Bushnell in a nutshell
Nolan Bushnell was born in 1943
in Clearfield, Utah, the 'Mormon state' of the U.S. Though Bushnell later
quitted the Mormon religion, the size of his family - eight children -
fits perfectly in de Mormon tradition.
Already in his early years,
Bushnell became familiar with computers and games. As a holiday job, he
worked in an amusement park, where he helped to maintain the machinery of
pinball and (yet) electro-mechanical games. At the University of Utah he
learned programming in Fortran en Gotran, two of the earliest computer
languages. Bushnell developed some simple computer games and during all
the years at the university he regularly played Steve Russell's Spacewar
on the university computer.
Later Bushnell decided to
develop an arcade version of Spacewar. He transformed the room of his
daughter to build the device; the little girl had to sleep in the living
The apparatus, called 'Computer Space', was produced by Nutting Associates
and introduced to the market in 1971. Nutting produced 1500 machines, but
didn't succeed to sell them all. Bushnell blames the lack of interest
among things at the extensive instructions: 'Nobody wants to read an
encyclopaedia to play a game.'
Because of the organizational
disorder he came across at Nutting's, Bushnell decided to begin his own
Welcome to the nostalgic
history of home and game computers
ATARI'S PONG - A LEGEND BEGINS
With the introduction of Atari's
Pong in 1972 a legend began. A new word came into existence in the video gaming
industry, together with a firm that would develop into the fastest growing
company ever in U.S. history. Atari started with an investment of 500 dollar...
of Atari was Nolan Bushnell, 'the smartest man who ever walked the earth,
according to a critic. Other descriptions are less flattering: Bushnell has 'the
attention span of a golden retriever', says a close friend. Of course, the
combination of both idiosyncrasies is not impossible.
founded Atari in 1972 with companion Ted Dabney with an investment of 250
dollars per person. Because of large differences of insight, Bushnell
bought Dabney out after a couple of years. With the shares Dabney got he
could later call himself a millionaire.
As a company name the two
considered 'Syzygy', an astronomical term they pricked in the dictionary
which means the alignment of heavenly bodies. But soon they discovered
they couldn't use this heavenly name, because a candle company (according
to Bushnell a sort of hippie commune) already called itself Syzygy. That
was the moment this famous name was born: Bushnell and Dabney decided to
call their company Atari, which roughly speaking means 'chess' in the game
employee Atari hired, after a 17-year-old receptionist, was the young
engineer Al Alcorn. He stood at the cradle of a revolution in the
videogame industry, although that wasn't planned at all. On the contrary,
Bushnell asked Alcorn to develop the simplest game Bushnell could imagine:
something with a ball, two paddles and a score. To motivate Alcorn,
Bushnell told him he had already closed a contract for the game with
General Electric, but that was totally made up. In reality Bushnell
considered the project as an exercise for Alcorn and he was convinced he
would never use the result of the young engineers work.
But Alcorn worked very seriously. Within a week and a half, he had the
first hand-wired version ready. After that, he added some refinements,
like paddles that contained eight segments. Aim of the segments was that
the paddles wouldn't return the ball all the time in the same direction.
All together Alcorn worked three months to finish a functional prototype,
which looked in the inside, because of all the wires, like the back of a
Bushnell became more and more
aware of the commercial possibilities op Pong. The problem was he already
had told two companies, Midway and Bally, enthusiastic stories about the
device. Bushnell decided that Atari should produce Pong, and to play Bally
and Midway off against each other. He told Bally that Midway on second
thoughts wasn't interested in Pong, and vice versa, after which both
companies really weren't interested anymore.
Bushnell first tested Pong on the
so-called pinball route Atari
maintained. On those pinball routes a company or person maintained or
repaired game machines in bars and at other spots. For Atari the route
meant a structural cash flow - not superfluous because until then
Bushnell and Dabney earned hardly anything else.
The test version of Pong was put in a bar
named Andy Capp's Tavern in Sunnyvale. According to a persistent legend,
Atari already on the first day got an angry phone call from the tavern
manager, because Pong was broken. Alcorn had expected such a phone call:
he wondered if the machine would be robust enough to put in a bar, and
also if the silicon chips wouldn't burn out, which was a frequent problem
in those days. But... according to the story it appeared that coin box was
Later it appeared to be
one of those sturdy stories from the early days of Atari. The phone call
came only after two weeks, and the owner of Andy Capp's asked very
politely if they wanted to repair Pong.
Like everybody knows the coin-op version of Pong was an overwhelming
‘Pong was a runaway smash hit in the coin-op amusement business. It was
the biggest success anyone had seen.' And this time, the instruction was
astoundingly simple: Avoid missing ball
for high score.
Before the home version of Pong
appeared in the shop, Atari manufactured several other coin-op machines,
for instance Space Race. In the beginning the manufacturing process of the
machines had to content with many problems. For the manufacturing line,
Atari hired nearly everyone it could get, among them many students and
other youngsters who didn't dislike marijuana. Reputedly one could get
stoned outside the manufacturing hall because of the smell of marijuana.
Many machines didn't pass the final test.
how Atari conquered the living rooms -
people standing in line for hours to get Pong.
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