Two Guys Who Ruined My Life: Ralph Baer and Nolan Bushnell -- Computer Space, Atari Pong, and Magnavox Odyssey
A few pics of videogame history and me.
Play videogames? Well, you should know how it happened.
Some years ago, I was in the local music store and saw a big bin of close out cassettes. I thumbed through and found a copy of Frank Black's Teenager of the Year. Listening to it on the way home, "Whatever Happened to Pong," played and I asked myself: What did happen to Pong?
It started me thinking about the Pong machine we had hooked up to our TV back in the 70s...what had happened to that thing? To this day, I don't know, but I did find my sister's old Atari VCS, more popularly known as the 2600. I'd ended up with it because I bought most of the games. She bought the console, I bought the games. It was mine. And no, you still can't have it, Shannon, but I can put together a different Atari 2600, if you still want one!
Anyway, I started collecting more games for my 2600. My collection started with about 100 I'd had since the 80s. I spent all my allowance on Atari catridges for years. I then expanded into collecting classic systems. Eventually, I started collecting and reading books about the subject. Then came collecting actual arcade games. Eventually I opened an arcade. Wow, it was the most expensive hobby ever.
During the nostalgia binge, I started learning more about the two earliest pioneers in the industry: Ralph Baer and Nolan Bushnell. While many of you may know Bushnell as the founder of Atari and Chuck E. Cheese's, Ralph Baer slipped through the cracks.
Part of this may be due to different personalities. While both are engineers, Bushnell is quite the salesman and marketer; the games he helped design, he helped push into the market. Baer is an engineer, who invented the products and left it to others to sell them. Both are engaging personalities and both have been unfailingly polite in the few dealings I've had with them.
Here's are the short histories of their games that changed history:
Magnavox Odyssey Home Television Game
As early as the 1955, Baer proposed incorporating games into television sets. He shelved the idea until the mid-1960s when he was working for Sanders Associates, a Defense Industry company. While waiting for a coworker to show up for a meeting with a client in New York City during the Summer of 1966, the idea of playing games on a TV popped back into his head and he scribbled some notes about the idea.
Baer noted that, "Even thinking about Video Games had absolutely nothing to do with the normal business of developing complex military electronic systems in my Division at Sanders Associates. But I was running a pretty large operation then, so I could afford to put a technician on the bench and have him do some experimental work without even rippling my division’s overhead. So I just did it! It wasn't long before the project became official; a few convincing demonstrations to our Corporate Director of R&D put the project on a legitimate track that would eventually pay off handsomely."1
During the next few years, work on various versions of game units continued until the "Brown Box," their final demonstration unit, was ready for showing to cable TV providers. They weren't buying. Baer then lined up demos for all of the major TV manufacturers. Despite favorable comments, no one put their money on the table. It wasn't until 1971,five years after the initial idea and three years after the finished prototype was built, that Magnavox bought the license to the product.
In 1972, the Magnavox Odyssey was finally released and home gaming was born. Unfortunately, the Odyssey was sold only at Magnavox stores where commission-driven salesmen, as well as much of the early advertising materials, implied that the game would only play on Magnavox-brand TVs. Despite this, the Odyssey still sold sold 330,000 units during the three years it was on the market.
Computer Space Arcade Machine
While Nolan Bushnell was an engineering student at the University of Utah, he became interested in computer gaming while playing Spacewar! During his high school and college years he had worked at Lagoon Amusement Park in Ogden, UT. Bushnell was particularly fascinated by the midway carnival games.
The interest in both computer and skill games came together after college and Bushnell founded his first company Syzygy, along with Ted Dabney. Basically Dabney was the engineer and Bushnell the business guy.2
Syzygy's first, last, and only game was Computer Space, an adaptation of the Spacewar! computer game. While much of the design was done after they had licensed it to Nutting Associates, the basic work was done before Nolan and Dabney inked the deal with Nutting.
While the initial run of yellow fiberglass Computer Space games numbered only 1500, the video game era had begun in the fall of 1971. While the game wasn't viewed as particularly successful in its day, I've heard of production runs of modern games as low as 300 units described as "successful." Computer Space was overshadowed by Nolan and Dabney's next outing, a little company called Atari.
Atari Pong Video Game
The last great contribution that Nutting Associates made to videogame history was Bill Nutting, the company's owner, sending Nolan Bushnell out to view Magnavox's new "mystery product," the Magnavox Odyssey.
While Nolan Bushnell has never said anything about playing the Odyssey's Table Tennis game, conjecture is that he did indeed play it during May 1972 when he saw the Magnavox demonstration. Nolan presented his idea for a video ping pong game to Bill Nutting and tied it to a 30% stake in Nutting Associates for Bushnell. Nutting shot back with an offer of 5% of the royalties. Bushnell left, called Ted Dabney, and Atari was born.
Atari's first engineer other than Dabney was Al Alcorn. Bushnell gave Al the problem of creating a TV ping pong game as a design exercise to determine his skill as an engineer. What Al gave him was Pong. Pong was tested and the test was successful: it created the first coin jam in video game history due to the cashbox being overfull.
While neither Odyssey nor Computer Space was seen as successful, they did start people thinking about two new industries--home TV gaming and video gaming. While the term videogame has become virtually synonymous with both home and out of home experiences, for the better part of two decades, the experiences were quite different. However, the social aspects of both of those first games is revealing: they both required two players to play. In fact, the Odyssey had games that could be played by the whole family.
While Pong led to lawsuits being filed by Magnavox, the reality is that Computer Space predated the Odyssey to market. However, the development of the Odyssey predated that of Computer Space by several years. Plus, Baer and Sanders Associates had nailed down all of the founding patents on what became the videogame industry. Pretty much anything that used a video screen to display a game paid money to Magnavox and Sanders for decades. Next time you turn on your gaming console of choice, remember that were it not for Ralph Baer and Nolan Bushnell & company, you might be playing a game of Monopoly with your little sister.
I highly recommend picking up a copy of Ralph Baer's Videogames in the Beginning.