(No, really!) (Atari, 1972)
Memories: Which came first, the chicken or the egg? And who hatched that egg (or fried that chicken) first – Atari founder Nolan Bushnell or inventor Ralph Baer, who licensed to Magnavox his concept for a dedicated video tennis game that could be hooked up to a TV set?
Actually, the answer could be neither – a Brookhaven National Laboratory researcher named Willy Higginbotham may have beaten both of them to the punch with a primitive, Pong-style demo created in the MIT labs and using an oscilloscope as a display. Higginbotham created Tennis For Two in 1958 – fourteen years before either Bushnell or Baer founded, respectively, the coin-operated arcade and home video game industries – though it was more of a tech demonstration and less of a game.
Be that as it may, Bushnell and Baer both still fire shots across each other’s bows to this day when the question arises of who created Pong. Pong hit the arcades in 1972, the same year as the first ever home video game, a dedicated TV tennis console called the Magnavox Odyssey. They both made a lot of money – and inspired a great many unlicensed imitators. Which brings us back to the chicken and the egg.
Regardless of who was the first to come up with the concept, both men can at least claim to have ignited industries based on the results.
Things got even more confused in the home video game arena after Bushnell introduced the home Pong unit, produced with a hefty cash infusion (and a new marketing partnership that would last into the 1980s) from Sears. Magnavox made a fatal miscalculation by trying to use the Odyssey to pimp its line of TV sets; when the advertisements implied that the unit would only work with a Magnavox TV, owners of every other brand passed on the Odyssey. Magnavox later dropped that marketing tactic with dedicated consoles like the Odyssey 500, but it was too late – Atari had taken the lead with its own machines such as Pong Sports IV. Magnavox started to develop a hefty console called the Odyssey 5000, which would’ve played much more than just tennis, but abandoned the project in favor of a machine in an almost identically-shaped casing, which could play even more games thanks to interchangeable ROM cartridges. That machine too was almost cancelled until Ralph Baer interceded, and the Odyssey2 was born.
Ironically, Magnavox never made a tennis game for the Odyssey2, while Atari was quick to continue the legacy of Pong with a very early Atari VCS cartridge, Video Olympics.
Pong actually wasn’t the first coin-operated video game; that honor goes to Computer Space (itself later committed to Atari 2600 silicon under the title of Space War), which Bushnell adapted for Nutting & Associates from an MIT mainframe game (which was, again, created by someone else). But Computer Space, as artsy as the art deco lines of its fiberglass cabinet were, didn’t hit the kind of critical mass of popularity (or money) that Pong did. Bushnell field tested his arcade games in bars, and the complexity of Computer Space didn’t mix well with beer – even in space, you can’t drink and drive. Pong‘s simplicity was just the ticket. The first Pong machine was tested at a bar called Andy Capp’s, and a few nights after placing it, Bushnell got a worried phone call from the bar’s owner because the machine had stopped working. The problem? Its makeshift coinbox, fashioned out of a milk carton, had overflowed – and as such, it was no longer registering coin drops and wouldn’t allow anyone to start a new game.
The game was transformed into myriad variations, each for a quarter per game, ranging from four-player QuadraPong to a bizarre doghouse-shaped kiddie variation, intended for the waiting rooms of doctors’ and dentists’ offices, called Puppy Pong.
Pong survives to this day, whether in retro collections such as Atari Anniversary Edition, or in bizarrely modernized 3-D form such as 1999’s Pong for the Playstation and other consoles. Nolan Bushnell himself launched an online version of the game through his internet entertainment venture uWink, and a constantly-running game of Pong was the public’s first glimpse of the video game-oriented G4 cable network in April 2002.
To this day, for many people, despite all the advancements and texture mapping and 128-bit systems, video games are still synonymous with Atari’s Pong.