Who did it first ?


Nowadays, lots of people still wonder who invented the video game. Well, there are lots of false information on the internet nowadays, especially concerning the very first game that Willy Higinbotham made with an oscilloscope and an analog computer. But before wondering who made the first video game, have you ever wondered what was a video game, and especially when an electronic system using a cathode ray tube (CRT) could be considered as a video game ? And have you ever wondered if several people were the fathers of a specific video game ? Well, you will get the answers if you take the time to read the following text. Ralph Baer took the time to type and email it to us, and he is right in what he wrote.


Higginbotham’s demonstration of a ball’s/dot’s 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). Higginbotham’s 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 Nintendo’s lawyers dragged it up in court in 1985 to prove a point. They lost.

If this arrangement of hardware still qualifies in anyone’s 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 Higginbotham’s 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 world’s consciousness. Higginbotham’s 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 business.

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 production.

Hence, I am equally clearly the “Father of Home Video Games”.

Incidentally, Bushnell’s 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.