Hitting the Books: An analog computer ushered in the video game era

Once upon a time there was an early hominid. And possibly, at some point, this Early Hominid threw a rock at a mastodon he was hunting, or at a saber-tooth tiger, or at another Early Hominid, and missed; instead the rock hit a hollow tree, and it made a funny sound. “Ha, ha!” said Early Hominid, forgetting about the mastodon. And so he picked up another rock and threw it at the tree. This time he missed. And he tried again, and again, until he was out of rocks. 

Maybe he had a friend. Maybe he said to his friend, “Hey, man, try to hit that tree with this rock. No, no, you have to throw it. Like this.” Maybe he said, “I bet I can hit it more times than you.” And maybe he said, “No, no, that’s too close, you have to stand over here, behind the sloth bones, that’s the rule. If you step over the bones it doesn’t count.”  

Maybe the friend said, “Hey, how about if I hit it more times than you, I get the good part of your sloth meat.” 

“No, no,” said the first one. “Just throw it.” 

That was a game. 

A few hundred thousand years later or so, a physicist named William Higinbotham made another one. Higinbotham, who had worked as a member on the Manhattan Project in Los Alamos and later became a leading advocate against nuclear weapons, was working at the Brookhaven National Laboratory on Long Island in 1958 when he designed something for the lab’s annual open house just for fun. With an analog computer, an oscilloscope, and electromagnetic relays (essentially, switches) he created what many game historians consider to be the first video game. It was called Tennis for Two, and it consisted of a small green blip (the ball) on a five-inch screen that you hit back and forth using a knob and a button. It was the hit of the open house. He didn’t bother to patent it, and never made another. 

That same year, a twenty-one-year-old man named Steve Russell was beginning work with John McCarthy and Marvin Minsky at MIT’s new artificial intelligence lab. Russell joined an MIT group called the Tech Model Railroad Club, which had been founded in the ’40s by a group of students who were interested in the workings of the automated operation of model trains, but would now rapidly become a workshop for the world’s first hackers. The Signals and Power Subcommittee, who created the circuits that made the trains run, is credited with popularizing the term “hack,” and establishing many of the ethical principles of hacker culture. Their dictionary of new terms, for instance, is often credited with authorship of the rallying cry “Information wants to be free.” 

In 1962, using the lab’s new $120,000 PDP-1 computer (an upgrade from the three-million-dollar TX-0 they had been using before), Russell, in collaboration with his colleagues Martin Graetz and Wayne Wiitanen, made a game. They…

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