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 the Tech Model Railroad Club, an obsessive group of young computer hackers that helped to shape a new vision for the young computer industry through the late 50s and early 60s. We’ve all seen parodies it in the movies. Queue up a montage. Iron Man just can’t help but tinker with new models of his armor. Then viola, these castaway hack jobs are there when a new foe comes along. As is inspiration to finish them. The Lambda Lamda Lamda guys get back at the jock frat boys in Revenge of the Nerds. The driven inventor in Honey I Shrunk the Kids just can’t help himself but build the most insane inventions. Peter Venkman in Ghostbusters. There’s a drive. And those who need to understand, to comprehend, to make sense of what was non-sensical before. I guess it even goes back to Dr Frankenstein. Some science just isn’t meant to be conquered. But trains. Those are meant to be conquered. They’re the golden spike into the engineering chasm that young freshman who looked like the cast of Stand By Me, but at MIT, wanted to conquer. You went to MIT in the 50s and 60s because you wanted a deeper understanding of how the world worked. But can you imagine a world where the unofficial motto of the MIT math department was that “there’s no such thing as computer science. It’s witchcraft!” The Tech Model Railroad Club, or TMRC, had started in 1946. World War II had ended the year before and the first first UN General Assembly and Security Council met, with Iran filing the first complaint against the Soviet Union and UNICEF being created. Syria got their independence from France. Jordan got their independence from Britain. The Philippines gained their independence from the US. Truman enacted the CIA, Stalin accounted a 5 year plan for Russia, ushering in the era of Soviet reconstruction and signaling the beginning of the col war, which would begin the next year. Anti-British protests exploded in India, and Attlee agreed to their independence. Ho Chi Minh became president of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam and France recognized their statehood days later, with war between his forces and the French breaking out later that year resulting in French martial law. Churchill gave his famous Iron Curtain Speech. Italy and Bulgaria abolished their monarchies. The US Supreme Court ordered desegregation of busses and Truman ordered desegregation of the armed forces and created the Committee on Civil Rights using an executive order. And there was no true computer industry. But the ENIAC went into production in 1946. And a group of kids at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology weren’t thinking much about the new world order being formed nor about the ENIAC which was being installed just a 5 or 6 hour drive away. They were thinking about model trains. And over the next few years they would build, paint, and make these trains run on model tracks. Started by Walter Marvin and John Fitzallen Moore, who would end up with over a dozen patents after earning his PhD from Columbia and having a long career at Lockheed, EMI Medical who invented the CT scan. By the mid-50s the club had grown and there were a few groups of people who were really in it for different things. Some wanted to drink cocacola while they painted trains. But the thing that drew many a student though was the ARRC, or Automatic Railroad Running Computer. This was built by the Signals and Power Subcommittee who used relays from telephone switches to make the trains do all kinds of crazy things, even cleaning the tracks. Today there we’re hacking genes, going to lifehacker.com, and sometimes regrettably getting hacked, or losing data in a breach. But the term came from one who chops or cuts, going back to the 1200s. But on a cool day in 1955, on the third floor of Build 20, known as the Plywood Palace, that would change. Minutes of a meeting at the Tech Model Railroad Club note “Mr. Eccles requests that anyone working or hacking on the electrical system turn the power off to avoid fuse blowing.” Maybe they were chopping parts of train tracks up. Maybe the term was derived from something altogether separate. But this was the beginning of a whole new culture. One that survives and thrives today. Hacking began to mean to do technical things for enjoyment in the club. And those who hacked became hackers. The OG hacker was Jack Dennis, an alumni of the TMRC. Jack Dennis had gotten his bachelors from MIT in 1953 and moved on to get his Masters then Doctorate by 1958, staying until he retired in 1987, teaching and influencing many subsequent generations of young hackers. You see, he studied artificial intelligence, or taking these computers built by companies like IBM to do math, and making them… intelligent. These switches and relays under the table of the model railroad were a lot of logical circuits strung together and in the days before what we think of as computers now, these were just a poor college student’s way of building a computer. Having skipped two grades in high school, this “computer” was what drew Alan Kotok to the TMRC in 1958. And incoming freshman Peter Samson. And Bob Saunders, a bit older than the rest. Then grad student Jack Dennis introduced the TMRC to the IBM 704. A marvel of human engineering. It was like your dad’s shiny new red 1958 corvette. Way too expensive to touch. But you just couldn’t help it. The young hackers didn’t know it yet, but Marvin Minsky had shown up to MIT in 1958. John McCarthy was a research fellow there. Jack Dennis got his PhD that year. Outside of MIT, Robert Noyce and Jack Kilby were giving us the Integrated Circuit, we got FORTRAN II, and that McCarthy guy. He gave us LISP. No, he didn’t speak with a LISP. He spoke IN LISP. And then president Lyndon Johnson established ARPA in response to Sputnik, to speed up technological progress. Fernando Corbato got his PhD in physics in 1956 and stayed on with the nerds until he retired as well. Kotok ended up writing the first chess program with McCarthy on the IBM 7090 while still a teenager. Everything changed when Lincoln Lab got the TX-0, lovingly referred to as the tikso. Suddenly, they weren’t loading cards into batch processing computers. The old IBM way was the enemy. The new machines allowed them to actually program. They wrote calculators and did work for courses. But Dennis kinda’ let them do most anything they wanted. So of course we ended up with very early computer games as well, with tic tac toe and Mouse in the Maze. These kids would write anything. Compilers? Sure. Assemblers? Got it. They would hover around the signup sheet for access to the tikso and consume every minute that wasn’t being used for official research. At this point, the kids were like the budding laser inventors in Weird Science. They were driven, crazed. And young Peter Deutsch joined them, writing the Lisp 1.5 implementation for the PDP at 12. Can you imagine being a 12 year old and holding your own around a group of some of the most influential people in the computer industry. Bill Gosper got to MIT in 1961 and so did the second PDP-1 ever built. Steve Russell joined the team and ended up working on Spacewar! When he wasn’t working on Lisp. Speaking of video games. They made Spacewar during this time with a little help from Kotok Steve Piner, Samson, Suanders, and Dan Edwards. In fact, Kotok and Saunders created the first gamepad, later made popular for Nintendo, so they could play Spacewar without using the keyboard. This was work that would eventually be celebrated by the likes of Rolling Stone and Space War and in fact would later become the software used to smoke test the PDP once it entered into the buying tornado. Ricky Greenblatt got to MIT in 1962. And this unruly, unkempt, and extremely talented group of kids hacked their way through the PDP, with Greenblatt becoming famous for his hacks, hacking away the first FORTRAN compiler for the PDP and spending so much time at the terminal that he didn’t make it through his junior year at MIT. These formative years in their lives were consumed with cocacola, Chinese food, and establishing many paradigms we now consider fundamental in computer science. The real shift from a batch process mode of operations, fed by paper tape and punchcards, to a interactive computer was upon us. And they were the pioneers who through countless hours of hacking away, found “the right thing.” Project MAC was established at MIT in 1963 using a DARPA grant and was initially run by legendary J. C. R. Licklider. MAC would influence operating systems with Multics which served as the inspiration for Unix, and the forming of what we now know as computer science through the 1960s and 70s. This represented a higher level of funding and a shift towards the era of development that led to the Internet and many of the standards we still use today. More generations of hackers would follow and continue to push the envelope. But that one special glimpse in time, let’s just say if you listen at just the right frequency you can hear screaming at terminals when a game of Spacewar didn’t go someone’s way, or when something crashed, or with glee when you got “the right thing.” And if you listen hard enough at your next hackathon, you can sometimes hear a Kotok or a Deutsch or a Saunders whisper in your ear exactly what “the right thing” is - but only after sufficient amounts of trial, error, and Spacewar. This free exercise gives way to innovation. That’s why Google famously gives employees free time to pursue their passions. That’s why companies run hackathons. That’s why everyone from DARPA to Netflix has run bounty programs. These young mathematicians, scientists, physicists, and engineers would go on to change the world in their own ways. Uncle John McCarthy would later move to Stanford, where he started the Stanford Artificial Intelligence Laboratory. From there he influenced Sun Microsystems (the S in Sun is for Stanford), Cisco, and dozens of other Silicon Valley powerhouses. Dennis would go on to found Multics and be an inspiration for Ken Thompson with the first versions of Unix. And after retiring he would go to NASA and then Acorn Networks. Slug Russell would go on to a long career as a developer and then executive, including a stop mentoring two nerdy high school kids at Lakeside School in Seattle. They were Paul Allen and Bill Gates, who would go on to found Microsoft. Alan Kotok would go on to join DEC where he would work for 30 years, influencing much of the computing through the 70s and into the 80s. He would work on the Titan chip at DEC and in the various consortiums around the emergent Internet. He would be a founding member of the World Wide Web Consortium. Ricky Greenblatt ended up spending too much of his time hacking. He would go on to found Lisp Machines, coauthor the time sharing software for the PDP-6 and PDP-10, write Maclisp, and write the first computer chess program to beat world class players in Hubert Dreyfus. Peter Samson wrote the Tech Model Railroad Club’s official dictionary which would evolve into the now-famous Jargon file. He wrote the Harmony compiler, a FORTRAN compiler for the PDP-6, made music for the first time with computers, became an architect at DEC, would oversee hardware engineering at NASA, and continues to act as a docent at the Computer History Museum. Bob Saunders would go on to be a professor at the University of California, becoming president of the IEEE, and Chairman of the Board during some of the most influential years in that great body of engineers and scientists. Peter Deutsch would go on to get his PhD from Berkeley, found Aladdin Enterprises, write Ghostscript, create free Postscript and PDF alternatives, work on Smalltalk, work at Sun, be an influential mind at Xerox PARC, and is now a composer. We owe a great deal to them. So thank you to these pioneers. And thank you, listeners, for sticking through to the end of this episode of the History of Computing Podcast. We’re lucky to have you.
It’s human nature to make everything we do competitive. I’ve played football, ran track at times, competed in hacking competitions at Def Con, and even participated in various gaming competitions like Halo tournaments. I always get annihilated by kids who had voices that were cracking, but I played!
Humans have been competing in sports for thousands of years. The Lascaux in France shows people sprinting over 15,000 years ago. The Egyptians were bowling in the 5,000s BCE. The Sumerians were wrestling 5,000 years ago. Mesopotamian art shows boxing in the second or third millennium BCE. The Olmecs in Mesoamerican societies were playing games with balls around the same time.
Egyptian monuments show a number of individual sports being practiced in Egypt as far back as 2,000 BCE. The Greeks evolved the games first with the Minoans and Mycenaeans between 1,500 BCE and 1,000BCE and then they first recorded their Olympic games in 776 BCE, although historians seem to agree the games were practiced at least 500 years before that evolving potentially from funeral games.
Sports competitions began as ways to showcase an individuals physical prowess. Weight lifting, discus, whether individual or team sports, sports rely on physical strength, coordination, repetitive action, or some other feat that allows one person or team to stand out.
Organized team sports first appeared in ancient times. The Olmecs in Mesoamerica but Hurling supposedly evolved past 1000 BCE, although written records of that only begin around the 16th century and it could be that was borrowed through the Greek game harpaston when the Romans evolved it into the game harpastum and it spread with Roman conquests. But the exact rules and timelines of all of these are lost to written history. Instead, written records back up that western civilization team sports began with polo appearing about 2,500 years ago in Persia. The Chinese gave us a form of kickball they called cuju, around 200 BCE. Football, or soccer for the American listeners, started in 9th century England but evolved into the game we think of today in the 1850s, then a couple of decades later to American football. Meanwhile, cricket came around in the 16th century and then hockey and baseball came along in the mid 1800s with basketball arriving in the 1890s. That’s also around the same time the modern darts game was born, although that started in the Middle Ages when troops threw arrows or crossbow bolts at wine barrels turned on their sides or sections of tree trunks.
Many of these sports are big business today, netting multi-billion dollar contracts for media rights to show and stream games, naming rights to stadiums for hundreds of millions, and players signing contracts for hundreds of millions across all major sports. There’s been a sharp increase in sports contracts since the roaring 1920s, rising steadily until the television started to show up in homes around the world until ESPN solidified a new status in our lives when it was created in 1979. Then came the Internet and the money got crazy town.
All that money leads the occasional entrepreneurial minded sports enthusiast to try something new. We got the World Wrestling Body in the 1950s, which evolved out of Jim McMahon’s father’s boxing promotions put him working with Toots Mondt on what they called Western Style Wrestling. Beating people up has been around since the dawn of life but became an official sport when UFC 1 was launched in 1993. We got the XFL in 1999. So it’s no surprise that we would take a sport that requires hand-eye coordination and turn that into a team endeavor. That’s been around for a long time, but we call it Esports today.
Video Game Competitions
Competing in video games is as almost as old as, well, video games. Spacewar! was written in 1962 and students from MIT competed with one another for dominance of deep space, dogfighting little ships, which we call sprites today, into oblivion. The game spread to campuses and companies as the PDP minicomputers spread. Countless hours spent playing and by 1972, there were enough players that they held the first Esports competition, appropriately called the Intergalactic Spacewar! Olympics. Of course, Steward Brand would report on that for Rolling Stone, having helped Mouse inventor Doug Englebart with the “Mother of All Demos” just four years before.
Pinball had been around since the 1930s, or 1940s with flippers. They could be found around the world by the 1970s and 1972 was also the first year there was a Pinball World Champion. So game leagues were nothing new. But Brand and others, like Atari founder Nolan Bushnell knew that video games were about to get huge.
Tennis was invented in the 1870s in England and went back to 11th century France. Tennis on a screen would make loads of sense as well when Tennis For Two debuted in 1958. So when Pong came along in 1972, the world (and the ability to mass produce technology) was ready for the first video game hit. So when people flowed into bars first in the San Francisco Bay Area, then around the country to play Pong, it’s no surprise that people would eventually compete in the game.
From competing in billiards to a big game console just made sense. Now it was a quarter a game instead of just a dart board hanging in the corner. And so when Pong went to home consoles of course people competed there as well.
Then came Space Invaders in 1978. By 1980 we got the first statewide Space Invaders competition, and 10,000 players showed up. The next year there was a Donkey Kong tournament and Billy Mitchell set the record for the game at 874,300 that stood for 18 years. We got the US National Video Game Team in 1983 and competitions for arcade games sprung up around the world. A syndicated television show called Starcade even ran to show competitions, which now we might call streaming. And Tron came in 1982. Then came the video game crash of 1983.
But games never left us. The next generation of consoles and arcade games gave us competitions and tournaments for Street Fighter and Mortal Kombat then first-person game like Goldeneye and other first-person shooters later in the decade, paving the way for games like Call of Duty and World of Warcraft. Then in 1998 a legendary StarCraft 2 tournament was held and 50 million people around the world tuned in on the Internet. That’s a lot of eyeballs.
Team options were also on the rise. Netter had been written to play over the Internet by 16 players at once. Within a few years, massive multiplayers could have hundreds of players duking it out in larger battle scenes. Some were recorded and posted to web pages. There was appetite for tracking scores for games and competing and even watching games, which we’ve all done over the shoulders of friends since the arcades and consoles of old.
Esports and Twitch
As the 2000s came, Esports grew in popularity. Esports is short for the term electronic sports, and refers to competitive video gaming, which includes tournaments and leagues. Let’s set aside the earlier gaming tournaments and think of those as classic video games. Let’s reserve the term Esports for events held after 2001.
That’s because the World Cyber Games was founded in 2000 and initially held in 2001, in Seoul, Korea (although there was a smaller competition in 2000). The haul was $300,000 and events continue on through the current day, having been held in San Francisco, Italy, Singapore, and China. Hundreds of people play today. That started a movement.
Major League Gaming (MLG) came along in 2002 and is now regarded as one of the most significant Esports hosts in the world. The Electronic Sports World Cup came in 2003 were the first tournaments, which were followed by the introduction of ESL Intel Extreme Master in 2007 and many others. The USA Network broadcast their first Halo 2 tournament in 2006.
We’ve gone from 10 major tournaments held in 2000 to an incalculable number today. That means more teams. Most Esports companies are founded by former competitors, like Cloud9, 100 Thieves, and FaZeClan. Team SoloMid is the most valuable Esports organization. Launched by League of Legends star Dan Dinh and his brother in 2009, and is now worth over $400 million and has fielded teams like ZeRo for Super Smash Brothers, Excelerate Gaming for Rainbow Six Seige, Team Dignitas for Counter-Strike: Global Offensive, and even chess grandmaster Hikaru Nakamura.
The analog counterpart would be sports franchises. Most of those were started by athletic clubs or people from the business community. Gaming has much lower startup costs and thus far has been more democratic in the ability to start a team with higher valuations.
Teams play in competitions held by leagues, of which There seems to be new ones all the time. The NBA 2K League and the Overwatch League are two new leagues that have had early success. One reason for teams and leagues like this is naming and advertising rights. Another is events like The International 2021, with a purse of over $40M. The inaugural League of Legends World Championship took place in 2011. In 2013 another tournament was held in the Staples Center in Los Angeles (close to their US offices). Tickets for the event sold out within minutes. The purse for that was originally $100,000 and has since risen to over $7M. But others are even larger. Arena of Valor tournament Honor of Kings World Champion Cup is $7.7M and Fortnite World Cup Finals has gone as high as $15M.
One reason for the leagues and teams is that companies that make games want to promote their games. The video game business is almost an 86 billion dollar industry. Another is that people started watching other people play on YouTube. But then YouTube wasn’t really purpose-built for gaming. Streamers made due using cameras to stream images of themselves in a picture-in-picture frame but that still wasn’t optimal. Esports had been broadcast (the original form of streaming) before but streaming wasn't all that commercially successful until the birth of Twitch in 2011.
YouTube had come along in 2005 and Justin Kan and Emmett Shear created Justin.tv in 2007 as a place for people to broadcast video, or stream, online. They started with just one channel: Justin’s life. Like 24 by 7 life. They did Y Combinator and managed to land an $8M seed round. Justin had a camera mounted to his hat, and left that outside the bathroom since it wasn’t that kind of site. They made a video chat system and not only was he streaming, but he was interacting with people on the other side of the stream. It was like the Truman Show, but for reals.
A few more people joined up, but then came other sites to provide this live streaming option. They added forums, headlines, comments, likes, featured categories of channels, and other features but just weren’t hitting it. One aspect was doing really well: gaming. They moved that to a new site in 2011 and called that Twitch. This platform allowed players to stream themselves and their games. And they could interact with their viewers, which gave the entire experience a new interactive paradigm. And it grew fast with the whole thing being rebranded as Twitch in 2014.
Amazon bought Twitch in 2014 for $1B. They made $2.3 Billion in 2020 with an average of nearly 3 million concurrent viewers watching nearly 19 billion hours of content provided monthly by nearly 9 million streamers. Other services like Youtube Gaming have come and gone but Twitch remains the main way people watch others game. ESPN and others still have channels for Esports, but Twitch is purpose-built for gaming. And watching others play games is no different than Greeks showing up for the Olympics or watching someone play pool or watching Liverpool play Man City. In fact, the money they make is catching up.
Platforms like Twitch allow professional gamers and those who announce the games to to become their own unique class of celebrities. The highest paid players have made between three and six million dollars, with the top 10 living outside the US and making their hauls from Dota 2. Others have made over a million playing games like Counter-Strike, Fortnite, League of Legends, and Call of Duty. None are likely to hold a record for any of those games for 18 years. But they are likely to diversify their sources of income. Add a YouTube channel, Twitch stream, product placements, and appearances - and a gamer could be looking at doubling what they bring in from competitions.
Esports has come far but has far further to go. The total Esports market was just shy of $1B in 2020 and expected tor each $2.5B in 2025 (which the pandemic may push even faster). Not quite the 100 million that watch the Super Bowl every year or the half billion that tune into the World Cup finals but growing at a faster rate than the Super Bowl, which has actually declined in the past few years. And the International Olympic Committee recognized the tremendous popularity of Esports throughout the world in 2017 and left open the prospect of Esports becoming an Olympic sport in the future (although with the number of vendors involved that’s hard to imagine happening).
Perhaps some day when archaeologists dig up what we’ve left behind, they’ll find some Egyptian Obelisk or gravestone with a controller and a high score. Although they’ll probably just scoff at the high score, since they already annihilated that when they first got their neural implants and have since moved on to far better games!
Twitch is young in the context of the decades of history in computing. However, the impact has been fast and along with Esports shows us a windows into how computing has reshaped entire ways we week not only entertainment, but also how we make a living. In fact, the US Government recognized League of Legends as a sport as early as 2013, allowing people to get Visas to come into the US and play. And where there’s money to be made, there’s betting and abuse. 2010 saw SaviOr and some of the best Starcraft players to ever play embroiled in a match-fixing scandal. That almost destroyed the Esports gaming industry. And yet as with the Video Game Crash of 1983, the industry has always bounced back, at magnitudes larger than before.