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Dec 2013:
Added the 1975 Elektor construction article.
Added the 1972 Atari PONG simulator.
Updated the PONG chips page.

5 June 2013:
Updated the Magnavox Odyssey page.
Updated the Videomaster Home T.V. Game page.

Introduction:

The video game history started in a strange and complicated way and it is important to avoid confusions with what happened in the 1950s and 1960s. The real video game history started with Ralph Baer as early as 1951. One very important thing to remember is how the video game has been defined in the 1960s before modern tehnologies allowed video games to be played on computers.

A video game is defined as an apparatus that displays games using RASTER VIDEO equipment: a television set, a monitor, etc. In the 1950s and 1960s, computers were not only exceedingly expensive, but used a technology that could not allow integrating them into a video game system. Only mainframes could allow playing a few games. These games qualified as COMPUTER games, not VIDEO games.

The video game history is often misunderstood, so we will explain what happened in the 1950s first, and then go through the real video game history which began in 1966.

As early as 1951, a young 29-year old TV engineer named Ralph Baer worked at Loral, a TV company. His Chief Engineer, Sam Lackoff, asked him to Build the best television set in the world. Designing a TV set was an easy task for Ralph, and he wanted to add a new concept that his boss did not understand: playing games on the television set. The video game concept was born, but could not be implemented since the boss refused the idea. In September 1966, Ralph came back to his 1951 idea of playing games on TV sets and started building the first video game prototypes. Therefore, Ralph Baer is accordingly credited as the inventor of the video game.

1947, however, is believed to be the first year when a game was designed for playing on a Cathode Ray Tube (CRT). This very simple game was designed by Thomas T. Goldsmith Jr. and Estle Ray Mann. A patent application was filed on January 25th, 1947 and U.S. Patent  #2 455 992 issued on Dec 14th, 1948.

The game was probably designed earlier in 1946 but since we do not know this for a fact,  we will rely on the filing date of 1947. The system used eight vacuum tubes (four 6Q5 triodes and four 6V6 tetrodes) and simulated a missile being fired at a target. The idea was obviously inspired by radar displays used during World War II. Several knobs allowed adjusting the curve and speed of the moving point representing the missile. Because graphics could not be drawn electronically at the time, small  targets drawn on a simple overlay were placed on the CRT by the builder of this game.

Since it did not generate video signals which were then sent to a raster scan display such as an ordinary TV set or monitor, it was not a video game. However, it is believed to be the earliest system specifically designed for game play on a CRT screen.

In 1952, another person named A.S.Douglas was passing his PhD degree at the University of Cambridge (United Kindgom). At that time, the university had an EDSAC vaccuum-tube computer, which used a cathode ray tube to display the contents of one of the 32 mercury delay lines (which stored the programs and data). The display was organized as a matrix of 35 by 16 dots, hence a 35x16 pixels display. A.S. Douglas wrote his thesis on the Human-Computer interraction, and illustrated it with a graphic Tic-Tac-Toe game displayed on a cathode ray tube. This is the earliest graphical computer game known to exist. The game was played against the machine, which used special algorithms to win whenever possible. This game can be played nowadays using the EDSAC simulator, which includes a copy of the original game.

In 1958, another person called Willy Higginbotham created another computer game. The technology consisted of an analog Donner computer linked to an oscilloscope used as display. Called Tennis For Two (and also known as Tennis Programming), the game was played by two people using hand controls. Willy worked at the Brookhaven National Laboratories, and his game was exposed for two years after what it got dismantled (electronic parts were often re-used in labs, especially in the 1950s when they used to cost a lot). Click here to read an interesting article about this game. The engineers at Brookhaven rebuilt this game in 1997 for the 50th anniversary of the BNL labs. After working two months to improve the original circuits using integrated circuits, they finally got the game to work as it did in 1958. Click here to see a short video of the (rebuilt) game in action (courtesy BNL).

In 1961, three students of the MIT (Martin Graetz, Stephen Russell, and Wayne Wiitanen) experienced vector graphics on a DEC PDP-1 computer. The game started with two spaceships shooting each other. The students discovered that the debugger program generated random pixels on the screen, which they liked because they looked like stars. Because such designs had to be done in an elegant way at that time, they simulated the real constellation with moving stars and variable luminance. Talk about realism ! Once done, they found the game still easy and added the gravity star, often called sun, which attracted the spaceships. Although this game looked like a video game, it did not use a video display, so could not qualify as such. Yet, it was an extraordinary precursor of what would invade homes and bars in the 1970s. Fortunately the original Spacewar can be played on any computer with Java enabled. Simply go to this link. After reading the "readme" page you can play the game as in 1961.

In 1966, Ralph Baer worked again on his 1951 TV game idea and designed a series of seven prototypes that played several video games. The first playable video game was a Chase Game: two squares chasing each other. The last prototype built in 1968 (also known as Brown Box) played Ball & Paddle games, Target Shooting games, and more. After several demonstrations to TV manufacturers, Magnavox signed an agreement in 1971 and the first video game system was released in May 1972: Odyssey. The history of PONG games and derivates just started, would spread all over the globe, and die in the early 1980s.

In the USA, it started on May 1972 with the Magnavox Odyssey (first home video game) and Atari in November 1972 (their first PONG arcade game). Atari's game was quickly copied and improved in 1973. Later in 1975, home video games became popular and were sold by numerous companies. Some like Executive Games started from a five-student MIT project. Others like First Dimension ran a poor business and did not survive the strong competition from Atari, Sears, Coleco, Magnavox and others.

In Europe, video games appeared in homes in 1974. The early and fragile european market was formed of a few small companies selling cheap systems made of discrete components. Once General Instruments released the first low-cost chip allowing to build a complete PONG system with few external components, a whole industry was launched and hundreds of manufacturers released their own line of PONG video games all over the world.

Since many systems marked the golden age of the early video game history, this site has been divided into several parts. Click the thumbnails to access the pages.

EARLY VIDEO GAME HISTORY IN THE USA
Sanders Associates: birth of the video game
1966-1969: Birth of the video
game at Sanders Associates
Magnavox Odyssey: the first video game system
1972: Magnavox Odyssey,
first home video game system
Atari PONG: first steps
1972: Atari PONG
(arcade game)
Atari PONG: home systems
1975: Atari PONG
(home systems)
 
The other Odyssey systems from Magnavox
1975-1978: Other Magnavox
Odyssey systems
PONG in a chip
1976-78: PONG in a chip
(General Instruments & others)
Coleco Telstar systems
1976: Coleco Telstar systems

Universal Research Labs 'Video Action' systems
1974-1976: URL Video
Action systems
 
GHM Wonder Wizard
1976: GHP Wonder Wizard
Video Sports by First Dimension
1976: First Dimension Systems
Executive Games
1975-1976: Executive Games
Allied's Name Of The Game systems
1976: Allied's Name Of The Game
 
Heathkit GD-1380 kit
1976: Heathkit GD-1380 kit
Heathkit GD-1999 kit
1976: Heathkit GD-1999 kit
Interfab PONG IV kit
1976: Interfab PONG IV kit
PONG Arcades
1972-75: PONG Arcade machines
 

 

EARLY VIDEO GAME HISTORY IN EUROPE
Early European systems: VideoSport MKII
1974: VideoSport MKII
Early European systems: Interton Video 2000
1975: Interton Video 2000
Early European systems: Philips Tele-Spiel
1975-1978: Philips Tele-Spiel
Early European systems: ORELEC PP-2000
1976: Orelec PP-2000
 
Early European systems: Mestron TVG 2006
1976: Mestron TVG 2006
Early European systems: TeleTenis Multi-Juegos
1976: TeleTenis Multi-Juegos
Early European systems: Lasonic 2000
1976: Lasonic 2000
Early European systems: EA's DN 76
1976: EA DN 76
 
SD 050 clones in europe
1977-1979: SD 050 systems
SD 070 and SD 090 clones in europe
SD 070 and SD 090 systems
PC-50x cartridges
PC-50x cartridges
More SD 050/070/090 clones
More SD 050/070/090 systems
 
Videomaster systems
1974-1979: Videomaster systems
Zanussi and Selecto systems
1974-1977: Zanussi systems
 

 

MISC: Press articles & ads, schematics, weird systems, emulators
Weird systems: Videotronic 2
Weird systems:
Videotronic 2
Weird systems: Playtech Telesport
Weird systems:
Playtech Telesport
Make-It-Yourself systems in magasines
Make-It-Yourself:
Magasine articles
 
PONG systems schematics
PONG systems schematics

Make-It-Yourself PONG systems
Make-It-Yourself:
Kit adverts
 
PONG for your PC
PONG for your PC
ODYEMU: the Magnavox ODYSSEY emulator
Magnavox Odyssey emulator
 


Interesting articles:
PONG Rarity List David Winter's PONG rarity list

We all want to believe that some of our games are very rare. But is it really the case ? Verify it with David Winter's PONG rarity list. Although not complete due to the large number of Ball and Paddle games released all over the world in the 1970s, it has been carefully compiled after daily checks of online auctions since 1995, hence relevant rarity ratings. Please understand that there is no relevant price guide for these games because their demand changes every day.
Who invented the video game ? Who did it first ? (by Ralph H. Baer)

Ralph Baer's interesting discussion about his invention. He explains why he is the real inventor of the video game, and clearly explains the original definition of the video game as of when it has been invented.
Getting Things Straight by Ralph H. Baer

Another great article explaining why Magnavox sued various video game manufacturers, and why video game history is often altered by mistaken information.
Revisiting History with Active Cards by Ralph H. Baer

Read the great story about those active Odyssey cartridges that Ralph Baer built for Magnavox in 1972, which never went into production, and which he rebuilt in 2003.
Willy Higinbotham's 'Tennis for Two' computer game Willy Higinbotham's "Tennis for Two" computer game

John Anderson played Willy's game and relates a story about it.
Beware: this article contains some mistakes, which have been corrected.
Magnavox Odyssey FAQ Magnavox Odyssey FAQ (Frequently Asked Questions)

Everything you want to know about the first home video game: games, technology, history, parts list, add-ons, and much more.
Different types of PONG systems

They all play the same games but use different technologies. This article explains the technologies used in PONG systems: analog, digital, integrated, and programmed.
  How to connect a PONG system to the composite video input or your TV set

A solution to the common problem of modern television sets which don't always work with the unstable video signals of old PONG systems. Beware: this solution requires technical skills and does not work with every PONG system.
  I lost the switch-box, can I still use my PONG game ?

Here's the answer to the most common problem that people encounter when they find their old PONG game sitting in their garage many years after, or when they buy a loose PONG game for the nostalgia and are missing the switch-box.