Stanford AI Lab

Nolan-Bushnell

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

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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.

Inspiration

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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.