Serious gaming started 45 years ago, with Pong

Nov. 24, 2017
by Mark Ollig

How many of you recall playing the challenging table tennis (ping-pong) game called Pong on your television back in the mid-1970s?

Ah yes, I, too, was addicted to playing Pong.

Allan Alcorn, who worked for Atari Inc. as an engineer, designed Pong when he was 24 years old.

A standing cabinet version of his video arcade game was first installed in September 1972, at an establishment called Andy Capp’s Tavern in Sunnyvale, CA.

Pong was an instant success, and was being regularly played by the bar patrons.

However, a couple of weeks after its installation, the Pong video arcade machine began having problems and stopped accepting quarters.

Much to the dissatisfaction of the bar patrons (and I imagine the tavern owner), the Pong game stood inoperative, and so the bar manager called Atari and said, “The machine is broken,” and asked to have someone come out and fix it.

When Alcorn, himself, came out to investigate, he may have smiled after discovering why the Pong machine was not working.

The cause of the trouble was too many quarters had become jammed inside the cabinet’s coin-catcher.

This story takes me back to the days when I was out repairing public payphones (What’s a payphone, Grandpa?).

Sometimes I’d find quarters, dimes, and nickels had become lodged inside the payphone’s coin chute assembly, causing the phone to become “out of order.”

But, I digress back to today’s topic.

Atari had obtained enough funding to announce, Nov. 29, 1972, that Pong video arcade cabinet games would be mass-produced on an assembly line and sold commercially.

Three years later, Atari released the consumer version, called Home Pong, using a game console.

The Atari Home Pong console connected to a television and sold for $98.95, which in 2017, would be nearly $580.

Before Pong was on the scene, Ralph Baer had invented a simple “dot chasing” video game, called Chase, in 1967.

This game is played by connecting a brown controller box to a television.

By 1972, Baer’s design developed into what became the Magnavox Odyssey home video game console.

The Magnavox Odyssey game console was manufactured by the television maker of the same name, Magnavox, so consumers reasoned the Odyssey console would only work on a Magnavox television, when, in fact, it could be connected to any television.

The attentive folks at Atari picked up on this false belief and began printing “Works on any television set, black-and-white, or color” on all of its Pong game boxes in what I consider a brilliant advertising strategy. The result was increased sales of Pong game consoles among Magnavox television users.

Going back to 1958, William Higginbotham, instrumentation division head at Brookhaven National Laboratory in Upton, NY, created a game played using an oscilloscope connected to an analog computer as a way of entertaining visitors to the laboratory.

Higginbotham called this game Tennis for Two.

The year 1952 saw the first computerized digital graphical game called OXO, in which an individual played the tic-tac-toe game against a computer.

A person used a rotary phone dial as the game controller when playing OXO.

Dialing a digit from 1 to 9 represented the location of where to place an X or O on the tic-tac-toe board displayed on the computer’s cathode ray tube (CRT) display screen.

Alexander S. Douglas wrote the programming code for OXO at the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom.

The OXO game was played using the processing power of a 1949 British computer called Electronic Delay Storage Automatic Calculator.

Going back further, we find World War II radar images to be the inspiration for a game played using a CRT.

Inventors Thomas T. Goldsmith Jr. and Estle Ray Mann filed for a US Patent Jan. 25, 1947.

Dec. 14, 1948, both were granted US Patent 2,455,992 for Cathode Ray Tube Amusement Device.

“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. 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,” reads the text from their patent.

A player’s manipulating “the trace of the ray or electron beam” on the CRT of their device has been likened to how an Etch A Sketch game creates the solid lines on its gray screen.

Check out this informative YouTube interview with Pong’s Allan Alcorn at http://bit.ly/2z4fyJk.

Be sure to visit my Bits & Bytes online webpage at https://bitscolumn.blogspot.com.

This column originally published Feb. 14, 2011, and was recently updated by the writer.

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