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The Patriarch Of Pong

Fall 1990 | Volume 6 |  Issue 2

Remember Pong? In 1972 it became the first successful videoarcade game. That same year Magnavox released Odyssey, the first home game, giving people new ways to stimulate their minds with a television set. Thus the video game is generally thought of as a creation of the 1970s. In reality, though, it was invented in 1958, in a laboratory in thenrural Upton, New York, by a man named William Higinbotham.

Higinbotham was in charge of instrumentation design at Brookhaven National Laboratory (BNL), a government-supported nuclear-research facility. Although BNL concentrated on peaceful uses of the atom, as it still does, in those Cold War times area residents were concerned that they would one day be blown out of their potato fields by a huge atomic explosion. To assure people that they were in no danger, and that their crops would not mutate, the laboratory ran tours to show how useful, important, and safe its research was.

The displays on these tours were usually simple groups of photographs or static displays of equipment, informative but rather dry. Higinbotham wanted to liven things up. His department had a small analog computer that, with an oscilloscope and a few capacitors, potentiometers, and other common household items, could display the trajectories of missiles or bullets—or the path of a bouncing ball. This gave Higinbotham an idea.

He envisioned a tennis game, with the court displayed on the oscilloscope’s screen. For a man who had helped develop the first radar systems and designed timing devices for the Manhattan Project’s atomic bomb, it was a simple matter to plan the necessary circuitry, and within a couple of days the game was finished.

The court and net were displayed in rapid alternation with the ball motion on the oscilloscope screen. The circuits that created them used conventional vacuum tubes and relays, and the time-sharing circuit contained some of the transistors that were then coming into use. A simple resistor simulated wind drag. Players hit the ball by pushing a button, and by turning a knob they could adjust the angle of return. An unwise setting would send the ball crashing into the net.

The game was the hit of visitors’ days for the next two years. “People would stand on line for hours to play it,” recalls one scientist. A later version allowed aspiring astronauts to play on the Moon or Jupiter, with gravity set appropriately. But eventually the apparatus was dismantled, and through the sixties video games were but a dim cathode-ray tube glowing faintly in the distance.


Why didn’t Higinbotham patent his invention? In his words, “I considered the whole idea so obvious that it never occurred to me to think about a patent.” If he had, it probably wouldn’t have seemed worthwhile. In an age of Hula-Hoops and Fabian, who knew how long the games would stay popular? Anyway, Higinbotham’s job was designing things like radiation detectors. The tennis game was just a trifle.

Besides, he was an employee of the U.S. government. If he had taken out a patent, Uncle Sam would have owned it. Then anyone wanting to make a new game would need a federal license. While this would certainly help reduce today’s budget deficit, it’s hard to say whether new taxes or new video games would be a greater threat to the Republic.

Would it have been feasible? Cheap home games would have to wait for the microprocessor age, of course, but how about a pinball-machine-size game costing a few hundred dollars? “I believe that my game or a TV modification could have been produced in that price range in 1960,” Higinbotham says. Of course, we’ll never know.

In looking at today’s video games, with their themes of destruction and cartoonish explosions, Higinbotham might feel a strange ambivalence. Back in his Manhattan Project days, he witnessed the first test detonation at Los Alamos. What he saw made him determined to reduce the awesome threat that nuclear weapons posed to the world. Since then he has lobbied tirelessly for arms control and nonproliferation. In the late 1960s he was one of the founders of Brookhaven’s nuclearsafeguards group, which develops ways to ensure the security of nuclear materials and to verify arms-control agreements. Today Brookhaven’s group is among the world’s foremost, and Higinbotham, now in his eighties, still acts as a consultant (when he isn’t testifying in video-game patent suits).

About eight years ago Higinbotham’s pioneering role was revealed in Creative Computing (whose editor, David Ahl, had seen the game as a youth touring the laboratory). Since then he has been known as the father of the video game. It’s nice to be the patriarch of Pong. But if current trends continue and his scientific efforts end up leading to a peaceful world, Willy Higinbotham will have accomplished something much greater.


We hope you enjoyed this essay.

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