Welcome to part one in
a multi-part series meant to entertain and astonish you with
the history of gaming on computers. Yes kid, there was a time
when games didn't require the latest 3D accelerator cards and
teams of designers. All it took was access to a computer, a
little knowlege, and a little "hacker" spirit to get going and
do it your self.
everyone fasten your seat belt while Sherman sets the Wayback
Machine for 1958 when Ralph Higinbotham set about designing
the first known appearance of an actuall game on a computer.
Willy Higinbotham and
Tennis For Two
1958, Willy had found himself as the head of Brookhaven Nation
Laboratory's Instrumentation Divsion. Brookhaven was a
government sponsored nuclear research facility in a time when
the Cold War was approaching it's peak. Local farmers were not
happy about having nuclear materials near them - with the
public's fears very often fueled by science fiction movies of
the time where people, animals, or bugs were mutated by
radiation in to giant freaks that went on rampages.
Brookhaven had decided to conduct tours to prove how
safe it's research and laboratories were, and give the public
a chance to see what went on there. Each division was in
charge of producing a display that would sum up it's research
in an informative manner. This usually consisted of museum
style displays of photographs and equipment. Willy decided to
do something different.
A BNL id badge with a picture of Willy
around the time of his
"I knew from past visitors days that
people were not much interested in static exhibits. So for
that year, I came up with an idea for a hands-on display - a
video tennis game."
Technical Specialist Rovert Dvorak, they set about designing
this display. Because digital computers were still coming in
to their own (Willy and his department were working on their
own, entitled Merlin), they had to use the older (and cheaper)
analog computers that were more easily available.
Back then, analog computers were
used to work out all kinds of mechanical problems. They
didn't have the accuracy of digital computers, which were
very crude at the time, but then you didn't need a great
deal of precision to play TV games. "
Using the computer as the "brain", it was
hooked up to an oscilloscope with a tiny 5" screen. Since this
was essentially a physics research center, Willy wanted
gravity, windspeed, and bounce (including off the net) to all
be accurately represented. Using resistors, capacitors, vacuum
tubes, relays, and the newly invented transistor, he created
circuits to accurately compute these factors and display them
on the oscilloscope screen - without any flicker. The
flickerless display was an accomplishment in itself, and
pioneered a syncing technique still in use by video game
Using controllers that consisted of a
big block of wood with a button and dial mounted on it, the
player would use the button to "hit" the ball and the dial to
adjust the angle of the ball for the return. There were no on
screen representations of the players themselves, as in the
Pong games of 14 years later. Instead, there was a simple
upside down T drawn on the screen to represent the net. The
player could hit the ball at any time, providing it was on his
side of the net. If the ball hit the net, it bounced off of it
at and slowed it's movement as it rolled along the ground. If
the ball went over the net, but was not hit back, it would hit
the floor and bounce again at a natural angle. If it
disappeared off the screen, a reset button could be pressed,
causing the ball to reappear and remain stationary until a hit
button was pressed.
After three weeks of design and
implementation, the game was ready.
"I made some drawings, gave them to
Bob, he made a patchboard, we changed the things that didn't
work, and got it running in time for the first tour."
The "tennis for 2" display to the far
late 1958, the display of his the Instrumentation Division
debuted to the public. Among the usuall displays of
photographs (including a display of the upcoming Merlin
digital computer) and instrumentation equipment, was the
"Tennis for 2" display to the far left. The display became a
big hit on Visitors' Days that year and in 1959. Many high
schoolers, who visited the lab on special class field trips,
had to be literally pulled away from the display. A video of
the display can be seen here
(Real Audio Player
needed). A later version of the game was tweaked to allow
play on the Moon or Jupiter, with gravity set appropriately
for each one.
Alas, the display was dismantled after
1959, and the parts used for other projects. Interestingly
enough, Willy never patented the setup.
"I considered the whole idea so
obvious that it never occurred to me to think about a
And so the display was lost to
the general public, until it was brought to the public's
attention by Creative Computing editor David Ahl in 1983. It
seems David had been one of those youths enthraled by the
display and felt it's creator should be recognized
accordingly. It subsequently thrust Willy in to the spotlight,
where he was again and again called on to testify in video
game patent suits. Most notably in cases involving Magnavox -
who, through the work of Ralph Baer and his Odyssey
machine, claimed to own "pong" and many of the early patents
on video games in general. His appearance testifying opposite
Ralph and other's claims that Willy's invention was the first
video game, has lead to a lot of hard feelings towards Willy
by Ralph that continue to this day.
whether you define a video game as a device using a
televsion/video output display, or simply as a computerized
game using any display, it is quite clear that Willy pioneered
the use of computers for playing games. And his contributions
will stand the test of time.