A Tribute to PONG
A brief history of the game that launched the gaming industry
In the early 1970s an unknown electrical engineer, Ted Dabney, built a coin-operated machine out of plywood, cheap television components and mahogany panelling (Did I mention it was the seventies ?) in a makeshift workshop he’d set up in his daughter’s bedroom. In 1972 Dabney and his fledgeling company – Atari set up the new machine, a coin-operated electronic game called Pong, in Andy Capp’s Tavern near their home in Sunnyvale, California. Two weeks later Atari got a call from the Tavern complaining that their machine broke. After a quick inspection Atari found the problem, the machine’s coin box had been jammed with too many quarters! And so an industry currently valued in the billions and blamed for everything from rising childhood obesity to the USA’s epidemic of school shootings was born.
Ted Dabney, left, Nolan Bushnell, Fred Marincic and Allan Alcorn in 1973 with a Pong console at the Atari offices in Santa Clara, Calif. Image Credit: Computer History Museum
By the time an idea turns into a money-making product and household name it’s usually been tried and experimented with in many other iterations. Pong was an overnight commercial success that introduced video games to the general public but computer scientists and engineers had been conceiving and designing games for over twenty years.
A Brief Roundup of Video Game Milestones:
- 1948: Alan Turing and David Champernowne write the first known piece of video game code for a chess simulator. Called Turochamp the program was too advanced for the computers of the day.
- 1950: Austrian-Canadian engineer Josef Kates debuts a tic-tac-toe playing computer called “Bertie the Brain” at the Canadian National Exhibition in Toronto.
- 1958: William Higinbotham and Robert Dvorak design and build “Tennis for Two” at Brookhaven National Laboratory in upstate New York. Designed to entertain the general public during the Labs annual open houses “Tennis for Two” displayed graphics on an oscilloscope and was, in many ways, the grandfather of Pong.
- 1962: Steve Russell, Martin Graetz, and Wayne Wiitanen create “Spacewar!” the first portable computer game as it can be programmed and played on any PDP-1 computer.
- 1967-69: Technology advances to the point where minicomputers cost under $10,000, ushering in a wave of coin-operated shooting and driving arcade games like Periscope and Speedway.
- 1971: After playing “Spacewar!” at SAIL engineers Nolan Bushnell and Ted Dabney team up to build a coin-operated version called “Computer Space”. The game is a modest success and leads to the duo founding Atari.
- 1972: The first home gaming console, Magnavox Odyssey, is released. The console included a dozen games, one of which was also a tennis game similar to Pong. Since the graphics capabilities of the Magnavox where very basic, three dots and a line, the console also shipped with plastic overlays that would attach to the television and other analogue gaming components like dice and cards. It failed to make much of a market impact upon release.
Who Owns Ideas?
At its height, there were 35,000 Pong arcade cabinets across the USA alongside many copy-cats and variations which Atari never brought litigation against. No one at Atari had bothered to patent Pong. Atari co-founder Nolan Bushnell’s business strategy was to concentrate on out-innovating his competition.
But Atari‘s financial success with a video game concept that had been around since at least 1958 drew a lawsuit. In 1974 Magnavox sued Atari and a number of copycat companies for copyright infringement. Magnavox Odyssey‘s creator Ralph Baer produced designs and patents for his inventions and a signed guest book that demonstrated Nolan Bushnell had played the Odyssey’s table tennis game at a public demonstration.
“The fact is that I absolutely did see the Odyssey game and I didn’t think it was very clever.” – Nolan Bushnell
Bushnell later admitted that he had played and had been unimpressed with the Odyssey’s table tennis game and Atari eventually settled with Magnavox out of court. Pong was actually designed and coded by Atari‘s first employee Allan Alcorn. Bushnell, likely influenced by the Odyssey demo, assigned Alcorn the task of making a table tennis game as a training exercise. Alcorn was also familiar with the different versions of 2D table tennis already floating around he added his own innovations and extra features. He divided the paddle into 8 segments, each with its own angle of return which added variation to the gameplay. Alcorn also designed the ball to continuously accelerate while in play, only resetting the speed after a miss. After playing Alcorn’s version Bushnell and Ted Dabney decided it was too good to just keep as an exercise and decided to commercialize it.
Pong: The Home Invasion
Launching in time for the 1975 Christmas season Atari released a pong home video console exclusively through Sear’s Department Stores under the Sears’ “Tele-Games” brand. The console sold 150,000 units and was Sear’s most successful Christmas product. Atari followed up with a release under their own brand in 1976.
Atari went on to be one of the most successful video game companies of the 1980’s. In 2013 Entertainment Weekly named Pongone of the top ten games for the Atari 2600 and a Pong Arcade cabinet is part of the Smithsonian Institute’s permanent collection.
Pong references also frequently spring up in both high and low culture. The game has been featured in on the popular television series That 70’s Show and King of the Hill. Pong was also the inspiration for French artist Pierre Huyghe’s installation Atari Light which invites two people to play Pong on an illuminated ceiling. The artwork debuted at the prestigious Venice Biennale in 2001.
Most interestingly, as Pong is a two-player game it stood in as an ice-breaker that started many relationships. The social legacy of the game seems to be one of Nolan Bushnell’s favourite anecdotes.
“It was very common to have a girl with a quarter in hand pull a guy off a bar stool and say, ‘I’d like to play Pong and there’s nobody to play.’ It was a way you could play games, you were sitting shoulder to shoulder, you could talk, you could laugh, you could challenge each other … As you became better friends, you could put down your beer and hug. You could put your arm around the person. You could play left-handed if you so desired. In fact, there are a lot of people who have come up to me over the years and said, ‘I met my wife playing Pong,’ and that’s kind of a nice thing to have achieved.” – Nolan Bushnell