prize, making this new form of pinball a gambling machine designed to bypass the restrictions on earlier forms of payout machines.  These new machines did not escape notice for long.

In 1951, the United States Congress decided to involve itself in the war on coin-operated gambling through the passage of the Johnson Act, which made it a federal offense to transport gambling devices to states where they were illegal, which at the time meant every state except for Idaho and Nevada.   The original definition of the term “gambling device” in the bill centered on slot, roulette, and crane machines, but as bingo machines continued to spread in the 1950s, the United States Supreme Court ruled in 1957 that pinball machines designed to deliver a cash payout were, in fact, gambling devices. As a result, when the House of Representatives looked to expand the definition of gambling devices found in the original Johnson Act in 1962, it proposed the outlawing of pinball entirely, though after the bill went to the Senate a compromise was reached that led to the final bill only restricting payout pinball machines instead.  As a result of this continuing negative attention, however, pinball, while remaining an important part of the coin-operated amusement industry in the 1950s, no longer held the central place it had enjoyed in the 1930s and 1940s. In its place came a series of novelty products that spent a year or two as the hot new game in the field before ultimately being eclipsed by something else.  This cycle would define the industry for the next two decades, until it was finally broken by the rise of solid state pinball machines and video games.

Historical Interlude: The History of Coin-Op Part 2, From Slot Machines to Sportlands

Between 1895 and 1905, the penny arcade enjoyed a preeminent position in the entertainment world.  Marcus Loew, who would later establish the Loews theater chain and forge MGM, ran an arcade, so did Adolph Zukor, who established Paramount Pictures, and William Fox, who gave his name to 20th Century Fox.  The peep show dominated the arcade, and American Mutoscope dominated the peep show.  But William Dickson and Henry Casler were never the type to rest on their laurels.  In 1896, two years after completing the Mutoscope, Casler, at Dickson’s urging, developed the Biograph, a projector that allowed film to be displayed on a large screen rather than in a tiny wooden box.  The Biograph was not the first film projector — the project was implemented to counter the Edison-backed Vitascope and the Lumière brothers were already making their first films for display via the Cinematograph in France — but American Mutoscope, renamed American Mutoscope and Biograph in 1899, was far better funded than most of its competitors and took an early lead in film projection.  By 1908, three years after the first nickelodeon opened in Pittsburgh, D.W. Griffith was making short films for American Mutoscope and Biograph, and not long after that Mary Pickford and the Gish sisters were starring in them.  Men like Zukor and Fox abandoned the arcade for the promise of the new motion picture business, and even American Mutoscope chose to distance itself from its roots, shortening its name to American Biograph in 1909.  The penny arcade boom was over.

But coin-operated entertainment did not die.  Just as the peep show fell out of favor, new advances in engineering resulted in the first practical fully automatic payout gambling machines.  As popular as it was controversial, the advent of the “one-armed bandit” brought coin-op companies like Mills and Caille Brothers ever increasing profits and the industry an ever increasing stigma it would take decades to finally shed.  As slot machines became increasingly regulated and pushed to the fringes of lawful society by the early 1920s, however, coin-op companies old and new began injecting a degree of skill into their games of chance.  By the beginning of the 1930s, this trend culminated in three brothers developing a whole new arcade concept, the Sportland, which focused on games rather than novelty attractions or peep shows, signifying a paradigm shift within the industry.

NOTE:  And here is part two of my six-part overview of the first hundred years of the coin-operated amusement industry.  Principle sources this time around were Automatic Pleasures by Nic Costa, Arcade 1: Illustrated Historical Guide to Arcade Machines by Richard Bueschel and Steve Gronowski, Pinball 1: Illustrated Historical Guide to Pinball Machines by Richard Bueschel, the article “‘Sportlands’ Seen as Evolution of the Penny Arcade” in the April 1932 issue of Automatic Age, the article “The Fun Machines” in the July 4, 1977, issue of Sports Illustrated, and the article “Penny Arcade Philanthropist” in the October 16, 1948, edition of The New Yorker.

The Rise of the Slot Machine

Sittman & Pitt Card Machine

A Sittman and Pitt five-reel poker machine, the precursor of the modern three-reel slot machine

Unlike the coin-operated amusement industry, which originated in Europe, the coin-operated gambling industry was a largely American phenomenon.  This is because games of chance already had a long history in Europe before the advent of coin-operated machines, and consequently so did anti-gambling laws.  In France, gaming for money had been prohibited by Louis XVI in 1781 by an edict that had survived the Revolution and the many governments that followed, while in England acts of Parliament passed in 1853 and 1854 severely limited the operation of automatic games of chance.  Gambling games were still developed, of course, but the drop case games and allwins of Europe (briefly covered in a later post) were of an entirely different character than the machines that took over the United States, where gambling laws were fairly lax in the late nineteenth century, and the design of coin-operated gambling games flourished.

The earliest coin-operated gambling games were counter top models referred to as “trade stimulators” that usually sat on the bar of a tavern or next to the cash register at a store and gave a patron the chance to wager some of his spare change for the chance to win a prize such as a cigar or a piece of candy.  The earliest known machine of this type was the Guessing Bank, developed by New Yorker Edward McLoughlin in 1876, in which inserting a coin would cause a dial to spin and stop on a random number.  The patron would guess the number the dial would land on before inserting his penny and win a prize if he was correct.  Like other coin-operated devices, however, the trade stimulator did not see wide distribution until the late 1880s.  A variety of trade stimulators were developed in Europe during this period, but the spinning dial machine, which entered general use after British inventor Anthony Harris designed a wall-mounted version in 1889, remained the most popular.  Before long, however, a new type of trade stimulator gave it a run for its money.

In 1890, Frank Smith of the Ideal Toy Company of Chicago introduced a new machine designed to automate the card game poker, which had first risen to popularity in the United States in the 1830s.  Smith’s machine consisted of five reels that each featured a series of playing cards painted on them.  When the patron inserted a coin, the reels would spin and each stop on a random card, which the patron hoped would result in a winning hand.  If the player won a prize, he could collect it from an attendant.  In 1893, the Brooklyn firm of Sittman and Pitt introduced its own card machine, which has been recognized as the first coin-operated gambling game to achieve national popularity in the United States.

By the middle of the 1890s, the trade stimulator had been joined by another type of coin-operated gambling device, the slot machine, which distinguished itself from other early gambling devices by featuring an automatic payout of a cash prize.  The first slot machine was developed in Syracuse, New York, by John Lighton in 1892.  In this machine, the coin inserted by the player would travel down one of two runways, either being deposited in the machine’s cash box or tripping a lever that caused two additional coins to be released and paid out to the player along with his original coin.  In 1893, an inventor in San Francisco named Gustav Schultze combined the slot machine with the spinning dial concept in a device he called the Automatic Check Machine, in which the player pulled a lever on the side of the machine that caused a dial to spin atop a colored wheel.  If the dial landed on a winning color, a bell would ring and two coins would be released to the player alongside a token with a random value between twenty-five cents and two dollars.  Spinning dial slot machines became very popular over the next two years, but they were ultimately superseded by a new machine invented by a man named Charles Fey.


Charles Fey, developer of the first popular three-reel slot machine

Born in Vohringen, Bavaria, in 1862, Fey clashed with his father, a strict school master and an officer in a conservative church, so he left home at the age of fifteen to seek his fortune.  After spending five years in London as an apprentice instrument maker at a shipyard, Fey saved enough money to immigrate to the United States.  Arriving initially in Hoboken, New Jersey, in 1882 and settling for a time in Wisconsin, Fey relocated to San Francisco in 1885 to serve as a model maker for California Electric Works.  In 1894, Fey left the company with a fellow employee named Theodore Holtz to establish Holtz and Fey Electric Works to go into direct competition with their former employer. At the time, San Francisco was home to a large number of saloons — a legacy of the gold rush in the 1850s — and was also at the heart of the poker craze that had swept the United States, so the city became a major venue for the five-reel card machines just coming into vogue.  Both Fey and Holtz became enamored with these new machines, but ultimately decided to part ways, with Holtz establishing his own company and Fey briefly going to work for slot machine pioneer Gustav Schultze before striking out on his own.  Working in the basement of his apartment building, Fey designed his first gambling machine, called the Horseshoe, in 1894, and a second machine called the 4-11-44 in 1895a form of lottery machine in which patrons lined up sets of numbers to win prizes. When these machines proved popular, Fey established Charles Fey and Company in 1896 to focus on the slot machine business.

Fey’s major breakthrough was to combine the two principle gambling attractions of the time: the slot machine and the card machine.  Card machines were incredibly popular, but they could not automatically grant a reward, greatly decreasing their utility.  Early slot machines could provide a payout, but lacked the excitement of the card games.  Fey therefore decided to add an automatic payout mechanism to the five-reel poker machine, but the mechanical challenge proved too difficult.  Fey’s solution was to pare down the number of reels on his machine to three. Originally manufactured as the Card Bell sometime between 1898 and 1905, Fey quickly decided to replace the pictures of cards on the reels with images like stars and bells since the player was no longer attempting to complete a poker hand and changed the name to the Liberty Bell. The combination of spinning reels and automatic payout proved irresistible, and the Liberty Bell soon became a sensation in the San Francisco area.  The machine did not spread beyond the city, however, as Fey had no desire to mass produce and sell his invention, instead making deals with bar owners to install slots for a fifty percent take of the coin drop. This situation persisted until the disastrous 1906 San Francisco earthquake, during which Fey’s workshop burned to the ground.  This loss left a vacuum in the three-reel slot machine business that was quickly filled by the Mills Novelty Company.

As discussed previously, Mills released its first slot machine in 1897, a spinning dial machine called the Owl, one of the earliest models designed to stand on the floor rather than on a counter top.  Two years later, a New York manufacturer named Mathias Larkin created a similar machine called the Admiral that was the first slot machine to be advertised nationally and featured an image of Admiral George Dewey, extremely popular after his victories in the Spanish-American War, to help spur sales. Impressed with Larkin’s work, Herbert Mills hired him to open a San Francisco office and serve as his company’s promotional manager. It was no doubt through this branch office that Mills first became aware of Fey’s Liberty Bell.  What happened next between Fey and Mills differs based on who tells the tale.  Fey and his descendants claim that Larkin took one of Fey’s machines from a local tavern so that Mills could copy and steal the design.  The Mills family, on the other hand, states that Fey came to Chicago and offered to turn the design over to Mills in return for receiving the first fifty machines off the assembly line at no cost.  As Fey lost the ability to build his own machines in the earthquake and Mills already had a history of buying up the rights to products from other inventors, the Mills version feels more plausible.  Either way, the Mills Liberty Bell entered mass production in 1907.


The Mills Bell Machine, which brought the three-reel slot machine to prominence

With the Liberty Bell finally becoming available nationwide, the popularity of three-reel slot machines soared, completely displacing the earlier dial machines and leading the larger manufacturers in the coin-operated amusement business to concentrate almost exclusively on slots. Taking advantage of its head start over the competition, Mills built a commanding lead in the market that would last until the early 1960s. Caille Brothers also quickly embraced the “one-armed bandit” and competed closely with Mills until the end of World War I, when the Detroit company began to fall behind.  Mills’ closest competitor thereafter was a manufacturer named Ode Jennings. Born in Kentucky, Jennings entered the coin-op business by moving to Chicago in 1901 to become a salesmen of penny-arcade machines and first gained notoriety through managing the Mills arcade at the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair. In 1907, he established the Industry Novelty Company in Chicago to deal in used slot machines, vending machines, and scales, which he would often modify with features of his own design. Industry began manufacturing its own slot machines in 1911 and changed its name to O.D. Jennings and Company in 1928. With Mills, Jennings, and more distant competitor Watling all based out of Chicago, the Windy City became the center of the coin-operated gambling and amusement industries by the late 1920s.

As slot machines continued to grow in popularity throughout the first decade of the twentieth century, a backlash began to develop against the machines, which were seen in many circles as nothing more than a way for shopkeepers and saloon owners to cheat honest patrons out of their money. As a result, San Francisco, the original center of the industry, banned slot machines that dispensed a cash payout in 1909, and the entire state of California followed suit two years later. This signaled the beginning of a series of widespread bans that soon left slot machines illegal in most of the country. The beginnings of Prohibition in 1920 further stigmatized the slot machine, as speakeasies that were engaged in illegal activities anyway often included the devices on their premises and the cash-only nature of the business quickly attracted organized crime. Manufacturers were also hit hard by the onset of Prohibition, as bars and saloons had been the primary venue for slot machines, and the closing of these establishments left a hole that other businesses could not entirely fill.  While the slot machine industry attempted to compensate for these setbacks by producing machines that awarded prizes of candy and gum instead of money, shops that operated slot machines faced the constant threat of confiscation and other legal action. With slot machines and trade stimulators under attack and pushed to the outer margins of the law by the mid-1920s, several entrepreneurs began emphasizing skill-based elements in their products so they could argue the machines were not purely games of chance.  This move ultimately helped revive the penny arcade.

Coin-Op Amusements Make a Comeback


An Exhibit Supply True Love Letter card vendor

The 1910s were a hard decade for the coin-operated amusement business.  With the rising popularity of the cinema and the far cheaper production costs of film projection versus peep shows, American Mutoscope and Biograph halted all production of both Mutoscope machines and films in 1906.  With the Mutoscope overthrown, arcades had to rely more on their novelty pieces like testers and shockers to draw clientele, but there were only so many ways to build a strength machine or a scale, so without the attraction of new peep shows, there was little reason to come to the penny arcade — unless you were looking for one of the racier films in a seedier location.  World War I and Prohibition killed off most of what remained of the business, the former curtailing the development of new machines and the latter closing the bars that had been the prime venue for testers even before they incorporated coin control.  The smaller companies in the arcade business could not survive the temporary halt of new machine design brought on by the war, and most of them went out of business.  While the larger companies survived, they also abandoned the dwindling arcade scene.  Rosenfield Manufacturing left the coin-op business entirely to create electrical appliances like vacuum cleaners, while Caille Brothers turned its entire focus to slot machines after Arthur Caille died in 1919, as Adolph Caille had never really liked the arcade business in the first place.  In 1929, Caille began building outboard motors alongside its coin-op production, and in 1937 Adolph Caille sold the firm to a rival motor manufacturer.  Only Mills continued to offer a full line of arcade equipment, but it also now focused on slot machines and did not create new arcade pieces, merely continuing to sell its existing line.  Just as everyone else was abandoning the arcade, however, one man decided the time was ripe to move in.

John Frank Meyer was born in Peoria, Illinois, in 1881.  Entering the printer’s trade, he established his own small printing shop in Chicago before joining a firm called the Exhibit Supply Company in 1907 as a partner.  Organized in 1901 as a postcard printer, Exhibit expanded its line rapidly after Meyer joined to become the largest supplier of printed cards for fortune tellers, horoscope machines, and all the other types of card vendors found in the penny arcade.  Meyer took full control of Exhibit in 1910 and moved the firm into building its own card vendors in 1914.  As the penny arcade approached the nadir of its decline, it actually became a somewhat fashionable spot for young couples to have a risque night out viewing lewd peep shows and purchasing printed love letters from card vendors as souvenirs.  By 1917, partially aided by soldiers flocking to city night life to take their girls out one last time before shipping off “over there,” Exhibit card vendors enjoyed enormous popularity and became a key component of the shrinking penny arcade business.  After World War I, Meyer decided to introduce a full line of arcade machines and hired Perc Smith, a former production manager for the Meade Bicycle Company and salesman for Mills Novelty with strong credentials in manufacturing, sales, and arcade operation, to sell them.  Together, Meyer and Smith built Exhibit Supply into the most important arcade equipment manufacturer of the 1920s.

While the marginalization of the penny arcade and the closing of the bars seriously wounded the industry, companies like Exhibit continued to hang on by transforming the nature of the business.  The increasing popularity of the automobile after the introduction of the Ford Model T in 1908 ultimately led the Federal Government to pass the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1921 to connect much if the United States by road.  Whereas in the past coin-op sales to smaller towns and rural areas had been factory direct and limited to a small number of saloons and hotels that would pick up their machines at the local train station, the rise of pickup truck delivery services opened up a wider array of small locations like grocery stores, restaurants, barbershops, and candy stores to coin-operated amusements.  By the mid-1920s, this led to a development of a new middleman in the coin-operated amusement business, the regional distributor, who would order machines from several manufacturers in large volume and sell them to operators that would maintain machines in multiple locations along a truck delivery route.  The operator would be responsible for keeping these machines in good repair and would split the coin drop with the owners of each location along the route to recoup the purchase price.  This manufacturer-distributor-operator model of selling coin-operated amusements would persist for decades.

Just as the coin-operated amusement industry was extending its reach into new areas through regional distribution, the increased regulation of the slot machine and trade stimulator lured a variety of new players to the market that were eager to keep the coin-operated gambling industry alive through injecting a degree of skill into their games of chance.  One of the first manifestations of this trend was the counter top gun game, in which the player would generally insert a coin into a slot that served as a bullet that the player would attempt to shoot into a scoring hole at the back of a glass-covered playfield in order to win a prize. In the early days of the industry, this would be a cash prize, but as gambling devices came under greater scrutiny, this was usually changed to candy in an attempt to avoid confiscation. While this type of trade stimulator dates back to a model created by Englishmen David Johnston in 1889 and achieved popularity in the 1890s, it did not become an arcade mainstay until a man named Walter Tratsch introduced his version to the industry.


Target Skill by A.B.T. Manufacturing, one of the first popular skill-based coin-operated amusements of the 1920s

Tratsch’s association with the coin-op industry began in 1902 when he joined with Frank Mills, a brother of the founder of the Mills Novelty Company and the man in charge of its East Coast operations, to run a penny arcade in Hoboken, New Jersey. Like slot machine manufacturer Ode Jennings, Tratsch operated arcade machines at the St. Louis World’s Fair in 1904, and he also partnered with Mills to run Owl and Admiral slot machines in the years before his company began mass-producing the Liberty Bell. After operating machines in Panama and Argentina starting in 1908, Tratsch came to Chicago in 1910 to open his first plant, which specialized in machine repair and parts fabrication for the coin-op industry. A trip out West to partner with Charles Fey followed in 1913 before he returned East in 1915 to partner with an acquaintance first met when they were both running coin-op machines at the St. Louis World’s Fair named Jack Bechtol, with whom he established the Diamond Confection Company and the Southern Confection Company in South Carolina to operate coin-op routes in the South. In 1919 the duo established a new company in Memphis that morphed into the A.B.T. Manufacturing Company when another long-time friend of Tratsch named Gus Adler invested in 1921. The company was named by combining the initials of the three owners, though Adler sold out his interest to a Chicago financier named Bill Gray two years later.  This company perhaps made its biggest mark on the industry through the introduction of an early coin chute, which required a coin to travel down a ramp before activating a machine and therefore made slugging much more difficult.

In 1925, A.B.T. relocated to Chicago and debuted one of the most important coin-operated machines of the 1920s, a countertop pistol game called Target Skill. Like earlier gun trade stimulators, Target Skill featured a glass-protected target area housed within a wooden cabinet, but unlike these earlier machines, the game provided five small steel balls as ammunition for the cost of a penny. The objective was to shoot these balls into five target holes of decreasing size, with each direct hit causing a flag to drop over the target. Unlike slot machines, there was no payout mechanism attached to the machine, making it a pure game of skill free of the legal challenges and confiscation hassles plauging most countertop devices. An instant success, Target Skill games were soon being produced at a rate of 2,000 a month as sales reached 40,000 units within a decade. Once the popularity of the game was well established, A.B.T began releasing variants that featured different playfield configurations and/or more prominent payout elements. These included the popular Big Game Hunter, in which a successful hit on one of the three targets would cause a slot machine reel to spin and lining up the proper targets would allow the player to obtain prizes such as a small cash payout or a pack of cigarettes from the operator, and the Challenger, which provided ten shots for nine scoring holes. A.B.T. continued to sell variations on Target Skill until the early 1960s and manufactured over 300,000 of them during that time. As one of the earliest coin-operated products to gain widespread popularity by focusing primarily on player hand/eye coordination and skill rather than on strength/endurance testing, vending, or random chance, Target Skill represented one of the first attempts to move coin-operated products from novelties and gambling concepts to actual games, paving the way for a major paradigm shift in an arcade industry that had remained stagnant for nearly two decades.


The Erie Digger, which launched the first crane game boom

A second concept particularly important to reviving the arcade was the coin-operated digger, or crane, machine, which like the new target shooting games combined elements of both skill and chance.  Sources differ on when exactly the first digger machines entered the marketplace, but most evidence points to the first models appearing in 1924. In that year, Norwat Amusement Devices introduced the Steam Shovel, while the Erie Manufacturing Company began selling its Erie Digger, which dominated the market into the early 1930s. By 1926, digging machines had become standard fare at boardwalks and amusement parks, but were particularly attractive for traveling carnivals due to their compact size and relative simplicity. In fact, it was a carnival concessions operator named William Bartlett who introduced the next important advance in crane games in 1926 with his popular Miami Digger, which allowed the patron to move the crane all around the inside of the box rather than just up and down as in earlier models.   Unlike Erie, Bartlett did not mass produce and sell his machines, but instead dispatched licensed agents to travelling carnivals around the United States and Canada, who would operate banks of 12-17 units on his behalf.  By the time Bartlett died in 1948, over forty operators were supplying cranes to all the major carnivals in North America.  While crane machines only vended candy at first, it did not take long for operators to offer silver dollars, paper currency, and bundles of coins wrapped in cellophane as prizes instead.

With the success of Target Skill and the carnival diggers, an array of new coin-operated games appeared in the late 1920s.  Exhibit Supply remained in the forefront of the market by readily embracing new machine concepts.  These included a popular crane game called the Iron Claw that debuted in 1927 and a target shooting game called Automatic Pistol Range launched in 1929 in which one or two players shot at targets mounted on a motorized carriage that rolled across a playfield housed in a large wooden cabinet.  Even Mills released a new punching bag strength tester in 1926.  Perhaps the most surprising return of the decade, however, was the Mutoscope, brought back by a businessman named William Rabkin.

William Rabkin

William Rabkin, the founder of International Mutoscope

Born in 1894 in Babruysk, then part of Russia now part of Belarus, Welvel Rabkin — clerks at Ellis Island made him a William — entered a trade school at the age of twelve and spent three years learning how to be a machinist.  Rabkin’s father ran a modestly successful wholesale farm produce business until a warehouse fire bankrupted him, and he immigrated to the United States to work as a garment presser in New York City.  After becoming established there, he sent for the rest of his family, who joined him in 1909.  After stints as a plumbers apprentice and electrician’s helper, Rabkin finally found work in a machinist shop.  Several years later, he and a partner established their own shop.  After a falling out, however, Rabkin sold his interest in the shop and looked for another business involving machines.  This quest led him to American Biograph and the Mutoscope in 1920.

Once a leader in the film industry, Biograph fell on hard times in the 1910s.  In 1908, the company joined with Edison to form a trust called the Motion Picture Patents Company that dominated film distribution and limited production to a small number of allied studios, but the Federal Government broke up the firm in 1915.  In the meantime, Biograph had declined to enter the new feature film business due to the expense involved, causing Griffith to leave with most of the company’s stars.  Now that feature films were taking off, Biograph lagged the competition and could no longer rely on its monopoly to stay relevant.  The company released its last short film in 1916 and thereafter relied on reissues of its old films to barely stay afloat.  For this reason, the company was more than happy to sell Rabkin its entire stock of Mutoscope machines and films.

American Mutoscope had never sold its peep shows, instead licensing the machines and the films to play in them to penny arcades.  Rabkin decided that in order to turn a profit, he would have to sell his wares instead, but there was little interest among arcade operators due to a lack of new content.  Rabkin therefore commenced production of new short films in 1924, creating roughly five hundred reels in a variety of genres before shutting down production again in 1933.  Sales remained sluggish, however, until 1926, when the Mutoscope suddenly became fashionable again in Britain.  As sales took off overseas, Rabkin’s business grew rapidly, and he was able to combine his experience as a machinist with a new influx of capital to expand his arcade offerings beyond the peep show business.

The first original machine International Mutoscope created was the Shootoscope, a countertop target shooting trade stimulator released in 1926.  Like other games in the genre, play consisted of inserting a penny into a coin slot, which the player then fired at a target housed in a glass-covered wooden case.  If the player’s coin hit the whole in the center of the target, it would be returned to the player.  Next, Rabkin developed his take on the classic fortune telling machine — marketed as Grandmother’s Predictions — which debuted in 1928.  Both machines remained popular for years, but Rabkin experienced his greatest success through the newly emerging crane games.

During his lifetime, William Rabkin claimed to have invented the coin-operated digger after taking inspiration from watching a steam shovel dig out the foundation of a building while he was still working as a young machinist shortly after coming to the United States.  In truth, by the time Rabkin developed his Electric Travelling Crane in 1928, diggers had already been a popular attraction for several years, and he likely just adapted machines that he had already seen at carnivals and arcades.  Indeed, the Exhibit Supply Company thought Rabkin’s crane was so similar to its own Iron Claw, that it sued International Mutoscope for patent infringement.  Regardless of the source, Rabkin continued to improve his device over the next several years, and by 1933 the Travelling Crane had played a crucial role in igniting a digger boom that swept across the United States and Europe.  Before long, crane games housed in elaborate art deco cabinets could be found not only in penny arcades and carnivals, but also in department stores and hotel lobbies.  There were even so-called “craneland” arcades that housed nothing but digger machines.  By 1936, Rabkin had sold over 25,000 diggers, a significant number for a large arcade piece of the era.

While cranes, gun games, and card vendors began enjoying increasing popularity in the mid 1920s, the venues for these games remained relatively limited at first due to the continued sluggishness of the penny arcade business.  Arcades were still associated primarily with peep shows and novelties in this time period, and the appeal of these machines had waned years before.  Even with International Mutoscope now releasing improved viewers and new reels, interest in the peep show remained relatively muted in the United States.  A new paradigm in arcade entertainment was desperately needed, and it was finally provided by the Chester-Pollard Amusement Company.


The Chester-Pollard Play Football game, which brought competitive sports games to prominence in the arcade

The three Chester brothers — Pollard was their mother’s maiden name — entered the amusement industry in the early 1920s with a fortune telling machine.  Frank Chester, an electrical engineer, was the visionary behind the company, while Charles was an expert in mechanical technology, and Ernest was a consummate businessman.  In 1926, a British manufacturer named Freddy Bolland called on Chester-Pollard in New York to see if the brothers might be interested in the North American manufacturing rights to a manikin football game for which he owned the patents.  In this game, housed in a large wooden cabinet, two players would control the sides of a football match by pressing a lever to cause all the players to kick their legs at once.  For a nickel, the players would get a single ball and would have to time their kicks to score a goal on their opponent.  Score could be kept using a set of beads strung along the top of the cabinet, but every time a goal was scored, a new nickel would have to be inserted to keep playing.  Chester-Pollard agreed to take on the product, built 100 units, and tested them at select locations over the course of a year.  Proving itself a huge moneymaker, it was released generally in 1927.  Next came a mannikin golf game, which despite a relatively steep price of $150 for the penny model and $175 for the nickel model sold over 7,000 units.  In 1929, a horse racing game called Play the Derby debuted, in which two players turned cranks to drive horses around a track, and became yet another hit.  Chester-Pollard games were soon appearing in thousands of hotels, clubs, and railroad depots and could even be found on steamship lines.

With their competitive sports games doing so well, the Chester Brothers decided to expand into sports tables that did not incorporate coin control.  Baseball, table tennis, hockey, and bagatelle tables were tested in exclusive locations such as the Lido and Westchester-Biltmore Country Clubs, where they proved a tremendous success.  Based on these results, the Chesters believed they could pioneer a new arcade concept based around table games and exercise machines with and without coin control.  They named this new concept the Sportland.

In 1930, Chester-Pollard began testing the Sportland concept in existing arcades such as Playland Park in Rye, New York, owned by William Rabkin of International Mutoscope.  When these locations proved successful, they opened a purpose-designed Sportland in an outlying district of Brooklyn.  In its standard configuration, the Sportland featured a small array of coin-operated machines such as gun games or diggers in the front of the establishment and a large table game area in the rear blocked off by a fence.  For a quarter, a patron could spend thirty minutes playing all the table sports games they wanted.  The old penny arcade had failed when the public grew tired of peep shows because they had to be situated in a major thoroughfare to attract volume patronage, but owners could no longer afford the correspondingly high rents.  Sportlands, on the other hand, quickly attracted patrons whether they were located on a major street or not, and by the summer of 1931 they were a sensation throughout the New York area.

The onset of the Great Depression in 1929 cemented the arcade revival.  With worsening economic conditions severely restricting the amount of money most Americans could afford to spend on leisure in the early 1930s, arcade machines that could be played for just a nickel or even a penny became one of the few affordable activities in the country, causing revenues from coin-operated amusements to skyrocket. In 1930, over 250 companies manufactured 250,000 units of over 400 different games, and by 1934 these manufacturers were taking in more than $10 million annually. Meanwhile, Chester-Pollard had established fifty-two Sportland arcades in the New York City area alone by 1933, and they became a model for entrepreneurs all over the nation.   Consequently, the arcade completed its transition from a novelty attraction to a venue for games of skill, taking on the basic form it would maintain for the next sixty years.  Before long, many arcades were taking in over $800 worth of pennies and nickels a week, while prime locations could pull in as much as $1,200 a week despite an ever-worsening economy.  Gun games, competitive sports games, and diggers all played their part in this renaissance, but the most important contributor by far was a relatively new amusement called pinball.

Historical Interlude: The History of Coin-Op Part One, The Rise and Fall of the Penny Arcade

The birth of the first viable electronic interactive entertainment industry in 1972 resulted from the convergence of two separate forces: computer technology that was finally becoming cheap enough to incorporate into a mass market entertainment product thanks to advances in integrated circuits, and a coin-operated entertainment business with well developed manufacturing and distribution channels across the United States, Western Europe, East Asia, and South America.  In the period before cost-effective large-scale integration, an affordable, feature-rich home video game remained a nonviable proposition (yes, there was the Magnavox Odyssey, to be discussed later, but it was primitive and arguably did not deliver a good cost-to-game-play ratio), but the coin-op industry represented an outlet into which a company could sell a $1000-$2000 product to an operator for use by the general public, who would help the operator recoup his costs one quarter at a time.  Therefore, to fully understand the dawn of the video game age, it is helpful to pause and look back on the first hundred years of coin-operated entertainment, roughly spanning the period from 1871 to 1971.

NOTE:  And here we are again with a historical interlude, which will cover the history of coin-operated amusements in six parts.  The information in this post is largely drawn from Automatic Pleasures by Nic Costa, Arcade 1: Illustrated Historical Guide to Arcade Machines by Richard Bueschel and Steve Gronowski, and an article entitled “The Penny Arcade” in the March 15, 1947 issue of Billboard Magazine.

The Birth of Coin-Op


The Miser, a coin-operated working model created by John Dennison

In its broadest definition, the coin-operated machine industry encompasses all those automatic devices that provide a commodity or service in exchange for currency inserted into a slot or feeder.  The industry is usually subdivided along the lines of the service rendered, whether it be vending an item, playing music, offering the opportunity to win a cash prize, or providing a few moments of entertainment.  The idea of inserting a coin into a slot in order to receive a commodity first occurred as early as the first century of the common era when renowned mathematician Hero of Alexandria published plans for a device that would dispense holy water at Egyptian temples. The first coin-operated vending device to enter general use was the “honour box,” a small wooden or metal box with a spring-loaded lid that would open when a coin was inserted, which first appeared in England around 1615 and became popular in that country by the eighteenth century.   The name of the device derived from the need to trust that a patron would only take a pinch of snuff for his coin, as these devices were incapable of regulating delivery.  Due to the difficulties inherent in policing the use of these early coin-operated devices, a wider automatic vending industry did not develop until the dawn of the Industrial Revolution.

In 1822, bookseller Richard Carlisle took the first halting steps towards a practical coin-operated vending machine.  A professed radical, Carlisle often ran afoul of the British authorities for selling prohibited and proscribed books, subjecting both himself and his assistants to prosecution.  Carlisle’s solution was a contraption added to the front of his shop featuring a coin slot and a dial.  A patron would insert a coin and select the book he wanted by turning the dial to the appropriate title, after which the item would be delivered through a chute.  This was not a fully automatic device, however, as the book was placed into the chute by hand by one of Carlisle’s assistants.  The idea was that if a buyer did not know who actually provided the book, no one could be placed on trial for selling seditious literature.  Unfortunately for Carlisle, the ploy did not work.

By the 1830s, further advances in mechanical technology led to the introduction of the first honour boxes in England that automatically regulated the delivery of snuff, which was provided in a paper package and delivered through a coin-regulated drawer.  Following the introduction of the first postage stamps to the United Kingdom in 1840, an inventor named Simeon Denham took his own crack at the vending machine with a device that automatically cut a stamp from a roll and delivered it to the customer upon the insertion of a penny.  The machine was patented in 1857, the first coin-operated machine with that distinction, but it proved unsuccessful and never entered mass production.  In the end, the first successful coin-operated devices would not be vending machines, but rather amusements.

In the mechanical age, viable coin-operated entertainment required sophisticated clockwork mechanisms powered by some combination of pulleys, springs, levers, and gears.  Archaeological evidence demonstrates that the Ancient Greeks possessed a sophisticated understanding of the necessary clockwork, but much of this knowledge was lost in Europe during the early Middle Ages and would not be fully recovered until the fourteenth century after being reintroduced from the Islamic world.  By the eighteenth century, clock makers were beginning to expand their art beyond time keeping devices with such celebrated creations as Frenchman Jacques de Vaucanson’s mechanical flute player crafted in 1738 and a series of automata created by Swiss clock maker Pierre Jacquet-Droz between 1768 and 1774.  While these machines were largely created on the Continent, however, they were primarily displayed in Britain, which held a fascination with all things mechanical as the Industrial Revolution took hold.  Public exhibition of automata commenced on the island nation in 1772 with the establishment of the Coxes Museum in London by James Cox.  By the 1830s, exhibitions could be as large as 200 machines, and by the 1860s automata began appearing not just in permanent exhibitions, but in travelling shows as well.

The automata of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries required an attendant to operate, but they eventually evolved to incorporate coin control.  The earliest known machine of this type was a fortune telling device patented by J. Parkes in 1867.  Fortune tellers were a popular staple of fairs, so Parkes developed a machine that would provide a disk with a question on it for a penny.  The patron would then insert the disk into a slot, thus sending it down a runway peppered with holes.  Each disk was a different diameter, so it would only go down a particular hole, causing an appropriate fortune to print on a ticket vended to the patron.  Parkes apparently never publicized his invention, so the first widely exhibited coin-operated amusement was a device developed by Henry Davidson and first displayed in 1871 in which a mechanical chimney sweep would jump from the chimney of a house when a penny was inserted.  This machine was the first of the so-called “working models,” which were particularly popular in Britain and consisted of figures that would come to life and perform actions when a coin was inserted.  Davidson booked his machine into every agricultural and industrial fair he could and soon spawned many imitators.

The first recorded individual able to make a living entirely through the manufacture of coin-operated machines was a Leeds mechanic named John Dennison.  In May 1875, Dennison displayed his first working models, demonstrations of a drilling machine and a hand lathe, at the Yorkshire Exhibition, which were well received by the public.  He soon began building both mechanical fortune teller machines and working model dioramas for installation at exhibitions, fairs, and bazaars.  By 1882, Dennison had been joined by a host of other manufacturers as working models became a popular diversion.  In the early 1890s, Dennison struck a deal with the Blackpool Tower Company — formed to build a replica of the Eiffel Tower in the English coastal resort town of Blackpool — to supply his working models to the tower exclusively from its opening in 1894.  This arrangement afforded Dennison a steady income for the rest of his life and continued long after his death in 1924 until his daughters finally sold their interest in the venture to Blackpool Tower in 1944.  The tower continued to operate the original machines until 1963.

John Dennison was a successful manufacturer and operator of coin machines, but he was not much of an entrepreneur.  While his business was profitable, he never mass produced his working models or sold them to other concerns: every piece was custom built and operated by him and/or his family.  Therefore, while he played a critical role in the spread and acceptance of coin-operated amusements, he failed to jump start a full-fledged industry.  It would fall to others to bring con-operated devices fully into the mainstream, most notably an inventor named Percival Everitt.


A Mills Novelty Company coin-operated shocker built c. 1900.  Such machines were popular for decades after first being developed in 1886.

Little known today, Everitt deserves more than any other individual the title “father of the coin-op industry,” for no man did more to spread coin-operated technology around the world both through his patented designs and the many companies he established to sell them.  Everitt entered the industry on the back of one of the newest crazes in Europe: the postcard.  First developed in Austria in roughly 1869, the picture postcard soon became a staple as a convenient way to send a message home from abroad or to keep as a memento of a trip.  In 1874, the Treaty of Bern established the General Postal Union with a mandate to coordinate postal policies among the treaty’s twenty-two signatories.  This led to the standardization of postcard size and cost, making them particularly well-suited to coin control.  In 1883, Everitt and a partner, John Sandeman, introduced a cast-iron machine in London that vended a postcard for a penny.  In 1885, Everitt introduced an improved model and established the Post Card and Stamped Envelope Supply Company, which placed over one hundred post card vending machines around London.  In November 1887, Everitt established another company, the Sweetmeat Automatic Delivery Company (SADC), that played a decisive role in the spread of the vending machine.  Starting from a base of 1,500 machines around London, SADC quickly opened branch offices in Birmingham and Manchester and signed agreements with 31 companies to supply its machines with commodities such as quinine, chocolate, chewing gum, cigarettes, matches, and perfume.  By 1901, the company sported a market capitalization of £1.5 million and had placed at least one machine in nearly all of Britain’s more than 7,000 railway stations in addition to many public houses, hotels, and shops.

Everitt did not just concern himself with vending machines.  In 1884, he patented a coin-operated scale that could measure a person’s weight and then established the Weighing Machine Company the next year to sell this invention.  The coin-operated weighing machine quickly became a sensation and could be found in all manner of public places.  Other than the vending machine, no coin-operated machine of the 1880s or early 1890s approached the scale in popularity, and for many people the weighing machine was their first exposure to coin-operated amusements.  In the wake of the success of the coin-operated scale, Everitt led a host of British inventors that turned their attention to the various attractions found in bars and saloons, which often featured devices such as grip, punch, and lung testers that patrons could use to settle arguments about who was stronger, but did little to increase revenue for bar owners aside from a small amount of custom from the losers buying drinks for the winners. Sensing an opportunity, these men began designing coin activated testers, thereby allowing owners to monetize these contests.  Important inventors besides Everitt included Richard Page, who patented the first strength testing machine in 1885, and William Oliver, who, like Everitt patented machines in a wide variety of fields, including one of the first successful electric shock machines in 1886.  At the time, electric shocks were considered to have great health benefits, and machines that delivered a jolt of electricity to the patron were perhaps the third most popular coin-operated devices of the period after vending machines and scales.   By 1890, all manner of coin-operated testers could be found in bars, saloons, and taverns, but, shockers aside, these devices held limited appeal for the general public.   At the same time, however, another technological marvel of the late nineteenth century soon paved the way for the first venues solely devoted to coin-operated amusements.

The Dawn of the Arcade


William Smith’s locomotive working model, the earliest known coin-operated amusement produced in the United States

While the genesis of the coin-operated machine industry occurred in Great Britain, it was in the rapidly industrializing United States that the modern arcade industry first took shape.  Many of the earliest coin-operated machines in the U.S. were either introduced by British inventors or modeled after their creations, and once again Percival Everitt led the way.  Frustrated by the fierce competition and relatively scarce capital in England, Everitt leaned on family connections to come to the U.S. in 1885 and secured an agreement with one of the country’s only exporters, E. & T. Fairbanks Company of St. Johnsbury, Vermont, to sell his coin-operated weighing machine in North America.  The next year, he set up the Automatic Selling Machine Company in New York City to sell his penny postcard vendors at street car stations.

Everitt’s activities in New York soon attracted the attention of another entrepreneur named Thomas Adams. A Staten Island native, Adams had attempted several professions before becoming a photographer in the 1860s and taking on an unusual boarder in his home, former Mexican President Antonio López de Santa Anna. As Adams’s photography career stalled, Santa Anna suggested that he try establishing a business based around the natural gum produced by the chicle plant, which Santa Anna could acquire cheaply from friends in Mexico and which had the potential to become a snythetic rubber substitute.   While Adams’s attempts to manufacture rubber products from chicle failed, he soon came to realize that he could add sugar to the substance to produce a kind of chewing gum, a candy that had existed the United States since 1848 but had never caught on in a big way. First going on sale in February 1871 for a penny a piece, Adams’s chicle gum launched the modern chewing gum industry and led to the formation of Adams, Sons, and Company in 1876. When Adams encountered Everitt’s vending machines, he quickly secured the American patent rights from the inventor, adapted them to vend his Tutti Frutti gum, and began installing them in New York City rail stations in 1888.  While the Adams machine was not the first gum vendor introduced in New York and sources differ on how successful they were, their introduction appears to have helped provide a catalyst for massive expansion in the design and operation of coin-operated devices in the United States.

In amusements, the United States began by following the same basic pattern as the United Kingdom, starting with working models and then moving into testers and electric shockers at bars and saloons.  Unlike in Britain, however, American working models focused less on dioramas of events and more on the new industrial machines that were transforming the nation.  The first of these devices, indeed the first known American coin-operated amusement, was a model train created by William Smith of Providence, Rhode Island, in 1885, which sported an actual engine powered by a wet cell battery that came to life upon the insertion of a nickel.  Smith placed his trains in several East Coast railway stations as well as the Coney Island Amusement Park.  Train and steamboat models by Smith and others were soon popular around the country, but it was another American invention, the phonograph, that would birth the arcade.


Thomas Edison poses with his phonograph

As early as 1807, scientists had discovered it was possible to trace the vibrations made by objects such as tuning forks, but it was not until 1857 that Frenchman Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville created a device that could record soundwaves.  Called the Phonautograph, Martinville’s device worked by linking a parchment diaphragm to a bristle that would trace a line through a thin coating of soot onto a sheet of paper wrapped around a metallic cylinder when it detected vibrations.  This device could not actually play back recordings, but in 1877 American inventor Thomas Edison, while working to automate the playback of telegraph messages, devised a system using an electromagnet that would record the vibrations on a tinfoil-covered cylinder in a manner that would allow playback by another machine.  These tinfoil recordings were extremely fragile, however, and rarely lasted long.  Edison abandoned work on the phonograph soon after due to an inability to find investors to improve it further, but Edison’s rival, Alexander Graham Bell, soon commissioned his own recording project at his Volta Laboratories, where by 1881 Charles Tainter and Chichester Bell had created an improved version called the Graphophone and developed a cylinder created out of wax, which could be played over one hundred times before wearing out.  In 1886, Bell formed the Volta Graphophone Company to continue developing sound recording technology.  By the next year, Bell had enticed a group of Philadelphia businessmen to establish the American Graphophone Company to market and sell the device.  In 1888, a businessman named Jesse Lippincott, who had recently purchased both the American Graphophone Company and the Edison Speaking Phonograph Company to consolidate all the important sound recording and playback patents, established the North American Phonograph Company to serve as the exclusive seller of phonographs in North America.  He proceeded to divide the country into territories that he assigned to local franchises.  The phonograph soon attracted wide interest, but it remained a complicated and expensive piece of technology that remained out of the reach of the working class, making it a perfect candidate for coin-operated control.

The first known coin-operated phonograph was patented in 1888 in Britain by electrical engineer Charles Adams Randall, who called his machine the Automatic Parlophone.  The first known coin-operated phonograph in the United States was installed at San Francisco’s Palais Royal Saloon in November 1889 by Louis Glass of the Pacific Phonograph Company — one of Lippincott’s many franchisees — and before long this device joined the testing machines in bars, saloons, and railway terminals across the country, allowing patrons to insert a nickel in a coin slot to hear a song or brief recorded message. While bars and saloons were perfect venues for testers, however, they were less than ideal for phonographs. While coin acceptor technology was improving, too many patrons were still able to “slug” the unsupervised machines by using buttons or washers in place of coins to earn a free play, and they could often be rough on them as well, causing frequent breakdowns. Furthermore, the cylinders needed to be changed out constantly to hold patron interest, while the largest potential audience, women and children, had limited access to the devices because they did not frequent bars. As a result, these early venues for the machines were unsuited to providing the level of care, maintenance, and exposure necessary to maximize the profits from this new form of amusement. The man who ultimately provided the solution to these problems was James Andem, the president of the Ohio Phonograph Company.

Born in Massachusetts in 1842, James Lambert Andem grew up in New York City.  After serving in the Union Army during the Civil War and rising to the rank of first lieutenant, Andem entered the stenographer’s trade.  Moving to Washington, D.C., Andem was an early adopter of the Volta Graphophone to help with creating transcripts of court and legislative proceedings.  When North American Phonograph began dividing the country into sales territories, Andem decided to take Ohio and established the Ohio Phonograph Company in 1888.

In 1890, Andem responded to the inherent problems in operating coin-operated phonographs by opening storefront locations in Cleveland and Cincinnati featuring a dozen phonographs grouped together, allowing an attendant to monitor and maintain the machines and giving patrons a clean, women and children-friendly environment in which they could listen to a series of melodies in rapid succession. Andem opened his Cincinnati location in a building called the Emery Arcade, which may be the origin of the term “arcade” referring to a coin-operated amusement facility, though it is also possible that the use of the term “arcade” in this manner merely evolved because coin-operated businesses became a fixture of the big-city shopping arcades that were a precursor of the modern shopping mall.  In Britain, where facilities grouping together various coin-operated amusements became common in the mid 1890s, the venues tended to be referred to as “automatic shops” instead.


The Mutoscope, the prime attraction of the early penny arcade.

By 1893, there were over 100 phonograph parlors located in big cities around the United States, but the start of a depression that year nearly killed the business. In the meantime, however, Edison had hit on another new idea in 1888, a device that could display moving pictures. At the time, stereo scope viewers, in which a person examined a picture through a special eyepiece that made it appear three dimensional, had been popular for some time, and had first incorporated a coin slot two years earlier in 1886.  In fact, the same year Edison decided to explore moving pictures, a German named C. Bach introduced a viewer called the Kalloscope that proved one of the most popular, and most imitated, coin machines of the late nineteenth century.  In this device, a series of pictures were placed on a chain inside a wooden box, and the user could rotate through the series by turning a knob.  By the 1890s, stereo viewers incorporated motors that automated the movement of the pictures.  Edison’s idea was the next logical step, in which the pictures cycled so quickly as to give the illusion of seamless, real-time movement.

While the initial idea of a motion picture machine belonged to Edison, building on earlier work by pioneers such as Coleman Sellers and Eadweard Muybridge, the majority of the actual work of creating the device was performed by one of his most talented employees, William Dickson. Born in France in 1860 to Scottish parents, Dickson spent his formative years in Britain.  As a teenager, Dickson became fascinated with Edison and his inventions and even wrote him a letter offering his services.  Therefore, after his family immigrated to the United States in 1879, Dickson traveled to Edison’s electrical equipment factory in New York City in 1881 and charmed the inventor into giving him a job.  Two years later, Dickson had risen to manager of the Electrical Testing Department, and by 1886 he had become a personal research assistant to Edison.  By 1892, Dickson had responded to the moving picture challenge by creating the Kinetoscope, a device that allowed a patron to peer through a window on a cabinet to view a series of still photos presented in rapid succession on a strip of perforated celluloid film to give the illusion of movement.  In 1893, Edison formed a partnership with a banker named Norman Raff to commercialize the device, who established the Kinetoscope Company as its exclusive North American distributor.   Raff also helped organize the first public display of the new technology, which made its debut at the 1893 World’s Fair.

The Holland brothers, two Canadian businessmen who became the East Coast agents for the Kinetoscope Company, opened the first Kinetoscope parlor on April 14, 1894, in New York City with ten machines each showing a different movie.  The device proved a smash hit as the parlor averaged $1,400 a week over the course of its first year of operations. The Hollands expanded to other cities, sold international franchises in Europe, and were joined in the market by other entrepreneurs as the coin-op industry revived, but because the earlier phonograph parlors had secured more advantageous locations, the two forms of entertainment soon combined to form one unified arcade industry.

In 1894, Dickson came up with a new motion picture concept in which the photographs were mounted on separate cards attached to a wheel similar to a rolodex that the patron turned with a handcrank, giving him a small measure of control over the speed of the play through and the ability to return to an earlier portion of the show or stop on a specific frame if so desired.  Edison appeared disinterested in pursuing this concept, so Dickson contacted another inventor named Herman Casler, a friend who had collaborated with Edison on an electrically powered mining drill.  Casler saw potential in the concept and worked with his friend Henry Marvin to create a working model, which they patented as the Mutoscope in November 1894.  Dickson, Casler, Marvin, and investor Elias Koopman established the K.M.C.D. Syndicate to exploit the new technology before the end of the year, although Dickson’s involvement was initially kept a secret for legal reasons since he still worked for Edison.  In April 1895, however, Edison dismissed his talented assistant after a falling out involving unauthorized consulting work with Grey and Otway Latham, Kinetoscope operators that wanted to build their own motion picture camera.  Dickson briefly joined the Lathams’ business, but he disliked working for the brothers and soon focused his attention on K.M.C.D., which morphed into the American Mutoscope Company in October 1895.  In 1896, American Mutoscope opened parlors in New York, Washington, Philadelphia, and Baltimore to showcase the new machine with the intent of selling franchises for Mutoscope operation.  When no one would meet the company’s asking price, however, it was forced to operate the parlors itself.  The Mutoscope proved immediately and immensely popular, however, and the parlors easily paid for themselves within the first year.  The Mutoscope remained the backbone of the arcade industry for the next three decades.

The next major breakthrough in arcade operation originated with a Buffalo entrepreneur named Mitchell Mark, who opened his first Kinetoscope parlor in 1894.  In 1901, Mark’s arcade took in a record $35,000 for the year due to increased tourism in Buffalo as it hosted the Pan-American Exposition, driving Mark to explore new avenues of maintaining high volume patronage.   Mark decided the best way to increase traffic was to lower the cost of using his machines from a nickel to a penny and then relocate to an area with heavy pedestrian traffic to ensure constant turnover.   When Mark’s new business model proved successful, he opened a new arcade in uptown New York City that made enough money for him to move into a building on Union Square in 1903, at the time one of the city’s busiest thoroughfares. From this business, Mark created the Automatic Vaudeville Company of roughly thirty-five arcades. As word of Mark’s success spread throughout the country, other operators lowered the price to use their machines as well, and the penny arcade was born.

By the first decade of the twentieth century, the basic parameters of the arcade business for the next quarter century had been established. During this period, the main purpose of the arcade was to present novel experiences rather than games, acting as a sort of mechanical counterpart to the Vaudeville show.   Coin-operated scales and mechanical fortune tellers would typically be placed in front of the arcade to attract business along with the latest phonograph recordings and Mutoscope shows. Inside would be additional phonographs and Mutoscopes, strength, grip, and lung testers, shockers, food vending machines dispensing gum, candy, and nuts, card dispensers featuring celebrity pictures, jokes, horoscopes, etc., machines that vended small items such as scented handkerchiefs and perfume, and a player piano for background music. As is always the case with novelties, constant rotation of products was essential to maintain customer appeal, so arcade chains like the Automatic Vaudeville Company quickly grew to dominate the business since they could rotate a group of machines between several locations, and sometimes get away with a second rotation if the machines had been gone from a location long enough to be considered new again.   Unable to compete with this rate of turnover, independent operators often turned to racier Mutoscope stories featuring strip shows and other lewd behaviors to attract patrons. Despite this seedy fringe element, however, women and children were the primary patrons of coin-op businesses, and the penny arcade briefly represented the primary source of inexpensive mass-market entertainment in the big cities of the United States.

Early Manufacturers

Mills and Caille

Herbert Mills (l) and Arthur Caille, founders of the two most important coin-op amusement companies of the early 20th century

The production of arcade amusement equipment began as a cottage industry, with inventors in various towns and cities setting up small manufacturing operations to produce their coin-operated devices.  With the rising popularity of the Mutoscope in the late 1890s, the coin-operated amusement industry became a big business and one of the primary forms of entertainment for an immigrant working class clientele that lacked the money to attend the theater or similar attractions.  As a result, the manufacture of arcade machines soon consolidated around a few large firms offering a full range of amusement equipment.  By the early twentieth century, four companies had emerged as the leading manufacturers of coin-operated amusement equipment: Rosenfield Manufacturing, Watling Manufacturing, Caille Brothers, and the Mills Novelty Company.

Born in California in 1867, William Rosenfield moved back east to his mother’s hometown of New York City with his family as a young boy.  Mechanically adept, Rosenfield spent five years designing plumbing fittings before joining with a group of investors to establish the Amusement Machine Company in Jersey City in 1890.  The company soon became one of the largest producers of trade stimulators and countertop gambling machines in the country, but by 1896 this business was starting to wane, so the founders decided it was time to cash out.  Together with his sister, Bertha, and an investor named Francis Gribbins, Rosenfield raised $10,000 to establish his own maker of toys, tools, and mechanical novelties in September 1896 as the Rosenfield Manufacturing Company.  Starting with the same gambling machines he had built at the Amusement Machine Company, by 1900 Rosenfield offered a full line of testers, shockers, peep shows, and vending machines and claimed to be the largest equipment manufacturer in the Eastern United States.  The main driver of the company’s business, however, was the Illustrated Song Machine, which Rosenfield himself designed in 1899 and combined a Kinetoscope with a phonograph to provide a soundtrack.

Born in Edinburgh, Scotland, in 1862, Tom Watling came to the United States as a boy and entered the coin-op business as an operator in Cincinnati in 1889 in partnership with his older brother, John.  Three years later, the Watlings moved to Chicago to serve as regional sales managers for German-American industrialist Daniel Schall, like Rosenfield an early gambling machine pioneer.  In 1901, the Watling brothers incorporated as the Watling Manufacturing Company and purchased D.N. Schall and Company to manufacture their own machines.  Watling was active in both trade stimulators and slot machines, but it made its real mark as the leading producer of coin-operated scales, still a popular device in the early twentieth century.

The Caille brothers, Adolph and Arthur, were natives of Detroit, where their father, Joseph, worked as a cabinetmaker.  Younger brother Arthur, born in 1867, exhibited great mechanical aptitude from an early age and first made his mark in 1889 by inventing a cash carrier system, a close relative of the cash register in which money was transferred to a cashier’s desk through a wire-based transit system.  In 1893, he began designing coin-operated slot machines, and in 1897 he opened the Caille Company in Detroit to produce vending machines, trade stimulators, and slot machines.  Older brother Adolph, born in 1863, followed his father into the cabinetmaker’s trade, but also found himself drawn to coin machines.  In 1899, he established the Caille-Schiemer Company to produce floor model gambling machines.  In July 1901, the brothers combined their business ventures as the Caille Brothers Company, and a full line of testers, shockers, and peep shows soon followed.  By 1904, the success of Caille Brothers made it the largest employer in the city of Detroit.  Indeed, when Detroit’s automobile industry began growing just a few years later, many of its first employees were poached from the Caille Brothers operation.


The Owl Lifter, the first coin-operated tester produced by the Mills Novelty Company

As important as Rosenfield, Watling, and Caille Brothers were to the development of the U.S. coin-op industry, no company proved more successful than the Mills Novelty Company established by Herbert Mills in Chicago, a city which, thanks in large part to the success of Mills, soon became the center of the industry.  Herbert’s father, Mortimer, was born in Canada in 1838, but on a trip to De Witt, Iowa, to visit an uncle he met American Kate Fuller and married the sixteen-year-old in 1866.  The couple remained in De Witt until 1878, when they moved to Chicago.  A prolific inventor, Mortimer claimed to have over 400 patents in his name, the most profitable of which was a gate for railway crossings he developed in 1884.  In 1891, Mortimer patented a coin-operated cigar vending machine and soon after entered the coin-op industry by establishing the M.B.M. Cigar Vending Machine Company.

Mortimer fathered thirteen children with Kate, but none were more successful than Herbert, who was born in De Witt in 1870.  Industrious from a young age, Herbert took employment as a “news butcher” — a person who sold newspapers and snacks on trains —  at fifteen, and in 1893 he ran a peanut concession at the Chicago World’s Fair.  Herbert initially entered the coin-op industry as an operator of vending machines before Mortimer signed over the M.B.M. Cigar Vending Machine Company to him in June 1897, which Herbert renamed the Mills Novelty Company.

At the time of the sale, Mortimer had been working on a new all mechanical floor model slot machine he hoped would revolutionize the business.  Released by Mills in late 1897 as the Mills Owl, the machine became an unprecedented success that sold tens of thousands of units, bringing the new company instant success.  In 1899, Mills moved into coin-operated amusements with the release of the Owl Lifter, a popular strength tester.  Through a combination of internal development (often performed by Mortimer) and buyouts of manufacturing rights from other inventors, Mills soon offered a full line of coin-operated amusements backed by aggressive advertising and heavy investment in penny arcades to become the principle driver of the industry in the first years of the twentieth century.  In 1904, Mills ran a large penny arcade at the St. Louis World’s Fair, demonstrating both the power of the company and the triumph of the industry it led.  The success of that industry ultimately proved short-lived, however.

While vending and novelty machines both had their place in the early penny arcade, the backbone of the operation remained the phonographs, Kinetoscopes, and Mutoscopes that enticed patrons with sights and sounds they could experience nowhere else. By 1905, however, the introduction of cheap spring motors had finally put the phonograph within the reach of working class families, while the rise of the Nickelodeon cinema provided a new way to watch films, which could now be projected on a screen for a more impressive — and cost effective — viewing experience.   At first, arcades tried to co-opt the new motion picture business by installing movie projectors in lofts above their main business areas, but by 1907 the movie theater operators had established themselves as a completely separate enterprise, and arcades were no longer the principle venue for audiovisual entertainment. The focus of arcades therefore shifted to racy peep shows that could not be found in the more respectable motion picture houses, but these shows did not bring in enough patrons to maintain high rent locations.  Soon relegated to poorer areas, the surviving penny arcades quickly gained a reputation for being dirty, poorly maintained, dimly lit, and lacking in adequate ventilation. As the coin-operated amusement industry began to decline, however, a new coin-operated industry began to emerge around games of chance.

The Stars are Right

Nolan Bushnell was creative, energetic, even visionary, but there is one thing he was not: a particularly accomplished engineer.  He remained an eager and quick learner, reading up constantly at Ampex, but his true genius lay elsewhere.  Therefore, when he decided to turn Spacewar! into a commercial product, he could not do it by himself.  Fortunately, he shared an office with a skilled engineer named Ted Dabney.  Possessed of none of Bushnell’s blazing ambition, Dabney complemented his office mate’s drive with an ability to solve nearly any engineering problem Bushnell could throw at him.  Together they would establish a company and release a product that heralded the arrival of a new form of entertainment.

Unlike the story of Nolan Bushnell, which has been told in one form or another since the early 1970s, the story of Ted Dabney remained shrouded in mystery for decades.  Forced out of Atari just as the company was hitting its stride, Dabney ultimately disappeared into the hills of California while the domineering personality of Nolan Bushnell took center stage in the media.  In the 1970s, newspaper articles profiling Atari would occasionally state that Dabney was the co-founder of the company, but there was never any elaboration on his contributions.  The most Bushnell would ever say in retrospective interviews with authors like Steven Kent is that Dabney helped start Syzygy and Atari, crafted a few analog components for Computer Space, and then left in 1973 when the operation was becoming too big for him.  Only in 2009, after Phoenix author Leonard Herman tracked Dabney down, did his story begin to receive more attention.  Now, Dabney has given several long interviews to historians and has participated in an oral history for the Computer History Museum, allowing his story to finally be told in full.  As we shall see, there is more to Dabney than “an analog engineer who got cold feet.”

On the flip side, because Nolan Bushnell has garnered the lion’s share of attention over the last four decades for his role in creating Computer Space and Atari, there has been a tendency to perhaps focus too much on Dabney relative to Bushnell in recent publications.  This is perfectly understandable under the circumstances, but it does mean that Dabney’s contributions and his recollection of events have not always been subjected to the same level of scrutiny as Bushnell’s.  While Dabney certainly deserves his share of the credit for Atari’s earliest successes, there are still certain areas where I am not convinced that his recollections are entirely accurate.  This is not in any way an assault on Dabney’s character: it’s just after forty years the memories of all those involved can become hazy.

Early Years


A young Ted Dabney in the United States Marine Corps

Samuel Frederick “Ted” Dabney, Jr. was born in San Francisco, California, in 1937.  According to his Computer History Museum oral history, he was an aimless youth with a mediocre academic record and no idea what he wanted to do with himself after school.  After performing poorly at Los Gatos High School, Dabney entered a trade school when his family moved back to San Francisco and decided to focus on drafting because he had enjoyed a prior course in analytic geometry.  This led to a job as a surveyor at age 16 with the bridge division of the California Division of Highways helping to build the San Francisco freeway system.  Deciding he needed an education despite his academic indifference, Dabney enrolled at San Mateo High School, where he continued to struggle in most subjects, but received an excellent math education from a teacher named Mr. Walker, who covered everything from integral calculus to Boolean algebra.  Upon graduation, Dabney secured a job as a surveyor, but after being laid off during the lean winter construction months, he opted to join the United States Marines.

With his math and surveying background, Dabney planned to go into a specialty such as aircraft repair or electronics, but a difficult boot camp experience at Camp Pendleton ended with him in the artillery instead.  Unhappy, Dabney managed to negotiate a deal with his drill instructor in which he received permission to sign up for a course at the Navy electronics school in exchange for extending his three-year enlistment to four years.  After the 16-week course at Treasure Island and an additional course at the radio relay school at the Marine Corps Recruit Depot in San Diego, Dabney was well-versed in electronics.

Dabney ended up exiting the Marine Corps early by gaining acceptance to San Francisco State in 1959, but he knew that he was not cut out for academic life and could not afford the tuition, so he never actually attended.  Instead, he secured a job with Bank of America helping to maintain a prototype scanner intended for use with the revolutionary Electronic Recording Machine, Accouting (ERMA) computer, a joint project between the bank and the Stanford Research Institute that allowed bank and traveler’s checks to be processed automatically for the first time.  After a year, he left to join Hewlett-Packard on the recommendation of a friend.  That friend soon moved on to Ampex Corporation, so after only six weeks at HP, Dabney moved again to that company’s Military Products Division.



Alexander Poniatoff (r), the founder of Ampex, and Harold Lindsay (l), who was instrumental in getting Ampex into audio equipment

According to an obituary in the March 1981 issue of the Journal of the Audio Engineering Society, Ampex founder Alexander Poniatoff was born in Kazan, Russia, in 1892.  According to the article, Poniatoff knew he wanted to be an engineer from the age of seven when he saw his first locomotive, so he attended the University of Kazan, the Imperial College in Moscow, and the Technical College in Karlsruhe, Germany, to obtain degrees in both mechanical and electrical engineering.  After serving as a pilot in the Imperial Russian Navy during the Great War and then serving in the same capacity for White Russian forces during the Russian Civil War, Poniatoff fled to Shanghai in 1920.  He worked as an engineer for the Shanghai Power Company until 1927, when he immigrated to the United States.  He became a U.S. citizen in 1932.

According to a paper written for the Audio Engineering Society by John Leslie and Ross Snyder entitled “History of the Early Days of Ampex Corporation,” Poniatoff worked for General Electric and Pacific Gas & Electric before finding himself at Dalmo Victor Corporation in San Carlos, California, during World War II.  A specialist in electric motors, Poniatoff was tasked by Dalmo to develop a line of small motors and generators for use by the United States military.  Rather than manufacture this line in house, Dalmo president Tim Moseley decided to establish a separate company run by Poniatoff to do the work.  Poniatoff and Moseley each took a fifty percent stake in the new company, which was named by combining Poniatioff’s initials (A.M.P.) with the abbreviation “EX,” which stood for excellence.

The Ampex motor and generator business proved highly successful during and immediately after World War II, but the end of the war brought both a halt to the company’s lucrative military contracts as well as the fear that larger companies returning to peacetime manufacturing operations would soon squeeze Ampex out.  Poniatoff and his key advisor, Myron Stolaroff, who joined the company in 1946, knew they needed to enter new product areas to survive and began searching for bright engineers to move the company forward.  One of these hires, Harold Lindsay, pushed Ampex to enter the high fidelity sound system market, but the company ultimately went in a slightly different direction.


Jack Mullin, the U.S. Army Signal Corps officer who brought magnetic tape technology to the United States from Germany

In 1928, a German engineer named Fritz Pleumer developed a new way to record audio by coating a long strip of paper with a ferric oxide.  This magnetic material was then passed under a recording head, which would generate an electric signal that would create a magnetization pattern in the oxide in the shape of the sound waves picked up by the device.  While sound recording technology, and even magnetic sound recording technology (previously accomplished using steel wire), were not new concepts, magnetic tape recording provided audio that was virtually indistinguishable from a live performance and granted the ability to easily re-record or rearrange material without any loss of quality.  Pleumer licensed his technology to AEG, one of Germany’s largest electrical equipment manufacturers, in 1932, which created the first practical reel-to-reel tape recorder, the Magnetophon, in 1935.  Due to rising tensions between Nazi Germany and other European powers, the German government decided to keep the new technology a secret, denying this important advance to the rest of the world.

During World War II, the Allies realized that the Germans had some form of new recording technology because Nazi leaders often appeared to be giving live speeches in several locations at the same time.  After the liberation of Paris in August 1944, the U.S. Army Signal Corps assigned a major named Jack Mullin to discover the truth behind Germany’s superior audio recording capability.  According to an obituary for Mullin published in the Journal of the Audio Engineering Society in the September 1999 issue, Mullin finally solved the mystery shortly after the war ended when he entered a German recording studio and discovered a complete AEG Magnetophone K-4 setup.  Mullin documented the devices extensively for the Army and received permission to bring two back home with him for his own use.  In 1946, Mullin and engineer and pioneer filmmaker William Palmer improved upon the German technology to create the Mullin-Palmer Magnetophon and began pushing tape recording in the United States.

Mullin found a willing recording partner in popular singer Bing Crosby, who hated doing live radio shows.  In 1946, Crosby had attempted to record his show for the ABC Radio Network to avoid giving live performances, but the quality was so bad that ratings plummeted.  In 1947, he contracted Mullin to record the shows with his new Magnetophon, and ratings returned to a high level as listeners assumed Crosby was performing live again due to the high quality of the audio.  Impressed, Crosby became a major investor in tape recording technology and even introduced it to his friend Les Paul, who pioneered the multi-track recording technique that remains the standard method of recording music to this day.

Meanwhile, according to Leslie and Snyder, several Ampex engineers, including Leslie himself and Harold Lindsay, attended a demonstration of Mullin’s technology at a meeting of the Institute of Radio Engineers in San Francisco on May 16,  1946.  Impressed, the engineers convinced Poniatoff to view the technology in a private showing, after which the company founder agreed this was a business Ampex should enter.  With technical help from Mullin — who believed that he should help any American business interested in his technology because he had brought it back to America at taxpayer expense — Harold Lindsay and Myron Stolaroff designed the first Ampex tape recorder, the Model 200A.  First shipped in early 1948, the Ampex equipment was soon being used by all the major radio networks to tape-delay their programming, and Ampex quickly rose to dominance in the nascent tape recorder business.  By 1953, the year Ampex went public, company revenues had risen to $3.5 million.  In 1956, Ampex achieved another major breakthrough by introducing the first video tape recorder.  In 1959, Ampex restructured into five divisions, one of which was the Ampex Military Products Co. that hired Ted Dabney.  By 1963, Ampex was bringing in $120 million in sales.

According to his oral history, Dabney’s first project at Ampex was to create a Phantastron, a tube-based timing circuit that would allow the government to change the size of an image that was being converted from film to display on a CRT.  Next, he joined a project developing an electron beam scanner to transmit the data from the 70mm film used by the U-2 spy plane to another location without having to ship the actual film canisters.  One of his major responsibilities on that project was creating video amplifiers and gamma correctors using vacuum tubes.  After six years in military products, Dabney had gained a great deal of experience working with video technology, so when his boss, Kurt Wallace, was asked to head up a new project, he brought Dabney with him to the new Ampex Video File division in 1966.

Video File


The Stanford Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, where Nolan Bushnell first saw Spacewar!

As described by Marty Goldberg and Curt Vendel in their study of Atari, Atari, Inc.: Business is Fun, Video File was an ambitious file storage and retrieval system in which scanned documents were transferred to video tape to create a fully indexed and searchable document database that could be remotely accessed by multiple users in different locations.  According to Dabney in his oral history, his primary duties at Video File were adapting a vidicon camera for use with the system, evaluating monitors and building the circuitry to allow them to interface with the system, and designing additional components such as power supplies.  Much of the circuit design Dabney contributed to the project was virtually identical to the work he did in Military Products except that he used transistors rather than vacuum tubes.

According to Dabney, Ampex found several satisfied customers for the Video File system including the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and the Southern Pacific Railroad, but the project was ultimately unsuccessful in part due to the high cost of the technology, but mostly due to the dissatisfaction of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s department. According to fellow Video File engineer and future Atari collaborator Steve Mayer, as told to Goldberg and Vendel, the Sheriff’s department ordered a Video File system that was duly installed, but had neglected to order the microwave links that would allow the equipment in their field offices to interface with the main system, rendering the entire installation useless for its needs.  Angered at the oversight, the department ultimately refused to pay for the system, making the Video File’s division’s already precarious financial situation completely untenable.

One day in early 1969, Kurt Wallace brought a potential new hire named Nolan Bushnell into Ted Dabney’s office.  According to Dabney, Wallace was clearly impressed with the fresh engineering graduate and wanted Dabney to convince him Ampex was the place to start his career.  According to this author’s interview with Bushnell, the result was never really in doubt, however, because Ampex offered him more money than any other firm to which he applied and was therefore already his first choice.  Before long, Bushnell had started working in the Ampex Video File division and shared an office with Dabney.  According to his interview with Ramsay in Gamers at Work, Bushnell’s responsibility on the project was to help develop an error correction system to deal with “dropouts,” a loss of data during the recording process due to parts of the tape not receiving an oxide coating during manufacturing.

As related by Goldberg and Vendel, Bushnell and Dabney quickly bonded over their shared love of technology and engineering and their similar family lives (despite their age difference, both men had daughters that were roughly the same age).  The men became fast friends, and Bushnell soon roped Dabney into one of his latest obsessions, the Japanese strategy game, Go.  According to our interview, Bushnell was introduced to the game at the University of Utah, where he was number two board on the chess team, by the number one board, a Korean.  His wife subsequently bought him a board for Chirstmas in 1967, and he became an avid player.  According to Goldberg and Vendel, Bushnell and Dabney began playing Go so often at the office that Dabney built them a new wooden board with an Ampex logo on the other side.  This board could hang on the wall when not in use, so any management that came by the office would be none the wiser.  Go not only helped Bushnell and Dabney bond; it directly led Bushnell to the concept that would redefine interactive entertainment.

With his restless nature and entrepreneurial bent, Nolan Bushnell was never going to be satisfied working for someone else on a standard engineer’s salary.  Therefore, soon after joining Ampex, he was already plotting his next move to get rich through his own business.  According to Dabney as related to Goldberg and Vendel, Bushnell’s first idea was a family entertainment concept that combined a pizza parlor with electromechanical contraptions such as “singing barrels” and “talking bears.”  In his oral history, Dabney described this as a “carnival-type pizza parlor” and related that Bushnell roped him into scouting out locations together.  Bushnell himself has denied this claim and has stated that his goal was always to create a video game like Spacewar!.  In Gamers at Work, however, he admitted that he did not discuss video games with Dabney for several months after beginning work at Ampex.  As Bushnell has stated his admiration for Disney (which featured several animatronic attractions at its Disneyland theme park), later employed a similar concept to create Chuck E. Cheese, and most likely had not seen Spacewar! yet (as discussed in the previous post), I tend to believe Dabney on this point.

Bushnell’s ambitions soon changed due to his interest in Go.  According to our interview, Bushnell began attending several Go clubs when he moved to Silicon Valley, including one at Stanford that counted SAIL worker Jim Stein among its members.  As discussed previously, Stein invited Bushnell to come to SAIL with him and check out Spacewar!  According to an interview with Bushnell in the 1973 documentary Games Computers Play, he greatly enjoyed playing the game at Stanford and suddenly realized — most likely due to his previous arcade experience — that there was probably good money to be made adapting the game to a commercial format.  According to Gamers at Work, around this time Bushnell received an advertising flyer from Data General for the Nova minicomputer, and he figured that if he could combine the $4,000 computer with a cheap monitor, he just might be able to turn it into a viable arcade game.

With his vast experience adapting monitors for Video File, there was no engineer better equipped for Bushnell’s new project than Ted Dabney.  Therefore, according to Dabney’s oral history, Bushnell told him one day that he had to see this outrageous thing running at SAIL, took him to see Spacewar!, and outlined his plan to build a commercial version around a minicomputer.  Dabney, who describes himself in his oral history as willing to go along with just about anything, was happy to help.  Neither engineer had much experience working with computer software, however, so they would need to bring in someone else to handle programming duties on the project.  Bushnell therefore turned to another friend in the Ampex Video File division named Larry Bryan.

According to an interview conducted by Marty Goldberg, Larry Bryan was born in Florida and ended up in California for the first time when he was sent there for training by the Peace Corps, which he did not end up joining.  A mathematician with a master’s degree from the University of Miami, Bryan was visiting an uncle in San Diego and waiting for a teaching job to begin in the summer of 1963 when he answered a job ad from UNIVAC for a programmer to work on defense projects, which he ended up accepting in lieu of the teaching assignment.  Bryan had never really programmed before, but with his mathematical background, he picked it up quickly.  In 1965, Bryan transferred to Washington, D.C. before going back to California briefly and then ending up in New Jersey working for Bell Labs on the Nike anti-ballistic missile project.  After marrying a co-worker, Bryan moved to San Francisco in 1967 because he had previously fallen in love with the area and secured a job as the first programmer in the Ampex Video File division.  Bryan became friends with Bushnell through a mutual love of games, often playing chess and Go with him during lunch, and soon socialized regularly with him and his wife.  Bryan was actually in the middle of a brief leave of absence from Video File when Bushnell called and asked him to join his video game team.

Soon after Bushnell called Bryan, the three men met to discuss the project.  According to Dabney, this meeting took place at Bryan’s house, while Bryan remembers the discussion taking place at Dabney’s house.  Either way, according to Bryan Bushnell outlined his plans to recreate Spacewar! on a minicomputer, and the trio agreed that Bushnell would do the electronic engineering, Dabney would do the video engineering, and Bryan would handle the software.  According to an interview of Dabney by Retro Gaming Roundup, the trio also agreed to invest $100 each to get the project up and running, but Bryan does not remember ever being asked to contribute anything.  Bushnell and Dabney apparently did, however, as in his oral history Dabney specifically remembers opening a bank account with an initial deposit of $100 and then adding Bushnell’s contribution to the account soon after.  All three agree that whether or not Bryan was asked, he never contributed any money to the group.  It should be noted that Goldberg and Vendel state the contributions were $350 each, but this contradicts Dabney’s recollection.  It is true that by the end of 1971 both Bushnell and Dabney had paid in $350 according to Syzygy financial records, but I believe the additional $250 may have been contributed later, perhaps when the the partnership was formalized around the end of 1970.  Two separate rounds of contributions would also explain why nearly every source that covers Atari states that the initial pay-in was $250 when the Syzygy records show an ownership contribution of $350.

There is some confusion over exactly when some of the above events took place, with contradictions emerging between both Bushnell and Dabney’s later recollections as well as sworn testimony and the scant documentary evidence of the period.  Goldberg and Vendel, following Dabney’s lead, state that the first meeting between Bushnell, Dabney, and Bryan to work out their partnership occurred in October 1969.  Dabney also insisted the partnership began in 1969 when speaking to Benj Edwards for his article on the creation of Computer Space.  In both Gamers at Work and The Ultimate History of Video Games, however, Bushnell states that he did not broach the concept of an arcade game until he had been working at Ampex for about eighteen months.  As he started in early 1969, this would place his initial recruitment of Dabney in the summer or early fall of 1970.  Interestingly, Dabney himself stated to Goldberg and Vendel that Bushnell approached him about a year after he joined Ampex, which should put the first meeting in early 1970 rather than late 1969 by Dabney’s own estimate as well.  Part of the confusion over the timing may stem from Dabney’s recollection, also confided to Edwards, that Bushnell joined Ampex in late 1968, which is most likely incorrect.  In his deposition, Bushnell states he did not graduate from Utah until December 1968, so he was unlikely hired before early 1969.  A biographical blurb on Bushnell prepared in 1982 on the occasion of his appointment to the National Advisory Council on Vocational Education also states he started work at Ampex in 1969.  Unfortunately, Bryan was unable to pin any dates down in his interview with Goldberg, though he did indicate that the work he did took place around six months before Bushnell brought his game concept to Nutting Associates.  As will be discussed in more detail later, Bushnell has always maintained that he first heard of Nutting in February 1971 and joined the company that March, so if those recollections are accurate, that would put Bryan’s involvement around mid to late summer 1970, which does jive well with certain other pieces of evidence discussed below.

Bushnell’s 1976 deposition helps lock down the dates further.  On this occasion, Bushnell states that he began considering the creation of a minicomputer-based arcade game in spring 1970.  This actually contradicts Bushnell’s recollections to Ramsay that he approached Dabney in the summer and was not talking about the game until 18 months after joining Ampex, but it does line up well with Dabney’s recollection that he was approached about a year after Bushnell joined the company.  As the deposition recollection is closer in time to the events in question than Bushnell’s later interviews and is corroborated by Dabney’s recollections of the general time frame of these events — though not his recollection of the exact dates — I believe their collaboration began in spring 1970.

The above scenario leaves open the possibility that the big meeting between all three partners occurred in October 1970 as opposed to 1969, which is the conclusion reached by Michael Current in his Atari History Timelines, but this is most likely too late for such a meeting.  In Bushnell’s deposition, one piece of evidence introduced was a listing from an August 1970 trade journal detailing the prices and capabilities of all the major minicomputers on the market.  In his testimony, Bushnell stated that some work had already been done on the project before he received this listing in August.  Furthermore, Bushnell also identified another document during his deposition that he believed was created by Bryan as having most likely been drafted in the summer of 1970.  If work was already commencing during the summer and Bryan was already working with Dabney and Bushnell at that time, which is the implication of this testimony, then they probably had their first big meeting prior to October.

Once again from Goldberg and Vendel, after agreeing to create what at this point was still an informal partnership, Bushnell, Dabney, and Bryan held several more meetings at Bushnell and Dabney’s houses over the following weeks to flesh out their plans and to come up with a name for their company.  Initially, they preferred something that used their initials such as D&B Enterprises, but they decided that D&B could be confused with Dunn & Bradstreet, while B&D could be confused with Black & Decker.  They were therefore at an impasse until Bryan mentioned a cool word he remembered hearing: syzygy.  According to Bryan as told to Goldberg, he chose the word because he remembered it had something to do with the influence of three things, and they were looking to create a partnership of three people.  According to Dabney’s oral history and Bryan’s interview, the trio proceeded to look up the word in the dictionary and confirmed that syzygy is defined as the nearly straight-line configuration of three celestial bodies in a gravitational system.  Satisfied with this definition, the trio named themselves Syzygy Engineering.  With a name, a team, a concept, and some initial funding in place, Syzygy now turned its attention to adapting Spacewar! for the coin-operated games market, an insular and conservative industry that was itself going through a period of great upheaval as new technologies promised a complete transformation of its products.

The Book of Nolan

Nearly every society and culture on Earth has a creation story passed down from generation to generation to explain who we are and how we got here.  The video game industry is no different.  While the details may change based on which sources have been consulted by which authors at which times, here is how the creation story of the video game industry might be rendered:

In the late 1960s, a bright young engineering student named Nolan Bushnell attended college at the University of Utah, home of one of the finest computer science programs in the United States.  At Utah, Bushnell became fascinated with computers, learned how to program, and created a few of his own primitive games on the mainframes at the University.  He also became enamored with Spacewar!, which the computer science students at the school were constantly playing. After blowing his entire college tuition fund in a high stakes poker game, Bushnell took a job at a local amusement park, where he was soon placed in charge of the coin-operated games.  Bushnell realized right away that Spacewar! would make a perfect arcade game, but computers were simply too expensive at the time.  Fast forward to California, 1969, when Bushnell learns about the new minicomputers out in the world.  Bushnell initially believes this technology will now be cheap enough to recreate the game as a commercial product, but this proves not to be the case.  He therefore decides to do the game entirely through hard-wired logic, using integrated circuits to build a system dedicated solely to playing the game.  He enlists the help of a fellow engineer to build the power supply and monitor interface and other analog components while he creates the core of the game in his daughter’s bedroom.  Released through a local company in 1971 as Computer Space, the game does poorly because the controls are too complicated.  Bushnell realizes that he requires a simple concept to introduce video games, so he and a partner chip in $250 each to found a company called Atari and build that simple game idea, a table tennis game called Pong.  Pong takes the world by storm as video games quickly displace pinball and all other forms of arcade amusement to launch a new industry.

The above makes for a good story.  Unfortunately, much of it is simply not true.

Now I want to be clear on one point: Nolan Bushnell was a visionary.  He saw the future of interactive entertainment before practically anyone else and was the first person to create a successful company based solely around video games.  Indeed, while an interactive entertainment industry would have formed eventually without his intervention, it is probably fair to say — as Bushnell himself has claimed — that without his insight, it would have developed several years later and in a very different manner (yes, Magnavox released the Odyssey in 1972 independent of Bushnell, but that system had its own problems and console gaming did not take root until several years later after advances in large-scale integration).  For demonstrating that a company could thrive solely through creating video games and for choosing to manufacture and market his own products rather than licensing them to a pinball, television, toy, or consumer electronics company, he deserves the title “father of the video game industry” and stands as one of the true titans in the field.

Unfortunately, Mr. Bushnell’s role in the creation of Atari, Computer Space, and Pong, has oft times been exaggerated, while there have also been attempts to alter the timeline of certain events to give Atari primacy over other companies and individuals working on similar technology in parallel.  Over time, Bushnell has more readily credited those individuals who helped build Atari’s earliest games and has done much to set the record straight on many aspects of the company’s history, but some questionable material still remains in these accounts.  Furthermore, as our understanding of the history has changed over the years, not every publication has kept up with new revelations, meaning that books and articles continue to be written today that parrot outdated and inaccurate information that should have long since disappeared.  As with any undertaking that relies primarily on the memories of the individuals involved — most of the documents that could shed light on the period from 1965-1972 having long since vanished — the full truth may never really be known, but in this blog post and those that follow I hope to construct as accurate a picture as possible of the early life and influences of Nolan Bushnell, the birth of Atari, the launch of Pong, and the first halting steps into a new interactive entertainment industry.

Early Years

Nolan Bushnell Teen

A teenage Nolan Bushnell (top row, third from right)

Nolan K. Bushnell was born on February 5, 1943.  In a fitting twist considering how many facts surrounding Mr. Bushnell have become confused over the years, not even his place of birth is properly recorded.  Most sources state that he was born in Clearfield, Utah, the hometown of his parents Clarence and Delma, but the birth announcement in the February 14, 1943, edition of the Ogden Standard clearly shows that he was actually born in nearby Ogden.  Nolan became interested in science and electronics at an early age, crediting this interest in several interviews — including Robert Slater’s book of profiles on computer industry pioneers, Portraits in Silicon — to a third grade science assignment in which he had to teach a unit on electricity to the rest of the class.  According to a profile by David Sheff in his book Game Over, Bushnell was also a dreamer from a young age, immersing himself in science fiction and imagining life on far off worlds.  According to Sheff, Bushnell remembers building a mockup of a spaceship panel out of an orange crate when he was around six years old.

Both Sheff and Steven Kent in his Ultimate History of Video Games paint a portrait of a restless, creative young man of boundless energy and enthusiasm, a view readily supported by testimony from friends and co-workers over the years and indeed still evident when talking to him today.  Sheff describes both Nolan’s electronics exploits — becoming a HAM radio operator at a young age — and his fondness for practical jokes — once staging a prank in which he drove up to a group of friends wearing a ski mask and fired two blank shotgun shells at one of them, who smashed some ketchup packets against his chest and pretended to be shot.  He often combined these two interests as well, as both Sheff and Kent recount an incident where he attached a hundred-watt light bulb to a large kite and convinced the neighbors a UFO was hovering over Clearfield.  In an interview with the Tech Museum of Innovation, Bushnell described his interest in rocketry and his time spent in a block house in his backyard building ignition systems.  According to this interview, he once nearly set the family garage on fire when a liquid-fuel rocket mounted on a roller skate crashed into it.  Thankfully, while the fuel canister cracked, the fuel was so volatile that it ignited in a flash and did no lasting damage.

Clearly, Nolan Bushnell knew how to have fun as a boy, but he also knew how to work.  Born to Mormon parents — though he ultimately left their religion behind — he was raised on the importance of family and hard work.  As Bushnell recounted to Sheff, in the summer of 1958 Clarence Bushnell, who worked as a cement contractor, died, and fifteen-year-old Nolan finished his father’s outstanding jobs himself.  In speaking to Kent, Bushnell credited this experience with instilling a belief that he could do any task he set himself to.  As he recounted in one of several depositions he gave during patent litigation with Magnavox, Bushnell also held a job with a local business called Barlow Furniture throughout high school in which he did appliance delivery and appliance and TV repair.  He continued this job into his early college years as well.

As Bushnell’s early career has come under some scrutiny in recent years, some authors have come to doubt Bushnell’s claims that he was a TV repairman.  The main source for this doubt is the recollections of Ted Dabney, co-founder of Atari, who believes this claim improbable based on his observations of Bushnell’s engineering skills and the difficulty involved in tinkering with 1950s televisions.  While I am happy to note Dabney’s objection here, I personally give Bushnell the benefit of the doubt on this issue and am willing to believe he did, in fact, repair TVs and appliances in high school and college.  He listed this job as part of his work experience in a sworn deposition given on January 13, 1976, and I can see no discernible advantage to lying about this under oath, as it is not a material fact upon which his defense hinged — unlike his University of Utah Spacewar! claims discussed below.  Furthermore, in the same deposition, Bushnell claims he mainly “switched tubes around” and that other people did the “heavy repairing.”  Finally, he states himself in the deposition that he was better with appliances than with televisions.  Therefore, Dabney’s assessment does not necessarily contradict Bushnell, who never claimed under oath to be doing sophisticated TV repair work.  On the other hand, in Gamers at Work Bushnell told Morgan Ramsay that he ran a television repair company as a teenager, while Scott Cohen in his history of Atari, Zap!, states that Bushnell ran a television-appliance-radio repair business.  These accounts appear to be embellishments of his work at Barlow, as no independent repair operation is referenced in the 1976 deposition.  Recently, Bushnell has also started claiming that he was running a TV repair business from the time he was ten years old (see, for example, his February 2013 interview at the Startup Grind conference), but again this appears to be embellishment.  In his deposition, Bushnell does describe how he started by fixing neighborhood TVs before the Barlow job, but he never indicates that he had a business to do so and never indicates such a young, and highly improbable, age.

According to his 1976 deposition, Bushnell matriculated to Utah State University in 1961 to study engineering.  When speaking to Kent, Bushnell described a paper he wrote during his freshman year in which he argued that a bright person should be able to master — that is be in the 90th percentile — any subject with three years of intensive study.  Bushnell claimed that, based on this formulation, his goal was to constantly move from topic to topic, never focusing too long on any one area.  This philosophy captures Bushnell perfectly.  Growing up, he flitted between science fair projects, debate team, and basketball (having reached his final height of 6’4” by the seventh grade, but according to Cohen never achieving the coordination necessary to do much more than ride the bench) while reading philosophy as a hobby.  According to his deposition, after high school Bushnell started at Utah State in engineering, switched to business, transferred to the University of Utah to major in economics in 1965, and finally graduated with an electrical engineering degree with a focus on computer design in December 1968.  His entire professional life has been typified by moving from one new idea to the next while rarely sticking with one concept for too long.  While this restless energy proved essential to establishing Atari and dreaming up some of the first commercial video games, however, it has also prevented him from effectively managing or sustaining a viable company in the long term.  Bushnell has always been better at formulating ideas than at executing them.

There is a story about Nolan Bushnell’s college years that goes back at least as far as Zap! in 1984 and has been more recently parroted by Sheff, Kent, and Tristan Donovan in Replay that Nolan Bushnell blew his tuition money in a high stakes poker game, forcing him to take a job at a local amusement park to make ends meet.  While it would not surprise me to learn that Bushnell played high stakes poker — his life is full of evidence of both his devout love of games and his penchant for risk taking — I believe this to be another embellishment.  In truth, Bushnell worked throughout high school and college.  According to his 1976 deposition, in addition to the Barlow Furniture delivery/repair job he worked for Litton Guidance Systems in the summer of 1962, served as a draftsman for a professor in the Utah State industrial engineering department planning irrigation systems in the Fall of 1962 or 1963, and also worked during the school year at Hadley Clothing.  Both his deposition and his interview with Ramsay reference an advertising business he ran for a time in college as well.  As Bushnell told Slater, he called this business the Campus Company and produced a blotter three times a year that he distributed free to four local universities.  Included within was the calendar of events for the university, surrounded by advertising.  Bushnell made his money — a claimed $3,000 per issue — by selling the advertising space.  With a production cost of only $500, the blotter delivered Bushnell a tidy profit.  In Slater’s book, Bushnell states he took the job at the amusement park to occupy his spare hours because he was afraid he would fritter away his earnings from the blotter if he did not have some other activity to keep him occupied.  Perhaps he came to this realization due to losing at (or fearing to lose at) poker, but in Slater’s book he emphasizes a fear that he would spend the money, not gamble it away.  In short, the sum of the evidence indicates that Bushnell needed to work his way through school regardless of his extracurricular activities and that it is highly unlikely he blew all his money gambling at any point.  There is no question, however, that in the Summer of 1963, Nolan Bushnell began working at the Lagoon Amusement Park in Farmingham, Utah.

In many interviews, Bushnell has expressed the importance of his years at Lagoon, which have alternately been reported as two years (Cohen) or four years (Steven Bloom’s Video Invaders), but were in fact five years, as Bushnell himself related in his deposition.  According to his testimony, Bushnell began his employment on the midway running a “spill the milk” game in which patrons tried to knock over milk bottles with a baseball.  He subsequently rotated through several games including the “guess your weight” booth, “shooting waters,” “flip ’em over,” and coin-operated bowling and skee ball lanes.  Working full time in the peak summer months and part time during the school year, Bushnell honed his sales skills as a carnival barker enticing visitors to spend their coins on his games.  Bushnell has often been described as a natural showman, and he must have done well at this job, because in 1965 he became the manager for the amusement park penny arcade, sharing full profit and loss responsibilities for the division with a man named Steve Hyde while also taking responsibility for the maintenance of the equipment.  He also claims in his deposition that he would take discarded arcade equipment off of Lagoon’s hands, repair it, and operate a coin-op route encompassing several University of Utah fraternity houses.  He sold this route when he headed west after graduation to secure an engineering job in California.  According to a 1982 profile printed in TWA Magazine as well as both Cohen’s and Slater’s books, Bushnell had hoped to work for Disney as an Imagineer — one of those engineers responsible for creating the rides and attractions at Disney theme parks — but the company did not hire fresh graduates.  He therefore secured a job at tape recording pioneer Ampex Corporation.



Bruce Baumgart, winner of the Intergalactic Spacewar! Olympics, celebrates next to a terminal running Spacewar! at the Stanford AI Lab, where Nolan Bushnell first saw the game in 1969

Birthplace mixups, poker exploits, and TV repair questions aside, Nolan Bushnell’s early years do not engender controversy.  Bushnell’s story gets much more complicated, however, when we approach the question of when and where he discovered the inspiration for Computer Space, the video arcade game he built with Ted Dabney (and which will be covered in more detail in a subsequent post).  Now, there is no doubt that Computer Space and, by extension, the entire video arcade game industry was Bushnell’s idea (there was one other video arcade game concept active at roughly the same time, but it never entered mass production).  There is also no doubt that Bushnell drew inspiration for the game from Spacewar!, a fact he has readily acknowledged in every interview he has ever given on the subject.  Clearly, the combination of Bushnell’s experience as an operator of arcade games combined with his interest in Spacewar! and his entrepreneurial spirit provided the unique mix of ingredients required to introduce interactive entertainment to the general public.  All of this has been claimed by Bushnell and his biographers, and rightly so.  The problem arises from Bushnell’s claim — originally stated in a November 1973 article in Systems Engineering Today and subsequently parroted by every writer from Cohen to Sheff to Kent to Donovan — that he first saw Spacewar! in the late sixties at the University of Utah.  In reality, this appears not to have been the case.

The best accounting of Bushnell’s exposure to Spacewar! comes from research collected by Marty Goldberg and Curt Vendel as part of writing their history, Atari, Inc.: Business is Fun.  Basically, the question comes down to whether Spacewar! could have been played at the University of Utah between 1965 and 1968.  In a blog post on the subject, Goldberg revealed his research, which involved actually contacting the university and working with a graduate student to go through the records of the nascent computer science department.  In so doing, Goldberg noted that Utah never had a PDP-1, the original platform for Spacewar!, and that the only two computers theoretically capable of playing the game at the university during the relevant time frame, a PDP-8 and a UNIVAC 1108, were dedicated to highly specific functions and unlikely to be platforms for the game.  Furthermore, the 1108 was equipped with a raster rather than a vector display, making it unsuitable for playing Spacewar!, while all evidence collected by Goldberg points to the PDP-8 version of the game being written after 1968.

Now, it is true that in his 1976 deposition in the Magnavox lawsuit, Nolan Bushnell did claim under oath that he had played Spacewar! at Utah, believing this to have occurred shortly after he arrived at the University in 1965 when a friend in the chess club invited him over to the computer center.  When pressed for details, however, he could not recollect the exact time frame this occurred or even be certain of his friend’s name, first claiming it as Jim Davies and then claiming not to really remember the last name, but fairly certain it started with a “D.”  He also could not remember if it was played on an IBM 7094 or a UNIVAC 1108 because Utah changed computers while he was there.  This last claim actually demonstrates some familiarity with the Utah computer center, as Goldberg’s research did show that in 1966, Utah upgraded from an IBM 7044 (not 94) to an 1108.  Bushnell then goes on to claim that a year or so later he became interested in programming some games and talked to a fraternity brother affiliated with the lab, one Randall Willey, who directed him to a student he could not recall the name of that gave him a printout of the Spacewar! code.  When talking to Kent years later, Bushnell claimed that he subsequently programmed a few games — including a fox and geese game in which a player-controlled fox attempted to hunt down computer-controlled geese one by one without getting boxed in by them — but in his deposition he makes it clear that while he did take two computer courses and learned some FORTRAN and Algol, two early programming languages, he ultimately did not program any games at Utah himself.  Furthermore, in his 1976 deposition he not only explicitly states that he was not interested in any games being played at Utah other than Spacewar!, but also that the “fox and geese” concept was actually something he recalled seeing at a computer conference circa 1969 as opposed to something he created himself.  The closest he comes to claiming any game design at the university in his deposition is purportedly authoring a paper in 1967 outlining how certain game concepts, like baseball, might be implemented on a computer with a display.  Once again, however, he was unable to provide any documentation or corroboration for this claim.

Why would Bushnell potentially be evasive under oath?  Well, in April 1974 Atari was one of several companies sued over patents filed by Ralph Baer on early video game technology.  Baer’s work, his patents, and this lawsuit will be discussed in more detail later, but for now its just important to know that Baer’s patents were filed in 1971, so one defense that Atari and other companies attempted to mount was that prior art existed that invalidated these patents.  It was therefore important for Bushnell to establish that his own game technology had its roots in the mid 1960s, before Baer built his video game hardware.  By placing his own knowledge of Spacewar! around 1965 and claiming to have written down some computer game ideas in 1967, Bushnell accomplishes just that.  In addition to Goldberg’s research on the Utah computer center, I find it compelling that in his testimony Bushnell was as vague as possible regarding the people and technologies involved in the game he claimed to play in 1965, and that after the lawyers asked him to find material that could corroborate his assertions, he reported in a follow up deposition on March 2, 1976, (excerpted in Goldberg’s post) that he was unable to locate anyone or anything that could substantiate his story.

So when did Nolan Bushnell first see the Spacewar! game?  According to my own interview with Bushnell, when he relocated to the San Francisco area, he began attending several go clubs, as he had recently become fascinated by the game in his later years at the University of Utah.  At the Stanford University go club, Bushnell met Jim Stein, who worked at the Artificial Intelligence Laboratory.  In both our interview and the book High Score, Bushnell recounted how one day in 1969 Stein told him about the cool games available at the lab, where as we saw previously, Spacewar! was an incredibly popular pastime.  Bushnell states that he told his friend that he already knew of Spacewar!, but would love to play it again.  Note how this recollection so closely mirrors the story in his deposition that a friend with the first name Jim with whom he played chess told him about all the cool games in the Utah computer center.  I believe there is a high degree of likelihood that Bushnell took the true story of how he was introduced to the game at Stanford and tweaked it to take place earlier at Utah instead in order to show that his ideas predated those of Ralph Baer.  This is the same basic conclusion drawn by Goldberg in his blog post, where as a final piece of evidence he presented an excerpt from a 1973 documentary, filmed before the Systems Engineering Today article and the Magnavox litigation, in which Bushnell claims as his inspiration the computer games played at Stanford and does not mention games at the University of Utah at all.  In a later section of the documentary not available in Goldberg’s blog post, the narrator explicitly states that Bushnell first saw Spacewar! at Stanford.

So where does that leave the first portion of our video game creation story now?  Well, I believe it goes something like this:

In 1969, a bright, enthusiastic engineering graduate from the University of Utah named Nolan Bushnell came to the state of California to work for Ampex Corporation.  Possessed of an entrepreneurial spirit and experience working as an operator of arcade games, Bushnell was introduced to the landmark computer game Spacewar! by a friend who worked at the Stanford AI lab, became instantly hooked by the game, and pondered how to turn it into a commercial product.  When he saw a sales flyer for the $3,995 Data General Nova, he thought he just might be able to run Spacewar! on a minicomputer hooked up to a brace of monitors and some coin slots and turn a profit.  Bushnell therefore recruited some co-workers and took his first steps toward establishing a new industry, one that has grown to be worth over $50 billion today.

Thus begins the story of Nolan Bushnell, father of the video game industry.

Historical Interlude: From the Mainframe to the Minicomputer Part 3, DEC and Data General

While IBM was crushing its competition in the mainframe space, another computer market began opening up that IBM virtually ignored.  Following the success of the PDP-1, Ken Olsen and his Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC) continued their work in real-time computing and cultivated a new market for computerized control systems for scientific and engineering projects.  After stumbling in its attempts to build larger systems in the IBM mold, the company decided to create machines even smaller and cheaper than low-end mainframes like the 1401 and H200.  These so-called “minicomputers” could not hope to compete with mainframe systems on power and were often more difficult to program due to a comparably limited memory, but DEC’s new line of computers were also far cheaper and more interactive than any system on the market and opened up computer use to a larger swath of the population than ever before.  Building on these advances, by the end of the 1960s a DEC competitor established by a disgruntled former employee was able to introduce a minicomputer that in its most basic configuration cost just under $4,000, bringing computers tantalizingly close to a mass-market product.  The combination of lower prices and real-time operation offered by the minicomputer provided the final key element necessary to introduce computer entertainment programs like Spacewar! to the general public.

Note: Once again we have a historical interlude post discussing the technological breakthroughs in computing in the 1960s that culminated in the birth of the electronic entertainment industry.  The material in this section is largely drawn from Computer: A History of the Information Machine by Martin Campbell-Kelly and William Aspray, A History of Modern Computing by Paul Ceruzzi, The Ultimate Entrepreneur: The Story of Ken Olsen and Digital Equipment Corporation by Glenn Rifkin and George Harrar, and oral histories conducted by the Computer History Museum with Gordon Bell, Ed de Castro, Alan Kotok, and Harlan Anderson.

The Matrix


Ken Olsen poses outside The Mill, DEC corporate headquarters

When last we left DEC, the company had just introduced its first computer, the PDP-1, to a favorable response.  Buoyed by continuing demand for system modules and test equipment and the success of the PDP-1, DEC’s profits rose to $807,000 on sales of $6.5 million for the 1962 fiscal year.  Growing financial success, however, could not compensate for serious underlying structural problems at the company.  From his time serving as a liaison between Project Whirlwind and IBM, Ken Olsen had inherited an extreme loathing for bureaucracy and the trappings of corporate culture and preferred to encourage individual initiative and experimentation more in line with practices in the academic sector.  This atmosphere suited most of DEC’s employees, many of them transplants from MIT and Lincoln Labs eager — like Olsen — to continue their academic work in a private setting.  DEC headquarters, affectionately called “The Mill,” practically became an extension of the MIT campus as students traveled back and forth between Cambridge and Maynard to work part time or just hang out with DEC engineers and learn how the company’s computers operated.  There were no set engineering teams, so employees would organically form groups around specific projects.  While this freedom and lack of oversight spurred creative thinking, however, it left DEC without a coherent product strategy or well developed sales, manufacturing, and servicing organizations.

In 1963, DEC revenues soared to $10 million, while profits jumped to $1.2 million.  The next year, however, revenues flattened and earnings declined, coming in at $11 million and $900,000 respectively.  With little management guidance, DEC engineering teams tended to over commit and under deliver on products, while lack of communication between sales, order processing, and manufacturing resulted in difficulties delivering the company’s existing product line to customers in sufficient quantities.  Clearly, DEC needed to implement a more rigorous corporate structure to remain viable.  The struggle to reform DEC ultimately pitted the company’s two founders against each other as Olsen steadfastly refused to implement a rigid hierarchy, while Harlan Anderson backed Jay Forrester, the Whirlwind project leader turned MIT Sloan School of Business professor who served as a director of DEC, in his efforts to implement some of his own management theories at the company.  Georges Doriot, the most important director of the company due to ARD’s large stake in DEC, remained a staunch supporter of and adviser to Olsen, but preferred to stay out of the conflict, feeling directors should not tell management what to do unless a company is in dire straits.

While struggling to operate efficiently, DEC also experienced difficulty creating a successor to the PDP-1.  Initial plans to create 24- and 36-bit versions of the computer, designated the PDP-2 and PDP-3 respectively, floundered due to technical hurdles and a lack of customer interest and never entered production.  Worse, PDP-1 designer Ben Gurley announced his resignation in December 1962 to join a new startup before being tragically murdered less than a year later by a former co-worker.  With Gurley’s departure, DEC’s primary computer designer became a young engineer named Gordon Bell.


Gordon Bell, DEC’s principal computer designer after the departure of Ben Gurley

Born in Kirksville, Missouri, Gordon Bell exhibited an aptitude for electrical engineering at an early age and was earning $6/hour as an electrician by the time he was about twelve years old.  Matriculating to MIT in 1952, Bell earned his B.S. in electrical engineering from the school in 1956 and his M.S. in the same field the next year.  Originally interested in being a power engineer, Bell worked for American Electric Power and GE through a co-op program while attending MIT, but he ultimately decided not to pursue that path further.  Unsure what to do after graduation, he accepted an offer to travel to Australia to set up a new computer lab in the electrical engineering department of the University of New South Wales.  After a brief stint in the Speech Computation Laboratory at MIT, Bell Joined DEC in 1960 and did some work on the I/O subsystem of the PDP-1.  After helping with the aborted PDP-3, which had been an attempt to enter the scientific market served by the 36-bit IBM 7090, Bell initiated a project to create a cheaper, but more limited version of the PDP-1 intended for process control.  Dubbed the PDP-4, the computer sold for just $65,000 and included some updated features such as auto index registers, but a lack of compatibility with the PDP-1 coupled with reduced capabilities compared to DEC’s original computer ultimately killed interest in the product.  While DEC managed to sell fifty-four PDP-4s, one more unit than the PDP-1, it was considered a commercial disappointment.

In early 1963, Olsen and Anderson decided to return to the PDP-3 concept of a large scientific computer that could challenge IBM in the mainframe space and tapped Bell for the project, who was assisted by Alan Kotok, the noted MIT hacker who joined DEC upon graduating in 1962.  Dubbed the PDP-6, Bell’s computer was capable of performing 250,000 operations per second and came equipped with a core memory with a capacity of 32,768 36-bit words.  While not quite on par with the industry-leading IBM 7094, the computer was capable of real-time operation and incorporated native support for time sharing unlike the IBM model, and it was also far cheaper, retailing for just $300,000.  Unfortunately, the computer was poorly engineered and not thoroughly tested, leading to serious technical defects only discovered once the first computers began shipping to customers in 1964.  As a result, the computer turned out to be a disaster, with only twenty-three units sold.  Harlan Anderson, who had championed the computer heavily, bore the brunt of the blame for its failure from his co-founder Olsen.  Combined with their on-going fight over the future direction of the company, the stigma of the PDP-6 fiasco ultimately drove Anderson from the company in 1966.  The failure of the PDP-6 was the clearest indicator yet that DEC needed to reform its corporate structure to survive.

In 1965, Olsen finally hit upon a solution to the company’s organizational woes.  Rather than a divisional structure, Olsen reorganized DEC along product lines.  Each computer sold by the company, along with the company’s module and memory test equipment lines, would become its own business unit run by a single senior executive with full profit and loss responsibility and complete independence to define, develop, and market his product as he saw fit.  To actually execute their visions, each of these senior executives would have to present his plans to a central Operations Committee composed of Olsen and his most trusted managers, where they would bid for resources from the company’s functional units such as sales, manufacturing, and marketing.  In effect, each project manager became an entrepreneur and the functional managers became investors, allocating their resources based on which projects the Operations Committee felt deserved the most backing.  While DEC was not the first company to try this interconnected corporate structure — which soon gained the moniker “matrix management” — the ensuing financial success of DEC caused the matrix to become closely associated with Ken Olsen in subsequent decades.

 The Minicomputer


The PDP-8, the first widely sold minicomputer

One of DEC’s oldest computer customers was Atomic Energy of Canada, which had purchased one of the first PDP-1 computers for its Chalk River facility.  The company proceeded to buy a PDP-4 to control the reactor at Chalk River, but the computer was not quite able to handle all the duties it had been assigned.  To solve this problem, Gordon Bell proposed in early 1963 that rather than create custom circuitry to meet Atomic Energy’s needs, DEC should build a smaller computer that could serve as a front end to interface with the PDP-4 and provide the needed functionality.  Rather than just create a system limited to Atomic Energy’s needs, however, Bell decided to design the machine so it could also function as an independent general-purpose computer.  DEC named this new computer the PDP-5.

Bell was not the first person to create a small front-end computer: in 1960 Control Data released the Seymour Cray-designed CDC 160 to serve as an I/O device to interface with its 1604 mainframe.  Soon after, CDC repurposed the machine as a stand-alone device and marketed it as the CDC 160A.  The brilliant Cray employed bank switching and other techniques to allow the relatively limited 12-bit computer to address almost as much memory as a large mainframe, though not as easily or efficiently.  While not as powerful as a full-scale mainframe, the 160A provided most of the same functionality — albeit scaled down at a speed of only 67,000 operations per second — at a price of only $60,000 and a footprint the size of a metal desk.  CDC experienced some success with the 160A, but as the company was primarily focused on supercomputers, it paid little attention to the low-end market.

While Bell planned for the 12-bit PDP-5 to be a general purpose computer, DEC essentially treated the computer as a custom solution for Atomic Energy and not as a key part of its future product line, which was then focused around the large-scale PDP-6.  As a result, DEC planned to only sell roughly ten computers, just enough to recoup its development costs.  Just as IBM had underestimated demand for the relatively cheap 1401, however, DEC did not realized how interested the market would be in a fully functional computer that sold for just $27,000, by far the cheapest core-memory computer on the market.  Orders soon began pouring in, and the company ultimately sold roughly 1,000 PDP-5s, making it the company’s best-selling computer by a factor of twenty.  With the PDP-6 floundering, Ken Olsen decided to champion smaller computers, and the company began considering a more advanced followup to the PDP-5.


Edson de Castro, the engineer who designed the PDP-8 and later established Data General

Just as Harlan Anderson was forced out of DEC due to the failure of the PDP-6, so too did Gordon Bell decide it was time to move on.  While he did not officially leave the company, he took a sabbatical in 1966 that lasted six years in which he did some work in academia and continued to serve as a DEC consultant.  In his place, the task of developing a followup to the PDP-5 fell to another engineer named Edson de Castro.

Born in Plainfield, New Jersey, Ed de Castro spent the majority of his childhood in Newton, Massachusetts.  The son of a chemical engineer, de Castro had a fascination with mechanical devices from a young age and always knew he wanted to be an engineer.  Accepted into MIT, de Castro opted instead to attend the much smaller and less prestigious Lowell Technological Institute, where he felt he would receive more attention from the school faculty.  Interested in business, de Castro applied to Harvard Business School after graduation, but the school said it would only accept him after the next academic year.  He therefore needed a job in the short term and was recruited by Stan Olsen as a systems engineer for DEC in late 1960, where he worked with customers to develop applications for DEC’s systems modules.  After just under a year at DEC, de Castro left to attend Harvard, but his grades were insufficient to qualify for the second year of the program, so he returned to DEC to work in the custom products division, which focused on memory test equipment.

After Gordon Bell and Alan Kotok outlined the PDP-5, de Castro became the primary engineer responsible for building it.  The original design called for the machine to be a 10-bit computer, but de Castro upped this to 12 bits — multiples of 6 being the standard in the industry at the time — so it could address more memory and be more useful.  When the PDP-5 became successful, de Castro went back to working as a systems engineer and helped install the computers in the field.  Soon after, he turned his attention to the computer’s successor, the PDP-8.

The PDP-8 had several advantages over the small computers that preceded it.  First of all, it used a transistor from Philco, the germanium micro-alloy diffused transistor, that operated particularly quickly and allowed the computer to perform 500,000 operations per second.  Furthermore, DEC harnessed its expertise in core memory to lower the memory cycle time to 1.6 microseconds, slightly faster than an IBM 7090 and much faster than the CDC 160A.  While the 12-bit computer could only directly address 7 bits of memory, DEC employed several techniques to allow the computer to indirectly address full 12-bit words and perform virtually any operation a larger computer could, albeit sometimes much slower.  While complex calculations might take a long time, however, many simpler operations could be performed just as quickly on a PDP-8 as on a much larger and more expensive computer.  The PDP-8 was also incredibly small, as de Castro employed an especially efficient board design that allowed the entire computer to fit into a case that occupied only eight cubic feet of volume, meaning it was small enough to place on top of a standard workbench.

In 1965, DEC introduced the PDP-8 with 4,000 words of memory and a teletype for user input for just $18,000.  Within just a few years, the price fell to under $10,000 as DEC continued to cost reduce the computer though new technologies like integrated circuits, which were first used in the PDP-8 in 1969.  Thanks to de Castro, organizations could now purchase a computer that fit on top of a desk yet provided nearly all the same functionality at nearly the same speed (for most operations, at least) as a million dollar computer taking up half a room.  The limitations of the PDP-8 guaranteed it would not displace mainframes entirely, but the low price helped it become a massive success with over 50,000 units sold over a fifteen year period.  Many of these machines were sold under a new business model in which DEC would act as an original equipment manufacturer (OEM) by selling a PDP-8 to another company that would add its own software and peripheral hardware.  This company would then sell the package under its own name and take responsibility for service and maintenance.  Before long, OEM arrangements grew to represent fifty percent of DEC’s computer sales while allowing DEC to keep its costs down by farming out labor intensive tasks like software creation.  As DEC rode the success of the PDP-8, revenues climbed from $15 million in 1965 to almost $23 million in 1966 to $39 million in 1967, while profits increased sixfold between 1965 and 1967 to $4.5 million.

The Nova


The Data General Nova, a minicomputer that combined an incredibly small size with an incredibly cheap price

The success of the PDP-8 opened up a whole new market for small, cheap machines that soon gained the designation “minicomputers.”  With IBM and most of its competitors remaining focused on full-sized mainframes, however, this market was largely populated by newcomers to the computer industry.  Hewlett-Packard, the large West Coast electronics firm, first offered to buy DEC and then went into competition with its own minicomputer line.  Another west-coast electronics firm, Varian Associates, also entered the fray, as did an array of start-ups like Wang Laboratories and Computer Control Company, which was quickly purchased by Honeywell.  By 1970, over seventy companies were manufacturing minicomputers, and a thriving high-technology sector had emerged along Route 128 in the suburbs of Boston.  DEC continued to be the leader in the field, but soon faced some of its most serious competition from within the company itself.

Ed de Castro had brought great success to DEC by designing the PDP-8, but he was not particularly happy at the company.  The Silicon Valley concept of rewarding engineering talent with generous stock options did not yet exist, so while DEC had gone public in 1966, only senior executives reaped the benefits while de Castro, for all the value he added to the company, had to make do with an engineer’s salary of around $12,000 a year.  Furthermore, de Castro had hoped to be placed in charge of the PDP-8 product line, but Ken Olsen refused him.  Sensing de Castro was unhappy and not wanting to lose such a talent, DEC executive Nick Mazzarese hoped to placate de Castro by giving him charge of a new project to define the company’s next-generation successor to the PDP-8.

Although the PDP-8 was only two years old by the time de Castro turned to designing a followup in 1967, the computer market had changed drastically.  The integrated circuit was by now well established and promised significant increases in performance alongside simultaneous reductions in size and cost.  Furthermore, the dominance of the System/360 had caused a shift from a computer architecture based on multiples of six bits to one based on multiples of the 8-bit byte, which remains the standard in the computer industry to this day.  DEC’s competitors in the minicomputer space were therefore focusing on creating 16-bit machines, and the 12-bit PDP-8 looked increasingly obsolete in comparison.

In late 1967, de Castro and fellow engineers Henry Burkhardt and Dick Sogge unveiled an ambitious computer architecture designed to keep DEC on top of the minicomputer market well into the 1970s.  Dubbed the PDP-X, de Castro’s system was built around medium-scale integration circuits and — like the System/360 — would offer a range of power and price options all enjoying software and peripheral compatibility.  Furthermore, while the base architecture would be 16-bit, the PDP-X was designed to be easily configurable for 32-bit technology, allowing customers to upgrade as their needs grew over time without having to redo all their software or buy all new hardware.  Rather than being just a replacement for the PDP-8, the PDP-X was positioned as a product that could supplant DEC’s entire existing computer line.

But the PDP-X was too ambitious for DEC.  Olsen still remembered the failure of the PDP-6 project, and he was horrified when de Castro told him that the PDP-X would be an even bigger undertaking than that computer.  Worse, de Castro was known for bucking DEC management practices and doing things his own way, so he had butted heads with nearly everyone on the company’s Operations Committee while simultaneously alienating nearly every product line manager by proposing to replace all of their products.  Unlike Tom Watson Jr., who bet his company on an integrated product line and came to dominate the mainframe industry as a result, Olsen could not bring himself to pledge so many resources to a single project.  DEC turned the PDP-X down.

This was the last straw for de Castro.  He had long been interested in business — witness his brief stint at Harvard — and he had long chafed under DEC management.  He had also toyed with the idea of establishing his own company in the past, and with the Route 128 tech corridor taking off, there was plenty of venture money to be had for a computer startup.  Therefore, de Castro brought in his former boss in custom products, Pat Greene, to run his prospective company and a Fairchild salesman named Herb Richman that he had purchased circuits from to run marketing and began designing a new 8-bit computer with Burkhardt and Sogge before actually leaving DEC.  After initially garnering little interest from venture capitalists, Richman placed de Castro in touch with George Cogar, co-founder of a company called Mohawk Data Sciences, who agreed to become the lead investor in what turned out to be $800,000 in financing.

In early 1968, the group was finally ready to leave DEC, but Pat Greene got cold feet and appeared ready to back out, uncomfortable with the work the group was doing behind Ken Olsen’s back.  Therefore, de Castro, Burkhardt, and Sogge waited until April 15, when Greene was out of the country on a business trip to Japan, to resign and officially establish Data General.  When Greene returned from Japan, he turned over all materials he had related to the new company to Olsen, including the plans for the 8-bit computer the three engineers had been secretly building at DEC.  Olsen felt betrayed and carried an enmity for Data General for decades, convinced de Castro had stolen DEC technology when he departed.  Despite this belief, however, DEC never sued.

In 1969, de Castro, Burkhardt, and Sogge released their first computer, the Data General Nova.  Quickly abandoning their 8-bit plans once leaving DEC, the trio designed the Nova using medium-scale integration circuits so that the entire computer fit on just two printed circuit boards: one containing the 16-bit CPU and the other containing various support systems.  By fitting all the circuitry on only two boards with minimal wiring, Data General was able to significantly undercut the PDP-8 on cost while simultaneously making the system easier to manufacture and therefore more reliable.  With these savings, Data General was able to offer the Nova at the extremely low price of $3,995, though practically speaking, the computer was essentially useless without also buying a 4K core memory expansion, which pushed the price up to around $7,995.  Still this was an unheard of price for a fully functional computer and spurred brisk sales.  It also piqued the interest of a young engineer recently graduated from the University of Utah who thought it just might be possible to use the Nova to introduce the Spacewar! game so popular in certain university computer labs to the wider world.

Historical Interlude: From the Mainframe to the Minicomputer Part 2, IBM and the Seven Dwarfs

The computer began life in the 1940s as a scientific device designed to perform complex calculations and solve difficult equations.  In the 1950s, the United States continued to fund scientific computing projects at government organizations, defense contractors, and universities, many of them based around the IAS architecture derived from the EDVAC and created by John von Neumann’s team at Princeton.  Some of the earliest for-profit computer companies emerged out of this scientific work such as the previously discussed Engineering Research Associates, the Hawthorne, California-based Computer Research Corporation, which spun out of a Northrup Aircraft project to build a computer for the Air Force in 1952, and the Pasadena-based ElectroData Corporation, which spun out of the Consolidated Engineering Corporation that same year.  All of these companies remained fairly small and did not sell many computers.

Instead, it was Remington Rand that identified the future path of computing when it launched the UNIVAC I, which was adopted by businesses to perform data processing.  Once corporate America understood the computer to be a capable business machine and not just an expensive calculator, a wide array of office equipment and electronics companies entered the computer industry in the mid 1950s, often buying out the pioneering computer startups to gain a foothold.  Remington Rand dominated this market at first, but as discussed previously, IBM soon vaulted ahead as it acquired computer design and manufacturing expertise participating in the SAGE project and unleashed its world-class sales and service organizations.  Remington Rand attempted to compensate by merging with Sperry Gyroscope, which had both a strong relationship with the military and a more robust sales force, to form Sperry Rand in 1955, but the company never seriously challenged IBM again.

While IBM maintained its lead in the computer industry, however, by the beginning of the 1960s the company faced threats to its dominance at both the low end and the high end of the market from innovative machines based around new technologies like the transistor.  Fearing these new challengers could significantly damage IBM, Tom Watson Jr. decided to bet the company on an expensive and technically complex project to offer a complete line of compatible computers that could not only be tailored to a customer’s individual’s needs, but could also be easily modified or upgraded as those needs changed over time.  This gamble paid off handsomely, and by 1970 IBM controlled well over seventy percent of the market, with most of the remainder split among a group of competitors dubbed the “seven dwarfs” due to their minuscule individual market shares.  In the process, IBM succeeded in transforming the computer from a luxury item only operated by the largest firms into a necessary business appliance as computers became an integral part of society.

Note: Yet again we have a historical interlude post that summarizes key events outside of the video game industry that nevertheless had a significant impact upon it.  The information in this post is largely drawn from Computer: A History of the Information Machine by Martin Campbell-Kelly and William Aspray, A History of Modern Computing by Paul Ceruzzi, Forbes Greatest Technology Stories: Inspiring Tales of the Entrepreneurs and Inventors Who Revolutionized Modern Business by Jeffrey Young, IBM’s Early Computers by Charles Bashe, Lyle Johnson, John Palmer, and Emerson Pugh. and Building IBM: Shaping an Industry and Its Technology by Emerson Pugh.

IBM Embraces the Transistor


The IBM 1401, the first mainframe to sell over 10,000 units

Throughout most of its history in computers, IBM has been known more for evolution than revolution.  Rarely first with a new concept, IBM excelled at building designs based around proven technology and then turning its sales force loose to overwhelm the competition.  Occasionally, however, IBM engineers have produced important breakthroughs in computer design.  Perhaps none of these were more significant than the company’s invention of the disk drive.

On the earliest computers, mass data storage was accomplished through two primary methods: magnetic tape or magnetic drums.  Tape could hold a large amount of data for the time, but it could only be read serially, and it was a fragile medium.  Drums were more durable and had the added benefit of being random access — that is any point of data on the drum could be read at any time — but they were low capacity and expensive.  As early as the 1940s, J. Presper Eckert had explored using magnetic disks rather than drums, which would be cheaper and feature a greater storage capacity due to a larger surface area, but there were numerous technical hurdles that needed to be ironed out.  Foremost among these was the technology to read the disks.  A drum memory array used rigid read-write heads that could be readily secured, though at high cost.  A disk system required a more delicate stylus to read the drives, and the constant spinning of the disk created a high risk that the stylus would make contact with and damage it.

The team that finally solved these problems at IBM worked not at the primary R&D labs in Endicott or Poughkeepsie, but rather a relatively new facility in San Jose, California, led by IBM veteran Reynold Johnson that had been established in 1952 as an advanced technologies research center free of the influence of the IBM sales department, which had often shut down projects with no immediate practical use.  One of the lab’s first projects was to improve storage for IBM’s existing tabulating equipment.  This task fell to a team led by Arthur Critchlow, who decided based on customer feedback to develop a new random access solution that would allow IBM’s tabulators and low-end computers to not only be useful for data processing, but also for more complicated jobs like inventory management.  After testing a wide variety of memory solutions, Critchlow’s team settled on the magnetic disk as the only viable solution, partially inspired by a similar project at the National Bureau of Standards on which an article had been published in August 1952.

To solve the stylus problem on the drive, Critchlow’s team attached a compressor to the unit that would pump a thin layer of air between the disk and the head.  Later models would take advantage of a phenomenon known as the “boundry layer” in which the fast motion of the disks would generate the air cushion themselves.  After experimenting with a variety of head types and positions throughout 1953 and 1954, the team was ready to complete a final design.  Announced in 1956 as the Model 305 Disk Storage Unit and later renamed RAMAC (for Random Access Memory Accounting Machine), IBM’s first disk drive consisted of fifty 24-inch diameter aluminum disks rotating at 1200 rpm with a storage capacity of five million characters.  Marketed as an add-on to the IBM 650, RAMAC revolutionized data processing by eliminating the time consuming process of manually sorting information and provided the first compelling reason for small and mid-sized firms to embrace computers and eliminate electro-mechanical tabulating equipment entirely.


The IBM 7090, the company’s first transistorized computer

In August 1958, IBM introduced its latest scientific computer, the IBM 709, which improved on the functionality of the IBM 704.  The 709 continued to depend on vacuum tubes, however, even as competitors were starting to bring the first transistorized computers to market.  While Tom Watson, Jr. and his director of engineering, Wally McDowell, were both excited by the possibilities of transistors from the moment they first learned about them and as early as 1950 charged Ralph Palmer’s Poughkeepsie laboratory to begin working with the devices, individual project managers continued to have the final authority in choosing what parts to use in their machines, and many of them continued to fall back on the more familiar vacuum tube.  In the end, Tom Watson, Jr. had to issue a company-wide mandate in October 1957 that transistors were to be incorporated into all new projects.  In the face of this resistance, Palmer felt that IBM needed a massive project to push its solid-state designs forward, something akin to what Project SAGE had done for IBM’s efforts with vacuum tubes and core memory.  He therefore teamed with Steve Dunwell, who had spent part of 1953 and 1954 in Washington D.C. assessing government computing requirements, to propose a high-speed computer tailored to the ever-increasing computational needs of the military-industrial complex.  A contract was eventually secured with the National Security Agency, and IBM approved “Project Stretch” in August 1955, which was formally established in January 1956 with Dunwell in charge.

Project Stretch experienced a long, difficult, and not completely successful development cycle, but it did achieve Palmer’s goals of greatly improving IBM’s solid-state capabilities, with particularly important innovations including a much faster core memory and a “drift transistor” that was faster than the surface-barrier transistor used in early solid-state computing projects like the TX-0.  As work on Stretch dragged on, however, these advances were first introduced commercially through another product.  In response to Sputnik, the United States Air Force quickly initiated a new Ballistic Missile Early Warning System (BMEWS) project that, like SAGE, would rely on a series of linked computers.  The Air Force mandated, however, that these computers incorporate transistors, so Palmer offered to build a transistorized version of the 709 to meet the project’s needs.  The resulting IBM 7090 Data Processing System, deployed in November 1959 as IBM’s first transistorized computer, provided a six-fold increase in performance over the 709 at only one-third additional cost.  In 1962,  an upgraded version dubbed the 7094 was released with a price of roughly $2 million.  Both computers were well-received, and IBM sold several hundred of them.

Despite the success of its mainframe computer business, IBM in 1960 still derived the majority of its sales from the traditional punched-card business.  While some larger organizations were drawn to the 702 and 705 business computers, their price kept them out of reach of the majority of IBM’s business customers.  Some of these organizations had embraced the low-cost 650 as a data processing solution, leading to over 800 installations of the computer by 1958, but it was actually more expensive and less reliable than IBM’s mainline 407 electric accounting machine.  The advent of the transistor, however, finally provided the opportunity for IBM to leave its tabulating business behind for good.

The impetus for a stored-program computer that could displace traditional tabulating machines initially came from Europe, where IBM did not sell its successful 407 due to import restrictions and high tooling costs.  In 1952, a competitor called the French Bull Company introduced a new calculating machine, the Bull Gamma 3, that used delay-line memory to provide greater storage capacity at a cheaper price than IBM’s electronic calculators and could be joined with a card reader to create a faster accounting machine than anything IBM offered in the European market.  Therefore, IBM’s French and German subsidiaries began lobbying for a new accounting machine to counter this threat.  This led to the launch of two projects in the mid-1950s: the modular accounting calculator (MAC) development project in Poughkeepsie that birthed the 608 electronic calculator and the expensive and relatively unsuccessful 7070 transistorized computer, and the Worldwide Accounting Machine (WWAM) project run out of France and Germany to create an improved traditional accounting machine for the European market.

While the WWAM project had been initiated in Europe, it was soon reassigned to Endicott when the European divisions proved unable to come up with an accounting machine that could meet IBM’s cost targets.  To solve this problem, Endicott engineer Francis Underwood proposed that a low-cost computer be developed instead.  Management approved this concept in early 1958 under the name SPACE — for Stored Program Accounting and Calculating Equipment — and formally announced the product in October 1959 as the IBM 1401 Data Processing System.  With a rental cost of only $2,500 a month (roughly equivalent to a purchase price of $150,000), the transitorized 1401 proved much faster and more reliable than an IBM 650 at a fraction of the cost and was only slightly more expensive than a mid-range 407 accounting machine setup.  More importantly, it shipped with a new chain printer that could output 600 lines per minute, far more than the 150 lines per minute produced by the 407, which relied on obsolete prewar technology.  First sold in 1960, IBM projected that it would sell roughly 1,000 1401 computers over its entire lifetime, but its combination of power and price proved irresistible, and by the end of 1961 over 2,000 machines had already been installed.  IBM would eventually deploy 12,000 1401 computers before it was officially withdrawn in 1971.  Powered by the success of the 1401, IBM’s computer sales finally equaled the sales of punch card products in 1962 and then quickly eclipsed them.  No computer model had ever approached the success of the 1401 before, and as IBM rode the machine to complete dominance of the mainframe industry in the early 1960s, the powder-blue casing of the machine soon inspired a new nickname for the company: Big Blue.

The Dwarfs


The Honeywell 200, which competed with IBM’s 1401 and threatened to destroy its low-end business

In the wake of Remington Rand’s success with the UNIVAC I, more than a dozen old-line firms flocked to the new market.  Companies like Monroe Calculating, Bendix, Royal, Underwood, and Philco rushed to provide computers to the business community, but one by one they fell by the wayside.  Of these firms, Philco probably stood the best chance of being successful due to its invention of the surface barrier transistor, but while its Transac S-1000 — which began life in 1955 as an NSA project called SOLO to build a transistorized version of the UNIVAC 1103 — and S-2000 computers were both capable machines, the company ultimately decided it could not keep up with the fast pace of technological development and abandoned the market like all the rest.  By 1960, only five established companies and one computer startup joined Sperry Rand in attempting to compete with IBM in the mainframe space.  While none of these firms ever succeeded in stealing much market share from Big Blue, most of them found their own product niches and deployed some capable machines that ultimately forced IBM to rethink some of its core computer strategies.

Of the firms that challenged IBM, electronics giants GE and RCA were the largest, with revenues far exceeding the computer industry market leader, but in a way their size worked against them.  Since neither computers nor office equipment were among either firm’s core competences, nor integral to either firm’s future success, they never fully committed to the business and therefore never experienced real success.  Unsurprisingly, they were the first of the seven dwarfs to finally call it quits, with GE selling off its computer business in 1970 and RCA following suit in 1971.  Burroughs and NCR, the companies that had long dominated the adding machine and cash register businesses respectively, both entered the market in 1956 after buying out a small startup firm — ElectroData and Computer Research Corporation respectively — and managed to remain relevant by creating computers specifically tailored to their preexisting core customers, the banking sector for Burroughs and the retail sector for NCR.  Sperry Rand ended up serving niche markets as well after failing to compete effectively with IBM, experiencing success in fields such as airline reservation systems.  The biggest threat to IBM’s dominance in this period came from two Minnesota companies: Honeywell and Control Data Corporation (CDC).

Unlike the majority of the companies that persisted in the computer industry, Honeywell came not from the office machine business, but from the electronic control industry.  In 1883, a man named Albert Butz created a device called the “damper flapper” that would sense when a house was becoming cold and cause the flapper on a coal furnace to rise, thus fanning the flames and warming the house.  Butz established a company that did business under a variety of names over the next few years to market his innovation, but he had no particular acumen for business.  In 1891, William Sweatt took over the company and increased sales through door-to-door selling and direct marketing.  In 1909 the company introduced the first controlled thermostat, sold as the “Minnesota Regulator,” and in 1912 Sweatt changed the name of the company to the Minnesota Heat Regulator Company.  In 1927, a rival firm, Mark C. Honeywell’s Honeywell Heating Specialty Company of Wabash, Indiana, bought out Minnesota Heat Regulator to form the Honeywell-Minneapolis Regulator Company with Honeywell as President and Sweatt as chairman.  The company continued to expand through acquisitions over the next decade and weathered the Great Depression relatively unscathed.

In 1941, Harold Sweatt, who had succeeded Honeywell as president in 1934, parlayed his company’s expertise in precision measuring devices into several lucrative contracts with the United States military, emerging from World War II as a major defense contractor.  Therefore, the company was approached by fellow defense contractor Raytheon to establish a joint computer subsidiary in 1954.  Incorporated as Datamatic Corporation the next year, the computer company became a wholly-owned subsidiary of Honeywell in 1957 when Raytheon followed so many other companies in exiting the computer industry.  Honeywell delivered its first mainframe, the Datamatic 1000, that same year, but the computer relied on vacuum tubes and was therefore already obsolete by the time it hit the market.  Honeywell temporarily withdrew from the business and went back to the drawing board.  After IBM debuted the 1401, Honeywell triumphantly returned to the business with the H200, which not only took advantage of the latest technology to outperform the 1401 at a comparable price, but also sported full compatibility with IBM’s wildly successful machine, meaning companies could transfer their existing 1401 programs without needing to make any adjustments.  Announced in 1963, the H200 threatened IBM’s control of the low-end of the mainframe market.


William Norris (l) and Seymour Cray, the principle architects of the Control Data Corporation

While Honeywell chipped away at IBM from the bottom of the market, computer startup Control Data Corporation (CDC) — the brainchild of William Norris — threatened to do the same from the top.  Born in Red Cloud, Nebraska, and raised on a farm, Norris became an electronics enthusiast at an early age, building mail-order radio kits and becoming a ham radio operator.  After graduating from the University of Nebraska in 1932 with a degree in electrical engineering, Norris was forced to work on the family farm for two years due to a lack of jobs during the Depression before joining Westinghouse in 1934 to work in the sales department of the company’s x-ray division.  Norris began doing work for the Navy’s Bureau of Ordinance as a civilian in 1940 and enjoyed the work so much that he joined the Naval Reserve and was called to duty at the end of 1941 at the rank of lieutenant commander.  Norris served as part of the CSAW codebreaking operation and became one of the principle advocates for and co-founders of Engineering Research Associates after the war.  By 1957, Norris was feeling stifled by the corporate environment at ERA parent company Sperry Rand, so he left to establish CDC in St. Paul, Minnesota.

Norris provided the business acumen at CDC, but the company’s technical genius was a fellow engineer named Seymour Cray.  Born in Chippewa Falls, Wisconsin, Cray entered the Navy directly after graduating from high school in 1943, serving first as a radio operator in Europe before being transferred to the Pacific theater to participate in code-breaking activities.  After the war, Cray attended the University of Minnesota, graduated with an electrical engineering degree in 1949, and went to work for ERA in 1951.  Cray immediately made his mark by leading the design of the UNIVAC 1103, one of the first commercially successful scientific computers, and soon gained a reputation as an engineering genius able to create simple, yet fast computer designs.  In 1957, Cray and several other engineers followed Norris to CDC.

Unlike some of the more conservative engineers at IBM, Cray understood the significance of the transistor immediately and worked to quickly incorporate it into his computer designs.  The result was CDC’s first computer, the 1604, which was first sold in 1960 and significantly outperformed IBM’s scientific computers.  Armed with Cray’s expertise in computer design Norris decided to concentrate on building the fastest computers possible and selling them to the scientific and military-industrial communities where IBM’s sales force exerted relatively little influence.  As IBM’s Project Stretch floundered — never meeting its performance targets after being released as the IBM 7030 in 1961 — Cray moved forward with his plans to build the fastest computer yet designed.  Released as the CDC 6600 in 1964, Cray’s machine could perform an astounding three million operations per second, three times as many as the 7030 and more than any other machine would be able to perform until 1969, when another CDC machine, the 7600, outpaced it.  Dubbed a supercomputer, the 6600 became the flagship product of a series of high-speed scientific computers that IBM proved unable to match.  While Big Blue was ultimately forced to cede the top of the market to CDC, however, by the time the 6600 launched the company was in the final phases of a product line that would extend the company’s dominance over the mainframe business and ensure competitors like CDC and Honeywell would be limited to only niche markets.



The System/360 family of computers, which extended IBM’s dominance of the mainframe market through the end of the 1960s.

 When Tom Watson Jr. finally assumed full control of IBM from his father, he inherited a corporate structure designed to collect as much power and authority in the hands of the CEO as possible.  Unlike Watson Sr., Watson Jr. preferred decentralized management with a small circle of trusted subordinates granted the authority to oversee the day-to-day operation of IBM’s diverse business activities.  Therefore Watson overhauled the company in November 1956, paring down the number of executives reporting directly to him from seventeen to just five, each of whom oversaw multiple divisions with the new title of “group executive.”  He also formed a Corporate Management Committee consisting of himself and the five group executives to make and execute high-level decisions.  While the responsibilities of individual group executives would change from time to time, this new management structure remained intact for decades.

Foremost among Watson’s new group executives was a vice president named Vin Learson.  A native of Boston, Massachusettes, T. Vincent Learson graduated from Harvard with a degree in mathematics in 1935 and joined IBM as a salesman, where he quickly distinguished himself. In 1949, Learson was named sales manager of IBM’s Electric Accounting Machine (EAM) Division, and he rose to general sales manager in 1953.  In April 1954, Tom Watson, Jr. named Learson the director of Electronic Data Processing Machines with a mandate to solidify IBM’s new electronic computer business.  After guiding early sales of the 702 computer and establishing an advanced technology group to incorporate core memory and other improvements into the 704 and 705 computers, Learson received another promotion to vice president of sales for the entire company before the end of the year.  During Watson’s 1956 reorganization, he named Learson group executive of the Military Products, Time Equipment, and Special Engineering Products divisions.

During the reorganization, IBM’s entire computer business fell under the new Data Processing Division overseen by group executive L.H. LaMotte.  As IBM’s computer business continued to grow and diversify in the late 1950s, however, it grew too large and unwieldy to contain within a single division, so in 1959 Watson split the operation in two by creating the Data Systems Division in Poughkeepsie, responsible for large systems, and the General Products Division, which took charge of small systems like the 650 and 1401 and incorporated IBM’s other laboratories in Endicott, San Jose, Burlington, Vermot, and Rochester, Minnesota.  Watson then placed these two divisions, along with a new Advanced Systems Development Division, under Learson’s control, believing him to be the only executive capable of propelling IBM’s computer business forward.


Vin Learson, the IBM executive who spearheaded the development of the System/360

When Learson inherited the Data Systems and General Products Divisions, he was thrust into the middle of an all out war for control of IBM’s computer business.  The Poughkeepsie Laboratory had been established specifically to exploit electronics after World War II and prided itself on being at the cutting edge of IBM’s technology.  The Endicott Laboratory, the oldest R&D division at the company, had often been looked down upon for clinging to older technology, yet by producing both the 650 and the 1401, Endicott was responsible for the majority of IBM’s success in the computer realm.  By 1960, both divisions were looking to update their product lines with more advanced machines.  That September, Endicott announced the 1410, an update to the 1401 that maintained backwards compatibility.  At the same time, Poughkeepsie was hard at work on a new series of four compatible machines designed to serve a variety of business and scientific customers under the 8000 series designation.  Learson, however, wanted to unify the product line from the very low end represented by the 1401 to the extreme high end represented by the 7030 and the forthcoming 8000 computers.  By achieving full compatibility in this manner, IBM could take advantage of economies of scale to drive down the price of individual computer components and software development while also standardizing peripheral devices and streamlining the sales and service organizations that would no longer have to learn multiple systems.  While Learson’s plan was sound in theory, however, forcing two organizations that prided themselves on their independence and competed with each other fiercely to work together would not be easy.

Learson relied heavily on his power as a group executive to transfer employees across both divisions to achieve project unity.  First, he moved Bob Evans, who had been the engineering manager for the 1401 and 1410, from Endicott to Poughkeepsie as the group’s new systems development manager.  Already a big proponent of compatibility, Evans unsurprisingly recommended that the 8000 project be cancelled and a cohesive product line spanning both divisions be initiated in its place.  The lead designer of the 8000 series, Frederick Brooks, vigorously opposed this move, so Learson replaced Brooks’s boss with another ally, Jerrier Haddad, who had led the design of the 701 and recently served as the head of Advanced Systems Development.  Haddad sided with Evans and terminated the 8000 project in May 1961.  Strong resistance remained in some circles, however, most notably from General Products Division head John Haanstra, so in October 1961, Learson assembled a task group called SPREAD (Systems, Planning, Review, Engineering, and Development) consisting of thirteen senior engineering and marketing managers to determine a long-term strategy for IBM’s data processing line.

On December 28, the SPREAD group delivered its final proposal to the executive management committee.  In it, they outlined a series of five compatible processors representing a 200-fold range in performance.  Rather than incorporate the new integrated circuit, the group proposed a proprietary IBM design called Solid Logic Technology (SLT), in which the discrete components of the circuit were mounted on a single ceramic substrate, but were not fully integrated.  By combining the five processors with SLT circuits and core memories of varying speeds, nineteen computer configurations would be possible that would all be fully compatible and interchangeable and could be hooked up to 40 different peripheral devices.  Furthermore, after surveying the needs of business and scientific customers, the SPREAD group realized that other than floating-point capability for scientific calculations, the needs of both customers were nearly identical, so they chose to unify the scientific and business lines rather then market different models for each.  Codenamed the New Product Line (NPL), the SPREAD proposal would allow IBM customers to buy a computer that met their current needs and then easily upgrade or swap components as their needs changed over time at a fraction of the cost of a new system without having to rewrite all their software or replace their peripheral devices.  While not everyone was convinced by the presentation, Watson ultimately authorized the NPL project.

The NPL project was perhaps the largest civilian R&D operation ever undertaken to that point.  Development costs alone were $500 million, and when tooling, manufacturing, and other expenses were taken into account, the cost was far higher.  Design of the five processor models was spread over three facilities, with Poughkeepsie developing the three high-end systems, Endicott developing the lowest-end system, and a facility in Hursley, England, developing the other system.  At the time, IBM manufactured all its own components as well, so additional facilities were charged with churning out SLT circuits, core memories, and storage systems.  To assemble all the systems, IBM invested in six new factories.  In all, IBM spent nearly $5 billion to bring the NPL to market.

To facilitate the completion of the project, Watson elevated two executives to new high level positions: Vin Learson assumed the new role of senior vice president of sales, and Watson’s younger brother, Arthur, who for years had run IBM’s international arm, the World Trade Corporation, was named senior vice president of research, development, and manufacturing.  This new role was intended to groom the younger Watson to assume the presidency of IBM one day, but the magnitude of the NPL project coupled with Watson’s inexperience in R&D and manufacturing ultimately overwhelmed him.  As the project fell further and further behind schedule, Learson ultimately had to replace Arthur Watson in order to see the project through to completion.  Therefore, it was Learson who assumed the presidency of IBM in 1966 while Watson assumed the new and largely honorary role of vice chairman.  His failure to shepherd the NPL project ended any hope Arthur Watson had of continuing the Watson family legacy of running IBM, and he ultimately left the company in 1970 to serve as the United States ambassador to France.

In late 1963, IBM began planning the announcement of its new product line,  which now went by the the name System/360 — a name chosen because it represented all the points of a compass and emphasized that the product line would fill the needs of all computer users.  Even at this late date, however, acceptance of System/360 within IBM was not assured.  John Haanstra continued to push for an SLT upgrade to the existing 1401 line to satisfy low-end users, which other managers feared would serve to perpetuate the incompatibility problem plaguing IBM’s existing product line.  Furthermore, IBM executives struggled over whether to announce all the models at once and thus risk a significant drop in orders for older systems during the transition period, or phase in each model over the course of several years.  All debate ended when Honeywell announced the H200.  Faced with losing customers to more advanced computers fully compatible with IBM’s existing line,  Watson decided in March 1964 to scrap the improved 1401 and launch the entire 360 product line at once.

On April 7, 1964, IBM held press conferences in sixty-three cities across fourteen countries to announce the System/360 to the world.  Demand soon far exceeded supply as within the first two years that System/360 was on the market IBM was only able to fill roughly 4,500 of 9,000 orders.  Headcount at the company rose rapidly as IBM rushed to bring new factories online in response.  In 1965, when actual shipments of the System/360 were just beginning, IBM controlled 65 percent of the computer market and had revenues of $2.5 billion.  By 1967, as IBM ramped up to meet insatiable 360 demand, the company employed nearly a quarter of a million people and raked in $5 billion in revenues.  By 1970, IBM had an install base of 35,000 computers and held an ironclad grip on the mainframe industry with a marketshare between seventy and eighty percent; the next year company earnings surpassed $1 billion for the first time.

As batch processing mainframes, the System/360 line and its competitors did not serve as computer game platforms or introduce technology that brought the world closer to a viable video game industry.  System/360 did, however, firmly establish the computer within corporate America and solidified IBM’s place as a computing superpower while facilitating the continuing spread of computing resources and the evolution of computer technology.  Ultimately, this process would culminate in a commercial video game industry in the early 1970s.

Historical Interlude: From the Mainframe to the Minicomputer Part 1, Transistors and Integrated Circuits

So now its time to pause again in our examination of video game history to catch up on the technological advances that would culminate in the emergence of an interactive entertainment industry.  As previously discussed, the release and subsequent spread of Spacewar! in 1962 represented the first widespread interest in computer gaming, yet no commercial products would appear before 1971.  In the meantime, computer games continued to be written throughout the 1960s (which will be discussed in a subsequent post), but none of them gained the same wide exposure or popularity as Spacewar!.  Numerous roadblocks prevented the spread of these early computer games ranging from the difficulty of porting programs between systems to the lack of reliable wide area distribution networks, but the primary inhibitor remained cost, as even a relatively cheap $120,000 PDP-1 remained an investment out of the reach of most organizations — let alone the general public — and many computers still cost ten times that amount.

The key to transforming the video game into a commercial product therefore lay in significantly reducing the cost of the hardware involved.  The primary expense in building a computer remained the switching units that defined their internal logic, which in the late 1950s were still generally the bulky, power-hungry, temperamental vacuum tubes.  In 1947, John Bardeen and Walter Brattain at Bell Labs demonstrated the solution to the vacuum tube problem in the form of the semiconducting transistor, but as with any new technology there were numerous production and cost issues that had to be overcome before it could completely displace the vacuum tube.  By the early 1960s, the transistor was finally well established in the computer industry, but while it drove down the cost and size of computers like DEC’s PDP-1, a consumer product remained out of reach.  Finally, in late 1958 and early 1959 engineers working independently at two of the most important semiconductor manufacturers in the world discovered how to integrate all of the components of a circuit on one small plate, commonly called a “chip,” paving the way for cost and size reductions that would allow the creation of the first minicomputers, which remained out of reach for the individual consumer, but could at least be deployed in a public entertainment setting like an arcade.

Note:  Once again, this is a “historical interlude” post that will provide a summary of events drawn from a few secondary sources rather than the in-depth historiographic analysis of my purely game-related posts.  The majority of the information in this post is drawn from Forbes Greatest Technology Stories: Inspiring Tales of the Entrepreneurs and Inventors Who Revolutionized Modern Business by Jeffrey Young, The Man Behind the Microchip: Robert Noyce and the Invention of Silicon Valley by Leslie Berlin, The Intel Trinity: How Robert Noyce, Gordon Moore, and Andy Grove Built the World’s Most Important Company by Michael Malone, an article from the July 1982 issue of Texas Monthly called “The Texas Edison” by T.R. Reid, and The Silicon Engine, an online exhibit maintained by the Computer History Museum.

The Transistor Enters Mass Production


Gordon Teal (l), whose crystal-growing techniques were crucial to mass producing the transistor

As previously discussed, on December 23, 1947, William Shockley, John Bardeen, and Walter Brattain demonstrated the transistor for the first time in front of a group of managers at Bell Labs, which is widely considered the official birthday of the device.  This transistor consisted of a lump of germanium with three wires soldered to its surface in order to introduce the electrons.  While this point-contact transistor produced the desired results, however, it was difficult to manufacture, with yield rates of only fifty percent.  Determined to create a better device — in part due to anger that Bardeen and Brattain received all the credit for the invention — William Shockley explored alternative avenues to create a less fragile transistor.

In 1940, Bell Labs researchers Russell Ohl and Jack Scaff had discovered while working on semiconductor applications for radar that semiconducting crystals could have either a positive or a negative polarity, which were classified as p-type and n-type crystals respectively.  Shockley believed that by creating a “sandwich” with a small amount of p-type material placed between n-type material on either end, he could create what he termed a junction transistor that would amplify or block a current when a charge of the appropriate polarity was applied to the p-type material in the middle.  Placing the required impurities in just the right spots in the germanium proved challenging, but by 1949, Shockley was able to demonstrate a working p-n junction transistor.  While the junction transistor was theoretically well suited for mass production, however, in reality the stringent purity and uniformity requirements of the semiconducting crystals presented great challenges.  Gordon Teal, a chemist with a Ph.D. from Brown who joined Bell Labs in 1930 and worked on radar during World War II, believed that large crystals doped with impurities at precise points would be necessary to reliably produce a working junction transistor, but he apparently garnered little support for his theories from Shockley and other managers at Bell Labs.  He finally took it upon himself to develop a suitable process for growing crystals with the help of engineer John Little and technician Ernest Buehler, which they successfully demonstrated in 1951.  That same year, another Bell Labs researcher named William Pfann developed a technique called zone refining that allowed for the creation of ultra-pure crystals with minuscule amounts of impurities, which lowered the manufacturing cost of the junction transistor significantly.  Together, the advances by Teal and Pfann provided Bell Labs with a viable fabrication process for transistors.

Part of the reason Teal could not generate much excitement about his manufacturing techniques at Bell Labs is that AT&T remained unsure about entering the transistor business.  Despite recent advances, executives remained doubtful that the transistor would ultimately replace the large and well-established vacuum tube industry.  Worse, the company was currently under investigation by the U.S Department of Justice for anti-trust violations and was therefore hesitant to enter and attempt to dominate a new field of technology.  Therefore, in 1952 the company decided to offer a royalty-free license to any company willing to research integrating the transistor into hearing aids, one of the original passions of company founder Alexander Graham Bell, and held a series of technical seminars introducing interested parties to the device.  Several large electronics companies signed up, including Raytheon, Zenith, and RCA.  They were joined by a relatively small company named Texas Instruments (TI).


From Left to Right, John Erik Jonsson, Henry Bates Peacock, Eugene McDermott, and Cecil Green, the men who transformed Geophysical Service, Inc. into Texas Intruments

In 1924, two physicists named Clarence Karcher and Eugene McDermott established the Geophysical Research Corporation (GRC) in Tulsa, Oklahoma, as a subsidiary of Amerada Petroleum.  The duo had been developing a reflection-seismograph process to map faults and domes beneath the earth when they realized that the same process was ideal for discovering oil deposits.  By 1930, GRC had become the leading geophysical exploration company active along the Gulf Coast, but the founders disliked working for Amerada, so they established a new laboratory in Newark, New Jersey, and with investment from geologist Everette DeGolyer formed a new independent company called Geophysical Service, Inc. (GSI).  In 1934, the company moved the laboratory to Dallas to be closer to the heart of the oil trade.

The early 1930s were not a particularly auspicious time to start a new business with the Great Depression in full swing, but GSI managed to grow by aggressively expanding its oil exploration business into international markets such as Mexico, South America, and the Middle East.  Success abroad did not fully compensate for difficulties in the US, however, so in December 1938, the company reorganized in order to exploit the untapped oil fields in the American Southwest.  A new Geophysical Service, Inc. — renamed the Coronado Corporation early the next year — was established with Karcher at the helm as an oil production business, while the original GSI, now headed solely by McDermott, became a subsidiary of Coronado and continued in the exploration business.  The company failed to flourish, however, so in 1941 Karcher negotiated a $5 million sale of Coronado to Stanolind Oil & Gas.  Not particularly interested in the exploration business, Stanolind offered the employees of GSI the opportunity to buy back the company for $300,000.  McDermott, R&D head J. Erik Jonsson, field exploration head Cecil Green, and crew chief H. Bates Peaock managed to scrape together the necessary funding and purchased GSI on December 6, 1941.  The very next day, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, dragging the United States into World War II.

With so much of its business tied up in international oil exploration work that would have to be abandoned during the coming global conflict, GSI would be unable to survive by concentrating solely on its primary business and now needed to find additional sources of income.  The solution to this problem came from Jonsson, a former aluminium sales engineer who had been in charge of R&D at GSI since the company’s inception in 1930, who realized that the same technology used for locating oil could also be used to locate ships and airplanes.  A fortuitous connection between McDermott and Dr. Dana Mitchell, who was part of a group working on electronic countermeasure technology, led to a contract to manufacture a device called the magnetic anomaly detection (MAD) system.  Building on this work, GSI emerged as a major supplier of military electronics by the end of the war.

During the war, Jonsson became impressed with an electrical engineer and Navy lieutenant from North Dakota working as a procurement officer for the Navy’s Bureau of Aeronautics named Patrick Haggerty.  In 1946, GSI hired Haggerty to run its new Laboratory and Manufacturing Division, which the company established to expand its wartime electronics work in both the military and private sectors.  Haggerty was determined to transform GSI into a major player in the field and convinced management to invest in a large new manufacturing plant that would require the company to tap nearly its entire $350,000 line of credit with the Republic National Bank.  By 1950, this investment had turned into annual sales of nearly $10 million a year.  With manufacturing now a far more important part of the business than oil exploration, company executives realized the name GSI no longer fit the company.  They decided to change the name to General Instruments, which conjured up visions of the great electronics concerns of the East like General Electric.  Unfortunately, there was already a defense contractor with that name, so the Pentagon asked them to pick something else.  They chose Texas Instruments.


Patrick J. Haggerty, the man who brought TI into the transistor business

When Patrick Haggerty learned AT&T was offering licenses for transistor technology, he knew immediately that TI had to be involved.  AT&T, however, disagreed.  In 1952, TI had realized a profit of $900,000 on sales of just $20 million and did not appear capable of making the necessary investment to harness the full potential of the transistor.  It took a year for TI management to finally convince AT&T to grant the firm the $25,000 license, after which Haggerty made another large financial gamble, investing over $4 million in manufacturing plants, development, new hires, and other startup costs.  Before the end of 1952, TI had its first order for 100 germanium transistors from the Gruen Watch Company, and production formally began.

Haggerty had muscled TI into an important new segment of the electronics industry, but in the end it was AT&T that was proven correct:  TI really was too small to make much of an impact in the germanium transistor market.  Haggerty therefore turned to new technology to keep his company relevant in the field.  While germanium served as a perfectly fine semiconducting material at temperatures below 100 degrees Fahrenheit, the low melting point of the element inhibited its semiconducting properties at high temperatures, rendering it unsuitable for defense projects like guided missiles.  Silicon offered both better semiconducting capability and a higher temperature tolerance, but despite the best efforts of scientists at Bell Labs and elsewhere, the element had proven impossible to dope with the necessary impurities.  This did not dissuade Haggerty, who placed an ad in the New York Times for a new chief researcher who could bring TI into silicon transistors.  That ad was answered by none other than brilliant Bell Labs chemist Gordon Teal.

Feeling unappreciated after facing such resistance to his research at Bell Labs, Teal was ready to move on, but despite answering the TI ad, he was not certain the Texas company was the right fit.  Solving the problems with silicon would require a great deal of time and money, and TI remained a relatively small concern.  Haggerty reassured him, however, by revealing that TI was preparing to merge with Intercontinental Rubber, a cash-rich firm listed on the New York Stock Exchange with a faltering tire and rubber business.  This merger, completed in October 1953, made TI a public company and guaranteed that Teal would have the funding he needed.  Haggerty promised Teal anything and anyone he needed with only one stipulation: after one year, Teal would need to have a product TI could bring to market.  Teal accepted the challenge.

1954 proved to be a trying year for TI.  While the transistor business failed to gain traction against larger competitors, the defense contracts the company depended upon as its primary source of revenue began to dry up with the end of the Korean War and a subsequent cut in military spending.  Revenues that had risen to $27 million in 1953 declined to $24 million, profits fell slightly from $1.27 million to $1.2 million, and the stock began trading in single digits.  That same year, however, Teal succeeded in developing a complicated high-temperature doping and zone refining process that yielded a viable silicon transistor.  At a conference on airborne aeronautics held in Dayton, Ohio, that spring, Teal not only proudly announced to the assembled that TI had a working silicon transistor in production, he also provided a dramatic demonstration.  A record player was produced, specially modified so that a transistor could be snapped in and out to complete a circuit.  First, Teal snapped in a germanium transistor and then dropped it into a beaker of hot oil, which destroyed the transistor and stopped the player.  Then, he performed the same action with a silicon transistor.  The music played on.  TI quickly found itself swamped with orders.

New Players


The “Traitorous Eight,” who left Shockley Semiconductor to establish Fairchild Semiconductor.

From left: Gordon Moore, C. Sheldon Roberts, Eugene Kleiner, Robert Noyce, Victor Grinich, Julius Blank, Jean Hoerni, and Jay Last

In 1954 Bell Labs chemist Calvin Fuller developed a new technique called the diffusion process in which silicon could be doped at high temperatures using gasses containing the desired impurities.  By the next March, Bell Labs chemist Morris Tanenbaum had succeeded in harnessing the diffusion process to create semiconducting material so thin that a silicon wafer could be created in which each layer of the n-p-n sandwich was only a millimeter thick.  The resulting diffusion-base transistor operated at much higher frequencies than previous junction transistors and therefore performed much faster.  With Gordon Teal’s crystal-growing expertise and Patrick Haggerty’s salesmanship, TI kept pace with these advancements and enjoyed a virtual monopoly on the emerging field of silicon transistors during the next few years, with company revenues soaring to $45.7 million in 1956.  The transistor business, however, remained a relatively small part of the overall electronics industry.  Between 1954 and 1956, 17 million germanium transistors and 11 million silicon transistors were sold in the United States.  During the same period, 1.3 billion vacuum tubes were sold.

Practically speaking, the vacuum tube companies appeared to hold a distinct advantage, as they could theoretically use the enormous resources at their disposal from their vacuum tube sales to support R&D in transistors and gradually transition to the new technology.  In reality, however, while most of the major tube companies established small transistor operations, they were so accustomed to the relatively static technologies and processes associated with the tube industry that they were unable to cope with the volatile pricing and ever-changing manufacturing techniques that defined the transistor industry.  The Philco Corporation is a poster child for these difficulties.  Established in Philadelphia in 1892 as the Helios Electric Company to produce lamps, Philco became a major player in the emerging field of consumer radios in the mid-1920s and by the end of World War II was one of the largest producers of vacuum tubes in the United States.  The company seriously pursued transistor technology, creating in 1953 the high-speed surface-barrier transistor discussed in a previous post that powered the TX-0.  In 1956, Philco improved the surface-barrier transistor by employing the diffusion process, but the company soon grew leery of attempting to keep up with new transistor technologies.  The original surface-barrier transistor had been fast, but expensive, and the diffusion-based model cost even more, retailing for around $100.  As technology continued to progress, however, the price fell to $50 within six months, and then to $19 a year after that.  By the next year, lots of 1,000 Philco transistors could be had for a mere $6.75.  Spooked, the company ultimately decided to remain focused on vacuum tubes.  By 1960, Philco had entered bankruptcy, and Ford subsequently purchased the firm in 1961.


The Shockley Semiconductor Laboratory in the Heart of the region that would become Silicon Valley

While the old guard in the electronics industry ultimately exerted little influence on the transistor business, TI soon faced competition from more formidable opponents.  In 1950, William Shockley paid a visit to Georges Doriot, the pioneering venture capitalist who later funded the Digital Equipment Corporation.  Surprisingly, their discussion did not focus on the transistor, but rather on another invention Shockley patented in 1948, a “Radiant Energy Control System,” essentially a feedback system using a visual sensor.  Shockley had worked on improving bomb sights during World War II and saw this system as the next step, potentially allowing a self-guided bomb to compare photographs of targets with visual data from the sensor for increased accuracy.  The same technology could also be used for facial recognition, or for automated sorting of components in manufacturing.  Since the publication of mathematician Norbert Wiener’s groundbreaking book, Cybernetics, in 1948, the Cambridge academic community had been excited by the prospect of using artificial systems to replace human labor for more mundane tasks.  Indeed, in 1952 this concept would gain the name “automation,” a term first coined by Delmar Harder at Ford and popularized by Harvard Business School Professor John Diebold in his book Automation: The Advent of the Automatic Factory.  When Doriot learned of Shockley’s control system, he urged the eminent physicist to waste no time in starting his own company.

By 1951, Shockley had refined his “Radiant Energy Control System” into an optoelectronic eye he felt could form the core of an automated robot that could replace humans on the manufacturing line.  After negotiating an exemption with Bell Labs allowing him to maintain the rights to any patents he filed related to automation for the period of one year, Shockley filed a patent for an “Electrooptical Control System” and wrote a memo to Bell Labs president Mervin Kelly urging the organization to build an “automatic trainable robot.”  When Kelly refused to consider such a project, Shockley, already stripped of most of his responsibilities regarding transistor development due to incessant conflicts with his team, took a leave of absence from Bell Labs in late 1952.  After a year as a visiting professor at CalTech, Shockley became director of the Pentagon’s Weapons Systems Evaluation Group and spent the next year or so studying methods for the U.S. to fight a nuclear war while periodically turning down offers to teach at prestigious universities or establish his own semiconductor operation.

In February 1955, Shockley met renowned chemist Arnold Beckman at a gala in Los Angeles honoring Shockley and amplifier inventor Lee DeForest.  The two bonded over their shared interest in automation and kept in touch over the following months.  Finally, in June 1955, Shockley decided he needed to radically change his life, so he resigned from both Bell Labs and his Pentagon job, divorced his wife, and began to seriously consider offers to start his own company.  The next month, he contacted Beckman to propose forming a company together to bring the new diffusion transistor to market and develop methods to automate the production of transistors.  After a period of negotiation, the Shockley Semiconductor Laboratory was established in September 1955 as a subsidiary of Beckman Instruments.  Even though Beckman was headquartered in Southern California, Shockley convinced his new partner to locate Shockley Semiconductor further north in Palo Alto, California, so he could once again remain close to his mother.

Unable to recruit personnel from Bell Labs, where his reputation as a horrible boss proceeded him, Shockley scoured technical conferences, college physics departments, and research laboratories for bright young scientists and engineers.  One of his first hires also proved to be his most important, a young physicist named Bob Noyce.  Born in 1927 in Burlington, Iowa, Robert Norton Noyce was the son of a Congregationalist minister who moved his family all over the state of Iowa as he migrated from one congregation to the next.  This itinerant life, made even more difficult by the Depression, finally ended in 1940 when Ralph Noyce took a job in the college town of Grinnell, Iowa.  Bob Noyce thrived in Grinnell, where his natural charisma and sense of adventure soon made him the leader among the neighborhood children.  A brilliant student despite a penchant for mischief and goofing off, Noyce took a college physics course at Grinnell College during his senior year of high school and graduated class valedictorian.  The Miami University Department of Physics offered to give him a job as a lab assistant if he attended the school — an honor usually reserved for graduate students — but worrying he could just be another face in the crowd at such a large institution, Noyce chose to study at Grinnell College instead.

At Grinnell, Noyce nearly lost his way at the end of his junior year.  Eager to maintain his social standing among older students returning from World War II, Noyce agreed to “procure” a pig to roast at a Hawaiian Luau dorm party.  Soon after, he learned his girlfriend was pregnant and would need an abortion.  Depressed, Noyce got drunk and with the help of a friend stole a pig from a local farmer’s field.  Feeling remorseful, they returned the next day to apologize to the farmer and pay for the pig only to learn that he was the mayor of Grinnell and did not take the prank lightly.  Noyce was almost expelled as a result, but he was saved by his physics professor, Grant Gale, who saw Noyce as a once-in-a-generation talent that should not be squandered over an ill-advised prank.  The university relented and merely suspended him for a semester.

When Noyce returned to Grinnell after working for a life insurance company in New York during his forced exile, he was introduced to the technology that would change his life.  His mentor Gale was an old friend of transistor co-inventor John Bardeen, with whom he had attended the University of Wisconsin, while the head of research at Bell Labs, Oliver Buckley, was a Grinnell graduate.  Gale therefore learned of the transistor’s invention early and was able to secure a wide array of documentation on the new device from Bell.  When Noyce saw his professor enraptured by these documents, he dove right in himself and soon resolved to learn everything he could about transistors.  After graduating from Grinnell with degrees in mathematics and physics, Noyce matriculated to the physics department at MIT, where he planned to focus his studies on solid-state physics.  As transistors were so new, most of Noyce’s classwork revolved around vacuum tubes, but his dissertation, completed in mid 1953, dealt with matters related to transistor development.  Upon earning his doctorate in physics, Noyce took a job at Philco, where in 1950 R&D executive Bill Bradley had established the 25-man research group that developed the surface-barrier transistor.  Noyce rose through the ranks quickly at Philco, but he soon became disillusioned with the layers of bureaucracy and paperwork inherent in working for a large defense contractor, especially after the company was forced to significantly curtail R&D activities due to losses.  Just as Noyce was looking for a way out, Shockley called in January 1956 after reading a paper Noyce had presented on surface-barrier transistors several months earlier at a conference.  In March, Noyce headed west to join Shockley Semiconductor.

Before long, Shockley had succeeded in recruiting a team of about twenty with expertise in a variety of fields related to transistor creation. These individuals included a Ph.D. candidate in the solid state physics program at MIT named Jay Last, a chemist at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Lab named Gordon Moore, a mechanical engineer at Western Electric named Julius Blank, Viennese World War II refugee and expert tool builder Eugene Kleiner, metallurgist Sheldon Roberts, Swiss theoretical physicist Jean Hoerni, and Stanford Research Institute physicist Vic Grinich.  Shockley hoped these bright young scientists would secure his company’s dominance in the semiconductor industry.


Sherman Fairchild, the inventor and businessman who financed Fairchild Semiconductor

On November 1, 1956, William Shockley learned that he had been awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics — shared with Walter Brattain and John Bardeen — for the invention of the transistor.  Theoretically at the height of his fame and powers, Shockley soon found his entire operation falling apart.  Always a difficult man to work for, his autocratic tendencies grew even worse now that he was a Nobel laureate in charge of his own company.  He micromanaged employees, even in areas outside of his expertise, and viciously attacked them when their work was not up to his standards.  Feeling threatened by Jean Hoerni and his pair of doctorates, he once exiled the physicist to an apartment to work alone, though he later relented.  He discouraged his employees from pursuing their own projects and insisted on adding his name to any paper they presented, whether he had any involvement in the subject or not.  Once, when a secretary cut her hand on a piece of metal protruding from a door, he insisted it must have been an act of sabotage and threatened to hire a private investigator and subject the staff to lie detector tests.  He was finally dissuaded by Roberts, who convinced him with the aid of a microscope that the piece of metal was merely a tack that had lost its plastic head.

The final straw was Shockley’s insistence on pulling staff and resources from improving upon the diffusion-base silicon transistor to work on a new four-layer diode project he believed could act as both a transistor and a resistor and was theoretically faster and cheaper than a germanium transistor.   In reality, this device proved impossible to create, and R&D costs began to spiral out of control with no sellable product to show for it.  This caused Beckman to become more involved with company operations, which in turn led several of Shockley’s disgruntled employees to feel they could effect real change.  They nominated Robert Noyce as their spokesman, both because he maintained a cordial relationship with Shockley and because he was possessed of an impressive charisma that made him both a natural team leader and an easy person to talk to.  With Beckman’s blessing, Noyce, Moore, Kleiner, Last, Hoerni, Roberts, Blank, and Grinich confronted Shockley and attempted to force him out of day-to-day operations at the company.  The octet wanted Noyce to serve as their new manager, but Shockley refused, arguing that Noyce did not have what it took to be an aggressive and decisive leader, criticisms that later events would show were completely justified.  Beckman therefore appointed an interim management committee and began an external search for an experienced manager.  Less than a month later, he reversed course and declared Shockley to be in charge, most likely influenced by colleagues at either Bell Labs or Stanford who pointed out that undermining Shockley would unduly tarnish the reputation of the Nobel laureate.  As a compromise, Noyce was placed in charge of R&D and a manager from another division of Beckman named Maurice Hanafin was installed as a buffer between Shockley and the rest of the staff.

Noyce was satisfied with this turn of events, but his seven compatriots were not, especially when it became clear that Shockley remained in complete control despite the appointment of Hanafin.  Led by Last, Hoerni, and Roberts, the seven scientists decided to leave the company.  Feeling they were more valuable as a group, however, they resolved to continue working together rather than going their separate ways, meaning they would need to convince an established company to hire them together and form a semiconductor research group around them.  To facilitate this process, Kleiner decided to write to a New York investment firm where his father had an account called Hayden, Stone, and Company, which had recently arranged financing for the first publicly held transistor firm, General Transistor.  Kleiner’s letter was addressed to the man in charge of his father’s account and asked for $750,000 in funding to start a new semiconductor group.  As it turned out, the account man was no longer there, so the letter ended up on the desk of a recent hire and Harvard MBA named Arthur Rock.  Rock liked what he saw and met with the seven along with his boss, Arthur “Bud” Coyle.  The two bankers strongly believed in the potential of the scientists and urged them to reach beyond their original plan and ask for a million dollars or more to fund an entire division.  In order to entice a company to form a semiconductor division, however, the seven scientists would need a leader, and none of them felt up to the task.  They realized they would have to recruit their former ringleader in their fight against Shockley, Bob Noyce.  It took some convincing, but Noyce ultimately came on board.  The seven were now eight.

Finding a company to shelter the eight co-conspirators proved harder than Rock and Coyle initially hoped.  The duo drew up a list of thirty companies they believed could handle the investment they were looking for, but were turned down by all of them.  Simply put, no one was interested in giving a group of scientists between the ages of 28 and 32 that had never developed a salable product yet felt they could run a division better than a Nobel Prize winner $1 million to pursue new advances in a volatile field of technology.  Running out of options, Coyle mentioned the plan to an acquaintance possessed of both a large fortune and a reputation for risk-taking:  Sherman Fairchild.  Sherman was the son of George Fairchild, a businessman and six-term Congressman who played a crucial role in the formation of the International Time Recording Company — one of the companies that merged to form C-T-R — and was the chairman and largest shareholder of C-T-R/IBM from its inception until his death in 1924.  A prolific inventor, Sherman developed a camera suitable for aerial photography for the United States Army during World War I and then established the Fairchild Aerial Camera Corporation in 1920.  Subsequently, Fairchild established several more companies based around his own inventions in fields ranging from aerial surveying to aircraft design.  In 1927, he consolidated seven of these organizations under the holding company Fairchild Aviation, which he renamed Fairchild Camera and Instrument (FCI) in 1944 after spinning back out his aviation business.  By 1957, Fairchild was no longer involved in the day-to-day running of any of his companies, but he was intrigued by the opportunity represented by Noyce and his compatriots and encouraged FCI to take a closer look.

Based in Syosset, New York, Fairchild Camera and Instrument had recently been placed under the care of John Carter, a former vice president of Corning Glass who felt that FCI had become too reliant on defense work for its profits, which had become scarcer and scarcer since the end of the Korean War.  Carter believed acquisitions would be the best way to secure a new course for FCI, so he proved extremely amenable to Noyce and company’s request for funding.  After a period of negotiation, Fairchild Semiconductor Corporation was formally established on September 19, 1957.  Officially, FCI loaned Fairchild Semiconductor $1.3 million in startup funding and in return was granted control of the company through a voting trust.  Ownership of Fairchild Semiconductor remained with the eight founding members and Hayden, Stone, but FCI had the right to purchase all outstanding shares of the company on favorable terms any time before it achieved three successive years of earnings of $300,000 or more.  When the scientists finally broke the news of their imminent departure to Shockley, the Nobel laureate was devastated, and though he never actually dubbed them the “Traitorous Eight,” a phrase invented by a reporter some years later, the phrase came to be associated with his feelings on the matter.  Shockley continued to pursue his dream of a four-layer diode until Beckman finally sold Shockley Semiconductor, which had never turned a profit, in 1960.  Shockley himself ultimately left the industry to teach at Stanford.

The Process


A transistor built using the “planar process,” which revolutionized the nascent semiconductor industry

 In October 1957, Fairchild Semiconductor moved into its new facilities on Charleston Road near the southern border of Palo Alto, not far from the building that housed Shockley Semiconductor.  The Fairchild executive responsible for negotiating the final deal between FCI and the Traitorous Eight, Richard Hodgson, took on the role of chairman of the semiconductor company to look after FCI’s interests and began a search for a general manager.  Hodgson’s first choice was the charismatic Noyce, but the physicist hated confrontation and felt unready to run a whole company besides and contented himself with leading R&D.  Hodgson therefore brought in an old friend, a former physics professor that had worked as a sales manager for FCI in the 1950s named Tom Bay, to head up sales and marketing and a former paratrooper who managed the diode operation at Hughes Aircraft named Ed Baldwin as general manager.

Fairchild Semiconductor came into being at just the right time.  On October 4, 1957, the Soviet Union launched Sputnik into orbit, inaugurating a space race with the United States that greatly increased the Federal Government’s demand for transistors for use in rockets and satellites, technologies particularly unsuited to vacuum tubes due to the need for small, durable components.  At the same time, the rise of affordable silicon transistors had government agencies reevaluating the use of vacuum tubes across all their projects, particularly in computers.  This led directly to Fairchild’s first major contract.

In early 1958, Tom Bay learned that the IBM Federal Systems Division was having difficulty sourcing the parts it needed to create a navigational computer for the United States Air Force’s experimental B-70 long-range bomber.  The Air Force required particularly fast and durable silicon transistors for the project and TI, still the only major force in silicon, had been unable to provide a working model up to their specifications.  Through inheritance from his father, Sherman Fairchild was the largest shareholder at IBM and wielded some influence at the company, so Bay and Hodgson convinced him to secure a meeting with the project engineers.  IBM remained skeptical even after Noyce stated Fairchild’s engineers were up to the task, but Sherman Fairchild leaned hard on Tom Watson Jr., basically saying that if he trusted the engineers enough to invest over $1 million in their work, then Watson should trust them too.  With Sherman’s help, Fairchild Semiconductor secured a contract for 100 silicon transistors in February 1958.

Noyce knew that the project would require a type of transistor known as a mesa transistor that had been developed by Bell Labs and briefly worked on at Shockley Semiconductor, but had yet to be mass produced by any company.  Unlike previous transistors, the mesa transistor could be diffused on only one side of the wafer by taking advantage of new techniques in doping and etching.  Basically, dopants were diffused beneath a layer of silicon, after which a drop of wax was placed over the wafer.  The entire surface would then be doused in a strong acid that etched away the entire top layer except at the point protected by the wax.  This created a distinctive bump that resembled the mesas of the American Southwest, hence its name.  Fairchild decided to develop the first commercial double-diffused silicon mesa transistor, but were unsure whether an n-p-n or p-n-p configuration would perform better.  They therefore split into two teams led by Moore and Hoerni to develop both, ultimately settling on the n-p-n configuration.  Putting the transistor into production was a complete team effort.  Roberts took charge of growing the silicon crystals, Moore and Hoerni oversaw the diffusion process, Noyce and Last handled the photolithographic process to define the individual transistors on the wafer, Grinich took charge of testing, and Blank and Kleiner designed the manufacturing facility.  By May, the team had completed the design of the transistor, which they delivered to IBM in the early summer.  In August, the team presented their transistor at Wescon, an important trade show established six years before by the West Coast Electronics Manufacturers Association, and learned that their double-diffusion transistor was the only one on the market.  They maintained a monopoly on the device for about a year.

Orders soon began pouring in for double-diffused mesa transistors, most notably from defense contractor Autonetics, which wanted to use them in the Minuteman guided missile program, then the largest and most important defense project under development.  Late in 1958, however, Fairchild realized there was a serious problem with the transistor: it was exceedingly fragile.  So fragile, in fact, that even a tap from a pencil could cause one to stop working.  After testing, the team determined that when the transistor was sealed, a piece of metal would often flake off the outer can and bounce around inside, ultimately causing a short.  Fairchild would need to solve this problem quickly or risk losing its lucrative defense contracts.

During the transistor creation process, an oxide layer naturally builds up on the surface of the silicon wafer.  While this oxide layer does not interfere with the operation of the transistor, it would nevertheless be removed to prevent impurities from becoming trapped under its surface.  As early as 1957, Jean Hoerni speculated that the impurity problem was entirely imaginary and that the oxide layer could, in fact, provide a service by protecting the otherwise exposed junctions of the transistor and thus prevent just the kind of short Fairchild was now grappling with.  Hoerni did not pursue the concept at the time because Faircihld was so focused on bringing its first products to market, but in January 1959, he attacked the problem in earnest and within weeks had figured out a way to introduce an oxide mask at proper points during the diffusion process while still leaving spaces for the necessary impurities to be introduced.  On March 12, 1959, Hoerni proudly demonstrated a working transistor protected by an oxide layer, spitting on it to demonstrate it would continue working even when subjected to abuse.  Unlike the mesa transistor, a transistor created using Hoerni’s new technique resembled a bullseye with an outer layer shaped like a teardrop and was flat and smooth.  He therefore named his new technique the “planar process.”

The planar process instantly rendered all previous methods of creating transistors obsolete.  Consequently, Fairchild would not only be able to corner the market in the short term by bringing the first planar transistor to market, but it would also be able to generate income in the long term by licensing the planar process to all the other companies in the transistor business.  Complete dominance of the semiconductor industry appeared to be within Fairchild’s grasp, but then in mid-March 1959, TI announced a new product that would change the entire course of the electronics industry and, indeed, the modern world.

The Texas Edison


Jack Kilby, the inventor of the first integrated circuit

As Fairchild was just starting its transistor business in 1958, Texas Instruments continued to extend its dominance as company revenues reached $90 million and profits soared, but the company was not content to rest on its laurels.  With the space race beginning, the military, to which TI still devoted a large portion of its electronic components business, required ever more sophisticated rockets and computers that would require millions of components to function properly.  Clearly, as long as an electronic circuit continued to require discrete transistors, resistors, capacitors, diodes, etc. all connected by wires, it would be impossible to build the next generation of electronic devices.  The solution to this problem was first proposed by a British scientist named Geoffrey Dunmer in 1952, who spoke of a solid block of material without any connecting wires that would integrate all the functionality of the discrete components of a circuit.  Dunmer was never able to complete a working block circuit based on his theories, but other organizations were soon following in his footsteps, including a physical chemist at Texas Instruments named Willas Adock.  Working under an Army contract, Adcock assembled a small task force to build a simpler circuit, which included an electrical engineer named Jack Kilby.

Born in Jefferson City, Missouri, Jack St. Clair Kilby grew up in Great Bend, Kansas, where his father worked as an electrical engineer and ultimately rose to the presidency of the Kansas Power Company.  Kilby became hooked on electrical engineering during summers spent travelling across western Kansas with his father in the 1930s as the elder Kilby visited power plants and substations inspecting and fixing equipment.  A good student, Kilby planned to continue his education at MIT, but his high school did not offer all the required math courses.  Kilby was forced to travel to Cambridge to take a special entrance exam, but did not pass.  He attended the University of Illinois instead, but his education was interrupted by service during World War II.  Kilby finally graduated in 1947 with an unremarkable academic record and took a job at a Milwaukee firm called Centralab, the only company that offered him a job.

Centralab was not a particularly important company in the electronics industry, but it did experiment with an early form of integrated circuit in which company engineers attempted to place resistors, vacuum tubes, and wiring on a single ceramic base, exposing Kilby to the concept for the first time.  In May 1958, Kilby joined Adcock’s team at TI.  Adcock was attempting to create something called a “micromodule,” in which all the components of a circuit are manufactured in one size with the wiring built into each part so they could simply be snapped together, thus obviating the need for individual wiring connections.  While a circuit built in this manner would still be composed of discrete components, it would theoretically be much smaller, more durable, and easier to manufacture.  Having already tried something similar at Centralab, however, Kilby was convinced this approach would not work.

In the 1950s, Texas Instruments followed a mass vacation policy in which all employees took time off during the same few weeks in the summer.  Too new to have accrued any vacation time, Kilby therefore found himself alone in the lab in July 1958 and decided to tinker with alternate solutions to the micromodule.  Examining the problem through a wide lens, Kilby reasoned that TI was strongest in silicon and should therefore focus on working with that element.  At the time, capacitors were created using metal and ceramics and resistors were made of carbon, but there was nothing stopping a company from creating both of those components in silicon.  While the performance of these parts would suffer significantly over their traditional counterparts, by crafting everything out of silicon, it would be possible to place the circuit on a single block of material and eliminate wires entirely.  Kilby jotted down some preliminary plans in a notebook on July 24, 1958, and then received approval from Adcock to explore the concept further when everyone returned from vacation.

On September 12, 1958, Kilby successfully demonstrated a working integrated circuit to a group of executives at TI.  While Kilby’s intent had been to craft the device out of silicon, TI did not have any blocks of the element suitable for Kilby’s project on hand, so he was forced to craft his first circuit out of germanium.  Furthermore, Kilby had not yet figured out how to eliminate wiring completely, so his original hand-crafted design could not be reliably mass produced.  Therefore, while TI brought the first integrated circuit into the world, it would be Fairchild Semiconductor that actually made them practical.

In January 1959, as Hoerni was perfecting his planar process, Robert Noyce took inspiration from his colleague’s work and began theorizing how P-N junctions and oxide layers could be used to isolate and protect all the components of a circuit on a single piece of silicon, but just as Hoerni initially sat on his planar process while Fairchild focused on delivering finished products, so too did Noyce decide not to pursue his integrated circuit concept any further.  After Kilby debuted his circuit in March, however, Noyce returned to his initial notes.  While the TI announcement may have partially inspired his work, Fairchild’s patent attorney had previously asked every member of the Fairchild team to brainstorm as many applications for the new planar process as possible for the patent filing, which appears to have been Noyce’s primary motivator.  Regardless of the impetus, Noyce polished up his integrated circuit theories and tasked Jay Last with turning them into a working product.

By May 1960, Fairchild had succeeded in creating a practical and producible integrated circuit in which all of the components were etched on a single sliver of silicon with aluminum traces resting atop a protective oxide layer replacing the wiring.  Both the Minuteman missile and the Apollo moon landing projects quickly embraced the new device as the entire transistor industry became obsolete overnight.  While discrete transistors would power several important computer projects in the 1960s — and even the first home video game system in the early 1970s — the integrated circuit ultimately ushered in a new era of small yet powerful electronic devices that could sit on a small desk or, eventually, be held in the palm of one’s hand yet perform calculations that had once required equipment filling an entire room.  In short, without the integrated circuit, the video game industry as it exists today would not be possible.

One, Two, Three, Four I Declare a Space War

In the 1950s, scientists would occasionally create a game as a demonstration, a research aid, or a training exercise, but these programs were usually short on interactivity and not intended primarily for entertainment.  Tennis for Two can be considered an exception to this general rule, but even it was quickly dismantled after being played by a few hundred visitors to the Brookhaven National Laboratory.  The academic and military-industrial research communities working on their batch processing computers were simply not interested in entertainment.  And this attitude was perfectly understandable:  with a computer representing a multi-million dollar investment, there was simply no time to waste on frivolous pursuits and no way to create a viable entertainment platform for use by the general public.

But at MIT in the late 1950s, something new was emerging in Building 26: an interactive computing environment accessible by nearly anyone affiliated with the university.  The exploits of Kotok, Samson, and friends on the TX-0 birthed a new class of skilled computer users more interested in having fun than in performing actual research.  This fun did not generally include games on the TX-0, which was still somewhat limited in speed and display capability, but these hacks laid the groundwork for the more advanced interactive programs to come.  When the PDP-1 computer arrived at MIT in 1961, the TX-0 hackers were prepared to take their exploits to the next level.  The result was the creation of the first (relatively) widespread and influential computer game, Spacewar!

Every monograph written on the history of the video game from Leonard Herman’s Phoenix to Tristan Donovan’s Replay has at the very least mentioned Spacewar!, and most of them discuss the creation of the game in depth and give it pride of place as the the game that truly launched the computer game phenomenon and influenced some of the earliest commercial products in the field.  These accounts are largely drawn from just two sources: Stephen Levy’s book Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution, for which the author interviewed most of the principle players in the MIT hacking scene, and an article Spacewar! co-creator J. Martin “Shag” Graetz wrote for Creative Computing magazine in 1981 entitled “The Origin of Spacewar.”  As such, there is little disagreement between the principle sources on the inspiration for and the development of the game.  Still, there are a few minor aspects of the narrative that have become muddled over time, which I will point out in my summary below.

Hacking the PDP-1


Some of the key contributors to the TX-0 and PDP-1 hacking scene at a Computer Museum event in 1984.

From left:  Jack Dennis (s), Alan Kotok, J. Martin Graetz (s), Dave Gross, and John McKenzie (s)

Even before the PDP-1 had formally arrived at MIT, the TMRC hackers began planning new coding exploits.  According to Levy, Kotok learned about the machine’s impending installation while working a summer job at Western Electric in New Jersey and resolved to translate the debugger originally written by Jack Dennis as FLIT and then modified by others to become micro-FLIT to the new computer so that the hackers would have a superior programming environment the moment the PDP-1 came online.  Peter Samson gave the new debugger the name DDT (both FLIT and DDT were pesticides, so the names were meant as puns related to “debugging”).  As on the TX-0, the hackers wanted to build an improved assembler as well, but Dennis was perfectly happy with the default assembler that had been created by Bolt, Bernake & Newman.  Kotok therefore made a deal with Dennis: if the hackers could create a new assembler over a single weekend, Dennis would pay them for their time on behalf of the university.  Late one Friday in September, Kotok, Samson, Saunders, Wagner, and two others began frantically coding.  By Monday morning, the assembler was done.

Like the assembler and debugger, much of the hacking done on the PDP-1 by TMRC consisted of extensions to existing hacks on the TX-0.  One of the more impressive programs came from Samson, who converted his music program to the new machine.  The original program on the TX-0 could only play a single voice, but the new program took advantage of the extended audio capabilities of the PDP-1 to create three-part harmonies.  This feat of ingenuity so impressed DEC that the company actually made it freely available to its customers.  Steve Piner, another TMRC member who matriculated to MIT in 1958, and Peter Deutsch, a precocious local teenager who joined the TX-0 and PDP-1 hacking crowd, developed a text editing program they called “Expensive Typewriter.”  Another interesting hack allowed the TMRC members to serially link the PDP-1 and the TX-0 so that inputs made on one computer would also appear on the other.  This hack played a role in a practical joke in which the TMRC programmers claimed to have an amazing new chess AI running on the PDP-1.  In actuality, the “computer” was a person inputting commands on the attached TX-0.  This was apparently the closest the TMRC hackers got to creating an actual game on the computer, as they remained focused on other areas of programming.  However, a separate group of computer enthusiasts only tangentially affiliated with TMRC were brainstorming their own ideas on how best to exploit the capabilities of the PDP-1, and they were looking to create a more interactive experience.

Conceiving Spacewar!


Stephen “Slug” Russell, father of Spacewar!

In early 1961, three men in their mid twenties named Wayne Wiitanen, J. Martin Graetz, and Stephen Russell were working in the Littauer Statistical Laboratory at Harvard University, MIT’s close neighbor in Cambridge.  According to an interview I conducted with Wiitanen, he and Graetz — called “Shag” due to his propensity for telling shaggy dog stories — became friends as freshmen at MIT in 1953, first meeting through the MIT Outing Club and quickly drawn together by a mutual interest in both rock climbing and playing music.  Awarded a scholarship for his freshman year, Wiitanen subsequently lost his financial aid the next year, forcing him to find a new source of income.  This led to a part time job at the Datamatic Corporation, the joint Raytheon-Honeywell computer company, in the Spring of 1955, where Wiitanen learned to program for the first time on an IBM 650.  The next year, Wiitanen took a work-study job with the MIT Office of Statistic Services.  Scheduled to graduate in Spring 1957, Wiitanen never completed a required senior thesis, but his computer experience landed him a job in the MIT Meteorology Department that Summer.  After six months of compulsory military training in early 1958, Wiitanen took a job at the MIT Electronics Systems Laboratory before taking the job at Littauer in 1959.

According to Wiitanen, he and Graetz moved into a men’s cooperative called Old Joe Clark’s in the fall of 1957, where Graetz concentrated on various writing projects while Wiitanen worked for MIT.  In 1959, Graetz and Wiitanen moved into an apartment at 8 Hingham Street in Cambridge, which they referred to as the “Hingham Institute” — a play on MIT’s common nickname, “The Institute.”  It was during this period that Graetz became interested in Wiitanen’s work for the Meteorology Department and began paying attention to computers.  According to an interview I conducted with him, Graetz, a native of Omaha, Nebraska, had been a chemistry major at MIT, but harbored no real love for the field and ultimately failed to graduate.  After leaving the school, Graetz briefly pursued work as a chemistry lab technician at both his alma mater and Massachusetts General Hospital before Wiitanen arranged for him to be hired by Littauer as a junior operator feeding punched cards into the lab’s IBM 704 computer.  He later became a program librarian while also immersing himself in the inner workings of the 704 and learning both assembly language and FORTRAN.  According to Wiitanen, Russell was hired by the lab as a program consultant soon after, and the three men shared an office there.

According to Graetz in his Creative Computing article, he, Wiitanen, and Russell spent their idle hours working their way through the Lensman and Skylark novels of E.E. “Doc” Smith and going to local theaters to watch the latest B-movies released by Toho Studios of Japan.  Doc Smith was a writer of trashy science fiction novels active in the 1920s and 1930s who laid the foundation for the “space opera” genre with his tales of intergalactic war and romance full of melodramatic dialogue, sudden plot twists, and cliched struggles between good and evil.  The Toho movies, meanwhile, featured thin plots, extensive special effects, and numerous explosions as monsters like Godzilla and Rodan terrified Tokyo.  Graetz and his friends dreamed of taking the space operas of Smith and adapting them as movies featuring Toho-style special effects.

According to our interview, in summer 1961 Graetz was dismissed from Harvard and called up his friend Jack Dennis, who secured him a job working on a diagnostic program for a new magnetic tape unit for the TX-0 at MIT.  When the PDP-1 arrived that fall, he was just as eager as anyone else to begin programming on the machine.   He therefore enlisted the Hingham Institute to brainstorm how best to demonstrate the capabilities of the PDP-1 through their own hack.  They wanted to create a demo like the Whirlwind bouncing ball or the TX-0 HAX routine that highlighted the computer’s monitor, but they did not feel that either of those programs really demonstrated their respective computers particularly well because they did not tax the computer to its limits or fully engage the user in a pleasurable activity.  According to Graetz, it was Wiitanen who finally articulated that action and the need for skilled user input would result in a particularly engaging demo and suggested flying spaceships around the screen as part of a race, contest, exploration, or fight.  According to Wiitanen, this seminal moment came over tea at the Hingham Institute one afternoon and was not inspired by anything more particular than a general love of science fiction and a desire to make good use of the PDP-1 computer.  Thinking back to their ambitions to create a Skylark movie, Graetz and Russell immediately honed in on the concept of a space conflict.  Regrettably, despite coming up with the initial idea, Wiitanen was unable to participate in its implementation.  An army reservist, when the Berlin Wall crisis flared in October 1961, Wiitanen was called up to active duty.  Responsibility for implementing the demo, which the trio named Spacewar!, therefore fell to Hingham Institute compatriot Steve Russell.

According to an oral history he participated in with the Computer History Museum, Stephen “Slug” Russell was born in Hartford, Connecticut, to a mechanical engineer father and teacher mother.  When Stephen was three, the Russell family embarked on a cross-country train excursion to visit his mother’s family in Washington state, which began a life-long fascination with trains.  Model railroads soon became an obsession, which led him to become interested in electronics around the age of ten so he could create more elaborate model railroads.  Soon after, his father was laid off and moved the family to Washington, where Russell attended high school.  During this period, Russell became more deeply immersed in electronics through surplus World War II radio and radar equipment.

Russell beheld his first computer, Howard Aiken’s Harvard Mark I, as a teenager during a trip back east to visit his uncle, Harvard professor George Pierce.  A firm believer that everyone should receive a proper education, Pierce later paid Russell’s tuition so he could attend Dartmouth College.  While Dartmouth did not have a computer in those days, Russell did work with IBM tabulating equipment.  During his senior year, he fell in with Professor John McCarthy, one of the pioneers in the field of artificial intelligence.  When McCarthy moved to MIT in 1958, Russell followed to help implement a new programming language called LISP specifically tailored for AI research.  Preoccupied by his AI work, Russell never completed a senior thesis at Dartmouth and therefore did not officially graduate.  With his passion for trains, Russell joined TMRC in 1960 and became active in the S&P committee.  He did not, however, become involved in the TX-0 programming scene, as he was too busy trying to implement LISP on the 704 in the Computation Center.  By 1961, Russell was burned out on LISP and took the job at Harvard that led to his involvement with the Hingham Institute.

There is considerable confusion in the secondary video game literature regarding the relationship of Russell, Graetz, and Wiitanen to both MIT and the hackers of TMRC.  Replay, for instance, identifies all three as TMRC members, while All Your Base Are Belong to Us describes the game as being written by Steve Russell and “his MIT engineering friends,” Phoenix refers to Russell as a graduate engineering student at MIT, and The Ultimate History of Video Games refers to Russell as “a fairly new Model Railroader who had just transferred from Dartmouth College.”  In truth, none of these descriptions are completely accurate.  Russell was certainly not a graduate student at MIT, for he is quite clear in his oral history that he never graduated from Dartmouth.  He was not an employee at the time he was creating Spacewar! either, as both his oral history and Graetz’s article place him at Harvard in early 1961 after leaving his AI work at MIT.  Graetz claims in Creative Computing that Russell did return to MIT in Fall 1961, but in Russell’s own oral history he gives a rundown of this period and appears to indicate he went straight from Harvard to Stanford in 1962 without any other stops in between.  This contention is further supported by a 1963 article about computing at Stanford in Datamation that states Russell “worked under McCarthy at MIT and was brought to Stanford from Harvard,” and by a deposition given by John McKenzie in 1975 in which he stated Russell was at Harvard during the period of time he was creating Spacewar!  While he was briefly a TMRC member as demonstrated by the organization’s membership roles and comments in his oral history, he explicitly states in his oral history that he did not become involved in the TX-0 hacking scene.  Graetz, meanwhile, did work at MIT, but he has never claimed an affiliation with TMRC and his name cannot be found in the organization’s membership roles.  Finally, Wiitanen was never at MIT at all, called to active duty before the PDP-1 hacking exploits could even begin.  While TMRC was not directly involved in the conception of Spacewar!, however, its members would still play a critical role in moving the program from concept to playable game.

Building Spacewar!


Dan Edwards (l) and Peter Samson playing Spacewar! c. 1962

Despite no longer being an MIT employee, Russell continued to frequent Building 26 at the university and was therefore in a position to both observe and interact with the PDP-1 when it finally arrived.  In his own recollection of the genesis of Spacewar! in his oral history, Russell remembers being particularly inspired to create the program by the “Minskytron,” a graphical demo recently created by professor Marvin Minsky in which three dots were generated on the screen that subsequently began to move around and interact with each other.  Based on initializing constants entered by the user, these dots could form a variety of patterns from complex geometric shapes to fireworks effects.  Russell’s exposure to the Minskytron and his interest in the new DDT debugger inspired him to implement the previously brainstormed Spacewar! hack on the PDP-1.  As Graetz remembers, however, Steve did not acquire the name “Slug” for nothing, as he was generally loathe to start a new project if he could come up with a good excuse to put it off.  Therefore, while the game concept took shape in the summer and fall, by December Russell had still not done any programming.

At this point, TMRC made its first critical contribution to Spacewar!  As he describes the situation in his own Computer History Museum oral history, Alan Kotok practically served as a project manager as the program got off the ground, giving Russell encouragement and supplying him with bits of code taken from various libraries.  As recounted by Graetz, Russell, and Levy, the critical moment came when Russell articulated what turned out to be his final excuse: he did not possess the sine-cosine routines required to place and move his ships around the screen.  Kotok, by now considered the dean of the TMRC hacking community, enjoyed a good relationship with the engineers at DEC, so he took it upon himself to drive to the company headquarters in Maynard to hunt down the routines himself.  When he returned to MIT and plopped them down in front of Russell, the hacker realized he had run out of excuses and set to work.

According to Levy, Russell finally began attacking the program in earnest in December 1961, but this date is almost certainly incorrect, as according to log files produced during the McKenzie deposition, the PDP-1 display was not installed until December 29, 1961, meaning he could not have even seen the Minskytron in action yet by December.  Graetz recounts that Russell first succeeded in generating and moving a dot around the screen in January 1962.  Initially worried that moving an entire ship would take too much processing power, Russell realized that since the points comprising the spaceship would always remain in the same relative position to each other, he only needed to calculate the angle once per frame and then implement code that rotated the entire grid as necessary.  Before long, Russell had designed the two ships, which according to an interview excerpt with Russell in The Ultimate History of Videogames were designed to look like a curvy Buck Rodgers spaceship and a slender Redstone rocket.  They soon gained the nicknames “Wedge” and “Needle” respectively.

According to Levy, by February 1962 Russell, with coding help from TMRC member Bob Saunders, had finished the basic program. (Note: In The Ultimate History of Video Games, Kent claims that Russell spent nearly six months creating the first version of the game, but this contradicts the primary sources, which all give the December to February time frame.  It is possible Kent is referring to the total time from conception to implementation as opposed to just the time Russell actually spent programming or that he is including the time when additional modifications were made before the program’s public debut in May.)  In this initial version, the two ships could accelerate, rotate clockwise, or rotate counterclockwise when the player flipped one of three toggle switches on the PDP-1.  Flipping a fourth toggle switch allowed the player to fire torpedoes that would destroy the opposing ship if they made contact.  Originally, there was a random chance that the torpedo would be a dud, but Russell changed them to be 100% reliable after negative user feedback.  As explained by Russell to Kent, the game required two players due to a lack of computing power to craft an AI opponent.


A drawing of one of the custom control boxes crafted by the TMRC hackers to play Spacewar!

While Russell finished the basic Spacewar! program in February, there were significant modifications made over the next three months.  As Levy recounts in Hackers, the TMRC programmers had by this time developed what he termed the “Hacker Ethic,” which was basically a philosophy that access to computers and tools for discovering how the world works should never be restricted and imperfect systems should always be improved by whomever has the ability to do so.  This was essentially a transfer of the sensibilities of the TMRC S&P committee, which was full of students who loved taking things apart to see how they functioned and constantly strove to improve the track layout housed in Building 20 with their own inventive solutions.  This “Hacker Ethic” would continue to be a driving force behind the evolution of computer technology for decades and still manifests today in the vibrant game modding communities, the continuing development of open source computer programs, and online collaborative projects like Wikipedia.  In the case of Spacewar!, the Hacker Ethic insured that other members of the TMRC hacker community approached Russell with their own suggestions to improve the game.  While some assume that TMRC members added these additions directly to the program themselves as part of the Hacker Ethic’s call for taking the initiative in improving computer programs, Norbert Landsteiner, who runs one of the most comprehensive Spacewar! webpages on the Internet, has painstakingly deconstructed and analysed the game’s code and concluded that Russell himself continued to serve as the gatekeeper for new features and incorporated them into his code in an orderly fashion.

The earliest modifications to Spacewar! were applied to the backdrop for the game.  As Graetz recounts, Russell realized early in development that without any background objects, it was impossible to tell how the two ships were moving relative to each other when they were travelling at slow speeds.  Russell solved this problem by including random dots of light on the screen that represented a star field.  This inelegant solution did not satisfy Peter Samson, who decided to extract data from the American Ephemeris and Nautical Almanac to recreate the night sky between 22 1/2 ° N and 22 1/2 ° S down to the fifth order of magnitude.  Not only was this routine capable of panning across the screen to display most of the best-known constellations in proper relation to each other, but by controlling the number of times the electron beam fired at any particular spot on the screen, Samson was also able to recreate the relative brightness of each star in the night sky.  In the tradition of previous hacks on the TX-0, Samson dubbed his routine “Expensive Planetarium.” According to the game code itself as relayed by Landsteiner, Samson completed Expensive Planetarium around March 13, 1962, and Russell incorporated the code into the next formal release of the game, Spacewar! 2B, on April 2, 1962. (Note: In Replay Donovan appears to indicate that there was no background star field before Samson added Expensive Planetarium, but the primary sources agree that Samson’s contribution was replacing random dots with accurate constellations rather than incorporating background stars in the first place.)

A second critical innovation came from Dan Edwards, a graduate student and TMRC member who, like Russell, worked with John McCarthy on LISP.  According to Graetz, Edwards was nonplussed by the lack of strategy in the game, which tended to devolve into the players wildly shooting at each other while zipping across the screen.  He believed introducing gravity into the game would provide the necessary strategic depth, but Russell felt making the necessary modifications was beyond his abilities.  Edwards therefore implemented the gravity himself, adding a sun to the middle of the screen and modelling its effects on the movement of the ships.  This addition actually pushed the display beyond its limits and led to flickering, so Edwards looked for other places he could save resources.  He quickly discovered that the program examined the ship lookup table to redraw each ship on each frame, a method Russell had initially used — according to his oral history — so that the shape of the ships could be easily changed on the fly.  Edwards created a compiler that consulted the tables at the start of each game instead.  This freed up the necessary runtime to incorporate the effect of gravity on the spaceships, but not on the torpedoes, which continued to travel in a straight line right through the sun.  Russell and company decided these were “photon torpedoes” that were not affected by gravity to provide an in-game explanation for this effect.

The final significant modification to the game, patched in sometime in April or early May, was a hyperspace function developed by Graetz in which the player could flip a toggle switch to have his coordinates randomly scrambled so he would reappear somewhere else on the screen.  According to Levy, this was a concept directly borrowed from Doc Smith and his spaceships that could use a “hyper-spatial tube” to enter “Nth space.”  The idea, according to Graetz’s article, dated back to the early brainstorming sessions and was designed to introduce a last ditch panic button, but one that was not completely reliable so as not to be overpowered.  In the initial version by Graetz, the player could only enter hyperspace three times, and it was possible to land right in the middle of the sun or end up in a similarly compromising position.  This made hyperspace something a player would only want to use as a last resort.

Midway through development, the Spacewar! hackers also made an important quality of life change to the hardware itself.  Tired of sore elbows and aching backs from hunching over the PDP-1 display flicking toggle switches — not to mention the constant threat of hitting the wrong switch and aborting the game and the visual advantage always held by one player due to the monitor being off to one side of the control panel — Alan Kotok and Bob Saunders decided to rectify the situation by creating their own custom control devices.  According to Graetz, their first preference was for a joystick, but in 1962 the technology was still not common and proved to be unavailable to the hackers.  Instead, the duo scrounged around the TMRC rooms for random bits of wood, wire, bakelite, and switching equipment and fashioned them into control boxes.  The final result consisted of two levers and a button mounted in a wooden case with a bakelite top.  One lever controlled rotation (pushing the lever to the left rotated the ship counterclockwise while pushing it to the right rotated the ship clockwise), the other lever controlled acceleration and hyperspace (pulling the lever towards the player accelerated the ship while pushing it away from the player activated hyperspace), and pressing the button fired torpedoes.  With these control boxes, installed according to logs provided during the McKenzie deposition on March 19, 1962, both players could sit comfortably in front of the screen while also becoming more adept players due to the more logical control layout.  Essentially, Kotok and Samson invented the first gamepads, an indispensable part of every video game system to come.

Spreading Spacewar!


A black-and-white screenshot of Spacewar! showing the two ships in their opening positions

 In May, 1962, Spacewar! made its public debut at the annual MIT Science Open House.  According to Graetz, the game was modified for that occasion to incorporate a scoring system to better limit individual sessions, while a larger CRT was also hooked up to the computer to facilitate spectator viewing of matches.    Development on the game stalled over the next few months — possibly because Steve Russell was in the middle of a six month stint in the United States Army that he briefly discusses in his oral history — before what could be considered the “final” version of the original game was promulgated by Russell on September 24, 1962.  Referred to as Spacewar! 3.1, this version incorporated certain functions that had previously been patched in like the scoring mechanic and hyperspace into the core game logic alongside several minor tweaks.

The same month Spacewar! made its public debut at MIT, Graetz presented a paper to the newly formed Digital Equipment Computer Users’ Society (DECUS), a support group for businesses and organizations using DEC computers that both conducted technical conferences and facilitated the exchange of software between members via magnetic tape, outlining the basic parameters of the game.  From there, Spacewar! began to spread across the country.  How quickly this spread occurred has recently been the subject of some debate.  The traditional narrative, borrowed from Graetz’s article, posits a fairly rapid and widespread adoption of the game.  In truth, more recent in-depth research by historians Marty Goldberg and Devin Monnens indicates that the game spread in fits and starts and did not really hit its stride until the late 1960s and early 1970s, when CRT terminals began to supplant teletypes as the primary user input.  Nevertheless, it is fair to say that in an era when most game programs were one-offs that remained confined to a specific system, or at the very least a particular geographic area, Spacewar!  penetrated computer labs from Cambridge to California, inspiring would-be programmers to follow the hacker ethic by creating their own variations on the game or even creating their own original programs.  This activity culminated in the early 1970s in the creation of the first arcade video games — which were directly inspired by Spacewar! — and the subsequent launch of a new video game industry.

The main hubs of Spacewar! activity appear to have primarily formed around MIT hackers who brought the game directly to other institutions.  The most important of these hubs was undoubtedly Stanford University, where Steve Russell ended up working in 1962 when he followed John McCarthy to the institution, who had grown frustrated with the lack of progress in AI research at MIT therefore decided to continue his work at Stanford.  Spacewar! made the trip to the West Coast with Russell and became an immediate smash success, with a 1963 article in Datamation reporting that system administrators at Stanford had banned playing the game during business hours because its overwhelming popularity placed too much strain on system resources.  Every time McCarthy’s research team received a more advanced computer, it received a Spacewar! port, keeping the game relevant among the computer-using crowd at the university for at least a decade.  Indeed, in October 1972 Stanford became the site of what may have been the first organized video game tournament, the “Intergalactic Spacewar Olympics.”  This event was famously chronicled by Stewart Brand for the December 1972 issue of Rolling Stone Magazine, giving Spacewar! a cultural cachet rare for computer games of the period.  Furthermore, it was through Stanford that Bill Pitts and Nolan Bushnell, the originators of the first two arcade video games, were both first exposed to the landmark program that directly inspired their creations.  (Note: I am aware that Mr. Bushnell claims to have first seen Spacewar! at the University of Utah, but that is a story for another blog post.)

Perhaps the best documented Spacewar! hub after MIT and Stanford is the University of Minnesota, where an MIT alum named Albert Kuhfeld programmed the game on a CDC 3100 computer in the Department of Physics and Astronomy that was being used in tandem with a new particle accelerator.  According to interviews conducted by Landsteiner for his website and Goldberg and Monnens for their paper, Kuhfeld began programming the game soon after the computer arrived in 1966 because he missed his Spacewar!-playing days at MIT, but he was not able to do much actual programming until 1967.  By 1969, the game was essentially complete.  According to Goldberg and Monnens, the main differences between “Minnesota Spacewar” and the MIT version were the inclusion of timers for torpedoes, retro rockets for deceleration, and the “Minnesota Panic Button,” which activated a cloaking device.  According to Landsteiner, Kuhfeld took a cue from MIT and fashioned control boxes for his version as well, with one lever for left/right, one lever for acceleration/deceleration, a button for torpedoes, and a switch for hyperspace/invisibility.  A second control box replaced the movement buttons with a joystick.  According to Goldberg and Monnens, Kuhfeld’s game normally had to be played during the day rather than at night, when the accelerator was often running, and could therefore only be played rarely at first.  Eventually, more computer hardware was added to the lab, allowing playing time to increase and the game to become more popular.  In July 1971, science fiction magazine Analog published an article about the game submitted by Kuhfeld himself, which, like the Rolling Stone article by Brand, helped raise Spacewar!‘s national profile.

Beyond MIT, Stanford, and Minnesota, evidence of Spacewar! distribution and popularity becomes increasingly sketchy and anecdotal.  According to Goldberg and Monnens, the game spread quickly to other Boston-area institutions with PDP-1 computers and migrated to at least a few institutions farther afield like the University of Michigan, where the game arrived sometime between 1964 and 1966.  This spread was at least partially aided by DEC itself.  Because the game had been created specifically to use every last ounce of processing power the PDP-1 could bring to bear, DEC recognized that the program was a perfect poster child for the capabilities of the system.  In 1963, DEC created a promotional brochure for the PDP-1 based around Spacewar! that highlighted the impressive number of calculations per second the computer performed to run the game as well as the complexity inherent in plotting the position of the ships and stars and modelling the Newtonian physics present in the game.

According to most sources, DEC further helped the spread of Spacewar! by eventually including it as a test program with every PDP-1 computer sold.  The claim, as related by Levy and parroted by numerous sources thereafter, is that because the program used virtually every function of the PDP-1, it was a perfect final diagnostic program for the engineers at DEC before shipping a computer to the end user.  Because the computer was then shipped without the memory being wiped, the game would run the first time the computer was turned on at its final destination, exposing yet another computer lab to the game.  While this claim makes for a good story, however, it has yet to be confirmed by DEC primary sources.  The best we have is the brochure already referenced above, which does prove that at the very least DEC ran demos of the game for potential buyers, and a statement by DEC engineer Gordon Bell to Goldberg that the story sounds plausible, but that he cannot confirm it.  Martin Graetz also stated this claim in a 2007 Gamasutra article, but by that point the story had become so widespread that he may not have been speaking from first-hand knowledge.  Indeed, his 1981 Creative Computing article is silent on this issue.  Even if this story is true, Goldberg and Monnens caution that of the 55 PDP-1 computers sold, only about twenty were ever equipped with a display, and not all of these were equipped with one right out of the box.  Therefore, even if this story is true, this method of distribution probably had a relatively limited impact, especially considering that the most important hub at Stanford was not established in this manner.

 As the Datamation and Rolling Stone articles cited above demonstrate, Spacewar! became immensely popular on the Stanford campus, inspiring marathon playing sessions and intense competition among players.  Goldberg and Monnens indicate, however, that response may have been more muted at other institutions.  While the duo have only limited anecdotal evidence at their disposal, discussions with former players at both Harvard and the University of Michigan indicate that only a few people at either institution showed any interest in the game in the late 1960s.  Still, the vibrant playing communities at MIT and Stanford coupled with slow yet steady migration to other computer labs across the country still make Spacewar! the first landmark program in video game history.  Despite reaching a larger audience than any computer game to come before it, however, it still ultimately remained confined to university computer labs and entertained a relatively small portion of the U.S. population.  As Russell told Kent, the hackers briefly toyed with the idea of making money on the game, but in 1962 it was still not possible to create a system cheap enough to qualify as a consumer product.  It would require nearly another decade of innovation in computer technology and solid-state components before a commercial video game could finally become a reality.