Posted on May 6, 2007
The Atari History Timeline: 1971-1972
1971: Spring : Bushnell Creates Computer Space
Nolan Bushnell created the first coin-op video game in his daughter’s bedroom in 1971 while working for Ampex. Inspired by Steve Russell’s Space War, a game he played on the DEC PDP-1 at the University of Utah in the 60’s, Bushnell worked on his own way to bring the computer game experience to the masses. The largest technical hurdle he faced was inventing a way to fit a game designed to run on a mini-computer that cost $100,000s, into a marketable product that was as affordable as a pinball machine. His brilliant breakthrough was deciding to use discreet logic chips to design the game instead of a microprocessor. While this idea might have seemed like a ‘step backwards’ to computer engineers, to a genius inventor like Bushnell it was the exact solution he was looking for.
1971: Autumn: Computer Space
Bushnell sold his idea to Nutting And Associates, and in late 1971 they attempted to sell and market the game as ‘Computer Space’. It landed with a resounding ‘thud’. Amusement operators who were used to buying jukeboxes and pinball machines had no idea what to do with it. The controls were too complicated, and the game too confusing for the average barroom (read: drunk) player. However, the initial failure of Bushnell’s invention did not predict meteoric rise to success that would soon follow. He had devised a way to make video games available to the common person, and was about to create an entire consumer industry in the process.
1972 May 17: Bushnell Visits Magnavox while working for Nutting
While still working for Nutting, Bushnell visited Magnavox to take a look at the TV video game system that Ralph Baer had developed for the company. Bushnell left unimpressed. The analog computer the game used in the game (a computer used for applications that require a continuous change of one or more variables) was only useful for very simple games, and the graphics looked terrible. However, the idea for a ‘ping pong’ type game stuck with him.
1972 June 27: Atari Incorporates
Bushnell, desiring more profits from his games, quits Nutting Associates and forms his own company with Ted Dabney. Bushnell founded Atari’s forerunner, Syzygy Co.,with $250 from a savings account, some of it earned from Computer Space at Nutting And Associates. Ted Dabney also contributes $250. When they found out the name Syzygy was already taken, they hey Chose Atari instead Atari roughly translates to ‘you are about to be engulfed.” In the game GO
1972 Summer : Pong Engineered
While Bushnell kept Atari in the black by servicing and leasing pinball machines, he hired Al Alcorn, a fellow engineer from Ampex, to develop another video game. Nolan Bushnell lied to Al Alcorn about having a contract with GE for home pong, to lure him to work for Atari. At first, Bushnell wanted to create driving game (he hada contract with Bally to do just that), but he decided to have Alcorn work on something simple first. The primitive ping-pong game he had seen at Maganavox seemed like a good candidate, but it had to be improved. Neither Alcorn nor Bushnell were impressed with Odyssey and it Analog components. In any event, Pong was only practice, and Bushnell did not plan to take it seriously.
Just like Computer Space, Pong was a discreet-logic machine. It had no microprocessor, but instead used individual integrated circuits to create the logic for the game. The key to saving money was to design the game so well that it used the fewest number of chips. Alcorn added small details like ‘English’ and simulated physics that went beyond Bushnell’s original concept, but still kept the design elegant, and cheap.
1972 September: Pong Tested At Andy Capp’s Tavern
First Pong game is placed in Andy Capp’s Tavern in Sunnyvale California. People starting lining up before the bar opened just to play the game. Some wouldn’t even order anything, just play pong. Unlike the pages of instructions for Computer Space, Pong instructions are the model of simplicity: ‘”Avoid missing ball for high score.” ‘Two weeks after installing the game, Al Alcorn got a late-night phone call from the manager of the bar. The game had broken down, and he wondered if he could fix it. When Alcorn went to check the machine, he found a most unusual problem. There were so many quarters jammed into the coin drop’. that the game had stopped working. Under the the coin-drop was a plastic milk-jug with the top-cut-off and it was filled with quarters, making the ‘credit’ mechanism not work.
1972 November: Bushnell Tries To Sell Pong, Decides To Manufacture It Himself
The Pong game was offered to Bally first, but they declined to purchased it. They wanted a game that didn’t require 2 players. They had contracted Atari to do a driving game, and Nolan tried very hard to get them to accept pong instead, but Bally refused. Amusement manufacturers didn’t ‘get it’ either. In 1972, the Pinball and other amusement game manufacturers made machines with many electromechanical and moving parts. Pong had only two moving parts and this baffled them. They didn’t understand or envision the industry changing.
Instead of perusing established manufacturers, Bushnell decided to manufacture Pong himself. It was his boldest move yet, and would prove ultimately successful. He leased old roller rink in Santa Clara and converted it into a production line manned by hippies. The first Pong game shipped from this facility in Nov 1972
November 29: Atari releases original Pong arcade game. Carl Sagan wrote of Pong “As a result of Pong, a player can gain a deep intuitive understanding of the simplest Newtonian physics.” The day Pong was released is marked by the coin-op industry as the first nail in the coffin of pinball