Who’s the real father of video games?

Many people out there think that the Atari PONG was the first system and that NOLAN BUSHNELL is the father of video games, but they are WRONG!

Instead of doing the usual recap of history, I’m going to tell about the history of each person responsible for what we call “Video Games”.

Let’s start by –>”THE CREATOR”<– of the “First Video Game” ever !!!

It all began in 1958, a person by the name of “Willy Higinbotham”, who was a physicist, made a WORKING model and not even with a single transistor, but with vacuum tubes! (of course, transistors did exist at that time, the transistor was created by William Shockley, John Bardeen, and Walter Brattain of Bell Labs in 1947).

His “Tennis” game type was exposed at the Brookhaven National Laboratory for almost TWO years, and his game was more sophisticated than the Atari PONG itself !! (yes that’s true! don’t believe me? Ask EGM magazine or the Brookhaven National Laboratory!)

Now, please remember that “Willy Higinbotham” is THE FATHER that created the first video game, I hope that many of you will correct any history about video games. Almost anybody doesn’t know about his work and he didn’t get any credit for inventing the TRULY first video game, but in my book, he is THE creator!

Here’s the story that Danny Monaghan sent me and I thought that it was special that I had to share it with all of you readers: I was delighted to see your tribute to Mr HIGINBOTHAM, the REAL inventor of Video Games! Believe it or not, I live on the same street where Mr Higinbotham lived (North Howell’s Pt. Rd., Bellport, New York) and I’m only 8 houses away! I’ve got to tell you when I was a little kid growing up he was the coolest guy on the block! He used to let all the kids in the neighbourhood play baseball in his huge backyard… and even when we hit a ball off the side of his house, or broke a window, he didn’t care!

It wasn’t until 10 years ago when I was a senior at Bellport High School that I found out Mr Higinbotham invented Pong at Brookhaven National Laboratory (just a few miles away), and I couldn’t believe it! I had grown up on the first video game systems of the ’70s, and by the time I was in High School was writing my own games for the Apple and Commodore 64. So it was a real shock when I found out that, all along, I had been living next to the almighty creator himself! Unfortunately, he passed away in ’95 and I never got a chance to thank him, but his son Willy Jr. moved into his house, so I’m thinking about stopping by someday. I don’t know if you know this, but he also worked on the first Atom bomb… a stark contrast to his harmless Pong! I just wish more historians would note his awesome achievement! [Thanks for the letter, Danny! If anybody has any insight stories related to the 4 creators of Pongs, please do !]

Now the SECOND most important person, his name is “Steve Russell”.

MIT student 1961, creates “Spacewar”(the second video game), is the first interactive computer game on a Digital PDP-1 computer.

The game is to control two tiny spaceships, one called the “WEDGE” and the other called the “NEEDLE” , the battles around a tiny dot in the middle of the screen that represents the Sun. The game featured an accurate portrait of physics in outer space. Another student even corrected the star fields in the background to the scale !!

But Russell made a mistake, he never filed for copyright. He thought that it cost too much to try to market his game, he was right about this. Only a few computers could run his game at this time, and at a cost of $120,000 for a PDP-1, it was too much to put in arcades. His game almost faded away forever if it wasn’t for the employees of Digital Equipment who used it to test their computers while installing them for customers. Customers received the game as a gift. (Notice how FATE is unpredictable? First Willy’s game was unheard of, and Steve’s game almost disappeared to nothingness if not “Nolan Bushnell” who later [in 1962] becomes addicted to the game…we almost didn’t get video games, if it wasn’t for Nolan who craved “Spacewar” so much, and for his ideas and his visions; you, me and many people wouldn’t have the pleasure to discover a new invention called “Video Games”, and you wouldn’t be reading this FAQ as a matter of fact !!)

The THIRD most important person’s name is “Ralph Baer”.

Working for a military contractor called Sanders Associates, in New Hampshire in 1966, he had an idea for a new use for televisions. He decided to create a console that would enable people to play electronic games on their television sets.

Baer’s first game was about putting out fires. The game involved a red box representing a house that was on fire. Players controlled the game with a lever that represented a water pump. If they pumped the lever fast enough, the box turned blue, meaning the fire was extinguished.

In 1967, Baer added a fun-loving engineer named Bill Rusch to his team. Rusch came up with a better concept. In his game, players used “paddles” to catch and toss a dot across the screen. Rusch eventually modified the paddles so that they rejected the ball. Instead of playing catch, Rusch’s game now played tennis.

Eventually, in 1971, Baer sold his game machine to Magnavox. Magnavox accepted Baer’s technology but ignored his vision. Baer wanted to create a simple device that could retail for under $20; Magnavox programmed 12 games into the system, dressed it up with playing cards and plastic overlays that players could put on their television screens, and charged $100. They called the system the Odyssey.

The first prototypes of the Odyssey were finished in early 1972. In May, Magnavox started demonstrating them around the country at private showings.

Toward the end of the month, the Odyssey was shown at a trade show in Burlingame, Calif., just outside of San Francisco. One of the people who attended the show was a young engineer named Nolan Bushnell, he saw the Odyssey and the games that it could play, and ONE of those games caught Bushnell’s eyes…

Now for the FORTH and not the least, “Nolan Bushnell”.

A student at the University of Utah in 1962, became addicted to “Spacewar” Russell’s game. He liked the game so much that in 1970, two years after his graduation, took his daughter’s bedroom and converted it into a workshop in which he could create an arcade version of the game.

His first idea was to use a computer, prices of computers had dropped sharply by this time but they still cost far too much to use in arcades. But Instead of using a computer, he built a device that could only play “Spacewar” with cruder graphics which he recalled it “Computer Space”.

Later in 1971, he sold the idea to Bill Nutting, owner of Nutting Associates. Nutting hired Bushnell to oversee the creation of Computer Space while working on other engineering projects. They began to ship the game by the end of 1971, but Computer Space was a failure. They sold about 500 to 1,500 machines.

Bushnell left Nutting Associates, formed a partnership with a friend named Ted Dabney and opened a new company called Syzygy but saw that the name already belonged to another company, so he chose – Atari.

Atari’s first product was a game called PONG, an electronic tennis match in which players batted a square ball back and forth with rectangular paddles. Created by engineer Al Alcorn(and NOT by Nolan Bushnell but helped with the game since he saw the “Tennis” game the Odyssey only a few weeks ago at the trade show in Burlingame.)

It was a simple game with minimal instructions: “Avoid missing ball for high score.” Bushnell and Alcorn placed a prototype of their game in Andy Capp’s Tavern, a Sunnyvale, California bar.

Two weeks after installing the game, Alcorn got a late-night phone call from the manager of the bar. The game had broken down, and he wondered if he could fix it. When Alcorn went to check the machine, he found a most unusual problem. There were so many quarters jammed into the coin drop that the game had stopped working. Within a few months, Ramtek, Nutting, and several other companies released imitations of Pong. Magnavox sued Atari for infringing on Baer’s patents and ended up paying Magnavox $700,000 !!!(This is it, the FIRST VIDEOGAME COURT BATTLE !!)

In 1973, Eight to ten thousand units are made, Pong is an unprecedented success. Ted Dabney panics about competition and sells half his share to Bushnell. Bushnell forms Kee Games (named after Joe Keenan) to provide “competition” for Atari.

In 1974, Atari began work on Home Pong, proposed by Harold Lee, a consumer version of the popular arcade game that could be played on a television set. Lee, Alcorn, and an engineer named Bob Brown develop the product. Because of the Odyssey’s poor sales record, no retailers are interested in carrying the Atari Pong console, a tiny black and white box with two mounted paddle controller dials.

In 1975, After being turned down by toys, electronics and department stores, an Atari executive reached Tom Quinn, from Sears, Roebuck. After several meetings with Bushnell, he ordered 150,000 Home Pong consoles for Christmas, and the console is badged with the Sears Tele-Games logo.

By January 1976, Home Pong had become the new champion. Attracted by Atari’s success, several companies release home video game consoles. Because of a rush on circuits, only Coleco receives its full order in time.

Based on technology largely similar to the Pong machine, Coleco’s Telstar Pong machine debuts. And a new menace for pongs systems is born: the Fairchild Channel F, the first programmable home game console, and not long after the RCA Studio 2 made its appearance.

By 1977, Atari released a game system that change video games forever: the Atari 2600vcs. Bally released the Astrocade in 1978. By the end of ’78, pongs became boring to play and companies ended producing and marketing them since people weren’t buying them anymore. The fate of Pong has been sealed and they “died” without remorse…..fate can be cruel.

“When looking at history it’s a subjective thing as to who was more or less important in the history of videogames. But if it were not for the true visionary entrepreneurs, the inventors would probably not even be footnotes in history, because their ideas would never leave the garage or the PDP-1 computer room.” (Glenn Saunders)

Revising history regarding Pong is fine, but also realize that Nolan Bushnell really wound up building a better mousetrap and he had a much better idea of how to start a videogame company than Magnavox.