A group of scientists at the Brookhaven National Laboratory are putting the finishing touches on a recreation of one of the world’s oldest videogames, a 1958 oscilloscope classic called Tennis For Two.
In 1958, nuclear physicist Willy Higinbotham decided to add some zing to the Brookhaven Lab’s annual open house by creating Tennis For Two, a precursor videogame powered by an analog computer and played on a glowing, five-inch-wide oscilloscope screen. It was a big hit, with hundreds of people lining up out the door to play it, but the greater potential for electronic amusement didn’t seem to light anybody’s bulb and about a year later it was dismantled.
Fast-forward to 1997, when a group of Brookhaven scientists and engineers decided to rebuild Higinbotham’s machine as part of the lab’s 50th anniversary celebration. The team was able to recreate the device using the original schematics but it fell “a bit short” because they couldn’t come up with a vacuum tube analog computer like the one that drove the original game. They substituted a computer circuit built out of modern, solid-state hardware, but that proved glitchy as the sensitive equipment was easily damaged by the voltage spikes caused by the constant switching of the game’s relays. Even more important, it just wasn’t the real deal.
But these are dedicated guys with, apparently, time on their hands, and they didn’t leave things in a half-baked state. “Over the past several years, we have found a few Donner computers and parts online. After some painstaking restoration work, we now have a working version of a Donner Model 3400 analog computer that essentially does the same thing as the original model used in Tennis for Two,” Dr. Peter Takacs wrote on Scienceblogs. “We are now integrating the Donner computer into our 1997 game board. After the OK from Brookhaven’s electrical safety inspector, we will be ready to power up the board and plug it into the Donner operational amplifiers.”
The end result is a primitive side-view version of Pong with invisible rackets played on equipment that looks as though it was lifted from a Fallout 3 screenshot. But while the game itself may be just a historical curiosity, the story behind it is fascinating, particularly the obvious question of why Higinbotham didn’t follow through on his creation, launch the videogame industry and become obscenely rich.
“The patent would have belonged to the U.S. government at the time, and it wouldn’t have been any financial gain for him,” Takacs explained. But more to the point, “He really didn’t feel that what he had done was such an innovation because all the circuits that he programmed in were in this little instruction book, so there was nothing really new about wiring these things together.”
If he could only see us now, eh?