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Thursday, March 10, 2011

Early history of electronic video gaming still fascinates

Feb. 14, 2011
by Mark Ollig

Some of us may recall the fun of playing the video table tennis game called Pong on our television sets back in the mid-to-late 1970s.

Pong was designed in 1972 by 24-year-old Allan Alcorn, who worked for Atari Inc. as an engineer.

The first cabinet version of Alcorn’s video arcade game of Pong was installed in September 1972, at a bar called Andy Capp’s Tavern, located in Sunnyvale, CA.

Playing Pong was an instant success among the local bar patrons.

Two weeks later, the Pong video arcade machine began having problems.

A phone call from the tavern manager was made to Atari, saying the Pong game was broken.

When Alcorn came out to investigate, he found the video arcade machine was malfunctioning because too many quarters had been jammed inside the cabinet machine’s mechanism.

This story took me back to the days of when yours truly was out repairing public payphones.

I would sometimes find numerous coins lodged inside the coin chute assembly, which had caused the payphone to be “out of order.”

The home version of Pong (using a game console) was called Home Pong. It connected to television sets, was distributed through Sears stores in 1975 and sold for $98.95.

A video interview with Allan Alcorn can be seen at

Ralph Baer is known as “The Father of Video Games.” In 1967, he invented the video game, Chase which was played by connecting a controller box to a television set.

Baer designed what came to be known as the Magnavox Odyssey video game console.

Magnavox began home distribution of the Odyssey, which connected to a television set, in 1972.

Since the Odyssey game console was made by the television maker Magnavox, some folks reasoned the Odyssey console would only work on a Magnavox television, when in fact it worked on any television. Atari picked up on this and began printing on its Pong game boxes the advertising, “Works on any television set, black and white, or color.”

A video game played on a minicomputer was developed in 1961 by four Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) students.

They called the video game Spacewar!

Spacewar! operated over MIT’s DEC PDP-1 (Digital Equipment Company Programmed Data Processor) computer.

In February 1962, Steve Russell completed the code programming for Spacewar!, while Dan Edwards, Peter Samson, and Martin Graetz are credited with adding additional features.

Today, anyone can still play Spacewar! using the original programming code operating over the popular cross-platform programming language called JAVA. The PDP-1 emulator is at

There is one working PDP-1 computer located at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, CA, and Spacewar! is playable on it.

Tennis for Two was a form of video game created in 1958 by William Higinbotham on an analog computer. It was played using an oscilloscope.

Higinbotham worked as the Instrumentation Division Head at Brookhaven National Laboratory in Upton, NY. He came up with this idea as a way to entertain visitors to the laboratory.

In 1952, the first computerized digital graphical game was called OXO. A person would play against a computer in a tic-tac-toe game.

I would like playing this game, because the human player used a rotary phone dial as the controller.

The human player would dial a digit from 1 to 9 to represent the location of where to place an X or O on the tic-tac-toe board displayed on the computer’s screen, which was a 35x16 pixel cathode ray tube (CRT).

The programming code for OXO was written by Alexander S. Douglas at the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom.

The OXO game was played on a British-made Electronic Delay Storage Automatic Calculator (EDSAC) computer, originally constructed in 1948.

A photo gallery of the EDSAC computer is at

To view a detailed screenshot of an EDSAC simulator running the OXO game, go to

Going back to 1947, we discover what may be the inspiration for the world’s first CRT based game – World War II radar display images.

Thomas T. Goldsmith Jr. and Estle Ray Mann are named as inventors of US Patent 2,455,992 filed on Jan. 25, 1947.

The patent is titled Cathode Ray Tube Amusement Device.

Text from this historical patent includes, “In carrying out the invention a cathode-ray tube is used upon the face of which the trace of the ray or electron beam can be seen. One or more targets, such as pictures of airplanes, for example, are placed upon the face of the tube and controls are available to the player so that he can manipulate the trace or position of the beam which is automatically caused to move across the face of the tube.”

The player’s controlling of “the trace of the ray or electron beam” on the CRT has been likened to how an Etch A Sketch is used in making solid lines on its gray screen.

US Patent 2,455,992 was issued Dec. 14, 1948, and can be seen at