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…
(Pong image from Computer History Museum)