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How It All Began

Laying The Foundation of Video Game History

The history of the video game industry is a ruthless story about hardship, backstabbing, stolen ideas, unethical business tactics, smear campaigns, controversy and lawsuits. From the very beginning of commercial video gaming you will see borrowed ideas which are slightly altered to avoid lawsuits and to turn a profit.

Many people believe that Nolan Bushnell, the founder of Atari created the first video game and has even been referred to as the father of video games. It is true that Nolan Bushnell plays a large role in video game history as he was the first person to be successful in commercializing a video game but he is not responsible for the creation of the first video game. The video game industry is plagued with misconceptions as people tend to believe what they hear, so let’s take a look at how it all began.

To tell the story about the creation of the first video game and how it all began we have to go back before the days of Atari, before the days of the video arcades and before the days of pong. The origin of video games is complicated and depending on what you considers a video game the origin can be traced back to the 1940’s in early cathode ray tube based missile defense systems. 

On January 25, 1947 Thomas T. Goldsmith, Jr. and Estle Ray Mann filed for a patent on a device called the “Cathode-Ray Tube Amusement Device” which was issued on December 14, 1948 thus making it the earliest-documented video game on record.

Goldsmith and Mann’s cathode-ray tube based game was inspired by the radar displays used in World War II. The “Cathode-Ray Tube Amusement Device” allows a player control of the CRT’s electron gun much like an Etch-A-Sketch. The beam from the gun is focused at a single point on the screen to form a dot representing a missile, and the player tries to control the dot to hit paper targets on the screen, with all hits detected mechanically. The device required players to use overlay pictures of targets such as airplanes in front of the screen with only the dot from the CRT’s electron gun being displayed on the screen.

Cathode-Ray Tube Amusement Device Patent
Cathode-Ray Tube Amusement Device Patent – Filed on January 25, 1947 and issued on December 14, 1948

There are a lot of people that view this as an electronic toy more than a video game but this is subjective and open for interpretation. Though this device did not use any computer hardware nor did it produce graphics through a video signal it did allow players to play a simple game that was displayed on the same CRT technology that was used in television sets thus marking the beginning of a new age of cathode-ray tube technology and what they could be used for. Up until this new device any type of display was simply used for viewing purposes but this device allowed changes to what was happening on the display, it was interactive. No matter if you view this as a video game or an electronic toy one thing is certain, it helped lay the foundation of what has become one of the largest and most profitable entertainment industries in the world.

The next major milestone in video gaming history takes place three years later in 1951 when Ferranti International first displayed there Nimrod computer at the Festival of Britain’s Exhibition of Science. The Nimrod was the first digital computer exclusively designed to play a game though its true intention was to demonstrate the processing power of the new computing device. The device played the game of Nim, a two player mathematical game of strategy in which players take turns removing objects from piles until the last object is obtained. Unlike the “Cathode-Ray Tube amusement Device” the Nimrod computer did not use a Cathode-Ray Tube display but used a set of fixed lights that turned on and off for a visual to describe what was happening throughout the gameplay.

Nimrod Computer
Nimrod computer, first digital computer exclusively designed to play a game - 1951

In 1952, Alexander S. Douglas a computer science professor at the University of Cambridge wrote a thesis while working towards earning his PhD which focused on human-computer interactions and he needed an example to prove his theories. Douglas had access to an Electronic Delay Storage Automatic Calculator (EDSAC) which was one of two stored-program computers that existed at the time. This provided Douglas with the opportunity to prove his findings by programming a simple game where a player could compete against a computer.

Douglas went on to create” OXO” the first graphical computer game in 1952 also known as “Noughts and Crosses” which was a tic-tac-toe computer game. “OXO” was the first digital graphical game to run on a computer and the simulation was played using a rotary telephone controller. “OXO” was a single player game where a player would play against the computer. The creation of OXO did not spark widespread popularity because the EDSAC was a computer unique only to Cambridge and could not be replicated elsewhere.

Electronic Delay Storage Automatic Calculator (EDSAC), OXO First Digital Graphical Game To Run on a Computer - 1952

It would be six years later before the world would see the next breakthrough in gaming history and the creation of the first two player video game. William Higinbotham a physicist at Brookhaven Lab’s in New York realized how most of the science exhibits were non-interactive and he wanted to change that. In the spirit to attract more attention to the annual visitor’s day at Brookhaven Higinbotham had the idea to create a tennis computer game where two players could compete against each other.

Higinbotham had access to an analog computer which Brookhaven Labs used for solving mathematical problems. The computer came with an instruction manual showing basic programing and how it could be programmed to simulate a ball bouncing which inspired Higinbotham to create a two player tennis game. Higinbotham used this analog computer and an oscilloscope to create this game titled “Tennis for Two” which was used to entertain visitors at the Brookhaven National Laboratory. “Tennis for Two” displayed a simplified tennis court from the side and featured a gravity controlled ball that needed to be played over the net. The game was played with two box shaped controllers, both equipped with a knob for trajectory and a button for hitting the ball.

Tennis for Two” was first introduced on October 18, 1958 and was a huge success on visitor’s day. The exhibit was setup in the gymnasium and hundreds of people lined up just waiting for a turn to try out Higinbotham’s new creation. The game was exhibited for two seasons before it was dismantled in 1959.

Higinbotham never applied for a patent because he knew if he did it would have belonged to the federal government and he would not have seen any money for his creation. Higinbotham stated that the main reason he did not file for a patent was that at the time the game did not seem to be any more novel than the bouncing ball simulation that was in the instruction manual that came with the computer he used to program his game. The equipment that went into his game also weighed several hundred pounds and was very expensive so he did not see it as being something that could be massed produced.

“Tennis for Two” displayed on an oscilloscope at Brookhaven Lab’s in New York - 1958

A group of students at M.I.T. in 1962 created a game which is credited as the first influential computer game, “Spacewar!”. Steve Russell, Martin Graetz and Wayne Witaenem conceived of the game in 1961 with the intent of implementing it on a DEC PDP-1 computer at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Russell began programing and by February 1962 after 200 man hours of work he had produced his first version.

The game places two players against each other where each player is responsible for controlling a spaceship. The game has two armed spaceships called “the needle” and “the wedge” and the mission is to shoot your opponent while maneuvering around the environment. The students discovered that the debugger program generated random pixels on the screen which resembled stars. They simulated the real constellation with moving stars and variable luminance. The students found the game lacked any real challenge so they added the gravity star, often referred to as the sun which attracts the spaceships in its gravitational pull. The ships fired missiles that were unaffected by gravity due to technical limitations with processing time. Each ship was given a limited number of missiles and a limited supply of fuel.

The purpose of the game is for the player to shoot down the opponent’s ship while avoiding colliding with the star. The controls of the game included clockwise and counterclockwise rotations, thrust, fire and hyperspace. The hyperspace feature could be used by a player as a last ditch effort to avoid enemy missiles but the re-entry from hyperspace would occur at random locations in the game which increased the probability of the ship exploding with each use. The original control setup used front panel test switches, with four switches for each player.

“Spacewar!” has been credited as the first influential computer game - 1962

Spacewar!” was seen as a good overall diagnostic test and great example of what the PDP-1 computer could output. DEC decided to use it for factory testing and shipped their PDP-1 computers to customers with “Spacewar!” already loaded into the core memory of the unit. This gave the ability to do field testing when the PDP-1 computer was fully setup by the field representative.

With DEC shipping their PDP-1 computers with “Spacewar!” preloaded this gave other individuals the ability to access the game and inspire future development of video games. “Spacewar!” became extremely popular in the 1960’s and was widely ported to other systems and platforms. “Spacewar!” inspired future video game creators and paved the way for very similar video games to be created which led for the creation of the first coin operated video game in 1971.

Kotok, Russell, Graetz playing Spacewar
Alan Kotok, Steve Russell & Martin Graetz play “Spacewar!“ at the Computer Museum

So far, none of the games mentioned were ever released to the general public or commercialized due to the expense of the technology that was needed for these games to be played. These games were created with no commercial potential in mind as they were experiments in university labs. It wasn’t until 1966 when Ralph Baer came up with the idea to create a gaming system that would work on a standard television set with inexpensive materials.

It was technically 1951 when Baer first conceived of the idea to create a game that could be played on a television set but at the time it was not for the purpose to create a commercialized game but to demonstrate what televisions were capable of doing. When he was designing a television set at Loral Electronics in 1951 he proposed the idea of creating a built in game to differentiate their television sets from their competition. Management at Loral Electronics passed on the idea and Baer would not revisit his idea until 1966 while working at Sanders Associates Inc.

In 1966, thoughts about playing games using an ordinary television set started to make perfect sense to Baer. There were about 40 million television sets in the homes of America not to mention the rest of the world and Baer seen the potential to create an affordable gaming system that would be marketed to the general public. It was in August of 1966 while Baer was on a business trip in New York that he started planning out the details around his idea to create the first television set gaming device. 

While waiting at a bus terminal for another Sanders engineer to arrive in town for a meeting with a client, Baer took the opportunity to write down some notes on the subject of using standard home television sets to play games. The following morning he turned his notes that he written down into a four page paper which described the idea of playing television games on a home television set. The document listed various types of games that might be playable using a standard television set, such as action games, board games, sports games, chase games and many others. Baer was creating what is now known as video game genres even before a system was created. The four paged document is now located at the Smithsonian along with all of the game hardware that was created over the next three years.

What Baer originally had in mind was to develop a small game box that would play simplistic games and perhaps cost $25 at retail. He asked one of the engineers in his division at Sanders Associates to read, date and sign the document he created as this was a standard procedure to establish a legal record. This document was used years later in 1974 in Federal Courts in Chicago, San Francisco, New York, Ottawa and many other cities in pursuit of patent infringement which would result in millions of dollars changing hands.

Sanders Associates was a military electronics company and video games had absolutely nothing to do with the normal business of developing complex military electronic systems. At the time Baer was a Division Manager and Chief Engineer for Equipment Design at Sanders were he ran eight departments with up to 500 technical and support personnel. He also supervised much of the internal research and development work at Sanders. Baer was running a large operation at the time and could afford to utilize a technician to do some experimental work without affecting his division’s productivity. After a few demonstrations to the Corporate Director of Research & Development at Sanders it wasn’t long before the project became official and would eventually payoff very handsomely for Sanders.

The development of the gaming device continued through 1968 with most of the work being done by two engineers, Bill Harrison and Bill Rusch. Both of these engineers made important contributions to the game concept as Baer supervised the activity which was being done at Sanders Canal Street building in Nashua, New Hampshire. Several game systems were developed which allowed them to play different types of sports games such as Ping-Pong, volleyball, handball, soccer, hockey and several others. They also developed a light-gun which could be used to shoot at targets on the screen of the television set. Though this was not the first light gun game it was the first light gun developed to work on a television set , the first to be used in a video game and was the first video game peripheral.

By late 1968 Baer finished building their final demonstration game system, the “Brown Box”. It was switch programmable and played a large number of sports, maze and quiz games. The system also had several games based on the light-gun which was created and gave the ability to shoot at stationary or moving targets displayed on the screen.

Brown Box
Baer’s “Brown Box” created at Sanders Associates in 1968

The system was finally complete and the technology that went into the system was something that could be massed produced at a reasonable cost to allow for it to be marketed to the general public. Baer tried to introduce video games to the cable television industry in 1968 but was not successful. He then proceeded to approach American television manufacturers throughout 1969 in hopes that they would be interested in this new concept. The “Brown Box” was demonstrated to representatives at RCA, Sylvania, GE and Motorola but no one was willing to take the risk involved in marketing the new concept to the general public.

Representatives from Magnavox went to Sanders Associates in Nashua, New Hampshire where Baer and his team demonstrated the “Brown Box” for them. The reactions were overwhelmingly favorable but still it was seen as a large risk for Magnavox and they held off on moving forward. Two years later in 1971 Magnavox revisited the idea of television gaming and finally took a license from Sander Associates. Their 1972 Odyssey home video game system, a production engineered version of the “Brown Box” was the result. This was the first home video game console and was the beginning of the home video game market which is now a multibillion dollar industry.