It started with Pong, Odyssey, OXO, and Spacewar!
Nov. 28, 2016
by Mark Ollig

Many baby boomers will recall playing the video game Pong on a television set back in the mid-1970s.

Pong, a video table tennis game, was designed by 24-year-old engineer Allan Alcorn, while working for Atari Inc. in 1972.

The first coin-operated cabinet version of Pong was installed in September 1972, at Andy Capp’s Tavern, in Sunnyvale, CA.

Playing Pong became extremely popular with the local bar patrons.

However, two weeks after it was installed, the Pong arcade machine began having problems.

Eventually, a phone call from the tavern manager was made to Atari, saying the Pong machine was broken.

When Allan Alcorn came out to investigate, he found Pong was malfunctioning because too many quarters had been jammed in to the machine – which might seem like a nice problem to have.

I can empathize with Alcorn.

His story took me back to when yours truly was repairing a payphone, which happened to be located inside a tavern.

After removing the metal outer housing shell of the payphone, I discovered coins had become lodged inside the coin chute assembly, causing the payphone to be “out-of-order.”

An assortment of nickels, dimes, and quarters had jammed the mechanized parts; causing them to become inoperable.

Removing the coins fixed the problem.

The home version of Pong (using a game console connected to any manufactured television) was called Home Pong, and was distributed through Sears stores in 1975.

In 1967, Ralph Baer, an engineer with Sanders Associates, Inc., was also creating video games that could be played on a television.

One game, named Chase, was played by connecting a brown controller box to a television set.

In 1972 (same year the coin-operated cabinet version of Pong was installed), Sanders Associates licensed Baer’s controller box to Magnavox, a maker of television sets.

Baer’s brown controller box; a multiplayer, multivideo gaming system, became known as the Magnavox Odyssey video game console.

Magnavox began home distribution of the Odyssey three years before Atari’s Home Pong.

Since the Odyssey game console was licensed by the television maker Magnavox, many folks incorrectly assumed the Odyssey game console would only work on a Magnavox television.

It was learned the Magnavox Odyssey game console worked on any television set.

The folks at Atari quickly picked up on this and began printing the following on their Home Pong game boxes: “Works on any television set, black and white, or color.”

Pong and Odyssey ended up becoming very popular during the 1970s.

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

They named it: Spacewar!

This video game operated over MIT’s DEC (Digital Equipment Company) PDP-1 (Programmed Data Processor) computer, built in 1959.

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

Today, anyone can still play Spacewar! using the original programming code operated over JAVA, which most STEM (Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics) students know, is a cross-platform programming language designed to run on any computer system.

The emulator for playing Spacewar! is: http://spacewar.oversigma.com.

In 1958, the Tennis for Two video game was created by William Higinbotham, using an analog computer.

It was played using an electronic oscilloscope, which was a piece of test gear normally used for measuring voltages, frequencies, amplitudes, noise, and a few other things.

If you read my Nov. 14 column, I can confirm using an oscilloscope in the electronics lab at the technical college in Wadena.

In 1952, the first computerized digital graphical game was called OXO.

This video game involved a human playing the tic-tac-toe game against a computer.

The human player used a rotary telephone dial as the controller.

This player would dial a digit from 1 to 9, which represented the location of where to place an X or O on the tic-tac-toe board displayed on the computer’s screen, or 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.

To view a detailed screenshot of an EDSAC simulator running the OXO game, visit: http://tinyurl.com/4aufahu.

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

Cathode Ray Tube Amusement Device, US Patent 2,455,992 was filed Jan. 25, 1947, and issued its US Patent Dec. 14, 1948. Thomas T. Goldsmith Jr. and Estle Ray Mann are named as the inventors.

This patent describes how a player controlled the trace of the ray or electron beam on a CRT, analogous to how an Etch A Sketch is used in making solid lines on its gray screen.

Follow me on Twitter at @bitsandbytes.

Parts of this column, originally published Feb. 14, 2011, were modified by the writer.

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