The Early History of Video Games: From Blips to Blasters
A recreation of the original Tennis For Two.
CREDIT: Brookhaven National Laboratory
Video games are incredibly popular and have become a multi-billion-dollar industry. On home consoles produced by Microsoft, Sony and Nintendo, gamers can play a wide variety of video games, including first-person shooters, role-playing games, simulation games, puzzles, sports games and many other genres.
But who invented video games and what was the first video game? Here's a look at how they got started.
The first video games
The first computers were developed in the 1930s and '40s. They were huge devices that filled entire rooms. During World War II, computers had been used to calculate ballistics trajectories, decode messages and perform other tasks for the war effort. After the war, programmers began to develop ways to demonstrate what else computers could do. The idea of computers as entertainment devices came out of those demonstrations.
In 1947, Thomas T. Goldsmith Jr. and Estle Ray Mann filed a patent for a "cathode ray tube amusement device." With this device, users could press buttons and turn knobs to manipulate a cathode ray tube beam to fire at moving targets. An overlay put on the screen of the cathode ray tube laid out the game field. The device was never released to the marketplace.
The "video" portion of games originated with Charley Adama's "Bouncing Ball" program in 1949, made with a Whirlwind computer at MIT. It simulated an image of a bouncing ball on a screen, but it was not interactive.
Two years later, Christopher Strachey produced a checkers program for the Pilot ACE. Though the program required more memory than that computer could handle, Strachey improved the coding later that year for a computer with a larger storage capacity.
Later that year, Ralph Baer, whom many would deem the "father of video games," attempted to work with electronics company Loral on a program using lights and patterns into interactive play. Unfortunately, his supervisor squashed the idea at the time, though Baer would revisit it at a later time.
In 1952, A.S. Douglas at the University of Cambridge managed to produce a visual version of Tic-Tac-Toe, demonstrating how players could interact with computer-generated intelligence (AI) in a competition.
But 1958 saw a major step in video game innovation: Tennis for Two was created by William Higinbotham and played on an oscilloscope at Brookhaven National Laboratory. Tennis for Two had a two-dimensional, side view of a tennis court, with a net, on an oscilloscope screen. The ball, a brightly lit, moving dot, left trails as it bounced to alternating sides of the net. Players served and volleyed using controllers with buttons and rotating dials to control the angle of an invisible tennis racquet’s swing. Tennis for Two was on display at the lab for about two years, but it was eventually dismantled. It was a precursor to Pong, the game that became an arcade sensation decades later.
In the 1960s, video games as we know them began to take shape. At MIT, several interactive graphical programs were written for the TX-0 computer, including Mouse in the Maze, HAX and Tic-Tac-Toe. In 1962, MIT student Steve Russell developed a game called Spacewar! in which two players tried to destroy the other's ship by firing missiles and trying to avoid the giant sun in the middle of the screen.
In 1971, the first coin-operated game was installed at Stanford University. Called Galaxy Game, it was based on Spacewar! It was a one-of-a-kind machine but became popular and was eventually expanded to be able to handle up to eight consoles.
Spacewar! inspired another businessman, Nolan Bushnell, and his partner Ted Dabney, who made a full coin-operated unit for mass production called Computer Space. The game was bought by Nutting Associates, which manufactured 1,500 game machines. Although the game was a bit unsuccessful because of its complicated control scheme, it was nevertheless the first mass-produced video game and the first to be offered for commercial sale.
In 1972, Bushnell founded Atari, Inc., with Dabney and created a game called Pong, with paddle-and-ball set-up similar to Tennis for Two. After a successful test at Andy Capp's, a small bar in Sunnyvale, Calif. (where the machine actually stopped working because it was overloaded with quarters), it went into production and sold 19,000 units – an unprecedented number at the time.
In 1975, another company, Taito, stepped onto the scene, creating an on-foot multi-directional shooting game called Gun Fight. It was adapted for the U.S. market by Midway and utilized an Intel 8080 microprocessor – the first of its kind. That technology would become significant for Taito's next game, a little something known as Space Invaders.
The first home consoles
In 1966, Ralph Baer, having been shot down before, returned to action by teaming with co-worker Bill Harrison on a game called Chase, which was displayed on a standard television set. Shortly thereafter, Baer and Harrison produced a home entertainment system prototype, the "Brown Box," which included a rifle that acted as a light gun.
The prototype featured such games as table tennis and target shooting, and introduced the first active video game entertainment system for the home. Baer and Harrison's employer, Sanders Associates, a military electronics contractor, later showed off the console to manufacturers.
Magnavox eventually licensed the technology in 1972, calling it the Magnavox Odyssey. The system used different cartridges in order to play various games. It turned out to be a rather big hit, with over 100,000 units sold that year. And it would eventually lay down the framework for Bushnell and Atari to follow suit with its own console, the Atari 2600.
At this stage, video games were about to become the entertainment juggernaut they have become. But let's pause here before exploring the next level in the evolution of video games, which will come in a later article.