Category Archives: pong

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

Breakout: How Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak Built a Smash for Atari

Soon after dropping out of Reed College, in 1974 Steve Jobs became employee #40 at an up-and-coming company in California called Atari. He was a scruffy young man, who’s abrasiveness and questionable personal hygiene led management to put him on the night shift, so as to ruffle as few feathers as possible.

Even so, Jobs still managed to tick off a lot of people at Atari. Possibly seeing a lot of himself in Jobs, company co-founder Nolan Bushnell kept him around regardless. One day in 1976 he approached the young maverick and asked him to put together the hardware for a new variation of the company’s landmark game, PONG. In this new version, instead two players knocking a ball back and forth with paddles, a person could play alone, hitting the ball up against a wall of bricks at the top of the screen. Jobs was offered $750 for the job, with a $100 bonus paid for every microchip shaved off the design, therefore making the game cheaper to build.

It was Job’s friend Steve Wozniak who actually created the design for Breakout, spending four nights putting the game together with Jobs, all the while holding down his daytime job at Hewlett-Packard. The game turned out to be a big hit for Atari, and the two Steves would eventually break out on their own to create a little computer company called Apple Computer. The computer landscape would never look the same again.

For more information on the making of Breakout, consult your local Dot Eaters entry.

Image of Tennis for Two, a precursor video game system by William Higinbotham

Tennis For Two

While there were attempts at displaying games on CRT screens previous to it, William Higinbotham’s Tennis For Two could be considered the first video game that most resembled what was to come. A fun-loving type and avid pinball player, Higinbotham had designed parts for the first atomic bombs during the Manhattan Project. He subsequently moved to Brookhaven National Laboratory in Long Island, NY. There he developed Tennis For Two with the help of fellow technician Robert Dvorak, to be included at the 1958 annual open house at Brookhaven. Built using a Donner analog computer, Higinbotham’s game had players hit a blip of a ball at each other, over a net represented by a line in the middle of the screen. Sound familiar? The game was a smash, creating line-ups of people vying to have a go at computer tennis.

Tennis For Two made a return at the next year’s open house, with added upgrades such as a 17″ monitor and variable gravity effects. The game was then disassembled and used for other purposes. Higinbotham failed to patent his invention, which is probably a good thing.  Since he worked for the U.S. government, they would have ended up owning the rights to video games!

For more information on Tennis For Two, consult your local Dot Eaters entry.

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.

PONG Turns 40

The First Serve

On November 29, 1972, a recently incorporated company in California named Atari announced the release of its first product, an electronic video arcade game called PONG.  Two players would stand at the wood-grain and yellow cabinet, twiddling the control knobs that moved two paddles displayed on a B&W TV screen.  With the paddles they would play an electronically abstract game of table tennis, batting a little white blip back and forth in an attempt to “Avoid Missing Ball For High Score”, as the simple gameplay instructions prompted.

Conceived by Atari co-founder Nolan Bushnell and designed by Al Alcorn, Pong was a smash success, giving birth to the video game industry.  Fast-forward nearly 40 years later, in 2011 that industry was worth US$65 billion dollars.

Among other celebrations of Pong’s 40th birthday, an attempt to enter the Guinness Book of World Records as the world’s largest game of Pong was made on Nov. 16, 2012.  A 22-story version of the game, complete with festive lighting, was played on the side of the Downtown Marriott hotel in Kansas City, MO.

In a lead-up to the anniversary, earlier this year Atari announced the Pong Indie Developer Challenge.  Offering a grand prize of up to $100,000, the company solicited independent app developers to submit their take on the venerable Pong.  The three winners were announced on Aug. 2, and they will participate in a profit sharing scheme divided between the three Pong apps that will see them collect royalties up to the winning prize amounts.  The top winner, the freemium-based PONG World by zGames, can be snagged at the iOS App Store here.

Pong put Atari on the road to becoming the fastest growing company in American history.  It’s no stretch to consider that when you say Pong is 40 years-old today, you’re also saying the video game industry is 40 years-old.  So like those tipsy patrons of Andy Capp’s bar in Sunnyvale California, who played the original Pong prototype until it broke and convinced Bushnell and Atari to produce the game commercially, raise a glass to the grand-daddy of the video game industry.  Your serve, PONG!

You can play an updated version of PONG online at Atari.com for free.  For more information on the history of Pong and Atari, consult your local Dot Eaters article.

Atari Is Born, 40 Years Ago Today

Early Atari Logo

Out of the ashes of Computer Space, an unpopular first attempt at an arcade video game which was  released by Nutting Associates in 1971, 27-year-old Nolan Bushnell, along with partner Ted Dabney, incorporated Atari, Inc. today in 1972.  Their next attempt, the first game released by the new company, would be a slightly bigger success: PONG.

Bushnell and Dabney had created Computer Space under the auspices of an informal company they dubbed Syzygy, pronounced siz-eh-jee, a term meaning the Earth, Moon and Sun in perfect alignment.  Thankfully a candle-making commune had already registered that name, so Bushnell took a term from the Japanese game Go he liked to play, and Atari was born.

Dabney, Bushnell, Unknown and Alcorn

PONG was an instant success, a quicky paddle-ball video game hammered out by Atari employee Al Alcorn, the immense profits of which would carry the company for years.  Five years later Atari would create the Video Computer System (later renamed the 2600) home console, which initially struggled but would eventually come to define home video games after the licensing of the Taito/Midway hit arcade game Space Invaders for the games machine.  Bushnell eventually sold Atari to Warner Communications, and was muscled out by management in 1978.  The name Atari became synonymous with home video games, with the company ruling the roost until the great video-game crash of 1983-1984 would utterly destroy the entire industry.

Atari was eventually split into two companies: industry stalwart Jack Tramiel, fresh off his departure from Commodore, would pick up the consumer division of Atari in 1984 to form Atari Corporation, with Warner continuing the arcade division separately as Atari Games, Inc..  They would eventually sell to Namco in 1985.  The Tramiel-led Atari would move more deeply into computers with the Atari ST line, while Atari Games made such arcade games as Marble Madness (1984), Super Sprint (1986) and Hard Drivin’ (1989).

Bushnell relaxing, 1999

Tramiel eventually merged Atari Corp with hard drive manufacturer JTS, who in turn sold remaining assets to Hasbro in 1998 for a paltry 5 million dollars.  French software maker Infogrames would end up purchasing Hasbro in 2000, and rebrand the entire company using the Atari, Inc. name in 2001.  Coming around in a neat circle, Nolan Bushnell eventually joined the board of Atari in 2010.

So raise a glass to the company that created the video game industry, 40 years young today.  As always, for more history of Atari and the games that helped define it and the rest of the video game landscape, consult your local The Dot Eaters article.