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Issue No.03 - July-Sept. (2009 vol.31)
pp: 5-19
Henry Lowood , Stanford University
<p>The earliest digital games emerged out of laboratories and research centers in the 1960s and 1970s. The intertwined histories of Nolan Bushnell's Computer Space and Pong illustrate the transition from these "university games" to accessible entertainment and educational games as well as the complicated historical relationship among the arcade, computer, and videogames.</p>
Keywords: history of computing; videogames; computer games; television engineering; Pong; computer space; Bushnell, Nolan; Alcorn, Allan; Baer, Ralph
Henry Lowood, "Videogames in Computer Space: The Complex History of Pong", IEEE Annals of the History of Computing, vol.31, no. 3, pp. 5-19, July-Sept. 2009, doi:10.1109/MAHC.2009.53
1. I use the more traditional Spacewar! on the first reference and then drop the exclamation point thereafter to avoid any awkward sentence punctuation.
2. For example, H. Lowood, "A Brief Biography of Computer Games," Playing Video Games: Motives, Responses and Consequences, P. Vorderer, and J. Bryant eds., Lawrence Erlbaum, 2006, pp. 25–41,, and P. Ceruzzi, A History of Modern Computing, MIT Press, 1998, pp. 207–210.
3. B. Sutton-Smith, Toys as Culture, Gardner, 1986, p. 64.
4. A. Alcorn, "Simplified Block Diagram Pong," PowerPoint presentation and lecture, Stanford Univ., 13 Jan. 2005.
5. G.R. Loftus and E.F. Loftus, Mind at Play: The Psychology of Video Games, Basic, 1983, pp. 6–7, and M. Malone, The Big Score: The Billion-Dollar Story of Silicon Valley, Doubleday, 1985, p. 343.
6. L. Herman, Phoenix: The Fall and Rise of Videogames, 3rd ed., Rolenta, 2001, pp. 11–15.
7. Two terms used throughout this article require some clarification. Videogame refers to console games produced for display on televisions and early arcade systems, generally raster-scan displays. Likewise, video does not in this article have the general meaning of referring to any signal for any display but rather to the specific analog television signal specifications of the 1960s and 1970s—horizontal and vertical sync, color synchronization, and so forth—and thus pertains to television technology specifically.
8. For a quick summary of the major cases in the business history of videogames, see the Patent Arcade website, See especially Magnavox Co. v. Activision, Inc., WL 9496, 1985 (N.D. Cal.).
9. R.H. Baer, Videogames in the Beginning, Rolenta, 2005. For a list of patents, see pp. 197–220.
10. K.H. Olsen to P. Elias, "The Story of…PDP-1," internal corporate document, Digital Equipment, 15 Sept. 1961; timelinepdp-1story.htm.
11. S. Russell quoted in: S. Brand, "SPACEWAR: Fanatic Life and Symbolic Death Among the Computer Bums," Rolling Stone,7 Dec. 1972;
12. J.M. Graetz, "The Origin of Spacewar!," Creative Computing Video &Arcade Games, vol. 1, no. 1, Spring 1983, pp. 78–85. This was originally published in Creative Computing, Aug. 1981.
13. D.J. Edwards and J.M. Graetz, "PDP-1 Plays at Spacewar," Decuscope, vol. 1, no. 1, Apr. 1962, pp. 2–4.
14. G. Bell, "Towards a History of (Personal) Computer Workstations (Draft)," Proc. ACM Conf. History of Personal Workstations, ACM Press, 1986, pp. 10–11.
15. R. Rivlin, The Algorithmic Image: Graphic Visions of the Computer Age, Microsoft Press, 1986; as quoted by the Univ. of Utah, "History of the School of Computing," http://www.cs.utah/dept/history; A.L. Norberg, and J.E. O'Neill, Transforming Computer Technology: Information Processing for the Pentagon, 1962–1986, Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1986, p. 122.
16. D.C. Hoefler, "Silicon Valley USA," Electronic News,11 Jan. 1971, p. 3.
17. R. DeMaria and J.L. Wilson, High Score: The Illustrated History of Electronic Games, McGraw Hill/Osborne, 2002, pp. 16–21.
18. S. Cohen, Zap! The Rise and Fall of Atari, McGraw-Hill, 1984, pp. 15–28.
19. S. Bloom, "The First Golden Age," Digital Deli: The Comprehensive, User-Lovable Menu of Computer Lore, Culture, Lifestyles, and Fancy, Steve Ditlea, ed., Workman, 1984, pp. 327–332; V. Burnham, Supercade: A Visual History of the Videogame Age, 1971–1984, MIT Press, 2001, pp. 64–77.
20. S.L. Kent, The Ultimate History of Video Games, Three Rivers Press, 2001, pp. 28–41.
21. D. Sheff, Game Over: How Nintendo Conquered the World, GamePress, 1999, pp. 133–140; P.J. Coughlan, and D. Freier, "Competitive Dynamics in Home Video Games (A): The Age of Atari," Harvard Business School Industry and Competitive Strategy Cases, 9-701-091, 12 June 2001, pp. 1–3.
22. T.H. Nelson, Computer Lib: You Can and Must Understand Computers Now, Hugo's Book Service, 1983, title page & pp. 2–3.
23. M. Gardner, "The Fantastic Combinations of John Conway's New Solitaire Game 'Life,'" Scientific Am., vol. 223, no. 4, 1970, pp. 120–123.
24. According to Al Alcorn, the Atari group did not hear about Nelson until the late 1970s, and "lots of people had ideas but no one…built any working machines" (email correspondence, Aug. 2005 ).
25. J. Mulligan, "Talkin' 'bout My…Generation,"22 Jan. 2002,; M. Friedl, Online Game Interactivity Theory, Charles River Media, 2003, pp. 4–5.
26. J.P. Pearson ed., Digital at Work: Snapshots from the First Thirty-Five Years, Digital Equipment, 1992, pp. 58, 65.
27. B. Pitts, "The Galaxy Game,"29 Oct. 1997, Computer History Exhibits, Stanford University; galaxy.html.Al Alcorn saw the Galaxy Game on the Stanford campus with Bushnell while collecting quarters from their Pong machine right next to it. Alcorn remembers that "right next to me was Pitts with his, what do you call it, Galaxy Game. And Nolan—we looked at this thing and my goodness, there was a teletype terminal sitting behind it, and he'd be in there modifying code on this thing. There was a vector scan display, from I think Hewlett-Packard or Tektronics, there was a real mini-computer in there." "Oral History of Al Alcorn. Interviewed by Henry Lowood," Computer History Museum, X4596.2008, transcript 2, Apr. 2008, p. 3.
28. In his book The Ultimate History of Video Games, Kent, who interviewed Bushnell, refers to "a new and inexpensive Texas Instruments minicomputer" (p. 31). DeMaria and Wilson's High Score reported that Bushnell said, "I originally planned to do it on a Data General 1600," noting that the cost was $4,000 (p. 16). Bushnell probably meant the 16-bit Nova 1200, which cost $3,995 when launched in 1969. Perhaps Kent had in mind Bushnell's use of the TI 7400 series of TTL integrated circuits, such as the 74150 and 74153 multiplexers shown in the design schematics for the board that controlled graphics and motion of in-game rockets, "B-MEMORY 1 or 2 Player, NA 73-103, Computer Space" ( 29 Jan. 1973 ), Computer Space Instructions, http://www. pdf. According to Alcorn, Bushnell's original idea was to use the Supernova minicomputer, which came out soon after the Nova ( "Oral History," transcript 1, p. 9).
29. Atari did not use vector-generated images until 1979, when it developed the Digital Vector Generator for the coin-operated games Lunar Lander (like Computer Space, formerly a popular computer game in university labs) and Asteroids.
30. L. Herman, "The Untold Atari Story," Edge, no. 200, Apr. 2009, pp. 94–99.
31. "Oral History of Al Alcorn. Interviewed by Henry Lowood," Computer History Museum, X4596.2008, transcript, part 1, Apr. 2008, p. 9–11.
32. Burnham appreciates this point in Supercade, noting that "the game established the basic system architecture for nearly every arcade game to follow," p. 71.
33. A. Maclean, "Computer Space Restoration";
34. L. Kerecman, "Computer Space," Arcade History Database;
35. Nutting Associates, "How Computer Space Works and Produces," flyer, Nov. 1971; N.K. Bushnell, "Computer Space Instructions," typescript, Nutting Associates, Feb. 1972.
36. On this point, I am indebted to Ralph Baer's comments on an earlier draft of this article.
37. Videotaped interview with Atari engineers filmed in August 1997: R. Milner and S. Mayer, "Stella at 20: An Atari 2600 Retrospective," videorecording, CyberPuNKS, 2000. See also T.E. Perry and P. Wallich, "Design Case History: The Atari Video Computer System," IEEE Spectrum, vol. 20, no. 3, Mar. 1983, pp. 45–51.
38. Atari's Tank (1974) was the first videogame to use ROM for storing game graphics.
39. He eliminated some details of game play from Spacewar, a topic outside this article's scope.
40. Ampex's role as incubator of talented Silicon Valley engineers and entrepreneurs, such as Ray Dolby, Steve Mayer, Steve Bristow, and Lee Felsenstein, deserves study.
41. "Oral History of Al Alcorn. Interviewed by Henry Lowood," Computer History Museum, X4596.2008, transcript 2, Apr. 2008, pp. 2–6.
42. N. Bushnell, Video Image Positioning Control System for Amusement Device, US patent 3,793,483, 19 Feb. 1974. The patent was actually filed on 24 Nov. 1972, shortly after Alcorn began work on Pong.
43. Vintage Gaming Network, "Al Alcorn Interview," Vintage Gaming;; D. Owen, "The Second Coming of Nolan Bushnell," Playboy, June 1983.
44. Steve Wozniak's reduction of the TTL count for Atari's Breakout game provides a famous example. See also O.W. Linzmayer, Apple Confidential: The Real Story of Apple Computer, Inc., No Starch Press, 1999, pp. 17–20.
45. Atari Inc., "Atari Expands Worldwide!" flyer, Arcade Flyer Database, 1972; videodb&id=3303. In the early 1980s, Atari invested heavily in the game machine as home computer in the form of the Atari 400/800.
46. Notably, Television Gaming Apparatus, US patent 3,659, 285, filed 21 Aug. 1969. The details of this story can be found in R. Baer's, Videogames. Baer deserves great credit for the extensive documentation of his activities during the key period of his work at Sanders, both in his book and by donating his significant collection of papers to the Smithsonian Institution's Lemelson Center Archives. See fa_baer_index.aspx.
47. "TV's Hot New Star: The Electronic Game," Business Week—Industrial Edition,29 Dec. 1975, p. 24.
48. For example, Magnavox Co. v. Chicago Dynamic Industries, 201 U.S.P.Q. 25 (N.D. Ill. 1977), and Magnavox Co. v. Mattel, Inc., 216 U.S.P.Q. 28 (N.D. Ill. 1982).
49. Nintendo v. Magnavox, US District Court, Southern District of New York, document 100. NARA Central Plains Region, duplicate photocopies of selected records at Stanford University.
50. Nintendo v. Magnavox, US District Court, Southern District of New York, document 81, p. 18.
51. Nintendo v. Magnavox, "Order of Discontinuance," US District Court, Southern District of New York, document 112.
52. D. Becker, "The Return of King Pong," interview, CNET, 15 Mar. 2005; 2008-1043_3-5616047.html.
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