Who made the first video game is the sort of thing that is both easy and difficult to determine. Those that believe themselves in the know spend hours debating the matter and hurling foul insults at one another that says more about the type of person that dwells on these minute details than it does the difficulty by which the decision can be made. It goes without saying that the irony of that statement and its application to yours truly has not gone unnoticed.
Most people these days attribute the birth of the video game industry to William A. Higinbotham and the game he designed for public tours at Brookhaven National Lab. As it turns out the truth of the matter relies on the near obsessive compulsive collection of notes kept by one engineer, Ralph Baer. In 1951 Baer was working as an engineer for Loral, a television manufacturer. The task assigned to him was to "build the best television set in the world." By many accounts this was a menial task for the talented Baer and he developed several of his ideas further and presented them to his supervisor.
Baer's idea was a device by which one played games upon the Television, interacting with images on the screen via a set of attached controllers. It was a revolutionary idea, and clearly ahead of its time as Baer's supervisor either didn't understand his idea or was simply uninterested. Either way, Baer placed these ideas on the backburner and didn't return to them until 1966 when he began development on his Brown Box system, a device that played several games, including Ping Pong. He worked on the system for several years before selling it to Magnavox in 1971 as the Odyssey.
Baer's claim that he invented the video game is backed up by the prodigious notes he took and kept filed away, presumably to reinforce just this type of claim. But he didn't actually work on anything, or produce anything until the late 1960s. Unfortunately for you, the reader, this is not where Tennis for Two comes into the picture. I have one more short digression before we cover that.
In 1952 a doctoral student named A.S. Douglas at the University of Cambridge in the UK completed his thesis on Human-Computer Interaction. As part of his thesis he included a graphic illustration of a tic-tac-toe game. He had programmed the game on the Universities EDSAC computer which used a cathode ray tube as a display. The display was an array of 35 by 16 dots and Douglas used this primitive and small monitor to display his tic-tac-toe board. This is the earliest known graphical computer game but it was viewed only by those with an interest in Douglas's thesis.
So, we've got one guy who thought about making video games a long time ago, but didn't actually make anything for fifteen years. During which time, another person independently created and constructed the first video game, but hardly anyone saw it or even knew of it. It would seem that there is room for debate about who came up with the idea first, but it also seems clear who actually made the first video game. But, that's not really what this node is about.
Now comes Tennis for Two. Thank-you for your patience.
In 1958, William A. Higinbathom, an engineer working at the Brookhaven National Lab constructed a game for a public display out of a Donner analog computer, an oscilloscope and spare parts from around the lab. The game was to be part of a display for the frequent visitors to the lab and was meant to serve as an example of the innovation and technology developed at BNL. it was by all accounts the most popular feature of the lab between 1958 and 1959, the years it was available.
Tennis for Two has a remarkable behemoth of innovation. The game was controlled with the combination of the Donner analog computer and a number of custom made electronic patch boards that Higinbathom designed and his friend Robert V. Dvorak constructed out of resistors, capacitors, and a few transistors that were spare parts from the lab. The device used the oscilloscope as its display and used a fascinating arrangement of solid state electronics to vary the input voltage to generate the needed cartesian coordinates that were mathematically constructed by the Donner.
The game itself was a tennis game, very similar to Pong, but displayed on a different axis. Instead of Pong's above head view, Tennis for Two displayed the game from the side, complete with a vertical net in the center. The controller was a swivel paddle and two people could play at once, one against the other, and proved to be excessively popular among the lab visitors, especially so the high school boys.
The game was removed from the exhibit in 1959 and dismantled so the parts could be used throughout the lab, a relatively common occurrence at the time, when parts were expensive. It was clear to Higinbathom that the game was popular and that he had hit on something, but never considered how popular the medium would become. In a 1981 interview he recalled, "But if I had realized just how significant it was, I would have taken out a patent and the U.S. government would own it!" Say what you will about Microsoft, but I'd rather they made video games than the Federal Government.
Three different men from three different locations with very similar educations all independently developed computer games within ten years of each other. One guy never built anything; another constructed a machine that was not publicly available. The third man both designed and constructed a game that was available for public, although limited, display. It almost seems as if the innovations surrounding the development of the computer game is a natural evolution of the development of the cathode ray tube. Its ability to dynamically display information and be manipulated by controls was only bound to lead to the modern video game. This fact hasn't stopped Baer and many others from pursuing endless litigation concerning who owns the rights to profits from the sale of computer games. The fact that none of three men mentioned even considered filing a patent seems to have escaped them.
Tennis for Two was just the tip of the iceberg and within another five years a number of researchers were working on a variety of different applications for the new technology. Baer's Odyssey was released by Magnavox in 1972 and Atari's Pong followed shortly thereafter. As a side note Atari's Pong was almost certainly the result of the first case of Computer Game Industrial Espionage. Nolan Bushnell who later became the President of Atari visited the Magnavox Profit Caravan at the Airport Marina Hotel in Burlingame California. There he saw, and played the Odyssey Ping-Pong game, and even signed the guest book. Bushnell hired Alan Alcorn to design a very similar coin-op game that was very successful. Alcorn returned to Atari in 1974 to help engineer the home version. It is unsettling that these events happened so soon in the history of the industry. But I digress... again.
Despite the quarreling claims of who started what and designed which one first, it's clear that Tennis for Two played a major role in the birth of what has become a multi-billion dollar industry. For what it's worth Higinbathom appears to be one of the few people involved in the birth of the video game capable of acting like an adult. The Brookhaven Lab, recognizing their small part in this genesis, recreated Tennis for Two to display at their 50th anniversary event in 1997. Employees of the lab spent two months reconstructing the game from the original blue prints and taking the time to modify the design to use more reliable and efficient integrated circuits. It is unclear if the machine is on permanent display.