Wednesday, October 14, 2009 10/14/09 - atari, pong, and apple

In today's excerpt - Atari, Pong, and

"The more than $6 billion Americans now spend
on video games every
year started with the first quarter dropped
into Computer Space in 1971. That
game - a small computer hooked up to a
black-and-white TV, housed in a
futuristic-looking plastic case - was the
creation of Nolan Bushnell, a young
engineer from Utah. Bushnell went on to found
Atari, whose products, from
Pong to Football to the Atari 2600, brought
video games into every arcade and
millions of homes. And while Computer Space
was based on the already-classic computer
spaceship battle game called Spacewar, it was
Bushnell's genius
to see the potential games had beyond the
computer lab. ...

"He was a tournament chess player, and a fan
of the Chinese
board game Go. (Atari is a Japanese word
announced when a Go player has
almost captured an opponent.) He also learned
about business when he was
young. After his father died, Bushnell took
over the family's concrete business. He was
just 15.

"Bushnell discovered computer games in the
early 1960s while studying
electrical engineering at the University of
Utah. The school's computer had a
copy of Spacewar, the seminal game created at
MIT by Steve Russell. ... Bushnell was
hooked, and he would
sneak into the computer lab late at night to
play. ... But Spacewar ran on huge, expensive

"By 1971, Bushnell had moved to Silicon
Valley and had begun to work on [a commercial
version of the] game. The biggest technical
challenge was the display. The computers
that ran Spacewar used what were essentially
adapted radar screens, each of which cost
about $30,000 - so Bushnell made
circuits that would display graphics on an
ordinary black-and-white television set.

"Bushnell began designing other games and he
hired a staff
of engineers. In 1972, Bally, a company that
made pinball and
slot machines, contracted him to make a video
driving game.
He gave the task to one of his new hires, Al
Alcorn. But Alcorn
didn't yet the tricks of making a video game,
so Bushnell
gave him a smaller task: to make a game with
a ball bouncing
back and forth on the screen. 'I
defined this very simple game for Alcorn as a
learning project,'
he explains. 'I thought it was going to be a
throwaway. It took
him less than a week to get it partially
running. And the thing
was just incredibly fun.'

"Bushnell took a copy of Alcorn's game, named
Pong after
one of its noises, to Bally's headquarters in
Chicago, hoping that
they would buy it instead of the driving
game. At the same time,
Alcorn built a case for their other copy of
Pong, complete with a
13-inch TV set and a slot for quarters. There
was one sentence of
instructions on the cabinet: 'Avoid Missing
Ball for High Score.'
Alcorn set Pong up at a bar in Sunnyvale,

"In Chicago, Bally's turned Pong down. Back
in California,
the reaction was different. People lined up
to feed quarters into
Pong, and played it nonstop. The next day,
the machine suddenly stopped working; Alcorn
went to see what was wrong and
discovered that the machine was too full of
quarters - they'd
spilled out of their container and shorted
the game out. Pong,
released by Atari rather than Bally's, became
a hit and ushered
in the first golden age of video games. Rich
from Pong's success, the company designed
dozens of successful games ... like Atari
Football, the
driving games Night Driver and Sprint, and,
in 1978, the best-selling Asteroids.

"Bushnell also helped usher in a new era in
Silicon Valley. Although the area had
long been a center for the electronics
industry, most of the companies there were
large and corporate. Atari was different.
Bushnell always wore jeans, and he encouraged
his engineers
and technicians to do the same. His
management style was not
very rigid or hierarchical; as long as
someone got his or her job
done, almost anything went. These principles
were proved in
1976, when Bushnell hired a young technician
named Steve
Jobs. The long-haired Jobs would often work
barefoot, talked of
going to India, and was abrasive to some of
the other engineers.
Bushnell gave Jobs the task of designing a
game he had thought
of, a new variation on Pong called Breakout.
Jobs worked the
night shift, and with lots of technical help
from his friend Steve
Wozniak, built Breakout on a very short
schedule. The two
would continue their collaboration that year
by building and
marketing the Apple computer."

David E. Brown, Inventing Modern
America, MIT Press, Copyright 2002 by the
Massachusetts Institute of Technology, pp.


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