Computer and Video Games: where it all started

One of the earliest known computer games was called ‘Tennis for Two’ and was created by Willy Higinbotham in 1958 for a hands on demonstration given during tours of the lab in which he worked.  Mr. Higinbotham worked at the Brookhaven National Laboratory.  The computer he used was an analog computer that worked by manipulating voltages.  His ‘game’ was made up of hardwired electro-mechanical relays, switches, resistors, capacitors and other components.  An oscilloscope was the output device.  The scope interprets the electrical signals and shows them on the screen as dots or connected lines.  The game, as it was, was a hit with visitors.  Sadly, once that series of tours was complete, so was the game. It was dismantled and ignored by its creator.  Until 1985, that is.  In 1985, Nintendo was involved in a lawsuit by Sanders Associates.  Nintendo called upon Higinbotham to testify that he had created the video game and not Ralph Baer. They wanted to establish ‘Tennis for Two’ as prior art and invalidate the video game patent that Baer and Sanders held.  Unfortunately for Nintendo and Willy, a ‘video game’ is defined as something that is interactive and connects to a television or video monitor.  An analog computer connected to an oscilloscope does not qualify and the judge agreed with Sanders.  Nintendo and Willy lost.

Interestingly enough, Willy’s game, as it turns out, is not the fist game to be  played on a video screen. The first ‘game’ to use a CRT was patented in 1948. The patent application was filed in 1947 and granted in December of 1948.  The device was simple and simulated a missile being fired at a target.  The target was an overlay placed on the screen.  The ‘game’ consisted of eight tubes that controlled the CRT.  Several knobs were available to control the curve and speed of the missile.  The device was built by Thomas Goldsmith and Estle Ray.

A few years later, in 1952, A. S. Douglas created a Tic-tac-toe game on the EDSAC computer in the United Kingdom.  The game was displayed on a CRT and is the earliest known graphical computer game. 

Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m not dismissing Willy  at all and he deserves credit for demonstrating that computers can be somewhat personal and he did come up with on of the first computer games.  Willy, though, never even got THAT credit.  That went to a guy named Steve Russell.  Mr. Russell wrote a game for a ‘minicomputer’ called the PDP-1. The PDP-1 was the size of a stand up refrigerator.  The game was called ‘spacewar’ and it employed the type of ‘graphics’ that the much later ‘Battlezone’ used.  Spacewar was not a commercial game. It’s source code spread like wildfire and the game became quite popular.  So much so, in fact, that Nolan Bushnell attempted to capitalize on it and developed an arcade video game called ‘Spacewar’.  Clever man, he is. 

So, who is Ralph Baer and what is Sanders?  Baer is the only man who deserves to be called the father of video games.  In 1951, Baer worked for a company called ‘Loral’ and was tasked with building the best television set in the world.  Simple, huh?  Well, Baer suggested that the television include an interactive game to make it really unique.  The idea was dismissed, but Baer kept thinking about it.  Fast forward a few years and Baer is working for Sanders Associates, which is primarily a contracting company and did not actually market directly to the public.  While waiting for a colleague to arrive at a bus station, Baer sketched out the primitive schematics for his interactive game.  Over time, he convinced the management at Sanders that this could make them money, he was allowed  to further develop the product.  A product that they would then license to other companies to actually produce and market.  Many companies were intrigued, but decided that there was no future.  Magnavox, though, liked the demos so much that they did license the product.  During one of the marketing tours that Magnavox sponsored, one man, Nolan Bushnell attended and signed the guest book-an action that would later haunt him.  Magnavox brought the Odyssey 1 to market in 1972 and sold just under 400 thousand units over a two and a half year period.  The Odyssey was, essentially, an analog computer.  A very crude one and many would argue that.  It was ‘programmed’ by using simple little cartridges that consisted of a double sided circuit board with certain pins jumpered together.  This ‘told’ the Odyssey where to put the ‘spots’ that made up the playfield.  Plastic overlays went on the television screen to add more ‘realism’ to the game.  The game was quickly obsolete.  The version that Magnavox sold was actually dumbed down and some features-like color-were left out entirely.

Bushnell created Atari and, along with Al Alcorn, brought out PONG in 1974.  Of course, Atari had not gotten a license and Sanders sued.  Sanders won mainly due to that guest book that Bushnell had signed.  Atari settled and took out a license.

The story of the video and computer game is pretty interesting and there are probably more people involved than this small number of people that we tend to focus on.  The fall of the gaming market in 1984 and its subsequent resurrection is equally intriguing.  It also shows, unfortunately, how petty we can sometimes be.  Bushnell, for instance, will admit that the video game was Baer’s invention, but he will also follow that up by saying how bad that game was.  Well, in 1972, it was state of the art and no one else had done it.   Likewise, Baer is very quick-apparently-to point out that Higinbotham’s demonstration was just that and that Baer more correctly created the video game.

Personally, I think they all deserve credit They all did something that others had not done and, in Bushnell’s case, able to capitalize on what they had done.  Sanders went on to collect royalties on that game patent.  Baer got to defend that patent, have many documentaries made and articles written about him.  Higinbotham, well, he’s famous for other things as well.  He did work on the Manhattan Project and was well respected.  He died in 1994 at the age of 84.  Mr. Bushnell and Mr. Baer are still alive and actively involved in the industry.  Baer, by the way, designed lots of handheld games, including Simon.  He’s a pretty smart guy too.

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