Nolan Bushnell: The Zeus of the Videogame Industry
Attending Utah State University as an engineering student, around 1963 the tall and gregarious Nolan Bushnell starts supporting his education by working summers 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. Bushnell eventually manages and repairs the mechanical games at the amusement park. Transferring to the University of Utah for a Bachelor of Science in Electrical Engineering in 1965, 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. His experience running the midway coin-op arcade at Lagoon also gets Bushnell thinking about the commercial viability of a video game like Spacewar!, and he eventually writes up a proposal to defer the cost of using a mini-computer like the PDP-1 to play games by linking six terminals up to it and charging each user to play. The Lagoon Corporation doesn’t share Bushnell’s vision, however; it’s apparent that such a system could only be feasible if the brains behind it could be scaled down from $100,000 university mainframes and into something you could eventually make money on at 25 cents a shot. The burgeoning entrepreneur begins an eight year odyssey to do just that: produce a coin-op arcade version of Spacewar!.
When Bushnell graduates in 1968 he heads to California and, with typical bravado, applies to work in the magic kingdom of his idol, Walt Disney. With the young engineering graduate hoping to land in the WED department working on animatronic robots, Disneyland isn’t so keen hiring someone fresh out of college. So instead, Bushnell gets a job in Sunnyvale, California at Ampex Corporation, an audio recording equipment company that had also invented the videotape recorder in 1956. Starting with an annual salary of $12,000, Bushnell works as a research engineer in graphics. Meanwhile, the invention and popularization of the integrated circuit begins to make his idea of a commercial video game system more viable. He and his fellow officemate at Ampex, former Marine Ted Dabney, along with 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 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 between the three men: Syzygy, meaning “a straight-line configuration of three celestial bodies”.
“Too complicated for half-pissed bar patrons to comprehend”
When 1971 rolls around Dabney has a breakthrough idea that brings the whole project within a viable price point: create a motion circuit out of discrete circuitry instead of expensive microchips, and the two leave Ampex to work on the game full time. Bushnell 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, the team uses hard-wired circuitry for its innards, displaying the video images on a black and white 19″ TV set. When it is finally completed that year, Bushnell finds a buyer in Nutting Associates, a manufacturer perhaps then best-known as the maker of coin-op trivia game Computer Quiz… one of the first solid-state electronic amusement games. Syzygy licences their video game concept to Nutting for manufacture, in exchange for a 5% royalty on the sale of every unit. Nolan joins the company 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 as one of the three celestial bodies in Syzygy.
With a name perhaps playing off the success of Nutting’s Computer Quiz game, 1,500 units of the first mass-produced video game now titled Computer Space 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 seen publicly. The genus computer game Spacewar! had travelled from MIT as far as Stanford University in California, where it had fired its torpedoes of obsession into Bill Pitts and Hugh Tuck. Two months previous to the debut of Computer Space, under the company name Computer Recreations, Inc, the two men install their own arcade game version of Spacewar! in the coffee shop at Tresidder Union on the Stanford campus. Called Galaxy Game, it is powered by a PDP 11/20 computer, and costs 10 cents a play, or three gos for a quarter. The game is immensely popular with students at the Union, but with a manufacturing price tag of $20,000 including the computer, it is a one-off concept that can hardly be considered a viable commercial venture. Refinements do 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. Due to the hard-wired, non-CPU nature of the game, Bushnell has had to strip down the game play of Spacewar!, but as a result also made it a solitaire affair, adding UFOs to battle and steerable missiles. He also has to assuage operators’ worries about people stealing the TV sets right out of the video game cabinets. After the debut of the first four Computer Space prototype machines (Red, White, Blue and Yellow) at the 1971 MOA expo in October, the game is released to distributors in November. Nutting sells out the initial run of 1,500 units over two years, but there isn’t enough demand to continue making the game. An okay performance 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.
Nutting themselves later update Computer Space into a two-player version in 1973, with what they label “Natural-Action” joysticks replacing the complicated button array used to pilot ships and fire their missiles in Bushnell’s original version. Players take their shots at the UFOs with a red fire button at the top of each stick. The saucers are replaced with your “friends” rocket ship in 2-player mode, making 2-player Computer Space much closer in play to the original MIT Spacewar! game that spawned it.
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 Marina 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)
NNDB – Nolan Bushnell – www.nndb.com/people/451/000024379/
A History of Syzygy/Atari, by Michael D. Current (referenced Nov. 29, 2014) – http://mcurrent.name/atarihistory/syzygy.html
Lovece, Frank. “The Birth of a Notion: Discovering the True Beginnings of Video Games.” Comp. Jason Scott. Video Games Jan. 1984: 40-43. Internet Archive. 31 May 2013. Web. 21 July 2021. Sometime around 1963, while at Utah State University as an engineering student, Bushnell began his long association with the amusement industry… ;In 1965, Bushnell transferred to the University of Utah… ;Bushnell put together a simple design on paper for a computer-game system involving six monitors hooked up to a central unit and showed it to the Lagoon Corporation. The idea was an outgrowth of a student paper he’d written during his senior year at collect. It was a longshot and nothing came of it…
Hubz, comp. “Ponk, Ponk – the Bouncing Blip Blitzkrieg.” Play Meter June-July 2975: 13+. Internet Archive. 27 Sept. 2020. Web. 28 Mar. 2021. Originally, you see, it had been Bushnell’s idea to program a small computer for various games and allow players to use video terminals located away from the computer.
Zorn, Eric. “Nolan Bushnell: Video Game Guru Dreams of next Toy.” Chicago Tribune 15 Mar. 1984: C1. Newspapers.com. Web. 9 Apr. 2021. In 1971, while working as a research engineer in graphics for the Ampex Corp., he grew convinced that falling electronics prices had finally made his idea possible.
Bowles, Nellie. “Ted Dabney, an Atari Founder, Pong Creator.” The Boston Globe 02 June 2018: B7. Newspapers.com. Web. 28 July 2021. “Ted came up with the breakthrough idea that got rid of the computer so you didn’t have to have a computer to make the game work,” Allan Alcorn, one of Atari’s first employees, said in an interview this week. ;Mr. Dabney returned to San Francisco after being discharged from the Marines in 1959… ;In 1961, he [Dabney] joined the military products team at Ampex… ;He [Dabney] shared an office at Ampex with Bushnell… ;”A computer was too slow to do anything at video speeds anyway,” Alcorn said. “So once Ted had invented his motion circuit, this trick, you didn’t need the computer anymore.”
Jacobson, Eric, and Daniel Hower. “The Arcade Flyer Archive – Computer Quiz.” The Arcade Flyer Archive – Arcade Game Flyers: Computer Quiz, Nutting Associates. Web. 12 Apr. 2021. Image of cover of flyer for Computer Quiz, 1968
Associate-manuel-dennis, comp. “Nutting of Calif. Launching Unique Space-Combat Game.” Cash Box 4 Dec. 1971: 45. Internet Archive. 26 Sept. 2016. Web. 12 Apr. 2021. ‘Computer Space’, a single player space flight target novelty, is being readied for U.S. distribution, it was announced by Nutting Associates, Inc….
The History of How We Play, comp. “Atari Turns 25.” RePlay July 1997: 7-36. Internet Archive. 8 Jan. 2020. Web. 12 Apr. 2021. The mainstay of his [Bill Nutting] company was the Q&A device called Computer Quiz which used something novel for its day …a solid-state circuit board. It was one of the industry’s very first electronic (rather than electromechanical) games.
RetroGameChampion, and John Sellers. “The Visionary.” Arcade Fever – The Fan’s Guide to the Golden Age of Video Games, Running Press Book Publishers, 2001, pp. 18–19. From Nolan Bushnell interview: I remember a couple of the operators saying, “Oh, we can’t do that. People will steal the TV sets out of them.”
computerspacefan.com – www.computerspacefan.com/
1972 Nutting Associates Computer Space – www.pinrepair.com/arcade/cspace.htm
Eimbinder, Jerry, and The History of How We Play. “TV Game Background.” Gamestronics Proceedings, Jan. 1977, pp. 159–165. Internet Archive, archive.org/details/GamtronicsProceedings/page/n159. Image of Galaxy Game installed at Tressider Union Coffeehouse, 1977. Photo by Liane Enkelis
Images of Galaxy Game in the main body of the article, boys playing, and joystick closeup taken by William Hunter at the Computer History Museum, Mountain View CA.
Current, Michael D. “A History OfSyzygy / Atari.” A History of Syzygy / Atari. Web. 12 Apr. 2021. October 15-17 : Nutting Associates, Inc. introduced Computer Space (all four prototype units, one each in red, white, blue and yellow cabinets…. at Expo Seventy-One, the 1971 Music & Amusement Machines Exposition….
Associate-manuel-dennis, comp. “Computer Space Ad.” Cash Box 18 Dec. 1971: 47. Internet Archive. 26 Sept. 2016. Web. 26 Sept. 2019. <https://archive.org/details/cashbox33unse_24/page/n49>. 1971 Nutting Associates ad for Computer Space
Computer Space Simulator by Mike “Moose” O’Malley – move.to/moose
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
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
Hammerstein, Yvonne. “Games Are His Life – Not Hobby.” Los Gatos Times – Saratoga Observer 04 May 1974: 1. Newspapers.com. Web. 29 July 2021. 1974 image of Bushnell smiling, wearing white shirt.
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
Toyadz vintage toy ads – toyadz.com/toyadz/menu1.html