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The Sweet Pong of Success

It was just a trial-until quarters jammed the prototype.

In November 1972, Nolan Bushnell and Al Alcorn wheeled a strange apparatus into Andy Capp’s Tavern in Sunnyvale, Calif. Bushnell, the founder of a new company called Atari, and Alcorn, Atari’s first engineer, set up the cube-like device on a barrel and switched it on. Two dials were set below glowing rectangles on a screen. The instructions read: “1. Insert quarter. 2. Ball will serve automatically. 3. Avoid missing ball for high score.” Curious patrons began to follow step one.

Before long, the thing stopped working. Alcorn returned to the bar to check it out. Opening it up, he saw that the side-mounted coin mechanism (from a laundromat) was jammed-brimming with quarters. Pong was already on its way to being the first commercially successful video game.

The sound made by this game was a pong heard around the world, the opening volley in a long, playful exchange between people and computers. The video-game industry started by Pong brought computers out of esoteric data centers and into bars and movie-theater lobbies. The children of the 1970s began to accept computers as fun and accessible-even welcoming them into their homes in the form of the tremendously popular Atari 2600 Video Computer System.

Bushnell had assigned Alcorn to make Pong as a trial project (it would be easier to create than a driving game, for example) and never intended to manufacture it. But as quarters kept pouring in, he reconsidered. Atari started manufacturing upright Pong units. Pong was not only fun, it was cleverly made. For example, because monitors were costly, Pong incorporated a cheaper black-and-white Hitachi television as the display.

A year before creating the Pong prototype, Bushnell had built the very first coin-operated video game, Computer Space, based on a 10-year-old computer game called Spacewar. Perhaps because of its overly complex controls, the game flopped. Even earlier-in 1958-William Higinbotham at the Brookhaven National Laboratory had built a working electronic table-tennis game, using an analog computer. Though the proto-Pong game amused lab visitors for two years, it failed to spur an industry.

Pong was the first to combine the critical elements: a simple interface, amusing play and technology that was cheap and easy to manufacture. A decade after that first coin slot jammed, arcades full of Pong progeny were bringing in $5 billion a year. The video-game industry crash of the mid-1980s shook Atari and the rest of the gaming arena. But by that time, arcade games had introduced an entire generation to playful computing.

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Illustration by Rose WongIllustration by Rose Wong

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