Category Archives: Spacewar!

A Jedi and His Lightsaber

In front of a Destination Moon poster stands author E.E. Smith, SF author whose works were an inspiration for the video game Spacewar!

E.E. Smith in front of poster for Destination Moon, 1950


This picture always blows me away. On the face of it, it is an image of E.E. Smith attending the premiere of Destination Moon, a SF extravaganza made by George Pal Studios and released in 1950. Sorry, we’ll get to the Star Wars stuff soon enough, but the ramifications of this photo cause my mind to fly off in as many directions as an asteroid belt.

The 1950’s weren’t exactly known for their level-headed science fiction films, but Destination Moon kicked off the decade with a sober, then-realistic portrayal of man’s first trip to the Moon. Adapted from his short story of the same name, Robert A. Heinlein also worked on the script, and the result was the most technically accurate portrayal of possible space flight on film until Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey in 1968. No Amazonian moon-women, no bug-eyed aliens… just four men going to the moon in a nuclear powered rocket and striving to make it back to Earth safely.

E.E. Smith is considered the godfather of the space opera. A food chemist by trade, on the side he authored books with titles like The Skylark of Space and the later Lensmen, released from the 1920’s through to the 60’s. These would be initially serialized in the flagship SF literary magazine Amazing Stories and become hugely popular. They dealt with stoic heroes involved in vast interstellar space battles, and a gang of proto-geeks at MIT in the early 60’s were so heavily influenced by the vast cosmic conflagrations in Smith’s stories that they created an early computer video game around the premise and called it Spacewar! It was the space opera genre into which George Lucas would also delve, releasing his Star Wars movie in 1977. Also dealing with stoic heroes wrapped up in interstellar space battles, the original trilogy of Star Wars movies would change the shape of film-making forever.

An elegant weapon

An elegant weapon


Now, let’s take a closer look at Smith’s hands. He is holding a Graflex camera, with a flash attachment. When Lucas created Star Wars, he armed his Jedi and Sith Knights with lightsabers, “a more elegant weapon for a more civilized age”. The prop hilts of these fantastic laser swords were created for the film by using, yes, Graflex flash attachments.

So, this is a picture from 1950 of E.E. Smith, the literary creator of the rollicking space opera genre that begat Star Wars, holding a lightsaber.

The Force was strong with this one.



Spacewar!: A Spin Around the Sun

Created by a group of hackers at MIT in 1962, the pull of Spacewar! on nascent computer gamers was as strong as the gravity well of the blazing sun in the game.

I’d like to say that Steve Russell “led” the group that developed the game, but he didn’t earn the nickname “Slug” for his programming alacrity. The rest of the team, consisting of Wayne Witanen, J. Martin Graetz, Alan Kotok, Peter Samson and Dan Edwards had to prod Russell every inch of the way, constantly throwing in pieces of the programming puzzle to skirt around the roadblocks Russell would profess were preventing him from continuing.

When they were finished, they had 9K worth of rolled-up paper-tape program that would create the foundation of the entire video game industry. Over a field of stars, two spaceships face off in a duel with limited missile supplies and fuel.  Besides each other, players would also have to avoid the bending gravity of a central star, eager to pull them down to their destruction. The game was such a hit around MIT that playing it was banned during school hours, and copies of the program were included by Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC) with each installation of the computer system Spacewar! was created on: the PDP-1.

Image of A PDP-1 minicomputer, the same model used in the creation of Spacewar!

The PDP-1 computer by DEC

Spacewar! influenced later games made by entrepreneurs intent on creating the video game industry, including Computer Space in 1971, the first mass-produced arcade video game, made by future Atari co-founders Nolan Bushnell and Ted Dabney. It also inspired Larry Rosenthal, creator of the first vector game Space Wars in 1977, as well as Ed Logg, creator of 1979’s phenomenally successful Asteroids. Spacewar! blazed forth from the minds of those early computer hackers at MIT, lighting the way for others to follow.

For more information on the history of Spacewar!, consult your local Dot Eaters entry.

Image of Spacewar! running on a PDP-1 monitor

Spacewar! Reduex

In 1962, Steve “Slug” Russell and bunch of his buddy hackers created Spacewar! on a DEC PDP-1 mainframe computer at MIT, and went down in history as creating the first widely distributed, fully interactive video game.

On my site I’ve linked to an online version of the original, running on a PDP-1 emulator written in Javascript in 1997.  The creators of this homage have recently upgraded the code to Java/HTML5. Why not put a buddy in front of your computer with you and see what fragging a friend felt like when Kennedy was President?

For more information on Spacewar! and those kooky hackers that made it, consult your local TDE article here.

Play Spacewar! online.