The First Video Game:
In 1972, Allan Alcorn released what would become the first generation of video games to the public, with his hit game Pong. While this may have been the first game that really started the video game craze, was this the actually the first video game? The answer is no. So, this begs the question, what was?
Born in 1910 in Bridgeport, CT, William Higinbotham would grow up to become the creator of the first video game. However, he had no idea the role that his game would play in the creation of a $91 billion dollar industry. And he would not receive a dollar from his game, in fact, he never even filed a patent for it.
Higinbotham graduated from Williams College in 1932. This was followed by Cornell University where he graduated with a degree in Physics. In 1948 he landed a job at the Instrumentation Division at Brookhaven National Laboratory. He worked there for 10 years and then in 1958 had an idea that would serve as the foundation for games.
Brookhaven National Laboratory decided to have an open house that would show off some of what they were working on. The general public and the science community were invited to see what was going on there. Higinbotham knew that a lot of the things that they were working on could be kind of boring. So, he decided to create something that would liven the place up. He wanted to make an interactive experience that would engage the visitors.
Higinbotham used a small analog computer to make the first video game, and his inspiration actually came from the instruction booklet for the computer. The manual explained how to make curves using the cathode-ray tube of an oscilloscope. The book continued and used examples of a bullet, missile, and a bouncing ball to explain how the different trajectories could be used.
It took a couple of days to come up with the initial idea and plan of action. The bouncing ball example gave Higinbotham the idea to make a tennis game. In this game, players hit the ball back and forth to each other like a real tennis game. After drawing all the plans for the idea, it took the lab a few weeks to get the system ready. Then, on October 18, 1958, Higinbotham was ready to show off the first video game to the public.
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Higinbotham’s final product ended up being played on a 5” computer display. A ball goes back and forth like a real tennis game between players. Each player has a controller with a knob and a button. Using this, players would hit the ball back and forth until someone missed. However, the system wasn’t advanced enough to keep score, so players would have to do that on their own. Higinbotham would call the game Tennis for Two.
Higinbotham set up his display, ready for the public, and hoped that it would show that science is relevant. Attendees lined up to try out the game and soon, people were lined up to play. Tennis for Two was the biggest hit of the open house, and people couldn’t get enough of it. The line so long and it was such a big hit that Higinbotham updated it and brought it back the next year.
For the open house in 1959, Higinbotham held nothing back! He upgraded the screen from 5” to 10-17” and introduced the idea of differential gravity into the game. Players played on the earth, moon, or Jupiter, each having different gravity. Tennis for Two was just as much of a hit as it was the previous year, but after the open house, it was retired and the parts were used for other projects.
Higinbotham really had no idea what he had on his hands. He said,
“It never occurred to me that I was doing anything very exciting. The long line of people I thought was not because this was so great but because all the rest of the things were so dull.”
There was never a patent filed on the game! However, even if there was, it would have belonged to the government because it was created during work hours with work material.
Higinbotham truly had no idea that with Tennis for Two he was opening the gateway to what we think of when we think of video games today. We have come a long way in the past sixty years, and who knows where we will be after another. One thing is for sure though, video games are great. They were great in 1958, they are great in 2018, and they will be great in 2078. Ever since the first video game, people have always loved them and always will.
*Images provided by bnl.gov