Category Archives: Nolan Bushnell

Breaking Good

Connecting the Dots: How Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak Break Out

After he dropped out of Reed College in Oregon,  in 1974 Steve Jobs joined a small tech company by the name of Atari, working at their Los Gatos facility in California. Legend has it that he showed up in their lobby, scruffy and lacking in perfect bodily hygiene, and stated to the receptionist that he wouldn’t be leaving the premises until he got a job. Instead of calling the police, she brought Al Alcorn to talk to him, and was eventually hired. In spite of being brash and over-confident (or perhaps, BECAUSE of those traits), Atari CEO Nolan Bushnell took a liking to young Steve. One day he approached Jobs with a game idea. We break into the TDE archives to continue the story:

In 1976 Nolan Bushnell offers the young Jobs $750 to put together the hardware for Breakout, a variation on PONG designed by the Atari founder, but instead of knocking the ball back and forth the player uses the paddle to send the ball at a wall of bricks across the top of the screen. The game is black and white, utilizing the old pre-1979 chestnut of overlays on the screen to simulate colour. The main mission is to reduce the amount of dedicated chips used in the construction of the game, thereby greatly reducing the cost to mass manufacture it. Bushnell promises Jobs a bonus of $100 for every chip he eliminates from the design. Even though he is not much of an engineer or ace programmer, Jobs promises to finish the game in four days, when a typical game’s development time would be several months. It is his ace-in-the-hole Wozniak who actually builds the machine, spending four consecutive nights assembling the hardware and still holding down his daytime job at Hewlett-Packard. The two meet the four day deadline, with Woz shaving the number of required chips down to 45. Jobs receives his money, and setting the tone for their business relationship, he fails to tell his friend about the now $5000 bonus. He pays Wozniak his share of $375 from the original $750 payment and furthermore takes all the credit when Breakout becomes a hit 15,000 unit seller for Atari. But Woz receives far more than simple currency with his fling with Breakout…for instance, one night as he watches technicians apply the overlays onto the Breakout screen in order to simulate coloured bricks, Woz starts thinking about how he could have a computer generate real colours on the screen. The way his later computer designs would introduce colour to the world of personal computers stems directly from his work on the arcade game, as well as his love for gaming in general. His work with Breakout also gives him a valuable education in logic design and its integration with a TV signal. And he uses his version of BASIC language to manipulate his computer version of Breakout, and is amazed how powerful a tool software is in creating games. Woz’s amazingly tight design for Breakout baffles Atari engineers, and it has to be redesigned with more chips added to actually allow it to be manufactured. 

Jobs would later approach Bushnell with the idea of Atari producing a new computer he and Woz had developed, but the Atari boss passed on the offer. Atari would end up competing against that product with their 8-bit 400 and 800 computer lines.  Woz and Jobs did just fine with their own computer: the venerable Apple II, by the Apple Computer Company.

For more information on Breakout!, consult your local Dot Eaters entry.

Atari co-founders Ted Dabney (left of PONG) and Nolan Bushnell (right of PONG), with Al Alcorn far right

PONG Announced 42 Years Ago Today

Beloved comedy science fiction writer Douglas Adams postulated in his famous Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy books that the answer to life, the universe, and everything was 42.

This may or may not be the case (we’ll have to find the question first), but the answer to fun, video games, and everything is indeed 42, as in 42 years ago today on Nov. 29, 1972.  That was the day an upstart venture in Santa Clara, California called Atari announced a crazy product: a ping-pong game played on a TV screen, mounted inside a wooden cabinet.

It was the second attempt by the company to carve out a new entertainment genre: the first was Computer Space, a video coin-op game the company had produced the previous year under the uncomfortable business name Syzygy. Sketched out by co-founder Nolan Bushnell and assembled by Al Alcorn, PONG would go on to massive success, creating an entire industry that, within a decade, would be worth $3.2 billion dollars.

For more information on Atari and its revolutionary PONG, consult your local Dot Eaters entry.

Breaking Good

Steve Jobs, Steve Wozniak and Breakout

30 years ago, in January of 1984, Steve Jobs and Apple presented the Macintosh computer to an astounded public. Utilizing such exotic technology as a mouse and a 3.5″ floppy drive, the Mac helped transform the personal computer landscape, from arcane commands to easy-to-use point-and-click interfaces. While it didn’t exactly fly off the shelves when first introduced, the Mac design would forever influence how computers were made, sold, and perceived by the public.

10 years before unveiling the Macintosh, Jobs got his start in 1974 as the 40th employee at Atari, as a $5 an hour technician refining the design of video games developed at the company. After returning from India on an Atari service call, in 1976 Jobs was tasked by Nolan Bushnell to build a new game the Atari boss had designed, based on the company’s premiere game PONG. In it, gamers would hit the ball up against a wall of disappearing blocks, as opposed to batting it back and forth with another player. Offering an insane deadline of just four days to get the job done, Jobs enlisted the help of his friend Steve Wozniak to engineer the game. It was called Breakout, and was a major hit for Atari.

Jobs eventually left Atari, and along with Wozniak founded Apple Computer. With the release of their Apple II computer, they helped establish the personal computer industry. With the release of the Macintosh, Jobs would further popularize and refine computers. As a bombastic carnival barker and charismatic distorter of reality, you can see more than just a bit of Bushnell in the man.

For more information on the history of Breakout, consult your local Dot Eaters article.

What Nolan Said: Who Was First?

There has been a long-standing debate between Nolan Bushnell and Ralph Baer as to who was the inventor of video games.  Speaking strictly chronologically, one would have to give the title to Baer, who developed a TV video game system at defense contractor Sanders Associates in 1968,  a system which was bought by Magnavox, named the Odyssey, and produced as a commercial home video game system in 1972.  Based on its novelty, the Odyssey sold fairly well but didn’t exactly set the market on fire.  That same year, however, Bushnell founded Atari and produced Pong, a similar, coin-operated video ping-pong game who’s runaway success firmly established the video game industry.  To muddy the waters further, there is evidence that Bushnell was influenced by Baer’s invention when he conceived of Pong.
So for our purposes, we consider Baer to be the inventor of video games, and Bushnell to be the father of the video game industry.  Such semantics and differing definitions of which is what gets muddled as time advances on, and so we are left with sniping of the sort we see in today’s What Nolan Said:



The quote is taken from an 2007 interview of Bushnell by the online arm of famed German newspaper Der Spiegel.  The link points to the English version of the interview.  The image is of Bushnell at the Bay Area Maker Faire in 2011, a festival celebrating invention and DIY culture hosted by Make magazine.  It comes from cclark395′s flickr feed.
For more information on the early beginnings of the video game industry, consult your local Dot Eaters article.

What Nolan Said: Dissing GTA

Nolan Bushnell helped to form the video game industry by creating Atari and PONG.  These days he’s like the curmudgeonly neighbour who sits on his porch shaking his fist at people passing by and making pronouncements like in today’s “What Nolan Said”:

The quote is taken from yesterday’s Bloomberg’s “Inkblot” session with Bushnell, a kind of word-association interview they occasionally conduct. It’s not too surprising that he would disparage Rockstar’s notorious flagship title, as he has always shown a distaste for violence and sex in video games.  In a mini-interview conducted by Newsweek in 2003, Bushnell noted a rule under his tenure at Atari, that while a programmer could destroy tanks and cars in a game, never a human figure directly.  Perhaps this is his Mormonism peeking through.

During the Bloomberg interview, Bushnell’s one-word response to an image of stacks of GTA IV cases was “Dystopian”.