What Was The First Computer Game?
By Hank Campbell | January 27th 2009 04:00 PM | 11 comments | Print | E-mail | Track Comments
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Do you know the name of the first computer game?   I confess I didn't and I learned programming on a Univac 1100/62 so I am a lot closer to the origination date of computer games than most people who will read this.

I assumed it was a kind of punchcard-loaded word game, like a 1960s Leather Goddesses of Phobos only without the divine genius of Dostoyevsky that game possessed, but the history of video games is much more elaborate than that.

 So depending on how you look at it, the first computer game may be a Brookhaven tennis game that recently turned 50; as you will see, it looked pretty terrific.   Or it may be something no one outside a patent office has ever seen.

Like all awesome things, video games began as a science experiment.  In the case of William Higinbotham (1910-1994), a physicist at Brookhaven National Lab who had worked on the Manhattan Project during World War II, he wanted to 'liven up' science for visitors during the Lab’s annual visitors’ days.  On October 18, 1958, his vision was realized and hundreds of people, not surprisingly a lot of enchanted high school students, lined up to play what they called Tennis For Two.   So at least in terms of a video game that got attention, this would seem to be first. 

That means William Higinbotham is basically the Thomas Edison of video games, an industry bigger than Hollywood, yet very few people know his name.


Tennis For Two.  Credit: Brookhaven National Laboratory

So why hadn't I heard about him as a young guy?   Well, no one really had.  It was only because of a lawsuit that all but a few hard-core game historians got to know his name at all.  Magnavox, being first to market a home video game console with the introduction of the Odyssey in 1972, had decided by the early 1980s that if you had a video game with a bouncing ball, they were due a royalty.    So they ended up having to deposition Higinbotham, who did not patent Tennis For Two.

"We knew it was fun, and saw some potential in it at the time, but it wasn't something the government was interested in. It's a good thing, too. Today all video game designers would have to license their games from the federal government!" - he told John Anderson in 1983 (1) but in a burgeoning video game industry,  a name no one had really known before was big news.  

How did it work?   He used a vacuum tube analog computer and a 5 inch oscilloscope for a monitor.   The oscillope had a cartesian coordinate display and Higinbotham created a ciruit that plotted the deflection of the ball proportionally to the input voltages. 

The plot of these functions simulated the trajectory of the bouncing ball - when the ball hit the ground, a relay would be thrown, reversing the polarity, and then the ball would reflect its previous path, while another relay would sense if it hit the net - the T in the middle.   Velocity, including drag from wind, was simulated with a 10 Meg Ω (Ohm) resistor.

Take a look at it in action:


Sure, it was a huge machine running a 5 inch screen but this is plain fun.

So was Tennis For Two the first or not?

Like many things lost to history, it depends on who you ask.   A game called OXO (Noughts and Crosses) was a tic-tac-toe computer game made for the EDSAC computer at Cambridge in 1952.  It was the first known (graphical) game to run on a computer even if it didn't move like Tennis For Two.

OXO noughts and crosses tic tac toe first graphical video game
If this looks more like a Mac to you than a 1950s Cambridge computer, that's because it is.   There don't seem to be any screenshots of the original.  Source: Wikipedia.

So then is OXO the first video game?   Well, even that is unclear.  A patent from 1948(2) is for a 'cathode-ray tube amusement device' - basically a missile simulation game, but there are no records of it having been built.

So it  may be that the missile game was first, or a single player tic-tac-toe, but Tennis For Two is my favorite because it had motion graphics.   What do you think? 

NOTES:

(1) CREATIVE COMPUTING VIDEO&ARCADE GAMES VOL. 1, NO. 1 / SPRING 1983 / PAGE 8

(2) Thomas T. Goldsmith Jr. and Estle Ray Mann filed a United States patent application on January 25, 1947 and U.S. Patent #2 455 992 issued on December 14, 1948

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