Wedge vs. Needle
At MIT in 1961 there’s a group of hardcore computer nerds calling themselves the Tech Model Railroad Club, and for an offshoot group known jokingly as the Hingham Institute (referencing a dilapidated apartment building located on Hingham St. in Cambridge, Mass.), activities include obsessively discussing the space-opera novels of E.E. “Doc” Smith, considered the grandfather of the literary SF genre. They dream up wild fantasies of special-effects-ridden movie sequences based around the writer’s Skylark and Lensman novels, containing descriptions of vast interstellar spaceship battles.
Eventually word comes down that MIT’s aging transistorized TX-0 mainframe computer, located in Building 26 on the second floor Research Laboratory of Electronics (RLE), is getting a slick new companion: the relatively svelte Digital Equipment Corporation PDP-1. Not only is this new “mini”-computer sexily compact, it also revolutionizes the computer industry by allowing a single programmer in front of its control panel to have complete access to the processor, as opposed to the prevalent idea of time-sharing computer power. Previous CRT display demonstration programs (like Tennis For Two at Brookhaven Labs, they are developed for public open house purposes) for the TX-0 had consisted of the aptly-named Bouncing Ball, Mouse in the Maze (users built mazes for electronic mice to run around in), and the venerable Tic-Tac-Toe. A TMRC brainstorming session is called to create a truly taxing demo program for the enhanced capabilities for the PDP-1. All present are around 25 years old: Wayne Witanen and J. Martin Graetz, along with Steve Russell, an AI specialist known as Slug by his buddies due to his tendency to procrastinate. The group of hackers who would develop this amazing demonstration of computer gaming are products of both the department at MIT handling the fabled TX-O mainframe computer, one the first of such beasts to eschew vacuum tubes and be fully transistorized, and the equally odd-ball crew at the Artificial Intelligence Lab. During bull-sessions about the demo program at the Hingham Institute, they develop the Theory of Computer Toys: 1) It should demonstrate the computer’s resources and tax those resources to the utmost. 2) It should be interesting, therefore different every time it is run. 3) It should actively involve the user, as in it should be a game. Recalling E.E. Smith’s epic space battles, the idea forms to pit two spaceships with limited fuel supplies against each other in a missile duel. The program becomes Spacewar!, with Russell as main programmer.
Two spaceships, called the wedge and the needle according to their shapes, are rendered in rough outline graphics. They are controlled by switches on the front panel of the PDP-1, with a left-right toggle switch to rotate the ships clockwise and counterclockwise, and another toggle switch moving forward and back; back to apply thrust to your ship, and forward to put yourself in the hands of fate and activate hyperspace. Other programmers throw aid to Russell, including a sine-cosine routine from Alan Kotok, and a very realistic star field backdrop program called Expensive Planetarium by Peter Samson. Dan Edwards develops the accurate gravity effects in the game, centered around a bright sun at the center of the screen, the gravity well of which would draw careless pilots in to their doom. Graetz develops the Hyperspace feature, used to get a player out of scrapes by disappearing and then randomly reappearing on the screen, but as often as not putting him right back into trouble. By spring of 1962, the game is completed, weighing in at a grand total of 9K. Fed into the PDP-1 via paper tape input and viewed on the attached CRT screen, Spacewar causes a sensation with its debut at MIT’s annual Science Open House that May, and a scoring system must be introduced to limit people’s time at the control switches used to play. History is also made by Kotok and fellow Spacewar addict Bob Sanders, who are sick of the elbow fatigue caused by holding the toggle switches on the PDP-1 to control the action. Raiding the spare-parts bin of the TMRC, they put together two wooden control boxes, wired directly into the computer. With dedicated switches and buttons to control the game in hand, these could be considered the first gaming joysticks.
Spacewar is such a huge hit with the computer community that paper-tape copies quickly spread to other educational facilities in the U.S., and even DEC uses the program to demonstrate the capabilities of the PDP-1 to new clients and includes it free with every installed system. The fervor over the game among nerds at MIT causes the school to take the step of banning Spacewar, outside of lunch breaks and after work hours.
Once again, just like Willie Higinbotham, Russell doesn’t seek to copyright or patent his work. Not only would seeking royalties contradict the hacker ethos revered by these early computer geniuses, but also pertinent is the fact that the system Spacewar is running on is hardly a consumer product: it’s the size of three refrigerators and costs $120,000. Due to its ubiquitous nature and public domain status, the game will end up as the foundation of the entire industry and one of the most copied concepts in video game history. It inspires arcade translations such as the first commercial arcade video game, Computer Space, as well as the first vector graphics game Space Wars by Cinematronics and even Atari’s Asteroids. The Spacewars concept also materializes early on in home consoles games for systems like the Atari VCS and Odyssey².
Sources (Click to view; inert links kept for historical purposes)
Kent, Stephen L. “The Great Videogame Swindle?” Next Generation, Nov. 1996, pp. 64–229. Tired of having sore elbows, Alan Kotok and Bob Sanders scrounged parts from the Tech Model Railroad Club and assembled remote controllers that could be wired into the computer. These remotes were easier to use than the PDP-1’s native controls, they had dedicated switches for every Spacewar function, including hyperspace buttons. This was the forerunner to the joystick.
“PDP-1 Plays at Spacewar” – 1962 Decuscope newsletter article by D.J. Edwards and J.M. Graetz
Image of Astounding cover, and E.E. Smith from Starlog, “The Worlds of E.E. ‘Doc’ Smith”, by David Kyle, pgs. 45-46, Feb 1989
“Spacewar” – 1972 Rolling Stone article by Stewart Brand
Colour image of the PDP-1 computer and peripherals, and Steve Russell, taken at the Computer History Museum, Mountain View CA
“The Origin of Spacewar!”, by J. M. Graetz, reprint of 1981 Creative Computing magazine article – www.wheels.org/spacewar/creative/SpacewarOrigin.html
Image of the Spacewar! control box from reprint of same article in Creative Computing Video & Arcade Games, pg.84, Vol. 1 No. 1, Spring 1983
Digital Computing Timeline – www.digital.com/timeline/timeline-57-61.html
Electronic Nation, by Steven L. Kent – www.videotopia.com/edit2.htm
The Museum of Science, Boston – www.mos.org/index.html
videogames.com’s History of Video Games – www.videogames.com/features/universal/hov/index.html
Museum of Computing Magazine, “The Mouse That Roared: PDP-1 Celebration Event!”, Spring/Summer 2006 Issue, pg. 3
Electronic Games, “Players Guide To Electronic Science Fiction Games”, pgs. 35 – 45, Mar. 1982
Hays Daily News, “Forty years of change since ‘Spacewar'”, by John D. Montgomery, pg. A4, Mar. 31, 2002
Phoenix: The Fall and Rise of Videogames, by Leonard Herman