Somewhere in the early 1970s, I stumbled upon a video game called “Pong,” and was immediately infatuated. I couldn’t get enough, playing the game against my cousin on an old black and white television.
If you remember Pong, you know it was a simple game that featured two paddles and a sort of ball-like squarish blip that made a cool sound when it connected with the paddle. You connected Pong to your television and used simple controls to move the paddles to return the “ball” to your competitor in a crude table tennis simulation.
That’s all Pong could do, but the world had really never seen a game like this that could be played on your TV. Pong even kept score for you at the top of the screen.
Turns out, Pong is hailed as the world’s first video game and it was released 50 years ago this summer. It was created by a young inventor and entrepreneur named Nolan Bushnell, who founded Atari to market Pong and other games.
I recently saw a Q&A published with Bushnell on the Daring Fireball website. The Q&A caught my eye because I had the opportunity to interview Bushnell during an appearance at the Oklahoma History Center in 2006.
Anyway, Atari became a huge hit after it licensed Pong to Sears and the national retailer sold 150,000 units of the game. That led to other popular Atari games.
Bushnell eventually sold Atari in 1976 to Warner Communications for a reported $28 million.
Pong was such a ground-breaking innovation that today Bushnell is known as the “Father of the Video Game” and was named to Newsweek magazine’s list of “50 Men Who Changed America.”
In his Oklahoma City appearance back in 2006, Bushnell talked about how Pong was created and designed on the circuit board to do only one thing.
“What I did was create the video game out of digital building blocks,” Bushnell said. “But it was architected in such a way that this board was designed to play Pong and that was all that it would ever do.”
Atari released many other game titles, including Breakout and Combat, after its success with Pong and eventually produced a popular personal computer. The Atari 2600 game console is considered one of the most successful game platforms in history.
An aside: I’m also a Steve Jobs fan, and discovered a connection between Jobs and Bushnell from reading the Walter Isaacson biography of Jobs published in 2011. Bushnell hired a 19-year-old Steve Jobs to work at Atari to develop another game known as “Breakout.” Read more on the Bushnell-Jobs relationship here.
So, Nolan Bushnell created Pong, founded Atari and single-handedly launched a multi-billion dollar industry. But I can’t forgive him for one thing.
He also founded the Chuck E. Cheese restaurant chain.
BONUS: Read this fascinating Wired magazine story about the creation of Pong and how Bushnell scammed a young software engineer to come to work for him to make the game a reality. https://www.wired.com/story/inside-story-of-pong-excerpt/