10/14/09 - atari

In today's excerpt - Atari Pong and Apple:

"The more than $6 billion Americans now spend on video games every year started with the first quarter dropped into Computer Space in 1971. That game—a small computer hooked up to a black-and-white TV, housed in a futuristic-looking plastic case—was the creation of Nolan Bushnell, a young engineer from Utah. Bushnell went on to found Atari, whose products, from Pong to Football to the Atari 2600, brought video games into every arcade and millions of homes. And while Computer Space was based on the already-classic computer spaceship battle game called Spacewar, it was Bushnell's genius to see the potential games had beyond the computer lab. ...

"He was a tournament chess player, and a fan of the Chinese board game Go. (Atari is a Japanese word announced when a Go player has almost captured an opponent.) He also learned about business when he was young. After his father died, Bushnell took over the family's concrete business. He was just 15.

"Bushnell discovered computer games in the early 1960s while studying electrical engineering at the University of Utah. The school's computer had a copy of Spacewar, the seminal game created at MIT by Steve Russell. ... Bushnell was hooked, and he would sneak into the computer lab late at night to play. ... But Spacewar ran on huge, expensive computers.

"By 1971, Bushnell had moved to Silicon Valley and had begun to work on [a commercial version of the] game. The biggest technical challenge was the display. The computers that ran Spacewar used what were essentially adapted radar screens, each of which cost about $30,000.  So Bushnell made circuits that would display graphics on an ordinary black-and-white television set. ...

"Bushnell began designing other games and he hired a staff of engineers. In 1972, Bally, a company that made pinball and slot machines, contracted him to make a video driving game. He gave the task to one of his new hires, Al Alcorn. But Alcorn didn't yet know the tricks of making a video game, so Bushnell gave him a smaller task: to make a game with a ball bouncing back and forth on the screen. ... 'I defined this very simple game for Alcorn as a learning project,' he explains. 'I thought it was going to be a throwaway. It took him less than a week to get it partially running. And the thing was just incredibly fun.'

"Bushnell took a copy of Alcorn's game, named Pong after one of its noises, to Bally's headquarters in Chicago, hoping that they would buy it instead of the driving game. At the same time, Alcorn built a case for their other copy of Pong, complete with a 13-inch TV set and a slot for quarters. There was one sentence of instructions on the cabinet: 'Avoid Missing Ball for High Score.' Alcorn set Pong up at a bar in Sunnyvale, California.

"In Chicago, Bally turned Pong down. Back in California, the reaction was different. People lined up to feed quarters into Pong, and played it nonstop. The next day, the machine suddenly stopped working; Alcorn went to see what was wrong and discovered that the machine was too full of quarters—they'd spilled out of their container and shorted the game out. Pong, released by Atari rather than Bally's, became a hit and ushered in the first golden age of video games. Rich from Pong's success, the company designed dozens of successful games ... like Atari Football, the driving games Night Driver and Sprint, and, in 1978, the best-selling Asteroids.

"Bushnell also helped usher in a new era in Silicon Valley. Although the area ... had long been a center for the electronics industry, most of the companies there were large and corporate. Atari was different. Bushnell always wore jeans, and he encouraged his engineers and technicians to do the same. His management style was not very rigid or hierarchical; as long as someone got his or her job done, almost anything went. These principles were proved in 1976, when Bushnell hired a young technician named Steve Jobs. The long-haired Jobs often worked barefoot, talked of going to India, and was abrasive to some of the other engineers. Bushnell gave Jobs the task of designing a game he had thought of, a new variation on Pong, called Breakout. Jobs worked the night shift, and with lots of technical help from his friend Steve Wozniak, built Breakout on a very short schedule. The two would continue their collaboration that year by building and marketing the Apple computer."


David E. Brown


Inventing Modern America: From the Microwave to the Mouse


The MIT Press


Copyright 2002 Massachusetts Institute of Technology


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