Today’s Illustration: Pong

image of video game schematic  Pong: Who Was Really The Creator?


On This Day: “Pong” Was First Released On November 29, 1972

“Pong quickly became a success and was the first commercially successful video game, which helped to establish the video game industry along with the first home console, the Magnavox Odyssey. Soon after its release, several companies began producing games that copied Pongs gameplay, and eventually released new types of games. ” — Wikipedia

Facts & Information:

“Table Tennis for Two,” or what we call “Pong,”  was one of the first video games.

William Higginbotham designed it around the game of table tennis or ping pong.

The original game was manufactured on a consumer level by Atari in 1972

It was William Higinbotham who first created the idea at the Brookhaven National Laboratory, Long Island, NY in 1950.

Higginbotham began his career at the Los Alamos Laboratory in New Mexico.

Higginbotham developed the timing device to detonate the first atomic bomb.

He also developed the radar display for the B28 bomber.

In the 1950’s, what we now know as “Pong” was a side project which was being developed alongside various other developmental projects in the same lab which developed the Atomic bomb.

It was designed and created for the 1958 “visitor’s day,” which was a neighborhood event.

Because there was a long of anxiety and concern among the neighbors around the Brookhaven National Laboratory (Upton, New York), which had been researching some of the peaceful uses of atomic energy, a “visitor’s day” was announced and set up for the area neighbors.

Higginbotham believed that much of the visitor’s tour of the facility would be uninteresting — “cardboard displays with blinking lights to look at, Geiger counters and electronic circuits to fiddle with, and dozens of black and white photos that explained the different research projects underway at the lab.” — * pg 65

So in 1958, Higginbotham began working on a display that the visitors could and hopefully would enjoy midst their walk around the laboratory.

Because most of the tour involved an observation of the facilities, he stated, “I came up with an idea of a hands-on display.”

Interestingly, it was the electronic oscilloscope, featuring a large cathode-ray tube — a tube which became known as the visual component of the first televisions.  He paired that tube up with an “analog” computer in such a way as to have a light ball bounce around the screen randomly.

“We found that we could make a game which would have a ball bouncing back and forth, sort of like a tennis game viewed from the side.”

In approximately two hours he schematically designed the game he called “Tennis for Two.” Over the next two weeks, he worked on its design and completion.

video game schematic

On visitor’s day, when it was put on display, it became the center of attention and hundreds of people who were in attendance on that day, waiting to play it.  Some waited an hour in line to get the opportunity to give a game which lasted but a few minutes a try.

“It never occurred to me that I was doing anything very exciting . . . . The long line of people I thought wasn’t because this was so great, but because all the rest of the things were so dull.” — * pg 66

photo of Tennis for Two

“Visitors playing Tennis for Two saw a two-dimensional, side view of a tennis court on the oscilloscope screen, which used a cathode-ray tube similar to a black and white television tube. The ball, a brightly lit, moving dot, left trails as it bounced to alternating sides of the net. Players served and volleyed using controllers with buttons and rotating dials to control the angle of an invisible tennis racquet’s swing.

Hundreds of visitors lined up for a chance to play the electronic tennis game. And Higinbotham could not have dreamed that his game would be a forerunner to an entire industry that less than fifty years later, would account for $9.5 billion in sales in 2006 and 2007 in the U.S. alone, according to a report published by the Electronic Software Association.

In 1982, Creative Computing magazine picked up on the idea that Tennis for Two might be the first video game ever and it published a story on the game in that year’s October issue. It credited Higinbotham as the inventor of the video game — until they heard from someone who could document an earlier game. The same story was reprinted in the Spring 1983 issue of Video and Arcade Games, a sister magazine to Creative Computing.” — firstvideo

On visitor’s day, 1959 — he had improved it and designed it to simulate one of three possible conditions  — playing table tennis . . .

on earth
on the Moon (low gravity)
on Jupiter (high gravity)

How did it ever develop in “Pong” by Atari?  Higginbotham took it apart in 1959 and stored it away.  But in the 1970’s a lawsuit arose between Magnavox became embroiled in a lawsuit concerning the invention of such video games, and Higginbotham ended up on the witness stand supporting the claim that he was the original inventor of what we now call “Pong.”

While Higginbotham was recognized as the first inventor of “Pong,” he never profited from his invention because it was never patented.

“In 1983, David Ahl, who had played the game at the Brookhaven exhibition as a teenager, wrote a cover story for Creative Computing in which he dubbed Higinbotham the “Grandfather of Video Games.”

William Higginbotham died in 1994.

“Higginbotham, who died in 1994, wished to be known for his work on radar displays and his efforts to slow the nuclear arms race. Little did he know that Tennis for Two, the game he had created for Brookhaven Lab’s open house in 1958 to entertain visitors and convey the relevance of scientific endeavors for society, would lead to Pong, Pac-Man, Mario, new video game systems and new video games, magazines, and Congressional debates. He might have guessed that it would lead to fun.” — first video


Key Illustrative Thoughts:

• calming nerves
• quieting fears
• “visitor’s day”
• a neighborhood event
• from atomic bombs to pong
• addressing boredom
• different worlds (earth-moon-Jupiter)
• the legitimate creator
• it was worth standing in line for – then
• from serious science to a game
• interesting because others options are so dull
• known for what he did not want to be known for
• hands-on is more interesting
• how times have changed
• human ingenuity
• “pong” — Wow
• what a difference 50 years makes
• spiritual “gamification”
• playing around
• it all began with “pong”
• video gaming:  Another kind of “atomic bomb”
• fame but no fortune
• unwanted fame
• famous for the wrong invention
• unplanned success


Other Information & Links:

“In 1958, William Higginbotham was part of the Brookhaven National Laboratory (BNL) Instrumentation Division. In those days, BNL hosted a visitors day each fall. This was an opportunity for thousands of visitors to come and tour the lab and get a better understanding of the capabilities and operations at a nuclear research facility. William Higinbotham wanted to do something that would impress the audience as well as demonstrate the capabilities of the instrumentation division. Higinbotham came up with an idea that would allow the audience to play a simulated game of table tennis. By utilizing an analog computer and an oscilloscope, Higinbotham created the first publically available video game. The game was very simple and simulated the vertical side of a tennis court, the edge of the floor with the edge of the net perpendicular, on a screen. Each player had a button and a rotating knob. Rotating the knob would change the angle of the bar controlling the ball; pressing the button sent the ball toward the opposite side of the court. If the ball hit the net, it rebounded at an unexpected angle. If the ball went over and was not hit back, it would hit the floor and bounce again at a natural angle. If it disappeared off the screen, a reset button could be pressed, causing the ball to reappear and remain stationary until the user pressed the button to send the ball flying back across the net. Higginbotham recounted that “it was a simple design. Back then, analog computers were used to work out all kinds of mechanical problems. They didn’t have the accuracy of digital computers, which were very crude at the time, but then you don’t need a great deal of precision to play TV games. ” The game was wildly successful and Higinbotham could tell from the crowd’s reaction that he had developed something very special. From the days of Higinbotham’s rudimentary version of the classic game Pong, video games have matured and become much more complex. Not only has the technology advanced, allowing for better graphics, sound and game play, but also significant research has been done in the area of game mechanics. “Game mechanics are rule based systems that facilitate and encourage a user to explore and learn the properties of their possibility space through the use of feedback mechanisms.” (Koster, 2004) As these game mechanics become better understood, they are being applied to areas outside of the realm of video game development. Game mechanics have become the basis for understanding the psychological drivers of users in the digital world. Business Intelligence, part of this digital experience, can learn some great lessons in how to engage users and revolutionize the user experience through the application of these game mechanics. In the tradition of BNL’s innovative spirit and as a sister laboratory in the Department of Energy laboratory complex, Idaho National Laboratory (INL) looks to determine how we can enhance the user experience through the effective application of game mechanics to Business Intelligence to meet the needs of our business.” — how gamification — site

*Uncle John’s Bathroom Reader” by Bathroom Reader’s Institute


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