HISTORY OF HOME AND GAME COMPUTERS


 

 

 

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Welcome to the nostalgic history of home and game computers  

ATARI'S PONG - CONQUEST OF THE LIVING ROOMS

(This is Part 2 about Atari's Pong - click here for Part 1)

It was also due to Atari that in the seventies millions of people 'lost' billions of hours with playing tennis on television screen. Everybody who played the game still remembers the typical sounds when scoring and when hitting with the paddle.

Competition
One of the reasons Atari started with a home version of Pong, was the tremendous competition it experienced on Pong in the arcades. Dozens of competitors had imitated Pong and other arcade games of Atari, the result being that Atari found itself on the edge of bankruptcy. 
The idea for a home version of Pong came from Atari engineers Bob Brown and Harold Lee. Nolan Bushnell reacted enthusiastically and told them to go ahead, in spite of the scepticism of the other Atari-managers. They had doubts about the idea because Atari until then had zero experience in the consumer industry. Distribution, marketing in this line of business - it was 'terra incognito' and could even bring Atari in much greater financial trouble. 

Code name 'Darlene'Nolan Bushnell - oprichter van Atari
But 'Home Pong' eventually would solve the financial problems. The idea was to concentrate all electronic components of Al Alcorn's arcade version into one chip. It was a revolutionary plan, but Lee was convinced it could be realized. The team worked hard and again family members were engaged. Harold Lee designed the logical schemes, which were wire-wrapped at home in the evenings by Alcorn's wife. Alcorn on his turn had the nice task to debug the schemes and to return the corrected designs to Lee.
Thus after some time arose a working prototype of Pong, which provisionally carried the code name 'Darlene', after an attractive female co-worker. And thus a tradition was born to name projects after Atari-women.

Plump
Darlene was at the least a bit plump: the prototype was filled with hundreds of wires. In the fall of 1974 the prototype of the chip was ready, which would replace Darlene's belly.

According to today's standards it's extremely simple: a tennis game on a television screen. But in 1974, the chip needed was the most sophisticated ever used in a consumer product.

Secret rooms
Now Atari was in a hurry to find toy chains wanting to sell Pong. That appeared to be far from easy: the toy business had the failure of the Magnavox Odyssey (only 100,000 consoles sold) fresh in memory. The toy chains estimated that consumers didn't want television games. Besides that, they found the price of 100 dollar far too high.

Further efforts followed on the 1975 Toy Show in New York, a fair for the toy industry. Atari ran a booth on the Toy Show and even pulled much attention with Pong. Many interested buyers showed up, but at the end of the fair Atari had not a single unit sold. The inexperience of the newcomer in the toy line revenged itself. According one of those unwritten rules in the toy industry, contracts weren't closed on the floor but in private suites arranged by the manufacturers. And Atari didn't have a private room - it had never heard about it.

Jumping out the window
Eventually Atari even closed a deal with the biggest chain at the time: Sears Roebuck. Thanks to special interest from the Sears buyer for sporting goods, Sears already before had considered to buy Pong. But Sears wanted the exclusive rights, an idea Atari didn't like. But when it was clear there was nothing to expect from the rest of the toy line, Atari still decided to close a deal. On the right a description of the terrible experiences of Al Alcorn's during his demonstration of the Pong prototype at Sears'. The pressure on him during the demonstration went that high, that he was ready to jump out the window.

Exclusive rights
In spite of the setbacks, the demonstration appeared to be convincing enough. Even that convincing, that Sears ordered twice the amount of Pongs Atari said to be able to manufacture: that meant an order for 150,000 consoles. Sears got the exclusive rights for a one-year period, from Christmas 1975, and promised to pay for all the marketing and distribution. The device got the name Sears Tele-Games system. Alcorn: 'It was de best thing that ever happened to us.

Don Valentine
But Bushnell was fully aware of the fact that Atari lacked money, capacity and manpower to fulfil this mammoth order. After long negotiations Atari closed a deal with one of the biggest venture capitalists at the time, Don Valentine. Now Atari had access to a credit line of 10 million dollar. A new factory was built in Sunnyvale, providing Atari with the necessary manufacturing capacity.

Hilaric moments
Hoping to convince Sears, Al Alcorn demonstrated Pong in the Sears headquarters in Chicago This lead to some hilaric moments. Biggest problem was that Alcorn didn't succeed to get the pong graphics normally displayed at the television screen.

The cause of this appeared to be an antenna on the roof of the Sears building that broadcasted a signal on channel 3 - the channel which was also used by Pong, so the signal Pong sent to the TV was interfered by the broadcasting signal. Sweating and sweating, Alcorn dived in the mass of wires (demonstrated was the prototype without chip); a painful moment about which Alcorn said later he was ready to jump out the window. But he succeeded to have Pong function on channel 4, which wasn't disturbed by interference.  (Is it because of this event that many pong consoles later had a switch for channel 3 or 4?)

Although the rest of the demonstration went ahead without problems, there was still one big concern in the Sears audience: the enormous amount of wires in the device. When Alcorn explained that all those wires would be replaced by a silicon chip the head of the department reacted sceptically. He asked how Alcorn would manage to solder the wires to the chip...
The consumer also got used to the idea of playing tennis on the television screen. Several consumers asked Atari how the people of the TV station knew what they had to do, when Pong was turned on in the living room.

 

Waiting hours in line
Christmas 1975, Pong was the smashing hit for Sears. In several towns people had to wait hours in line for the shops, not to buy Pong, but to put their name on a list to order it. Pong was sold in 900 shops through the U.S., as a result of which the name Atari wasn't only known by arcade players, but by a broad public too. Thanks to Pong, Atari in 1975 had a turnover of 40 million dollar, of which 3 million profits.



Compared to the Odyssey
The home version of Pong was mainly based on the arcade version. It contained only one game: tennis. Unlike consoles that appeared later, the controllers couldn't be separated from the device. A revolutionary phenomenon was that Pong displayed the score on the screen. Players on the analogue Magnavox Odyssey had to write the score down or remember it. Also unlike the Odyssey, where the controllers contained an extra button to add spin to the ball, Pong automatically added spin. The amount of spinning depended on the segment of the paddle that hit the ball - like the arcade model each paddle contained eight segments.

Pong chip
Just like happened to the arcade version of Pong, the home version was almost immediately imitated by competitors. In the very first beginning, Atari forgot to file for patents and later, when Atari did file, it often appeared to be too late. Thanks to a pong chip developed by General Instruments it was very easy for manufacturers to come with their own versions of Pong. Hundreds of models appeared in the shops, manufactured by a tremendous amount of companies. In the beginning there was such an enormous interest for the chip of General Instruments, that many manufacturers didn't get their orders in time.

Own Pong version
In 1976, when Sears lost its exclusive rights, Atari came with its own version of Pong that was actually identical to the first Sears model. In spite of Atari's own Pong and the many variants Atari manufactured, the competition would again cause personal finance troubles for the company. 

 

 

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History of Home and Game Computers, by Erik Klooster, the Netherlands

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