Do We Thank a World War II Nuclear Weapons Specialist for Video Games?
By Ken Zurski
In the fall of 1958, physicist William Higinbotham was part of a research team at New York’s Brookhaven Laboratory when he came up with an idea that had nothing to do with nuclear science.
A nuclear weapons specialist during the war, Higinbotham or “Willy” as his friends called him, was instrumental in helping develop the first nuclear bomb. Now a decade later, “Willy” and others were studying the application of nuclear energy in more practical and peaceful means. Higinbotham had lost his two brothers in the war.
To show off their work, every year, the Institute held an open house – or Visitor’s Days. And every year the scientists tried to find ways to make the visit more exciting for their less than scientific-minded guests.
So Higinbotham looked around for inspiration. The laboratory had several analog computers and “a book which tells you how to do a bouncing ball and some other things,” Higinbotham explained. “I look at it and say, well, obviously, with this machine I can fix it so instead of having it pre-programmed, people can control it.”
Within two days he created what some people believe to be the very first video game.
Tennis for Two, as it was called it, was played on an oscilloscope and used an electrical charge to show the path of a bouncing ball. “Players served and volleyed using controllers with buttons and rotating dials to control the angle of an invisible tennis racket’s swing.”
“It took me about two hours to rough out the design and a couple of weeks to get it debugged and working,” Higinbotham said. Even though the screen was small – about 5 inches in diameter, “Everybody stood in line to play. It was a big hit.”
In context, Andrew Ervin, author of Bit by Bit: How Video Games Transformed Our Lives, explains it this way: “Imagine trying to create a playable version of Minecraft on a contraption made out of Lincoln Logs, wires, and a few 9-volt batteries hooked up to an Etch A Sketch.”
The next year in 1959 during another Visitor’s Day, Higinbotham displayed an improved model of Tennis for Two. It had “a larger monitor, a button to increase the force of a serve and changeable gravity effects to show what it would be like to play tennis on another planet.” But that was all for the game. The following year it was gone without explanation. Higinbotham later said he focused on other projects instead.
Today, some argue the game had no video signal, only electric voltage, so the “video” tag might be a stretch. Others disagree, like Ervin who puts Higinbotham and Steve Russell, the inventor of Spacewar! in 1961, together as the “two dads” of video game history. “They are the true creative pioneers,” Ervin explains.
Regardless of who gets credit for the introduction of video games, Higinbotham found no use for his creation. He never patented Tennis for Two, a mistake he would later regret. “Even if I had [patented it], the game would’ve belonged to the government,” he said. “I didn’t think it was worth it.”
Years later, in 1972, one company was smart enough to take a variation of Higinbotham’s idea and market it.
That company’s name was Atari and the video game was called Pong!