Nolan Bushnell: The Zeus of the Videogame Industry
While he’s attending the University of Utah getting his Bachelor of Science in Electrical Engineering, a young student named Nolan Bushnell spends a lot of his nights playing Steve Russell’s Spacewar! on the PDP-1 mainframe in the engineering lab at the university. Utah is one of only three educational facilities in the U.S. that has a monitor to display the game, due to their computer graphics courses. Bushnell puts himself through school working summers as manager of the midway carnival games at Lagoon, an amusement park located about 19 miles north of Salt Lake City, nestled between the big city and his hometown of Clearfield, Utah. The carnival barker ethos that seeps into a 19 year-old Bushnell as he invites gentlemen to show the ladies on their arms their manliness by knocking down milk bottles with a baseball never really leaves him, even when he later moves from pitching booths to corporate boardrooms. Running the midway coin-op Arcade at Lagoon also gets Bushnell thinking about the commercial viability of a video game like Spacewar, if only the system that ran it could be scaled down from $100,000 university mainframes and into something you could eventually make money on at 25 cents a shot. He begins an eight year odyssey to do just that: produce an arcade version of Spacewar.
When Bushnell graduates in 1968 he goes to work in Sunnyvale, California for Ampex Corporation, an audio recording equipment company that had also invented the video tape recorder in 1956. His starting salary is $12,000. As the invention and popularization of the integrated circuit begins to make his idea of a video game system more viable, fellow co-workers Ted Dabney and Larry Bryan join Bushnell in discussing the possibility of creating something never before seen, to turn Slug Russell’s PDP-1 space warfare extravaganza Spacewar! into Computer Space, a single-player, coin-operated game played on a television monitor. All three men are to invest $100 dollars each to become a partner in the new venture. In a beer-fuelled bull session called to think of a name for their new company, Bryan is thumbing through a dictionary and finds an unusual but perfect term at the end of the “S” section to describe the partnership: Syzygy, meaning “a straight-line configuration of three celestial bodies”.
“Too complicated for half-pissed bar patrons to comprehend”
When 1971 rolls around Bushnell has the further inspiration to create his coin-op video game out of discrete circuitry instead of microchips, and he leaves Ampex to work on the Computer Space game full time. He even goes so far as to banish his second daughter Britta to the living room couch so he can turn her room into a workshop to work on the translation. Eschewing a $120,000 computer for the brains of the machine, Bushnell uses hard-wired circuitry for its innards, displaying the video images on a black and white 19″ TV set. When he finally completes it that year he finds a buyer in Nutting Associates, a manufacturer of coin-op trivia games. Syzygy licences Computer Space for manufacture, in exchange for a 5% royalty on the sale of every unit. Nolan joins Nutting as a chief engineer, with Dabney following a few months later. Bryan, however, has by now forgone his $100 dollar payment and passed on a partnership in Syzygy.
1,500 Computer Space units are built, complete with a futuristic, fiberglass cabinet, the shape of which is prototyped out of a lump of clay at Bushnell’s kitchen table. Also included in the design is a paint-can for a coin box. It is not, however, the very first video arcade game. Two months previous, Bill Pitts and Hugh Tuck, under the company name Computer Recreations, Inc, install their own arcade game version of Spacewar in the coffee shop at Tresidder Union on the Stanford University campus in California. Called Galaxy Game, it is powered by a PDP 11/20 computer, and costs 10 cents a play, or three go’s for a quarter. The game is immensely popular with students at the union, but with a manufacturing price tag of $20,000, it is a one-off machine that can hardly be considered a commercial video game. Refinements later allow for up to 8 consoles to be connected for multi-unit battles. With Computer Space, however, Bushnell can consider himself the creator of the first mass-produced arcade video game. He has also refined the game play of Spacewar, adding UFOs to battle and steerable missiles. Released in November of 1971, Nutting sells out the initial run of 1,500, but there isn’t enough demand to continue making Computer Space. Not bad for a coin-op machine, but considering it’s an attempt to usher in a whole new category of games the result has to be considered a disappointment. Bushnell comes to the conclusion that the procedures of using various buttons for the thrusting and rotating of the ships are just too complicated for half-pissed bar patrons to comprehend. He becomes convinced that any successful video arcade game has to be extremely easy to understand from the get-go.
When Nutting hears about demonstrations of a home videogame system at the Magnavox Profit Caravan trade show in May of 1972 located in the Airport Marine Hotel in Burlingame California, they send Bushnell to investigate. There he signs the guest book and plays Ralph Baer’s Odyssey ping-pong game for a good half-hour. When he gets back he tells the company the Odyssey is no Computer Space. In a strange twist of fate, Baer is attending a trade show in 1976 and sees Touch Me, a portable light and sound game developed by Bushnell. Baer goes on to develop Simon, a similar product released to great success by Milton Bradley in 1977. A patent issued to Baer and Associates for Simon cites the operating manual for Touch Me. Bushnell’s exposure to the Odyssey later becomes the crux of a patent infringement lawsuit filed by Magnavox, over Bushnell’s next, and rather more popular foray into arcade videogames.
Sources (Click to view; inert links are kept for historical purposes)
A History of Syzygy/Atari, by Michael D. Current (referenced Nov. 29, 2014) – http://mcurrent.name/atarihistory/syzygy.html computerspacefan.com – www.computerspacefan.com/
Images of Galaxy Game in the main body of the article, boys playing, and joystick closeup taken at the Computer History Museum, Mountain View CA.
Atari Connection, “If Atari Isn’t a Japanese Company, Why Does It Have a Japanese Name?” by Joel Miller, pg.19, Summer 1981atarimuseum.com – www.atarimuseum.com
Toyadz vintage toy ads – toyadz.com/toyadz/menu1.html
The Galaxy Game – infolab.stanford.edu/pub/voy/museum/galaxy.html
Image of Bill Nutting next to Computer Space cabinet from a 1979 issue of Loose Change trade magazine
1972 Nutting Associates Computer Space – www.pinrepair.com/arcade/cspace.htm
Pete Ashdown Image Gallery, Pete shakes hands with Nolan Bushnell – pashpics.xmission.com/gallery2/v/ashdownballard/pete/ab-p-videogames/ab-p-vg-nolan/20020412_105904.jpg.html
NNDB – Nolan Bushnell – www.nndb.com/people/451/000024379/