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The First Video Game

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While it is as far from the eventual commercial videogame systems that come later as a walk in the park is to a walk on the moon, a physicist trying to make the public tour of his lab a little more exciting to bored visitors designs what some consider as a precursor videogame system in 1958. Working at Brookhaven National Laboratory, a US nuclear research lab in Upton, New York, William A. Higinbotham notices that people attending the annual autumn open houses, which are held to show the public how safe the work going on there is, are bored with the displays of simple photographs and static equipment. Educated at Cornell University as a physics graduate, Higinbotham had come to BNL from Los Alamos and the Manhattan Project, and had actually been witness to the first detonation of the atomic bomb. A chain-smoking, fun-loving character and self-confessed pinball player, he wants to develop an open house exhibit at BNL that will entertain people as they learn.

His idea is to use a small analog computer in the lab to graph and display the trajectory of a moving ball on an oscilloscope, with which users can interact. Missile trajectory plotting is one of the specialties of computers at this time, the other being cryptography. In fact, the first electronic computer was developed to plot the trajectory of the thousands of bombs to be dropped in WWII. As head of Brookhaven's Instrumentation Division, and being used to building such complicated electronic devices as radiation detectors, it's no problem for Higinbotham, along with Technical Specialist Robert V. Dvorak who actually assembles the device, to create in three weeks the game system they name Tennis for Two, and it debuts with other exhibits in the Brookhaven gymnasium at the next open house in October 1958. In the rudimentary side-view tennis game, the ball bounces off a long horizontal line at the bottom of the oscilloscope, and there is a small vertical line in the centre to represent the net. Two boxes each with a dial and a button are the controllers...the dials affect the angle of the ball trajectory and the buttons "hit" the ball back to the other side of the screen. If the player doesn't curve the ball right it crashes into the net. A reset button is also available to make the ball reappear on either side of the screen ready to be sent into play again. No score is tabulated, and it is displayed in glorious phosphor monochrome on a puny 5" oscilloscope screen, but it is still a big hit with everyone who visits the display. There are people in line for hours to play it.

The game reappears for the 1959 open-house, and modifications



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