Willy Higinbotham, “Video Game” Pioneer Speaks (sort of)

This was pretty cool. Yesterday I received an email from William Higinbotham’s son, Billy.

For those who are not students of ancient video game history, Willy Higinbotham is credited with being one of the first people to create a game that used a screen and could be played interactively via an electronic device. (Can you tell that I’m trying to skirt a commonly used term here?). Higinbotham created Tennis For Two at Brookhaven National Laboratory in 1958. The game was built with analog parts using an oscilloscope for the display. The game was a huge it in the lab and with outsiders who lucky enough to see it.

Anyway, Billy Higenbotham wrote to tell me a couple things:

1. I spelled his dad’s name wrong in my interview with Ralph Baer (it’s Higinbotham not Higginbotham). Fixed.

2. To make sure that I knew that in the future I should refer to his dad’s game as something other than a “video game”. Here is what he said:

“People refer my father’s game as a video game. Video is a term used in association with TVs raster display”

I know what Higinbotham might have meant.  He meant that Ralph Baer does not think there were any video games before his invention.  Baer does not in fact like anything prior to his own inventions to be called “video games”.  In the same interview mentioned above, Baer tried to make the distinction between his games and Higenbotham’s perfectly clear:

“Analog computers were indeed elegant devices. I used them as did many other radio and TV engineers in the fifties and sixties. They were great for modeling dynamic motion problems….but they cost on the order of $10,000 or much more. So forget analog computers as a means of playing home “video” games, except in the context of a demo in a lab environment where one or more analog computers were sitting around and one could temporarily borrow one for a “fun” ballistics demo (like Higinbotham’s so-called tennis game).”

“So-Called”? According to John Anderson’s article on the subject, it seems that the game was fairly sophisticated:

“The implementation was very much more sophisticated than the first ‘Pong’ games. It was the hit of the Brookhaven ‘visitors’ days’ for two years running.”

-John Anderson, Creative Computing Spring 1983

So why is Baer so “down” on Hignbotham’s invention? Well, I suppose it was because Baer was (is) an inventor and as an inventor his livelihood (and that of his employers) came (comes) from patents. To protect his patent on Pong he had to make sure that Higenbotham’s creation was never seen as a video game. If Higinbotham had in fact created a “video game” then Baer’s patent might have been null because there would have been “prior art”.  As I rec all, Atari tried to defend their Pong games with the Higinbotham argument.  In the70’s it did not fly, but in the 21st century, knowing what is known now, it might have been more successful.

However, does this really take anything away from the Higenbotham’s amazing invention? I don’t think so. In truth, I sensed a bit of sadness in Billy Higenbotham’s note. Almost as if he is on a quest to make sure his father is not forgotten, but at the same time not step on the toes of the “very vocal” (and sometimes very litigious) others who also try to occupy the space of “video game inventor.” Higenbotham need not worry though, as his dad’s place in history is firmly set. I was still touched though. , I find it very comforting to know that Willy Higenbotham has a dedicated son who travels through the internet, trying to separate fact from fiction while keeping his father’s memory alive. We should all be so lucky.

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