Atari's 40th anniversary

 Cnn Dam Assets 120626101135-Atari-2600-Story-Top

Forty years ago today, Nolan Bushnell and Ted Dabney founded Atari and forever changed how we related to our televisions. In 1999, I wrote a bio of Bushnell for Salon. Excerpt from that piece:


While studying engineering at the University of Utah, Bushnell divided his moonlight hours between a job working at an amusement park and playing Spacewar, an early computer game popular among pointy-head types with late-night access to massive university mainframes. That’s when the first light bulb popped in Bushnell’s Spacewar-inspired brain: incorporate a computer component into the analog amusement park’s midway. A good idea, but …

“When you divide 25 cents into an $8 million computer, there ain’t no way,” he realized before graduating in 1967 and relocating to California to work for an electronics company.

All the late nights Bushnell spent in an ad hoc research facility, formerly his daughter’s bedroom, led to Computer Space, a Spacewar-esque stand-alone video game produced by a small arcade-game manufacturer called Nutting Associates. The game bombed — the learning curve was too steep and the payoff too minimal to entice partners in the bar environments Computer Space was designed for. Still not discouraged, Bushnell hired a young engineer named Al Alcorn and, as on-the-job training, asked him to build what would become a blockbuster.

“We were going to build a driving game,” Bushnell said in a 1983 Playboy interview. “But I thought it was too big a step for him to go from not knowing what a video game was to that. So I defined the simplest game I could think of, which was a tennis game, and told him how to build it. I thought it was going to be a throwaway, but when he got it up and running, it turned out to be a hell of a lot of fun.”

Nutting passed on the product, as did other game manufacturers, so Bushnell decided to go it alone. The name of his new company? Atari, a term from the Japanese game Go that loosely translates as “check.”

In November 1972, Pong was unleashed in the belly of the high-tech beast, a bar named Andy Capp’s in Silicon Valley. The boom was born and the dawn of the digital age was shining brightly on Bushnell. He built a rock-, beer- and pot-fueled corporate culture that attracted the brightest nerds in the valley, including Steve Wozniak, who would later be co-founder of Apple Computer. Atari finished fiscal 1973 with $3.2 million in sales, a sign of appreciation from a couch potato culture finally able to affect the image on a TV screen…

"The adventures of King Pong"

(Pong image from Computer History Museum)


    1. No, I meant Wozniak. (And yes, I know Woz was not an employee but rather a “freelancer.”) Woz was quoted as saying:

       “A lot of features of the Apple II went in because I had designed Breakout for Atari. I had designed it in hardware. I wanted to write it in software now.”

      1. He wasn’t  freelancer for Atari either. Jobs brought  him in on the side without telling anyone. BTW, there’s a preview up of the Atari history book coming out in July –

      2. Also, November ’72 was when they began full production of PONG. Andy Capps was back in late August. Likewise it was Ted’s daughter’s bedroom, which he turned into a work room for Computer Space.

    1. I got good at knocking the other player into, and through, the corner of the screen so that they would appear on the other side.  Used to frustrate the hell out of my sister.

  1. I doubt no one who played Atari 2400 Decathlon didn’t destroyed at least one joystick (I had a large box we called “the joystick graveyard” will all joysticks I destroyed playing Decathlon)

    1. Oh, yes! Although (if I don’t remember totally wrong) the Decathlon I played was not on our Atari but on the computer (I think it was on the Amstrad… or was it onVic-20… can’t remember). Killed a lot of Atari joysticks on it (the white plastic ring inside just snapped cleanly on all of them… and since it was used to indicate direction…) and Quickshot 2 joysticks. The Quickshot was much better for Decathlon, but much more expensive to replace (ouch!).

      Evol, evol game!!!

    1. Ah yes, the memories!  Made by Atari but it wasn’t Atari proper, it was licensed exclusively for the compatible, practically identical in fact, Sears Console.

    1. I NEVER played that, when it came out it was the most expensive cartridge.  In fact, only one kid in school had it, although I can’t quite remember who it was.

      A third party game that had a TV ad, looked like a gas, but I also never played, was “Pitfall!”

  2. Still have my old 2400, about 15 or so games — with the boxes and manuals, I might add.

    All I need is the little switch to plug it into my TV, which I can get; I just haven’t as of yet.

    But reading this post makes me wanna play the hell outta some River Raid, maybe some Pitfall … hmmm …

    Gotta go visit Amazon. brb

  3. Other sources reference that the first choice for the company’s name was Syzygy , which I suspect would have doomed the enterprise for being hard to pronounce.

    Needless to say, the company currently known as Atari (nee Infogrames) has nothing to do with the organization of yore.

  4. Indie 500 with the ‘paddles’… I still have that engine whine sound in my head 27 years later.
    I don’t know what my brother and I would have done without our Atari… probably gone and played outside or something stupid like that 

  5. There was a swell footnote in the News section of a late 70’s National Lampoon, which mentioned that (paraphrase) “Now with video games like Pong we finally have a real use for the video screens we’ve had for the past few decades, and the random images we’ve broadcast to fill the time are now obsolete…” 

  6. We had one magic controller that was “loose” and much easier to manipulate because of it’s worn-out status.   Ahhhh Atari!   We loved you (a lot more than the Intellivision game console, and the Comodore 64 games, and you were so superior to my old Blip). 

  7. Had no trouble remembering the “game reset” button was on the far right; it’s still in muscle memory. On our machine the lettering above that lever was worn off !

  8. Someone should do a documentary on that coin box used on the side of the Pong. I’ve seen those on EVERYTHING.

  9. I’ve got a working Atari 2600 with joysticks and a bunch of games (including E.T. but also some good ones)… I bought it on a whim in high school (early 2000’s) so it doesn’t really have any nostalgic value for me, though I did actually play with it quite a bit when I bought it and am glad to have known first-hand this part of video game history even though it was way before my time :)

    I’m trying to unload my stuff and it’s not really worth anything on ebay, so… if any BB reader wants it for free (I’d ask you to pay the cost of shipping), let me know. 

    p.s. I love the design of that original Pong system. Totally 70’s sci-fi in a way that other video game systems that came afterward never were.

  10. Al Alcorn is one of my all-time heroes!  A few years ago when my partner Steve Doss and I were creating our iPhone game, DodgeDot, my friend (and another Silicon Valley hero) Lee Felsenstein asked me if we’d like to meet his friend Al.  Needless to say we were both as thrilled as sixth-graders (which was how old I was in 1973 when I first saw and played Pong)!  We had lunch at Buck’s in Woodside, CA and Al regaled us with stories of the development of Pong and many other things.

    And best of all – he gave me one of his original SYZYGY business cards, predating Atari!

    It was one of the major high points of my career!

  11. My very first introduction to gaming was the little black Pong box (I’m pretty sure it wasn’t an Atari version) my mother bought me. That… was… amazing!  I and my brother played it so much, and I still would love to have those potentiometer paddles for any breakout clone I play! Then we got an Atari 2400 for Christmas… and the world has never been the same after that. More or less everything I am today harken back to those Pong and Atari consoles.

    I still get so nostalgic just seeing the font used on the Atari game boxes. 

  12. I loved Adventure, always on nervous lookout for the dragon, and squeals of panic and adrenaline every time it appeared.  But the bat, oh the bat… that kleptomaniac asshole.

    Much later I found out Adventure was the first RPG game ever.

  13. As a kid I was forced to accept being enrolled in a damn Summer camp so my fat ass could lose a few grams, and for that pain, suffering & social humiliation I would get my Atari 2600.

    It was worth it. Barely.

Comments are closed.