With its simplistic volleying of a tiny pixel between two vertical paddles, 1972’s Pong has come to represent the first generation of video game play. It was simple, it was low-tech, and it was addictive. But it wasn’t the first video game. That honor goes to a game that debuted back in 1958, the same year the hula hoop debuted and Leave It to Beaver was still on television. Its inventor? A nuclear physicist.
In the 1940s and 1950s, attempts to write software programs for amusement purposes were understandably primitive. Towering computer systems sweat virtual bullets trying to compete with human opponents in games like chess or Nim, which involved choosing matchsticks until only one was left for the loser to retrieve. Rarely did these systems have any kind of screen—Nim used flashing lights to signify moves—making the “video” component of the first video game a crucial missing piece.
Inventor Thomas T. Goldsmith came close, filing a patent in 1947 for a proposed device that used a cathode ray tube, or CRT, as a display and allowed players to turn knobs that would control lines on the screen to “hit” paper airplanes glued on top of the glass. But Goldsmith’s idea likely never made it past the patent stage (no evidence of a prototype has ever been discovered).
Just over 10 years later, William Higinbotham had a different ambition: Heading up the Instrumentation Division at Brookhaven National Laboratory in Upton, New York, the nuclear physicist thought that typical science fairs were too static. For their annual visitors day, Higinbotham wanted to create something that would make onlookers active rather than passive spectators.
Drawing on his college experience with oscilloscopes, which display changes in electrical voltage, and CRTs, Higinbotham spent three weeks cobbling together a system that used an analog vacuum tube computer that could manipulate curves on the tube. The instruction manual for the computer detailed how those curves could be made to resemble the trajectories of bullets, missiles, or bouncing balls. Higinbotham liked the idea of the latter and decided to replicate a physical sport on the screen. He called it Tennis for Two.
When visitors to the Lab arrived on October 18, 1958, there was considerable curiosity over Tennis for Two, which featured a side view of a tennis court and a blurry little dot being lobbed over a net using knobs. The display measured just 5 inches, but it proved so intriguing that hundreds of people formed queues for an opportunity to try out what is considered by many to be the first video game introduced to the general public.
The following year, Higinbotham improved on his concept by using a larger screen and giving players the option of adjusting the game’s "gravity," so the ball could travel as though the game were being played on the moon. While still popular, Tennis for Two was not perceived as anything more than a novelty: The device was disassembled and the parts repurposed for other projects. Because he was an employee of the federal government and didn't own anything he created during work hours, Higinbotham didn’t bother filing a patent.
It wasn’t until the flourishing video game industry of the 1980s began looking backwards that Higinbotham was credited with his early and pioneering work in the industry. Although there’s still some controversy over how to define the first video game—the oscilloscope wasn’t actually a video display, since it couldn’t convert electronic signals—it seems fairly clear that Higinbotham had conceived of an interactive amusement using a computer, a screen, and a program, a concept further refined by 1961’s Spacewar! and every game that has followed.
Although Higinbotham needed just three weeks to construct the first video game, future employees of Brookhaven needed a little more time to duplicate his work. To recreate the game in 1997 and again for its 50th anniversary in 2008, a recreation team spent more than three months producing a replica system. If you want to get some sense of what those early adopters in 1958 experienced, another facsimile is on display at the Strong Museum of Play in Rochester, New York.
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