"Electronic Nation" is a forthcoming book by author
and columnist Steven L. Kent.
Mr. Kent is a member of the VIDEOTOPIA advisory panel.
I have been racking my brain to come up with a single good reason why preserving the history of video games is important to so very many people, and it is a difficult thing to do. After all, the love of video games is a very personal thing, while the cultural or technological impact of them is not. Video games had a major cultural impact for a fleeting moment in history and a steady cultural impact for a quarter of a century, but I suppose that whether future generations look back at them with either the same amount of enthusiasm they have for digital watches and pet rocks, or with a level of appreciation reserved for works of art or literature, depends on how well history is presented.
Having said that, let me now state that I have spent the last several years of my life tracking down the greats of video game history and recording their stories to preserve them. And in some ways the dollars and hours I have spent doing this defy rational justification.
Since I have no complete explanation for the extent of my efforts, I am very glad to know that other driven people are also devoting their time to similar pursuit. An entire technological sub-culture seems to be springing up and one thing the people in this sub-culture share is an appreciation for the sheer artistry that has gone into the masterworks of video game history. The greatest ambassador of that sub-culture is the games themselves; and the best way for people to see these games is by visiting Videotopia, the one exhibit in the world that contains nearly all of the most influential games in history under one roof, in their natural habitat.
Steven L. Kent
Sept. 26, 1997
There's some question about how you define a computer game. There were two interactive programs that existed before Spacewar in which you interacted with switches on the computer and you changed a display on the screen depending on what you did with the switches. But they weren't particularly designed as games. And they weren't very popular because, as games, they weren't very good.
Creator of Spacewar
(The first computer game)
The members of the Tech Model Railroad Club (TMRC) at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) had their own language. They called broken equipment "munged." They called rolling chairs "bunkies." They called garbage "cruft." And they called practical jokes and impressive feats "hacks."
Like most colleges, MIT had several campus organizations. The Tech Model Railroad Club appealed to students who liked to build systems and see how things worked. These were not typical college students. Many of them were short and most were unathletic. Some wore thick glasses. In the late fifties and early sixties, years before the invention of the pocket calculator, these were the kids that carried a slide ruler.
These strange college students with their funny jargon and nerdy ways did more to start the computer revolution than any Silicon engineering team. Naturally curious, these MIT students had devoted their lives to intellectual tinkering. They believed in cooperative society and imagined themselves living in a utopian world in which people shared information, sometimes disregarding property rights. Once they discovered computers, they became known as "hackers." Before that, they were simply nerds.
Some of the members of the TMRC explored MIT at night looking for machines to examine. One night in 1959, Peter Samson opened a door in the Electronic Accounting Machinery building and found an IBM 407, a machine capable of creating and reading punch cards, sitting alone and unguarded. To Samson, finding an unguarded computer was as exciting as discovering a new law of physics.
The IBM 407 was not a full-fledged computer. In order to make it work, Samson and his friends needed to kluge a plug board. They didn't mind the challenge, they'd joined the TMRC because they loved gerry rigging systems. Soon the IBM 407 became a major focal point in the lives of many TMRC members.
The Hulking Giants:
Many of the computers of the 1960's were large enough to fill an entire room. Their inner workings consisted of rows of expensive vacuum tubes, the standard building block for early electronics. Because vacuum tubes generated great amounts heat, early computers needed cooling systems to prevent fires. Some even had water pipes running through them for cooling. Not only did vacuum tubes heat up, they were also delicate. Some computers required an internal technician to replace broken tubes while in operation.
Since 1960, silicon chips have replaced transistors which replaced vacuum tubes, resulting in smaller, faster, and more powerful computers. Floppy disks and compact disks have replaced much less efficient forms of data storage such as punch cards and ticker tapes. A standard 3.5-inch floppy disk can hold as much data as a mountain of punch cards and offers much faster access to the final information.
For the gaming world, the biggest change is the way computers display their information. Early computers communicated by printing out information. A few units had computer readout screens. Throughout the 1960's, the University of Utah, Stanford, and MIT were the only universities in the United States that had computers with monitors.
MIT's two main computers, in 1961, were gigantic--an IBM 709, which the members of the TMRC called "the Hulking Giant," and the TX-O, one of the earliest computers to use transistors. Though it was considerably smaller than the Hulking Giant, the TX-O still required 15 tons of air conditioning equipment for cooling. Unlike the 709, which used punch cards, the TX-O encoded data on long strips of paper tape.
The mainstream establishment of MIT orbited around the IBM 709, causing the unregulated forces of the TMRC to develop disdain for it. They preferred the more efficient TX-O, which had been developed for military purposes. It was smaller, sleeker, and it's military designers gave it a monitor. Working on the TX-O, several TMRC members quickly distinguished themselves as master programmers.
In the summer of 1961, Digital Equipment donated their latest computer to MIT, the PDP-1 (Programmed Data Processor-1). Compared to the Hulking Giant and even the TX-O, the PDP-1 was comparatively modest in size--about as big as a large automobile. It sold for a paltry $120,000, and like the TX-O, it had a computer readout terminal. The TMRC adopted it immediately.
In those days, when computers were as rare as nuclear reactors, hackers wrote programs for the good of the computer-loving community. TMRC members stored their PDP-1 programs on ticker tapes in a drawer near the computer where anyone could try them out or even revise them. Creating a new program was considered an impressive hack. So was making a good revision.
Steve Russell, a fairly new Model Railroader who had just transferred from Dartmouth College, decided to make the ultimate hack, an interactive game. Russell was a short nervous kid who was fairly knew to the club. He spoke quietly, wore glasses, and had curly hair. Though he was not a senior member of the club, Russell had earned the respect of other club members by helping a professor program a computer language called "LISP."
Russell was intensely smart and energetic, despite his nickname, "Slug," and was an avid reader of "B-grade" science fiction. He particularly loved "Doc" Savage, a Flash Gordon-like character. Reflecting that passion, Russell determined to set his interactive hack in outer space. He told the other members of the club about his plans and generated more than a little excitement.
There was one problem, however. Russell needed motivating. Over the next few months, fellow club members would ask about his progress and become frustrated. They complained that he was wasting time. In the end, Alan Kotok, a more senior member of the TMRC, had to push Russell into finishing his work. When Russell told to Kotok that he needed a sine-cosine routine to get started, Kotok went directly to Digital Equipment, the company that manufactured the PDP computer, to get it.
Eventually Allen Kotok came to me and said, "All right, here are the sine-cosine routines, now what's your excuse." He'd gotten it out of the [Digital Equipment] users library.
Since I had run out of excuses, I sat down and wrote the program to run two space ships on the CRT which you controlled with switches. The prototype was completed in 1961 and the finished version was '62.
It took Russell nearly six months and 200 man-hours to complete the first version of the game, a simple duel between rocket ships. Using toggle switches built into the PDP-1, players controlled the speed and direction of both ships and fired torpedoes at each other. Russell called his game, "Spacewar."
It was a two-player game; there wasn't enough computing power available to do a decent opponent. I was the first person to not make money on a two-player computer game.
They [the rockets] were rather crude cartoons. But one of them was curvy like a Buck Rogers' 1930's space ship. And the other one was very straight and long and thin like a Redstone rocket. And they were commonly called the Needle and the Wedge.
Except for the pacing, Spacewar was essentially like the game, Asteroids. The space ship controls were four switches. One let you rotate counterclockwise, another for rotating clockwise, one fired your rocket which gave you thrust, and the last one fired your torpedoes. The basic version used switches on the console, and your elbows got very tired.
In typical hacker fashion, TMRC members revised Spacewar. Some of these additions improved the game so much that they became integral elements. By the time Spacewar was finished, Russell's simple game had an accurate map of the stars in the background and a sun with an accurate gravitational field in the foreground.
I started out with a little prototype that just flew the space ships around. Pete Sampson added a program called Expensive Planetarium that displayed stars as a background. Dan Edwards did some very clever stuff to get enough time so that we could compute the influence of gravity on the space ships. The final version of that was done in the spring of '62.
Battles took place around Edward's sun. The best players learned how to accelerate into the sun's gravitational field, loop around, and catch slower opponents off guard. Hovering too close or flying into the sun meant death. Another hacker added a hyperspace button. When trapped by an opponent, players could hit the button and disappear. The risk was that you never knew where your rocket would reappear. You could reappear safely across the screen, but you were just as likely to appear too close to the sun to save your rocket.
To add a touch of realism, Russell originally made his torpedoes unpredictable. Most flew straight, but some strayed. Judging players reactions, he later recanted, replacing dependability for realism. His final version of the game had straight flying torpedoes. Beyond these touches, Russell's primary vision of an outer space torpedo duel remained intact.
Along with creating the first computer game, the members of the TMRC invented another first in electronic entertainment. Tired of sore elbows, Alan Kotok and Bob Sanders scrounged parts from the TMRC and assembled remote controllers that could be wired into the computer. These remotes were easier to use than the PDP-1's native controls since they had dedicated switches for every Spacewar function, including hyperspace buttons. This was the forerunner to the joystick.
Though Russell's amazing hack created a sensation throughout MIT, he never made a penny from it. PDP computers cost too much to adapt the game for the consumer market, even as an arcade machine. "We thought about trying to make money off it for 2 or 3 days but concluded that there wasn't a way that it could be done."
Eventually, Digital Equipment began using Spacewar as a diagnostic program for testing their equipment; in effect, PDP buyers got the game free.
Steve Russell never graduated from college. He followed a professor to Stanford University, and eventually moved into the private sector. In the 70's, he met another legendary computer wizard.
Steve Russell wound up years later in Seattle working for a time share computer company. They would bring in kids after school and have them pound on keyboards to see if they could make the computers crash.
There was only one kid who could crash them no matter what they did, the kid was named Bill Gates. So there's just this interesting little intersection of worlds that I just thought was a real fascinating thing.
Spacewar was the first computer game. Steve Russell made no attempt to copyright his work or to collect royalties from it. He was a hacker, and he had created his game to show that it could be done.
The people behind the creation of the first video game did not share the Tech Model Railroad Club's utopian vision. Their capitalistic vision held up better in the courts of law.
"The Father of the Video Game"
I reported to the executive V.P. He knew what was going on. And he keeps asking me, "Baer, are you still screwing around with that stuff [video games]?" During the first couple years and later on I was subjected to his remarks like, "Stop wasting our money."
When the millions started coming in, everybody remembered how supportive they had been of the project.
Former Manager of Equipment Design Division
The first video game was created by engineers at Sanders Associates, a New Hampshire-based defense contractor. Like many large contractors, Sanders had its share of sensitive and top secret activities; but in 1967, some of the noises coming out of one Sanders research lab had many people wondering what was going on.
For three months there were guitar sounds coming out of the little room on the fifth floor. It sparked all kinds of rumors.
This is a military electronics company. Everything is classified. You don't walk in and out of any place without having either a key card or keys. And here's this room with guitar sounds coming out of the room. All sorts of rumors started floating around about what we were doing in there.
The Equipment Design Division of Sanders was led by a stern and meticulous engineer named Ralph Baer, a man with a background in radio and television design who had been with the company for more than ten years.
Baer was born in Germany eleven years before Adolph Hitler took power in 1933, and was largely self-educated. Because he was Jewish, he was kicked out of school at the age of 14. Two years later, his family moved to America, where he eventually took a correspondence course in radio and television servicing from the National Radio Institute.
Baer had a knack for finding positive results from unlucky turns. After joining the army in World War II, he studied Algebra while stationed in England. One day, after a long study session "in the English mud," Baer was diagnosed with pneumonia. Three days after he entered the hospital, his platoon was sent to invade Normandy. He jokes that Algebra II saved his "collectives."
A year after he returned from the war, Baer enrolled at the American Television Institute of Technology in Chicago. It was his first formal education since being denied schooling in Germany.
After graduating with a bachelor's degree in television engineering, he took a job with a small defense contracting firm, turning down an offer from CBS television because the salary the contractor offered paid five dollars more per week. Baer quickly developed a solid reputation. When Sanders hired him in 1955, it was to manage a 200-man design department. By 1960, it had expanded into a 500-man division.
Baer spent more than 30 years at Sanders. The first fifteen years were dedicated to military projects. During this time, he weaned himself from vacuum tubes and began working on transistor technology and early microprocessors.
Among Ralph Baer's best attributes as an engineer was his methodical recording of every step of the inventing process. From the moment he began fleshing out new designs, Baer would record the entire process, date it, and file it away. Because of his meticulous note keeping he knows the exact date and location where he first got the idea to make games that could be played on a television.
I'm sitting around the East Side Bus Terminal during a business trip to New York thinking about what you can do with a TV set other than tuning in channels you don't want. And I came up with the concept of doing games, building something for $19.95. This was 1966, in August.
Now you got to remember, I'm a division manager. I have a seven or eight million dollar direct labor payroll. I can put a couple of guys on the bench who can work on something. Nobody needs to know. Doesn't even ripple my overhead. And that's how I started.
The first man Baer allocated to game design was Bill Harrison. Once the concepts were roughed out, Harrison, a man well-versed in transistor circuit engineering, did most of the implementation. Baer describes Harrison as a young, talented technician who had educated himself on the workings of television sets by assembling a Heath Kit television set.
In his younger days, Baer was extremely austere, or as he later described himself, "uptight." Working with Harrison, he created early video games using a crude mechanism for transferring game material to the television screen. Their game designs, however, lacked entertainment value. They first toy they made was a lever which players pumped furiously to change the color of a box on a television screen from red to blue. Though Baer would later prove to be an excellent electronic toy and game designer, in the beginning he thought too much like an uptight engineer.
When he first presented his invention to the executive board, including the company founder Royden Sanders, most of the executives felt that Baer was wasting the company's time. Some suggested Baer shelve the project, others wanted to pull the plug on it entirely.
My boss came up to play with our rifle; we had a plastic rifle by then. And he used to shoot at the target spot [on a television screen] from the hip. He was pretty good at it, and that kind of got his attention. We got more friendly. And it kept the project alive.
In 1967, Baer added another member to the team, a man named Bill Rusch who brought some needed understanding of fun and games.
Bill Rusch was an engineer who worked for Herb Campman, the corporate IR&D director. I needed an engineer to work along with Harrison. I wanted two guys to work the problem, and Rusch came mostly because his boss decided he didn't want him.
My biggest problem that summer was motivating Rusch. He'd come in at 10:00 or 11:00 am and spend an hour talking; he was lazy and frustrating as hell. Rusch was an extremely creative and extremely lazy, hard to motivate guy. Brilliant. Also, he played really hep guitar.
But it's a good thing we had him because he helped put us on the map.
To keep Rusch productive, Baer allowed him to continue working on a project playing guitar chords through a box that dropped the sounds an octave, changing them into bass guitar sounds. With Rusch on board, the games began to take shape. He made a game in which one player chases another player through a maze.
The first games were all two-person games in which players controlled every object on the screen. In May or June of 1967, Rusch suggested a new game in which a hardwired logic circuit projected a spot flying across the screen. Originally, the object of the game was for players to catch the spot with manually controlled dots. Over time, the players' dots evolved into paddles, and the game became ping pong.
So here we had a respectable ping pong game going, and it wasn't long before we called it a hockey game. Remove the center bar, which we put up there to emulate the net, and now it's a hockey game. So we put a blue overlay for blue ice on top of the screen so it looked more like hockey. We later added a chrome signal to electronically generate the blue background.
We always had three controls--vertical control for moving the paddles up and down, a horizontal control for moving the paddles from left to right (so you could move close to the net if you wanted to), and what we called an "English control" which allowed us to put English on the ball while in flight.
Sanders Associates had a rough time in the late sixties, downsizing from 11,000 to 4,000 employees. As a military contractor, Sanders couldn't suddenly go into the toy business, so Baer had to find a customer for his invention. He nearly licensed it to a cable company, but the depressed state of the cable industry caused the deal to fail. As a last resort, Baer urged his bosses to notify television manufacturers about the project.
He had come up with the right audience. General Electric, the first TV manufacturer to evaluate Baer's toy, showed some interest. Next came Zenith, then Sylvania. Both G.E. and Sylvania returned for second evaluations. RCA almost bought into the project--contract papers were written but never signed.
In 1971, Magnavox hired a member of the RCA team that nearly purchased the project. He told other Magnavox executives about the television game he had seen at Sanders. Magnavox arranged for a demonstration of the television game and immediately saw merit in the idea. It took months to work out the details for the final contract, but the negotiations were completed and the contract was signed by the end of 1971. Production started in the Fall and early units were shown at Magnavox dealerships in May, 1972. They called the finished product Odyssey.
Magnavox did a really lousy engineering job--[they] over engineered the machine. Then they upped the price phenomenally so that the damn thing sold for $100. Here's this thing I wanted to sell for $19.95 coming out at $100. Then in their advertising they showed it hooked up to Magnavox TV sets and gave everyone the impression that this thing only worked on Magnavox TV sets.
While waiting for the Magnavox negotiations to finalize, Baer slipped into a deep depression. The military contracting industry was undergoing difficult times. Burdened both by Sanders Associate's bad financial state and his doubts about the value of his invention, Baer wondered if perhaps he had wasted his company's time and resources.
Baer returned to New Hampshire, having helped Magnavox set up its own Odyssey engineering group. He went back to working on military projects. This was after the layoffs, and few of Baer's friends remained with Sanders. During this period, he checked into a local hospital to have an operation that he had been putting off.
So I decided I was going to have my back operated on. I just wanted to get away from things. I went to the hospital. While I'm in the hospital the first $100,000 comes in from the Magnavox license. And it was like somebody sticking the key in my motor and turning on the engine. My depression disappeared overnight.
Ralph Baer and Steve Russell never met socially. They would, however, meet on opposite sides of some very important litigation. Defending lawyers would later present Russell, who never filed for a copyright or patent, as having set a precedence for sharing game ideas. Baer, whose employers jealously guarded all of his patents, set precedence for defending intellectual property.
Russell and Baer have become the forgotten fathers of the industry. Steve Russell's game which ran only on expensive computers had no practical application. Outrageously priced and poorly advertised, Ralph Baer's game machine might also have gone unnoticed. But in 1972, the year Magnavox finally released the Odyssey, a very similar machine was about to change the way America played games.
Copyright 1997 Steven L. Kent
VIDEOTOPIA and Electronics Conservancy are registered trademarks of The Electronics Conservancy, Inc. All rights reserved. All photos (c)1997, 1998 Electronics Conservancy. All videogames, characters, brand names, and trademarks are the properties of their respective owners.