Video Games – Did They Begin at Brookhaven?

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The following account, written in 1981, tells how a Department of Energy research and development program led to the pioneering development of video games.

William Higinbotham
William Higinbotham

First Pong, now Space Invaders, next Star Castle – video games have mesmerized children of at all ages across the country and around the world. Where did it all begin? Possibly at Brookhaven National Laboratory.

In 1958, William Higinbotham, then head of BNL's Instrumentation Division, designed what may have been one of the first video games. Back then, Brookhaven had visitors days in the fall, and thousands of people came to tour the Lab and see exhibits set up in the gymnasium. Higinbotham's game was an illustration of what the Instrumentation Division could design and build.

"I knew from past visitors days that people were not much interested in static exhibits," said Higinbotham, "so for that year. I came up with an idea for a hands-on display – a video tennis game."

It was wildly successful, and Higinbotham could tell from the crowd reaction that he had designed something very special. "But if I had realized just how significant it was, I would have taken out a patent and the U.S. government would own it!" he said.

1958 display at Brookhaven
What's believed to be the world's first video game is the second unit
from left above, a small oscilloscope perched on a black box.
It was part of this 1958 display at Brookhaven.

As it is, the only public recognition of Higinbotham's game, prior to this article, has been a mention of Brookhaven Lab in the introduction of a book, Basic Computer Games. Author David Ahl, now publisher/editor-in-chief of Creative Computing magazine, wrote that Brookhaven might be where video games started. How did Ahl know about it? He was at the Lab on one of those visitors days. Ahl went to high school in Malverne, Long Island, and toured the Lab as a Grumman scholarship winner.

Ahl said he knew about computer gaming done at MIT and by a small company in Cambridge as early as 1961, but was not aware of it being done anywhere else prior to the year in which he spotted the video tennis game at Brookhaven.

Video of the BNL 1958
"Tennis for Two" Video Game

(Select left arrow to start.)
Download Realplayer to view

Whether it was the first or not, Higinbotham's game had in effect the same features found in today's video games.

Simulated on a screen was a vertical side view of a tennis court showing the edge of a floor with the edge of the net perpendicular to it. Each player had a knob and a button. Rotating the knob changed the angle of the ball and a press of the of button sent the ball toward the opposite side of the court. If the ball hit the net, it rebounded at an unexpected angle. If the ball went over the net, but was not hit back, it would hit the floor and bounce again at a natural angle. If it disappeared off the screen, a reset button could be pressed, causing the ball to reappear and remain stationary until a hit button was pressed.

The game was run by an analog computer hooked up to an oscilloscope. "It was simple to design," remembered Higinbotham. "Back then, analog computers were used to work out all kinds of mechanical problems. They didn't have the accuracy of digital computers, which were very crude at the time, but then you didn't need a great deal of precision to play TV games. "

Higinbotham said it took about three weeks to put the game together. It was actually built by Robert V. Dvorak, a Technical Specialist in the Instrumentation Division who died in 1969. "Bob and I worked very closely together," said Higinbotham. "I made some drawings, gave them to Bob, he made a patchboard, we changed the things that didn't work, and got it running in time for the first tour."

Based on Higinbotham's original drawings, official BNL blueprints were done by Alexander Elia, a Design Engineer still with Instrumentation1. Higinbotham said the blueprints show a few relay contacts in the wrong position, but the game worked beautifully, so they must have been fixed in the actual circuit.

The electronics consisted mostly of resistors, capacitors and relays, but where fast switching was needed – when the ball was in play – transistor switches were used. "These days, this sort of simulation is done with solid state switches, not with relays," said Higinbotham. "Where I needed it, I took a step in the right direction."

Only BNL visitors in 1958 and 1959 had a chance to sample video tennis. After that the computer and oscilloscope were separated and used for other jobs. For the next visitors day, Higinbotham and his colleagues designed a new exhibit – a spark chamber that showed cosmic rays passing through. Little did he realize that his video game may have spawned an entertainment medium that may last into the next century.

Higinbotham learned his electronics as a physics graduate student at Cornell, working as a technician in the physics department. He then worked at MIT's Radiation Lab on radars and at Los Alamos for the Manhattan District Project. In 1948 He came to BNL to work in the Instrumentation Division, and was division head from 1951 to 1968.

Since his work at Los Alamos, he has been concerned with nuclear safeguards and was instrumental in establishing the Technical Support Organization here at Brookhaven to provide technical advice and assistance to the Atomic Energy Commission on safeguards for nuclear materials. When TSO was formed in 1968, he transferred to work full-time with that group.

Text, photos, and video game courtesy Brookhaven National Laboratory

Additional Web Pages:

Related editorial by David H. Ahl in "Video & Arcade Games," Vol.1, No. 1, 1983.

The Anatomy of the First Video Game

Celebrating 'Tennis for Two' with a Video Game Extravaganza

First Video Game?, YouTube

1Alexander Elia, who made the drawings of the circuits for the video game, retired from Brookhaven National Laboratory in 1994.

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