The History of Computer Gaming Part 1 - Origins Forgotten
The History of Computer Gaming - Part 1
- by Marty "Retro Rogue" Goldberg

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.

So 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

William Higinbotham 1910-1994
In 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 display.

"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."

With 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 designers today.

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 left.

In 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 patent."

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.

Irregardless of 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.


Video Games - Did they begin at Brookaven?
FAS Tribute to William Higinbotham, Inventor of Pong
Tennis Programming - The Story of the Very First Video Game

Next week - The mighty TX-0, the sexy PDP-1, MIT Hackers, a mouse and a martini glass, and Skylark of Space all conspire to take computer based gaming to the next level.

Comments? Take them to the Forums or Mail us!

Hosted by uCoz