demonstration at the
Museum of the Moving Image in
Astoria, Queen, NY.
Sapacewar screen shot (click to enlarge)
The story of PONG (not to be
confused with Tennis, invented by Ralph Baer) started
much earlier than 1972. At the end of the 1960's, Steve Russell's
"Space War" game had been circulating throughout many campus'
and companies' huge and expensive PDP computers.
Nolan Bushnell envisioned this game being played by the masses.
He set to work to build a simpler and less expensive platform to play his
version of Space War... the result was Computer Space. The game
was sold by Nutting Associates, Inc. and would bear the
marking "Syzygy Engineered" to represent Nolan and fellow partner
Ted Dabney's new company: Syzygy, which would later become
officially Incorporated on June 27, 1972 as Atari, Inc. (Nolan
enjoyed playing japanese chess game "Go", where "Check" translated as
"Atari" in Japanese, hence the new company name).
Only 1,500 Computer Spaces were sold and did not meet with favorable
response from the game players.
In an interview, Nolan explained the main problem he had with Computer
Space: "You had to read the instructions before you could play,
people didn't want to read instructions. To be successful, I had to
come up with a game people already knew how to play; something so
simple that any drunk in any bar could play."
Nolan and Ted would go it alone and hire Allan Alcorn to design
the first game under the Atari name: PONG. "PONG" was choosen for
its meaning: a hollow, ringing sound, which was exactly what Nolan
wanted in the game. Amazingly, Alan had no idea how to get some sound from the
initial version of the game. Therefore he took a speaker (amplified) with one
wire connected to the ground of the circuit board, and the other to be
eventually connected to the point giving the best possible sound effects. And so
was born the PONG sound that we all know!
If Allan Alcorn designed PONG, he did not invent it. As a matter of fact,
Magnavox was putting their new Odyssey home video game console in
demonstration in May 1972. On May 24, Nolan went to the demonstration held at
the Magnavox Profit Caravan at Burlingame, California where he signed the
guest book and played the predecessor of PONG: Tennis. Then, he told Allan
Alcorn to design PONG.
However, it would be very unfair to base the history on this fact. Many people
consider that Bushnell and Alcorn pirated the Tennis game that Ralph Baer and
his co-workers designed in 1967. Not only this isn't quite true, but in fact they did a better version of it, taking
advantage of the TTL technology which by then became affordable, at least in the
arcade business. The result was an improved game with segmented paddles and
bounces, digital on-screen scoring and attractive sound effects.
David Winter's opinion is simple: who blames Bill Gates for having copied the BASIC
programing language to port it to millions of home computers (including
the apple 2) between 1975 and the late 1980s ? Nobody. He had the best idea of
its time and allowed everybody to have a computer at home and program it using a
simple language. This is pretty much the same with PONG: in 1972, you would not go to a retail store to try an Odyssey except for a very short time. PONG and its clones were
the best advertisements for the video game. By going to a bar and playing the
game, everybody could enjoy it and eventually buy an Odyssey to play at home. It
is obvious that the Magnavox Odyssey sales would not have had the same success
without PONG, so thank you guys, you did very well !
By 1972, Nolan Bushnell
would leave Ampex and go into business with Ted Dabney and Larry Byron.
Larry would soon drop out leaving just Nolan and Ted. The idea was to create
the game technology and license it to other companies to build such as they
did with Computer Space to Nutting Associates. However, by the time PONG had
finished its testing phase at a local bar called Andy Capps, Nolan
realized that there was more to be made if he and his partner sold the game
themselves. November 1972 saw the first production PONG games rolling off the
assembly line. This assembly line run out of a converted Roller Rink off of
Winchester Blvd. (According to Nolan Bushnell: 38,000 Pong's were built and