Atari PONG
- The first steps -

A little bit of history:

Nolan Bushnell

Spacewar demonstration at the
Museum of the Moving Image in
Astoria, Queen, NY.

Sapacewar screen shot (click to enlarge)

Computer Space

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 sold).


A strange arcade game:

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.

Mounted on pinball bars, the PONG prototype machine had an amazing story while being put in demo at Andy Capp's Cavern. The following true story is taken from "Zap! The Rise and Fall of Atari" by Cohen.

"One of the regulars approached the Pong game inquisitively and studied the ball bouncing silently around the screen as if in a vacuum. A friend joined him. The instructions said: 'Avoid missing ball for high score.' One of [them] inserted a quarter. There was a beep. The game had begun. They watched dumbfoundedly as the ball appeared alternately on one side of the screen and then disappeared on the other. Each time it did the score changed. The score was tied at 3-3 when one player tried the knob controlling the paddle at his end of the screen. The score was 5-4, his favor, when his paddle made contact with the ball. There was a beautifully resonant "pong" sound, and the ball bounced back to the other side of the screen. 6-4. At 8-4 the second player figured out how to use his paddle. They had their first brief volley just before the score was 11-5 and the game was over."

"Seven quarters later they were having extended volleys, and the constant pong noise was attracting the curiosity of others at the bar. Before closing, everybody in the bar had played the game. The next day people were lined up outside Andy Capp's at 10 A.M. to play Pong. Around ten o'clock that night, the game suddenly died." (pg.29)

The rumor that the game failed the next day is absolutely wrong. However, it happened that the rotary potentiometers were not enough robust and eventually failed, requiring their replacement with military grade ones. However, the game did fail a week later because of the Laundry-Mat coin-op mechanism which was filled to the top with quarters and shorted out until emptied. Once emptied, the game worked again.

Two weeks later, Magnavox discovered the existence of PONG and its public demonstration without any royalty being paid for their Ball and Paddle game patent. They also discovered a PONG machine in Chicago in 1973 along with several other imitations. Ralph Baer came in person to the MOA show and discretely took notes of all infringing games after having checked them. Later in 1974, Magnavox filed a case against several manufacturers including Atari. Unlike others who eventually lost the battle, Atari preferred paying $700,000 to Magnavox and became their first licensee, which gave them the required license for manufactring PONG machines coin-ops. By the end of March 1973, 8,000 to 10,000 PONG machines were sold. The same year, Atari sold an improved version of PONG with two additional players: PONG DOUBLES. Other variants were released later: QUADRA PONG, PIN PONG, DOCTOR PONG, etc. However, Atari did not forecast an obvious problem: bootlegers. Several other companies copied Atari's idea and released their own version of PONG. Some even proposed special kits to improve it (check the one sold by Logic Leisure Ltd). The earliest attempt to copy PONG happened during its demonstration at Andy Capp's. The game was carefully analyzed by an employee of Ramtek, who released their first arcade game early in 1973.

More about the arcade versions of PONG can be found in the Arcade PONG page.

Note from David Winter: if you want to read the real history of Atari much in detail (including many previously untold stories), I strongly recommend Atari Inc. - Business Is Fun by Martin Goldberg and Curt Vendel. From the link you can read more about it, purchase your copy and even be informed of the second part recently announced: Atari Corp. - Business Is War.

The story of PONG was far from over: 1975 would mark the begining of a new line: home versions of Atari PONG.