A Nutty Idea

In March 1971, Nolan Bushnell left Ampex to become the chief engineer of Nutting Associates and finally achieve his dream of building a commercial video game.  Over the next five or six months, he engineered a game so advanced, it would take at least three years for any other product to approach its combination of representational graphics, physics, and artificial intelligence.  Debuted at the MOA show that October in a sleek fiberglass cabinet, Computer Space conveyed a firm statement that the future was here and the coin-op industry would never be the same.  Unfortunately, the game also proved alien to distributors and intimidating to the general public.  While the success or lack thereof of Computer Space on the market continues to be a point of debate today, there is no doubt that it failed in its overall goal of igniting the video game revolution.  While it sold about as many units as a typical pinball machine, it failed to spark much excitement from the established manufacturers, and Bushnell was forced to return to the drawing board.

Nutting Associates


Bill Nutting, founder and president of Nutting Associates

William Gilbert Nutting was born on May 3, 1926, and grew up in River Forest, Illinois.  The son and grandson of executives of the Marshal Fields Department Store, Nutting graduated high school in the middle of World War II and entered Army Air Corps cadet training, where he began a life long love affair with flying.  According to a profile written in the March 1992 issue of Vintage Airplane, Nutting attended Colgate University for two years after the War and then transferred to Colorado University, where his childhood friend Claire Ullman also attended school.  In 1948, Bill and Claire were married, and two years later Bill graduated with a degree in business administration.  As stated in a profile in the February 17, 1968, edition of Cash Box, Bill and Claire then relocated to San Francisco, where Bill took a trainee position with the National Motor Bearing Company and then joined Rheem Manufacturing in 1951, where he moved through a variety of jobs from production line foreman to inventory control to purchasing and sales.  In 1956, he relocated to Rheem’s Chicago office for a sales and office management position, but in 1959 he returned to California to enter the retail business.  According to Goldberg and Vendel in Business is Fun, Nutting’s retail work had him following in his father’s and grandfather’s footsteps by taking a job at the San Francisco luxury department store Raphael Weill & Company — also known as the White House for its beaux-arts facade — where he started as a buyer in the gloves department.

According Cash Box, in 1962 Nutting invested in Edex Teaching Machines, a company established by Eugene Kleiner that same year after leaving Fairchild that built educational devices for the United States Military and other clients.  One of these systems was the Knowledge Computer, which according to a patent issued in 1965 was designed by engineer Thomas Nisbet and was a coin-operated multiple-choice question and answer machine that incorporated a film projector and buttons for selecting answers.  As explained in Cash Box, Nutting took over marketing of the product, and the October 24, 1964, issue of Billboard Magazine reports that Nutting and a man named Howard Starr attended the 1964 MOA show under the name Scientific Amusements — which judging by the October 17, 1964, edition of the magazine was a subsidiary of Edex — to display the Knowledge Computer, most likely to gauge the interest of coin-op distributors.  A small number of machines may have even been placed on location, as an article in the August 22, 1964, issue of Cash Box states the game can already be found in “bowling alleys, student unions, and transportation depots.”

Raytheon purchased Edex the next year, while according to the October 23, 1965, edition of Billboard Magazine Bill Nutting continued to market the Knowledge Computer through an entity called Nutting Corporation and worked with distributor Advance Automatic Sales to place machines with 20-25 operators in the Bay area.  As explained in the February 17, 1968, issue of Cash Box, however, it soon became apparent that the game was too expensive and too hard to service to be a viable product.  According to an article by Goldberg in issue 136 of Retro Gamer, in about 1966 Bill therefore contacted his brother Dave, then working as an industrial designer for the celebrated firm Brooks Stevens Design Associates, to ask for help in redesigning the Knowledge Computer. (Note:  Dave Nutting’s relatively short, but highly influential career in the coin-op industry necessitates a fuller biography than the scope of this post allows, so his background will be covered in more detail in a later post.)  According to Dave as relayed to Goldberg, the brothers agreed that Dave would design and manufacture the game in his home city of Milwaukee, while Bill would concentrate on selling the game from his home in California.  Therefore, while Dave and an electronic engineer friend with Cutler Hammer named Harold Montgomery rebuilt the Knowledge Computer, Bill began visiting distributors in New York, Detroit, and Chicago to better understand how the coin-op industry worked.  Unfortunately, the partnership between the Nutting brothers never came to pass.  According to Dave as relayed to several authors including Goldberg and Donovan and corroborated in interviews with Dave’s partners Harold Montgomery and Gene Wagner conducted by Ethan Johnson, Claire did not like the idea of the brothers going into business together and insisted Bill call the deal off.  Bill therefore established Nutting Associates in Mountain View in February 1967 and prepared to manufacture the trivia game himself.  (Note: some sources claim the company was established in 1968, but the February 1967 date is confirmed by the company’s articles of incorporation)

Without Dave’s design expertise, Bill Nutting was back to square one with his original Knowledge Computer prototype and therefore approached a local marketing services company for help completing the game.  That company assigned an industrial designer named Richard Ball to the project.  According to this author’s interview with Ball, he decided to place Nutting’s unit on test at the College of San Mateo and was amazed when he emptied the machine five days later and discovered it was filled to the brim with dimes.  Sensing a hit, Ball subsequently redesigned the game for easier manufacturing, most notably by building a new projector, and set the machine to quarter play.  According to Cash Box magazine, the game, marketed as Computer Quiz, launched in November 1967.  According to Ball, this first version of the game relied on copper relays, which created extreme service headaches.  Ball therefore approached a company called Applied Technology to design a circuit board that would accept plug-in relays.  The next summer, a friend of Bill Nutting’s son that had a knack for solid state design interned at Nutting Associates and worked with Ball and Applied Technology to redesign the game again to eliminate relays entirely. This third generation of Computer Quiz , released according to Cash Box in October 1968, may well have been the first fully solid-state arcade game ever created.


Computer Quiz from Nutting Associates, perhaps the first solid-state arcade game

Computer Quiz hit the industry at the perfect time.  Sega had already proven that operators would be willing to accept a larger, more sophisticated game far different from the traditional pinball table and had also established that the public would accept a machine set for quarter play.  Furthermore, the game launched during a period when the industry was still fighting for legitimacy due to the continuing stigma of association with organized crime, so a game with a perceived educational value proved a perfect lead-in product for locations that would not accept pin games or similar amusements.  As a result, in a time when the typical pinball game might sell 1,500 units and a hit would only sell around 3,000 both Goldberg and Donovan report that Nutting sold 4,400 units of Computer Quiz, while Nutting Industries sold another 3,600 units of Dave’s version, which he called I.Q. Computer.  Along with Periscope and SpeedwayComputer Quiz played a critical role in the arcade game renaissance of the late 1960s that ultimately resulted in the birth of the video arcade game industry.

While Computer Quiz proved a sizable hit, Nutting Associates soon ran into difficulties.  According to former company general manager Ransom White as told to coin-op historian Keith Smith, the company was only marginally profitable, perhaps due to Nutting’s decision to bypass distributors and sell to operators directly, many of whom White felt were shady characters.  This view is supported by Ball, who came away from his time with Nutting believing that the entire coin-op industry was controlled by the mob.  Furthermore, according to Ball the company never had a particularly competent engineering department — after all, they had to rely on an intern to even build their first solid-state design — which made coming up with a follow up product tricky.  According to Ball, he warned Nutting in 1968 that Computer Quiz would soon run its course and created a marketing brief for a video product to replace it, but he and White were both fired soon after for objecting to Nutting buying an airplane using company funds.  (Note: No one else has come forward to corroborate Ball’s claim that he proposed some form of video game to Nutting in 1968, but if he did, this could explain why Nutting would be willing to experiment with the concept with Bushnell in 1971.)

With White, Ball, and sales executive Lance Hailstone departing, Nutting was forced to refresh his executive staff and hired Rod Geiman to serve as executive vice president and Dave Ralstin to serve as sales manager.  According to this author’s interview with Bushnell, before long Nutting himself was spending most of his time tinkering with his planes while Geiman ran Nutting Associates.  According to Billboard Magazine, in December 1968 Nutting moved from its 4,500 square foot facility to a much larger 18,500 square foot location as Geiman prepared to expand the company into new markets.  The next year, the company launched a sports trivia game called Sports World and a horrorscope machine called Astro Computer, but the company’s main business remained releasing updated questions for Computer Quiz, which could not sustain the company much longer.  Therefore, when Nolan Bushnell showed up in early 1971 with his own game idea and agreed to become the chief engineer the company desperately needed, Nutting lept at the chance to hire him.

Creating Computer Space


The memory circuit board for Computer Space.  Note the diodes laid out in the shape of the spaceships.

When Bushnell joined Nutting, he had a basic hardware system that could move dots around the screen and a vague idea to make a product like Spacewar!, but he did not yet have a fully formed game concept.  In fact, according to his 1976 deposition at one point he even toyed with moving to a simpler concept by just designing a piloting game in which the player controlled a spaceship and dodged asteroids.  In the end though, he decided to press on with a shooting game, which by the end of January 1971 had acquired the working title Cosmic Combat.  The limitations of the hardware necessitated some changes from Spacewar!, however.  Gone was the sun and its gravity, the hyperspace function, and two-player combat.  Instead, Bushnell crafted a game in which the player controls a rocket ship and attempts to shoot down two flying saucers that also shoot back at him.  Both the player and the saucers score a point each time they destroy one another.  The game lasts for ninety seconds.  If the player has more points than the saucers at the end of the round, he gets another ninety seconds of play; otherwise the game ends. (Note: In the Ultimate History of Video Games, Kent claims that Computer Space played just like Spacewar! complete with gravity and hyperspace, but just observing footage of the game demonstrates this is clearly false.)

While there is a great deal of disagreement between Bushnell and Dabney over who did what when building the motion control prototype, there is much less controversy over the creation of the game itself.  As described by Goldberg and Vendel, Bushnell’s deal with Nutting was that he would join the company as chief engineer and work on Nutting products during business hours, while working on his video game after hours and on weekends.  Bushnell insisted on this arrangement so that Nutting would not acquire shop rights to his video game technology, which remained the property of Syzygy Engineering.  When the game was completed, Nutting would manufacture and sell the game and give Syzygy a five percent royalty on each cabinet sold.  Dabney, meanwhile, remained at Ampex until the summer, when Bushnell’s progress convinced him they would be able to make a go of it, and he resigned to join Nutting as well.

Once work on the game shifted to Nutting, the majority of the engineering was completed by Bushnell.  According to Benj Edwards’s article on the development of the game, Bushnell spent his days hunched over a drafting table just outside his office door at Nutting plotting out the circuitry that would tell the spot generator where to place dots on the screen and how they should interact with the player’s controls.  He also created the graphics for the game, rendering the player’s ship and the enemy saucers as a series of dots and creating a series of routines that allowed them to rotate smoothly.  In one of his more clever feats of engineering, Bushnell used mirroring techniques so that he would only have to store four different ship positions in memory rather than the sixteen needed to cover every possible facing.  He also chose to lay out the diodes used for the graphical memory — mask ROM being far too expensive at the time — in the shape of the ships themselves, which allowed operators to easily figure out which diode needed to be replaced in case of malfunction.  Finally, Bushnell crafted the AI of the hardware-controlled opponents by dividing the playfield into quadrants and giving the saucers the ability to detect which quadrant the rocket ship was currently in so they would fire in that direction.

In one of the rare cases of agreement between Bushnell and Dabney on engineering matters, Dabney concurs that Bushnell completed all the work outlined above, though he does claim that Bushnell came to him for advice on how to implement several features.  However, Dabney also claims in his Retro Gamer Roundup interview that Bushnell had help in designing the circuits from Steve Bristow, a young engineer interning at Ampex who later became a key Atari employee.  In both an interview in Retro Gamer issue 75 and in a Computer Space retrospective in issue 93, Bristow has confirmed that he did help build the motion control and memory boards used in the game, but in Edwards’s article he concurs with Bushnell that he was not involved in any of the design or layout, just the construction.

According to Edwards, Dabney concentrated on the mechanical and analog engineering required to turn the game into a finished product, building a power supply, developing a working coin mechanism, implementing the controls, and constructing a wooden cabinet in which to house the game.  According to both Edwards and Retro Gamer 93, he also developed the sound for the game by taking a voltage regulating diode that generated pink noise and attaching an amplifier and integrator that allowed for changes in volume.  According to his Retro Gaming Roundup interview, Dabney also came up with the idea of inverting the video every time the player cleared a round to provide a sense of progression.  The duo identified the reverse-color screen as “hyperspace.”  According to Goldberg and Vendel, Bill Nutting provided the final name for the game, Computer Space — a variation on the name of the company’s first hit, Computer Quiz — while Edwards claims it was Ralstin.

According to Goldberg and Vendel, in August 1971 the game was far enough along that Bushnell and Dabney decided to do a location test, an important step in the arcade industry in which a prototype game is placed on location and the coin-drop is measured to see if the game is shaping up to be a hit.  (Note: Both Donovan and Retro Gamer place the test in November 1971, but this is clearly far too late: Nutting was already taking orders for the game at the MOA show in October, and location tests always occur before the game is made available to distributors.  These sources have apparently confused the location test date with the most commonly claimed general release date.)  Dave Ralstin ran a coin route on the side to generate extra income, so Nutting chose to place the game in a bar on the route frequented by students of Stanford University called the Dutch Goose.  Packing the prototype unit in Dabney’s Datsun pickup truck, Bushnell and Dabney brought the game to the bar and watched as players flocked to the machine.  It looked like the duo had a hit, but a second test at a pizza place did not go nearly so well.  Like Spacewar!Computer Space used a multi-button control scheme and realistically depicted the physics of movement in a zero-g environment — in which an object continues to move in the same direction until a force is exerted in the opposite direction.  The Stanford engineering students at the Goose, some of whom were probably Spacewar! veterans, caught on right away.  The working class patrons at the pizza place did not.

Galaxy Game


Bill Pitts (l) and Hugh Tuck working on the first version of Galaxy Game

Not long before putting Computer Space out on test, Bushnell learned that he was not the only person working on an arcade adaptation of Spacewar!, though after meeting his competition and observing their work, he decided they were not a threat.  According to a testimonial he wrote for the Stanford alumni magazine, Bill Pitts was a Palo Alto native interested in chemistry and physics who matriculated to Stanford University in the Fall of 1964.  Pitts quickly signed up for an electrical engineering class and received his formal introduction to computers when an EE professor discovered his interests and helped him push back his “History of Western Civilization” requirement so he could take the brand new “Introduction to Computer Science” course being offered by George Forsythe.  According to an interview conducted by coin-op historian Keith Smith for his book All in Color for a Quarter, Pitts ultimately graduated with a degree in statistics, Stanford not having a computer science degree at the time, but he had the opportunity to take high-level courses in computer programming because the statistics department allowed students to take graduate courses as part of their undergraduate degree in an effort to recruit more students to the major.

According to Donovan and Smith, Pitts also enjoyed the unusual hobbies of breaking into university buildings and exploring the maze of steam tunnels beneath the campus.  As relayed to Donovan, in 1966 Pitts was en route to a bar when he passed a driveway leading off into the hills about five miles from the center of campus.  From the sign at the foot of the drive, he could tell it led to a university building, and it was one that he had never broken into before.  He returned several hours later with the intent of breaking and entering only to discover all the doors were unlocked.  Entering the building, Pitts observed brightly lit rooms and a PDP-6 computer.  He had unwittingly just discovered the Stanford Artificial Intelligence Laboratory.  Already enamored with computers, Pitts convinced Lester Earnest, the man in charge of overseeing SAIL, to allow him to log computer time when no one else was using the system.  Soon, classes were completely forgotten as Pitts began engaging in all night coding sessions.

According to Smith, Pitts had already been exposed to Spacewar! on a PDP-1 in Polya Hall before he discovered SAIL, but hanging around the AI lab gave him the opportunity to play it more frequently and share the game with others.  As explained by Donovan and the John Markoff book What the Doormouse Said, one person with whom Pitts played the game was his high school buddy Hugh Tuck, whom he would take up to the lab whenever he was back in town from California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo.  According to Donovan and Markoff, Tuck remarked one night that if someone could stick a coin slot on the computer, that person could probably become rich. (Note: Donovan claims this exchange took place in 1966, while Markoff claims 1969.  In his alumni magazine testimonial, Pitts claims the exchange took place three years before he started working at Lockheed, which would be 1968 if Markoff’s date for his employment is correct.  1968 seems more reasonable than 1969 if only because Pitts graduated in 1968 and may not have been hanging out in the AI lab anymore.  Either way, Donovan has probably placed the event too early.) There was no way to package a PDP-6 and a display cheaply enough to create a commercial game, however, so the duo never tried to take the idea any further.  In 1971, however, Pitts took a job at Lockheed as a PDP-10 programmer, but had to wait until the computer actually arrived before he could do any work.  During this idle time, Pitts noticed that the year before, DEC had released a new computer called the PDP-11.  Designed as a successor to the PDP-8 and initiated after the PDP-X debacle and the defection of Ed De Castro to start Data General, the 16-bit PDP-11 occupied roughly the same niche as the Nova and retailed for just $12,000.  Pitts thought back to Tuck’s idea to recreate Spacewar! as an arcade game and decided that with a PDP-11 it just might work.

From Smith, the hardware Pitts used to create the game consisted of a PDP-11/20 with 8K of memory, a Hewlett Packard 1300A Electrostatic Display, and a point-plotting display interface designed by a man named Ted Panofsky. A coin box was provided by jukebox company Rowe International, while Pitts purchased used B-52 joysticks from San Carlos military surplus store J&H Outlet for use as controllers, commercial joysticks being virtually nonexistent at that time.  According to Donovan, Pitts assembled this hardware system and programmed the game, while Tuck, a mechanical engineer, designed the cabinet, which was actually engineered by a firm in Palo Alto.  Tuck, who came from a wealthy family, also provided the bulk of the $20,000 required to build the machine.  According to Donovan, the funding came from Tuck’s parents, but in Pitts’s Stanford testimonial, he says that he, Tuck, and Tuck’s brothers and sisters provided the cash.  As the game neared completion, Pitts and Tuck established a company called Computer Recreations, Inc. in June 1971 in anticipation of selling it.  Originally called Spacewar! just like the original, Pitts changed the name at the last minute to Galaxy Game due to the profound antiwar sentiment currently pervading area college campuses.


The second version of Galaxy Game, completed in 1972

According to Smith, in September 1971 Pitts and Tuck installed the first version of Galaxy Game in the Tresidder Union on the Stanford University campus in a music listening room on the second floor.  The massive walnut cabinet included seats for the player to encourage extended playing sessions and housed the monitor and controls.  The PDP-11, meanwhile, resided in the attic and was connected to the cabinet by a 100-foot cable. Unlike Computer SpaceGalaxy Game was a faithful recreation of Spacewar! complete with hyperspace and the central sun and even allowed the player to choose whether or not to use the sun, whether to use faster or slower ships and faster or slower torpedoes, and whether or not to allow ships to wrap around to the other side of the screen.  Play was set at a dime per game or three games for a quarter.  According to Pitts, the game was an instant hit as long lines of eager players waited an hour or more for a chance on the machine.  In an email correspondence with historian Marty Goldberg, Pitts said they even briefly installed a second monitor hanging above the cabinet so people in line and other passers by could observe the unfolding action.

As Pitts told Smith, the initial version of the game was never meant to be a commercial product due to its cost: its only purpose was to gauge public interest in a Spacewar! arcade game.  With the prototype proving a hit, Pitts and Tuck progressed to version two.  This version would be placed in a fancier blue fiberglass cabinet, while the computer would drive four monitors instead of just one in order to make the whole system cost effective.  These monitors could each run separate games, or they could be linked to allow more than two players to play in the same game.  Building the new system ran the cost of the entire project to $60,000.  In June 1972, this version was installed in a coffee house in the Tresidder Union, though it had to be cut down to only two monitors to fit into the space allotted by the University.  (Note: The June 1972 date reported by Smith comes from a summary of the game’s creation posted by Pitts on a Stanford website in 1997.  At the 2013 California Extreme Show, Pitts gives a September 1972 date instead, but as this talk came another sixteen years after the fact, I find this claim less reliable.  My guess is he was confusing the installation of the first version in September 1971 with the installation of version two.)  Once version two went live at Stanford, Pitts carted version one to other locations around town, but it never did as well as the installation on campus.

According to Pitts’s 1997 testimonial, version two remained in operation until May 1979, when it had to be retired because the display processor had become unreliable.  According to Pitts, the game remained popular right up until the end, with clusters of a dozen or more students gathered around the game on any given Friday or Saturday night during the school year.  He had long since given up on turning Galaxy Game into a commercial product by then, however, as even running multiple games off a single PDP-11 resulted in a price tag that was simply too high.  Nevertheless, Pitts claimed to Smith that by the time Galaxy Game had been retired in 1979, he had recouped the $60,000 cost of developing the game.

Selling Computer Space


Computer Space, which shipped in a variety of colors, in its final form

Soon after Galaxy Game debuted at the Tresidder Union, the Nutting Associates team flew to Chicago to attend the MOA show, held that year from October 15-17 at the Conrad Hilton Hotel.  The original prototype debuted at the Dutch Goose had been housed in a simple wooden cabinet built by Dabney, but by the MOA, the game now sported a futuristic-looking fiberglass cabinet, which according to Edwards was designed by Bushnell using modelling clay and then built by a seamless swimming pool manufacturer named John Hebbler located by Dabney.  The controls were placed on a lighted panel jutting out from the cabinet and consisted of four buttons — two for left and right rotation, one for thrust, and one for firing.  According to Goldberg and Vendel, after initial tests demonstrated the buttons might be too complicated a control scheme Bushnell and Dabney had hoped to use a metal joystick-like device for movement, but it proved too fragile and broke the first night that version went out on test.  The panel bore the Nutting Associates name and logo, but in a nod to the game’s creators, it also included the phrase “Syzygy engineered.”

According to Edwards, Nutting brought four cabinets to the MOA show in an attempt to make it appear the game was already in production, though in truth these were the only four copies of the game in existence.  Each game was housed in a different color cabinet — yellow, red, white, and blue.  Disaster nearly struck when they discovered the monitors had all broken loose from their cabinets during shipping, but Bushnell and Dabney were able to repair three of the units.  The fourth was left open as a display of the internal components of the system, a clever ploy to mask the accident from distributors.  How well the game performed at the show is a matter of some debate.  In his 1976 depositionBushnell claims no orders were taken at the show.  When speaking to Edwards in 2011, however, he claimed that distributors felt it would be worthwhile to try the game out, and they came away with a “good order book.”  Goldberg and Vendel claim that Nutting took a handful of orders.  All sources agree, however, that no one quite knew what to make of the game.  In Steve Bloom’s Video Invaders, Bill Nutting claims the game “blew the industry’s mind,” while Goldberg and Vendel emphasize that distributors were skeptical of the game’s reliability and play value while also fearing that hoodlums would steal the TV right out of the cabinet.  The game must have generated at least some interest, however, as Goldberg and Vendel report Nutting took Bushnell and Dabney for a flight in one of his planes to celebrate after they returned to California and ordered a respectable production run.

According to Smith, Nutting displayed the game one more time at the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions show from November 9-12 and then began shipping the game before the end of the year.  According to most sources, including Edwards, the game shipped in November, though in his 1974 deposition, Bushnell remembers the game shipping in December, or even in early January 1972.  Kent claims in his book that a man named Keith Feinstein acquired documents that prove the game was shipping before the end of 1971, but he does not elaborate.  The November 27, 1971, edition of Cash Box magazine contains an ad for the game claiming it is already available from distributors, strongly implying it had already been released by that point, but an article in the December 4 issue states the game is “being readied for U.S. Distribution,” which implies it is still forthcoming.

The number of units built also varies depending on who tells the tale.  Bushnell stated in Retro Gamer that they produced around 2,200 units, but Nutting claimed to Bloom in Video Invaders that he built just 1,500 units.  As this interview came closer to the events in question and the source was the person actually in charge of the company, I tend to believe the lower figure.  Either way, this was an ambitious initial manufacturing run in a time when 2,000 units constituted a decent hit.

According to Nutting in Video Invaders, Computer Space faced a mixed reception, with some of the more more progressive distributors interested in the game, but most feeling the game held little merit.  This claim is backed up by individual anecdotes.  For example, Smith reports that Portale Automatic Sales in Los Angeles became the game’s biggest champion and largest distributor, while Donovan reports that Empire Distributing in Chicago, one of the largest distributors in the country, felt video games were a passing fad and had no interest in the game.  According to Goldberg and Vendel, Dave Ralstin overcame some initial skepticism by giving away the first five machines off the assembly line to five of the largest distributors in the country.  The ploy must have worked, for Goldberg and Vendel report that by spring 1972 the game had sold 1,000 units.  Both Bushnell and Dabney have claimed in separate interviews, however, that with the game starting to become successful and Ralstin earning a nice commission on each unit, Nutting decided to dismiss him and sell the game himself.  According to Goldberg and Vendel, sales dropped off quickly after that.  This story may not be strictly true, however.  While sourcing on Nutting Associates is difficult to come by, the May 13, 1972, issue of Cash Box identifies Ralstin as still being the sales manager at Nutting.  While its still certainly possible that Ralstin was dismissed because Nutting felt his commission was too large and his services were not needed, I imagine that Computer Space sales were probably largely complete by that point anyway and that his dismissal therefore had little effect on the fortunes of the game.  On the other hand, Bob Portale praises sales of Computer Space in the same issue, so its possible that the game was still selling, at least in some parts of the country.

Final sales figures for Computer Space are not known.  Bushnell stated to Retro Gamer that he believed they sold 2,200 units, which seems high, but in his 1976 deposition, he placed the number at between 1,300 and 1,500 units.  Goldberg and Vendel claim 1,500 units as well, while Edwards claims between 500 and 1,000 units, which is almost certainly too low.  Kent claims Nutting built 1,500 units but failed to sell them all.  Considering Nutting’s claim of a 1,500 production run and some difficulty enticing distributors to buy the game, Bushnell’s 1976 estimate of 1,300 to 1,500 units appears to be the most accurate.

So was Computer Space a success?  That is a difficult question to answer.  As Donovan points out, sales of 1,500 units were nothing to be ashamed of in the early 1970s, and Bushnell has claimed in several interviews that the game grossed $3 million, though this figure is probably a little high.  According to Edwards, Dabney remembers being disappointed by the game’s performance, yet Bushnell remembers it as a modest success, though one he felt could have been bigger.  In his memoir Lucky That Way, former Activision producer Brad Fregger recalls being hired by his friend Rod Geiman to collect coins along Nutting’s game route and being impressed by how many quarters Computer Space took in.  Nutting must not have been too disappointed with the game’s performance either, as he ultimately negotiated with Bushnell to create a two-player version of the game, and a flop does not get a sequel.

On the other hand, the game only sold modestly well and failed to excite most distributors.  Nutting claims to Bloom that he had to “force” some companies to take the game, while Kent states he could not sell the whole production run.  Also, while 1,300 to 1,500 units was not a bad showing for the period, it paled in comparison to the biggest hits of the day like Speedway and Nutting’s own Computer Quiz.  According to Bushnell as told to authors from Kent to Edwards, working-class bar patrons, one of the coin-op industry’s most important demographics in those days, were unable to grasp the complex controls and realistic physics and soon tired of the game.  Furthermore, in an industry where a hit product was guaranteed to be knocked off a dozen times over, only one other company, a small Burbank firm called For Play Manufacturing, ever created a Computer Space clone, while the big manufacturers in Chicago could not be bothered to adopt video technology at all.  Therefore, while Computer Space did not really perform poorly, it failed to interest the industry or the public in pursuing video games further.

Despite the mixed reception for Computer Space, Nolan Bushnell remained convinced that the future of popular entertainment lay with the video game.  He therefore resolved to move forward with new products, either in partnership with Nutting or through an agreement with one of the big Chicago firms.  Bushnell realized, however, that he would need a more accessible game for his next project.  While Bushnell mulled his next step, Nutting learned in May 1972 that yet another group was attempting to create a video game, so once again Bushnell decided to scout out the competition.  Unlike Pitts and Tuck, however, this group was not looking to create an arcade cabinet; they were preparing to bring video games into the home.


Plans in Motion

In the summer of 1970, Nolan Bushnell, Ted Dabney, and Larry Bryan prepared to change the world.  With a vague plan, virtually no funding, and a partnership that consisted of a name and little else the trio began an ambitious project to turn Spacewar! into a commercial product that could entertain teenagers and adults at fun spots and arcades.  Unsurprisingly, virtually nothing went according to plan.  Nevertheless, after months of prototyping, redesigning, and compromising Bushnell believed he finally had his game by the beginning of 1971 before he realized he had made a crucial calculation error and that a minicomputer would not run his game economically after all.  Bushnell’s dreams could have died right then, but in a eureka moment, the budding entrepreneur realized that he and Dabney — Bryan having been abandoned long since — had built such versatile TTL circuitry that a computer was not really needed at all.  After a quick redesign and a fortuitous encounter with one of the only American arcade game manufacturers outside of Chicago, Bushnell’s game, ultimately dubbed Computer Space, was well on its way to entering production.

Despite being a relatively simple game created by just two people over a period of just a few months, there are few games with as controversial and convoluted a history as Computer Space.  This is because for decades the only account of the game’s creation came from Nolan Bushnell.  When Ted Dabney emerged forty years after the fact to pass along his memories of the game’s creation, a completely different story emerged, one which Bushnell continues to vehemently deny.  As with most controversies involving credit and responsibility, the truth probably lies somewhere in between.  In this post, I hope to reconcile these stories as best as I can under the circumstances.

Converting Spacewar!


The Data General Nova 1200, which may have been the target model for Bushnell’s Spacewar! arcade game

In the summer of 1970, the informal Syzygy partnership began its project to recreate Spacewar! as a coin-operated game, with Bushnell handling the electronic engineering, Dabney focusing on video engineering, and Bryan handling software.  The first important task was choosing which computer to use to play the game.  Bushnell has stated in many interviews that it was a sales flyer for the Data General Nova that first sparked his interest in recreating the game for the arcade, but the trio still surveyed the minicomptuer market carefully to make sure that they settled on the cheapest computer with enough processing power handle the job.  According to Bushnell’s 1976 deposition, sometime around August 1970 the trio acquired a catalog comparing the prices and features of all the minicomputers on the market.  After studying these listings, the trio decided the Nova was indeed the proper computer for the task.

According to Bushnell’s deposition, Bryan began work on the computer program even before the choice of computer was finalized, placing this work in mid-Summer 1970.  This also lines up well with Bryan’s recollection that he did his work about six months before Bushnell approached Nutting Associates to manufacture the game.  According to Goldberg’s interview with Bryan, the programmer spent a couple of weeks tinkering with the program in his spare time before deciding that there was no way they would ever be able to get a Nova computer to play four to six games of Spacewar! at a decent speed.  Bryan delivered these preliminary results to his partners and then passed into history. Based on his deposition, Bushnell appears to have continued working on the minicomputer problem for several more months, so he would have probably brought Bryan back into the loop if they had moved forward with that plan, but it was not to be.  Indeed, Bryan must have continued to be on Bushnell’s mind for some time after the summer, for according to Dabney in his Computer History Museum oral history when it came time to formalize the Syzygy partnership, Bushnell brought up Bryan, and Dabney responded that since he never paid in his $100 (which, of course, Bryan maintains that he was never asked to do), Bryan was out of the group.

What happened next depends on whom you ask.  In Donovan’s Replay, Bushnell described a process of whittling down the computer program by transferring more and more functionality like the background star field and gravity to specialized TTL hardware in an effort to salvage the project.  According to Donovan, this work was unsuccessful, and by Thanksgiving the project was dead.  Dabney, on the other hand, has claimed in interviews that work halted completely when a computer program did not appear feasible and did not start up again until one day, out of the blue, Bushnell asked him if it would be possible to control the movement of the spaceships on the television screen using a pure hardware solution.  Based on Nolan Bushnell’s deposition and the accompanying evidentiary exhibits, it appears that Bushnell’s account to Donovan, while not entirely accurate, is closer to the truth than Dabney’s.  From Dabney’s interviews, however, it appears that Bushnell was doing a lot of brainstorming without Dabney and only periodically keeping him in the loop, so it may be Dabney was simply unaware at the time of the effort being put into the project.

Bushnell’s deposition demonstrates that work continued on a computer-based system through at least January 1971, contradicting his recollections to Donovan that the project was dead by Thanksgiving.  The January date is set by one of the few pieces of documentary evidence from the period: a letter from Nolan Bushnell to Data General salesman Bob Washburn dated January 26, 1971, in which Bushnell states his intent to order several Data General Nova computers.  In his deposition, Bushnell explained that by this point the basic system for the game had been sketched out, and he now needed some actual computers to make sure it worked.  Schematics provided by Bushnell at the deposition also prove that several portions of an interface between the Nova and a television had been designed by this point, demonstrating that work had continued on the project above and beyond what Bryan had contributed to the software.  According to Bushnell’s deposition, the minicomputer project only died sometime between January 26 and a followup letter from Bob Washburn dated February 16, 1971, that was also entered into evidence.  According to Bushnell, he initially believed he had solved the timing problems from Bryan’s initial designs (most likely through moving some functions to specialized hardware as he claimed to Donovan since he was not a programmer and could therefore not alter Bryan’s code too much) and was looking to get some time on a local Nova computer to do a final pass on the system.  At that point, a person at the facility to which Bushnell was attempting to gain access pointed out a flaw in Bushnell’s calculations, thereby illustrating that a computer would not work after all.  At this point, Bushnell had a eureka moment and decided to do the entire game with custom-built hardware.

A New Hardware System

Dabney House

Ted Dabney’s House, where the prototype hardware that ultimately became Computer Space was built

Perhaps the biggest bone of contention between Bushnell and Dabney is the creation of the spot generating and motion circuitry that proved critical to abandoning the minicomputer in favor of a custom hardware solution.  In his oral history and Retro Gaming Roundup interview, Dabney claims Bushnell came to him one day and asked him why adjusting the vertical hold on a television caused the screen to move back and forth and whether they could do something similar to move their spaceships across the screen.  Dabney said this should be possible, so Bushnell asked him to build a system to do so.  Dabney then set up a makeshift lab in his daughter’s bedroom to create the prototype.  When it was finished, Bushnell took the circuit board with him and secured a contract to make a game based around this hardware.

Bushnell has vehemently denied this version of events on several occasions, including an interview with this author.  According to Bushnell, he would have never needed to ask Dabney how a television worked because he had been repairing them for years.  Also, he maintains that all of the digital engineering on the project was done by himself alone, and that Dabney was only involved in analog work like a monitor interface and power supply.  Furthermore, he has stated to numerous authors over the years, including Kent and Donovan, that he was the one who set up a lab in his daughter’s bedroom to make the game.  This dispute between the partners is not easy to unravel.

First of all, there is one area where Dabney appears to be mistaken: Bushnell likely never came to him to build a spot generating and motion system to replace a computer.  The January 26, 1971, letter clearly demonstrates that Bushnell was still working on a computer system after the motion circuitry had been developed, so there was no need at the time to do an end run around the Nova.  In his deposition, Bushnell explains that the motion circuit board was an “exercisor,” that is a system built to simulate the actual computer that would ultimately be used.  According to Bushnell, they built this exercisor so they could make sure their other hardware was working properly.  If they just tested everything directly with the Nova, they would not be able to tell if any problems stemmed from the hardware or the computer software.  According to Bushnell, it was only after he learned in late January or early February 1971 that a Nova would definitely not work that he hit on the idea of using the already existing motion circuitry in its place.

On the other hand, it appears that Bushnell’s long-held contention that the early game hardware was built in his daughter’s bedroom is probably a myth.  In his oral history, Dabney states the hardware was built in his daughter’s bedroom, and interviews conducted with Dabney’s daughter by Marty Goldberg and Curt Vendel for their Atari history book appear to corroborate Dabney’s recollections.  Even Bushnell admitted in a Retro Gamer article on the making of Computer Space that at least some of the work was done at Dabney’s house.  Of course, Bushnell also reconfirmed in that interview that he did work in his daughter’s bedroom as well.  Dabney counters that Bushnell’s wife would have never let him bring so much as a soldering iron into their house.  Admittedly, in this case we only have Dabney’s word versus Bushnell’s recollections, so the only evidence we have to go on is the character of the individuals involved.  In the 1970s, Bushnell often took full credit for creating both Computer Space and Pong, which we now know is not true.  Furthermore, he has always claimed that he first saw Spacewar! at the University of Utah, which is also probably not true.  Dabney, on the other hand, never sought the limelight, never sought to take credit for any accomplishments, and only told his side of the story forty years later after he was tracked down by historians.  While this does not automatically render him free of any agenda, it does mean that he is not likely letting a need for self promotion cloud his recollection of events.  Therefore, I conclude, like Goldberg and Vendel in their book, that the preliminary work was done at Dabney’s house, not Bushnell’s.

This leaves open the question of who should get the credit for creating the motion circuit board.  This is a question that will probably never be answered.  Dabney’s contention that Bushnell had no idea how the vertical control on a television works seems a bit suspect, as he did do TV repair work in high school and college.  Even if he was just “switching tubes around” and did not have the knowledge or skill to do sophisticated repairs, I find it highly unlikely that an individual as insatiably curious as Bushnell with an electrical engineering background and direct experience working with televisions would not have any inkling as to how they worked.  Its also worth noting that in his 1976 deposition, he describes how the motion control hardware works and displays an impressive command of the entire system.  Granted, this deposition was conducted years later, so he had plenty of time to refine his knowledge of the technology, but he did very little engineering work after creating Computer Space, so its hard to imagine that he gained most of this knowledge after the fact.  Therefore, Bushnell’s deposition shows that at the very least he was capable of understanding the engineering behind the hardware even if he did not create it himself.  On the other hand, if Dabney’s house was the primary staging area for building the motion circuitry, it would make sense that Dabney led the effort to design it.  Dabney was also the more experienced engineer when it came to working with video circuitry, having spent most of his career at Ampex doing just that.  Therefore, while I am not convinced Bushnell was as ignorant as Dabney claims, I do think Dabney must have taken the lead in developing the motion control board.  A potential smoking gun appears in Bushnell’s 1976 deposition in the form of a drawing entered into evidence that is dated January 26, 1971, entitled “Position and Line Counter Cosmic Combat” that is marked “drawn by S.F. Dabney.”  If Dabney is the one drawing the schematics portions of the spot generating hardware, he is probably also the one designing it.  Regardless of who built it, however, both engineers agree that the motion control board was Bushnell’s idea.

Finding a Manufacturing Partner

Nutting Headquarters

Nutting Associates in Mountain View California, where Computer Space was manufactured

Whether built primarily by Bushnell or Dabney, by early 1971 the partners had completed a motion control circuit board that could hook into a television or monitor and generate a dot on the screen that could be moved around by flicking toggle switches on the hardware.  According to an interview conducted with Bushnell by Kent for The Ultimate History of Video Games, the parts for this system came primarily from Ampex, which allowed employees to take small numbers of cheap components for personal projects, and Marshall Electronics, where Bushnell knew salesmen that were happy to provide free samples in return for a promise of an order if the project ever came to fruition.  According to Kent, a used television purchased at Goodwill completed the system.

By early 1971, Bushnell and Dabney also finally had a real company.  While they had been working under the Syzygy name since at least the summer of 1970, they had never done any work to formalize the relationship other than a vague promise to contribute $100 each that was apparently not even conveyed to one of the partners.  In either December 1970 (according to a prospectus prepared by Atari in 1975) or January 1971 (according to Atari’s FY 1973 financial statement) Syzygy Company was formally organized as a partnership between Nolan Bushnell and Ted Dabney.  The catalyst for this event was most likely the impending order of computers from Data General, as Bushnell would have definitely wanted to present a real business entity to such an important supplier.

In nearly every account of the founding of Syzygy/Atari from Cohen to Kent to Donovan, Bushnell and Dabney are said to have contributed $250 each to start the company, though all of these authors have confused the timeline.  Kent, in one of his more egregious errors, states that Bushnell, Dabney, and Bryan came together to found Atari in June 1972 by each agreeing to chip in $250, conflating the founding of Syzygy in 1970 with the incorporation of Atari two years later.  Cohen meanwhile, correctly states that Bushnell, Dabney, and Bryan were all supposed to chip in $100 to create a partnership, but goes on to say that after Bryan pulled out, the other two upped their contributions to $250.  Like Kent, he places these events at the incorporation of Atari in 1972 rather than in 1970-71.  Even Donovan, generally accurate in his recounting of video game history, places these $250 contributions at the founding of Atari in 1972.  A look at Syzygy’s financial statement for the year ending December 31, 1971 and Syzygy’s balance sheet dated June 30, 1972, shows that none of this is accurate.  First of all, the contributions were definitely made at the start of the Syzygy partnership and not at the incorporation of Atari, because the 1972 balance sheet shows that the company controlled cash in excess of $6,000 at that time (derived from several income sources that will be discussed in a later post).  The 1971 balance sheet further proves that the ownership contributions were made during that fiscal year, though it records $350 from each partner rather than $250.  As discussed previously, this has led Goldberg and Vendel to claim in their history that the initial contributions for the company were $350 each.  Most likely, Bushnell and Dabney contributed $100 soon after the informal partnership came into being in summer 1970, as stated by Dabney and implied by Cohen, and then added another $250 each when they formally organized the company at the end of 1970.  This would explain why most accounts say the initial owner contributions were $250 without contradicting the balance sheet that shows $350 in ownership contributions by the end of 1971.

With a company and a prototype system in hand, Bushnell and Dabney now turned their attention to raising the money needed to make their arcade game a reality.  According to Goldberg and Vendel in Business is Fun, the duo first tried to interest Ampex in the project through their boss, Ed De Benedetti, but he turned them down.  Next, Dabney turned to one of his mentors, a former engineer in the Ampex Military Products Division named Irving Roth, but he turned them down as well.  Unsure where to turn next, Bushnell made a fortuitous connection through his dentist.  According to an interview excerpt in High Score!, Bushnell was discussing his project during a dental appointment and learned that another patient worked at a local coin-op manufacturer called Nutting Associates.  According to both Benj Edwards’s article on the creation of Computer Space and Business is Fun (in both of which it must be noted all dates related to Computer Space are off by one year due to faulty recollections of the timeline by Dabney), this dentist appointment took place in February.  Bushnell contacted Nutting, and two days later presented his pitch to create a video arcade game for the company.  By March, Bushnell had resigned from Ampex and joined Nutting, where he prepared to unleash the first commercial video game on the world.


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.


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.  A native of Omaha, Nebraska, Graetz, according to an interview I conducted with him, 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 most likely 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.”  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

Whether because he returned to MIT in the fall as claimed by Graetz or merely continued interacting with the members of TMRC after leaving for Harvard as implied in his oral history, Russell was 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.  As recounted by Graetz, by January 1962 Russell had succeeded in generating and moving a dot around the screen.  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.

At some point during development there was also a 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, 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.