In The Beginning... There Was Pong

    The History of Computing 11/1/2019


Welcome to the History of Computing Podcast, where we explore the history of information technology. Because understanding the past prepares us for the innovations of the future! Today we’re going to look at Pong. In the beginning there was Pong. And it was glorious! Just think of the bell bottoms at Andy Capp’s Tavern in Sunnyvale, California on November 29th 1972. The first Pong they built was just a $75 black and white tv from a Walgreens and some cheap parts. The cabinet wasn’t even that fancy. And after that night, the gaming industry was born. It started with people starting to show up and play the game. They ended up waiting for the joint to open, not drinking, and just gaming the whole time. The bartender had never seen anything like it. I mean, just a dot being knocked around a screen. But it was social. You had to have two players. There was no machine learning to play the other side yet. Pretty much the same thing as real ping pong. And so Pong was released by Atari in 1972. It reminded me of air hockey the first time I saw it. You bounced a ball off a wall and tried to get it past the opponent using paddles. It never gets old. Ever. That’s probably why of all the Atari games at the arcade, more quarters got put into it than any. The machines were sold for three times the cost to produce them; unheard of at the time. The game got popular, that within a year, the company had sold 2,500 , which they tripled in 1974. I wasn’t born yet. But I remember my dad telling me that they didn’t have a color tv yet in 72. They’d manufactured the games in an old skate rink. And they were cheap because with the game needing so few resources they pulled it off without a CPU. But what about the code? It was written by Al Alcorn as a training exercise that Nolan Bushnell gave him after he was hired at Atari. He was a pretty good hire. It was supposed to be so easy a kid could play it. I mean, it was so easy a kid could play it. Bushnell would go down as the co-creator of Pong. Although maybe Ralph Baer should have as well, given that Bushnell tested his table tennis game at a trade show the same year he had Alcorn write Pong. Baer had gotten the idea of building video games while working on military systems at a few different electronics companies in the 50s and even patented a device called the Brown Box in 1973, which was filed in 1971 prior to licensing it to Magnavox to become the Odyssey. Tennis for Two had been made available in 1958. Spacewar! had popped up in 1962 , thanks to MIT’s Steven “Slug” Russel’s being teased until he finished it. It was initially written on the TX-0 and was ported to the PDP, slowly making its way across the world as the PDP was shipping. Alan Kotok had whipped up some sweet controllers, but it could be played with just the keyboard as well. No revolution seemed in sight yet as it was really just shipping to academic institutions. And to very large companies. The video game revolution was itching to get out. People were obsessed with space at the time. Space was all over science fiction, there was a space race being won by the United States, and so Spacewar gave way to Computer Space, the first arcade game to ship, in 1971, modeled after Spacewar!. But as an early coin operated video game it was a bit too complicated. As was Galaxy Game, whipped up in 1971 by Bushnell and cofounder Ted Dabney, who’s worked together at Ampex. They initially called their company Syzygy Engineering but as can happen, there was a conflict on that trademark and they changed the name to Atari. Atari had programmed Galaxy Game, but it was built and distributed by Nutting Associates. It was complex and needed a fair amount of instructions to get used to it. Pong on the other hand needed no instructions. A dot bounced from you to a friend and you tried to get it past the other player. Air hockey. Ping pong. Ice hockey. Football. It just kinda’ made sense. You bounced the dot off a paddle. The center of each returned your dot at a regular 90 degree angle and the further out you got, the smaller that angle. The ball got faster the longer the game went on. I mean, you wanna’ make more quarters, right?!?! Actually that was a bug, but one you like. They added sound effects. They spent three months. It was glorious and while Al Alcorn has done plenty of great stuff in his time in the industry I doubt many have been filled with the raw creativity he got to display during those months. It was a runaway success. There were clones of Pong. Coleco released Telestar and Nintendo came out with Color TV Game 6. In fact, General Instruments just straight up cloned the chip. Something else happened in 1972. The Magnavox Odyssey shipped and was the first console with interchangeable dice. After Pong, Atari had pumped out Gotcha, Rebound, and Space Race. They were finding success in the market. Then Sears called. They wanted to sell Pong in the home. Atari agreed. They actually outsold the Odyssey when they finally made the single-game console. Magnavox sued, claiming the concept had been stolen. They settled for $700k. Why would they settle? Well, they could actual prove that they’d written the game first and make a connection for where Atari got the idea from them. The good, the bad, and the ugly of intellectual property is that the laws exist for a reason. Baer beat Atari to the punch, but he’d go on to co-develop Simon says. All of his prototypes now live at the Smithsonian. But back to Pong. The home version of pong was released in 1974 and started showing up in homes in 1975, especially after the Christmas buying season in 1975. It was a hit, well on its way to becoming iconic. Two years later, Atari released the iconic Atari 2600, which had initially been called the VCS. This thing was $200 and came with a couple of joysticks, a couple of paddles, and a game called Combat. Suddenly games were showing up in homes all over the world. They needed more money to make money and Bushnell sold the company. Apple would become one of the fastest growing companies in US History with their release of the Apple II, making Steve Jobs a quarter of a billion dollars in 1970s money. But Atari ended up selling of units and becoming THE fastest growing company in US history at the time. There were sequels to Pong but by the time Breakout and other games came along, you really didn’t need them. I mean, pin-pong? Pong Doubles was fine but , Super Pong, Ultra Pong, and Quadrapong, never should have happened. That’s cool though. Other games definitely needed to happen. Pac Man became popular and given it wasn’t just a dot but a dot with a slice taken out for a mouth, it ended up on the cover of Time in 1982. A lot of other companies were trying to build stuff, but Atari seemed to rule the world. These things have a pretty limited life-span. The video game crash of 1983 caused Atari to lose half a billion dollars. The stock price fell. At an important time in computers and gaming, they took too long to release the next model, the 5200. It was a disaster. Then the Nintendo arrived in some parts of the world in 1983 and took the US by storm in 1985. Atari went into a long decline that was an almost unstoppable downward spiral in a way. That was sad to watch. I’m sure it was sadder to be a part of. it was even sadder when I studied corporate mergers in college. I’m sure that was even sadder to be a part of as well. Nolan Bushnell and Ted Dabney, the founders of Atari, wanted a hit coin operated game. They got it. But they got way more than they bargained for. They were able to parlay Pong into a short lived empire. Here’s the thing. Pong wasn’t the best game ever made. It wasn’t an original Bushnell idea. It wasn’t even IP they could keep anyone else from cloning. But It was the first successful video game and helped fund the development of the VCS, or 2600, that would bring home video game consoles into the mainstream, including my house. And the video game industry would later eclipse the movie industry. But the most important thing pong did was to show regular humans that microchips were for more than… computing. Ironically the game didn’t even need real microchips. The developers would all go on to do fun things. Bushnell founded Chuck E. Cheese with some of his cresis-mode cash. Once it was clear that the Atari consoles were done you could get iterations of Pong for the Sega Genesis, the Playstation, and even the Nintendo DS. It’s floated around the computer world in various forms for a long, long time. The game is simple. The game is loved. Every time I see it I can’t help but think about bell bottoms. It launched industries. And we’re lucky to have had it. Just like I’m lucky to have had you as a listener today. Thank you so much for choosing to spend some time with us. We’re so lucky to have you.

(OldComputerPods) ©Sean Haas, 2020