William Higinbotham, a physicist, developed what is considered to be the first video game in October 1958. Similar to the iconic 1970s arcade game Pong, it was a really simple tennis game, and it was quite a sensation at the open house of the Brookhaven National Laboratory.
Higinbotham was born in Bridgeport, CT, on October 25, 1910, and grew up in Caledonia, NY. In 1932, he graduated from Williams College and then went to graduate school at Cornell University in physics. He worked as an electronic technician at Cornell as a graduate student. He joined the MIT Radiation Lab in 1941, where he worked on displays for cathode ray tubes for radar systems. In 1943 he traveled to Los Alamos to focus on circuitry for a timing device for the atomic bomb. In 1948, he joined the instrumentation department at Brookhaven National Laboratory. He served from 1951 to 1968 as head of that party. During that time, Brookhaven held annual tourist days in October, during which thousands of visitors came to view the laboratory. Higinbotham was in charge of building an exhibit to showcase the efforts of the instrumentation section.
Any of the exhibits were pretty boring. By producing an engaging demonstration, Higinbotham felt he might help catch visitor’s curiosity. In an interview with the journal, he later recalled that he felt it “were a way for people to play a game that would transmit a message that our scientific efforts are relevant to society. “A tiny analogue device, displayed different curves at the oscilloscope, including the bouncing ball direction was mounted on the instrumentation group. The idea of a tennis game was developed just in a couple of hours by Higinbotham and the simple pieces were put up just a few days. Having specialized with radar displays and many other electronic instruments, it was not difficult for Higinbotham to develop the basic game monitor.
Higinbotham produced some illustrations and drafted blueprints. Robert Dvorak, the Technician, had been developing the system for about two weeks. The first video game is set for its debut after a little debugging. The game Tennis for Two was titled. Players could transform a ball angle knock and hit the ball towards the other player by pressing a button. Whereas the players will not lose their shot until they pressed the button at their court, so if they struck it at the incorrect time or hit the ball at the wrong angle, it would not be necessary for the ball to do so over the net. Balls hit the ground like a tennis ball would be bouncing. When the ball went down, players pressed a reset button to launch the next round.
Tennis for Two didn’t use any fancy graphics of today’s computer games. The projection of the cathode ray tube clearly displayed a side view of the tennis court, with just 2 sides, one of the floor and one of the web. The ball was just a point that sprung up everywhere. Plays still had to retain their own ranking.
The electronics of the game was very simple, often using resistors, condensers and relays, but it used fast-moving transistors when the ball played. The first version, used in visitor days in 1958, had a small screen oscilloscope, only 5 inches in diameter.
It attracted tourists. It soon became the most famous exhibit, with a number of customers finding an opportunity to play.
Higinbotham expanded it next year with a bigger projector. The game could now simulate greater or weaker severity so that tourists could play tennis on the moon, Earth or Jupiter. He also introduced another feature.
Two years back, Tennis for Two was retired. For other reasons the oscilloscope and device have been taken, and Higinbotham has planned a modern visitor’s day display displaying cosmic rays from a funnelling chamber.
Higinbotham did not believe his game of tennis was really groundbreaking as he had already published 20 inventions. Though he saw visitors to Brookhaven like the game, he did not know how popular video games would become afterwards. But if he had the foresight, the federal government would have owned the copyright, but he wouldn’t have made money off the game because he worked at a government laboratory. “I never find it very interesting to do it. I thought the long queues of people weren’t because they were interested in the game but because other things did not interest them much.”
For some years, Tennis for Two has been ignored. In 1964 the first computer game patent was given to Sanders Associates. Starting in the early 1970s, Magnavox had acquired the patent and developed video game systems. Companions wishing to disrupt the copyright in Magnavox uncovered Higinbotham’s earlier video game and he was called to testify. Only after an essay in Creative Computing magazine in 1982 was Higinbotham recognised as the inventor of a video game.
Most of his career Higinbotham’s primary focus was not computer games but the regulation of nuclear weapons. He helped found the United States Scientists Federation and served as its first President and Executive Secretary. Higinbotham died in November 1994, best regarded for his video game than his non-proliferation work.