First video game Tennis for Two

Tennis for Two, top video game technology... for 1958

Tennis For Two - Precursors

Higinbotham/BNL 1958

Serving Video Games: Tennis for Two

Before William Higinbotham’s fateful creation of early video game Tennis for Two, 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 Tennis for Two, something that approaches what we would recognize and refer to today as a video game.

William A. Higinbotham, creator of one of the first video games

William A. Higinbotham, developer af early video game Tennis for Two

William Higinbotham and the Palaeolithic “PONG” Game Tennis for Two

While it is as far from the commercial videogame systems like Atari PONG 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 a game he calls Tennis for Two, 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 in 1932 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 (RADAR), which resulted in U.S. warplanes equipped with the first such airborne system. In 1962, denizens of the fabled Building 20 at MIT, a “temporary” structure built in 1943 to house the “Rad Lab” of which Higinbotham was a part, would help create another precursor video game system, titled Spacewar!

In December of 1943, Higinbotham was assigned to the Los Alamos National Lab 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 had an immediate impact on Higinbotham, and would continue to shape his views throughout his life. He becomes 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.

The Original Video Game?

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 draw bouncing balls. His idea is to modify the desktop-sized computer in the lab to display 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 counters, Higinbotham takes about two hours to create a rough design for the game. Along with Technical Specialist Robert V. Dvorak who actually assembles the device, in three weeks Higinbotham’s team finishes 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.

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

Screenshot of a historical reenactment of Tennis for Two, Brookhaven Labs

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 at the selected angle 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 Tennis for Two is still a big hit with everyone who visits the display. Higinbotham, along with David Potter, a fellow colleague at BNL who helps tweak the original design of Tennis for Two, watch hundreds of people crowd around waiting in line for hours to play the game. Their joy at watching their work become, by far, the most popular exhibit in the open house is tempered somewhat with disappointment… as the static exhibits of fellow scientists sit ignored by visitors.

Recreation of Tennis for Two, Brookhaven National Labs, 2008

No Patent Sought for the William Higinbotham Video Game

Tennis for Two 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. Tennis for Two would later be recreated, using Higinbotham’s original design schematics. Built at BNL by researchers Scott Coburn, Gene Von Achen and Peter Takacs and presented in 2008, the project is done to celebrate the original video game’s 50th anniversary.

Researchers at Brookhaven National Labs recreate the original video game, Tennis for Two, in 2008

Creators of the recreation of Tennis forTwo. L.-R.: Scott Coburn, Gene Von Achen and Peter Takacs, 2008

Higinbotham doesn’t seek a patent on his original video game Tennis for Two, 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 also has no interest in pursuing video games. The ramifications are apparent, however, as 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.

David Potter (left) and William Higinbotham, designers of an early video game system, in 1983

David Potter (left) and William Higinbotham, creators of the original video game, 1983

PONG vs. Odyssey: In the Court of Tennis for Two

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 original video game Tennis for Two, and he describes it as a simple, oscilloscope-based ballistics demonstration. It has also been stated by David Potter 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 went on 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. Still, Tennis for Two‘s early milepost on the road to video game development cannot be overlooked. Within 14 years we’d get the first popular arcade video game Pong, by the company that would become Atari. 23 years after Tennis for Two Mario would jump into popular consciousness in Nintendo’s Donkey Kong. And 36 years past Tennis for Two we’d get Sony’s original PlayStation. And on and on it goes. Hopefully.

Retiring from BNL in 1984, William Higinbotham, first chairman of the Federation of American Scientists and owner of 20 patents concerning electronic circuits… as well as the inventor of the precursor video game Tennis for Two…  passes away in Gainesville, GA. from emphysema on November 10, 1994, at the age of 84.  logo_stop

William Higinbotham, designer of the original video game

William Higinbotham in 1984

Sources (Click to view)

Independent Press Telegram, “Wonderful Willie from Brookhaven” by Robert P. Goldman, pgs. 17 – 18, May 18, 1958 Images of Higinbotham on accordion, writing on chalk board, combing daughter’s hair and working on computer at Brookhaven. Other info: He [Higinbotham] was born in Bridgeport, Conn. “My father was a Presbyterian minister…” ;At Williams College he majored in physics. ;…he did graduate work at Cornell for four years. ;…when he [Higinbotham] joined the Radiation Laboratory staff of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology as an electronics specialist. ;In 1941, Willie and a team of scientists were assigned to a hush-hush radar project. Less than a year later, American planes were flying with the first airborne radar. The viewing scope in their planes was largely Willie’s work. ;In December, 1943, Willie shifted to Los Alamos, N.M., to work on the atomic bomb. He oversaw the design of an electronic device which, in effect, “pulled the trigger” of the A-bomb. He also invented the Higinbotham Scaler, which counts impulses given off by radiation and is used in Geiger counters. ;After World War II, Willie took his deep convictions to Washington… He stayed two years, long enough to work with the late Sen. Brien McMahon on a bill which created the Atomic Energy Commission. In addition, Willie helped man the National Committee on Atomic Information, which disseminated fact to the U.S. public about the atom. He was a founder and first chairman of the Federation of American Scientists.
“Willy Higinbotham.” The Miami Herald 16 Nov. 1994: 4B. Web. 26 July 2021. Higinbotham worked on the Manhattan Project at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico. A witness to the first atomic bomb detonation, he was first chairman of the Federation of American Scientists, a group founded immediately after World War II to try to prevent nuclear war and the spread of atomic weapons.
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

“Physicist William Higinbotham, Advocate of Nuclear Arms Control.” The Palm Beach Post (AP News Wire) 15 Nov. 1994: 8B. Web. 26 July 2021. “It took me about two hours to rough out the design and a couple of weeks to get it debugged and working,” he (Higinbotham] said in an interview in 1983. “It didn’t take long, and it was a big hit.”
Mintz, Phil. “A Little Blip of Computer History.” Newsday (Suffolk Edition) [Melville, New York] 01 Mar. 1984: 7. Web. 25 July 2021. “It was far and away the most popular exhibit. Everyone stood in line to play it.”
“Lab to Honor Video Game’s 50th Year.” Newsday [New York, New York] 22 Oct. 2008: A39. Web. 25 July 2021. 1984 image of Higinbotham leaning on files, 2008 image of group of T4T recreators. Other info: He [David Potter] recalls how disappointed he and Higinbotham felt when they realized that the game distracted visitors from serious, scientific demonstrations.
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 –
The Origins of Video Games –
DOE Research and Development Accomplishments –
Altoona Mirror, Obituaries, “Video Game Pioneer”, pg. B3, November 16, 1994
Staff Writers. “W. Higinbotham; Nuclear Physicist.” Democrat and Chronicle [Rochester, New York] 11 Dec. 1994: 10F. Web. 26 July 2021. William A. Higinbotham…. died Nov. 10 of emphysema at his home in Gainesville, Ga. Higinbotham graduated from Williams College in 1932. ;Higinbotham spent 47 years at Brookhaven from 1947 until his retirement in 1984…

Comments >>

  1. avatarAnonymous

    Technically, this may be the first ”interactive electronic game DISPLAYING GRAPHICS” but if you ignore the graphics part, the first interactive electronic game was most likely OXO, which was released 6 years before Tennis for Two.

    That’s the challenge for gaming historians, to be careful how one DESCRIBES what type of game it is. Some people don’t pay attention and call something ”first” of this or that when, in reality, it isn’t.

    The most common mistake, which lives to this day, is when people call Pong the first ever Arcade game when, in fact, it was the first ”commercially successful” one, not the first overall. Just look at how many youtubers get it wrong!

    1. avatarWilliam

      You’re right about definitions, which is why I describe Tennis for Two as the first game with what would be recognized as a modern video game.

      And further for PONG, a lot of people say the correct answer is Nolan Bushnell’s Computer Space as the first coin-op video game, which he made the year previous to PONG. But two guys at Stanford made their own version of Spacewar! called Galaxy Game and installed it at Tresidder Union there, a couple of months before Computer Space came out. And again, as you say, we can quibble: Galaxy Game was run on a PDP-10 that cost about $20,000, so no one could say it was any kind of commercially viable game that could be mass produced at scale… unlike Computer Space.


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