Willie Higinbotham and the Paleolithic “PONG”
History records that, technically speaking, the very first interactive electronic game displaying graphics on a screen is the Cathode Ray Tube Amusement Device, designed by Thomas T. Goldsmith Jr. and Estle Ray Mann in 1947. Consisting of analog components and patented by Goldsmith Jr., the game requires players to adjust knobs to move a point of light on a CRT screen made to resemble a radar display. Overlaid on top of the screen is a drawn graphic of an airplane, over which the player must move the dot and then press a fire button to destroy the target within a certain amount of time. While an interesting experiment, CRT Amusement Device is not produced for public consumption. Later comes Naughts and Crosses, aka OXO, written by PhD student A.S. Douglas at Cambridge University in 1952. The Tic-Tac-Toe game is displayed on the sparse 35×16 pixel CRT screen connected to the rather massive EDSAC mainframe computer unique to the university. One must advance another six years to find something approaching what we would refer to today as a video game.
While it is as far from the commercial videogame systems that come later as a walk in the park is to a walk on the moon, a physicist trying to make the public tour of his lab a little more exciting to bored visitors designs what some consider a precursor videogame system in 1958. Working at Brookhaven National Laboratory, a U.S. nuclear research lab located on the site of the old Camp Upton Army base in Upton, Long Island, William Alfred Higinbotham notices that people attending the annual autumn Visitor’s Day, held to show the public how safe the work going on there is, are bored with the displays of simple photographs and static equipment. The exhibits are made purposefully obtuse to avoid revealing the country’s nuclear secrets.
“Willie”, as he is invariably known around the lab, was born in Bridgeport, Conn. in 1911, the son of a Presbyterian minister. Graduating from Williams College as a physics major, he continued with graduate studies at Cornell University. From there he joined the Radiation Laboratory staff at MIT as an electronics specialist. 1941 saw Higinbotham ensconced with a team of scientists working on a top secret project known as radio detecting and ranging, which resulted in U.S. warplanes equipped with the first airborne system, the name of which is shortened to RADAR. In December of 1943, Higinbotham was assigned to the Los Alamos research facility in New Mexico, working alongside J. Robert Oppenheimer where he helped build timing circuits, essentially the trigger for the Manhattan Project, and was witness to the first detonation of the atomic bomb. This terrifying event would shape Higinbotham in later years, becoming a strident opponent of the use of nuclear weapons and their proliferation, as well as advocating strict civilian oversight of atomic power via the Atomic Energy Commission, which he helps to create. Joining BNL when it opened in 1947, by 1958 Higinbotham is a 47 year-old, bespectacled, chain-smoking, virtuoso accordion playing, fun-loving character and self-confessed pinball player who wants to develop a dynamic open house exhibit that will entertain people as they learn.
Reading a description in a manual, Higinbotham discovers that an analog computer at the facility, the Donner Analog Computer Model 30, can be used to calculate ballistic missile trajectories. His idea is to modify the desktop-sized computer in the lab to display the trajectory of a moving ball on an oscilloscope, the direction of which users can control, creating a game resembling tennis. As head of Brookhaven’s Instrumentation Division, and being used to building such complicated electronic devices as radiation detectors, it’s no problem for Higinbotham, along with Technical Specialist Robert V. Dvorak who actually assembles the device, to create in three weeks the game system they name Tennis for Two, and it debuts with other exhibits in the Brookhaven gymnasium at the next visitor’s day on October 18, 1958. In the rudimentary side-view tennis game, the ball bounces off a long horizontal line at the bottom of the oscilloscope, and there is a small vertical line in the centre to represent the net. Two boxes each with a dial and a button are the controllers…the dials affect the angle of the ball trajectory and the buttons “hit” the ball back to the other side of the screen. If the player doesn’t curve the ball right it crashes into the net and slowly bounces to a stop in a remarkable model of physics. Wind speed is also taken into account, and net height and court length are both adjustable. A toggle switch is available to make the ball reappear on either side of the screen ready to be sent into play again. No score is tabulated, and it is displayed in glorious phosphor monochrome on a puny 5″ oscilloscope screen, but it is still a big hit with everyone who visits the display. Hundreds of people crowd around waiting in line for hours to play it, while the static exhibits of other scientists sit ignored.
No Patent Sought
The game reappears for the next year’s open-house in 1959, and modifications include a larger 17″ monitor to display the action, a button to increase the “force” of a serve, and changeable gravity effects to show what it would be like to play tennis on another planet. After this final appearance, the system is then dismantled and its components put to other uses. Higinbotham doesn’t seek a patent on his invention, although watching the crowds line up to play the game gives him and his team an inkling of its wider potential. The U.S. government has no interest in pursuing video games, however. Higinbotham’s testimony is called upon years later during legal attempts to break the Magnavox video game patent obtained through the development of their Odyssey home game console. While Higinbotham’s set-up would seem to predict electronic ping-pong games such as those featured on the Odyssey and in Atari’s PONG, the courts eventually rule against it as a viable videogame system and every company later hoping to enter the market ends up paying some sort of settlement to Magnavox.
In the Court
The exact nature of Tennis for Two has been called into question by some; Brookhaven National Labs and David Ahl both uphold the importance of Higinbotham’s accomplishments. Ahl recalls playing the game during his tour of Brookhaven in his teens as a Grumman scholarship winner, during one of the open houses. Ahl goes on to found Creative Computing, an early, influential magazine on the personal computer industry. On the other side is Ralph Baer, filer of the first home videogame patent for what would become the Odyssey by Magnavox, the first home videogame console. During many years of litigation defending his patent, Baer learns of Higinbotham’s creation, and he describes it as a simple, oscilloscope-based ballistics demonstration. It has also been stated by David Potter, a colleague of Higinbotham involved in the initial design of Tennis for Two, that a high school student attending the demonstration of the game seemed particularly interested in its design. So much so that he later requested the schematics, schematics that Higinbotham then provided. Later it is learned by the pair that this young man grew up to become president of one of the first companies producing TV games in the PONG era. The name of this precocious entrepreneur, and how his involvement might have been overlooked during the Magnavox litigation, is lost to history. Unfortunately, the man at the centre of the “PONG” controversy cannot speak for himself: William Higinbotham, first chairman of the Federation of American Scientists and owner of 20 patents concerning electronic circuits, passes away from emphysema on November 10, 1994, at the age of 84.
Sources (Click to view; inert links are kept for historical purposes)
Independent Press Telegram, “Wonderful Willie from Brookhaven” by Robert P. Goldman, pgs. 17 – 18, May 18, 1958
North Adams Transcript, “Secretary McNamara, Gen. Norstad, 6 Others Honored by Williams”, pg. eight, June 10, 1963
Brookhaven National Laboratory
Low Bit Games – William Linn
Pong: The official site devoted to the PONG story
Video Games: One More Patent Couldn’t Hurt
Computer History Museum
Atomic Fragments: A Daughter’s Questions, by Mary Palevsky
Video Games turn 50 – CBC News
Image of Potter and Higinbotham and other information from Creative Computing VIdeo & Arcade Games, “Who Really Invented the Video Game”, by John Anderson, pgs. 8, 10 – 11, Vol. 1 No. 1 Spring 1983
Tribute to William Higinbotham, Inventor of PONG – fas.org/cp/pong_fas.htm
The Origins of Video Games – eci2.ucsb.edu/~geoff/origins.html
DOE Research and Development Accomplishments – kratos.osti.gov:85/
Altoona Mirror, Obituaries, “Video Game Pioneer”, pg. B3, November 16, 1994