demonstration of a balls/dots ballistic
motion and rebounding action may have qualified as a game
but cannot plausibly be credited with being the
first video game. His demo used an
oscilloscope as a display and an analog computer to move
the CRT spot around. To qualify as a video game, you have
to have to pass one major test: Can you play the game on
a standard home TV set or a TV monitor ?
By definition, video games use video displays (ordinary
TV sets or TV monitors). Higginbothams apparatus
was that small Donner analog computer hooked up to an
oscilloscope. It involved no video signals, being a
strictly point-plotting circuit arrangement. All
Higginbotham built was to attach a switch to
the analog computer for user interaction. He then
programmed the computer to create the
ballistically-moving spot and its reversal upon
intercept. His was one-time physics demo for an
open-house occasion. No effort was made to commercialize
that demo nor was it thought of as a commercial product
at the time. Nor were patents applied for. Nobody thought
it was a big deal until Nintendos lawyers dragged
it up in court in 1985 to prove a point. They lost.
If this arrangement of hardware still qualifies in
anyones mind as a video game, then he/she might
wish to look into much earlier interactive uses of random
access displays such as a scope. During and shortly after
WW II both the US and the German army used such displays
for missile tracking... definitely an interactive
use....but were these video games? Not by any rational
definition of that word. Nor is Higginbothams demo.
I first heard of Willy Higginbotham in 1985 and then met
him when he testified for the opposition in a lawsuit by
Nintendo vs. Sanders (my company)...I watched him
testify. It was clear to the judge that Higginbotham had
not invented video games for all the reason that I cited.
We won that suit like all others we pursued over a period
of 15 years.
Higginbotham's lab demo of what amounts to a physics
demonstration of a bouncing spot was never consciously
meant to be a product....and would never have been heard
from again, if it hadn't been for that lawsuit which
dragged the story out from oblivion.
So, how do you categorize Higginbotham ?....he built a
lab-demo for an open house to be played by
visitors. It was done with the aid of a large analog
computer and a standard lab oscilloscope. Then it wasn't
heard from again for 20 years until the lawyers dug it
up. No one, including me, knew of that physics demo. And
even if I had known about it, would that have suggested
the use of a home TV receiver to play games ? Hardly! So
what does that make Higginbotham...the Father of a lab
curiosity? In my considered opinion, W.H. is a straw man
put in the spotlight by a fluke of history. There is
another, more generic point that needs to be made in this
connection: It is physically and logically impossible to
be the Father of anything unless there is child! And
unless that child is nurtured grows up to be someone of
importance, neither the child or the
father will make it into the worlds
consciousness. Higginbothams work died the day his
demo was disassembled. He never made any effort to
support his child from that day on...and for
a good reason: He did not recognize the germ of a product
(never mind o whole industry) in what he was doing.
Guys like Bushnell and Baer had to come along later,
think creatively about the subject of playing games on a
monitor in an arcade, or on a TV set and then put forth
the effort required to make this What if?
into real hardware and, even more difficult, into a real
Now think about this: No one has suggested calling Steve
Russell (who designed Spacewar, the first computer games
on a PDP-1 in the 50's), the Father of Video Games. He
was certainly the first person to program and play a game
using a refrigerator-sized PDP-1 computer at MIT; his
display was an analog CRT display just like a 'scope...no
one is calling that a video game despite the fact that it
uses a CRT. Nevertheless Russell certainly deserves the
title of Father of Computer Games. Hundreds of engineers
got access to and copied Russell's code and started
playing games on their companies' computers. He did
something that lived on, recognized its value and made it
available to others. That effort turned into actual
products 20 years later when Nolan Bushnell extended that
concept to the arcades.
There are only two individuals who can claim to have
invented video games: Nolan Bushnell and Ralph Baer.
Bushnell built an arcade game (Computer Space) in 1969
which used a raster-scan TV monitor display. The game was
not a success.
However, it clearly qualifies Bushnell for the title of
the Father of Arcade Video Games.
I came up with the concept of playing games on a standard
TV set or TV monitor in September of 1966. The idea was
to make an alternate, interactive use of tens of millions
of home TV sets then in homes world-wide. The final
equipment we built at Sanders Associates in 1967 (the
Brown Box) was licensed to Magnavox in 1970
and appeared as the Odyssey 1TL200 on the market in the
US in May of 1972. Approximately one-hundred-thousand of
these video game systems were sold that year by Magnavox.
There was invention, development of the idea, marketing
of the idea and follow through to see it into significant
Hence, I am equally clearly the Father of Home
Incidentally, Bushnells company, Atari, was the
first to take a license under my patents in the 70's. The
fact that Nolan Bushnell developed PONG after he played a
ping-pong game on an Odyssey 1TL200 at a L.A. Magnavox
dealership demo in May of 1972 is also well-known.
I strongly recommend that websites dedicated to Video
Games - and the History of Video Games in particular -
should reflect the facts as they are and not rewrite
history based on faulty information.
Ralph H. Baer
Text written by Ralph Baer. Courtesy of David WINTER.