This Month in Physics History

October 1958: Physicist Invents First Video Game

Video game player
In October 1958, William Higinbotham, a physicist, created what is thought to be the first video game. It was a very simple tennis game, similar to the classic 1970s video game Pong, and it was quite a hit at a Brookhaven National Laboratory open house. 

Higinbotham was born on Oct. 25, 1910, in Bridgeport, Conn. and grew up in Caledonia, N.Y.

He graduated from Williams College in 1932 and pursued a graduate degree in physics at Cornell University. While a graduate student, he worked as an electronics technician. In 1941, he joined the Massachusetts Institutes of Technology’s Radiation Lab, where he worked on cathode ray tube displays for radar systems. In 1943, he moved to Los Alamos to work on electronics for a timing system for the atomic bomb.

In 1948, he joined Brookhaven National Laboratory’s instrumentation group and served as its leader from 1951 to 1968.

During that time, in October Brookhaven held annual visitors’ days during which thousands of people toured the lab. Higinbotham was responsible for creating an exhibit to show off the instrumentation division’s work.

Most of the existing exhibits were rather dull. Higinbotham  thought he could better capture visitors’ interest by creating an interactive demonstration. He said in a magazine interview that “it might liven up the place to have a game that people could play and which would convey the message that our scientific endeavors have relevance for society.”

The instrumentation group had a small analog computer that could display various curves, including the path of a bouncing ball on an oscilloscope. It took Higinbotham only a couple of hours to conceive the idea of a tennis game and a few days to organize the basic pieces. Having worked on displays for radar systems and many other electronic devices, Higinbotham had no trouble designing the simple game display.

He made some drawings, and blueprints were drawn up. Technician Robert Dvorak spent about two weeks building the device. After a little debugging, the first video game was ready for its debut. Its name: Tennis for Two.

Players could turn a knob to adjust the angle of the ball and push a button to hit the ball toward the other player. As long as they pressed the button when the ball was in their court, players couldn’t actually miss the ball, but if they hit it at the wrong time or the wrong angle, the ball wouldn’t make it over the net. Balls that hit the ground bounced like a real tennis ball. When the ball went off the court or into the net, players hit a reset button to start the next round.

Tennis for Two had none of the fancy graphics video games use today. The cathode ray tube display simply showed a side view of a tennis court represented by just two lines – one representing the ground and one representing the net. The ball was just a dot that bounced back and forth. Players also had to keep score for themselves.

The game circuitry was fairly simple, using mostly resistors, capacitors and relays, though it did use transistors for the fast switching needed when the ball was in play.

Visitors loved it. It quickly became the most popular exhibit, with people standing in long lines to get a chance to play.

The first version, used in the 1958 visitors’ day, had an oscilloscope with a tiny display, only 5 inches in diameter. The next year, Higinbotham improved it with a larger display screen. He also added another feature: The game could now simulate stronger or weaker gravity, so visitors could play tennis on the moon, Earth or Jupiter.

After two years, Tennis for Two was retired. The oscilloscope and computer were taken for other uses, and Higinbotham designed a new visitors’ day display that showed cosmic rays passing through a spark chamber.

Higinbotham, who had already patented 20 inventions, didn’t think his tennis game was particularly innovative. Although he noticed that the Brookhaven visitors liked the game, he had no idea how popular video games would later become. If he had had the foresight to patent the game, the federal government would have owned the patent since he worked for a U.S. laboratory. Therefore, he wouldn’t have made any money from it.

“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,” he once said.

Tennis for Two was more or less forgotten for some time. In 1964, Sanders Associates received the first patent for a video game. Magnavox bought the patent and produced video game systems beginning in the early 1970s. Competitors wanting to break the Magnavox patent found out about Higinbotham’s earlier video game, and he was called to testify, but the case was settled out of court. Higinbotham only became well known as the inventor of the video game after an article appeared in Creative Computing magazine in 1982.

Higinbotham’s main interest throughout most of his career was not video games, but nuclear arms control. He helped found the Federation of American Scientists and served as its first chairman and executive secretary. Higinbotham died in November 1994. He is more known for the development of the video game than his work on nonproliferation.

Further reading: Flatow, Ira. They All Laughed... from light bulbs to lasers: the fascinating stories behind the great inventions that have changed our lives. HarperCollins, 1993.

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