February 3, 2023

    Which Really Was The First Computer Game?

    If asked which the first video game was most will likely default to Pong. Pong, released in 1972, is widely considered the first. But that answer would be incorrect by a long shot. Not only is Pong not the first mainstream game, it isn’t the first video game by over a decade.

    The fascinating reality is that the first video game came about in 1958. This seems impossible, given that gaming wouldn’t even become an industry until the early 70s. But make no mistake, it is well documented that an incredibly innovative physicist created Tennis For Two in 1958. What’s more is that he did so using nothing more than scattered bits of radar equipment.

    The Revolution Before The Revolution

    When Pong released it was seen as a ground-breaking piece of software, catapulting video games into a billion dollar industry. Yes, by today’s standards Pong is nothing more than a handful of pixels, but in 1972 it seemed like magic.

    Interestingly, even in 1972 Pong was not the first video game ever created. It is better to say that it is the first video game to achieve mainstream success. Many games came before, but none are remembered or talked about today.

    Going back to that physicist in 1958, William Higinbotham worked in a Brookhaven National Laboratory. He served as the head of the instrumentation group, with radar technology being the core of the department.

    The Experiment

    Today the average person isn’t happy unless they can see FIFA World Cup odds on their phone within seconds, but in 1958 radars were big news. Not big enough news, according to Higinbotham, who was due to host a visitor’s day in October. He knew that thousands would tour the lab, but feared most would not grasp the magnitude of the technology.

    His solution was to create a technology display that was interactive, thus dreaming up the idea of Tennis For Two. Using an oscilloscope and a few days tinkering he created the world’s first working video game, aided briefly by technician Robert Dvorak.

    Needless to say the display was a hit.

    A Forgotten Masterpiece Of Design

    Most tragic is that Higinbotham had no idea what he had created. He later explained it did not even occur to him he had done anything especially innovative, so did not bother to patent the design. He added, however, that even if he had patented Tennis For Two the government would have owned it, given that he had used federal resources.

    If Tennis For Two and 1972’s Pong seem suspiciously familiar, that’s because they are. It is more or less confirmed that technology firm Magnavox directly stole the idea of Tennis For Two. A court case even played out, during which competitor companies attempted to prove Magnavox had stolen the idea. Higinbotham was even called in to testify.

    But, sadly, the world would forget his involvement entirely until an article published in 1982. After a brief surge of recognition he was again mostly forgotten as the true father of video games.