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ATARI'S PONG - CONQUEST OF THE LIVING ROOMS
(This is Part 2 about Atari's Pong - click
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.
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'
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.
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.
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
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.
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.’
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.
Hoping to convince Sears, Al Alcorn
demonstrated Pong in the Sears headquarters in Chicago
lead to some hilaric moments. Biggest problem was that Alcorn didn't
succeed to get the pong graphics normally displayed at the television
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
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
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.
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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