Setting the Record Straight on Videogames
The column “This Month in Physics History” in the October APS News
purports to describe the significance of William Higinbotham’s electronic game “Tennis for Two.” This demonstration game of a simple physics process, while creative and fun to play, was not the first game played on an oscilloscope. It had no more impact on the future creation of videogames than similar demonstrations made by many engineers and technicians to entertain themselves during idle moments, just as did Higinbotham for that open-house occasion in 1958.
The actual creation of the first videogame took place in September of 1966 when I disclosed the concept and built the first of a series of devices that allowed playing games using an ordinary home TV set. That started the console game industry. Numerous patents issued within a few years covered the interaction of manually and machine controlled symbology on the screen of a TV set or monitor, none of which features were embodied in the Higinbotham demonstration.
These patents were exclusively licensed to the Magnavox company. When license negotiations between Magnavox and Nintendo broke down, Nintendo sued the inventors and their lawyers. The trial took place in New York Federal District Court in front of Judge Sands. Higinbotham was called as a witness for Nintendo, which had refused to come under license of the Baer/Harrison/Rusch patents. The lawsuit was unsuccessful and was adjudicated in favor of Baer et al. Thereafter, Nintendo came back to the table and took a license. Had it not been for Higinbotham’s appearances at those court proceedings, the existence of his game would have remained as unheralded as that of other engineers’ similar electronics experiments. This in no way negates the creativity of the Higinbotham design or that of others, especially the many more or less successful attempts to play games on refrigerator-sized computers of that era. However, none of these resulted in any way in the concept of, and the creation of the home videogame console industry. They DID, however, experience a rebirth in the creation of the arcade videogame industry by Nolan Bushnell of Atari in the late seventies.
Higinbotham’s legacy does not depend on the creation of a game that produced no consequences during a professional life otherwise full of accomplishments, a game that would never have been given prominence according to Higinbotham’s own contention during his appearance on the stand, if it hadn’t been for a couple of hot-shot lawyers who saw an opportunity to confuse a Federal Judge. Ralph H. Baer Manchester, NH Ed. Note: Ralph Baer is a National Medal of Technology Laureate. More information about his role in the early history of video games can be found on his website