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9/7/08 2:41 PM Features: Who Really Invented The Video Game?

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A few miles up the road, Shoreham Nuclear
Power Station.
This must be the place.
There was Bell, there was Edison,
there was Fermi.
And then there was Higinbotham.
By John Anderson
The Space Age had just been birthed. Sputnik was a new and somewhat ominous presence in the evening
sky--my father tells me he carried me to the roof of our apartment building to see it. I don't remember. The
year was 1958, and I was two years old.
Dave Ahl, my boss, was a high school student. He had won a scholarship, one benefit of which was a tour
of Brookhaven National Laboratory in Upton, NY. Something he saw on an oscilloscope there remained
fixed in his mind for many years, and caused, among other things, a recent pilgrimage of my own.
Nearly 25 years after the fact, I found myself on the Long Island
Expressway. I was trying to pass an eighteen-wheeler spewing
gravel off its trailer, while I looked for the Brookhaven exit. It
occurred to me that the Lab was hardly a stone's throw from
Shoreham Nuclear Power Station, that controversial patch of
multi-billion-dollar poured concrete. I wondered if the proximity
was mere coincidence.
Brookhaven is a government installation, and I get nervous at
checkpoints. The guard at the gate had a familiar kind of
hypertensive bearing. I wished then I had shaved that morning. I
proffered my press card with clammy claw. He told me to pull
my car off to the side; I knew the jig was up. I was a spy, an
agent, a saboteur, and it was all over.
He handed me a piece of paper and said those chilling words:
"Have a nice day." Upon inspection, the paper seemed to be a
visitor's map. My adrenalin level began to subside.
It's really very simple to get to the Department of Nuclear
Energy. You make a right near the linear accelerator, and pull
into the lot next to the alternating gradient synchotron. If you see
the tandem Van de Graff, you've gone too far.
From there, only one flight of stairs separates you from one of
the great, unsung heroes of our time, Willy Higinbotham.
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Dave Potter (left) and Willy worked on the
original design.
Willy describes the innards of his electronic
tennis game. His rendering of the screen
appears at right.
There was Bell, there was Edison, there was Fermi. And then
there was Higinbotham.
Willy was responsible for the display Dave saw on that fateful
day in 1958. Willy, you see, invented the video game.
We've received several manuscripts which attempt to set the
record straight on the history of the video game. If you claim and
can document a video game predating 1958, let us know.
Otherwise, give Willy Higinbotham his profound and historic
due. Much to the chagrin of large corporations involved in
current litigation, he did it first, and he has proved it.
Though he stands about five feet four inches tall, Mr.
Higinbotham commands quite a stature. He very nearly
chainsmokes unfiltered cigarettes, which he wolfs down with
great voracity for a man of 72 years. His eyeglasses magnify to
the point where his corneas seem as large as quarters. He laughs
easily and likes to play the accordion, though he admits it's been
a while since he's played at a party.
And, as a physicist in the Manhattan Project, he witnessed the
detonation of the first atomic bomb.
Before we sat down to speak in earnest, Willy called an old
friend, Dave Potter, and asked him to join us. Dave had worked
with Willy on the original game designs. We adjourned to a
conference room. As Willy got started, other scientists would
wander into the room, find a perch, and listen along. "Isn't he something?" one of the scientists whispered.
He sure is.
Back in the 1950's, when tours of the Laboratory were first instituted, they were rather static affairs, usually
consisting of a group of photographs to depict some facet of research at the facility. Willy, who discovered
his penchant for physics at Cornell and electronics at MIT, explained that he wanted to make his display
more dynamic. Give it a little punch. Wouldn't it fill the bill, he thought, if we got some sort of little game
going on a CRT, so visitors could have some "hands-on" interaction with the hardware? He and his
associates fashioned a tennis game played on the five-inch screen of an oscilloscope.
Digital computers were coming into their own in 1958; in fact, Willy's own Instrumentation Division was
building one at the time. However his game contraption made use of an analog computer, one that used
variable voltages rather than on-off pulses to represent information. To this was hardwired a
nonprogrammable assemblage of electro-mechanical relays, potentiometers, resistors, capacitors, and "op-
amps," short for operational amplifiers.
Willy himself is the first to admit that the arrangement was rather inelegant. But he also points out that it
worked. He did make use of some recently invented transistors as flip-flop switches--a harbinger of things
to come. Willy simply did the job in the shortest time with whatever parts were handy. The result was a
video game, something no computer, digital or analog, had been harnessed to do before.
The screen display was a side view of a tennis court. It looked like an upside-down " T, " with a shortened
stem. This was the "net. " Each player held a prototypical paddle, a small box with a knob and button on it.
The knob controlled the angle of the player's return, and the button chose the moment of the hit. A player
could hit the ball at any time, providing it was on his side of the net. Gravity, windspeed, and bounce were
all portrayed. For example, if you hit a ball into the net, it would bounce lower than a bounce off the
"ground," and would eventually die.
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The oscilloscope on which the game
Note the date of the blueprint: Oct. 1958.
This date has been verified.
Willy describes the sight at Alamogordo in
The game was simple, but fun to play, and its charm was infectious. Potter remembers the popularity of the
game: "The high schoolers liked it best. You couldn't pull them away from it." He's probably remembering
young Dave Ahl, staring at the screen with a little voice inside him saying "this could be something
The ball and court lines were drawn and redrawn sequentially, at a rate that made for a flicker-free view of
ground, net, and ball. This is an approach still used in game playfield display. However the method of ball
manipulation was and remains unique.
Without becoming too bogged down in explanation, consider the following. An oscilloscope is capable of
generating cartesian coordinate displays. That is to say, a dynamic "graph" can be drawn, plotting the
deflection of x or y proportionally to the voltages input as x or y.
Higinbotham rigged up a circuit wherein the plot of these
functions simulated the trajectory of a bouncing ball. Op-amps
from a Donner Labs analog computer were used to generate this
trajectory and to sense when the ball had struck the ground. When
this occurred, a relay would be thrown, reversing the polarity of
another op-amp, so that the ball would reflect its path and "take a
bounce." Primitive, but effective.
Other op-amps and relays were used to determine whether or not
the ball had hit the net. As mentioned earlier, rebound velocity
from the net was lower than from the ground, providing an extra
bit of realism.
Velocity, slowed continually by wind-speed, was simulated
straightforwardly with a 10 meg. resistor.
A toggle switch allowed players to choose which side to serve
from, and net height, as well as court length, were adjustable.
There was no way a player could "miss" the ball, as a push of the
paddle button would always result in a hit when the ball was on
that player's side of the net. Unless the player chose the correct
angle and timing for a return, however, the shot would not make it
back to the opponent's side.
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. Eventually, however, it was
I asked Willy why he hadn't patented the thing at the time. He is
responsible for over 20 patents, each of which reverted to the U.S.
"We knew it was fun, and saw some potential in it at the time, but
it wasn't something the government was interested in. It's a good
thing, too. Today all video game designers would have to license
their games from the federal government!" The idea somehow
pleased Willy, and his laughter signalled it.
To Magnavox, however, the rights to video games are no laughing
matter; they could mean millions. The corporation seeks a patent
on video games using bouncing balls, and has taken sworn
depositions from Higinbotham concerning his own invention.
Though Willy stands to make no monetary gain whatsoever, he
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has a personal stake in the contest.
One must take a broader view of Willy's career to see the game from the perspective that he himself does.
Higinbotham was a graduate student in Physics at Cornell University at the outbreak of World War II. He
was invited to join research at the MIT Radiation Laboratory, where he worked on an advanced and
important technique known as radio detecting and ranging, later shortened to RADAR.
From there he joined the Manhattan District Project, working as a physicist on another exotic and potentially
important technology. He became head of the Electronics Division there in 1945. Higinbotham devised the
timing circuits that took the first atomic bomb through the last few milliseconds preceding detonation.
He worked with and knew J. Robert Oppenheimer quite well. "He was a charismatic man," says Willy.
"People tended either to worship or detest him. I did neither. He was brilliant, though. There's no doubt of
At the time of the blast at Los Alamos, Willy was 24 miles from ground zero, able to watch the entire
detonation through welder's glass so thick, he couldn't see an illuminated headlight through it.
I asked him what it had been like. He grew quiet. He said that he and the other observers got into the trucks
and made the long trip back to the compound in utter silence. No one had anything to say.
Willy spent the next two years as executive secretary of the Federation of American Scientists, in
Washington, D. C. He acted as a liaison between Congress and scientists, lobbying for the nonproliferation
of nuclear weapons.
"It's taken over thirty years," Willy observes," but the message is finally beginning to get through." His face
brightens. Today, as a senior scientist at Brookhaven Laboratory, he and his colleagues have amassed the
largest and most comprehensive library in the world concerning nuclear safeguards.
I was warming up the car for the long trip home, staring across a field at the building housing the cyclotron.
He's not only something, I thought to myself. He's a walking bit of history. He also invented the video
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