Picture used under permission of The Atari Historical Society.

 



PONG simulation by and (C) Martin Goldberg.
Click to start, move using your mouse.

Developed with the assistance of Alan Alcorn.
External use is strictly prohibited without
prior approval of Martin Goldbeg.

Introduction:

PONG arcade machines started in late 1972 with Atari PONG which had an immediate success, resulting in around 19,000 PONG machines sold. Soon after PONG entered the one year old video game market, numerous companies copied the game (an easy task as it was built with simple electronic chips and a regular TV set). Atari's first PONG license was sold to Allied Leisure who released the game under the name of Paddle Battle. Because Allied Leisure could not make the electronic boards, the company contracted Universal Research Labs (URL) to manufacture the boards (early Paddle Battle boards show an URL copyright). However, the competition did not take long to get strong and one of its immediate effects were the release of Wimbledon by Nutting Associates in early 1973, a four-player PONG game in color (this company released the first successful arcade machine in 1971: Computer Space). Atari didn't have enough time to release PONG Doubles, the equivalent in black and white. Many companies released arcade PONG machines between 1973 and the late 1970s: Amutronics, Bally, Midway, Meadows, Nutting Associates, Ramtek, Taito, Williams, etc. Some PONG clones could play against the players. Some others played variants such as Football and Hockey. Some more advanced even played PONG games in a "Breakout" mode where the ball would destroy a number of squares placed on the game field between the players. The PONG saga had an enormous success during these years, until more advanced games appeared in 1975 after what PONG left the market to leave the place for other games named Tank, Indy 500, Space Invaders, PacMan, etc.

You will find a very nice testimony of somebody discovering a PONG game in 1973 at the bottom of this page (author unknown, text retrieved from a broken forum).

Atari released the first arcade version of PONG in late 1972. The photo on the top of this page shows the very first prototype which was placed at Andy Capp's Cavern. Soon after, Atari launched the commercial version of PONG: the famous "yellow" cabinet. Earlier specimens had silver knobs whereas later ones had black knobs. Although some collectors prefer the first version, this kind of difference does not change the importance of PONG in the video game history, nor does it change the value of this game. The machines were numbered at the manufacturing plant and a lot of people say erratic things about the serial numbers of their machines. Nolan Buschnell (who designed Atari PONG) explained that the serials were encoded to avoid guessing how many machines were manufactured. Serials start with two same letters followed by three or four digits. The first machines to roll off the assembly line were numbered ZZ-001 through ZZ-999, then AA-001 through AA-999, then YY-001 through YY-999 and then back to BB-001 through BB-999 and so on. Thus, the very first machine had serial ZZ-001 (see it at the Atari Historical Society) and those with serials starting with AA have machine between #1000 and #1999. Those with YY have a machine between #2000 and #2999.

Pictured left: original Atari PONG upright from David Winter's collection. This nice specimen looks almost as new and has not been refurbished. It was made in 1973, has the second generation coin slot and black knobs.

Atari PONG electronic circuits:

Unlike modern video games, PONG did not use a CPU, nor did it produce graphics with pixels. Every object put on the screen was generated by timing circuits used to encode the video signal and turn it on or off depending on its location. The global schematic of PONG can seem complicated, but in fact every section is not very hard to understand once the main operation is understood. Moreover, PONG happens to have one ghost hole on the upper left corner of the screen where the ball can only pass, and it even has a bug in the bounce circuitry (the schematic is correct, but the pcb has a mistake).
Those willing to understand PONG in detail should read the excellent PDF file written by Hugo Holden. Every section is dissected and explained with captions. This is so far the most detailed technical document about this game.

 

Early designs:

Before talking about the numerous PONG arcade machines inspired from Atari PONG, it is interesting to see how some people tried to enter the video game business by reselling improved Atari PONG games in kit form. Click the picture on the left or click here to read more about this.

Pictured left: Gyro PONG upgrade kit, from David Winter's collection. Note the use of joysticks, individual serve buttons and paddle size switches.

Another interesting point is how companies designed early arcade PONG games and derivates. Ramtek is a nice example. They started in 1973 and the circuit boards of their games were hand wire-wrapped. Judge by yourself: click the picture on the left or click here to read more about this.

Pictured left: hand wire-wrapped board as used in a yet unknown Ramtek game, from David Winter's collection.

 

To realize how the PONG business grew in the 1970s, have a look at the pictures below (courtesy of Al Kossow). They show the printed circuit boards of bootleg PONG machines (we still need more photos of the machines themselves).

Board of Chicoin (Chicago Coin) PONG.
Nearly identical to Atari PONG.
Chips are all socketed, making service much easier.

Meadows PONG: probably copied from Atari PONG,
although the board looks totally different.
 


Ramtek PONG.
Another remake, although looking different from Atari PONG.
 

Above: Two boards from arcade PONG cabinets. The one on the left is nearly identical to Atari's one.
The other one has nothing in common. The placement of the chips looks a bit like Meadows PONG.



Atari did a really big mistake at the begining. As a matter of fact, a game without patent has no protection against bootlegers, even if it uses an analog or a digital system without software. Atari did not patent PONG until 1973 and many competitors started making their own version of PONG just a few weeks after the release of Atari's game. Some copies are nearly same, even so similar that the printed circuit board looks identical. However, some other versions were designed from scratch, or at least from basic elements of Atari PONG such as sync, paddle and ball generators.

The photos below show some arcade PONG cabinets (cocktail and upright). The Amutronics TV PING PONG game on the left is very similar to Atari PONG: woodgrain finish, same coin slot, diagonal curring of the front panel.

Left and above: Digital Games Model 474.
It plays games against the machine, which is quite rare.
Up to four players can play together.

Left and above: another cocktail which plays four-player games in simulated (overlaid) color.
 

Left and above: another four-player cocktail PONG clone.
Note the regular television set used as monitor and the main board directly inspired from Atari PONG...
 

Winner IV (4 players)

Bally Playtime (directly copied from
Atari PONG, but with joysticks !)


Let's Play PONG:

In 1973 the population of Duncan, British Columbia was about 5000. Today, nearly 40 years later, it is still around 5000. Duncan is a small town, but it struggles to maintain that small town feel with outlying municipalities springing up subdivisions like mushrooms after a heavy rain. The tiny footprint of the city — all of two traffic lights on the Island Highway as you pass through — is being stamped with every kind of franchise imaginable, from Burger King to Home Depot to casinos and multiple McDonald’s.

But it wasn’t always like this. In the early 1970s the outlying area around the city was largely undeveloped. You could ride your bike (with banana seat, of course) on trails that ran for miles along the Cowichan River. The annual exhibition took place on agricultural land that existed within the city limits. When that first McDonald’s opened in 1978 it signaled the end of an era.

In 1973 one of the popular local eateries was an Italian restaurant called Romeo’s. To my young eyes it was a place of mystery and intrigue, an ‘adult’ restaurant with subdued lighting that made me think of a coal mine (the aesthetics were more appreciated when I got a bit older). The small lobby area, like the rest of the place, was dimly lit and had everything you’d expect — a coat rack, some seats, the stand where the hostess would greet you and take you in. But one day we went in and something new was there. It was a machine unlike any I’d seen before.

I’d heard of Pong and now I was staring directly at it: a cocktail table-style cabinet housing a TV screen, with controls on two sides that consisted of simple knobs. The surface of the table was glass. I watched the strange phosphorous glow of the display, simple lines and a small square of light gently arcing back and forth between two rectangular blocks or ‘paddles’. This was like something from Star Trek. I had to try it!

25 cents for one play. In 1973 and to someone who had yet to hit double digits, 25 cents was a lot of money — more than the cost of a whole candy bar! I rarely had any money on me. My older brother did, though. He regarded me as his personal slave, so it seemed unlikely he’d give or loan me the money to try it out. To my good fortune it turned out that Pong required two players. My brother would pay then ‘force’ me to play against him, keeping the hierarchy of owner/slave intact. Win-win, as far as I was concerned.

I don’t remember how that first game went. I’m going to say I won due to that intuitive little kid video game sense that so many little kids seem to have. What I do remember is how the simple act of turning that knob, seeing the paddle on the TV move in reaction and then hit that little square of light was magic. Magic.

A few years later we got a home Pong unit. My brother, who liked to tinker with electronics, managed to take the controls that were hardwired to the console and break them out into handheld units, allowing us to play without being three feet in front of the TV. We still played sitting three feet in front of the TV because that’s what you did but we had the freedom to move if we wanted to.

Pong led to the first video game system I owned myself — no negotiating with the big brother required! — the Atari VCS (later renamed the 2600). It didn’t come with Pong. The new world of video games moved quickly and already Pong was passť. It didn’t matter. Those early days of ‘electronic tennis’ had already confirmed that I had a new lifelong hobby, one I didn’t even know existed until I saw that glowing screen in Romeo’s when I was nine years old.